Markets wait for ECB to activate bond-buying 'bazooka'

Two months after the European Central Bank unveiled its latest anti-crisis weapon, markets are looking to the ECB's meeting this week for a sign as to when it may finally be put to use, analysts say.

The ECB's OMT bond-purchase programme -- announced by president Mario Draghi in September -- has been credited with marking a turning point in financial market sentiment towards the crisis-wracked euro even though it has not actually been used.

The mere announcement of the programme was enough to bring borrowing costs of countries such Spain sharply down from previous dangerous highs.

But the feel-good effects could fade unless the ECB follows up with concrete action. And financial markets are waiting to see whether Draghi gives any indication of such plans at the bank's policy meeting next week, analysts said.

"If the ECB fails to back its words with actual purchases soon, then the positive market response that we have seen so far is very likely to be reversed," said Capital Economics economist Jennifer McKeown.

But the regular meeting on Thursday looks unlikely to bring any policy changes, ECB watchers said.

Eurozone interest rates, already at a record low of 0.75 percent, are set to remain unchanged, even if additional monetary easing may be on the cards early next year as the region's economy slips deeper into recession.

Last month, the International Monetary Fund said it sees the eurozone economy shrinking by 0.4 percent this year and cut the outlook for next year by two thirds to growth of a mere 0.2 percent.

"Further rate cuts would be fully justified by the current economic scenario. However, the ECB doesn't see it as a priority at the current juncture," said Newedge Strategy analyst Annalisa Piazza.

Commerzbank economist Michael Schubert agreed.

"It is not essential to cut interest rates, as the transmission of monetary policy has priority," as a number of top ECB officials have pointed out recently, Schubert said.

In fact, he said he no longer expected a further rate cut at all.

McKeown at Capital Economics said she was projecting one more quarter-point reduction in the ECB's refinancing rate to 0.5 percent "probably in the first quarter of 2013."

But she also suggested that the ECB may decide "that further interest rate cuts are not the way to go.

"Effective market interest rates are already near zero, implying that another rate cut would make very little difference to the economy anyway," the expert said.

"Indeed, such low interest rates might even deter some types of banking activity."

Commerzbank's Schubert said he expected the OMT bond programme to be the focus of the meeting once again, with Draghi likely to reiterate his call for the governments to pull their weight now that the ECB has done all it can to solve the crisis.

Newedge Strategy analyst Piazza said the ECB "is in wait-and-see mode, looking at political developments before activating its OMTs."

Last month, Draghi insisted the ball was firmly now in the court of the governments to press ahead with necessary structural reforms.

"Our decisions... have helped to alleviate tensions over the past few weeks. It is now essential that governments continue to implement the necessary steps to reduce both fiscal and structural imbalances and proceed with financial sector restructuring measures," Draghi stressed.

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