European Central Bank hikes rates 50 basis points despite banking turmoil

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The ripple effect from the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) continues to reverberate around the world. As Anne Gaviola explains, a major downgrade of the entire U.S. banking sector from a major ratings firm will impact Canadian household finances – Mar 14, 2023

The European Central Bank raised interest rates by 50 basis points on Thursday as promised to curb inflation, ignoring financial market chaos and calls by investors to dial back policy tightening at least until sentiment stabilizes.

The ECB has been raising rates at its fastest pace on record, but a rout in global markets since the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in the United States last week had threatened to upend those plans at the last moment.

Read more: Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse rattled the U.S. Now, Canada braces for aftershocks

In line with its often-repeated guidance, the central bank for the 20 countries that share the euro lifted its deposit rate to three per cent, the highest level since late 2008, as inflation is seen overshooting its two per cent target through 2025.

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“Inflation is projected to remain too high for too long,” ECB President Christine Lagarde told a news conference, reading from the statement agreed by the bank’s policymakers.

“The Governing Council is monitoring current market tensions closely and stands ready to respond as necessary to preserve price stability and financial stability in the euro area,” she said, adding that the region’s banks had strong capital and liquidity positions.

Click to play video: 'Swiss bank Credit Suisse shares plummet to record low'
Swiss bank Credit Suisse shares plummet to record low

But the statement offered no commitments for the future, despite previous calls by a long list of policymakers for more big moves in the fight against inflation.

“We know that if our baseline were to persist when the uncertainty reduces, then we have a lot more ground to cover,” Lagarde said.

“But it’s a big caveat, ‘if our baseline was to persist’,” she added, noting that it was currently impossible to determine the future path of interest rates.

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The euro and bond yields edged up after the move. Earlier, after days of turmoil in markets, financial investors had seen a 50 per cent chance of a smaller, 25 basis point move by the ECB and dialed down expectations for future moves.

Euro zone bank shares have been in freefall this week, spooked first by SVB’s collapse, then a plunge in the value of Credit Suisse, a lender that has long been dogged by problems.

Read more: Credit Suisse to borrow up to US$54B from Swiss central bank after stock plunge

But the Swiss National Bank threw Credit Suisse a $54 billion lifeline overnight, a big enough show of force to send its shares back up around 20 per cent and lift other bank stocks.

The key worry for the ECB is that monetary policy works via the banking system, and a full blown financial crisis would make its policy ineffective.

That left the ECB in a dilemma, pitting its inflation-fighting mandate against the need to maintain financial stability in the face of overwhelmingly imported turmoil.

Inflation, the bank’s primary responsibility, is far higher than in previous crises and the ECB’s new projections, published on Thursday, put price growth above its two per cent target through 2025, an overriding concern for many of its policymakers.

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Inflation is seen averaging 5.3 per cent this year, 2.9 per cent in 2024 and 2.1 per cent in 2025, the ECB said, adding that these projections were finalized before the current turmoil.

Lagarde noted that the economic growth outlook was currently tilted to the downside.

While systemic banking crises generally morph into deep recessions, the euro zone’s financial system is in its best shape in years, with capital, liquidity and profits all at healthy levels.

Some economists also argued that the ECB has plenty of instruments to fight market stress, and so had not needed to sacrifice the rate move to keep financial assets buoyant.

That was echoed in the ECB statement, which noted its policy toolkit was “fully equipped to provide liquidity support to the euro area financial system if needed and to preserve the smooth transmission of monetary policy.”

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