Fed, central banks coordinate interest-rate cut

Arguing that a global crisis demands a global response, the Federal Reserve and five other central banks slashed interest rates Wednesday morning in a surprise coordinated bid to boost the international economy and reassure plunging stock and credit markets around the world.

But fresh bad economic news and market uncertainty continued to buffet investors, with Wall Street’s major indexes losing ground again despite the half-point cut on the Fed’s key federal funds rate for overnight bank loans to 1.5 percent - a level not seen since 2003.

Wall Street could face yet another test Thursday with the expiration of an order banning “short-selling” on the stocks of nearly 1,000 commercial banks and financial firms. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s order restricting short-selling - essentially a bet that a stock will go down - was set to expire at midnight Wednesday.

The SEC could have kept the ban in place until Oct. 17, but decided not to extend it.

Opinion has been sharply divided over the impact of the SEC order. Some analysts and corporate heads blame short-sellers for concentrated attacks on individual stocks that undermined some of Wall Street’s most powerful firms and exacerbated the stock and credit panic.

Short-sellers say they play a critical role in helping investors determine the real value of stocks, and note that U.S. stock markets have suffered major losses in the three weeks the ban has been in place.

The losses continued Wednesday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 189.01 points (2 percent) Wednesday, giving away a nearly 200-point gain at the beginning of the trading session after the rate cuts were announced. The broader S&P; 500 index also fell 11.29 points (1.13 percent) to 9,849.94.

Many international markets were more bearish, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average losing nearly 10 percent of its value Wednesday. The FTSEurofirst 300, a broad index of European stock markets, closed down 6.3 percent at 940.78, its lowest close since December 2003.

Russia, Indonesia, Ukraine and Romania all closed their stock exchanges, and Brazilian stocks fell for a fifth day as emerging markets had their worst week in at least two decades.

Federal Reserve officials said the coordinated cut was the largest of its kind by far for the world’s central banks, traditionally jealous of their national prerogatives. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., in a briefing for reporters, said the move underscored the gravity of the problems facing the U.S. and world economy.

“We must take care to ensure that our actions are closely coordinated and communicated so that the action of one country does not come at the expense of others or the stability of the system as a whole,” Mr. Paulson said.

The Treasury secretary revealed he wants to hold an emergency meeting of the Group of 20, which includes the major industrial nations and emerging powers of the developing world such as China, Brazil and India. World finance ministers gather in Washington this weekend for the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings.

With economists now widely predicting a sharp global economic downturn, both the White House and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama praised the central banks’ move as a step toward limiting fallout from the crisis.

“We hope that this action will start to stem the crisis,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

But Mr. Paulson cautioned that the recovery will take time, despite a series of recent government moves that include the just-approved $700 billion Wall Street rescue package and the Fed’s Tuesday announcement that it will for the first time buy short-term debt, known as “commercial paper,” directly from banks and businesses in a bid to unclog blocked money markets.

And there was no shortage of gloomy economic data for investors and traders, despite the international rate cut.

cBritain and Spain became the latest countries to roll out major bailout plans for their banks, dragged down by their investments in the U.S. mortgage markets and by overheated housing markets at home. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown served up a $438 billion rescue package to “restructure the banking system,” including $88 billion for the government to purchase ownership stakes in Barclays, Lloyds TSB and six other British lenders.

cIceland, whose small economy has become a global poster child for the difficulties posed by the credit crunch, was forced to drop plans to nationalize the country’s second-largest bank, placing failing Landsbanki in receivership instead. With confidence evaporating in the country’s financial system, Iceland officials also said they were abandoning a doomed effort to defend the value of the krona, the country’s currency.

The move by the Federal Reserve and other central banks was a rare instance of international cooperation on lending rates.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke had hinted broadly in a Tuesday speech that the U.S. central bank was preparing its first rate cut since late April, but many had assumed the move would come at the board’s scheduled Oct. 28-29 meeting.

The Fed funds rate was cut from 2 percent to 1.5 percent, with major U.S. banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America almost immediately cutting the prime rate given to top-quality borrowers from 5 percent to 4.5 percent.

In Europe, where continental leaders have scrambled to coordinate their response to the economic implosion, the European Central Bank cut its key rate from 4.25 percent to 3.75 percent, while the Bank of England also sliced a half-percentage point off its leading rate, to 4.5 percent.

The Bank of Canada and Sweden’s Riksbank also cut their benchmark rate by 0.5 percent. The Bank of Japan, which already has historically low lending rates to boost the long-suffering domestic economy, said it “supported” the global rate cut, but left its benchmark rate alone.

In a joint statement, the central bankers said that the recent market woes had increased their fear of a global slowdown while easing, for now, fears that the rate cuts could spark inflation.

“Some easing of global monetary conditions is therefore warranted,” the group said in its statement.

The central bank action comes after extraordinary moves by governments around the world - conservative and liberal alike - to intervene in private markets, bail out banks, claim new regulatory powers and cushion losses for investors, all financed with taxpayer money.

“There can be no isolated response to the global challenges we face,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a leading proponent of government action in the markets, told reporters on a trip to Brussels.

About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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