Tuesday, 22 January, 2008

Fed Cuts Rate 0.75 Percentage Point in Emergency Move

The Federal Reserve lowered its benchmark interest rate in an emergency move for the first time since 2001 after stock markets tumbled from Hong Kong to London and the U.S. economy showed increasing signs that it's headed into a recession.

The central bank cut the target overnight lending rate to 3.5 percent from 4.25 percent, the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement in Washington. Policy makers weren't scheduled to gather on rates until Jan. 29-30.

``Broader financial market conditions have continued to deteriorate and credit has tightened further for some businesses and households,'' the Fed said in a statement in Washington. The FOMC took the action ``in view of a weakening of the economic outlook and increasing downside risks to growth.''

Policy makers set aside concerns about inflation to lower borrowing costs for the fourth time since September after the unemployment rate hit a two-year high and stocks slumped. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke shifted the Fed's stance to a more- aggressive approach in remarks this month citing a need for ``decisive and timely'' action.

The dollar fell and Treasury securities rallied after the announcement. Stock-index futures initially pared their declines, while surrendering some of the gains later. Futures on the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index fell 4 percent at 9:08 a.m. in New York to 1,272. They were down as much as 5.3 percent earlier.

Bear Market

Yesterday, almost half of the world's biggest stock indexes fell into a bear market as mounting concern about a U.S. recession dragged down banking and retail shares across Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The Bank of Canada, in a scheduled meeting, lowered its main interest rate by a quarter point today to 4 percent and signaled it will act again to shield Canada from the U.S. slowdown.

The Fed Board of Governors, in a related move, lowered the so-called discount rate on direct loans to commercial banks by a 0.75 percentage point to 4 percent.

``Appreciable downside risks to growth remain,'' the Fed statement said. ``The Committee will continue to assess the effects of financial and other developments on economic prospects and will act in a timely manner as needed to address those risks.''

`Behind the Curve'

``The bottom line was that financial conditions were tightening sharply'' and affecting the economic outlook, said former Fed economist Brian Sack, who is now with Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington. ``The view so far has been that they're somewhat behind the curve and needed to adopt a somewhat more aggressive approach.''

Traders had anticipated 75 basis points of rate cuts this month, according to futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade. Today's reduction was the biggest since October 1984, when the central bank lowered the rate by 1.75 percentage point.

The FOMC vote was 8-1, with St. Louis Fed President William Poole preferring to wait until the regularly scheduled meeting. Fed Governor Frederic Mishkin was absent and not voting.

Fed officials met by video conference at about 6 p.m. yesterday, spokeswoman Michelle Smith said. Mishkin was traveling and unable to participate, she said. The voting members were the same as in 2007 because the presidents don't rotate in until the first regular meeting, Smith said.

First Since 2001

Today's so-called inter-meeting rate cut is the first since Sept. 17, 2001, when the Fed lowered borrowing costs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks six days before. That was the third emergency reduction in a year which saw the last U.S. recession.

Bernanke warned in a Jan. 10 speech and again in testimony to Congress Jan. 17 that the 2008 economic outlook had worsened and ``the downside risks to growth have become more pronounced.'' Still, he said the Fed wasn't forecasting a recession this year.

Retail sales fell last month, unemployment rose, and housing markets are mired in the worst slump in 16 years. Homebuilders broke ground on the fewest homes since 1991 last month, Commerce Department figures showed Jan. 17. Building permits, a sign of future construction, declined by the most in 12 years, suggesting the housing slump will deepen.

Bernanke told legislators at the House Budget Committee that banks were trying to protect asset quality and funding, and tightening credit conditions for the rest of the economy as a result. ``Banks have also evidently become more restrictive in their lending to firms and households,'' he said.

Impact of Housing

Fed policy makers have warned that housing will continue to be a damper on growth. Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said Jan. 18 that didn't expect homebuilding to ``bottom out'' in 2008. Bernanke said the day before that housing markets ``may continue to be a drag on growth for a good part of this year.''

In his Jan. 17 congressional testimony, Bernanke also endorsed the idea of a fiscal-stimulus package of as much as $150 billion to help revive economic growth, assuming the spending is quick and temporary. The next day, the Bush administration proposed a growth package of as much as $150 billion, without offering specifics.

Told of the decision after a speech in Washington, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called the Fed's move ``very constructive'' and a ``confidence builder.'' He said it was a sign to the rest of the world that the U.S. central bank is ``nimble.''

Paulson said in the speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington that a stimulus package ``must be enacted quickly'' and that it must have an ``immediate impact.''