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Federal Reserve System
Seal Federal Reserve System headquarters (Eccles Building)
Seal Federal Reserve System headquarters (Eccles Building)
Headquarters Washington, D.C.
Established December 23, 1913; 100 years ago (1913-12-23)
Chairman Ben Bernanke
Central bank of United States
Currency United States dollar
ISO 4217 Code USD
Base borrowing rate 0%–0.25%[1]
Website federalreserve.gov

The Federal Reserve System, (also known as the Federal Reserve, and informally as the Fed) is the central banking system of the United States. It was founded in 1913 by the Federal Reserve Act to "provide the nation with a safer, more flexible, and more stable monetary and financial system." Over the years, its role in banking and the economy has expanded.[2]

Structure[edit]

Commercial Banks[edit]

  • "State banks" are chartered by state governments, and have to obey state laws. They are also regulated by either the Federal Reserve (if member) or the FDIC. They can choose to become members of the Federal Reserve System, if they meet the standards set by the Board of Governors.
  • "National banks", chartered by the federal government (through the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the Department of the Treasury) are by law members of the Federal Reserve System and are regulated by it. They are independent from state banking laws and can act across the whole USA.[3]

Regional Federal Reserve Banks[edit]

As of March 2004, of the nation’s approximately 7,700 commercial banks approximately 2,900 were members of the Federal Reserve System (approx. 2,000 national banks and 900 state banks).

Member banks must subscribe to stock in their regional Federal Reserve Bank in an amount equal to 6 percent of their capital and surplus, half of which must be paid, the other half is subject to call by the Board of Governors. The stock does not confer control and financial interest like stock in for-profit organizations, and it may not be sold or pledged as collateral for loans. Member banks receive a 6 percent dividend annually on their stock, and vote for the Class A and Class B directors of the Reserve Bank. Stock in Federal Reserve Banks is not available for purchase by individuals or entities other than member banks.[4]

Every Federal Reserve Bank has a board of directors, subject to the orders of the Board of Governors. The class A directors of a board are chosen by and represent the stockholders. Class B directors are also chosen by the stockholders, but represent the public, they can't be an officer, director, or employee of any bank. Class C directors are appointed by the Board of Governors, one of them is named the chairman of the board and another the vice-chairman. They cannot be officer, director, employee, or stockholder of any bank.[5]

Board of Governors[edit]

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is a federal government agency. It is composed of seven members, including the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the Board. All are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The full term of a Board member is fourteen years, and the appointments are staggered so that one term expires on January 31 of each even-numbered year. After serving a full term, a Board member may not be reappointed.

After it pays its expenses, the Federal Reserve turns the rest of its earnings over to the U.S. Treasury. About 95 percent of the Reserve Banks’ net earnings have been paid into the Treasury since the Federal Reserve System began operations in 1914. In 2003, the Federal Reserve paid approximately $22 billion to the Treasury.[4]

The Federal Reserve System cannot be therefore considered an independent entity, and constitutes a Special Purpose Entity (legally a "Variable Interest Entity") of the US federal government.[6]

Workings[edit]

State debt[edit]

When the US federal government runs a budget deficit, it can't simply have the Fed print up enough $100 bills to cover the shortfall. The Treasury covers its budget deficits by issuing debt, referred to as Treasuries. These are bonds, IOUs sold by the Treasury to outside investors who lend the Treasury money today in the hopes of being paid back in the future.

One of the main buyers of this Treasury debt is the Federal Reserve itself. This phenomenon is especially pronounced during emergencies such as major wars and the times of financial crisis. In the second quarter of 2009, the Federal Reserve was the effective buyer of some 48 percent of the new Treasury debt issued that period, as part of its "quantitative easing." True, the Fed doesn't show up at the Treasury auctions and directly buy the new T-bills and so forth, but private dealers pay higher prices for the Treasuries knowing that the Fed will pick them up.

Let's say the Fed wants to buy $1 million worth of T-bills from Joe Smith. So it writes Joe a check for $1 million, drawn on the Fed itself. Joe hands the T-bills over to the Fed, where they end up on the asset side of its balance sheet. Joe then deposits the check in his personal checking account, which goes up by $1 million. So at this point the Fed has increased the money supply by $1 million. (In normal times, because of the fractional reserve banking system, Joe's bank would lend out $900,000 of the new deposit to another customer, so that the money supply would grow even further.)

