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MNI (London)
By Christian Vits
     FRANKFURT (MNI) - The European Central Bank Thursday dropped the easing
bias from its monetary policy statement, but President Mario Draghi tried to
water down the magnitude of the wording change.
     "Fundamentally, it was a backward-looking measure," Draghi said at the
press conference following the ECB's monetary policy meeting. "Incoming
information, including our new staff projections, confirms the strong and
broad-based growth momentum in the euro area economy, which is projected to
expand in the near term at a somewhat faster pace than previously expected," he
added.
     The ECB dropped the pledge to increase the asset purchase programme (APP)
in terms of size and/or duration if the outlook becomes less favourable. The
risks surrounding the euro area growth outlook are assessed as "broadly
balanced", the President added.
     "On the one hand, the prevailing positive cyclical momentum could lead to
stronger growth in the near term," Draghi said. "On the other hand, downside
risks continue to relate primarily to global factors, including rising
protectionism and developments in foreign exchange and other financial markets."
     ECB staff now expect inflation to rise 1.4% this year, the same rate as
forecast in December, remaining far below the price stability mandate of "below
but close to 2%". In 2019, inflation is again seen at 1.4%, down from a forecast
of 1.5% in December and in 2020, the central bank forecasts inflation at 1.7%.
     "Measures of underlying inflation remain subdued and have yet to show
convincing signs of a sustained upward trend," Draghi stressed.
     Economic growth is seen at 2.4% in 2018, a slight upward revision of 0.1
percentage points from the December projection. The expansion will slow to 1.9%
in 2019 and to 1.7% a year later, according to the ECB.
     Draghi repeatedly noted concern over the recent debate about protectionist
measures. "If we will have retaliation, we will have an effect on confidence,"
he noted.
     U.S. President Donald Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminium and
threatened to impose them on European automobiles as well. Such measures could
weigh on the growth outlook of export-led European economies, particularly
Germany, the Eurozone's growth engine.
     The ECB President also struck a cautious tone with regard of the euro's
exchange rate. It has gained 4.9% against the dollar over the past three months.
     "The Governing Council will continue to monitor developments in the
exchange rate and financial conditions with regard to their possible
implications for the inflation outlook," Draghi said. "Overall, an ample degree
of monetary stimulus remains necessary for underlying inflation pressures to
continue to build up and support headline inflation developments over the medium
term."
     Against the background of a growing divide within the ECB, "today's
communication change should, in our view, be seen as a conciliatory move to
please both the ECB's hawks and doves," ING's Chief Econoist for Germany and
Austria, Carsten Brzeski, commented. "Dropping the easing bias was probably like
doves feeding the hawks some breadcrumbs."
--MNI Frankfurt Bureau; +49 69 97782671; email: christian.vits@marketnews.com
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