The Fed’s control over monetary policy stems from its exclusive ability to alter the money supply and credit conditions more broadly. Normally, the Fed conducts monetary policy by setting a target for the federal funds rate, the rate at which banks borrow and lend reserves on an overnight basis. It meets its target through open market operations, financial transactions traditionally involving U.S. Treasury securities. Beginning in September 2007, the federal funds target was reduced from 5.25% to a range of 0% to 0.25% in December 2008, which economists call the zero lower bound. By historical standards, rates were kept unusually low for an unusually long time. In December 2015, the Fed began raising interest rates and expects to gradually raise rates further.
The Fed influences interest rates to affect interest-sensitive spending, such as business capital spending on plant and equipment, household spending on consumer durables, and residential investment. In addition, when interest rates diverge between countries, as is the case now, it causes capital flows that affect the exchange rate between foreign currencies and the dollar, which in turn affects spending on exports and imports. Through these channels, monetary policy can be used to stimulate or slow aggregate spending in the short run. In the long run, monetary policy mainly affects inflation. A low and stable rate of inflation promotes price transparency and, thereby, sounder economic decisions.
While the federal funds target was at the zero lower bound, the Fed attempted to provide additional stimulus through unsterilized purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities (MBS), a practice popularly referred to as quantitative easing (QE). Between 2009 and 2014, the Fed undertook three rounds of QE. The third round was completed in October 2014, at which point the Fed’s balance sheet was $4.5 trillion—five times its pre-crisis size. Although QE has ended, the Fed has maintained the balance sheet at its current level for the time being, with the intention of reducing it to a more normal size in the long run. The Fed has raised interest rates in the presence of a large balance sheet through the use of two new tools—by raising the rate of interest paid to banks on reserves and by engaging in reverse repurchase agreements (reverse repos) through a new overnight facility.
The Fed “anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.” Thus, although rates are being raised, the Fed plans to maintain an unusually stimulative monetary policy for the time being. In terms of its mandate, the Fed believes that unemployment has reached the rate that it considers consistent with maximum employment (although other labor market indicators suggest some slack remains), but inflation has remained below the Fed’s 2% goal since 2013 by the Fed’s preferred measure. Debate is currently focused on how quickly the Fed should raise rates. Some contend the greater risk is that raising rates too slowly will cause inflation to become too high or cause financial instability, whereas others contend that raising rates too quickly will cause inflation to remain too low and choke off the expansion.
Sources: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL30354.pdf; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/INTDSRUSM193N;