By entering the bond market and buying Treasuries (with money created out of thin air), the Fed pushes up the price of the bonds. That of course means that their yield drops. So, for example, if the Treasury issues a T-bill promising to pay the holder $10,000 in 12 months, then the auction price determines how much money the Treasury actually gets to borrow now in exchange for this promise to pay back $10,000 in one year. If the demand is such that people pay $9,901 for each T-bill with a face value of $10,000, then the Treasury gets to borrow money for a year at an interest rate of 1 percent. If nothing else, the Fed's massive buying of Treasury debt pushes up the auction price of the Treasuries, meaning the federal government can borrow at cheaper interest rates.

The Treasury is paying interest on its debt, but the Fed gives the interest payments right back to the Treasury! After all, interest is how the Fed "makes money." It writes checks on itself (created out of thin air) and accumulates assets, and then earns the interest and (in some cases) capital gains on the assets. But after the Fed pays its employees and other bills, it remits the excess earnings back to the Treasury.

For example, according to Fed's report [7], in fiscal year 2008 the Federal Reserve distributed to the US Treasury some $31.7 billion of its net earnings ($47.4 billion in 2009, up to a new record of $79.3 billion in 2010 after the central bank earned a record amount of money from programs aimed at boosting the economy[8]). So not only is the official rate of interest kept artificially low by the Fed's money-creation, but the interest payments themselves are largely refunded to the Treasury.

A debt should be repaid at some point. When the Treasury securities held by the Fed mature — so that the Treasury has to pay back the face value in principal — the Fed rolls over the debt. Over time, the nominal market value of the Fed's holdings of Treasury debt continually grows. Barring a sudden reversal in this policy, the Treasury knows that it will never have to pay off this debt.[9]

By 1921, the Fed acquired about $400 million worth of government bonds, and $2.4 billion by 1934. By the end of 1981 it was no less than $140 billion of U.S. government securities; by the middle of 1992, the total had reached $280 billion.[10] At the end of 2008, it held about $476 billion.[11]

According to a 2011 PIMCO estimate, of the publically issued $9 trillion of Treasury notes and bonds, about 50% are in the hands of foreign sovereigns, private market investors such as bond funds, insurance companies and banks have 40% and the Fed 10%. However, since the beginning of Qualitative Easing II, 70% were purchased by the Fed, with 30% absorbed by China, Japan and other reserve surplus countries.[12] PIMCO, the world’s biggest bond fund has cut its holdings of US government-related debt to zero for the first time since early 2008.[13]

Issuing currency[edit]

Banks get cash from Federal Reserve Banks. The Federal Reserve orders new currency from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which produces the appropriate denominations and ships them directly to the Reserve Banks. For the banknotes, the Fed pays only the cost of printing.[14] During the Fiscal Year 2008, the Bureau delivered 7.7 billion notes at an average cost of 6.4 cents per note.[15] In 2010, the government produced 6.4 billion new currency notes and the cost jumped 50% to 9.6 cents, including the cost of paper and printing. The paper on which the greenback is printed is composed of 75% cotton and 25% linen; cotton price has hit a a 140-year high.[16]

Coins are a direct obligation of the Treasury, so the Reserve Banks pay the Treasury the face value of the coins. Large banks in some Federal Reserve Districts receive coins directly from the United States Mint.[14] According to 2010 Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, Fiscal Year 2010 represented the fifth consecutive fiscal year that the production costs for the cent and 5-cent coin exceeded their face value. Five-cent coin production costs increased to 9.2 cents in fiscal year 2010. The cost to produce the cent totaled 1.76 cents. For the other denominations, the cost per unit of each coin has risen just under 1 percent for the dime, to 05.7 cents per coin; 13.08 percent for the quarter dollar, to 12.79 cents per coin; and 3.9 percent for the dollar, to 31.6 cents each.[17]

History[edit]

By the turn of the century the political economy of the United States was dominated by two generally clashing financial aggregations: the previously dominant Morgan group, which began in investment banking and then expanded into commercial banking, railroads, and mergers of manufacturing firms; and the Rockefeller forces, which began in oil refining and then moved into commercial banking, finally forming an alliance with the Kuhn, Loeb Company in investment banking and the Harriman interests in railroads. Although these two financial blocs usually clashed with each other, they were as one on the need for a central bank. Attempts to use the Treasury as a central bank had failed, as evidenced by the Panic of 1907.[18] In 1913, the American banking system received a central bank of the European model, the Federal Reserve. The U.S. was the last great nation to introduce central banking.

