On the basis of our regular economic and monetary analyses, we have decided to leave the key ECB interest rates unchanged. We have also concluded that the most recent information from the economic analysis broadly underpins our assessment of the outlook for price developments and the euro area economy, and that monetary and credit growth remains strong and liquidity ample. Against this background, we will exercise vigilance so as to ensure the solid anchoring of long-term inflation expectations at levels in line with price stability. Such vigilance is also warranted, given the historically low levels of both nominal and real interest rates across the whole maturity spectrum and the overall accommodative stance of monetary policy. In order for monetary policy to make an ongoing contribution towards supporting growth and employment in the euro area, inflation expectations must be firmly anchored.
Let me now explain our assessment in more detail.
Turning first to the economic analysis, recent data continue to lend support to the scenario for economic activity embodied in the December 2005 Eurosystem staff projections. Hence, our assessment of the outlook for growth in the euro area has been broadly confirmed. Economic activity started to improve and broaden in the second half of 2005 and, on the basis of the latest indicators and survey data, it appears that this process has basically continued, taking into account the usual degree of volatility of quarterly growth rates. Looking ahead, the conditions remain in place for economic growth to continue over the coming quarters. The external environment is favourable, providing support for euro area exports. Investment is expected to remain strong, benefiting from an extended period of very favourable financing conditions, balance sheet restructuring, and accumulated and ongoing gains in earnings and business efficiency. Consumption growth should also strengthen over time, in line with developments in real disposable income, as the labour market situation gradually improves. This outlook for economic activity is also confirmed by available forecasts.
Downside risks to economic growth, relating, in particular, to persistently high and volatile oil prices and concerns about global imbalances, still dominate on the external side.
In relation to price developments, annual HICP inflation was 2.2% in December, down from 2.3% in November and 2.5% in October. Over the short term, annual inflation rates may again increase somewhat, reflecting in particular renewed increases in energy prices and some base effects. Looking further ahead, indirect effects of past oil price rises on other components of the price index may gradually materialise, and already announced changes to administered prices and indirect taxes can be expected to have an upward impact on HICP inflation. Meanwhile, wage dynamics have remained moderate over recent quarters and are assumed to remain so for the time being, reflecting, in particular, global competitive pressure. All in all, currently available information is broadly in line with the scenario embodied in the December 2005 Eurosystem staff projections for HICP inflation over this year and next.
Risks to this outlook for price developments remain on the upside and include further rises in oil prices, a pass-through of oil prices into consumer prices stronger than currently envisaged, additional increases in administered prices and indirect taxes, and -- more fundamentally -- potential second-round effects on wage and price-setting behaviour. It is therefore crucial that the social partners continue to meet their responsibilities also in the context of a more favourable economic environment.
Turning to the monetary analysis, the annual growth rate of M3 remains robust, even though it moderated further in December. This moderation can be explained in part by an apparent resumption of the unwinding of past portfolio shifts, which exerts a dampening effect on headline M3 growth. However, the trend rate of monetary expansion remains strong, reflecting the stimulative impact of the prevailing low level of interest rates. In particular, growth in the most liquid components of M3 continues to be very robust and the annual growth rate of loans to the private sector has increased further. Mortgage borrowing is particularly buoyant, implying a need to monitor developments in the housing market closely. Overall, strong monetary and credit growth in a context of already ample liquidity in the euro area points to risks to price stability over the medium to longer term.
To sum up, the economic analysis suggests that indirect effects stemming from past oil price rises and already announced changes to administered prices and indirect taxes can be expected to have an upward impact on annual HICP inflation over the coming years. It also indicates that risks to price stability over the medium term remain on the upside. Cross-checking the outcome of our economic analysis with that of our monetary analysis supports the case for vigilance to ensure that the risks to price stability over the medium to longer term do not materialise. It is indeed essential that such risks do not affect medium and long-term inflation expectations, which need to remain firmly anchored at levels consistent with price stability. This is a prerequisite for monetary policy to make an ongoing contribution to sustainable economic growth and job creation
As regards fiscal policy, recent information points to somewhat better than expected outcomes for 2005 in a number of countries and for the euro area as a whole. With the improvements in economic growth, determined fiscal consolidation is now even more important. In particular, countries with excessive deficits must take this opportunity to reduce their fiscal imbalances in a decisive and sustainable manner. This would strongly support the European fiscal framework as established by the Stability and Growth Pact. Delaying consolidation would be both inappropriate in the short term and risky in the longer term. Adjustment efforts should be based on credible, fully specified measures as part of a comprehensive consolidation programme. Any windfall gains from higher than expected growth or other factors should be allocated to speeding up deficit reduction. This would help to prevent a repeat of past experiences, when complacency in good times contributed to persistent budgetary disequilibria.
