With Fed expected to slow rate hikes, markets raise stakes for Europe's next move 

  • With the Fed's rate hiking expectations recently tamped down, markets turn their focus Thursday to the European Central Bank, which is expected to reaffirm the end of its easy money, asset buying program.
  • But with worries about Italy's budget, the violent reaction to austerity in France, and the seemingly unanswerable questions about the U.K.'s exit from the EU, investors will be looking hard at what the ECB has to say about its economic outlook, rate-hiking plans and its balance sheet.
Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), arrives for the ECB rate decision news conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. 
Jasper Juinen | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), arrives for the ECB rate decision news conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. 

The Fed looks set to shift into a lower gear when it comes to rate hiking, and now markets want to make sure Europe's central bankers aren't going to drive too fast as they approach the off ramp for their own easy money program.

The European Central Bank meets Thursday and is expected to declare the official end of its quantitative easing program, launched in March 2015 to save the economy from deflationary forces and the residual effects of the European debt crisis.

After spending 2.6 trillion euros, the ECB is expected to end the plan and perhaps clarify when it might begin to raise its still-negative interest rates. It is on track to raise rates starting in the second half of next year.

The ECB meeting comes a week ahead of the Federal Reserve's December meeting, where it is expected to raise interest rates one-quarter point. But the future expectations for the Fed have changed dramatically in the last several weeks, with economists no longer expecting an automatic quarter-point hike in March given market turbulence and signs of slower growth.

Futures markets have priced in less than one hike for next year, after next week's widely expected hike.

The Fed has forecast three hikes for 2019, but Fed watchers say it could reduce its forecast based on recent dovish comments from Fed officials and a more tempered view of the economy for next year.

"It's one of the most extreme sentiment shifts I've seen with no data to support it. It's just that the equity market has gone down. I think the Fed wants to say we're going to be more data dependent and they certainly don't want to rule out March," said Jens Nordvig, CEO of Exante Data.

That shift in Fed expectations raises the stakes for the ECB, which has to downgrade its own view of the economy but not so much to raise doubts about its exit from QE.

It also comes at a difficult time for Europe, as Italy struggles with its budget, and France's president strained his own budget by upping payouts to pensioners and low income workers, in an effort to end violent 'yellow vest' protests. Compounding Europe's problems too is the awkward and unclear path the United Kingdom will take to leave the European Union.

"There are a lot of moving parts," said Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at Bannockburn Global Forex. Chandler said the ECB will also lower its inflation forecast.

"Every time the ECB met this year, the euro has fallen, except in September, and that's probably because at every meeting, the economy's been weakening," said Chandler. He said the market is looking for clarity on when the ECB plans to raise rates and how it plans to handle its balance sheet as debt rolls off. One option would be to extend the maturities of some debt, like Italy or France, he added.

ECB President Mario Draghi speaks at 8:30 a.m. ET, following the ECB statement at 7:45 a.m. ET.

"Draghi is going to say monetary policy needs to remain very accommodative," said Chandler, adding the ECB president may also say risks remain balanced because of labor market strength.

"Draghi is pinning his hopes on their labor market," Chandler said.

Europe's low yields have made U.S. yields more attractive to some investors, and the spread between the German 10-year bund and the U.S. 10-year yield is the widest in decades. The German bund yield Wednesday was about 0.28 to the U.S. yield of 2.91 percent.

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