The Federal Reserve will commemorate its centennial on Monday. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act on Dec. 23, 1913, creating the Fed. The milestone comes at a pivotal moment in Fed history, with the central bank preparing to unwind the trillions of dollars in easy money it has pumped into the economy since the 2008 financial crisis. Here are five things you may not know about the Fed:
The 1920s: Roaring Twenties policy foreshadows QE
In its early years, the Fed managed the amount of money in circulation by buying and selling gold and raising or lowering the "discount rate" at which it lent to banks. But Benjamin Strong, head of the New York Fed, realized that gold was no longer the main factor controlling credit in the economy. By making a large purchase of government securities in 1923, Strong saw that he could infuse money into the banking system and push down interest rates. The Fed was transitioning from being an emergency lender to an engineer of the economy's fortunes through the availability of credit. Today, the Fed buys and sells securities to raise or lower its benchmark short-term interest rate and, since the 2008 financial crisis, has purchased bonds to lower long-term rates, a controversial strategy known as quantitative easing, or QE.
The late 1920s-1930s: Fed blunders fuel Great Depression
The Fed was created to stabilize jittery financial markets, but at its most critical hour it stood on the sidelines — or worse. Several Fed decisions fueled, or failed to halt, the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1941. First, the Fed raised interest rates in 1928 and 1929 to curb speculation in securities markets, slowing economic growth.Then, amid banking panics from 1930 to 1933, the Fed failed to act as a lender of last resort to struggling banks, prompting more bank failures. Some Fed governors believed they should do nothing so that troubled institutions would fail, cleansing the system. Some historians blame the death of New York Fed Governor Strong in 1928, which left a decentralized Fed system and no effective leader. "Tragically, the Fed failed to meet its mandate," outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a recent speech.
The 1940s: Fed battles Treasury over interest rates
One of the least favorable things you may hear about the Fed these days is that it's "monetizing the debt," or buying Treasury bonds to lower their interest rate and let the government finance its debt cheaply. That may be a byproduct of its QE program, but its purpose is to stimulate the economy. In 1942, however, the Fed agreed to a Treasury Department request to keep a low interest rate on Treasury bills to cheaply fund World War II. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, President Truman and Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder again insisted the Fed hold down interest rates. The Fed was more inclined to raise rates to combat growing inflation. The dispute was resolved with an accord that ended the Fed's obligation to hold down interest rates and paved the way for today's independent Fed.
The 1960s: Nixon twists Fed chief's arm
The Fed takes great pride in its independence from the White House and Congress. But President Nixon pressured Fed Chairman Arthur Burns to lower interest rates to boost the economy and push down unemployment in the run-up to his 1972 re-election bid, according to a 2006 article in the the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The article cites Nixon's phone transcripts, which include an exchange with Burns on Dec. 10, 1971, in which Burns says, "I wanted you to know that we lowered the discount rate. ... Got it down to 4.5%." Nixon replies, "Good, good, good." Later in the call, Nixon says of Fed policymakers, "You can lead 'em. ... Just kick 'em in the rump a little." The Fed's benchmark rate fell more than 4 percentage points from January 1970, just before Burns took office, to July 1972, powering the economy but eventually setting off high inflation, the article states. While it's clear Nixon pressured Burns, the article concluded, it's unclear if Burns acted in response to the cajoling or to bolster the economy.
The 2000s: Check clearing goes digital
Remember those bulky bank statements stuffed with your canceled checks? Over the past decade, the Fed's nationwide check processing has become electronic, dramatically speeding check clearing. Previously, most checks deposited at a bank were sent by truck, rail or air to one or more of the Fed's 45 regional banks and processing centers, where they were sorted and sent to the check writer's bank to be paid. The process typically took three to five days. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks suspended all air traffic, the Fed prodded Congress to approve the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, which required banks to accept digital images of checks. Today, the vast majority are photographed and sent electronically between banks through a single Fed processing center. Most checks are cleared in one business day. "Payments are flowing faster, and it's less expensive for banks to process," says Steve Kenneally, vice president of the American Bankers Association.