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Fed cuts rates, says economy still weak

The Federal Reserve continues its quest to revive the U.S. economy by making its 11th rate cut of the year.

The Federal Reserve on Tuesday said continuing economic weakness prompted it to cut interest rates for the 11th time this year.

The federal funds rate was lowered by 25 basis points to 1.75 percent, a level not seen since the early 1960s. The funds rate is the interest that banks can charge each other for overnight loans.

The Fed also lowered the discount rate, the interest rate it charges banks to borrow, by 25 basis points to 1.25 percent.

Though the Fed said weakness in demand is starting to slow, it said in a statement Tuesday that signs of that were "preliminary and tentative."

"Against the background of its long-run goals of price stability and sustainable economic growth and of the information currently available, the risks are weighted mainly toward conditions that may generate economic weakness in the foreseeable future," the statement read.

In 1999 and 2000, the Fed raised the funds rate six times for a total increase of 1.75 percentage points to a high of 6.5 percent in May. It also raised the discount rate five times, to 6 percent, an increase of 1.5 percentage points.

However, recent economic data have indicated that the U.S. economy might be slowing too much. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the value of all U.S. goods and services, grew 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2000, 1.3 percent in the first quarter of 2001, and a timid 0.3 percent in the second quarter. Preliminary data for third-quarter GDP showed that economic growth fell by 1.1 percent.

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and other Fed members started the assault on interest rates Jan. 3 by making a cut after an unscheduled meeting. They have lowered rates after each meeting this year.

The Fed took a pro-active stance after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, making another surprise cut Sept. 17 in an effort to calm the financial markets and stave off negative effects on the economy.

Even though the markets posted huge losses when they re-opened the following week, they have climbed back from post-Sept. 11 lows and even approached highs not seen since the summer.

The Nasdaq composite index closed at 2,046.84 last Wednesday, the first time it closed above 2,000 since Aug. 7. The Dow Jones industrial average also finished at 10,114.29 last Wednesday, eclipsing the 10,000 mark for the first time since Sept. 5.

Some market watchers say they believe the rally launched from hopes that the economic recovery may arrive sooner than previously thought. But dour economic news at the end of last week stalled the tech stock resurgence.

The Fed's primary focus is to contain inflation, and its main instrument is interest rates. When it senses the economy is growing at a rate that could ignite inflation, it often raises rates, which increases the cost of borrowing money and can pinch corporate financial activity.

But when the economy seems headed for trouble, the Fed lowers rates. Lowering interest rates makes it less costly for businesses to finance expansion plans and increases the incentive to borrow money, which can spark economic growth. Lower rates can result in more stable stock prices, too, because interest-paying investments become less attractive.

Economists generally believe that the positive effects of interest rate cuts take several months to appear, and even then, some industries might benefit more than others. Some analysts say they believe cheaper loans might not immediately help technology companies, because the industry faces other issues like excess inventory and decreased customer equipment spending.

The Fed's policy-making committee meets again Jan. 30, 2002.