Federal Reserve Bank Basics

by Brad Houle, CFA Executive Vice President

As investors we follow what the Federal Reserve does with a level of geeky interest generally only seen at a Star Trek convention. As a result, the Federal Reserve is a point of interest in our client communications and Outlook presentations. We thought it would be helpful to take a step back and discuss what the Federal Reserve is and what it actually does.

The Federal Reserve is the government’s bank as well as a bank to the bankers. The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate: to provide price stability and full employment. Maintaining price stability is simply not allowing inflation to be too high or too low. Presently, inflation – as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) – is running at about 1.6 percent per year. This is well below the 2 percent target set by the Federal Reserve. The CPI is a basket of goods that includes expenses such as rent, consumer electronics and food. To arrive at the monthly CPI, researchers actually visit stores to price items that go into the calculation that measures inflation.

Too much inflation is a bad thing for an economy because it diminishes the purchasing power of money. Wages often don't adjust upward as quickly as fast-moving inflation, which can cause a decline in standards of living. Hyperinflation occurred in Germany in the early 1920s where the cost of living increased fifteen-fold in six months.

Too little inflation can also be damaging to an economy and ultimately impact the standard of living of consumers. Deflation occurs when prices are dropping which can become a negative feedback loop that triggers economic malaise. As prices drop, consumers delay purchases in hopes of better pricing, which causes the impacted economy's growth to slow. Japan has suffered from deflation for more than a decade. Their central bank is now trying to break the cycle by stimulating Japan's economy in an attempt to resume growth.

The benefits of providing as much employment as possible are fairly simple. Employed citizens pay taxes and have a tendency to buy things, which drives economic growth. The question then becomes … What is the maximum level of employment? Currently, the Federal Reserve considers 5.4 percent to be full employment. Unemployment will never be zero because there is a segment of the working-age population (from 16 to 65) that is unable to work or unwilling to work. This level of full employment varies among different countries. In some European countries full employment is a high-single-digit number and is often a function of the opportunity cost of not working.

How does the Federal Reserve affect change in the economy to meet its dual mandate? This is where the concept of the Federal Reserve gets fairly abstract. The Federal Reserve can raise or lower short-term interest rates to effectively stimulate the economy if it is growing too slowly or "tap the brakes" if the economy is growing too quickly. This link for a video, although a bit dated, does a good job of explaining the nuance of how the Federal Reserve operates.


 Our Takeaways for the Week:

  •  We are early in earnings season for the fourth quarter of 2014 and it has been a mixed bag so far. Multinational companies are starting to show the impact of a strong dollar
  • This is negatively impacting sales in some cases as a stronger dollar makes goods exported from the United States more expense to consumers in other countries