WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve dropped its most important interest rate to a nearly two-year low on Tuesday and left the door open to additional cuts to prevent a housing and credit meltdown from pushing the economy into a recession.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and all but one of his colleagues agreed to trim the federal funds rate by one-quarter percentage point to 4.25 percent.
The rate reduction, the third this year, was needed to energize national economic growth, Fed officials said. The deepening housing slump is affecting the behavior of consumers and businesses alike, the Fed said.
“Economic growth is slowing, reflecting the intensification of the housing correction and some softening in business and consumer spending. Moreover, strains in financial markets have increased in recent weeks,” the Fed said in a statement explaining its decision to cut rates again. The three rate cuts ordered thus far “should help promote moderate growth over time,” the Fed added.
On Wall Street, stocks tumbled, reflecting disappointment among some investors who were hoping for a larger rate cut. The Dow Jones industrial average plunged more than 200 points.
The funds rate affects many other interest rates charged to individuals and businesses and is the Fed’s most potent tool for influencing economic activity.
In response, commercial banks, including Wachovia and Wells Fargo, lowered their prime lending rate by a corresponding amount, to 7.25 percent. The prime rate applies to certain credit cards, home equity lines of credit and other loans.
The fact that the Fed’s key rate was lowered again marked an about-face for the central bank. At its previous meeting in October, Fed officials hinted that their two rate cuts probably would be sufficient to help the economy survive the housing and credit stresses. Since then, however, financial conditions have deteriorated, prompting Bernanke to signal before Tuesday’s meeting that another rate cut may be needed after all as an insurance policy against undue economic weakness.
As another bolstering move, the Fed on Tuesday also lowered its lending rates to banks by one-quarter percentage point. That was the fourth cut to the discount rate since mid-August.
“Recent developments, including the deterioration in financial market conditions, have increased the uncertainty surrounding the outlook for economic growth and inflation,” the Fed said in its statement.
Banks, financial companies and other investors who made loans to people with spotty credit or put money into securities backed by those subprime mortgages have lost billions of dollars. Investors in the U.S. and abroad have grown more wary of buying new debt, thereby aggravating the credit crunch.
Harder-to-get credit has thwarted would-be home buyers, intensifying the housing collapse. Foreclosures have soared to record highs. The number of unsold homes has climbed. Problems are expected to persist well into next year.
“Fed’s language clearly reflects a heightened degree of concern about the economic outlook,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at LaSalle Bank. “They left open the possibility of additional rate reductions,” he added. If the economy were to take a turn for the worse, another rate cut could come before the Fed’s next scheduled meeting on Jan. 29-30, Tannenbaum said.
The situation poses the biggest challenge yet to Bernanke, who took over the Fed in February 2006. Some analysts have questioned whether he waited too long to cut the Fed’s key rate and whether he has acted aggressively enough to the nation’s economic woes.
In September, the central bank dropped the funds rate for the first time in four years. Then it was a half-point drop; on Oct. 31 came a quarter-point cut.