With respect to structural reforms, the Governing Council discussed a range of issues relating to the euro area services sector. Services-related activities represent an important input for other sectors of the economy and account for a large, growing share of output and employment in the euro area, standing, in both cases, at around 70% in recent years. Given the services sector 's increasingly important role, the need to ensure a fully integrated internal market for services in the European Union is at the forefront of the European policy agenda. Structural reforms aimed at increasing competition in both EU and international services markets would allow firms to benefit from economies of scale and should be expected to increase economic efficiency. This would support both a higher level and stronger growth rate of labour productivity in the services sector, promote a more dynamic economy and create more jobs. Moreover, a higher level of competition in the services market should have a dampening impact on prices and would contribute to the reduction of price stickiness in some areas of the services sector. Overall, opening up the services sector to new entrants would tend to foster more efficient and flexible services markets, facilitate adjustment processes and increase the resilience of the euro area to economic shocks. This would support economic growth and employment in the longer run.
Question: Mr Trichet, you said today that risks to inflation are on the upside and that growth appears to be strengthening in line with your scenario, and you have used the word" vigilance '' three times by my count. Why did the Governing Council not decide to raise interest rates today?
Question: Markets are expecting another rate increase in the first quarter and yet another one -- at least one more, anyway -- by the end of the year. Would you repeat again this month, as you did last month, that markets have taken your message well?
Trichet: First, I have mentioned the word" vigilance '' three times and I am happy that you have noticed that. Second, as regards the market expectations for future action in a short period of time -- what I am observing seems to be reasonable. Looking at all the information we have and taking into account our baseline scenario that assumption has been broadly confirmed by all what we have observed. Over a longer period of time, I would only say that we will continue to do whatever is needed to ensure the delivery of price stability and to be credible in the delivery of price stability.
Question: Mr Trichet, I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about downside risks to growth and whether you think that they have diminished at all over the past three weeks?
Trichet: I would say that our working assumption on growth has been broadly confirmed by all what we have observed. I would also confirm that our own staff projections at this stage are a good point of reference. I see no reason, at the moment, to change anything. When we have the new staff projections, we will see what they indicate and what kind of new information they contain. As regards the risks to growth, I have mentioned that it is on the external side that we see the major risks. Oil prices are on top of the list of risks -- certainly in the eyes of this institution, and also in the eyes of all others -- and there is also the issue of imbalances. These are the two major risks that I have been mentioning. There are others, of course, and these are well known.
Question: Mr Trichet, two questions. First of all, as far as your interest rate decisions are concerned, how much of a consideration is the interest differential between the euro area and the United States? And secondly, Otmar Issing is leaving your panel in May. Is a new Chief Economist going to be appointed, or is there no decision yet?
Trichet: I will respond to the second question first. Otmar Issing was a team member of extraordinary quality -- and he still is, because he has not yet left. And we are still benefiting from his presence in our team. I will not elaborate at all on what decision the Executive Board will take when the time comes. But we will take that decision together with our new colleague.
Trichet: On the first question: We are looking at what is necessary for Europe. We have been credible since the setting‑up of the euro seven years ago. And, as we have always said, and as my predecessor always said, we incorporate all pertinent information to see what the risks to price stability are and what the appropriate response is in order to cope with those risks. Again, delivering price stability and being credible over time in delivering price stability -- there is no other consideration.
Question: Two questions again. The first, you mention external risks when talking about downside risks to growth. Could you tell us a little bit about your expectations for consumption this year, and does the Council believe that euro area consumption will improve significantly this year?
Question: You mentioned last month that the Council was monitoring price stability risks very closely ; today you used the word" vigilance ''. Can you tell us whether you believe that risks to price stability have escalated since 12 January?
