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Eurozone inflation stabilises in ‘danger zone’

Brussels: Eurozone inflation stabilised in the European Central Bank’s ‘danger zone’ in February but did not fall as expected, making it less likely the ECB will loosen monetary policy further at its monthly meeting next week.

European Union statistics office Eurostat estimated on Friday that consumer prices in the 18 countries sharing the euro rose an annual 0.8 per cent this month. That was the same rate as in January and December, after readings of 0.9 per cent in November and 0.7 per cent in October.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast inflation would slow to 0.7 per cent. Fears the bloc may be at risk of deflation as it struggles to recover from its debt crisis have raised expectations the ECB will use interest rates or other policy tools to give the economy further support.

“The higher than expected inflation numbers reduce the chances of an ECB rate cut at next week’s meeting, and we maintain the view that… the central bank will keep rates on hold,” said Nick Kounis, head of macro research at ABN AMRO.

ECB president Mario Draghi has warned of the risk of inflation getting stuck in a danger zone below one per cent, but said again on Thursday that there was clearly no deflation.

“While the ECB does not see deflation as a serious threat in the Eurozone, it is worried about inflation staying below one per cent for a prolonged period, thereby destabilising inflation expectations,” IHS Global Insight economist Howard Archer said.

“Consequently, it still looks touch-and-go whether the ECB will take any further stimulative action at its March 6 policy meeting. Much will likely depend on whether the ECB staff’s new forecasts show Eurozone consumer price inflation still below 2.0 per cent in 2016.”

The February inflation rate was stable because lower energy costs were offset by more expensive industrial goods and services, the Eurostat data showed.

“The outcome is rather odd as it does not seem to be consistent with the falls in annual inflation we have seen in Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium,” Kounis said.

“The outcome may have been driven by a jump in inflation in France, where the data are not yet released, but this would be difficult to explain. We suspect that Eurozone inflation will be revised down in the final estimate.”

Figures on Thursday showed annual inflation in Germany, the Eurozone’s economic powerhouse, easing to its lowest level in three-and-a-half years in February at one per cent. But so-called core inflation in the Eurozone, which excludes the most volatile components like energy, food, alcohol and tobacco prices, continued to inch higher, Friday’s data showed. It rose to 1.0 per cent year-on-year in February from 0.8 per cent in January and 0.7 per cent in December.

Price pressures in the Eurozone are low because unemployment remains stuck near record highs. Eurostat said on Friday that 12 per cent of the bloc’s workforce was unemployed in January, unchanged from a month before.

In absolute terms, the number of people without jobs edged higher to 19,175,000 from 19,158,000 in December, it said.