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Fed Sharply Cuts Key Interest Rate


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. There was a surprise move at the Federal Reserve today. The Fed was expected to cut interest rates by a half point. Instead, the Fed cut the key lending rate by as much as a full point to zero. That's the lowest federal funds rate on record. To be exact, the Fed wants that key rate to fall within a range between zero and a quarter of one percent. And if hitting zero sounds like the Fed has run out of ammunition, Fed policymakers made clear that is not the case. Joining us to explain the situation is NPR's Chris Arnold. And Chris, how big a deal is this key interest cut?

CHRIS ARNOLD: Hi, Melissa. It's a very big deal, and this was not expected. Everybody was expecting, you know, maybe a half a point rate cut or something, and this caught everybody by surprise. The government here is showing that it's willing to pull out all the stops, and it is in fact pulling out all the stops with regard to this interest rate.

And it's basically saying, you know, we understand that this is shaping up to be the worst recession in about 30 years. And most importantly, the Fed's signaling that it's going to do even more, that more help is going to be on the way. And the market liked that today. The Dow was up about 360 points.

BLOCK: You're saying more help is going to be on the way. What else would the Fed be likely to do?

ARNOLD: Well, as you said in the beginning, you know, it can't cut this particular interest rate any more, but the Fed's been cutting a very short term interest rate. And that's the rate that banks loan money to each other, sometimes for just a few hours, you know, overnight and that sort of thing. The Fed is now signaling that it wants to drive down longer-term interest rates. And in the statement that it released today, it said that it was going to purchase, quote, "large portions of mortgage-backed securities and other types of debt."

And the idea is that that's going to push down rates on home mortgages. And that's something everybody can relate to. I mean, if rates get down, say, four and a half percent on home mortgages, it means, you know, you and me and everybody else, we could go out and refinance our homes and have one, two, three hundred more dollars in our pocket every month, and that could really help the economy. And that's just one example. There's a lot more the government can do besides cutting this one interest rate.

BLOCK: Yeah. And if this is the lowest that the federal funds rate has ever been, does that mean that the Fed thinks that things right now are as bad as they could be?

ARNOLD: Well, not really. I mean, what this shows is that the Fed thinks that this is an opportunity and that it has an opportunity here to fight this recession much more aggressively than it's fought other recessions. And if you look back to the early 1980s, inflation back then was a big problem. And that was a very bad recession, but the government had its hands tied. I mean, it couldn't really try to stimulate the economy aggressively because it was afraid of driving inflation even higher, and so it was kind of stuck.

Here, you know, the government's saying, you know, we've got a free hand and there's really a lot that we can do. So that's kind of, you know, this is a bad situation, but that's probably a good thing. Most economists are still hoping that this recession won't be as bad as that one back in the early 1980s. Back then unemployment rose to about 10, almost 11 percent, and this time they're hoping maybe it won't go above nine.

BLOCK: One last thing, Chris. Why did the Fed set this range of zero to a quarter of one percent? Why not just zero?

ARNOLD: Well, here, just quickly, the government's saying that it's acknowledging that it's having trouble nailing down a hard number. There's just so much happening. And it's saying, look, that's OK, the interest rates might fluctuate, but don't worry about it. And we're just going to let it flow.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Chris Arnold, thanks a lot.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.