European Central Bank to weigh end to stimulus program

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — The European Central Bank is meeting Thursday to discuss when and how to end its bond-buying stimulus plan, an exit that will have far-reaching consequences across the economy.

The bank, which sets monetary policy for the 19 countries that use the euro, has been buying 30 billion euros ($35.5 billion) a month in government and corporate bonds from banks. The purchases are slated to run at least through September, and longer if necessary.

Analysts say that decisions on the exit path, which could include several intermediate steps, might come Thursday or at the July 26 meeting. Scenarios include reducing the purchases past September, and then stopping them at the end of the year.

An end to the stimulus would be part of a major shift in the global economy. The ECB would be joining the U.S. Federal Reserve in withdrawing the massive monetary stimulus deployed to combat the Great Recession and its aftermath. The Fed raised its key rate at its meeting Wednesday.

The ECB's bond purchases, which started in March 2015, pump newly printed money into the economy, which in theory should help raise inflation toward the bank's goal of just under 2 percent. Inflation was an annual 1.9 percent in May, but the bank needs to be able to say that inflation will stay in line with its target even after the stimulus is withdrawn.

The impact of the ECB's bond-buying stimulus has been felt across the economy.

It has pushed up the prices of investments like stocks, bonds and real estate but also lowered returns for savers. It has helped keep borrowing costs low for European governments as the ECB purchases have driven bond prices up and yields down. Yields and prices move in opposite directions.

For example, the Italian government, which is burdened with the second-highest debt load in the eurozone after Greece at 132 percent of gross domestic product, pays only 2.88 percent annually to borrow for 10 years. That's less than the 2.95 percent yield on 10-year U.S. Treasurys.

The ECB meeting will be held in Riga, Latvia, as one of the ECB's occasional road meetings away from its Frankfurt headquarters to underline its role as a pan-European institution. A bribery investigation is expected to keep the head of the host central bank, Ilmars Rimsevics, from attending the meeting and news conference with ECB President Mario Draghi.

The ECB is continuing its slow progress toward withdrawing the stimulus despite turbulence in Italy, where the new populist government has questioned the spending and debt restrictions required of euro members. Concerns over Italian politics caused big swings in the country's financial markets for several days last month, before easing.

Analysts say the ECB may soon have to end its stimulus program anyway as it risks running out of bonds that are eligible for purchase. And with the purchases widely expected to be stopped at the end of this year, they said, attention could now turn to how long the bank will wait after the bond-purchase exit before starting to raise its interest rates. Currently, the main interest rate is at zero.