By Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS (Reuters) -The European Central Bank left interest rates unchanged as expected on Thursday, ending an unprecedented streak of 10 consecutive rate hikes, even as it insisted that rising market talk of rate cuts was premature.
The ECB has lifted rates by a combined 4.5 percentage points since July 2022 to combat runaway price growth but promised a pause last month as record-high borrowing costs are starting to work their way through the economy.
Price pressures are finally easing and inflation has more than halved in a year, while the economy has slowed so much that a recession may be under way, making further hikes unlikely.
Repeating the bank's guidance from six weeks ago, ECB President Christine Lagarde hinted at steady policy ahead but provided little guidance otherwise and even kept a further rise in rates on the table as a distant possibility.
"We have to be steady," Lagarde told a news conference in Athens, where the ECB held its policy meeting for the first time in 15 years. "The fact that we are holding doesn't mean to say that we will never hike again."
"Sometimes inaction is action. A decision to hold is meaningful," she said, adding that it was taken unanimously.
Lagarde argued that the euro zone economy was weak, possibly weaker than predicted last month, but that price pressures remained strong and could be aggravated further if the Middle East conflict drives energy costs up again.
She also tried but failed to push back on rate cut expectations.
"Even having a discussion on a cut is totally, totally premature," she said.
But investors were unconvinced and pushed up rate cut bets, describing the guidance as "dovish".
Markets now see a high chance the ECB will start cutting interest rates in April and fully price in a move by June, followed by two other cuts before the end of the year.
"Investors point-blankly refuse to believe her remark that further hikes are possible," said Matthew Ryan, Head of Market Strategy at financial services firm Ebury.
"Indeed, we continue to see a far greater chance that the next move in rates is lower, with markets now pricing in the first rate cut in April 2024."
The euro initially dropped against the U.S. dollar before paring some of that decline to last trade down 0.3% at $1.0530. Euro zone bond yields fell, as did the spread between Italian and German 10-year bond yields.
With Thursday's move, the ECB's deposit rate stays at a record high 4% while the main rate stands at 4.5%.
The decision to keep rates on hold is likely to reinforce expectations that the world's biggest central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, are essentially done tightening policy after an unprecedented series of synchronized hikes.
"PMIs and money supply data suggest that the inevitable recession started in the summer," AFS Group Senior Analyst Arne Petimezas said. "But the ECB, which should have known better with its tower full of economists, continued to tighten."
The outlook for the economy appears to be increasingly precarious, putting a so-called "soft landing" in jeopardy.
Industry is in recession, sentiment indicators are pointing south, consumption is muted and even the labour market has started to soften, all suggesting a second-half contraction.
"The economy is likely to remain weak for the remainder of this year," said Lagarde. "But as inflation falls further, household real incomes recover and the demand for euro area exports picks up, the economy should strengthen over the coming years."
In a mild surprise for markets, she said policymakers did not discuss at all an early end to reinvestments in the ECB's 1.7 trillion euro ($1.8 trillion) Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme.
Some policymakers had publicly said that committing to reinvest proceeds from maturing debt was at odds with the goals of its policy tightening.
But the ECB uses these reinvestments as its "first line of defence" for vulnerable euro zone economies like Italy, because it can adjust its purchases of government bonds to insulate them from undue market volatility.
Sources close to the discussion told Reuters that policymakers agreed to debate this issue early next year, followed by talks on minimum reserve requirements for banks.
($1 = 0.9457 euros)
(Writing by Balazs Koranyi; Additional reporting by Francesco Canepa; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Catherine Evans)