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German economists press ECB to raise interest rates

BERLIN (Reuters) - German economists called on the European Central Bank on Thursday to raise interest rates after euro zone consumer prices rose faster than expected in December.

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

Inflation in the 19 countries sharing the euro increased an annual 1.1 percent last month, data showed on Wednesday, stirring a fear of inflation among German that goes back to the 1920s.

The ECB aims for inflation of just under 2 percent, but it has undershot its target for years. To fight off deflation, the central bank has cut interest rates to zero and pumped more than a trillion euros into the economy through a bond-buying program.

“It is time for a normalization (of monetary policy),” Stefan Bielmeier, the chief economist at DZ Bank, told the newspaper Bild. “Now a change in interest rates is doable.”

DIW institute chief Marcel Fratzscher told Bild: “The sooner the inflation rate in Europe reaches the goal of 2 percent, the quicker the ECB can raise interest rates. Savers would also benefit from this.”

Isabel Schnabel, one of the panel of economists that advises Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, said an end to ultra-expansive monetary policy should come soon, Bild reported.

German consumer prices, harmonized to compare with other EU countries (HICP), rose by 1.7 percent on the year in December, the highest in more than three years, up from 0.7 percent in November, the Federal Statistics Office said on Tuesday.

For 2017, German inflation is expected to jump to around 1.5 percent from 0.4 percent in the past year.

The debate over policy began when the head of the Ifo institute, Clemens Fuest, said on Tuesday the jump in German inflation was a signal for the ECB to end its expansive monetary policy and its bond purchases.

German newspaper editorials took up the issue, concentrating on the cost to savers of ultra-low interest rates. With rates likely to remain near zero this year, German savers will lose an estimated 36 billion euros in 2017, DZ Bank economist Michael Stappel said.

“Millions of savers are paying the bill now,” Bild commentator Jan Schaefer wrote. “Their savings are being de facto devalued while euro zone governments can keep taking on cheap new debt like never before

“This redistribution at the expense of savers must have an end ... That’s why: Interest rates finally have to go up.”

In an editorial headlined “Change course, Mister Draghi”, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the ECB risked fuelling support for euro-sceptic parties - an argument also put forward by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

“The ECB cannot afford to lose its credibility - especially in Germany,” Sueddeutsche commentator Marc Beise wrote, pointing to the rise of populist sentiment in Europe and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

“Whoever sits in Frankfurt at the ECB headquarters, with a European vision and closes his eyes to the anger of more and more people in the country where he works, will in the end put at risk the whole European project.”

Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Michael Nienaber; Editing by Catherine Evans