The Federal Reserve is widely considered to be one of the most important financial institutions in the world. The Fed can either be your kindly grandmother or the mother-in-law from hell, and its character is usually a function of the Federal Reserve's board of governors. Its monetary policy decisions can send waves through not only the U.S. markets, but also the world. (To find out what the Fed does for investors, check out our Federal Reserve tutorial.)
In this article we will look at the formation of the Federal Reserve and follows its history as it riles the market and then turns it around and sends it to new highs.
Life Before the Federal Reserve
The United States was considerably more unstable financially before the creation of the Federal Reserve. Panics, seasonal cash crunches and a high rate of bank failures made the U.S. economy a riskier place for international and domestic investors to place their capital. The lack of dependable credit stunted growth in many sectors, including agriculture and industry. (To learn more about the history of banking, see Cold Hard Cash Wars and The Evolution Of Banking.)
J.P. Morgan and the Panic of 1907
It was J.P. Morgan who forced the government into acting on the central banking plans it had been considering off and on for almost a century. During the Bank Panic of 1907, Wall Street turned to J.P. Morgan to steer the country through the crisis that was threatening to push the economy over the edge into a full crash and depression. Morgan was able to convene all the principal players at his mansion and command all their capital to flood the system, thus floating the banks that, in turn, helped to float the businesses until the panic passed.
The fact that the government owed its economic survival to a private banker forced the necessary legislation to create a central bank and the Federal Reserve. (Keep reading about this in Get To Know The Major Central Banks.)
Learning from Europe
In the years between 1907 and 1913, the top bankers and government officials in the U.S. formed the National Monetary Commission and traveled to Europe to see how the central banking was handled there. They came back with favorable impressions of the British and German systems, using them as the base and adding some improvements gleaned from other countries.
The Federal Reserve was given power over the money supply and, by extension, the economy. Although many forces within the public and government were calling for a central bank that printed money on demand, President Wilson was swayed by Wall Street arguments against a system that would cause rampant inflation. So the government created the Federal Reserve, but it was by no means under government control.
The Great Depression
The government soon came to regret the freedom it had granted the Federal Reserve as it stood by during the crash of 1929 and refused to prevent the Great Depression that followed.
Even now, it is hotly debated whether the Fed could have stopped the depression, but there is little doubt that it could have done more to soften and shorten it by providing lower interest rates to allow farmers to keep planting and businesses to keep producing. The high interest rates may even have been responsible for the unplanted fields that turned into dust bowls. By restricting the money supply at a bad time, the Fed starved out many individuals and businesses that might otherwise have survived.
It was World War II, not the Federal Reserve, that lifted the economy out of the depression. The war benefited the Federal Reserve as well by expanding its power and the amount of capital it was called on to control for the Allies. After the war, the Fed was able to erase some of the bad memories from the depression by keeping interest rates low as the U.S. economy went on a bull run that was virtually uninterrupted until the '60s.
Inflation or Unemployment?
Stagflation and inflation hit the U.S. in the '70s, slapping the economy across the face, but hurting the public far more than business. The Nixon administration ended the nation's on and off again affair with the gold standard, making the Fed that much more important in controlling the value of the U.S. dollar. The big question for the Fed was whether the nation was better off with inflation or unemployment. (To learn more, read The Gold Standard Revisited.)
By controlling interest rates, the Fed can make corporate credit easy to obtain, thus encouraging business to expand and create jobs. Unfortunately, this increases inflation as well. On the flip side, the fed can slow inflation by raising interest rates and slowing down the economy, causing unemployment. The history of the Fed is simply each chairman's answer to this central question. (For more insight, check out All About Inflation.)
The Greenspan Years
Alan Greenspan took over the Federal Reserve a year before the infamous crash of 1987. When we think of crashes, many people consider the crash of 1987 more of a glitch than a true crash - a non-event nearer to a panic. This is true only because of the actions of Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve. Much like J.P. Morgan in 1907, Alan Greenspan collected all the necessary chiefs and kept the economy afloat.
Through the Fed, however, Greenspan used the additional weapon of low interest rates to carry business through the crisis. This marked the first time that the Fed had operated as its creators first envisioned 80 years before. (To read about a more modern-day Fed, check out The Federal Reserve's Fight Against Recession and A Farewell To Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke: Background And Philosophy.)
The Bottom Line
Criticisms of the Federal Reserve continue. Boiled down, these arguments center on the image people have of the caretaker of the economy. You can either have a Fed that feeds the economy with ideal interest rates leading to low unemployment - possibly leading to future problems - or you can have a Fed that offers little help, ultimately forcing the economy to learn to help itself. The ideal Fed would be willing to do both. Although there have been calls for the elimination of the Federal Reserve as the U.S. economy matures, it is very likely that the Fed will continue to guide the economy for many years to come.