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Jan 17, 4:41 AM EST

Inflation up, economy better, but ECB to continue stimulus

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AP Photo/Michael Probst

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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) -- Inflation has suddenly jumped in Europe. Growth is picking up. But don't expect the European Central Bank to start withdrawing its extensive stimulus programs just yet.

This week, ECB President Mario Draghi is expected to lay out the reasons why the chief monetary authority for the 19-country eurozone intends to stick with its stimulus plan decided at the Dec. 8 meeting - to keep pumping newly printed money into the economy through bond purchases at least until the end of the year.

The bank isn't expected to change its interest rates or other monetary stimulus measures when its governing council meets Thursday.

But Draghi will find he has some explaining to do to convince stimulus skeptics - particularly in Germany - who think it's time to start looking to wrap up the measures. While they support the economy, the stimulus measures can lower returns on savings in investment and pension funds, an issue for many among Europe's aging populations.

The first reason for Draghi not withdrawing stimulus is simple: The recent turn upward in inflation from near zero is mostly due to higher oil prices, not to rising wages or other fundamental pressures in Europe's economy.

That means that the ECB doesn't feel much closer to its goal of inflation of just under 2 percent. December's inflation reading came in at 1.1 percent. The increase in oil prices may offer only a one-time boost. More importantly, so-called core inflation - which excludes fuel and food, where prices can rise and fall for short-term reasons - hasn't budged over the past few months. It's been stuck at 0.8 or 0.9 percent. And that's the figure the ECB keeps its eye on.

"There remain plenty of reasons for the ECB to remain cautious," Marco Valli, chief eurozone economist, wrote in an emailed research note. "Overall, it would probably take very significant changes to the growth and inflation outlook for the ECB to re-think its policy set-up announced last December."

That's not much comfort to savers in places like Germany, where the inflation rate has reached 1.7 percent but returns on bank deposits remain near zero. That means the value of people's savings shrinks over time - a constant risk with conservative investments, to be sure. A headline in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the recent inflation spike "an attack on our money."

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was quoted as saying in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily that "I share the concerns" of savers, adding that financial advisers would recommend finding higher-yielding investments such as stocks for at least part of one's savings: "We must accept that there are no real interest returns on risk-free investments."

Schaeuble said the ECB was fulfilling its mandate of seeking price stability "and doing it well."

But he added that it would be "correct, if the ECB began this year to look for the entrance to the exit" from its ultra-cheap money policy. It's that kind of exit talk that Draghi has resisted, denying that December's decision to reduce the monthly size of its money injections into the financial system was in any way "tapering" the stimulus.

There's another reason for the ECB to press on: protecting the economy from political shocks.

Elections in France, the Netherlands, Germany and, possibly, Italy could give right-wing, anti-EU forces a chance to demonstrate increased strength at the ballot box. That would continue a trend seen first in the British vote to leave the European Union last June. The British government and the EU haven't started talks yet on what would replace their current barrier-free trading relationship, leaving major uncertainties for businesses.

In France, polls suggest Marine Le Pen of the Front National will at least make the second round of presidential voting. She isn't expected to win. But Donald Trump wasn't expected to win either.

Plentiful money and cheap credit could in theory help offset any caution among investors, consumers or businesses to risk lending or borrowing.

The written account of the Dec. 8 meeting indicated that the 25-member of the governing council saw monetary policy as offering a "steady hand" during political turbulence. The council extended the earliest end date to the purchases from March to year-end, though reducing the amount from 80 billion euros a month to 60 billion euros.

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