Federal Reserve System

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Federal Reserve System

Federal Reserve System, central banking system of the United States. Established in 1913, it began to operate in Nov., 1914. Its setup, although somewhat altered since its establishment, particularly by the Banking Act of 1935, has remained substantially the same.

Structure

The Federal Reserve Act created 12 regional Federal Reserve banks, supervised by a Federal Reserve Board. Each reserve bank is the central bank for its district. The boundary lines of the districts were drawn in accordance with broad geographic patterns of business, and the banks were placed in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco. In addition some of the regional banks have one or more branch banks attached to them.

All national banks must belong to the system, and state banks may if they meet certain requirements. Member banks hold the bulk of the deposits of all commercial banks in the country. Each member bank is required to own stock in the Federal Reserve bank of its district and must maintain legal reserves on deposit with the district reserve bank. The required reserves are proportionate to the member bank's own deposits, the proportion varying according to the location of the member bank and the character of its deposits.

Each reserve bank is managed by a board of nine directors (three appointed by the Federal Reserve Board, six by the local member banks). The Federal Reserve System's Board of Governors designates one of the federally appointed directors as chairman and Federal Reserve agent; it is the chairman's duty to report to the Board. The board of directors appoints the bank's president and other officers and employees. The operations of the Federal Reserve banks, although not conducted primarily for profit, yield an income that is ordinarily sufficient to cover expenses, to pay a 6% cumulative dividend annually on the stock held by member banks, to make additions to surplus, and to provide the U.S. Treasury with over $1 billion a year in revenue.

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System—the national supervisory agency—is composed of seven members appointed for 14-year terms by the President. A chairman and vice chairman, who serve four-year terms in those posts, are named by the President from among the seven members. The Federal Reserve Board's offices are in Washington, D.C. The Federal Open Market Committee, created later (1923) than the system's other divisions, comprises the seven members of the Board of Governors and five representatives of the Federal Reserve banks; it directs the purchases and sales by the reserve banks of federal government securities and other obligations in the open market. The Federal Advisory Council consists of 12 members, one appointed annually by the board of directors of each reserve bank; it confers from time to time with the Board of Governors on general business conditions and makes recommendations with respect to Federal Reserve affairs. In 1976, the Consumer Advisory Council was created; consisting of both consumer and creditor representatives, it advises the Board of Governors on consumer-related matters.

Function

The most important duties of the Federal Reserve authorities relate primarily to the maintenance of monetary and credit conditions favorable to sound business activity in all fields—agricultural, industrial, and commercial. Among those duties are lending to member banks, open-market operations, fixing reserve requirements, establishing discount rates, and issuing regulations concerning those and other functions. In a sense, each Federal Reserve bank is best understood as a bankers' bank. Member banks use their reserve accounts with the reserve banks in much the same way that a bank depositor uses his checking account. They may deposit in the reserve accounts the checks on other banks and surplus currency received from their customers, and they may draw on the reserve for various purposes, especially to obtain currency and to pay checks drawn upon them (see clearing).

More importantly, the required reserves also enable the Federal Reserve authorities to influence the lending activities of banks. So long as a bank has reserves in excess of requirements, it can enlarge its extensions of credit; otherwise it cannot increase its extensions of credit and may be impelled to borrow additional funds. Inasmuch as the Federal Reserve authorities have power to increase or decrease the supply of excess funds, they are able to exercise considerable influence over the amount of credit that banks may extend. By controlling the credit market, the Federal Reserve System exerts a powerful influence on the nation's economic life. Federal Reserve activities designed to expand bank credit may lead to an upswing in the business cycle, which tends to lead toward inflation; conversely, a restriction of credit generally results in decreased business growth and deflation.

The principal means through which the Federal Reserve authorities influence bank reserves are open-market operations, discounts, and control over reserve requirements. Open-market purchases of securities by Federal Reserve authorities supply banks with additional reserve funds, and sales of securities diminish such funds. Through the power to discount and make advances, the Federal Reserve authorities are able to supply individual banks with additional reserve funds. They may make the funds more or less expensive for member banks by raising or lowering the discount rate. Discounts usually expand only when member banks need to borrow. Raising or lowering requirements—within the limits imposed by law on the Board of Governors—concerning the reserves that member banks maintain on deposit with the reserve banks has the effect of diminishing or enlarging the volume of funds that member banks have available for lending. Such powers directly affect the volume of member bank funds but have no immediate effect in the use of those funds.

In the field of stock market speculation the Federal Reserve authorities have a direct means of control over the use of funds, namely, through the establishment of margin requirements. Another of the important functions of the Federal Reserve System is furnishing Federal Reserve notes (now the chief element in the nation's currency) for circulation. Most economists and bankers agree that the Federal Reserve System has achieved marked improvements in American monetary and banking institutions.

Its efforts to preserve liquidity in the international financial system, facilitate lending by financial institutions, and otherwise revive the economy during the mortgage and credit crisis that began in 2007 are regarded by many as having helped prevent a worse financial crisis and economic downturn that could have approached the Great Depression in severity. Those efforts included included significant emergency loans to U.S. financial institutions as well as more than half a trillion dollars in currency swaps with foreign central banks. Beginning in late 2008 the Federal Reserve purchased billions of dollars of longer-term securities in an effort to pump money into the U.S. economy; it only ended its large-scale asset purchases in 2014. As a result of the crisis, the Federal Reserve's supervisory powers over banks were increased and it now also supervises nonbank financial companies that are considered to be systemically important financial institutions.

Bibliography

See S. W. Adams, The Federal Reserve System (1979); W. J. Davis, The Federal Reserve System (1982); D. R. Wells, The Federal Reserve System: A History (2004); U.S. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, The Federal Reserve System (9th ed. 2005); S. H. Axilrod, Inside the Fed (2009).

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