FRANKFURT, April 12 (Reuters) - European Central Bank policymakers gathering last month expressed concern over the risk of a full-fledged trade war with the United States and fretted over the potentially harmful impact of the euro's strength, the minutes of meeting showed.
With the euro zone economy growing for five straight years, policymakers are now debating how to wean the bloc off easy money and prepare investors for normalising policy a decade after the global financial crisis sent central banks into crisis mode.
The ECB has so far moved by increments to dial back support. In March, it gave up a largely outdated pledge to raise asset buys if needed, a symbolic move that kept it on course to end its 2.55 trillion asset purchase programme by the end of this year.
While the euro's firming in recent months, partly due to fears over U.S. protectionism, has not significantly curtailed demand, policymakers called the exchange rate a "significant source" of uncertainty with some predicting a more negative impact on inflation.
"It was remarked that the recent movements in the euro exchange rate seemed to relate more to the relative monetary policy shocks, including communication, and less to improvements in the macroeconomic outlook," the minutes showed.
"This suggested that the exchange rate appreciation could be expected to have a more negative impact on inflation."
Investors have been wondering whether the ECB's carefully calibrated exit plan from its ultra easy policy could be scuppered by a looming trade war between the United States and China although ECB policymakers have so far played down this risk.
"There was widespread concern that the risk of trade conflicts, which could be expected to have an adverse impact on activity for all countries involved, had increased," the ECB said. "It was also cautioned that negative confidence effects could arise."
Launched three years ago, the ECB's bond buys depressed borrowing costs, kick-started growth and helped fight off the threat of deflation.
But inflation, the ECB's singular mandate, has remained weak and will undershoot the bank's nearly 2 percent target for years to come, a threat to the bank's credibility.
Still, policymakers argue that with spare capacity largely exhausted in the bloc and growth motoring ahead, it is only a matter of time before inflation picks up so the ECB can afford to dial back is stimulus and give price growth time to accelerate.
A view was put forward arguing that the ECB was close to meeting its criteria for a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation but there was broad agreement that progress is not yet sufficient.
Still, policymakers were in agreement that their confidence has increased that inflation would gradually rise back towards target, if only the bank was patient enough.
"The increased confidence called for a gradual adjustment in the Governing Councils communication," the accounts showed," the ECB said.
Once bond buys end, investor focus will turn to interest rates as the ECB has said they would stay unchanged 'well past' the bond buys end, an ill defined timeline that is seen by market as roughly six months. (Reporting by Balazs Koranyi Editing by Francesco Canepa)