The European Central Bank will cut interest rates next week and throw more funding lifelines to stressed banks toiling against the euro zone's debt crisis, according to a firm majority of economists polled by Reuters.

While Europe's leaders spar over ways to tackle the crisis, the poll suggested that under its new President Mario Draghi the ECB will act more decisively, perhaps through unconventional means.

The survey of 73 analysts showed a 40 percent chance the ECB will follow the U.S. and British central banks in the next six months and start purchasing government bonds from struggling euro zone economies using freshly created money -- or quantitative easing (QE).

On Monday, the OECD said the ECB should take a greater role in defusing the crisis that threatens to choke off funding to Italy and Spain, the third and fourth largest euro zone economies that Europe can ill afford to bail out.

Draghi has already surprised analysts and financial markets in November by cutting interest rates from 1.5 percent to 1.25 percent, while warning of an imminent recession.

The poll showed a 60 percent chance he will cut rates again in December, pushing rates back to a record low of 1.0 percent, higher than the 50 percent probability from a poll on November 3.

The ECB has strongly stressed the risks for the economy. In this context, why postpone a further rate cut? said Alexander Krueger, chief economist at Bankhaus Lampe in Dusseldorf.

Twenty-four economists thought the ECB would eventually slash rates below the 1.0 record low first set in 2009, with 13 of them saying they would bottom out at 0.5 percent.

While that would provide welcome support to an economy destined for or already in recession, there was a strong consensus among analysts that the ECB would also offer more help to the region's banks.

Indicators of funding stress for euro zone banks on Monday held at their highest levels since 2008 at the peak of the financial crisis, with longer-term funding for banks drying up due to mounting suspicion about their exposure to the debt crisis.

A firm majority of analysts -- 39 out of 52 -- said the ECB would announce new long-term money market tenders for banks next week, with most of them saying it would offer maturities of one or two years. A poll of money market traders on Monday came to the same conclusion.

Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters last week that the ECB was looking at extending the term of its loans to bank to two or even three years.

This might be the case, but for the time being it seems to be sufficient to provide liquidity for the one-year-horizon, said Jens-Oliver Niklasch, economist at LBBW.

Any longer term will make it even more difficult to exit from the extraordinary measures.


Many analysts believe the best way of resolving the euro zone crisis now seems to be persuading the ECB and Germany to abandon their opposition to the bank embarking on QE.

Poll respondents held diverse views on whether the ECB would launch such easing in the coming months, with forecasts ranging from zero to a 90 percent probability of doing so, producing a median 40 percent chance. That compared with a 48 percent in a poll of economists and bond strategists conducted two weeks ago.

While the ECB has already been buying government bonds from the euro zone's periphery, they have generally sought to sterilise the purchases by draining an equivalent amount of liquidity from the system to prevent pressure on inflation.

A policy of unsterilised purchases -- effectively printing money to buy the bonds -- would be hugely controversial, not least because it could be illegal for the ECB to do so at present.

It is not likely to see the ECB starting QE given its statutory constraints, even if we think it (would) be helpful, said Francesca Panelli, economist at Banca Aletti.

Euro zone paymaster Germany is staunchly opposed to both monetising debt through QE and allowing the ECB to become lender of last resort -- although pressure is mounting.

Last Wednesday, French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said the ECB should act as lender of last resort, citing the effectiveness of the U.S., British and Swiss central banks in this role.

(Polling and analysis by Ruby Cherian, Shaloo Shrivastava and Somya Gupta in Bangalore; editing by Patrick Graham)