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ECB weighs further action as economic picture darkens

The European Central Bank will make plain the euro zone’s economic malaise after it meets today, with a rare public call from Washington adding to pressure for action to stop the bloc going into reverse.

With recovery stalled across many of the 18 countries that share the euro, ECB president Mario Draghi will present fresh growth and inflation forecasts from bank staff at his post-meeting news conference. Both measures are likely to be downgraded further.

Mounting concerns about the euro zone economy were underlined by the US Federal Reserve’s influential vice chair, Stanley Fischer, who broke with etiquette to say that money-printing would help Europe as it had the United States.

“If the ECB moves in that direction, it will have positive effects,” Mr Fischer, who was Mr Draghi’s academic mentor at university, told a newspaper in Italy. But Mr Draghi faces considerable political obstacles to taking this step, chiefly from a reluctant Germany.

Last week, Sabine Lautenschlaeger, Germany’s appointment to the ECB’s Executive Board, said that now was not the time for state bond buying. So while the ECB could extend a scheme to buy secured debt to include corporate bonds, it is unlikely he will announce any money printing to buy government bonds.

Economists, roughly half of whom expect the bank to start buying government bonds – a step that should buoy the economy when banks exchange bonds for

ECB cash – have pencilled this in for the first three months of next year.

ECB vice-president Vitor Constancio has said the bank will be better able to gauge then whether it needs to buy such debt.

Other major central banks including the Fed, Bank of Japan and Bank of England, have already used quantitative easing to stimulate their economies. But divisions between debt-shy euro zone countries such as Germany and southern states including Greece make such a step more difficult for the ECB.

Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy by far and its most influential, fears it would encourage reckless borrowing. “The euro zone needs growth and jobs to ensure that it survives,” said Lena Komileva of consultancy G+ Economics, warning of the obstacles to so-called quantitative easing. “Germany’s strong opposition … raises questions about its ability to act fast enough.”

Mr Draghi will address the press for the first time in the ECB’s new €1.3 billion headquarters in a Frankfurt skyscraper. Just yards away from the imposing building, designed to show the strength of the currency, labourers queue up for a day’s work. But the bloc is in a delicate situation.

Euro zone inflation, a key yardstick of the economy’s health and viewed by investors as a trigger for the ECB to buy government bonds, slowed to just 0.3 per cent last month. If prices were to start to falling, as they already have in some countries, that could discourage consumers from shopping while they wait for goods to get cheaper, creating a vicious circle that pulls down the economy.

A conflict in Ukraine, which has frozen much of EU-Russian commerce, a slowdown in momentum in China and war in Syria add to the gloom, as does the tumbling price of oil. The ECB has already cut borrowing costs to record lows, given cheap loans to banks and started buying repackaged loans to kick-start lending.

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