Fed poised to cut rates aggressively

Combats weak economy and severe credit crisis
March 18, 2008 7:40:55 AM PDT
The Federal Reserve is expected to aggressively lower interest rates in its intensified battle against the credit crisis and spreading economic weakness. The question is whether all of the effort will turn the tide.Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues have already been working overtime, employing a variety of novel approaches to keep the economy out of a recession or at least moderate the impact of any downturn.

And financial markets are hoping for another big boost today with an aggressive cut in the Fed's key interest rate, the federal funds rate. Expectations are for a reduction of between one-half point and a full point. If the Fed cuts the funds rate by a full point, it would be the biggest single rate cut in more than two decades.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made the rounds of the morning TV shows Tuesday to underscore the administration's commitment to keeping turmoil in the financial markets from worsening a struggling economy.

"The priority we have is a stable, orderly financial" market, he said on CBS' "The Early Show.

He said the focus of policymakers "is reducing the spillover into the real economy from the turbulence and disruptions in our financial markets."

To those who would complain that the administration is more interested in bailing out Wall Street than struggling homeowners, Paulson said the thousands of Bear Stearns employees likely to lose their jobs and life savings, and thousands of shareholders who have lost billions because of the company's collapse, probably do not feel like they have been bailed out.

A cut in the funds rate will translate immediately into lower rates for consumers and businesses as banks cut their prime lending rate by a similar amount.

"There is no reason for the Fed not to be aggressive," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "The economy is in a recession, the financial system is in disarray and inflation is low."

However, a report Tuesday showed that wholesale prices rose by 0.3 percent in February, driven higher by rising energy costs.

Outside of food and energy, core inflation jumped by 0.5 percent, the biggest increase in 15 months and a possible sign that the relentless increase over the past two years in energy costs is making its presence felt in other sectors of the economy.

At the moment, Fed officials have said they are more concerned about weak growth than inflation. Another report Tuesday showed that problems in the housing industry continue, with construction of new homes falling by a bigger-than-expected 0.6 percent and applications for new building permits dropping to the lowest level in 16 years.

The Fed's target for the federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other on overnight loans, currently stands at 3 percent, down from 4.25 percent at the beginning of this year. That was before global market turmoil in January prompted an emergency three-quarter-point cut on Jan. 22 and a half-point move eight days later, the biggest reductions in a single month in more than a quarter-century.

Many economists believe the Fed will deliver another three-quarter-point cut or perhaps even a full one-point reduction at Tuesday's meetings because Fed officials will not want to disappoint fragile financial markets, which have been on a rollercoaster ride in recent days as they have watched Bear Stearns Cos., the nation's fifth largest investment house, suddenly be brought down by the equivalent of a run on the bank.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. stepped in to announce it was purchasing Bear Stearns at a fire-sale price on Sunday in a deal helped along with a pledge that the Fed would supply a $30 billion line of credit to back up Bear Stearns' assets.

That offer over the weekend was the latest move by a central bank that has been pulling out all of the stops, including using Depression-era procedures, to pump cash into the financial system. Analysts, who faulted Bernanke for being slow to recognize the gravity of the situation last year, now give him high praise for bringing all the Fed's powers to bear.

"The Fed is doing what it can to come to rescue an economy that faces potentially a huge meltdown in financial markets," said Lyle Gramley, a former Fed governor and now an analyst with Stanford Financial Group. "The Fed is acting as a lender of last resort and being very aggressive and innovative."

In addition to providing support for the Bear Stearns sale, the Fed also announced Sunday one of the broadest expansions of its lending authority since the 1930s, saying it would allow securities dealers for at least the next six months to borrow directly from the Fed. That privilege, until now, had been confined to commercial banks.

At the same time, the Fed announced it was cutting the interest rate on those direct loans from the Fed, through a facility known as the Fed's discount window, by a quarter-point to 3.25 percent.

In other moves, the Fed last week announced that it would lend up to $200 billion of Treasury securities that it owns to investment banks starting March 27 for a period of up to 28 days in return for a like amount of the investment banks' shunned mortgage-backed securities. The Fed also announced recently that it was boosting the size of special loans it has been making since December to commercial banks.

The scale of these actions underscored the threat facing the economy from a severe credit squeeze that began with a wave of defaults on subprime mortgages last year but has now spread to other parts of the credit markets, triggering multibillion-dollar losses by some of the country's largest financial institutions.

The rapid decline of Bear Stearns stock - which had a market value of about $20 billion in January, only to collapse to a sales price of $2 per share, or about $236 million, this past weekend - has given investors the chills.

"The Fed is trying very hard to figure out how to calm the markets down, but so far it hasn't been very successful," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "Markets are worried that there might be another Bear Stearns out there."


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