By KEITH BRADSHER, DAVID JOLLY and EDMUND L. ANDREWS
Central banks around the world cut short-term interest rates by up to half a percent on Wednesday after investors across Asia and Europe unleashed waves of sell orders onto already depressed stock exchanges.
The Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and other central banks from Britain and Switzerland to Canada and China announced rate reductions within seconds of one another. The British government separately announced a plan to pump billions of pounds into the country’s leading banks as part of a plan that would result in considerably greater government influence over the financial sector there.
The Fed said in a statement that, because of weakening economic activity, it had cut the Federal funds target rate by half a percentage point, to 1.5 percent. It also cut its discount rate by the same amount. The vote was unanimous.
The European Central Bank cuts its benchmark rate to 3.75 percent, from 4.25 percent.
The moves had some initial effect on stock markets. European markets pared their heavy losses after the announcement, only to fall again. On Wall Street, investors showed little sense of direction.
The Dow Jones industrials lurched from a 200-point drop at the open to a 200-point increase just 45 minutes later. The Dow was slightly lower after 10:30 a.m., but continued to fluctuate widely.
Federal Reserve officials said Wednesday’s action was the first time ever that the Fed had coordinated a reduction in interest rates with other central banks, though the United States has periodically joined with other countries to intervene in currency markets to stabilize foreign exchange rates.
The closest thing to a precedent came in November 2001, when the Fed and the European Central Bank announced a rate reduction on the same day. But those actions were nominally independent, and they did not involve any additional foreign central banks.
The cut came despite what had been a divergence of views between the United States and Europe ever since the financial crisis erupted in August 2007. The European Central Bank had been much more reluctant to lower interest rates, because policy makers there tended to see the mortgage meltdown primarily as an American problem with secondary ripple effects in Europe.
But any lingering comfort outside the United States evaporated in the last week, as money markets froze up around the world and major corporations and banks across Europe began suffocating from their inability to do even routine financial transactions.
Making matters worse, none of the epic emergency measures taken in the United States — the passage of a $700 billion bailout plan to buy up distressed securities; a doubling and redoubling of emergency loan facilities at the Fed to $900 billion on Monday; and the Fed’s unprecedented decision on Tuesday to start buying up short-term commercial debt for businesses of all types — had prevented the stock markets from plunging at vertigo-inducing amounts day after day.
Some analysts responded positively to the news.
“At last, a coordinated show of force,” Ian Shepherdson, chief United States economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note. “The move is to be applauded but there is more to come. The playbook to avoid depressions says rates need to be as close to zero as possible.”
Other economists were cautious about whether the various measures would be successful, after previous plans like the United States’ economic bailout have not halted steep declines in share prices.
“There’s no silver bullet for these problems,” said Derek Halpenny, a currency strategist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in London. “But the actions by the Fed on Tuesday, the U.K. government’s bailout plan today and the bit-by-bit approach European governments are taking show the authorities are getting more proactive.”
Tumult in financial markets is starting to spill into Asian political systems. Japan’s prime minister, Taro Aso, promised a committee of Parliament on Wednesday that he would postpone national elections, which had been expected early next month, to focus on the unfolding financial crisis.
“Honestly, this for us is beyond our imagination,” Mr. Aso told the budget committee. “We have huge fears going ahead.”
Most Asian markets closed before the central banks acted, and share prices across the region suffered a drubbing.