This may be the biggest economic development since the Great Depression.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Frantically trying to stop the bleeding on Wall Street, the Federal Reserve took a first-time step Tuesday to get cash directly to businesses and hinted that interest rates could come down soon. Stocks continued their free fall anyway and hit new five-year lows.
The central bank invoked emergency powers to lend money to companies outside the financial sector and buy up mounds of commercial paper, the short-term debt that firms use to pay for everyday expenses like salaries and supplies.
To that end, the Fed announced it would begin buying companies' short-term debt. The powers were bestowed during the Depression as part of the Federal Reserve Act.
The government's bailout package is aimed at thawing lending by buying bad mortgage-related debt off the books of troubled financial institutions. The idea is that the banks would then be in a better position to lend and get the economy moving.
Commercial paper borrowing usually ranges from overnight to less than a week. But in the current climate of mistrust, the market has dried up considerably.
The action makes the Fed a crucial source of credit for nonfinancial businesses in addition to commercial banks and investment firms -- and also exposes it to risk because so much of the debt would not be backed by collateral.
Here's a question for everyone: What does it mean when all the companies in your country owe money to the Central Bank?