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Markets & Finance

Fed Move Lifts Stocks


Bernanke & Co. have answered the market's pleas—sort of—with a cut to the discount rate. Stocks soared on the news

Investors finally had something to cheer about Friday. The Federal Reserve swooped in Friday morning and made an unusual move of cutting the discount rate to ease credit worries at troubled financial institutions. However, the Fed kept its key federal funds rate at 5.25% -- leaving many experts to wonder when it will lower that borrowing rate.

The discount rate -- the interest rate that the Fed charges to make direct loans to banks, was lowered from 6.25% to 5.75%. The move was made "to promote the restoration of orderly conditions in financial markets," the Fed said in a statement.

The Fed also hinted it was willing to step in again if conditions deteriorated further. "Tighter credit conditions and increased uncertainty have the potential to restrain economic growth going forward," the statement said. Policymakers are "monitoring the situation and [are] prepared to act as needed to mitigate the adverse effects on the economy arising from the disruptions in financial markets."

Though it's still a mystery how bad the credit crunch will get and when the Fed will really act, investors thought the effort was enough reason to buy stocks after a few days of heavy losses.

On Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average jumped 233.30 points, or 1.82%, to 13,079.08 -- after shooting up nearly 322 points in the first few minutes of trading.

The broader S&P 500 index rose 34.67 points, or 2.46%, to 1,445.94. The tech-heavy nasdaq composite index rose 53.96 points, or 2.2%, to 2,505.03.

The CBoE's volatility, or VIX, equity index -- a measure of market fear -- fell sharply Friday and was around 29.96, well below Thursday's peak of 37.50 when stocks were tumbling.

One report showed that the market turmoil has taken a toll on consumers. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell in August, to 83.3 from 90.4 in July, as the boost from falling gasoline prices and a tight labor market wasn't enough to offset problems in the financial markets. The report was much weaker than expected.

Next week's economic calendar is very light, with the key reports on durable goods orders and new home sales coming at the end of the week.

Thursday set the stage for the return of buyers attracted by low prices after days of carnage. On Thursday, the Dow average, the S&P 500 index, and Nasdaq clawed their way back after being down 11% to 12% from their July 19 highs. Market pundits were debating about whether the Fed needs to cut interest rates, and if its injections of cash to the market through repos were enough to ease the credit crunch.

Friday's discount rate cut by the Fed should help provide some much needed liquidity to institutions who are suffering from having a lot of dicey paper on their books, says Action Economics, noting that the cut in this rate is symbolic to some extent. Along with Treasuries and top tier debt, the discount window will accept mortgage backed securities, commercial paper, construction loans, consumer loans, and much of the "alphabet soup" paper that has seized up, explains Action Economics.

"The story now is will institutions use the facility and just how much liquidity the window will end up providing," wonders Action Economics.

Bill Tedford of Stephens Capital Management says he was "a little underwhelmed" by the Fed move, which by itself probably won’t solve the market's problems. The cut is largely symbolic, he explains, because "very few institutions take advantage of the discount window anyway."

However, David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's thinks the move was more than symbolic and has "real meat." He notes that the opening of the lending window for 30 days, rather than the usual one week limit, was key, and shows that the Fed won't judge banks in this time of emergency. "The Fed has performed monetary surgery with a scalpel rather than a sledge hammer, as it addresses the short-term paper market, not the overall cost of borrowing," he said in a note.

Noting that the Fed doesn’t like to shock the markets, Tedford thinks Bernanke & Co. is gearing up for a rate cut. Many economists agree that the Fed will lower the federal funds rate, perhaps as early as September. Goldman Sachs predicted that the Fed will cut rates three times before yearend.

The Fed's decision was welcome news to beaten down financial stocks like Bear Stearns (BSC) and mortgage lenders such as Countrywide Financial (CFC), which rebounded on Friday.

Among other stocks in the news, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) reported earnings of 66 cents per share, vs. 48 cents a year ago on a 16% rise in revenue. The stock was up more than 3% in pre-market trading.

Dell Inc. (DELL) says that as a result of an independent investigation that identified errors and irregularities in its accounting, it will restate its fiscal year financial reports from 2003 to 2006, along with the first quarter of 2007.

Midwest Air Group (MEH) agreed to be acquired by an affiliate of TPG Capital and Northwest Airlines (NWA) in a $450 million deal. Each Midwest share will be converted into a right to receive $17 in cash. Airtran Holdings (AAI) ended its effort to buy Midwest Air Group.

Kohl's Corp. (KSS) reported earnings of 83 cents, vs. 69 cents a year ago on 1.3% higher same-store sales and 8.7% higher total sales. A Deutsche Bank analyst reportedly upgraded the stock from hold to buy.

Nordstrom (JWN) reported earnings of 71 cents per share, vs. 67 cents a year ago as same-store sales rose 5.9%. The department store chain sees earnings of $2.91 to $2.97 in fiscal 2008 as same-store sales grow another 5 to 6%.

Whole Foods Market (WFMI) announced a judge has denied a request by the Federal Trade Commission to immediately stop Whole Foods' merger with Wild Oats Market (OATS).

NYSE Euronext (NYX) says that so far this month trading volume on the firm's equities exchanges is up 110% from a year ago. The Nasdaq Stock Market (NDAQ) saw its largest total matched volume ever on Thursday; 3.73 billion shares were traded.

Oil prices moved higher on rising concerns about hurricanes and short covering. September West Texas Intermediate crude oil was up 90 cents to $71.90 per barrel.

In Europe, stock indexes bounced back. In London, the FTSE 100 index climbed 3.5% to 6,064.2. Germany's DAX index spiked 1.49% to 7,378.29. In Paris, the CAC 40 index jumped 1.86% to 5,363.63.

Asian markets plunged overnight Friday. In Japan, the Nikkei index fell 5.42% to 15,273.68. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index dropped 1.38% to 20,387.13. The Shanghai composite index slid 2.28% to 4,656.57.

Treasury Markets

Treasurys finished mixed as the Fed's decision to cut the discount rate calmed the equities markets but spawned debate whether the FOMC will cut rates on or before Sept. 18.

The 2-year Treasury note, strong yesterday, added 03/32 to 100-28/32 for yield of 4.151%. The 10-year note eased 02/32 to 100-21/32 for yield of 4.667%.


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