As pressure built in the credit markets and stocks spiraled lower around the world on Monday, the Federal Reserve was considering a radical new plan to jump-start the engine of the financial system.
Under a proposal being discussed with the Treasury Department, the Fed could buy vast amounts of the unsecured short-term debt that companies rely on to finance their day-to-day activities, according to officials familiar with the discussions. If this were to happen, the central bank would come closer than ever to lending directly to businesses.
While the move would put more taxpayer dollars at risk, it underscores the growing sense of urgency felt by policymakers in a climate where lending has virtually dried up.
The plan was being formulated amid cascading losses in global stock markets, as the banking crisis spread across Europe and investors feared dire consequences for the world economy. The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 800 points before a late recovery, finishing down 369.88, below 10,000 points for the first time since 2004.
Even before bankers on Wall Street reached their desks, European stocks were plunging. The Russian stock market dropped 19.1 percent, the biggest decline since the fall of the Soviet Union. Major indexes in London and Frankfurt lost more than 7 percent; stocks in Paris fell by 9 percent. Stocks in Latin America and other emerging economies took their worst collective tumble in a decade.
Volatility reached the highest level in two decades, and oil prices fell below $90 for the first time since February.
“There is a growing recognition that not only has the credit crunch refused to be contained, it continues to spread,” said Ed Yardeni, an investment strategist. “It’s gone truly global.”
Investors are worried about what the evaporation of credit will do an already-weakened global economy. In the United States, consumers appear to be significantly curbing spending; last month, employers cut more jobs than any month in five years. The $6 decline in oil prices, which settled at $87.81 a barrel, stemmed in part from fears that demand will slacken in the face of a deteriorating economy.
The Fed plan is intended to renew the flow of credit on which the economy depends. Under its plan, the central bank would buy unsecured commercial paper, short-term IOUs issued by banks, businesses and municipalities.
The market for that kind of debt has all but shut down in the last week, with many major corporations unable to borrow for longer than a day at a time. The volume of such debt totaled about $1.6 trillion as of Oct. 1, down 11 percent from three weeks earlier.
A healthy world economy relies on the easy flow of such short-term loans among banks, businesses and consumers, a stream that has been choked as banks become more fearful of giving out cash.
Those fears persisted over the weekend despite the $700 billion bailout package that Congress approved last week. The cost of borrowing from banks and corporations remained high on Monday, increased in part by a series of high-profile bank bailouts in Europe, where governments scrambled to save several major lenders from collapse.