The Federal Reserve made it clear Wednesday that it will do whatever it takes to end the worst U.S. downturn since the Great Depression, announcing new plans to pump nearly $1.2 trillion into the financial system, including a historic commitment to buy up to $300 billion in longer-term Treasury securities.
As part of its unexpectedly aggressive plan, the Fed also committed to hold a key interest rate essentially at zero "for an extended period" and to buy up to another $850 billion in mortgage-backed securities and debt. The actions could quickly translate into lower borrowing costs for home buyers, homeowners and businesses — and that, in turn, could help get the stalled economy moving again.
The Dow Jones industrial average surged 91 points, to 7487, on news of the Fed's actions. Interest rates on Treasuries plummeted, with 10-year notes posting the biggest one-day move in nearly 50 years. The U.S. dollar sank against other currencies, however, as traders worried about the long-term implications of the policies, including possible inflation.
Nevertheless, most experts applauded the Fed. "When you have a forest fire, gradualism is not a good idea," said Richard Hoey, chief economist at Dreyfus. "The aggressiveness of the Fed's action is consistent with the view that they understand the risks and have the power to act. This is not Hamlet deciding what to do."
The Fed said the dire economic outlook prompted its moves. U.S. unemployment is at a decades-high rate of 8.1%, with businesses shedding about 650,000 jobs a month. The economy shrank at a 6.2% annual rate in the final three months of 2008, and economists expect nearly as bleak a number for the first quarter of 2009. Inflation has fallen as the economy has slowed, to the point that the Fed openly worries about the possibility of deflation — a widespread sustained fall in prices that could prolong the downturn.
"Although the near-term economic outlook is weak, the (Fed) anticipates that policy actions … will contribute to a gradual resumption of stable economic growth," the Fed said.
What the Fed will do:
•Buy up to $300 billion in longer-term Treasury securities during the next six months. The move, which follows similar efforts in Britain and Japan, is designed to bring down longer-term interest rates that influence business and consumer borrowing.
•Buy up to another $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities issued by mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are in government conservatorship. The Fed has already committed to buy $500 billion in mortgage-backed securities, bringing planned purchases to $1.25 trillion. The Fed will also double the amount of Fannie and Freddie debt it plans to buy to $200 billion. The move is significant, given that Fannie and Freddie now back about 70% of home mortgages made in this country. About $1.4 trillion in mortgages were issued last year.
•Possibly expand the range of collateral the Fed will accept under a recently launched program to spur student loan, auto, credit card, small business, commercial real estate and other lending. The Fed and Treasury Department have said that they hope to eventually spur up to $1 trillion in lending under the so-called Term Asset-Backed Loan Facility.