WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve is likely to follow its bold action last week to battle an economic downturn with further interest rate reductions, although analysts are split on just what size the future cuts will be.
Some believe the Fed will settle into a series of quarter-point moves, especially if upcoming economic reports show the economy is slowing but not toppling into an actual recession.
That would mean the Fed will cut its federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other, by a quarter point at the conclusion of Wednesday's meeting. It would be the fifth rate cut since last September.
Last week, the Fed announced a surprise three-quarter-point cut which drove the funds rate down to 3.5 percent. It was the largest reduction in this rate in more than two decades and the first change in the funds rate between meetings since the immediate aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues held an emergency videoconference call on Jan. 21 after a turbulent day on world markets when investors grew increasingly worried about what a recession in the United States would do to the prospects for global growth.
Many analysts believed the Fed would quickly follow last week's aggressive move with a cut of at least a half-point at its first regular meeting of the new year. That view gained support on Wednesday hours before the Fed announcement, when the government reported that the total economy slowed to a barely discernible 0.6 percent growth rate in the final three months of last year.
The increase in the gross domestic product was just half what had been expected and some economists believe that the GDP could tumble into negative territory in the current quarter. One definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP.
However, other economists said they were still looking for just a quarter-point move by the Fed because other reports show the economy appears to be skirting a full-blown recession.
In the category of positive reports was news Tuesday that orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket durable goods jumped 5.2 percent in December, the biggest increase in five months, and demand in a key series that tracks business investment shot up at the fastest pace since last March.
The House, worried about the possibility of a downturn, overwhelmingly approved a $146 billion economic stimulus bill on Tuesday. Passage in the Senate could be slowed by an effort to expand the measure.
Whatever the Fed does Thursday, analysts said that further rate cuts are likely until the central bank is sure that the economy is back on sound footing. Bernanke pledged in a speech on Jan. 10 to take decisive action to combat a slowdown. Many economists believe the funds rate could fall to 2.5 percent before the Fed stops easing.
"It is clear that the Fed has moved into a crisis-fighting posture," said David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors.