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Monetary policy and fiscal policy refer to the two most widely recognized tools used to influence a nation's economic activity. Monetary policy is primarily concerned with the management of interest rates and the total supply of money in circulation and is generally carried out by central banks such as the U.S. Federal Reserve. Fiscal policy is the collective term for the taxing and spending actions of governments. In the United States, the national fiscal policy is determined by the executive and legislative branches of the government. (See Who sets fiscal policy, the president or congress?)

Monetary Policy

Central banks have typically used monetary policy to either stimulate an economy or to check its growth. The theory is that, by incentivizing individuals and businesses to borrow and spend, monetary policy can spur economic activity. Conversely, by restricting spending and incentivizing savings, monetary policy can act as a brake on inflation and other issues associated with an overheated economy.

The Federal Reserve, also known as the "Fed," has frequently used three different policy tools to influence the economy: opening market operations, changing reserve requirements for banks and setting the discount rate. Open market operations are carried out on a daily basis where the Fed buys and sells U.S. government bonds to either inject money into the economy or pull money out of circulation. By setting the reserve ratio, or the percentage of deposits that banks are required to keep in reserve, the Fed directly influences the amount of money created when banks make loans. The Fed can also target changes in the discount rate (the interest rate it charges on loans it makes to financial institutions), which is intended to impact short-term interest rates across the entire economy.

Fiscal Policy

Generally speaking, the aim of most government fiscal policies is to target the total level of spending, the total composition of spending, or both in an economy. The two most widely used means of affecting fiscal policy are changes in government spending policies or in government tax policies.

If a government believes there is not enough business activity in an economy, it can increase the amount of money it spends, often referred to as "stimulus" spending. If there are not enough tax receipts to pay for the spending increases, governments borrow money by issuing debt securities such as government bonds and, in the process, accumulate debt; this is referred to as deficit spending. (For details, see What is the role of deficit spending in fiscal policy?)

By increasing taxes, governments pull money out of the economy and slow business activity. But typically, fiscal policy is used when the government seeks to stimulate the economy. It might lower taxes or offer tax rebates, in an effort to encourage economic growth. Influencing economic outcomes via fiscal policy is one of the core tenets of Keynesian economics.

When a government spends money or changes tax policy, it must choose where to spend or what to tax. In doing so, government fiscal policy can target specific communities, industries, investments, or commodities to either favor or discourage production – and sometimes, its actions based on considerations that are not entirely economic. For this reason, the numerous fiscal policy tools are often hotly debated among economists and political observers.

Which is More Effective: Monetary or Fiscal Policy?

In terms of improving the real economy, expansionary fiscal policy is more effective. In terms of the financial economy, expansionary monetary policy is the better choice. Both types work through different channels and impact individuals and corporations in different ways.

Fiscal policy affects consumers positively for the most part, as it leads to increased employment and income. Essentially, it is targeting aggregate demand. Companies also benefit as they see increased revenues.

However, if the economy is near full capacity, expansionary fiscal policy risks sparking inflation. This inflation eats away at the margins of certain corporations in competitive industries that may not be able to easily pass on costs to customers; it also eats away at the funds of people on a fixed income. Fiscal policy can also have the effect of creating asset bubbles if the market and incentives become too distorted.

Monetary policy has less impact on the real economy. Case in point: the Great Depression, during which the Federal Reserve was particularly aggressive on a historical scale. Its actions prevented deflation and economic collapse but did not generate significant economic growth to reverse the lost output and jobs.

Expansionary monetary policy can have limited effects on growth by increasing asset prices and lowering the costs of borrowing, making companies more profitable. In addition, it has the psychological benefits of taking worse-case economic scenarios off the table. As with fiscal policy, extended periods of low borrowing costs can create asset bubbles that are only apparent in hindsight.

Another crucial difference between the two is that fiscal policy can be targeted, while monetary policy is more of a blunt tool in terms of expanding and contracting the money supply to influence inflation and growth.

Learn more about how the economy is controlled with A Look at Fiscal and Monetary Policy.

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