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Lights illuminate the south facade of the European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, on Dec. 30, 2021.WOLFGANG RATTAY/Reuters

Euro zone inflation surged to 7.5 per cent in March, hitting another record high with months still left before it is set to peak, raising pressure on the European Central Bank to rein in runaway prices even as growth slows sharply.

Consumer price growth in the 19 countries sharing the euro accelerated from 5.9 per cent in February, Eurostat said on Friday, far beyond the 6.6 per cent expected, as war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia pushed fuel and natural gas prices to record highs.

Although energy was the chief culprit, inflation in food prices, services and durable goods all came in above the ECB’s 2 per cent target, further proof that price growth is increasingly broad and not merely a reflection of expensive oil.

With the ECB having persistently underestimated inflation over the past year, the figure will come as a shock to policy-makers, some of whom are already calling for tighter policy to avoid high price growth becoming entrenched.

“The inflation data speak for themselves,” Joachim Nagel, president of the German Bundesbank, said on Friday. “Monetary policy should not pass up the opportunity for timely countermeasures.”

The central bank governors of Austria and the Netherlands have already called for rate hikes this year, worried that rapid price growth is becoming broad-based, an argument supported by underlying data from Friday’s release.

Inflation excluding volatile food and fuel prices, closely watched by the ECB, picked up to 3.2 per cent from 2.9 per cent while a narrower measure that also excludes alcohol and tobacco products jumped to 3.0 per cent from 2.7 per cent.

Any cut in Russian gas supplies would also quickly feed through to customers, boosting prices even as governments are putting in place subsidy measures to offset some of the cost.

ECB Chief Economist Philip Lane acknowledged that inflation is very high but said there were opposing forces at work and the euro zone central bank should take its time analyzing the data.

“We have the energy shock, the prospects of second-round effects, pushing up inflation,” Mr. Lane told CNBC

“On the other hand, the weakening of sentiment, the fact that real incomes will suffer with the high energy prices, especially over a one- to two-year horizon, will have a negative pressure on the inflation outlook.”

All this leaves the ECB with a difficult policy dilemma.

Its main task is to get inflation to 2 per cent but tightening policy now would risk crashing an economy that is already reeling from the fallout of the war in its neighbour and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ECB estimates that growth in the first quarter was positive, but barely, while second-quarter growth will be near-zero, as high energy prices dent consumption and hurt corporate investment.

High energy prices are traditionally a drag on growth and will thus actually weigh on inflation once the immediate spike passes, raising the risk that price growth will later fall back below target.

But the ECB can hardly ignore high inflation, especially since it says the peak is still three to four months away.

The euro zone’s labour market is the tightest it has been in decades so wage inflation, a precondition of durable consumer inflation, is already in the pipeline. And ECB inaction would also boost inflation expectations, likely making price growth more permanent.

The likely compromise will be for the bank to tighten monetary policy this year, but by the smallest increments.

Markets are now pricing in 60 basis points of rate hikes by the end of the year but policy-makers have been more cautious, with not a single one calling for moves so large.

The risk, however, is that big inflation surprises could force the ECB to tighten more quickly and play catch-up later on.

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