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The euro zone economy grew by more than previously estimated in the first quarter and at its fastest rate in a year, European Union statistics agency Eurostat said today. Inflation was expected to hit 1.7 per cent this year, 1.6 per cent in 2018, and 1.7 per cent in 2019.

The ECB is on course to buy 2.3 trillion euros ($2.59 trillion) worth of bonds and is charging banks to hold their excess cash via a negative interest rate in a bid to bring price growth in the euro zone to its target of just under 2 percent.

Analysts think the bond purchases will be tapered next year, but the bank has moved gingerly in indicating when it might be ready to announce a schedule for reducing and then ending them.

Evidence is piling up that growth in the eurozone has kicked into a higher gear and the region is recovering from the Great Recession and the ensuing crisis over high debt that pushed some eurozone countries, notably Greece, to the brink of bankruptcy.

The bond purchases, made with newly printed money, are aimed at increasing inflation from its current annual 1.4 percent toward the central bank's goal of just under 2 percent. Headline price growth recovered with oil prices previous year but crude's retreat in 2017 has seen CPI turn sharply in recent months.

Investors are also keeping an eye on the outcome of the United Kingdom general election, with opinion polls showing Theresa May's Conservative Party leading between 5 and 12 percentage points over the main opposition Labour Party, suggesting she would increase her majority.

"Strong growth and low inflation probably allows Draghi to be upbeat but hold back from big changes today", said Jim Reid, a strategist at Deutsche Bank. Draghi said there was no discussion of future tapering at the meeting. "More jobs than anywhere else in the world, I think, certainly more than in the United States". The financial markets have remained cautious over the recent slowdown in inflation across the Eurozone, which is fuelling some speculations that the central bank's easy monetary policy still has a long way to go.

But the bank's announcement Thursday reiterated that its stimulus in the form of monthly bond purchases could be stepped up if the economic outlook worsens. While few expect that to happen, the words underline that the bank is not yet willing to call time on the stimulus program.

On Thursday, the bank has kept its short-term benchmark rate that steers short-term rates at a record low of zero.

The ECB kept its rate on bank overnight deposits, which is now its primary interest rate tool, at -0.40 percent.

Pan Pylas reported from London.


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