FRANKFURT -- There's an eerie feeling among some
European Central Bank
watchers today, some indefinable sense that the complacency surrounding the ECB's monetary policy meeting might be misplaced. The last time this happened, readers may recall, was
Dec. 3, the day the
led a dramatic coordinated rate cut among euroland central banks, taking most observers by complete surprise.
The ECB's policymaking
is meeting today. And, like Dec. 3, the overwhelming sentiment is that the ECB will leave the repo rate unchanged at 3.0%. But a few brave souls have confessed that they see an outside chance that the ECB might act today. (The ECB is expected to disclose its decision between noon to 12:30 p.m. EST.)
Uwe Angenendt, chief economist at
in Frankfurt, said just a few weeks
ago that he thought the next ECB rate change in the current cycle would be up, possibly as early as late summer. But Angenendt has changed his tune and now thinks a 25-basis-point rate cut is likely, possibly "very soon."
He defends his change of heart mainly on what he senses from the mood of the markets in Europe, where stocks are falling and bond yields rising. He adds, though, that with the U.S. economy booming and a weaker euro helping exports, he does not think a rate cut is necessary.
But with euroland growth still slowing, business confidence shaky and inflation posing little risk, the ECB might feel the need to act. The latest German and French inflation data came in at 0.2%, and that's an annual figure, not a month-on-month change.
Angenendt says that today would be a perfect day to catch markets by surprise to maximize the effect of a rate cut. "I would not rule out a rate cut today," he says.
Just to remind you, although Angenendt is not at one of the major banks or investment houses, he is one of only a handful who predicted the
Dec. 3 coordinated rate cut.
That does, of course, fly in the face of many recent public pronouncements from ECB President
and others that rates are just fine where they are. But Angenendt sees no contradiction: "A central banker's job is to defend the current rate level. And they can change their mind whenever they want. And if they cut rates today, they will defend the new rate as the correct level."
Angenendt is not the only economist to change his view. Stefan Bergheim, an economist at
in Frankfurt, says that Merrill, which had expected no ECB rate cuts, now thinks chances are good there will be a 25-basis-point cut by April.
But, curiously, Bergheim thinks that with the global downturn appearing to bottom out, the window of opportunity for a rate cut will close after April. "If they need to stimulate the economy, now is the time to justify it," he says. "There is definitely no inflation danger."
Bergheim says today's discussion within the Governing Council will be a "very heated debate and go deep into the matter of a rate cut." And, he adds, "I would not be surprised" if the ECB cuts today.
Francesco Giordano, eurozone economist at
Credit Suisse First Boston
in London, says, "I wouldn't be massively surprised if they cut, but I don't think they will do it today. I don't think they have the guts."
But he does expect the ECB to cut 25 basis points once in the current cycle, most likely at the next meeting in two weeks or in April.
And with the euro off to a rocky start, the ECB will want to do everything possible to keep the masses squarely behind one of the most risky financial projects ever. Sliding economies, rising unemployment and falling stock markets do not help.
Some think the ailing euro -- which slipped today below $1.0850 to a record low -- would suffer even more from a rate cut. But foreign exchange markets have already factored in a lot of gloom in the euro. And a rate cut might actually spark euro-buying in a classic case of "sell the rumor, buy the fact."
Whatever the ECB decides today, Duisenberg will tell the world at his monthly press conference tonight. It promises to be a lively affair today, with questions likely on such issues as the weak euro against the dollar, recent high wage agreements in Germany and continuing ECB bashing by German loudmouth (and Finance Minister)
And, if there is no rate change today, listen very closely to whether Duisenberg signals he has softened his stance.