Trichet: On the downside risks -- and there I am not on the external, but on the domestic, side of the coin -- I would say that since Q2 and Q3 of last year we have observed something materialising which had been expected for quite a period of time, namely the pick-up in investment. If my memory serves me correctly, we had quarter-on-quarter growth of around 0.4% in the second quarter of last year ; half of it was due to the contribution of gross capital formation, i.e. 0.2% out of 0.4%. And, again, in the third quarter it was 0.6%, and half of it, 0.3%, was due to gross capital formation, according to the present data. You know that those data are corrected, but it is what we have at present. It was really something which was important and had been expected because the normal sequencing, as you know, is that you have first, in the period of recovery, a contribution of net exports, then a contribution of investment and then consumption. So we will see -- but what is expected by observers and economists -- and is incorporated in our own staff projections -- is a progressive pick-up in consumption, which is the third," episode '' in the sequencing. As I said, we are very pragmatic and we will see exactly what happens -- but it would obviously be the normal sequencing.
Trichet: You had a second question:
Question: Yes, have risks to price stability escalated over the past month since January 12?
Trichet: I would say, to the extent that we see the development of this ongoing economic expansion, we see risks progressively augmenting
Question: Today was Mr Draghi 's first time. Can you please comment on that? Can you tell us your impressions and also what you expect of the Bank of Italy for the future?
Trichet: Well, it was the first time that Mario Draghi was here. I welcome him very warmly on behalf of the Governing Council. Most of us, and it is certainly the case for me, have known Mario for a very long period. We worked with him when he was Under Secretary of the Italian Treasury ; he played a very important role in the modernisation of the Italian economy. He has a fantastic reputation and, again, we are very happy to work with him. So I am looking forward to our continued cooperation ; and, of course, within the Eurosystem, the Banca d'Italia is a very important member of the team, and we will continue to maintain the closest possible relationship with this institution, in line with the team spirit which characterises the Eurosystem.
Question: One question on second-round effects: Are you concerned by the prospects of labour unrest in countries like Germany? We heard the news today that there could be a strike in the public sector. And what do you think about suggestions that the growth in productivity is a good guide for wage growth in the euro area?
Trichet: First of all, we call upon social partners to have a responsible attitude, and this is obviously very important. As I said, until now we have not seen second-round effects in this domain. We are very happy with that. In any case, central banks should not wait for second-round effects to act. What we have to do is to prevent the second-round effects from materialising. So I will continue to convey exactly the same message: vigilance and social responsibility on the part of social partners, and I will say no more than that. In any case, when you look at the functioning of the economy, you have to take into account the situation of each particular entity, of each particular corporate business -- and what counts, of course, is to be competitive and to be up to the European and international competition which is the hallmark of our time.
Question: Mr Trichet, you just said that to the extent that we see the development of this expansion, we see the risks to price stability augmenting. To the extent that we see the development of this expansion, to what extent are you willing to repeat your phrase that you do not see a series of rate increases for the ECB? Are you willing to repeat that statement right now? My second question is: you raised rates in December to 2.25%. I wondered if you could tell us what effect that has had on the accommodative level of monetary policy. You said in December that it was perfectly possible that 2.25% has the same characteristics as 2% because of other factors that affect the accommodative level of monetary policy, and I wanted to ask you whether this has panned out: has monetary policy become, in effect, more restrictive? And my third question: there has been a lot of concern in some of the euro candidate countries that there are factors quite outside of some countries ' control that are affecting the extent to which they are able to meet the Maastricht criteria. I wonder whether you could give us your assessment of how you consider those external factors when judging countries that otherwise have a very good record on the criteria that countries need to meet to join the euro? Notably energy prices.
Trichet: First point. I was very happy that observers, journalists, yourselves and markets understood in December that we were not embarking upon a sequence of rate increases at every meeting. It could have been a possible interpretation, because, as you know, another major central bank had embarked upon such a concept. It was very important for us to convey the message that it was not what we had decided on ; we had decided on a move, but we had not decided" a priori '' to move at every meeting. You yourself got it and the market got it. At the same time, I said that we would continue to do what was necessary to ensure price stability and to ensure appropriate anchoring of long-term inflation expectations which relies entirely upon our credibility. And, again, we have no intention of changing the messages communicated to you in December -- it is exactly the same two messages which we are conveying. That being said, I have added today that what I see as regards the very short-term expectations of future moves seems to be reasonable, taking into account all the information I have.
