17 March 2008, 18:12  Fed takes actions to ease crisis

Urgently moving to contain a deepening credit crisis, the Federal Reserve is trying to restore confidence in panicked financial markets by becoming a lender of last resort for Wall Street investment houses that on Monday can begin securing short-term emergency loans. However, on Wall Street skittish investors drove stocks down by more than 180 points in the first few minutes of trading. Trading on world markets also was down sharply. President Bush rushed to strike a note of calm to the turbulent situation on Monday morning, hailing the Fed's action and saying: "We've taken strong decisive action." The president spoke after meeting at the White House with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other members of his economic team. The central bank, in an extraordinarily rare weekend move, took the bold action Sunday in an attempt to calm the markets. It also approved a cut in its emergency lending rate to financial institutions to 3.25 percent from 3.50 percent, effective immediately. "These steps will provide financial institutions with greater assurance of access to funds," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters in a brief conference call Sunday evening. The Fed acted just after JPMorgan Chase & Co. agreed to buy rival Bear Stearns Cos. for $236.2 million in a deal that represents a stunning collapse for one of the world's largest and most venerable investment houses. Just on Friday the Fed had raced to provide emergency financing to cash-strapped Bear Stearns through JPMorgan. Days earlier the Fed announced a set of other unconventional steps to thaw out a credit market in danger of freezing shut. The Fed's actions come as fears have spread that other financial houses could also be on shaky ground. "It seems as if Bernanke & Co. are pulling out all the stops to avoid a serious financial market meltdown," Richard Yamarone, an economist at Argus Research, said Sunday evening. Yet anxiety persisted. On world financial markets, Asian stocks plunged Monday after the JPMorgan and Fed announcements. Markets in Australia and New Zealand were also off and European stocks fell in early trading. The Bank of England moved Monday to inject an extra $10.1 billion into its financial system to provide relief.

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