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Europe’s central bank worried about inflation but holds off

February 3, 2022 GMT
President of European Central Bank Christine Lagarde speaks during a press conference following the meeting of the governing council in Frankfurt, Oct. 28, 2021. The European Central Bank’s policymakers are facing record inflation as they decide monetary policy Thursday, Jan. 3, 2022, for the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
President of European Central Bank Christine Lagarde speaks during a press conference following the meeting of the governing council in Frankfurt, Oct. 28, 2021. The European Central Bank’s policymakers are facing record inflation as they decide monetary policy Thursday, Jan. 3, 2022, for the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
President of European Central Bank Christine Lagarde speaks during a press conference following the meeting of the governing council in Frankfurt, Oct. 28, 2021. The European Central Bank’s policymakers are facing record inflation as they decide monetary policy Thursday, Jan. 3, 2022, for the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
President of European Central Bank Christine Lagarde speaks during a press conference following the meeting of the governing council in Frankfurt, Oct. 28, 2021. The European Central Bank’s policymakers are facing record inflation as they decide monetary policy Thursday, Jan. 3, 2022, for the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
President of European Central Bank Christine Lagarde speaks during a press conference following the meeting of the governing council in Frankfurt, Oct. 28, 2021. The European Central Bank’s policymakers are facing record inflation as they decide monetary policy Thursday, Jan. 3, 2022, for the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The head of the European Central Bank said record inflation could linger for “longer than expected” and appeared to open the door at least a crack for an interest rate increase this year.

Asked twice by journalists Thursday, Christine Lagarde declined to repeat previous comments that a rate hike was “very unlikely” this year. She said officials would pay careful attention to the numbers and revisit their inflation stance next month.

At the same time, she said the bank would stick with its schedule for withdrawing economic stimulus used to cushion the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which would leave only a little room for an increase this year. Any hike would have to follow the end of bond purchases, now slated for October.

Lagarde spoke after the bank left interest rates and stimulus programs unchanged even as the other central banks move to counter inflation with rate hikes, including the Bank of England on Thursday.

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Here are key takeaways from the meeting:

LAGARDE IS STICKING TO HER STORY: Half of the higher inflation is tied to oil, gas and electricity prices that are largely beyond the reach of monetary policy, Lagarde said.

“If the ECB were first of all to reduce and finish its asset purchases, then raise interest rates in short order, do you think it would have any impact on energy prices? No,” she said.

ANALYST TAKE: Lagarde’s remarks mean a rate increase this year is no longer ruled out, if not the expectation, says Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank. He moved his prediction for the first rate increase from June 2023 to March 2023. With Lagarde dropping her previous stance that a 2022 rate increase is “very unlikely,” a faster end to bond purchases and a rate hike this year “are now at least an option,” he said.

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RECORD PRICE RISES ARE TOP OF THE AGENDA: Lagarde said there was “general concern around the table about inflation and its impact on our fellow European citizens,” the people who “have to fill up the tank and put food on the table.” Annual inflation in the eurozone came in at 5.1% on Wednesday, the highest since 1997 and 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, which influence borrowing costs.

INFLATION IS LINGERING BUT SHOULD DECLINE: The key factors behind high inflation such supply logjams and high oil and gas prices should ease. As Lagarde put it: “Inflation is likely to remain elevated for longer than previously expected, but to decline in the course of this year.” The bank sees inflation falling to 1.8% in 2023, and that’s key because it indicates inflation will fall below the bank’s goal.

THE NEXT MEETING COULD BE INTERESTING: The inflation outlook, however, could change March 10 when the bank gets new staff projections.

LAGARDE DISCOURAGES COMPARISONS TO THE U.S. AND BRITAIN: Lagarde said the European Central Bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve and Bank of England were “operating in different environments,” with the U.S. economic recovery from the pandemic farther ahead and demand fueled by larger stimulus spending. She said Europe’s economic support had been smaller and wage increases more moderate. The Fed 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%.

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.

THE BANK WON’T BE RUSHED: Lagarde said that road map had not changed and the bank remained “faithful to our sequence,” warning not to “assume too much” in terms of immediate rate rises after the end of bond purchases.

“We will not be complacent but we will not be rushed into a process, we will follow the sequence we have set for ourselves,” she said.

Rates are at record lows: One key benchmark is at zero and another is at minus 0.5%.