The European Central Bank on Thursday authorized its first interest rate hike in 11 years in a bid to help cool rising inflation, becoming the latest central bank to more aggressively unwind policy that fueled economic growth during the pandemic even as global recession fears continue to rise.
In a statement on Thursday, the ECB said it would raise rates by 50 basis points as a “key step to make sure inflation returns to its 2% target over the medium term”—coming in at the higher end of expectations calling for an increase of at least 25 basis points.
Officials also signaled additional hikes to come, saying “further normalization” of interest rates will be appropriate, though they suggested the larger hike on Thursday will allow them to move more slowly with future increases, adding: “The frontloading today . . . allows the Governing Council to make a transition to a meeting-by-meeting approach to interest rate decisions.”
The decision comes after data showing inflation in the United Kingdom skyrocketed 9.4% in June, hitting a new 40-year high and surpassing similarly high inflation of 9.1% in the United States.
In a speech late last month, ECB President Christine Lagarde warned there are “growing signs”—including the ongoing war in Ukraine—that suggest “supply shocks hitting the economy could linger for longer” and further warned unforeseen shocks could de-anchor inflation expectations.
Lagarde doubled down on the message Thursday, telling reporters at a press conference that inflation could remain “undesirably high for some time” while also tempering concerns by saying she still doesn’t believe a recession in Europe is the most likely scenario over the next year.
Though it was initially flat for the day, the United Kingdom benchmark FTSE 100 fell 0.9% to 7,200 points after the announcement. Global stocks didn’t fare much better: S&P 500 futures erased premarket gains to trade roughly flat by 9:15 EDT.
Rising food and energy prices—fueled in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—have elevated inflation around the world, pushing many central banks to raise interest rates, which help lower prices by making borrowing more expensive and thereby curbing demand. Increasingly, however, experts worry aggressive central bank policy to curb ongoing price spikes will usher in low economic growth this year and potentially risk a global recession.
“Excessive rate hikes could push the consumer-led economy into not only a short-term, but also a longer-term recession,” says Nigel Green, the CEO of $12 billion advisory deVere Group, warning of the risk that central banks “hit the brakes too hard” in the coming months.
The Ukraine war and Covid supply chain issues have driven up everyday costs across the world, putting pressure on households. The eurozone is vulnerable because it relies heavily on Russia for its oil and gas. This week it urged member states to begin rationing supplies amid fears Moscow will halt gas deliveries this year, causing further price spikes.
Explaining its decision to raise rates, ECB president Christine Lagarde said: “Economic activity [in the eurozone] is slowing. Russia’s unjustified aggression towards Ukraine is an ongoing drag on growth. “We expect inflation to remain undesirably high for some time owing to continued pressure from energy and food prices and pipeline pressures in the pricing chain,” she added.
The bank says further rate hikes “will be appropriate” and that it will take a “meeting-by-meeting” approach to raising rates. The idea is that by making it more expensive to borrow money, people will spend less, bringing down demand and therefore prices. However, there are also concerns that higher rates could push the bloc into recession – which is defined as two successive quarters of economic decline.
These fears helped push the euro to a 20-year low against the dollar in recent weeks. The ECB began cutting interest rates after the 2008 financial crisis to stimulate growth, and took them as low as -0.5% during the pandemic. The idea was to encourage banks to lend rather than deposit money with the ECB.
Earlier this year the bank signalled it planned to increase rates again, although economists had only expected an increase of 0.25 percentage points in July. Some economists have criticised the ECB for moving too slowly, pointing out that the UK and US began raising rates months ago. Carsten Brzeski, chief eurozone economist at ING bank, said: “In hindsight, the very gradual and cautious normalisation process the ECB started at the end of last year has simply been too slow and too late.”
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