Trichet: Second point: again, we consider that when we take a decision, be it a decision to increase rates or leave rates unchanged or whatever, we are confident that it is what is needed at the time we take the decision in order to continue to cope appropriately with the risks for inflation. And we integrate all the information we have on all fronts. It 's a very complex process: there is no mechanistic decision. We have to work out a synthesis on the basis of all the information we have, and on the basis of our own framework: the needle of the compass is price stability. What can clearly be observed, and I am very happy about this, is that the decision we took in December, which was to some extent challenged" a priori '', has been very well understood.
Trichet: Last point, the Treaty is the Treaty. The criteria are the criteria. The countries that have joined the European Union will be examined in the next Convergence report on the basis of the Treaty and the criteria. They are very clear and, as you know, they call for the criteria to be met, not only on an immediate, short-term basis but on a sustainable basis -- and that is what we will do, as we have done in the past. And we will see what the results are. I do n't want to" gossip '' a priori about the various positions of the countries concerned.
Question: He asked if rates are appropriate and whether the rate that you established in December has served its purpose?
Trichet: Yes, very well. I 'm not sure if I understand the question correctly. But we think that it was exactly what we had to do and there is no doubt about that.
Question: Maybe I missed part of your initial sentence. Did you say that rates -- current rates -- are appropriate?
Trichet: No, I did n't say that ! I also said that we had increased vigilance and, as you noted, I not only said that our vigilance had increased, but I mentioned it three times.
Question: I also had two more questions: In the fourth quarter, Germany grew at a rate of zero. From Italy real data are coming which are not so positive, from France as well. I do n't understand very well how you can say that risks to growth have not increased. Then I have another question on the mortgage sector, on the real estate sector. The real estate sector is influenced by long-term rates and some economists have asked how you can, through the movement of short rates, influence the real estate market. For instance, is n't it dampening consumption in the meantime, for instance, in the Spanish market? Some Spanish economists told me that, for each family, your increasing of the rates was equal to a further expense of EUR 70 per month, per mortgage. Is it going to dampen growth?
Trichet: In reply to the first question, in the introductory remark I mentioned that there was a certain degree of volatility from quarter to quarter. What we are looking at is the trend. We had quit a number of information and you mentioned only those that are not encouraging. You could also have mentioned, of course, a lot of information which were much more encouraging, including a number of surveys from all over Europe, not only this country in particular. So again on the basis of all the information we have to date, we consider that there is no case for changing our own baseline scenario. That said, I also stated that we were pragmatic and that we have always respected the facts. What counts is reality. That 's absolutely clear but, again, there is no reason today to change the baseline scenario. As regards the risks, I explicitly mentioned the downside risks for growth and the international risks that are there and should not be forgotten. Concerning what you said about the influence of our interest rate increases first let me re-state that everything we do is aimed at being faithful to our mandate and being credible in delivering price stability. Delivering price stability permits medium and long-term market rates to remain well in order because then they incorporate a low level of inflation expectations. I would not ask you to remind me of the interest rates before the euro in the country that you have been mentioning, and what the interest rate would be in that country if there was not an institution here -- namely the ECB - which is credible in the eyes of Europe and the rest of the world.
Question: Mr Trichet, I need some clarification. A few days ago, an interview was published by a Board member and...
Trichet: Let me tell you that only one person expresses the sentiment of the Governing Council of the ECB: the President. I have already said that once and I will respond to your question, of course, but I mention that" en passant ''.
Question: I am talking about an interview given by Mr Bini Smaghi. In this interview, he introduces a theoretical approach into the range of theories on the basis of which the ECB usually argues which is new.
Trichet: Mr Bini Smaghi is one of the 18 members of the Governing Council. He does not speak on behalf of the Governing Council.
Question: Does he also not speak on behalf of the Executive Board or the ECB?
Trichet: No, he does not speak on behalf of the Board. He made that remark as a personal remark. It is as simple as that. We do not have 18 speakers to communicate the position of the Governing Council.
Question: Let me just repeat what you have said so that I get it straight, because what Mr Bini Smaghi said, or insinuated, and what you say represent views which come from people who are on completely opposite theoretical grounds. That means to me, as an ECB watcher, that I should only rely on what you say and not on what your Board members say in their interviews. Is that right? Did I get that straight?
