FRANKFURT (Reuters) - It is too early to declare victory over the financial crisis despite stronger than expected data suggesting the euro zone recovery is outstripping expectations, the European Central Bank said on Thursday.
The ECB held rates at a record low of 1.0 percent, as expected, and said it would only decide next month whether to resume its exit from generous liquidity supplies.
President Jean-Claude Trichet delivered an upbeat message on the economy, ruling out a return to recession and saying the third quarter would be better than expected. But he was also careful to retain an air of caution.
“I do not declare victory,” Trichet told a news conference, stressing the recovery was likely to be an uneven process.
“The available economic data and survey-based indicators suggest a strengthening in the economic activity in the second quarter of 2010 and the available data for the third quarter are better than expected.”
With inflation in the 16-country euro zone undershooting and the region’s post-crisis economic recovery still in a delicate phase, the decision to keep rates at a record low for the 15th month running was widely expected.
Trichet said they remained at an “appropriate” level, bolstering the current consensus that they will stay on hold well into next year.
“The ECB remains in wait-and-see mode,” said Ralf Umlauf, economist at Helaba. “There were no signals on a change in monetary policy, neither did the ECB chief give the impression that the reins would be loosened again.”
The ECB earlier gave the thumbs-up to Greece’s progress on repairing its public finances after an official review, a problem that sparked this year’s euro zone debt crisis.
Trichet declared himself happy with the results of the ECB’s controversial programme of buying government bonds, which has slowed to a trickle in recent weeks, and said there had been significant improvement in debt markets.
Bank-to-bank lending markets had also picked up, he said, citing the positive reaction to bank stress test results, better data and reduced fear about sovereign debt markets as the principle drivers.
“The volume in the overall money market has very significantly augmented; I could say even doubled,” he said.
“It is not a normal situation yet, but it is something which goes certainly in the right direction as regards to the activity in the money market.”
ECB watchers were hoping Trichet might give an early hint on whether banks would continue to have access to unlimited ECB cash for the rest of 2010, past the current deadline of October.
But he said only that the bank would make a decision next month on any further moves to unwind the extra liquidity it has been pumping into money markets and would do what is needed.
Money market rates are a vital part of the ECB’s current monetary policy strategy. By pumping in extra cash for banks during the crisis, bank-to-bank charges fell well below the 1 percent mark suggested by the ECB’s benchmark rate.
Now they are trending up, but Trichet disputed that the ECB was presiding over a de facto tightening in monetary conditions.
Asked about the steady rise in three-month interbank rates, Trichet said: “I do not welcome it particularly, it’s part of the normalization of the situation.”
In contrast to U.S. indicators, which suggest post-recession recovery across the Atlantic may be flagging, data in the 16-nation euro zone has continued to outperform since the ECB’s July meeting.
The euro zone economy grew by just 0.2 percent in the first quarter of the year on a quarterly basis. Second quarter figures are due next week and are expected to show stronger growth after a string of upbeat forward-looking data in recent weeks.
The contrast in data has opened a gulf between the ECB and the Federal Reserve, which along with the Bank of England has publicly toyed with a return to stronger stimulus. The BoE also kept rates on hold on Thursday.
The divergence has driven a 10 percent rise in the euro against the dollar since early June, a move economists warn could soon become a drag on the euro zone’s recovery.
Trichet refused to comment on whether the euro’s rise could dent the region’s recovery, but said he trusted the Fed’s view of the U.S. economy and warned against a backlash of sentiment.
“I would say it would be very premature to draw the very negative conclusion on the U.S. economy at the moment I am speaking. We will see what happens.”
Barclays Capital economist Julian Callow said he saw some parallels with 2008, when the Fed eased policy yet the ECB tightened.
“In our view, the ECB must be careful that such (update) comments do not result in significant further euro appreciation,” he said.
Reporting by Marc Jones; Editing by Mike Peacock