The Federal Reserve System was deliberately designed to create and control inflation. Only the Federal Reserve Banks could print paper notes, and the member banks would buy them from the Fed by drawing down deposit accounts at the Fed. The different reserve requirements for central reserve city, reserve city, and country banks were preserved, but the Fed was now the single base of the entire banking pyramid. Gold was centralized at the Fed, and the Fed could pyramid its deposits 2.86:1 on top of gold, and its notes 2.5:1 on top of gold. (That is, its reserve requirements were: 35 percent of total demand deposits/gold, and 40 percent of its notes/gold.) All national banks were forced to become members of the Federal Reserve System, state banks had a choice. But in order to get cash for their customers, nonmember banks had to keep deposit accounts with member banks who had access to the Fed, and so were under its control as well.

At the founding of the Fed in 1913, the most important single item of paper money in circulation was the gold certificate, held by the Fed and backed 100 percent by gold assets in the Treasury. But within a few years, the Fed started withdrawing gold certificates from circulation and substituting Federal Reserve Notes (FRN). But since the FRN only had to be backed 40 percent by gold certificates, 60 percent of the released gold was available as a base on which to pyramid more bank money.

The average reserve requirement of all banks before the establishment of the Fed was 21.1 percent. Under the provisions of the original Federal Reserve Act in 1913, this requirement was cut to 11.6 percent, and to 9.8 percent in June 1917. As a result, the Fed doubled the money supply between its inception at the end of 1913 and the end of 1919. Also, the reserve requirements on time deposits in commercial banks (deposits that could only be withdrawn after a certain length of time) drastically lowered from the original 21.1 to 5 percent, and again in 1917 to 3 percent. As a result, banks encouraged their depositors to transfer their funds to savings accounts, to have a larger basis for credit expansion.

From June 1914 to January 1920, when demand deposits grew from $9.7 billion to $19.1 billion, or by 96.9 percent, time deposits at commercial banks rose from $4.6 billion to $10.4 billion, or 126.1 percent. In the great boom of the 1920s, that started after the recession of 1920–21 (a short recession, thanks to the budget cutting and lowering of taxes by Warren Harding[19]), total demand deposits rose from $16.7 billion in July 1921 to $22.8 billion in July 1929, eight years later, an increase of 36.5 percent. Time deposits in commercial banks expanded from $11.2 billion to $19.7 billion in the same period, a far greater rise of 75.9 percent. The great boom of the roaring 1920s was largely fueled by credit expansion going into time deposits. The greatest expansion of time deposits came in Central Reserve Cities (New York and Chicago), where the Fed’s open market operations were all conducted, as opposed to Reserve Cities and areas served by Country Banks. As acknowledged by Federal Reserve officials, time or savings deposits were then, for all practical purposes, equivalent to demand deposits and would be paid on demand in case of a run on a bank.

With the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, President Wilson appointed Benjamin Strong to the most powerful post in the Federal Reserve System, Governor of the Federal Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He quickly used his position to dominate the System and made decisions on Fed policy without consulting the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, often against their wishes. Strong was the dominant leader of the Fed from 1914 until his death in 1928. He pursued an inflationary policy, partly to finance the war effort of WWI, connected to the interests of the House of Morgan. Another motivation was attempting to prop up the Bank of England after it returned to the gold standard with an overvalued pound. To prevent the loss of gold to the States, its governor Montagu Norman secretly convinced Strong to inflate in order to help England. The expansion ended only after his death and the Great Depression followed soon after. In 1928 Strong admitted that "very few people indeed realized that we were now paying the penalty for the decision which was reached early in 1924 to help the rest of the world back to a sound financial and monetary basis" - that is, to help Britain maintain a phony and inflationary form of the gold standard.[20]

While for a brief time in the early 1920s the Fed was bent on providing credit only in emergencies, it soon reverted to its policy of extending credit during booms and depressions, thus promoting continuous and permanent inflation.[21]

The Great Depression[edit]

Main article: Great Depression

The New Deal's Banking Acts of 1933 and 1935 transformed the face of the Fed, permanently shifting crucial power from the New York Fed to Washington, D.C. The result of these two Banking Acts was to strip the New York Fed of the power to conduct open-market operations, and to place it squarely in the hands of the Federal Open Market Committee, dominated by the Board in Washington, but with regional private bankers playing a subsidiary partnership role. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created to insure all bank depositors against losses. However, the FDIC only has in its assets a tiny fraction (1 or 2 percent) of the deposits it claims to "insure." The validity of this "insurance" may be gauged by noting the late 1980s catastrophe of the savings and loan industry, whose deposits were insured by another federal agency, the defunct Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation.

