What Is the U.S. Federal Reserve?

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Over the past decade, the Fed has deployed trillions of dollars in stimulus while expanding its regulatory oversight. Under the Trump administration, the central bank is back on the front lines to fight the coronavirus crisis.

Last updated March 31, 2020

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The U.S. central banking system—the Federal Reserve, or the Fed—is the most powerful economic institution in the United States, perhaps the world. Its core responsibilities include setting interest rates, managing the money supply, and regulating financial markets. It also acts as a lender of last resort during periods of economic crisis, as demonstrated during the 2008 financial meltdown and the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Given the immensity of its powers, the Fed is no stranger to controversy. Some economists have argued that its aggressive policies risk inflation and asset bubbles, while others feel the Fed’s support for financial markets favors big business over workers. The central bank is also one of the most politically independent U.S. government bodies, which has long caused tension with lawmakers and presidents, including Donald J. Trump.

What does the Fed do?

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For most of the nineteenth century, the United States had no central bank to serve as a lender of last resort, leaving the country vulnerable to a series of financial panics and banking runs. In response, Congress passed—and President Woodrow Wilson signed into law—the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, which created a Federal Reserve System of twelve public-private regional banks. The New York Fed, which is responsible for the heart of the nation’s financial life, has long been considered first among equals. It runs the Fed’s trading desks, helps regulate Wall Street, and oversees the largest pool of assets.

 

Today, the Fed is tasked with managing U.S. monetary policy, regulating bank holding companies and other member banks, and monitoring systemic risk in the financial system. The seven-member Board of Governors, the system’s seat of power, is based in Washington, DC, and currently led by Fed Chair Jerome Powell. Each member is appointed by the president to a fourteen-year term, subject to confirmation by the Senate. The Board of Governors forms part of a larger board, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which includes five of the twelve regional bank presidents on a rotating basis. The FOMC is responsible for setting interest rate targets and managing the money supply.  

Historically, the Fed has been driven by a dual mandate: first, to maintain stable prices, and second, to achieve full employment. The definition of the latter is debated by economists but is often considered to mean an unemployment rate around 4 or 5 percent. To pursue these goals, the Fed’s most important lever is the buying or selling of U.S. Treasury bonds in the open market to influence banking reserves and interest rates. For instance, the Fed’s purchase of bonds puts more money into the financial system and thus reduces the cost of borrowing. At the same time, the Fed can also make discount loans to banks to increase the money supply.

What does the Fed chair do?

Few officials in Washington enjoy the power and autonomy of the chair of the Federal Reserve. They act as a spokesperson for the central bank, negotiate with the executive and Congress, and control the agenda of the board and FOMC meetings. Analysts and investors hang on the chair’s every word, and markets instantly react to the faintest clues on interest rate policy.

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The chair is appointed by the president, and the Fed, which controls its own budget, is mostly independent from the whims of Congress. Once confirmed, the Fed chair is also largely free of control by the White House; there is no accepted mechanism for a president to remove them, and it is legally uncertain if one could do so at all.   

Recent Fed chairs include:

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Paul Volcker, 1979-1987. Appointed by President Jimmy Carter, Volcker, previously head of the New York Fed, took over at a time of double-digit inflation and slow growth, known as “stagflation.” To fight inflation he restricted the supply of money in the economy, pushing interest rates to their highest level in history, topping 20 percent. While the immediate result was a recession and high unemployment, many economists say this “shock therapy” set the stage for the country’s 1980s economic boom. President Ronald Reagan replaced Volcker in 1987 after disagreements over rising U.S. debt, high interest rates, and financial regulation.

Alan Greenspan, 1987-2006. Reagan appointed Greenspan, an economist and former White House advisor, who would go on to serve five terms as Fed chair under four different presidents. A noted inflation hawk and skeptic of government regulation, he was often credited with leading the U.S. economy through its long 1990s expansion. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, many experts also criticized him for doing little to regulate risky new financial products and allowing a housing bubble to build.

