European bank cuts key rate to record low

A man passed a homeless person in Milan. The Italian government has struggled to cut the nation’s debt.
Luca Bruno/Associated Press
A man passed a homeless person in Milan. The Italian government has struggled to cut the nation’s debt.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The European Central Bank cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low Thursday but remained unwilling to deploy more powerful weapons that many economists say are needed to jolt the region out of recession.

The central bank trimmed its main rate to 0.5 percent from 0.75 percent. The move was seen by many as mostly symbolic, to avoid the impression that the bank and its president, Mario Draghi, were sitting on their hands as recession spread across the eurozone.

He vowed to continue letting banks borrow as much as they wanted at the benchmark rate for ‘‘as long as needed,’’ at least until mid-2014. That was a longer time commitment than the ECB has offered in the past.


He also said the bank was exploring ways to increase the supply of credit by reviving the moribund market in Europe for asset-backed securities — ones in which mortgages or other loans are bundled and resold to investors. He hinted the European Investment Bank could be a vehicle for stimulating demand for asset-backed securities, but did not give details.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Analysts said the investment bank might provide partial guarantees to packages of small-business loans, which commercial banks could then use as collateral for ECB loans at 0.5 percent.

Draghi said, however, that the central bank would not buy such securities itself, thereby ruling out any equivalent of the so-called quantitative easing form of stimulus practiced by the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England.

He insisted that the rate cut, which takes effect May 8, would stimulate growth, especially now that the economic slump that has afflicted Spain and Italy for more than a year is spreading north to countries such as Germany, Austria, and Finland. Bank loans are still readily available in those countries, so it is easier for an official rate cut to trickle down to borrowers.

The rate cut ‘‘is going to be more effective today than it would have been a few months ago,’’ Draghi said at a news conference. Twice a year the ECB’s Governing Council leaves Frankfurt to hold its monthly monetary policy meeting in the capital cities of eurozone members.


It was the first change in interest rates since July 2012 and the bank’s fourth cut since Draghi took over as president in November 2011.

Even at its new low of 0.5 percent, though, the benchmark rate remains higher than the 0.25 percent rate the Federal Reserve has had in place since late 2008. On Wednesday, the Fed said it would maintain its stimulus campaign, buying $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities. The Fed added that it would consider adjusting its efforts to spur growth and reduce unemployment.

A cut by the ECB was widely expected after a series of economic indicators in recent weeks foreshadowed an extended downturn in the eurozone, with recession threatening the seemingly unstoppable German economy. On Thursday, two stalwarts of corporate Germany, BMW and Siemens, warned of lower profits for 2013 because of the weakness in European markets.

While acknowledging that the slowdown was spreading to Germany, Draghi also listed a series of indicators that he said were signs the eurozone was healing, including big gains in Italian and Spanish stock markets and lower market interest rates on their government bonds.

Many economists argued that the central bank was practically obliged to cut rates. Inflation in the eurozone was just 1.2 percent in April, well below the ECB’s target of about 2 percent. The central bank’s mandate is to maintain price stability, above all else. That includes heading off deflation, the downward spiral in prices that can be even more destructive than inflation.


Investor reaction to the rate cut was muted. European markets initially rose after the announcement, but then gave up most of those gains before closing slightly higher.

The central bank also cut the higher rate it charges for overnight loans, the so-called marginal lending facility, to 1 percent from 1.5 percent. But the benchmark rate of 0.5 percent, known as the main refinancing rate, is what banks pay to borrow for a week or more and is the rate that normally has the most powerful effect on the economy.

The ECB left the rate it charges banks to park money at the bank, the deposit rate, at ­zero. There had been speculation in the past that it would impose a negative deposit rate, in other words charging banks to store their money. That step might discourage lenders from hoarding cash rather than issuing loans, but could also have unintended consequences.

At the news conference Thursday, Draghi indicated that a negative interest rate was still a possibility, and that the central bank was prepared to deal with any consequences.

For now, though, the ECB remains unwilling to take that bold step or others.

‘‘The bright minds in the Eurotower­ are still working hard to come up with a new magic bullet,’’ Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING Bank, said in a note to clients, referring to the ECB headquarters in Frankfurt. ‘‘In the meantime, the only thing Draghi found in his tool kit was an old tool and a chill-pill to keep markets happy in the waiting room.’’