The U.S. Federal Reserve controls the money supply in the United States, and while it doesn't actually print currency bills itself, it does determine how many bills are printed by the Treasury Department each year.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Federal Reserve controls the supply of money in the U.S., and when it expands that supply it is often described as "printing money."
  • The job of actually printing currency bills belongs to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, but the Fed determines exactly how many new bills are printed each year.
  • When it is said that the Fed is "printing money," the reference is really to the central bank increasing the money supply in the system, such as through quantitative easing (QE), an asset-purchase program.

The Fed and "Printing Money"

People in the media often talk about the Fed "printing money," especially in the wake of the Great Recession. What they usually mean is the Fed is increasing the supply of money, most controversially through an asset-purchase program described as quantitative easing (QE).

Under this program, the Fed purchased several trillion dollars worth of financial securities, mostly U.S. government bonds, from financial institutions, with the goal of pumping more money into the economy.

Printing Currency

The job of actually printing the money that people withdraw from ATMs and banks belongs to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which designs and manufactures all paper money in the U.S. (The U.S. Mint produces all coins.)

However, the amount of currency printed by the BEP each year is determined by the Fed, which then submits an order to the BEP. The Fed then distributes that currency via armored carrier to its 28 cash offices, which then further distributes it to 8,400 banks, savings and loans and credit unions across the country. For the 2020 fiscal year, the Fed's Board of Governors ordered 5.2 billion Federal Reserve notes—the official name of U.S. currency bills—from the BEP, valued at $146.4 billion.

How the Fed Creates Money With QE

The Fed can indeed create money "out of thin air." To be more precise, it does so with keystrokes on a computer. This was illustrated with its QE program, also known as open market operations. That's when the Fed buys an asset from a financial institution and pays for it with money it simply creates.

Steve Meyer, a senior advisor to the Fed's Board of Governors, explains how this is done. “You may wonder how the Fed pays for the bonds and other securities it buys," he says. "The Fed does not pay with paper money. Instead, the Fed pays the seller’s bank using newly created electronic funds and the bank adds those funds to the seller’s account.”

Criticism of Fed Money Printing

Some critics of QE argued it would lead to hyperinflation, while its defenders said it was a necessary response to extraordinary economic and financial conditions and an absence of an aggressively expansionary fiscal policy. The moderate inflation and relatively strong economic recovery in the years that followed the Great Recession were seen by many as vindicating the Fed's approach.

$6.13 trillion

The size of the Fed's current balance sheet, a record, as of April 2020. The Fed has made steady use of its buying power in recent weeks to help keep markets functioning and the U.S. economy stable amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Fed Cranks Up QE Again

As the U.S. economy ground to a standstill because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Fed again began aggressive open market operations, quickly pushing its balance sheet to a record level, above $6.13 trillion, as of April 12, 2020.