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Give them an "A" for effort. They're trying really, really hard.
A gaggle of global central bankers joined forces this morning, simultaneously cutting interest rates in a worldwide showing of economic force not seen since 9/11.
Ben Bernanke and friends cut the fed funds rate to 1.5% -- down from 5.25% last year -- in what amounts to a desperate attempt to get financial markets to stop hemorrhaging. Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank all followed suit. Japan would have loved to join the party, but it's been on the rate-cut bandwagon for years. With its rate already at a dismal 0.5%, Japan ran out of bullets a long time ago.
Will it work?
With the Dow Jones crushing floors and digging itself deeper day after day, anything seems to be worth a shot these days. But, alas, the Dow initially shed another couple hundred points on the news. Companies that would seemingly benefit from the cuts -- the likes of Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) -- continued to fall, too. Nothing seems to raise their spirits these days. What gives?
For one, it's interesting to note that as the Fed aggressively cut rates in the past year, 30-year mortgage rates have barely budged. A 30-year fixed rate mortgage runs about 5.8% these days, down no more than a few basis points over last year, according to Bankrate.com. The Fed can do all it can to grease banks' lending capacity, but banks just don't want to lend right now. They're scared. They're injured. And there isn't much the Fed can do in short order to fix that.
It's also interesting to remember that we've almost come full circle to the ultra-low interest rates that got us into this mess in the first place. There are all sorts of debate topics over who's to blame for our economic mayhem -- lax regulation, corporate greed, predator lending -- but few disagree that interest rates were far too low for far too long. After the dot-com bust and 9/11 attacks, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan took rates down to 1%, letting the economy feed on artificially low rates until the party turned into the mother of all hangovers throughout the past year.
And look how that turned out
In 2003, Greenspan patted himself on the back, saying, "Last year was surely one of the most memorable years ever experienced by the home mortgage market. Owing largely to the lowest mortgage interest rates in more than three decades and rising home prices, close to 10 million regular home mortgages were refinanced." Eat your own words, Alan.
Well, here we are again. We may not have the lowest mortgage rates in three decades, and home prices certainly aren't rising, but super-low interest rates may be the impetus to fuel more absurdities -- a weak dollar, rising inflation, a slap in the face for those trying to save money, you name it. Enjoy the ride.
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