WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said Tuesday that it would become a lender of last resort to corporate America and signaled a possible interest rate cut, but the stock market nose-dived again as the financial crisis continued to defy the best efforts of policymakers.
Normally, even a hint of easier credit would have been enough to rally markets, especially when coupled with the Fed's apparently unprecedented decision to purchase as much as hundreds of billions of dollars of short-term corporate paper -- the loans that businesses count on to fuel daily operations but now have trouble obtaining because of the credit freeze.
But these are not normal times and, after a brief morning rise, the Dow Jones industrial average bumped steadily downward, losing 508.39 points, or 5.1%, to close at 9,447.11. The Dow has dropped more than 800 points in the last two days and nearly 1,700 points, or 15.2%, since the beginning of last week. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 5.7%.
Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke hinted that the central bank would consider an interest rate cut, perhaps before the next scheduled meeting at the end of the month.
But even as he promised to continue using all the power at his disposal, Bernanke offered a grim assessment of the road ahead.
"The heightened financial turmoil that we have experienced of late may well lengthen the period of weak economic performance and further increase the risks to growth," he said.
Meanwhile, acknowledging that the financial crisis was now affecting state and local governments, the White House announced that it had opened talks with local officials. "We're talking to states and reviewing the issue," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked the federal government to step in on behalf of states that face problems selling the bonds they use to raise operating funds until tax receipts are received. Massachusetts delayed the sale of $750 million in short-term notes for the second time in two weeks on Tuesday as turmoil in the credit market continued to undermine demand.
On Wall Street, traders said they feared that rescue efforts in Europe as well as in the United States would not ward off a bruising downturn in the overall global economy. Even with more cash available, they said, it will take some time for banks to fix their balance sheets.
"Most people are coming to the realization that the financial crisis will probably be worked out in one way or another, but there's still a recession to deal with," said Phil Roth, a market analyst at New York brokerage house Miller Tabak & Co.
Though signs of global economic trouble have been building for weeks, actions by European governments in the last few days to prop up major banks have crystallized the depth of the problem in the minds of U.S. investors. British officials were expected to announce a plan this morning to rescue their nation's failing banks.
The Fed's announcement that it would enter the market for short-term commercial paper was credited with an immediate easing of conditions in some parts of that market, which supplies funds for such basic corporate needs as meeting payrolls and financing inventories.
Nonetheless, some observers are questioning whether the government is spreading itself too thin and whether the Fed can single-handedly salvage all the financial markets.
"Everyone knows they can't save everybody," said Carol Miller, manager of the Federated Capital Appreciation fund.
The government's various rescue efforts, including the $700-billion plan passed by Congress last week, are still mostly in the planning stages and will not begin operation for several weeks.
Senior Fed officials said the aim of the commercial paper program is to rebuild the confidence of money-market mutual fund operators who usually buy much of the short-term debt issued by American corporations. In recent days, they said, even solvent companies have not been able to issue debt with terms longer than a day or two.
The officials said that roughly half the three-month commercial paper it intended to purchase would come from financial firms, which have been hit especially hard by the turmoil.
Fed officials said they would buy both secured and unsecured debt, at their discretion. Details are still to be worked out, but issuers of unsecured debt would have to pay a fee of some sort, perhaps a kind of insurance premium, to ease the risk for the central bank.
In another effort to restore public confidence and allay fears of future bank failures, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on Tuesday gave initial approval to a plan to double the fees that banks pay to insure their deposits starting Jan. 1.
Congress last week temporarily increased the coverage for individual accounts to $250,000 from $100,000, although the FDIC said that didn't figure into its plans to increase the premiums that underwrite the insurance.