Europe’s Central Bank Backs Big Rate Hike Despite Bank Chaos

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The European Central Bank has carried through with a large interest rate increase Thursday, brushing aside predictions it might dial back as U.S. bank collapses and troubles at Credit Suisse fed fears about the impact of higher rates on the global banking system.

The ECB hiked rates by half a percentage point Thursday, underlining its determination to fight high inflation. In a post-meeting statement, the bank called the banking sector in the 20 countries using the euro currency “resilient,” with strong finances.

It says it’s “monitoring current market tensions closely and stands ready to respond as necessary to preserve price stability and financial stability in the euro area.”

ECB head Christine Lagarde said last week that it was “very likely” the bank would raise its benchmarks by a half-percentage point, part of a series of rapid rate hikes aimed at getting inflation down from 8.5% — far above the bank’s target of 2%.

That was before Silicon Valley Bank in the U.S. went under last week after suffering losses on government-backed bonds that fell in value due to rising interest rates. Then, globally connected Swiss bank C redit Suisse saw its shares plunge this week and had to turn to the Swiss central bank for emergency credit.

The troubles at Credit Suisse dragged down the shares of stalwart European lenders such as Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, BNP Paribas and Societe General on Wednesday. Bank shares recovered Thursday after news of the credit help for Credit Suisse.

Analysts say the share selloff was fed by investor fear that banks took added risks to increase investment returns during years of very low interest rates and some may have failed to safeguard themselves against those holdings turning sour as rates rise.

Analysts had said the ECB might make only a quarter-point increase given the amount of market turmoil.

Similar questions are being raised about what the U.S. Federal Reserve will do at its rate meeting next week.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said only last week that the ultimate level for rates would be “higher than previously anticipated,” leading some analysts to predict the Fed would raise by a half-point after slowing the pace to a quarter-point in February. Since then, expectations shifted back toward a quarter-point.

European finance ministers have said that their banking system has no direct exposure to the failures of Silicon Valley Bank and others in the U.S. Analysts say the European banking system instituted wide-ranging safeguards after the global financial crisis that followed the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008 and led to 600 billion euros in taxpayer-funded bailouts of European banks in 2008-2012.

The sweeping post-Lehman banking reforms enacted by the European Union forced banks to hold thicker financial cushions against losses and put the biggest banks under the watchful eye of the ECB, taking them away from national supervisors who were considered to have turned a blind eye as problems built up at their home banks.

European banks also observe international rules that raised the amount of ready cash they had to keep on hand to cover deposits. Smaller U.S. banks were exempt from that rule; Silicon Valley was one of them.

But all that hasn’t kept the U.S. banking blow-up from looming large for the ECB this week. New evidence of concern flared Wednesday when shares in European banks fell 8.4%.

Credit Suisse, the No. 2 Swiss bank, saw its shares plunge as much as 30% after its biggest investor, Saudi National Bank, said it could not provide more financial support.

Credit Suisse, whose troubles predate the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, then turned to the Swiss National Bank for up to $54 billion in credit to stabilize its finances, sending its stock soaring as much as 30% on Thursday. That brought wider bank stocks back up.

Nicolas Veron, a banking expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said European banking supervision is much stronger than in 2007 when banks were “dramatically undercapitalized and poorly supervised.” He also said that the ECB has been carefully studying the impact of higher rates on its banks.

“Having said that, if we had had our conversation a week ago, I would have expressed confidence in U.S. banking supervision as well,” he said, calling the U.S. bank collapses evidence of “a pretty inexplicable supervisory failure” by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

“And so because the Fed has such status, this creates a kind of doubt across the board on the quality of supervision and whether what we think we know about banks is actually right,” Veron said.

Silicon Valley Bank failed after it suffered losses on government-backed bonds that fell in value as interest rates rose. The U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks have been sharply raising rates to combat inflation. SVB’s collapse raised concern that swift rate rises could lead to further problems in the banking system if banks were holding similar losses on their balance sheets.

The ECB has been raising rates at an unprecedented pace to contain inflation fueled by higher energy prices tied to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The ECB’s benchmarks affect the cost of credit across the economy, making more expensive to buy things or invest in new production. That cools demand for goods and eases upward pressure on prices.

Inflation at 8.5% in February was well above the bank’s goal of 2%, and prices levels are taking their time to fall in response to ECB rate hikes after hitting a peak of 10.6% in October.

By DAVID McHUGH AP Business Writer


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