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Fed Expected to Cut Interest Rates Again

Faced with a spreading mortgage crisis, the Federal Reserve is expected to cut interest rates for a third time later and hint that even more rate cuts could be forthcoming.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has clearly signaled this outcome in a speech last month in which he said that the latest bout of financial market turbulence raised greater risks for the economy.

Most economists are expecting a quarter-point cut in the federal funds rate at Tuesday's meeting, which will be the Fed's last rate-setting discussion this year. That would push the federal funds rate down 4.25 percent and send bank's prime lending rate, the benchmark for millions of consumer and business loans, down to 7.25 percent, the lowest level in two years.

The Fed started cutting rates in September with a bolder-than-expected half-point move and then reduced the funds rate by a quarter-point at its Oct. 31 meeting. The central bank was trying to make sure that a severe slump in housing, spreading mortgage defaults and financial market turbulence which hit with force in August did not derail the economy.

In its October announcement, the Fed indicated that its two rate cuts might well be all that would be needed to make sure the country was not pushed into a recession.

But that view has undergone a dramatic about-face in the six weeks since that time, reflecting worsening conditions in financial markets and continued sharp declines in housing as lenders tighten standards in response to rising mortgage defaults.

Many analysts believe the current quarter and the early part of next year will represent the period of maximum danger for a possible recession.

"I think a full blown recession can be avoided but just barely," said David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors. He predicted that the Fed will follow up its expected December rate cut with three more reductions at its first three meetings of 2008.

For all of 2008, a forecasting panel of the Securities Industry and Financial Market Markets Association said Monday it believed overall economic growth, as measured by the gross domestic product, would come in at an anemic 2.1 percent as housing construction and sales continue to fall for most of the year. That would be the weakest GDP growth in six years.