The Federal Reserve System, Its Four Functions, and How It All Works

Is the Fed Really a "Secret Society" That Controls Your Money?

Jerome Powell
•••  Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve System is America's central bank. That makes it the most powerful single actor in the U.S. economy and thus the world. It is so complicated that some consider it a "secret society" that controls the world's money. They’re right. Central banks do manage the money supply around the globe. But there is nothing secret about it.

System Structure

To understand how the Fed works, you must know its structure. The Federal Reserve System has three components. The Board of Governors directs monetary policy. Its seven members are responsible for setting the discount rate and the reserve requirement for member banks. Staff economists provide all analyses. They include the monthly Beige Book and the semi-annual Monetary Report to Congress.

The Federal Open Market Committee oversees open market operations. That includes setting the target for the fed funds rate, which guides interest rates. The board members and four of the 12 bank presidents are members. The FOMC meets eight times a year.

The Federal Reserve Banks supervise commercial banks and implement policy. They work with the board to supervise commercial banks. There is one located in each of their 12 districts. 

Four Functions of the Federal Reserve System

The Federal Reserve has four functions. Its most critical and visible function is to manage inflation and maintain stable prices. It sets a 2 percent inflation target for the core inflation rate. Why is managing inflation so important? Ongoing inflation is like an insidious cancer that destroys any benefits of growth.

Second, the Fed supervises and regulates many of the nation’s banks to protect consumers. Third, it maintains the stability of the financial markets and constrains potential crises. Fourth, it provides banking services to other banks, the U.S. government, and foreign banks.

The Fed performs its functions by conducting monetary policy. The goal of monetary policy is healthy economic growth. That target is a 2 to 3 percent gross domestic product growth rate. It also pursues maximum employment. The goal is the natural rate of unemployment of 4.7 to 5.8 percent.

1. Manages Inflation

The Federal Reserve controls inflation by managing credit, the largest component of the money supply. This is why people say the Fed prints money. The Fed moderates long-term interest rates through open market operations and the fed funds rate.

When there is no risk of inflation, the Fed makes credit cheap by lowering interest rates. This increases liquidity and spurs business growth. That ultimately reduces unemployment. The Fed monitors inflation through the core inflation rate, as measured by the Personal Consumer Expenditures Price Index. It strips out volatile food and gas prices from the regular inflation rate. Food and gas prices rise in the summer and fall in the winter. That's too fast for the Fed to manage.

The Federal Reserve uses expansionary monetary policy when it lowers interest rates. That expands credit and liquidity. These make the economy grow faster and create jobs. If the economy grows too much, it triggers inflation. At this point, the Federal Reserve uses contractionary monetary policy and raises interest rates. High interest rates make borrowing expensive. Increased loan costs slow growth and decrease the likelihood of businesses raising prices. The major players in the fight against inflation are the Federal Reserve chairs.

These are the heads who manage the Fed’s interest rates.

The Fed has many powerful tools. It sets the reserve requirement for the nation's banks. It states that banks must hold at least 10 percent of their deposits on hand each night. This percentage is less for smaller banks. The rest can be lent out.

If a bank doesn't have enough cash on hand at the end of the day, it borrows what it needs from other banks. The funds it borrows is known as the fed funds. Banks charge each other the fed funds rate on these loans.

The FOMC sets the target for the fed funds rate at its monthly meetings. To keep it near its target, the Fed uses open market operations to buy or sell securities from its member banks. It creates the credit out of thin air to buy these securities. This has the same effect as printing money. That adds to the reserves the banks can lend and results in the lowering of the fed funds rate. Knowledge of the current fed funds rate is important because this rate is a benchmark in financial markets.

2. Supervises the Banking System

The Federal Reserve oversees roughly 5,000 bank holding companies, 850 state bank members of the Federal Reserve Banking System, and any foreign banks operating in the United States. The Federal Reserve Banking System is a network of 12 Federal Reserve banks that both supervise and serve as banks for all the commercial banks in their region.

The 12 banks are located in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco. The Reserve Banks serve the U.S. Treasury by handling its payments, selling government securities, and assisting with its cash management and investment activities. Reserve banks also conduct valuable research on economic issues.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act strengthened the Fed's power over banks. If any bank becomes too big to fail, it can be turned over to Federal Reserve supervision. It will require a higher reserve requirement to protect against any losses.

