November 22, 2017 / 12:48 PM / in 24 days

ECB hopes to go into policy hibernation, sources say

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The European Central Bank will reaffirm its policy stance at its December meeting, and rate-setters hope to put off debate on new moves until well into next year, five sources with direct knowledge of the discussion told Reuters.

After buying 2.2 trillion euros ($2.59 trillion) worth of bonds since March 2015, the ECB decided in October to cut monthly purchases in half, reflecting the euro zone’s best economic performance in a decade. But it also extended the scheme by nine months, since inflation is still barely rising.

The complex set of decisions pushed out any prospect of a rate increase until 2019, and the sources said they were pleased that investors saw the move as prolonging cheap money rather than tightening policy.

“The first rate hike is now priced in for late 2019, and I‘m comfortable with that,” one of the sources said. “The October decision was taken very well by markets.”

Although ECB President Mario Draghi has said that some decisions may be left for December, the sources expected the year’s last meeting to be uneventful.

“We’ll take stock and reaffirm that the October decision was the correct one,” a second source said. “We’ll get new forecasts, and they may be a touch higher, so that’s good, too. And we’ll have a discussion about the composition (of future asset buys). That’s about it.”

The discussion on composition will be about the proportion of public and private-sector debt it buys. Policymakers are likely to agree on broad principles, but the ECB will have a fair amount of discretion in the exact distribution of purchases, several sources said.

The ECB declined to comment.

Although the ECB kept the door open to further extensions of the asset purchases, the sources said that there was a common understanding that bond buying would be phased out by the end of 2018 if the economy and inflation develop as now forecast.

“That’s not a commitment, though. If there are shocks, we will respond,” a third source said. “We are not pre-committing so our options are open.”

Before any decision to exit bond buys, the ECB will have to prepare markets, through changes in its language and possibly a tweak to its guidance, which now stipulates that purchases may be increased in size or duration.

Yet the sources said that any substantial discussion about changes in the stance would be put off for months, with the ECB preferring to go into hibernation as long as the economy develops as expected.

“We of course always discuss policy, but I don’t expect a substantial discussion before March or possibly mid-year,” a fourth source said. “It’s now scheduled to go until the end of September and we’ll make the next decision relatively close to that.”

The sources added that no decision has been made regarding any of the future meetings and that there has been no formal discussion about the bank’s next step.

($1 = 0.8511 euros)

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi

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