After 1933, Federal Reserve Notes and deposits were no longer redeemable in gold coins to Americans; and after 1971, the dollar was no longer redeemable in gold bullion to foreign governments and central banks. The gold of Americans was confiscated and exchanged for Federal Reserve Notes, which became legal tender; and Americans were stuck in a regime of fiat paper issued by the government and the Federal Reserve. Over the years, all restraints on Fed activities or its issuing of credit have been lifted. Since 1980, the Federal Reserve has enjoyed the power to buy not only U.S. government securities but any asset, and to buy as many assets and to inflate credit as much as it pleases. There are no restraints left on the Federal Reserve.[10]

The Fed greatly expanded bank reserves in the 1930s. Panicking at the inflationary potential in 1938, it doubled the minimum reserve requirements to 20 percent, sending the economy into a tailspin of credit liquidation. Ever since that period, the Fed has been very cautious about the degree of its changes. So although changes in bank reserve requirements happen fairly often, they're in very small steps, by fractions of one percent.[10]

Goals[edit]

The Federal Reserve was supposed to protect the monetary and financial system against inflation and violent swings. According to a statement by the Comptroller of the Currency at its opening, it would supply "...a circulating medium absolutely safe, which will command its face value in all parts of the country, and which is sufficiently elastic to meet readily the periodical demands for additional currency, incident to the movement of the crops, also responding promptly to increased industrial or commercial activity, while retiring from use automatically when the legitimate demands for it have ceased. Under the operation of this law such financial and commercial crises, or "panics," as this country experienced in 1873, in 1893, and again in 1907, with their attendant misfortunes and prostrations, seem to be mathematically impossible." Also:[22]

"Under the provisions of the new law the failure of efficiently and honestly managed banks is practically impossible and a closer watch can be kept on member banks. Opportunities for a more thorough and complete examination are furnished for each particular bank. These facts should reduce the dangers from dishonest and incompetent management to a minimum. It is hoped that national-bank failures can hereafter be virtually eliminated."

The value of the dollar has rapidly declined since the Federal Reserve's founding. The goods and services that could be bought for $1.00 in 1913, would be currently bought for $21.80 - a fall to $0.05 of its original value. In other words, over 95% of the dollar has been inflated away.[23]

As for the business cycle and the abolition of panics, the data shows otherwise. Recessions of the 20th century as documented by the National Bureau of Economic Research include: 1918–1919, 1920–1921, 1923–1924, 1926–1927, 1929–1933, 1937–1938, 1945, 1948–1949, 1953–1954, 1957–1958, 1960–1961, 1969–1970, 1973–1975, 1980, 1981–1982, 1990–1991, 2001, and 2007 to the present.[24]

Track record[edit]

Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan concedes a major point to market-based scholars near the end of his autobiography (p. 478): the Fed’s pre-1979 "track record in heading off inflationary pressures, as Milton Friedman often pointed out, was not a distinguished one." Greenspan’s concession, like admissions from Fed member bank presidents like Francis (1969) and Willes (1980) add to the body of evidence establishing the central bank’s responsibility for inflation and recession.

The defense, that (price) inflation was suppressed in the post-1979 period does not stand up to scrutiny. Average annual CPI was lower in the 1950s (2.1 percent) and 1960s (2.4 percent) than in the post-1979 period (3.8 percent), including Greenspan’s watch (3.1 percent).

Market critics argue Fed-generated inflation in the 1970s contributed to two recessions (1980, 1981–82). Greenspan’s predecessor, Paul Volcker (Fed Chairman 1979–87), conceded the Fed’s responsibility for this inflationary period in a 2000 PBS interview:[25]

It was the biggest inflation and the most sustained inflation that the United States had ever had. We had had brief periods of inflation, but this had built up over more than a decade rather continuously. It was getting worse, rather than getting better. And so that rather infected people’s thinking. . . .[The] Federal Reserve had been attempting to deal with the inflation for some time, but I think in the 1970s, in past hindsight, anyway, [it] got behind the curve. It’s always hard to raise interest rates.[26]

In his biography, Greenspan does not acknowledge any Fed errors in these episodes. He sticks to his long-held belief that asset-price bubbles cannot be identified by central banks until after they burst. Greenspan explains: "I would tell audiences that we were facing not a bubble but a froth—lots of small, local bubbles that never grew to a scale that could threaten the health of the overall economy".[25]

Impact on the economics profession[edit]

