Overview of the Federal Reserve System (Background)

The Federal Reserve System is the central bank of the United States. It was founded by Congress in 1913 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.

The Federal Reserve System is the central bank of the United States. It was founded by Congress in 1913 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.

 

Today, the Federal Reserve’s duties fall into four general areas:
• conducting the nation’s monetary policy by inf luencing the monetary and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of maximum employment,
stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates
• supervising and regulating banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation’s banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers
• maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets
• providing financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government,
and foreign official institutions, including playing a major role in operating the nation’s payments system

 

Most developed countries have a central bank whose functions are broadly similar to those of the Federal Reserve. The oldest, Sweden’s Riksbank, has existed since 1668 and the Bank of England since 1694. Napoleon I established the Banque de France in 1800, and the Bank of Canada began operations in 1935. The German Bundesbank was reestablished after World War II and is loosely modeled on the Federal Reserve. More recently, some functions of the Banque de France and the Bundesbank have been assumed by the European Central Bank, formed in 1998.

 

Background

During the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, financial panics plagued the nation, leading to bank failures and business bankruptcies that severely disrupted the economy. The failure of the nation’s banking system to effectively provide funding to troubled depository institutions contributed significantly to the economy’s vulnerability to financial panics. Short-term credit is an important source of liquidity when a bank experiences unexpected and widespread withdrawals
during a financial panic. A particularly severe crisis in 1907 prompted Congress to establish the National Monetary Commission, which put forth proposals to create an institution that would help prevent and contain financial disruptions of this kind. After considerable debate, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act “to rovide 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.” President Woodrow Wilson signed the act into law on December 23, 1913.

 

Soon after the creation of the Federal Reserve, it became clear that the act had broader implications for national economic and financial policy. As time has passed, further legislation has clarified and supplemented the original purposes. Key laws affecting the Federal Reserve have been the Banking Act of 1935; the Employment Act of 1946; the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 and the amendments of 1970; the International Banking Act of 1978; the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978; the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980; the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991; and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. Congress has also adopted legislation defining the primary objectives of national economic policy, including the Employment Act of 1946; the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977; and the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978, which is sometimes called the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, after its original sponsors. These objectives include economic growth in line with the economy’s potential to expand; a high level of employment; stable prices (that is, stability in the purchasing power of the dollar); and moderate long-term interest rates.

 

The Federal Reserve System is considered to be an independent central bank because its decisions do not have to be ratified by the President or anyone else in the executive branch of government. The System is, however,  subject to oversight by the U.S. Congress. The Federal Reserve must work within the framework of the overall objectives of economic and financial policy established by the government; therefore, the description of the System as “independent within the government” is more accurate.

This article has been reprinted with the authorization of the Federal Reserve