FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The European Central Bank decided on Thursday to formally end its 2.6 trillion euro ($2.95 trillion) bond purchase scheme but said it would keep reinvesting cash from maturing bonds for a long time after its first interest rate hike.
"The Governing Council intends to continue reinvesting, in full, the principal payments from maturing securities purchased under the APP for an extended period of time past the date when it starts raising the key ECB interest rates, and in any case for as long as necessary," the ECB said
With inflation near its target but growth weakening, the ECB has performed a precarious balancing act for months, slowly dialling back stimulus while maintaining a promise of protracted financial support to keep borrowing costs low.
The bond purchases, known as quantitative easing, were launched four years ago to support inflation and growth in a crisis-hit euro zone. The ECB sees the scheme offering little further benefit, however, and is focusing on other tools to support the economy.
The bank made no change on Thursday to its interest rate policy guidance, first formulated in June and kept broadly unchanged through several meetings.
"The Governing Council expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at their present levels at least through the summer of 2019," it said in a statement, repeating its guidance.
Attention now turns to ECB President Mario Draghi's 1330 GMT news conference, at which he will present new economic projections, discuss the bank's assessment of risks and offer a view on the broader economic outlook.
With Thursday's decision, the ECB's rate on bank overnight deposits, which is currently its primary interest rate tool, remains at -0.40 percent.
The main refinancing rate, which determines the cost of credit in the economy, remained unchanged at 0.00 percent while the rate on the marginal lending facility -- the emergency overnight borrowing rate for banks -- remains at 0.25 percent.
($1 = 0.8804 euros)
(Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Catherine Evans)