updated 12/16/2008 8:06:32 PM ET 2008-12-17T01:06:32

The Federal Reserve has cut its target for a key interest rate to the lowest level on record and pledged to use “all available tools” to combat a severe financial crisis and prolonged recession.

The central bank on Tuesday said it had reduced the federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other, to a range of zero to 0.25 percent. That is down from the 1 percent target rate in effect since the last meeting in October. Many analysts had expected the Fed to make a smaller cut to 0.5 percent.

The Fed’s aggressive move was greeted enthusiastically by Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up just under 360 points.

The Fed’s action and statement made clear that economic conditions have worsened since its last meeting in October.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues said they will use unconventional methods to try to contain a financial crisis that is the worst since the 1930s and a recession that is already the longest in a quarter-century. For example, the Fed last month said it planned to purchase up to $600 billion in direct debt and mortgage-backed securities issued by big financial players including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in an effort to boost the availability of mortgage loans.

That move was one of a series the central bank has taken to increase its loans by hundreds of billions of dollars as a way to deal with the worst financial crisis to hit the country in more than 70 years.

The Fed on Tuesday also made clear that it intends to keep the funds rate at extremely low levels.

“The committee anticipates that weak economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for some time,” the central bank’s panel that sets interest rates said in a statement.

Even before the announcement of a lower target, the funds rate has been trading well below the old target of 1 percent. For November, the funds rate had averaged 0.39 percent. Analysts said it was likely to fall further with the Fed setting the new target as low as zero.

The Fed’s decision was matched by a reduction in the prime lending rate, the benchmark rate for millions of business and consumer loans. Banking giant Wells Fargo and Co. said it was cutting its prime rate to 3.25 percent, down from 4 percent before the Fed action. Other banks are expected to quickly match Wells Fargo’s move.

The Fed has never pushed its target for the federal funds rate as low as zero to 0.25 percent. The lowest target rate before had been 1 percent, a level seen only once before in the past half-century.

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Given how low interest rates are, the central bank said it planned to use a variety of unconventional methods to flood the banking system with credit and drive interest rates lower.

“The Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable economic growth and to preserve price stability,” the Fed said.

The announcement on the deployment of unconventional methods had been expected given that Bernanke and other Fed officials have sought in recent comments to let financial markets know that the central bank will not be out of ammunition to battle the economic downturn even with the funds rate at such low levels.

In its statement Tuesday, the Fed said that since its last meeting in late October, “labor market conditions have deteriorated, and the available data indicate that consumer spending, business investment and industrial production have declined. Financial markets remain quite strained and credit conditions tight.”

The central bank acknowledged that it had room to battle the economic weakness because inflation pressures have “diminished appreciably” as the price of energy and other commodities has fallen sharply.

The Fed action came only hours after the government announced that consumer prices dropped by a record amount of 1.7 percent in November, reflecting a record decline in the price of gasoline and other energy products.

Full text of the Fed statement
The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to establish a target range for the federal funds rate of 0 to 1/4 percent. 

Since the Committee's last meeting, labor market conditions have deteriorated, and the available data indicate that consumer spending, business investment, and industrial production have declined.  Financial markets remain quite strained and credit conditions tight.  Overall, the outlook for economic activity has weakened further.

Meanwhile, inflationary pressures have diminished appreciably.  In light of the declines in the prices of energy and other commodities and the weaker prospects for economic activity, the Committee expects inflation to moderate further in coming quarters.

The Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable economic growth and to preserve price stability.  In particular, the Committee anticipates that weak economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for some time. 

The focus of the Committee's policy going forward will be to support the functioning of financial markets and stimulate the economy through open market operations and other measures that sustain the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet at a high level.  As previously announced, over the next few quarters the Federal Reserve will purchase large quantities of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities to provide support to the mortgage and housing markets, and it stands ready to expand its purchases of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities as conditions warrant.  The Committee is also evaluating the potential benefits of purchasing longer-term Treasury securities.  Early next year, the Federal Reserve will also implement the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses.  The Federal Reserve will continue to consider ways of using its balance sheet to further support credit markets and economic activity.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; Christine M. Cumming; Elizabeth A. Duke; Richard W. Fisher; Donald L. Kohn; Randall S. Kroszner; Sandra Pianalto; Charles I. Plosser; Gary H. Stern; and Kevin M. Warsh.

In a related action, the Board of Governors unanimously approved a 75-basis-point decrease in the discount rate to 1/2 percent. In taking this action, the Board approved the requests submitted by the Boards of Directors of the Federal Reserve Banks of New York, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.  The Board also established interest rates on required and excess reserve balances of 1/4 percent. 

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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