ECB holds fire on rates at final meeting of 2012

The European Central Bank held fire on interest rates Thursday at its last policy meeting of 2012, even if its updated forecasts could suggest the eurozone's recession is deepening.

The ECB's decision-making governing council voted to leave the bank's main refinancing rate at a historic low of 0.75 percent at its regular monthly meeting in the Eurotower headquarters in Frankfurt.

ECB chief Mario Draghi was scheduled to explain the reasoning behind the move at his traditional post-meeting news conference.

But no central bank watchers had been expecting it to ease euro area borrowing costs this month as such a move would likely have little effect on the region's recession-hit economy at the current juncture, they argue.

Focus will now be on whether Draghi, at the news conference, will provide any indication when the ECB might put into action its OMT (Outright Monetary Transactions) bond-buying programme, the anti-crisis bazooka it unveiled in September.

There has been broad speculation that Spain could be one of the first countries to ask for help.

"After leaving interest rates at 0.75 percent today, the ECB is unlikely to provide Spain with any assurance about the size and effectiveness of possible future bond purchases or hint at broader unconventional policy support for the struggling euro-zone economy," said Capital Economics economist Jennifer McKeown.

The decision to leave rates on hold had been expected, with many believing the ECB will wait to judge the effect of its OMT programme before possibly cutting again, she said.

"Draghi seems likely to reiterate that the bank will not activate OMTs until a country has requested a bail-out from the ESM rescue fund and signed up to the associated fiscal conditions," the expert said in reference to the European Stability Mechanism.

"This could take months and even then the bank has not fully committed to act," she added.

In any case, ECB chief Draghi believes the the ball is in the court of the governments to find a way out of the long-running crisis and he looks set to hammer that message home again at the news conference, analysts said.

"No additional non-standard measures are expected to be announced during the press conference," said Newedge Strategy analyst Annalisa Piazza.

"Although the economic scenario has not changed much since the November policy meeting, recent indicators seem to suggest that activity will remain depressed well into 2013," she said.

Another focus of the news conference will be the publication of the ECB's latest updated staff projections and these are likely to be downbeat, analysts said.

Back in September, ECB staff already slashed their forecast for growth in the eurozone for both this year and next, pencilling in a contraction of 0.4 percent this year followed by modest growth of 0.5 percent in 2013.

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