FRANKFURT, GERMANY - The European Central Bank will on Thursday weigh when and how to end its bond-buying stimulus program — an exit that will have far-reaching consequences across the economy, from long-suffering savers to Europe's indebted governments.
The bank, which sets monetary policy for the 19 countries that use the euro, has been buying 30 billion euros ($35.5 billion) a month in government and corporate bonds from banks. The purchases are slated to run at least through September, and longer if necessary.
Analysts say that decisions on the exit path, which could include several intermediate steps, might come Thursday or at the July 26 meeting. Scenarios include reducing the purchases past September, and then stopping them at the end of the year.
An end to the stimulus would be part of a major shift in the global economy. The ECB would be joining the U.S. Federal Reserve in withdrawing the massive monetary stimulus deployed to combat the Great Recession and its aftermath. The Fed is expected to raise rates at its meeting Wednesday.
The ECB's bond purchases, which started in March 2015, pump newly printed money into the economy, which in theory should help raise inflation toward the bank's goal of just under 2 percent. Inflation was an annual 1.9 percent in May, but the bank needs to be able to say that inflation will stay in line with its target even after the stimulus is withdrawn.
Market participants pricked up their ears last week when top ECB official Peter Praet said Thursday's meeting would be an occasion to consider when to wind down the program. Praet supervises economics at the ECB as a member of its six-member executive board and in that capacity proposes monetary policy moves for debate and decision by the 25-member governing council. That gives his words extra weight.
The impact of the ECB's bond-buying stimulus has been felt across the economy.
It has pushed up the prices of assets like stocks, bonds and real estate but also lowered returns for savers. It has helped keep borrowing costs low for European governments as the ECB purchases have driven bond prices up and yields down. Yields and prices move in opposite directions.
For example, the Italian government, which is burdened with the second-highest debt load in the eurozone after Greece at 132 percent of gross domestic product, pays only 2.79 percent annually to borrow for 10 years. That's less than the 2.96 percent yield on 10-year U.S. Treasurys.
The ECB meeting will be held in Riga, Latvia, as one of the ECB's occasional road meetings away from its Frankfurt headquarters to underline its role as a pan-European institution. A bribery investigation is expected to keep the head of the host central bank, Ilmars Rimsevics, from attending the meeting and news conference with ECB President Mario Draghi.
The ECB is continuing its slow progress toward withdrawing the stimulus despite turbulence in Italy, where the new populist government has questioned the spending and debt restrictions required of euro members. Concerns over Italian politics caused big swings in the country's financial markets for several days last month, before easing.
Analysts Joerg Kraemer and Michael Schubert at Commerzbank said that the ECB may soon have to end its stimulus program anyway as it risks running out of bonds that are eligible for purchase. The ECB has limited itself to no more than one-third of any member country's outstanding bonds to avoid becoming the dominant creditor of member states.
With the purchases widely expected to be stopped at the end of this year, they said, attention would now turn to how long the bank would wait after the bond-purchase exit before starting to raise its interest rate benchmarks.
"The ECB probably wants to ensure that the end of bond purchases does not unleash speculation about interest rate hikes," they wrote in a research note. "The ECB Council... might declare that rates will not be increased for 'at least' six months after the end of purchases."
Currently the short-term interest rate benchmark is zero, and the rate on deposits left by commercial banks at the ECB is negative 0.4 percent. The negative rate is a penalty aimed at pushing banks to lend that money instead of hoard it.