Trichet: To the extent that what is at stake is the position of the ECB itself and if there is any doubt on the ECB position, yes, you got it perfectly right.
Question: Just two short questions. You mentioned the relatively upbeat picture presented by survey evidence. Does the fact that you have not changed interest rates today imply that you have a preference to rather wait for more hard data before you take any further action as far as interest rates are concerned? And, secondly, you are often very helpful in describing how the debate is evolving within the Governing Council. I wonder whether you can tell us whether a rate rise was discussed today, or whether a rate rise for next month was discussed today? And, also, am I right in thinking that the Governing Council has taken a decision consciously or maybe not consciously, that any increase would always be a 25 basis point increase?
Trichet: We did not constrain ourselves in advance with any kind of quantities. Second, as always, we have weighed thoroughly the assets and liabilities associated with various possibilities, and we did that as thoroughly as usual. And I have expressed in the introductory remarks and in response to your question the overall sentiment of the Governing Council.
Question: Would you say that today 's decision was unanimous?
Trichet: Yes, certainly.
Question: You stressed today your opinion on the services market in Europe. Are you of the same opinion regarding the Arcelor and Mittal Steel operations that we have at the moment? What would your comment be on the attitude of the European governments?
Trichet: First of all, Arcelor and Mittal Steel are not in the services sector, if I may say so we will not discuss that at all. We discussed the services sector issue and we noted that in a modern economy the services sector is overwhelmingly dominant, that is clear. We mentioned the fact that we were at the level of 70% of both GDP and employment as regards the proportion of the various services sector. For us it is the overwhelmingly dominant part of the economy and when we look more precisely at the functioning of the services sector we see the extent to which there is still a good deal of stickiness. The single market has not yet been achieved in the services sector, so we have a potential source of inflation which is superior to what it should be if it had been achieved. We also have the issue of labour productivity progress that is lower probably precisely because the single market has not been achieved in this domain. It is particularly clear if we compare the evolution of labour productivity in the services sector here and across the Atlantic. So, there is a lot of reflection and I expressed in the introductory remarks what the Governing Council would think on that point. Again, we have to be fully conscious that the services sector is very important. It is by far the largest part of any modern economy and of any knowledge economy.
Question: This was the week that another central banker retired and a new one took over, and I just wondered two small things. One, have you been in touch with Ben Bernanke? Do you know him well? And second: what advice would you give him as he joins the fraternity of the world 's central bankers?
Trichet: Well he is already part of the brotherhood, the fraternity, of central bankers. He has been a very good friend in the Federal Reserve System before. This is an occasion to mention that I see Alan going with great emotion. We have been working with Alan Greenspan for a long period of time. He has been a very close colleague in the bilateral relationship, in the G7, in the G10, in the G20. He has been a close friend. His personal qualities on top of his professional qualities are exceptional and he has been one of the best companions you can imagine. I also mention the fact that he has been extremely lucid in analysing situations I just spoke of labour productivity progress. He has been particularly lucid in diagnosing the labour productivity progress in the United States starting in 1995-96. It was not easy to realise that something extremely important was changing at that time. And unfortunately it was not changing in Europe and we are paying a certain price for the fact that our own labour productivity progress was not at all parallel to that in the United States. But even in the United States, it was not easy to diagnose what was happening. And he did it very rapidly and lucidly. As you know, we did not agree entirely on the concept of monetary policy. We have a lot in common, for instance, the fact that we do not want to be prisoner, on both sides of the Atlantic, of a particular equation, of a system of equations. We want to be as comprehensive as possible in the economic analysis. That is a point where we are very close. There is a point where we were not that close. We are extremely attached to a definition of price stability and to anchoring inflation expectations to that definition of price stability, which we display very clearly. On the other side of the Atlantic, for a number of reasons which I respect, it was not the sentiment of our friend Alan Greenspan and of the Federal Reserve System. All that being said he made an immense contribution to the brotherhood, the fraternity as you say, of central bankers and I hope very much that we will remain in close touch.
Trichet: With Mr Bernanke of course we have been in contact. I was very happy to congratulate him when he was nominated and then appointed, and I am sure that we will continue to have the closest possible relationship on both sides of the Atlantic. He has an immense responsibility with his colleagues of the Federal Open Market Committee, we have our own responsibility here in the Governing Council and we will continue to cooperate very closely.
