Mon, Jun 06, 2011 - Page 10 News List

ECB likely to signal next rate hike this week


A protester wearing a wig marches during Athens Pride Parade in front of the parliament in Athens, Greece, on Saturday. The parade-goers marched around Constitution Square, where other protesters stage daily rallies against a new austerity package.

Photo: Reuters

The European Central Bank (ECB) is set to signal a rate hike this week as market tensions ease after the ECB, EU and IMF appeared to have snatched Greece again from the jaws of a debt default.

An EU, IMF and ECB “troika” agreed after four weeks of tough talks to provide Athens with the next 12 billion euro (US$17.4 billion) tranche of aid under last year’s bailout so Greece can pay its bills next month.

At the same time, Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the eurozone finance ministers group, said member states could provide even more aid for Greece and crucially that private sector banks were set to help on a voluntary basis.

A eurogroup pledge would be subject to strict conditions, Juncker stressed, including involvement that “will have to be negotiated with private creditors.”

However, “Europe seems to be on track to contain the debt crisis,” Berenberg Bank chief economist Holger Schmieding said.

The EU must ensure Greece can settle some of its 350 billion euros in debt between now and mid-2013, given that it still cannot access private equity markets.

The ECB must ensure meanwhile that dogged inflation which eased to 2.7 percent last month does not become entrenched, and find a way to get it to the central bank target of just below 2 percent.

“We doubt that May’s slightly weaker than expected inflation figure will be enough to stop the ECB from hiking rates in July,” Capital Economics analysts wrote.

Economists are waiting for ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet to say on Thursday that the bank’s position on inflation is now one of “vigilance,” a code word tipping markets to an interest rate hike the following month.

Some forecast the current benchmark rate of 1.25 percent could reach 2 percent by the end of the year, though the central bank might tread slowly to avoid undermining weakened countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Back in the eurozone, remarks by ECB chief economist Juergen Stark last week raised hopes that a rollover of Greek debt by private investors could be a way out of the latest chapter in the crisis.

“If this is not seen as a default or a partial default on sovereign debt, then it could indeed be a way of involving the private sector in financing Greece,” Stark told Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

Germany has pushed for private investors to participate in Greek rescue plans to ease public resistance to more taxpayer bail-outs, while the ECB has warned that could have disastrous effects on the Greek financial sector.

Much of Greece’s debt is held by domestic banks that could go under if they suffered heavy losses.

A rollover of Greece’s debt would involve persuading banks to buy new bonds from the Greek government to replace maturing securities, thereby ensuring continued financing.

Greece benefits from a rescue package worth 110 billion euros from the EU and IMF, but -probably needs another 60 billion to 70 billion euros to plug holes in its finances over the next couple of years.

Trichet has now floated the idea of an EU-wide finance ministry that could intervene if countries that received aid failed to meet their commitments, but reaction among political leaders has been cool.

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