World and Nation

Three European Central Banks Cut Interest Rates Sharply

The top three European central banks cut interest rates on Thursday in the face of increasingly dire evidence that much of Europe was moving into a serious recession.

The Bank of England cut rates by a startling 1.5 percentage points, while the International Monetary Fund predicted developed economies as a whole would shrink next year for the first time since World War II and the global economy would grow at a feeble 2.2 percent. Previously, the fund had predicted 3 percent global growth and slight growth in the developed economies.

The European Central Bank reduced its benchmark rate by a half percentage point, to 3.25 percent. Though expected, the cut showed that the bank continues to be so concerned about slowing growth that it has overcome its long-time concerns about inflation. In a more surprising move, the Swiss National Bank did the same, taking its rate down to 2 percent, in part to halt the rapid appreciation of the Swiss franc.

And in Britain, the European country hardest hit by the current financial crisis, the Bank of England cut its key interest rate by three times more than most analysts had anticipated, to 3 percent — the lowest level since 1954.

The cuts spurred a brief rally on slumping European stock markets, but most ended down.

The rate cuts represent central bankers’ effort — critics say belated — to curb the worst effects of a recession that many saw as avoidable until the collapse of Lehman Brothers sent the financial crisis rippling across the Atlantic.

“The intensification and broadening of the financial market turmoil is likely to dampen global and euro-area demand for a rather protracted period of time,” Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, said.

Still, central banks demonstrated varying degrees of activism, with the Bank of England making its biggest rate reduction since 1981. Europe’s central bank, by contrast, considered but then shied away from bolder efforts to fight the slowdown.

To many analysts, that suggested that Europe’s central bank — despite its sharp shift away from worries about inflation and its participation in a globally coordinated rate cut last month — was still not willing to engage in the kind of aggressive monetary policy that the Federal Reserve has made its hallmark.

“The contrast with the Bank of England here is extraordinary,” said Jacques Cailloux, chief Europe economist at Royal Bank of Scotland, in London. “To some extent, the British have simply adopted the Fed’s approach.”

Stuart Thomson, an analyst with Resolution Asset Management in Glasgow, said the reduction in Britain was “a measure of how sharply economic conditions have deteriorated since last summer,” in a country whose flagship industry — financial services — has fallen back on a major government rescue plan.

“The rate cut was aggressive and necessary and we believe that base rates will fall further over the next two years as the economy flirts with deflation,” Thomson said.