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ECB policymakers keen to cool euphoria over inflation drop

By Balazs Koranyi

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Central Bank needs to see further progress in dampening inflationary pressures, and companies along with governments need to chip in to prevent more policy tightening, ECB policymakers said on Wednesday.

The ECB snapped a steak of ten straight rate hikes last month, and investors are increasingly betting that its next move will be a cut, possibly as soon as next April, as consumer price growth in now back under 3%, down from over 10% in just a year.

But policymakers speaking at various venues across Europe appeared keen to cool any euphoria about the rapid fall in prices, arguing that the overall picture was more mixed. Some policymakers even argued that further rate hikes should not be taken off the table.

“You do see some progress (in underlying inflation), but not yet enough,” ECB chief economist Philip Lane said in Riga, adding that he did not take “a lot of comfort” from the fall in overall inflation, as this was driven by a reversal of energy price increases from a year earlier.

Inflation fell to 2.9% last month from over 10% a year earlier but Lane predicted steady or even rising price growth next year, with rates in the “high twos or low threes” in 2024 before a drop back to the 2% target in 2025.

Bundesbank President Joachim Nagel meanwhile echoed fellow German and ECB board member Isabel Schnabel in warning about the perils of the last stage in the ECB’s work.

“The ‘last mile’ before we reach our inflation target may well be the hardest,” Nagel said in London.

Schnabel earlier argued that it could take much longer to get from 3% to 2% than it did to get to the current level.

Latvian policymaker Martins Kazaks and Ireland’s Gabriel Makhlouf even said that further rate hikes should not yet be excluded, even if markets see a zero probability of such a move.

“It is far, far too early in my view to start talking about whether we need to start reducing or cutting rates… And also it is too early to declare that we have reached the top of the ladder” of interest rate hikes, Makhlouf said in Dublin.

The ECB’s own survey of consumer expectations, published earlier on Wednesday, showed that price growth expectations over the next year rose sharply from the previous month but remained steady at just above the bank’s target for three years out.

A key condition for continued disinflation would be for firms to start absorbing some of the relatively quick wage increases and accept lower margins, Lane and Nagel argued.

“I am therefore expecting firms’ profits to moderate in the coming quarters and absorb some of the recent strong increases in wages,” Nagel said. “If profits were to rise strongly instead, high inflation would be more persistent. And this would call the (ECB) to action.”

Corporate profit margins surged during the period of quick inflation as companies raised prices well ahead of the increase in costs, taking advantage of the turbulence and building buffers against the possibility of more inflation ahead.

“We do need to see profits adjust,” Lane said. “The more firms absorb wage increases via lower profits, that will help inflation come down and in turn workers will not feel the need to ask for such high wage increases.”

Nagel said that governments also needed to restrict spending to reduce the burden on the ECB.

“The IMF told us a few weeks ago, don’t declare victory too soon. Because there’s a historical pattern of victory being declared too soon,” Makhlouf said.


(Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; additional reporting by Francesco Canepa and Padraic Halpin; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Toby Chopra and Bernadette Baum)

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