The action came fast and furious last week, which was to be expected given the surfeit of news and data. Leading the charge was the Federal Reserve, which did what most pundits expected by lowering the fed funds rate another 50 basis points to 3.0%.
Fear of recession is the primary reason the Fed has been slashing the fed funds rate over the past two weeks, and the fear is well-grounded: Gross domestic product grew at a 0.6% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2007, a palpable slowdown from the 4.9% pace in the previous quarter. The slowdown provided the Fed with the fodder for its aggressive response, which had been criticized by some observers as an overreaction to volatile markets.
Additional support for aggressive action was supplied by Friday's employment report, which showed that non-farm payrolls fell 17,000 in January, the first drop since August 2003. Gains in health care, retail trade and leisure were offset by declines in manufacturing, construction and financial services.
Of course declines in manufacturing, construction and financial services are tied to declines in new-home sales, which decreased 4.7% to an annual pace of 604,000 in December, the fewest since February 1995, and followed a 634,000 rate the prior month. For the year, sales dropped 26%, the most since records began in 1963, while the median price of a new home fell to $219,200 in December from $244,700 a year earlier.