Dodd-Frank also gave the Fed the mandate to supervise "systematically important institutions." In 2015, the Fed created the Large Institution Supervision Coordinating Committee. It regulates the 16 largest banks. Most important, it is responsible for the annual stress test of 31 banks. These tests determine whether the banks have enough capital to continue making loans even if the system falls apart as it did in October 2008.

On February 3, 2017, President Trump attempted to weaken Dodd-Frank. He signed an executive order that instructed the Treasury Secretary to review areas that need to be amended. But many of those regulations have already been incorporated into international banking agreements.

3. Maintains the Stability of the Financial System

The Federal Reserve worked closely with the Treasury Department to prevent global financial collapse during the financial crisis of 2008. It created many new tools, including the Term Auction Facility, the Money Market Investor Lending Facility, and Quantitative Easing. For a blow-by-blow description of everything that happened while it was going on, the article discussing federal intervention in the 2007 banking crisis gives a clear account.

Two decades earlier, the Federal Reserve intervened in the Long Term Capital Management Crisis. Federal Reserve actions worsened the Great Depression of 1929 by tightening the money supply to defend the gold standard.

4. Provides Banking Services

The Fed buys U.S. Treasurys from the federal government. That's called monetizing the debt. The Fed creates the money it uses to buy the Treasurys. It adds that much money to the money supply. Over the past 10 years, the Fed has acquired $4 billion in Treasurys.

The Fed is called the "bankers' bank." That is because each Reserve bank stores currency, processes checks, and most importantly, makes loans for its members to meet their reserve requirements when needed. These loans are made through the discount window and are charged the discount rate, one that is set at the FOMC meeting. This rate is lower than the fed funds rate and Libor. Most banks avoid using the discount window because there is a stigma attached. It is assumed the bank can't get loans from other banks.

That's why the Federal Reserve is known as the bank of last resort

History

The Panic of 1907 spurred Congress to create the Federal Reserve System. It established a National Monetary Commission to evaluate the best response to prevent ongoing financial panics, bank failures, and business bankruptcies. Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 on December 23 of that year. 

Congress originally designed the Fed to "provide for the establishment of Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes." Since then, Congress has enacted legislation to amend the Fed's powers and purpose. 

Who Owns the Fed?

Technically, member commercial banks own the Federal Reserve. They hold shares of the 12 Federal Reserve banks. But that doesn't give them any power because they don't vote. Instead, the Board and FOMC make the Fed's decisions. The Fed is independent because those decisions are based on research. The president, U.S. Treasury Department, and Congress don't ratify its decisions. But, the board members are selected by the president and approved by Congress. That gives elected officials control over the Fed's long-term direction but not its day-to-day operations.

Some elected officials are still suspicious of the Fed and its ownership. They want to abolish it all together. Senator Rand Paul wants to control it by auditing it more thoroughly. His father, former Congressman Ron Paul, wanted to end the Fed.

Role of the Fed Chair

The Federal Reserve Chair sets the direction and tone of both the Federal Reserve Board and the FOMC. President Trump appointed Board member Jerome Powell to be chair from February 5, 2018 to February 5, 2022. He is likely to continue the Fed's normalizing policies.

The former chair is Janet Yellen. Her term began on February 3, 2014 and ended on February 3, 2018. Her biggest concern had been unemployment, which is also her academic specialty. That made her "dovish" rather than “hawkish.” That meant she was more likely to want to lower interest rates. Ironically, she was the chair when the economy required contractionary monetary policy. 

Ben Bernanke was the chair from 2006 to 2014. He was an expert on the Fed's role during the Great Depression. That was very fortunate. He knew the steps to take to end the Great Recession. He kept the economic situation from turning into a depression.

How the Fed Affects You

The press scrutinizes the Federal Reserve for clues on how the economy is performing and what the FOMC and Board of Governors plans to do about it. The Fed directly affects your stock and bond mutual funds and your loan rates. By having such an influence on the economy, the Fed also indirectly affects your home's value and even your chances of being laid off or rehired.