WSJ: What the Fed’s Near-Zero Rates Mean for You

Action could have effects on rates for mortgages, credit cards, student loans

By Bourree Lam, Updated March 16, 2020 1:07 pm ET

On Sunday, the Federal Reserve cut its short-term benchmark rate by 1 percentage point to near zero ahead of its scheduled March meeting to fight the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move lowers the federal-funds rate to a range between 0% and 0.25%.

It is the second emergency rate cut in recent weeks. The Fed said it would hold these rates until the economy has weathered recent events.

Last year, the Fed cut rates three times to keep the U.S. economy moving amid slowing global growth and trade tensions. This year, economic disruptions from the coronavirus epidemic has unsettled global financial markets, with policy makers slashing rates in response.

Interest rates affect the cost of borrowing, so falling interest rates can ripple through the cost of mortgages, the interest earned on savings accounts and more. A few things to watch for:

Following the Fed’s first emergency rate cut, mortgage rates fell to their lowest level on record. For the week of March 12, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage moved up slightly to 3.36%, mortgage-finance giant Freddie Mac said. The 15-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped to 2.77%.

Mortgage rates are closely linked to yields on the 10-year Treasury, which fell to record lows earlier this month and are now below 1%. Mortgage rates could drop more, though they don’t always move in lockstep with the government benchmark.

With rates trending down, whether it makes sense to refinance a mortgage now comes down to a host of personal factors.

Credit Cards
A decline in interest rates can sometimes affect a credit card’s annual percentage rate, or APR, which is based on a broader market rate plus margin.

The average margin was 12.13 percentage points on interest-charging cards in November, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by, a consumer finance website. The Fed rate cut could help lower interest rates, as long as credit-card lenders don’t continue to increase the margins they charge.

Credit-card balances totaled $1.09 trillion in January, hovering around a record high, according to the Fed. The average annual percentage rate on interest-charging cards was 16.9% as of November, according to the Fed.

“Those rate cuts are happening for borrowers, but with a lag,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at “It doesn’t happen immediately. It can take two or three statement cycles before that lower rate shows up.”

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