WASHINGTON - At their December meeting, Federal Reserve policy makers worried about the potential for a vicious cycle to develop in which credit problems could worsen. That could hurt economic growth and force the Fed to act more aggressively in cutting rates, according to meeting minutes made public yesterday.
"Some members noted the risk of an unfavorable feedback loop in which credit market conditions restrained economic growth further, leading to additional tightening of credit," the minutes said. "Such an adverse development could require substantial further easing" of rates.
Problems in the housing, credit, and financial markets drove the Fed to do an about-face on Dec. 11 and slice its key interest rate yet again in the hope it would bolster an economy that was losing speed.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and all but one of his colleagues agreed to trim the key rate by one-quarter percentage point, to 4.25 percent, a two-year low. The central bank ordered its key rate lowered three times last year; the December reduction was the most recent one.
The central bank had hinted at its October meeting that two rate cuts probably would be enough to help the economy survive the housing and credit stresses. But the problems intensified after that meeting, forcing the Fed to change its stance.
"Members judged that the softening in the outlook for economic growth warranted an easing of the stance of policy at this meeting," the minutes said. "In view of the further tightening of credit and deterioration of financial market conditions, the stance of monetary policy now appeared to be somewhat restrictive."
The 9-to-1 decision for a quarter-point reduction in December was opposed by Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who preferred a bolder cut of half a percentage point. Wall Street, disappointed by the quarter-point cut, took a nosedive Dec. 11. The Dow Jones plunged more than 290 points.
In Rosengren's view, the worsening housing slump, high energy prices, and more cautious spending by individuals and businesses raised the risk of continued economic weakness, the minutes said.
Fed policy makers were concerned that rising energy prices could spread inflation through the economy. That concern figured into the Fed's decision to cut rates by a modest one-quarter point in December, the minutes suggested. "Inflation pressures and risks remained," according to the minutes.
Many economists predict the Fed will slice rates again on Jan. 29-30, the first scheduled gathering of 2008.
"The Fed minutes are a testament that the economy is extremely volatile and policy makers have some very difficult decisions to make," said Richard Yamarone, economist at Argus Research.
The economy is believed to have slowed sharply in the October-to-December quarter, probably to a pace of just 1.5 percent or less, according to analysts' projections.
Economists' big worry is that individuals will reduce spending and businesses will become reluctant to hire workers, throwing the economy into a tailspin. The odds of a recession have grown, with some economists putting it at just under 50 percent.