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Europe's Recovery Rolls On — And So Does ECB Stimulus

No changes in stimulus settings or interest rates are expected at Thursday's meeting of the bank's 25-member governing council.

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Europe's economy is on a roll — raising the question of exactly when the European Central Bank will end its extraordinary stimulus efforts. Bank President Mario Draghi will be at pains this week to leave that point open.

No changes in stimulus settings or interest rates are expected at Thursday's meeting of the bank's 25-member governing council, which sets monetary policy for the 19 countries that use the euro.

Draghi's post-meeting news conference, however, will be closely scrutinized for any hints of a change in the timetable for withdrawing a key stimulus component — a massive bond-buying program — later this year.

Here is a fast guide.

Where's Inflation?

Stubbornly low inflation is why Draghi and his ECB colleagues want to keep the stimulus program running.

The bank's mission is to keep inflation consistently close to but below 2 percent. Usually that means fighting inflation, but in the case of this economic recovery, prices have been unusually slow to respond to a pickup in demand for goods. Annual inflation was just 1.4 percent in December. Excluding oil and food, it was even lower, at 0.9 percent. Meanwhile, the economy is expected to have grown 2.4 percent in 2017; unemployment has fallen from over 12 percent to 8.7 percent.

ECB officials say that eventually growth will lead to higher wages as unemployment falls and labor becomes scarcer. But inflation has taken its time to show up.

Stimulus Settings

So Draghi has been urging patience. The bank lowered its bond purchases to 30 billion euros ($37 billion) a month at the start of the year, from 60 billion euros, and has said they will run at least through September — and longer if necessary. The purchases, started in March 2015, pump newly printed money into the economy, which should raise inflation and make credit easier to get.

Much of the speculation in markets has centered on whether the purchases will stop in September, or be continued, perhaps at a lower level. Draghi and the governing council majority have so far resisted stimulus skeptics on the board, such as Germany's Jens Weidmann, who say it's time to head for the exit from stimulus.

Promises, Promises

A key point to watch is the wording the bank uses to manage expectations of its future actions. Right now, the bank has included wording in its policy statement that it could increase the bond purchases if necessary. Dropping that phrase would be a first step to prepare markets for an end to the stimulus. This week's meeting might be too early for that tweak, but the wording is being watched in the markets.

The bank has also promised it won't rate interest rates — its benchmark rate is currently zero — until well after the end of the bond purchases. That puts a first rate increase well into 2019.

Why You Should Care

The withdrawal of the stimulus by the ECB and other central banks such as the U.S. Federal Reserve will have wide-ranging effects on the finances of ordinary people.

Higher interest rates will mean more return on savings accounts and an easier time funding private and public pension plans. They could also mean trouble for "zombie companies" that might not have any profits if they had to pay higher rates to borrow. Such bankruptcies would be painful in the short term, but would free investment for more profitable uses.

More interest earnings on conservative holdings such as bonds and time deposits would make riskier assets — like stocks — relatively less attractive, and ease the pressure on investors and savers to rummage for returns in riskier holdings.

Down, Euro, Down

Market reaction is a key concern for Draghi, particularly when it comes to the euro's exchange rate. The euro has risen in the past several weeks, to around $1.22, in part because markets are anticipating an end to the stimulus. Monetary stimulus can weaken a currency, so investors are bidding the euro up on speculation that the stimulus might come to an earlier end due to the strong economy.

A stronger euro, however, can hurt Europe's many exporters and further weaken inflation.

Here's the take from analyst Florian Hense at Berenberg Bank:

"The ECB should and will likely stop asset purchases after September: Recent hawkish comments, including the minutes of the last meeting, point in that direction.

"However, in order to not trigger a further appreciation of the euro, the ECB will likely change its communication only cautiously and gradually — and not in January already."

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