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ECB meets under tight security in Barcelona

04 may 2012, 12:14
European Central Bank. photo courtesy of topnews.in
European Central Bank. photo courtesy of topnews.in
Eurozone central bank chiefs gathered under tight security in Spain Thursday to discuss whether to provide more easy money for governments as the political resolve to rein in deficits shows signs of crumbling, AFP reports.

An exceptional police presence has been in place in Barcelona since the weekend and the authorities have temporarily reintroduced border controls ahead of the European Central Bank's regular monthly policy-setting meeting -- held in Barcelona instead of Frankfurt -- amid fears of violence in Spain's climate of social unrest.

Authorities said 4,500 police are mobilised until May 4 and they may also be reinforced by 2,000 members of the Civil Guard.

With unemployment running at a record 24.4 percent of the work force and the country officially back in recession, pressure for Spain to stabilise its public finances is driving spending cuts and unpopular austerity measures that are fuelling social unrest.

Nevertheless, ECB watchers believe the central bank will neither cut interest rates nor announce any further special emergency measures as patience wears thin over government back-tracking on fiscal consolidation.

Since the last meeting in April, there has been a resurgence in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis even as everything suggests that the 17-nation eurozone has fallen into recession.

In the face of this, a growing number of governments are beginning to baulk at the belt-tightening measures being prescribed under the recently agreed "fiscal compact," complaining that austerity risks undercutting growth.

There have been massive protests in Greece, just bailed out again, as well as in embattled Italy and Spain.

"Despite acknowledging that the economic outlook has deteriorated, (ECB) president Mario Draghi seems set to argue that the ECB has already done enough by providing ample liquidity to the region's banks and cutting interest rates to record lows," said Capital Economics economist Julian Jessop.

The ECB has indeed been quick to take on a fire-fighting role from the very beginning of the crisis.

It quickly reversed last year's rate hikes to bring eurozone borrowing costs back down to an all-time low of 1.0 percent and embarked on a hotly contested programme of buying up the bonds of debt-mired countries so as to ease their borrowing costs.

Most recently, in two so-called long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) in December and February, it pumped more than 1.0 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) into the banking system in a bid to avert a dangerous credit squeeze.

Jessop at Capital Economics said the LTROs "had a major impact when they were first announced... but the same trick will be hard to pull off again."

According to the results of the ECB's latest regular quarterly survey on bank lending, a previous tightening of credit conditions has eased again "substantially" in the first three months of this year and banks were expecting that trend to continue in the second quarter.

At the time, ECB president Draghi described the findings as "positive", but he has been reluctant to say whether similar liquidity measures are planned in the future.

Marie Diron, senior economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Eurozone Forecast, said the ECB "will now want to observe how credit conditions and demand for loans develop before envisaging further liquidity provision."

Diron said the regular post-meeting news conference was likely to focus on the current debate about the ECB's mandate and discussions about fiscal austerity versus growth.

"Fiscal austerity is necessary and unavoidable. But we think that it is essential that the eurozone shifts from a sole focus on austerity to implement growth-enhancing reforms," she said.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs Global Economics similarly said they "expect no rate change at this week's meeting and no announcement of any additional non-standard policy measures."

And UniCredit economist Marco Valli predicted that "on balance, the ECB should stick to its wait-and-see stance."

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