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Traders bet Fed will slash rates to zero by April

By Ann Saphir
FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Board building on Constitution Avenue is pictured in Washington

By Ann Saphir

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Futures traders are betting the Federal Reserve will slash U.S. interest rates to near zero by April, even as many doubted the central bank can do much to stop economic damage from the spread of the new coronavirus.

With cases of the illness surpassing 100,000 globally, and stock prices continuing their slide, prices of futures contracts tied to the Fed's key overnight lending rate reflected better-than-even bets the central bank will push its target rate down to the 0 to 0.25% range by its April meeting.

That level has not been seen since the financial crisis and its aftermath. Already this week the Fed made an emergency half-percentage-point rate cut to help shield the U.S. economy from effects of the outbreak.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday called for the Fed to do more, in response to a question about further fiscal stimulus at the signing of a $8.3 billion funding bill for vaccine research and public health prevention efforts.

Most Fed policymakers have shied away from calling explicitly for more stimulus, but more analysts have been making the case for it.

"Policy should focus on protecting the incomes of sick workers, including vulnerable groups like the self-employed, and supporting the eventual rebound in output," wrote Oxford Economics' Gregory Daco. "If authorities decide to close schools, severely restrict travel and limit all nonessential movement, the U.S. economy will fall into a recession – with zero GDP growth in 2020 – putting an end to its longest economic expansion ever."


EVERYTHING ON THE TABLE

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said on Bloomberg Television that more action by the U.S. central bank could come "at any time" as policymakers monitor the situation.

"Everything is on the table," Bullard said. "We are willing to do more."

The remark appeared to set the table for the Fed to start using bond buying and other measures to shore up the economy.

During the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, the Fed bought trillions of dollars of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities to push down long-term borrowing costs and get businesses spending and hiring again.

But with investors flocking to assets seen as safe amid uncertainty over how much economic damage the coronavirus epidemic will cause, the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note has already sunk to record lows of well below 1%, limiting the scope of Fed bond purchases to do more to stimulate borrowing and spending.


(Reporting by Ann Saphir with reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Paul Simao and David Gregorio)