The European Central Bank held interest rates steady for a fifth meeting, while sending its clearest signal yet that cooling inflation will soon allow it to commence cuts.

The deposit rate was left at a record-high four per cent, as overwhelmingly predicted by a Bloomberg poll. But the Governing Council flagged a possible reduction in its accompanying statement for the first time, contingent on its economic forecasts indicating consumer-price growth is safely headed to two per cent.

“If the Governing Council’s updated assessment of the inflation outlook, the dynamics of underlying inflation and the strength of monetary policy transmission were to further increase its confidence that inflation is converging to the target in a sustained manner, it would be appropriate to reduce the current level of monetary policy restriction,” the ECB said Thursday.

It said it would remain data-dependent and isn’t “pre-committing to a particular rate path.”

Money markets held bets on monetary easing in 2024 roughly steady, with three quarter-point rate cuts priced in. The euro fell to its lowest level since February, down 0.3 per cent at US$1.0715.

Emboldened by fading inflation across the 20-nation euro area, the ECB is zeroing in on a first rate cut since 2019 at its next meeting in June. Other central banks are less certain, with another overshoot in U.S. consumer prices for March fueling bets that the U.S. Federal Reserve will have to wait longer to start loosening monetary policy.  

There are few such concerns for the ECB, which saw inflation fall a touch short of estimates last month, at 2.4 per cent. While underlying pressures remain elevated and services costs are still rising by four per cent, figures due in the coming weeks may confirm a moderation in the wage gains that are driving such stickiness.

Lagarde said last month that if core inflation — which excludes volatile items like food and energy costs — continues to behave as forecast, officials may be able to move into the “dialing-back phase of our policy cycle and make policy less restrictive.”

That would come as a relief for the region’s economy, which has barely registered any growth for more than a year. The latest warning came this week as the ECB’s quarterly lending survey revealed an unexpected slump in corporate loan demand at the start of 2024 — damping expectations of an imminent recovery in output.

A separate poll showed companies expect wage growth to abate over the next 12 months, with economists at Goldman Sachs predicting a significant slowdown in the second half of this year.

ECB President Christine Lagarde said an economic recovery should emerge as slower inflation boosts real incomes, wages rise and exports pick up.

“Monetary policy should exert less of a drag on demand over time,” she told reporters in Frankfurt, though stressed that risks to euro-area growth remain tilted to the downside.

“Inflation is expected to fluctuate around current levels in the coming months and to then decline to our target next year,” she said.

Meanwhile, the debate around what happens to rates beyond June is already under way. Some of the Governing Council’s dovish members appear to want another reduction to follow quickly, at July’s meeting. Others are more cautious, suggesting moves every quarter, when economic projections are updated. 

Indeed, analysts polled by Bloomberg before the ECB’s decision lean toward such a timetable, foreseeing three cuts this year — in June, September and in December.

That may prove optimistic, according to Allianz Chief Economist Ludovic Subran, who said earlier Thursday that policymakers will have to be “very gradual.”

“Much more vibrant energy markets could mean that the ECB is maybe allowed to cut once this year and that would be also quite a drag when you look at growth forecasts,” he told Bloomberg Television. “There is this hypothesis of a rebound on real income on the second half that would be completely annihilated should we have another energy shock.”