“Based on our regular economic and monetary analyses, we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged. The information that has become available since the beginning of March broadly confirms our previous assessment. Inflation rates are likely to stay above 2% in 2012, with upside risks prevailing. Over the policy-relevant horizon, we expect price developments to remain in line with price stability. Consistent with this picture, the underlying pace of monetary expansion remains subdued. Survey indicators for economic growth have broadly stabilised at low levels in the early months of 2012, and a moderate recovery in activity is expected in the course of the year. The economic outlook remains subject to downside risks.
Medium-term inflation expectations for the euro area economy must continue to be firmly anchored in line with our aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term. Over the last few months we have implemented both standard and non-standard monetary policy measures. This combination of measures has contributed to a stabilisation in the financial environment and an improvement in the transmission of our monetary policy. We need to carefully monitor further developments. It is also important to keep in mind that all our non-standard monetary policy measures are temporary in nature and that all the necessary tools are available to address upside risks to medium-term price stability in a firm and timely manner.
Let me now explain our assessment in greater detail, starting with the economic analysis. Real GDP contracted by 0.3% in the euro area in the fourth quarter of 2011. Survey data confirm a stabilisation in economic activity at a low level in early 2012. We continue to expect the euro area economy to recover gradually in the course of the year. The outlook for economic activity should be supported by foreign demand, the very low short-term interest rates in the euro area, and all the measures taken to foster the proper functioning of the euro area economy. However, the remaining tensions in euro area sovereign debt markets and their impact on credit conditions, as well as the process of balance sheet adjustment in the financial and non-financial sectors and high unemployment in parts of the euro area, are expected to continue to dampen the underlying growth momentum.
Downside risks to the economic outlook prevail. They relate in particular to a renewed intensification of tensions in euro area debt markets and their potential spillover to the euro area real economy. Downside risks also relate to further increases in commodity prices.
Euro area annual HICP inflation was 2.6% in March 2012, according to Eurostatâ€™s flash estimate, after 2.7% in the previous three months. Inflation is likely to stay above 2% in 2012, mainly owing to recent increases in energy prices, as well as recently announced rises in indirect taxes. On the basis of current futures prices for commodities, annual inflation rates should fall below 2% again in early 2013. In this context, we will pay particular attention to any signs of pass-through from higher energy prices to wages, profits and general price-setting. However, looking ahead, in an environment of modest growth in the euro area and well-anchored long-term inflation expectations, underlying price pressures should remain limited.
Risks to the outlook for HICP inflation rates in the coming years are still seen to be broadly balanced, with upside risks in the near term mainly stemming from higher than expected oil prices and indirect tax increases. Downside risks continue to exist owing to weaker than expected developments in economic activity.