The European Central Bank stuck to its course at a Thursday meeting in the face of darkening economic skies, holding off on sudden policy moves after removing a key pillar of support to the eurozone in December.

Interest rates would remain unchanged at their historic lows "at least through the summer of 2019," a spokesman said.

Governors had hoped this year would eventually bring a "normalisation" of their policy with higher rates, after they tied off mass purchases of government and corporate bonds - so-called "quantitative easing" (QE) - at the end of 2018.

But growth has begun to stall in recent months, while inflation has fallen back from the ECB target of just below 2.0 percent -- notching up just 1.6% in December.

At a 2.30pm (1430 GMT) press conference, ECB President Mario Draghi "will probably signal that uncertainty is increasing, downside risks are intensifying and the phase of economic weakness might prove longer than expected," analysts at UniCredit predicted.

"However, he will most likely stick to the mantra that the eurozone is not heading for a downturn, as domestic fundamentals remain supportive," they added.

Most of the threats to growth originate abroad, ranging from a slowdown in China to protectionist US trade policy or the growing risk Britain will quit the European Union with no deal in March.

Fuelling concerns over a weaker eurozone outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this week downgraded its 2019 growth forecast for the 19-nation currency bloc to 1.6% - slightly lower than the ECB's 1.7% estimate.

Meanwhile a regular purchasing managers' index (PMI) survey published Thursday fell to its lowest level in five-and-a-half years.

At 50.7 points, the Markit index was only just above the 50-point dividing line between economic growth and contraction.

Wait it out

Policymakers agreed in December to close out QE after pumping a total of €2.6 trillion into the financial system.

The scheme aimed to power lending to businesses and households, lifting economic growth and boosting inflation towards the ECB target.

It is likely too soon for governors to tell whether the withdrawal of what Draghi last month called "the crucial driver of recovery in the eurozone" since 2015 has put the brakes on growth.

And the Italian ECB chief also underscored a slew of one-off factors, such as tougher emissions tests slowing the vital car industry, that weighed on business activity late last year.

The caveats should allow Draghi to avoid describing risks to growth as "tilted to the downside" for now, analysts say.

"The ECB should wait until the March meeting and the new staff (economic) projections before making any adjustment to the balance of risks and to its forward guidance" on interest rates, Pictet Wealth Management analyst Frederik Ducrozet commented.

Meanwhile Draghi can point to low rates and reinvestments of the proceeds from the ECB's massive bond pile as continuing factors supporting growth.

Cheap cash for banks

The ECB has two relatively uncontroversial tools left in its box to tackle growth and inflation hiccups: offering a new round of low-interest loans to banks and extending its time horizon for raising interest rates.

"Markets are already looking further" than this summer for the next rate hike, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Gilles Moec noted.

"To create a shock (on markets) you would have to give a still further time horizon" sometime in 2020, he added - an extension likely to be resisted by policy "hawks" on the ECB's governing council.

With closely-watched measures of "core" inflation - which rules out volatile items like energy and food - stuck at just 1%, action might nevertheless be needed.

Rather than talking rate hikes, that could mean hints that the ECB is studying a new wave of low-interest loans to keep banks supplied with cash.

"We expect a less generous LTRO (long-term refinancing operation) to be announced in March or in April," Ducrozet said.

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