Fed walks fine line between recession, inflation

Interest rate cut may be last for a while

Fragile economy

The economy crawled ahead at a pace of just 0.6 percent from January through March as housing and credit problems forced people and businesses to hunker down, the Commerce Department reported hours before Wednesday’s Fed action to cut interest rates a quarter point. Growth had been just as feeble in the prior quarter.

Job losses for the first three months of the year neared the staggering quarter-million mark, and a government report on Friday is expected to show that employers shed jobs again in April. The unemployment rate, now at 5.1 percent, also could creep higher in April and hit 6 percent early next year, analysts say.

? Scrambling to shore up the faltering economy, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to the lowest point in nearly four years Wednesday as the nation teetered on the edge of recession.

Wall Street rallied at first but then pulled back, concerned that the reduction might be the last for a while.

In fact, the Fed’s trim was smaller than those of recent months amid indications the central bank might pause to see whether months of powerful rate-cutting medicine and billions of dollars in stimulus checks will be enough to lift the country out of its slump.

Chairman Ben Bernanke led a divided Fed, in an 8-2 vote, in slicing its key rate by one-quarter percentage point to 2 percent.

In turn, the prime lending rate for millions of consumers and businesses fell by a corresponding amount, to 5 percent. The prime rate applies to certain credit cards, home equity lines of credit and other loans. Both rates are the lowest since late 2004.

The Federal Reserve, which has been dropping rates since last September, turned much more forceful early this year when housing, credit and financial problems worsened. Rate reductions in January and March alone marked the most aggressive intervention in a quarter-century in an effort to re-energize consumers and businesses.

Enthusiastic Wall Street investors drove the Dow Jones industrial average up more than 178 points – lifting it above 13,000 for the first time since early January – right after the Fed action. Then traders’ caution returned, and the index ended the day 11.81 points below where it started.

Although the Fed didn’t take another reduction off the table, a growing number of economists believe the central bank is winding down its rate-cutting campaign. Barring another hit to economic growth, they believe rates probably will stay where they are – perhaps through the rest of this year – in part because the Federal Reserve is concerned that further cuts could join with galloping energy and food prices and spread inflation dangerously higher.

Some analysts had hoped for a stronger statement that the Fed would take a pause in rate cuts, allowing the U.S. dollar to begin rebounding and causing a pullback in oil pricing.

Many analysts believe the weakness of the dollar is a bigger factor than supply and demand because the soft dollar draws investors worried about inflation into commodities such as oil. It also makes commodities less expensive for buyers operating in other currencies.