The European Central Bank has today raised interest rates for the ninth consecutive time and said it was open-minded about further tightening as stubbornly high inflation and recession worries pull policymakers in opposing directions.
Fighting off a historic surge in prices, the ECB has now lifted borrowing costs by a combined 425 basis points since last July.
It is worried that price growth could be perpetuated by both rising costs and wages in an exceptionally tight jobs market.
With today’s 25 basis point move, the ECB’s deposit rate stands at 3.75%, its highest level since 2000, before euro banknotes and coins had even been put into circulation. Its main refinancing rate was set at 4.25%.
ECB President Christine Lagarde told a press conference that what comes next was still in the balance, although the central bank, which was widely criticised for a slow response to last year’s initial surge in inflation, is determined to cool it.
“We are not in the domain of forward guidance but we are very strongly rooted in our determination to break the back of inflation,” Lagarde said.
“There is the possibility of a hike next time. There is the possibility of a pause. It’s a decisive maybe,” she said, adding the bank was “open-minded”.
The ECB’s full policy statement had said interest rates would be set at “sufficiently restrictive levels for as long as necessary” for a timely return of inflation to its 2% target.
But it dropped a reference to rates having to be “brought” to a level that cuts inflation quickly enough, a nuance that could be seen as signalling further increases are not a given.
Lagarde explained the tweak was “not random or irrelevant”.
That the ECB’s fastest-ever tightening spree is approaching its end is clear, however.
Policymakers are debating whether one more small move is needed before rates are kept steady for what some of them think will be a long time.
The problem is that inflation is coming down too slowly and could take until 2025 to fall back to 2%, as a price surge initially driven by energy has seeped into the broader economy via large mark-ups and is fuelling the cost of services.
ECB President Christine Lagarde
While overall inflation is now just half its October peak, harder-to-break underlying price growth is hovering near historic highs and may have even accelerated this month.
Lagarde said the risks of so-called “second round” effects had not worsened since last month. The labour market remains exceptionally tight, though, with record-low unemployment raising the risk that wages will rise quickly as workers use their increased bargaining power to recoup real incomes lost to inflation.
That is why many investors and analysts are looking for the ECB to pull the trigger again in September and stop only if autumn wage data delivers relief.
But the mood is clearly changing as the economy of the 20-country euro zone slows. While markets had fully priced in another rate hike just a few weeks ago, a growing number of investors are betting that today’s move will be the last.
The euro tumbled during the Lagarde’s press conference andw as down 0.4% at $1.1039 as it drew to a close, having been up as much as 0.5% beforehand.
More rate tightening would however be consistent with comments from a host of policymakers, including ECB board member Isabel Schnabel, that raising rates too far would still be less costly than not lifting them high enough.
The US Federal Reserve last night raised borrowing costs and kept the door open to further tightening, though Fed Chair Jerome Powell gave few hints about September, a stance the ECB is likely to copy.
Indicators of business, investor and consumer sentiment and bank lending surveys point to a continued deterioration after the euro zone skirted a recession last winter.
And with manufacturing in a deep recession and a previously resilient services sector showing signs of softening despite what is likely to be a superb summer holiday season, it is hard to see where any rebound would come from.
Such weakness, exacerbated by a loss of purchasing power after inflation eroded real incomes, could push down price pressures faster than some expect, leaving less work for the central bank to do.
This is a key reason why the balance of expectations has started to shift away from another rate hike, with economists increasingly focusing on how long rates will stay high.
“We know we are getting closer,” Lagarde said today, referring to the end of the ECB’s rate hike run.
Mortgage rates to rise again after today’s ECB hike
Today’s ECB rate increase will lead to higher borrowing costs for mortgage holders.
According to Moneysherpa.ie, it will take the average tracker mortgage rate from just 1.15% in June last year to 5.4%, resulting in the cost of an average tracker increasing by €3,182 a year and €34,994 over the full mortgage term.
Mark Coan, founder of Moneysherpa.ie, said it is not only the 130,000 remaining tracker mortgage customers who will be impacted, but also 160,000 variable mortgage holders and those with short-term fixed rates, who will see rates move above 5%.
“Average tracker rates are now hitting 5.4%, with variable rates also heading in a similar direction,” he said.
“The good news though is customers can still fix on long-term fixed rates of 3.9%.”
But any changes today will also ramp up pressure on banks and other financial institutions to up the rates they offer savers on deposit products.