Ben Bernanke, 2006-2014. Appointed by President George W. Bush, Bernanke’s two terms spanned the worst years of the 2008 crisis and its aftermath, known as the Great Recession. His aggressive response included slashing interest rates to zero, supporting financial institutions on the brink of collapse, and pumping trillions of dollars into financial markets to support liquidity and lending. President Barack Obama reappointed Bernanke to a second term, crediting him with avoiding a total economic collapse.

Janet Yellen, 2014-2018. After Bernanke announced his retirement in 2013, Obama chose Yellen, a Yale-trained economist and the first woman to head the U.S. central bank. Before becoming chair, Yellen had issued early warnings about the housing crash and pushed for more aggressive monetary policy to bring down unemployment. During her term, as the United States saw a recovery in the labor market, Yellen oversaw the first rise in interest rates in nearly a decade.

Jerome Powell, 2018-Present. New presidents have almost always reappointed the sitting Fed chair to a second term, regardless of party. But after Yellen’s first term expired in February 2018, Trump replaced her with Powell, a businessman, financier, and sitting Fed governor. Though Trump criticized Yellen’s “easy money” policies during his 2016 campaign, Powell initially followed her blueprint for slowly increasing interest rates. Like the president, however, Powell has been more skeptical about some of the Fed’s regulations, particularly on smaller banks that have faced more scrutiny in the wake of the financial crisis. Still, Trump has repeatedly threatened to sack Powell—though it’s unclear if he has the power to do so—alleging he is not doing enough to support the economy.

How has the Fed’s regulatory role evolved?

The Fed’s regulatory purview steadily expanded through the 1990s. The U.S. banking industry changed dramatically under a 1999 law that legalized the merger of securities, insurance, and banking institutions, and allowed banks to combine retail and investment operations. These two functions had previously been separated under the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. The changes also made the Fed responsible for ensuring banks’ solvency by enforcing provisions such as minimum capital requirements, consumer protections, antitrust laws, and anti–money laundering policies.

The U.S. financial crisis, which expanded into a global economic crisis beginning in 2008, highlighted the systemic risk embedded in the financial system, and raised questions over the Fed’s oversight. Some economists point to the repeal of Glass-Steagall in particular as the starting gun for a “race to the bottom” among financial regulators, which allowed “too-big-to-fail” institutions to take on dangerous levels of risk. As many assets became “toxic,” especially new types of securities based on risky housing loans, the federal government was forced to step in with trillions of dollars in bailout money to avert the financial system’s collapse.

In the aftermath, debate has continued over how both regulatory changes and monetary policy created the conditions for the crisis. In addition to the Glass-Steagall repeal, regulators in the early 2000s also allowed banks to take on unprecedented levels of debt. Bernanke has blamed excessive debt, lax government regulation, and gaps in oversight of too-big-to-fail banks for the disaster.

In addition, some critics blame the Fed’s long-running policy of low interest rates for contributing to the crisis. Many economists judge Fed policy by the so-called Taylor rule, formulated by Stanford economist John Taylor, which says that interest rates should be raised when inflation or employment rates are high. Taylor and others have argued [PDF] that then Fed Chair Greenspan’s decision to keep rates low during a period of economic growth helped create the housing bubble by making home loans extremely cheap and encouraging many borrowers to go into debt beyond their means. Greenspan attributed this policy to his belief that the U.S. economy faced the risk of deflation, or a decline in prices, due to a tightening supply of credit.

How did the Fed deal with the Great Recession?

Like other central banks around the world, the Fed immediately slashed interest rates to boost lending and other economic activity. By the end of 2008, it dropped rates to near zero, where they would stay until 2015. Unlike some other central banks, including the European Central Bank, the Fed decided against negative interest rates. It thought that such a move—essentially charging banks for holding their funds with the Fed in order to spur them to lend—was unlikely to have much effect.

However, the Fed did pursue another unorthodox policy, known as quantitative easing, or QE, which refers to the large-scale purchase of assets, including Treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and other debt. Between 2008 and 2014, the Fed’s balance sheet ballooned from about $900 billion to over $4.5 trillion as the central bank launched several rounds of asset buying.