Question: Do you see a chance that you may come closer to the Federal Reserve System on the notion of anchoring price stability?
Trichet: We will see. Everybody knows what the sentiment of Ben has been. I do not want to comment.
Question: I have a basic misunderstanding with a colleague here. Maybe you can help us. If rates are not appropriate, why did you not raise rates today?
Trichet: I have said all that I had to say, and it is very clear. And I think that your colleagues have no doubts about what I have said.
Question: You did n't answer my earlier question about distinguishing between survey data and hard economic data and whether I am right in supposing that you are waiting for hard data before you take any further steps?
Trichet: We incorporate all the information obtained over the months. Clearly, we will have our new staff projections, and this is something which we will look at, but, again, let 's not give greater weight to any particular piece of information. What we do is to incorporate all the information we have -- there is the trend, there is the short-term information and data, and there is the" noise '' that we have to extract from the information we have -- and we will see. But I would n't say, at all, that we did not decide today because we wanted to wait for something. We thought, taking into account the trend of the baseline scenario and taking into account the risks to price stability, according to our analysis of their presence and their dynamics, that it was the right decision not to move this time whilst, at the same time, clearly, we have increased vigilance and I also commented on what is presently expected by markets.
Question: Mr Trichet, thinking of Mr Greenspan, one of the things he is famous for is his comment about irrational exuberance on stock markets. While clearly we are not in the same situation in Europe as several years ago in the United States, there have been strong rises on the European stock markets in recent weeks and months and I was wondering whether you would care to offer any opinion on whether European stock markets fully represent fundamental values or whether they could be overvalued at this stage?
Trichet: I will not elaborate on that question. I would say that the functioning of the markets is the functioning of the markets. I will not qualify the present level. All I would say is that, from the information I would extract from stock market -- over the period of time you have in mind -- what I call our baseline scenario seems to be confirmed and certainly not negated.
Question: Just two additional questions, bringing us back to the ECB: you mentioned in January that the Governing Council fully respects facts and figures. Today you have said it is reality that counts. If, contrary to expectations, we see no hard evidence of a strengthening economy, of improving consumption, of escalating price risks, can the market assume that interest rates will stay where they are? And the second question is also a bit devil 's advocate. Is the ECB satisfied with the fact that real interest rates are still negative in several euro area countries?
Trichet: On the first question again we look at reliable information and we extract from stock market that information what we consider to be the trend. I will not comment in any other fashion on what we in the Governing Council may do. I have already said all that I had to say. I maintain that we are humble in the face of the reality. Regarding differences between" hard '' figures and" soft '' figures, these are difficult concepts. So-called hard figures change a great deal. You have a hard figure at a certain point in time, then one month later it is reviewed and revised and it goes up or down, and then two months later it is again revised up or down. Let 's also be cautious about that distinction between soft and hard. It is a very complex set of information. We have to extract all this information, make up our minds and take the decision under the scrutiny of the observers and the market. To date, the Governing Council of the ECB has remained credible over time in difficult circumstances, including a number of shocks, and we have taken all the appropriate decisions to maintain the anchoring of inflation expectations, again, in times which were not easy -- and this is not an easy period either.
Question: Mr President I have a question on communication and transparency. In June 2003 and December 2005 you decided to change the interest rates in meetings with new projections. Do you prefer or do you need new projections for decisions on interest rates? There is an impression in the market also because there are speculations that at the next meeting in March you will have ECB projections and the interest rates may change. Is this a problem for you in the communication and transparency of the monetary strategy?
Trichet: Very good question. We never said that we were deciding our monetary policy simultaneously with the publication of the projections and I confirm that it is absolutely not the intention of the Governing Council to always decide on the basis of projections. I would also mention the fact that the Governing Council, as I have said already, does not itself underwrite the projections. They are our staff projections, we do not make the staff projections necessarily Governing Council projections. We look at all other information that comes from international institutions and private institutions. I do n't of course rule out the possibility that we could decide at that time, but there is certainly no rule and it has to be very clear. I say very often that we can decide at any time. We have never promised not to move, or not to move for a considerable period of time. Also, we never decided" a priori '' to say that we will move at every meeting, and so forth. We are free. We always remain free to do what is necessary to do at any time.