Europe’s central bank faces questions on curbing inflation

FRANKFURT, Germany — European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde has the job of explaining why the bank isn’t raising interest rates despite record inflation as it left its key economic stimulus programs in place.

The bank for the 19 countries that use the euro is moving more slowly than the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England in withdrawing support as economies rebound from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bank of England hiked interest rates today and in December, while the Fed has signaled it could start raising them in March. Lagarde has said an increase from her bank is unlikely this year, but Europe’s record 5.1% inflation raises questions about when that should happen to counteract high inflation.

Here’s what the bank has on its plate in the wake of today’s decision:

RECORD PRICE RISES ARE PUTTING CENTRAL BANKERS ON THE SPOT: Annual inflation in the eurozone came in at 5.1% on Wednesday, the highest since 1997, when recordkeeping began ahead of the euro being established in 1999. Inflation is way above the bank’s goal of 2% that is considered best for the economy. And the usual medicine for high consumer prices is raising interest rates that influence borrowing costs.

SO FAR THE BANK HAS ARGUED INFLATION IS TEMPORARY: One big reason is high oil and gas prices. Another is logjams that have arisen as supply chains struggle to cope with the sudden rebound of the global economy from the coronavirus pandemic. And both those should fade with time. The bank sees inflation falling to 1.8% in 2023 and Lagarde has previously said a rate rise this year is “very unlikely.”

MARKETS ARE WATCHING TO SEE IF LAGARDE ADJUSTS THE BANK’S STANCE: Analysts will closely watch her post-decision news conference. Lagarde will likely acknowledge high inflation levels while trying to keep markets from thinking an earlier rate hike is coming. That would lead to rising market borrowing costs and hold back the recovery just as eurozone economic growth is reaching pre-pandemic levels. One analyst, Andrew Kenningham at Capital Economics, thinks Lagarde might drop the “very” and stick with “unlikely” about rate hikes. She could talk about uncertainty regarding the course of inflation and underline the need to remain flexible.

THE BANK IS STAYING WITH ITS ROAD MAP FOR NOW: The governing council didn’t touch plans to gradually wind down pandemic stimulus. A 1.8 trillion euro bond purchase program will end in March. Some of its purchases will be moved to another program that is to run through October, and longer if needed to hold down market borrowing costs. Once the bond purchases end, the bank could start raising rates. Rates are at record lows: One key benchmark is at zero and another is at minus 0.5%.

THE EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK IS WELL BEHIND THE U.S. AND UNITED KINGDOM: The U.S. Federal Reserve has signaled it could start a series of rate increases as early as March to counter inflation, which is at a 40-year high of 7%. One reason the Fed’s ahead is that the U.S. recovery is farther advanced and needs less support from low borrowing costs, with the economy some 3% bigger than it was before the pandemic. Europe is just now reaching pre-pandemic levels of output. U.K. consumer prices rose 5.4% in the year through December, the highest inflation rate in almost 30 years.

INFLATION IS HITTING HOME FOR CONSUMERS: Households are seeing higher utility bills and fuel costs, leaving them with less money to buy other things. That has been an additional drag on the European economy on top of the COVID-19 wave blamed on the omicron variant. Gasoline prices in Germany have reached a record of 1.71 euros per liter, or the equivalent of $7.31 per gallon.