The goal of QE was to further spur lending when all other monetary policy tools had been maxed out. This was thought to work in multiple ways: by taking bad assets off of banks’ balance sheets, by dramatically increasing the supply of money to be lent, and by signaling to banks and investors that the Fed was committed to taking any steps necessary to restore growth.

The move was not without its critics, with some economists fearing such an increase in the money supply would cause out-of-control inflation. Many also argued that additional monetary easing would do little at a time of low demand in the economy.

While inflation hasn’t materialized, the results are still debated. Fed officials and others say QE helped stabilize the economy, increase lending, and boost employment. Other experts call the policy disappointing, noting the historically slow U.S. recovery and worrying that QE created asset bubbles and mainly benefited the wealthy. Fears also remain that winding down, or “tapering,” the Fed’s asset purchases have contributed to market instability—leading to several so-called “taper tantrums.”

What did Dodd-Frank do?

In the wake of the financial crisis, Congress passed a new set of regulations, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The legislation seeks to reduce systemic risk through a wide range of policies, including new limits on derivatives trading, stricter oversight of banks, and greater consumer protections. A major plank is the so-called Volcker Rule, named after the former Fed chair, which prohibits federally backed banks from proprietary trading, or making risky bets with their depositors’ funds.

Dodd-Frank introduced what is essentially a third official mandate for the Fed, alongside its inflation and employment targets, by expanding its oversight of the financial system. It does that in part via the Fed’s participation in the newly created Financial Stability Oversight Council, which identifies risks to the system and imposes new regulations as needed.

The Fed is also now in charge of keeping a closer eye on banks’ solvency, to ensure they have enough reserves to survive another major downturn. All financial firms big enough to pose a risk to the broader economy—known as “systemically important financial institutions”—are evaluated yearly with so-called “stress tests” that simulate the conditions of an economic crisis. These policies together represent a consolidation of oversight in Washington—previously, the regional reserve banks, and the New York Fed in particular, took the lead on regulating banks in their territory.

What is the future of Fed policy?

After 2014, with U.S. growth rebounding and unemployment falling, the Fed sought to return to normalcy. QE purchases ended in 2014, though the Fed did not move to start gradually shrinking its balance sheet until 2017. The Fed also began slowly raising interest rates starting in December 2015, the first increase since 2006.

However, these efforts were interrupted in 2019, as the Fed became worried about slowing global growth and rising trade tensions. In July 2019, Powell announced he was cutting interest rates, which had reached 2.5 percent, and several more cuts followed that year. At the same time, the Fed once again started buying assets in late 2019 at a pace of $60 billion per month in an attempt to calm volatile financial markets.

Beginning in early 2020, a worldwide pandemic of a novel coronavirus, which causes a disease known as COVID-19, emerged as an economic disruption that analysts fear could rival or even surpass the 2008 crisis. The Fed responded with an immediate return to its emergency footing in March 2020, cutting rates to zero and announcing a slew of measures to bolster markets and pump money into the financial system. These included an immediate plan to purchase $700 billion worth of assets and an announcement that it would make unlimited asset purchases—essentially reviving full scale QE—as it saw fit. It has also created a range of new programs for lending directly to businesses.

As the crisis worsens, some economists have argued that the Fed could take other unusual measures, such as buying local government bonds or sending stimulus money directly to Americans. Powell has promised to continue aggressive measures, but the full scope of the crisis, and the Fed’s willingness to further push the envelope, has yet to come into focus.

Mohammed Aly Sergie contributed to this article.

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Resources

This Congressional Research Service report examines the Federal Reserve's monetary policy in 2014.

This 2013 IMF report found that unconventional monetary policies largely achieved their domestic goals.

A Bloomberg QuickTake explains the Fed's taper and includes additional links tracing the biography of Fed Chair Janet Yellen.

This March 2015 address by Fed Chair Janet Yellen outlines her views on improving the oversight of large financial institutions.

Federal Reserve economists Jane Ihrig, Ellen E. Meade, and Gretchen C. Weinbach analyze the changing nature of the Fed's policymaking in this paper.

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