Federal Reserve cuts rates to near zero in emergency action

Dow futures immediately plunged by 1,000 points as traders worried that the crisis response would still fall short.

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By Lucy Bayly

The Federal Reserve cut interest rates to nearly zero Sunday, an emergency move that represented its second attempt to stimulate an economy that has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

By making borrowing as cheap as possible, the central bank hopes businesses and individuals will have ready access to nearly interest-free cash to invest and spend.

After Sunday's move, the new borrowing rate range is between 0 percent and 0.25 percent.

The action was little relief for markets, with Dow futures immediately plunging by as much as 1,000 points after the announcement and hitting a "limit-down" threshold as traders worried that it leaves the economy out of any heavy artillery for future action.

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The Fed's Open Market Committee issued a statement saying the rate would stay low "until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals."

It said it was taking the action because "the coronavirus outbreak has harmed communities and disrupted economic activity in many countries, including the United States."

The Fed cut rates by half a percentage point March 3, the first emergency rate cut since the financial crisis more than a decade ago.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Fed is doing just that in an effort to keep credit markets functioning and prevent the type of starving of credit that nearly toppled the global economy into a depression in 2008," said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. "The Fed needed to act now, before the open of Asian markets in just a few hours."

Sunday's move follows an ugly week on Wall Street, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 both entering bear market territory and the Dow recording its biggest one-day drop. Investors were responding to mounting fears that the viral pandemic will take a heavy toll on the nation's economy, with stores, businesses and schools all closing and industry and sporting events being canceled.

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President Donald Trump has been urging the Fed to cut its rates, and at a news conference Sunday afternoon, he said the move made him "very happy."

Amid widespread sentiment among traders that the White House had dragged its heels on addressing the virus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Sunday that Trump has "instructed" him to do whatever is needed to combat the outbreak and deal with the economic impact.

The Fed's crisis action Sunday night also includes a series of moves to enable easier lending for banks by cutting the reserve requirement to zero. In addition, the Fed coordinated with five other central banks to ensure borrowing liquidity by lowering rates and extending the lending period. The Fed will also buy up $500 billion of Treasury notes and $200 billion of mortgage securities.