ECB keeps rates, asset-buying plan unchanged as expected

The European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters is pictured in Frankfurt, Germany, December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The European Central Bank left interest rates and the main parameters of its asset purchase scheme unchanged as expected on Thursday, keeping unprecedented stimulus in place to aid the bloc’s slow but steady recovery.

Markets now turn their attention to ECB President Mario Draghi’s 1330 GMT news conference.

Facing low inflation and weak growth, the ECB last month extended its 2.3 trillion euro ($2.45 trillion) debt purchase program until the end of the year, promising substantial accommodation and extended market presence.

Recent data have however surprised on the upside with inflation hitting a three year high and euro zone business growth at its fastest in more than five years, suggesting unexpected resilience in the 19-member currency bloc and indicating that stimulus is bearing fruit.

Indeed, the vast majority of economist polled by Reuters expect the ECB to stay put, at least in the first half of the year, having done enough for growth and preferring to sit on the sidelines while France, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Italy prepare for elections.

Repeating its standard forward guidance, the ECB said that it continues to expect its key interest rates to remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time and well past the horizon of the net asset purchases.

It also repeated that its asset buys, set to be cut by a quarter from April, could be increased or extended if the outlook becomes less favorable.

At Thursday’s meeting, the ECB kept its rate on bank overnight deposits, which is currently its primary interest rate tool, at -0.40 percent.

The main refinancing rate, which determines the cost of credit in the economy was unchanged at 0.00 percent while the rate on the marginal lending facility -- or emergency overnight borrowing rate for banks -- remains at 0.25 percent.

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi