European Central Bank hints at revising stimulus outlook

The European Central Bank could indicate as soon as March that it is mulling an earlier end to its stimulus program, minutes to the bank's last policy meeting suggested Thursday.

According to the minutes to the Jan. 25 meeting, the ECB rate-setters said the "language pertaining to the monetary policy could be revisited early this year."

That suggests that the 25-member governing council, which sets interest rates for the 19 countries that use the euro as currency, could indicate that the stimulus may come to an end sooner than they have so far indicated. Their next scheduled policy announcement is on March 8.

As well as slashing interest rates, including its main one to zero, the bank is purchasing 30 billion euros ($37 billion) worth of bonds a month in financial markets to keep a lid on borrowing costs. Those purchases are due to run until the end of September "or beyond, if necessary" dependent on inflation getting back toward the bank's aim.

Despite a rebounding eurozone economy, consumer price inflation remains below the goal of just below 2 percent. In the year to January, inflation was running at only 1.3 percent.

According to the minutes, "some members expressed a preference for dropping the easing bias" at the January meeting as a "tangible reflection of reinforced confidence in a sustained adjustment of the path of inflation."

However, "it was concluded that such an adjustment was premature and not yet justified by the stronger confidence."

The euro rose modestly after the publication of the minutes, trading 0.2 percent higher at $1.2310.

Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING, thinks the majority of the ECB's policymaking panel "still opposes an abrupt end" to the stimulus in September and will opt to tread carefully in the months ahead.

"As soon as the ECB would put an end date on its QE program, speculations about the timing of the first rate hike will start to heat up, leading to a further tightening of monetary and financial conditions in the eurozone," he said.