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ECB hints at hawkish turn, showing concern that low rates will hurt households

The first meeting of the European Central Bank in the Christine Lagarde era marked a more hawkish tone than under her predecessor Mario Draghi, as minutes from the December 2019 meeting of the Governing Council included concerns about the effect of low rates on households.

A slowing euro-area economy and dampening inflation expectations convinced European central bankers that more monetary support was required in September 2019, giving then-president Draghi just enough time to dust off his "bazooka" on his way out of the door, cutting rates to -0.50% and launching a new quantitative easing program.

But in the first meeting to be helmed by Lagarde, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, members noted a "substantial easing in financial conditions."

The minutes, released Jan. 16, included more references to the potential pitfalls of negative rates and loose policy more broadly. While the ECB has been vocal in its monitoring of the impact on financial services, bank members also mentioned the potential effects on households, "with savings and consumption dynamics also requiring close monitoring," according to the minutes.

There was also a more upbeat take on economic data, with a stabilization in the slowdown of growth and a slight increase in measures of underlying inflation.

Real GDP growth was confirmed to have increased by 0.2% quarter on quarter in the third quarter of 2019, unchanged from the previous quarter, while the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices, or HICP, inflation level ticked up from 0.7% in October to 1.0% in November, mainly reflecting higher services and food price inflation. The ECB expects inflation to rise to 1.1% in 2020, 1.4% in 2021 and 1.6% in 2022, still below the medium-term target of just below 2.0%.

"Members expressed confidence that the monetary policy measures would provide the necessary monetary stimulus to support the stabilization of economic growth — compensating to a large degree for the negative impulse from global factors — and the recovery of inflation."

However, the bank continues to consider that economic risks are tilted to the downside, with geopolitical factors such as rising protectionism still a threat to growth, though the threat was judged to have moderated.

Trade is expected to remain weak, with the bank projecting growth in global trade excluding the euro area to fall below 1% in 2020, down from over 2% in the September projections.

"It increasingly looks as if the ECB will stay on hold throughout the entire year," wrote Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING Group. "As long as the eurozone economy moves rather horizontally and some governments start to step up fiscal stimulus, there will be no need to alter the monetary policy stance."