Burst of rising prices tests European Central Bank

The European Central Bank is facing the highest inflation in more than a decade and slowing business activity as it decides on monetary policy for the 19 countries using the euro

FRANKFURT, Germany -- European Central Bank officials are confronting the highest inflation in more than a decade and supply shortages that are holding back the pandemic recovery as they decide monetary policy Thursday for the 19 European Union countries that use the euro currency.

The meeting of the 25-member governing council isn't expected to result in changes to the bank's 1.85 trillion ($2.14 trillion) bond purchase program aimed at getting the economy through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it could lay the groundwork for a December decision on the program that drives down longer-term borrowing costs, easing credit for businesses and supporting growth and jobs. The purchases are slated to run at least through March, so any change in December would take effect next year.

A news conference from President Christine Lagarde will provide another chance for her to underline the bank's stance on the recent burst of inflation and what lasting effects it might have. So far, she has made it clear that the bank considers the higher prices to be temporary and said the bank won't “overreact” by easing its efforts to keep interest rates low for businesses, governments and consumers.

She is expected to argue that the economy still needs extensive support. The bloc of countries using the euro has not yet reached its pre-pandemic level of output, unlike the U.S., which has seen a robust recovery following more extensive government spending.

Shortages of supplies like computer chips for cars have hindered the industrial recovery, with Germany this week lowering its growth outlook for the year to 2.6% from 3.5%. The eurozone as a whole grew by 2.2% in the second quarter over the quarter before, exiting a double-dip pandemic recession. Third-quarter figures are due Friday.

Inflation in September was 3.4%, the highest since 2008, and could eventually hit 4% later this year, but the bank's staff foresees the rate of price increases falling to 1.7% next year and to 1.5% by 2023, well below its target of 2%.

Rising prices have hit global economies due to higher oil costs and shortages of goods as the world bounces back from the worst of the pandemic recession.

Annual inflation in the U.S. reached 4.3% in August, the most in three decades. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has said rising prices and supply bottlenecks are likely to be “longer and more persistent” than first expected. But he said that it would be “premature” to raise interest rates and that the Fed can afford to be “patient” on inflation.

Central banks typically respond to higher-than-desired inflation by raising interest rates, tightening credit in the economy and cooling off demand that drives prices higher.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said inflation is less pronounced in the eurozone than in the U.S., partly because the European governments poured less stimulus money into the economy. That means the European Central Bank can “ride out" rising prices and slower growth "more easily than the Fed,” he said.

Economists say the burst of inflation is fed by comparisons to extremely low prices during the depths of the pandemic, a factor that should drop out of the statistics in time. The risk however is that higher prices become embedded in expectations for higher wages and become longer lasting. However, the struggle in Europe in recent years has not been against high prices but boosting inflation toward more normal levels considered best for the economy.

Frederik Ducrozet, global macro strategist at private bank Pictet, said in a research note that “the ECB could have the luxury to wait for evidence of inflation persistence while other central banks start to tighten, with uncertain implications for the economy and for markets.”

No change is expected in interest rate benchmarks, which remain at record lows. The rate for European Central Bank lending to banks is zero, while the rate on deposits left overnight by banks is minus 0.5%, meaning banks pay to deposit the money — a penalty rate aimed at pushing them to lend the funds instead.