It is argued that the Federal Reserve dominates the field of monetary economics through its extensive network of consultants, visiting scholars, alumni, and staff economists, so that real criticism of the central bank can be a career liability for members of the profession. The editorial boards of key journals have many members directly working or affiliated with the Federal Reserve. Milton Friedman noted that it has a sort of oligopoly on monetary opinion, in that someone wanting to advance in the field of monetary research would be disinclined to criticize the major employer in the field.[27] This influence was criticized particularly after the Fed failed to foresee the current economic crises, along with many other mainstream economists.[28][29]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. "Open Market Operations". Federal Reserve. http://www.federalreserve.gov/fomc/fundsrate.htm. Retrieved 2011-08-29. 
  2. Federal Reserve. "The Federal Reserve System Purposes & Functions" (pdf), Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Washington, D.C, Ninth Edition, June 2005. Referenced 2009-06-10.
  3. Comptroller of the Currency Administrator of National Banks. "National Banks and The Dual Banking System" (pdf), September 2003, referenced 2010-03-29.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "The Federal Reserve System Purposes & Functions" (pdf), Ninth Edition, June 2005, pages 12, 4, 11. Referenced 2010-03-27.
  5. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Federal Reserve Act", Section 4, Paragraphs 8, 14, 15, 20. Referenced 2010-03-27.
  6. Sarel Oberholster. "The Independence of the Fed?", Mises Daily:, March 2010, referenced 2010-03-27.
  7. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Income and Expenses" (pdf), 95th Annual Report 2008, p.173, referenced 2010-02-03.
  8. Martin Crutsinger. "Fed makes record $79.3B payment to U.S. Treasury", Associated Press, 2011-03-22. Referenced 2011-03-28.
  9. Robert P. Murphy. "The Fed as Giant Counterfeiter", Mises Daily, February 01 2010, referenced 2010-02-03.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Murray N. Rothbard. "The Case Against the Fed" (pdf), How the Fed Rules and Inflates, p. 144-145, referenced 2010-03-23.
  11. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "95th Annual Report 2008" (pdf), p.400, U.S. Treasury Securities held outright: 475,921. Referenced 2010-03-23.
  12. William H. Gross. "Two-Bits, Four-Bits, Six-Bits, a Dollar", PIMCO, Investment Outlook, March 2011. Referenced 2011-04-04.
  13. Dan McCrum and Michael Mackenzie. "Pimco cuts US Treasuries holdings to zero", Financial Times, March 9 2011. Referenced 2011-04-04.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "How Currency Gets into Circulation", referenced 2010-03-06.
  15. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "Annual Production Figures", referenced 2010-03-06.
  16. Parija Kavilanz. "Guess what? Dollar bills are made of cotton", CNN Money, March 8, 2011. Referenced 2011-03-14.
  17. William T. Gibbs. "Mint awards firm contract to research alternative coinage metals", Coin World, August 21, 2011. See also the "2010 Annual Report" (pdf), United States Mint. Referenced 2011-08-31.
  18. Murray N. Rothbard. "The Origins of the Federal Reserve" (pdf), The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Fall 1999), referenced 2009-09-13.
  19. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. "Warren Harding and the Forgotten Depression of 1920", First Principles, Fall 2009 issue of The Intercollegiate Review. See also the video. Referenced 2009-10-11.
  20. Murray N. Rothbard. "The Mystery of Banking" (pdf), Chapter XVI: Central banking in the United States IV: The Federal Reserve System, p.235-246, referenced 2009-10-03.
  21. Murray N. Rothbard. "America’s Great Depression" (pdf), The Inflationary Factors, p.120, referenced 2009-10-16.
  22. Elgin Groseclose. "America's Money Machine: The Story of the Federal Reserve" (pdf), Arlington House, Westport, Connecticut, 1980. p. 84-86, quoting the Secretary of Treasury Annual Report of 1914 (see also the "Proceedings (revised) of the Select Standing Committee on Banking and Commerce of the House of Commons", online copy, Appendix No. 1., p. 175.). Referenced 2009-05-22.
  23. Federal Reserve, St. Louis. "Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items", 1913-2009. See also the Inflation Calculator by the Department of Labor Statistics. Referenced 2009-05-22.
  24. National Bureau of Economic Research. "Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions", referenced 2009-06-22.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Greg Kaza. "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. By Alan Greenspan. New York: Penguin Press, 2007." (pdf), The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 12, No. 2 (2009): 77–80. Referenced 2011-05-22.
  26. PBS.com. "Paul Volcker Interview", PBS, referenced 2011-05-22.
  27. White, Lawrence H. 2005. "The Federal Reserve System’s Influence on Research in Monetary Economics" (abstract; pdf). Econ Journal Watch, Volume 2, Number 2, August 2005, p. 325-354. Referenced 2009-10-11.
  28. Ryan Grim. "Priceless: How The Federal Reserve Bought The Economics Profession", Huffingon Post, posted 2009-09-07, referenced 2009-10-11.
  29. Gary North. "The Third Rail of Academia", Lewrockwell.com, posted 2009-09-16, referenced 209-10-11.

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