The Federal Reserve is the central banking system of the United States. It was created as a part of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 under President Woodrow Wilson to alleviate financial crises.
This article will take a look at the history of the Federal Reserve and explain how it has actively worked towards creating a stable financial system in the United States.
1775-1791: The First US Currency, Continentals
The Continental Congress, between 1775 and 1779, printed America’s first paper money known as “continentals” to finance the American Revolution against the British crown.1 In the beginning, Continental Congress issued paper bills of credit worth $2 million. The paper notes, bearing the images of Revolutionary soldiers, were the first significant currency distribution of the Congress.
But these fiat money notes were issued in large quantities of up to $200 million, leading to inflation, which was mild in the beginning but accelerated as the war progressed.
Another reason why the continentals lost value was that the fiat currencies were not backed by any physical asset such as gold or silver. Their value was supposed to be based on the future tax revenues as expected by the Continental Congress.
By 1785, people had lost trust in paper money, and they stopped accepting the continental currency as a mode of payment for goods and services. This scenario gave birth to the phrase “Not worth a continental,” meaning “absolutely worthless.” 2. Only after the Coinage Act of 1792 did the paper continentals were replaced under the Federal Reserve Act.
On the insistence of the then-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Congress established the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia in 1791.3 Branches opened in Boston, New York, Charleston, and Baltimore in 1792, followed by branches in Norfolk (1800), Savannah (1802), Washington, D.C. (1802), and New Orleans (1805). The bank had a capitalization of $10 million. Out, theOnly of which $2 million was owned by the Government, and the remaining $8 million was owned by private investors.
The American Revolution caused widespread economic disruption in the 1780s. Hamilton’s objective behind establishing the first bank was to reform a post-Revolutionary War economy, such as repaying war debt, re-establishing commerce and industry, restoring the currency value, and lowering inflation.
Alexander Hamilton had an ambitious plan. In December 1790, he submitted a report to Congress outlining his proposal for a national bank based on the charter of the Bank of England.
The Bank of the United States, bound by a 20-year charter, was the largest corporation in the country and created a financial monopoly favoring only the big merchants and financiers. Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned the United States primarily as an Agrarian society, had opposed the idea of this bank.
When the 20-year charter of the bank expired in 1811, the charter renewal was refused by one vote.
Until the War of 1812, the U.S. economy was on a high growth trajectory, but the war disrupted foreign trade.4 By the end of 1815, the nation was under heavy debt. Many people felt that a second central bank would provide much-needed relief to the ailing U.S. economy and help in repaying the substantial war debt.
The political climate changed by 1816, and America attempted to re-establish the Second Bank of the United States. John Jacob Astor, David Parish, Stephen Girard, Jacob Barker, John C. Calhoun, and Alexander Dallas were six men of power who primarily worked towards establishing the Second Bank of the United States. Astor, Girard, Parish, and Barker were hopeful that the second national bank would restore currency value.
Congress agreed to establish the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia in January 1817. Like its predecessor, this bank also had a twenty-year charter and was set up with a cap of $35 million. The Second Bank of the United States operated expansively through 25 branches. However, things changed when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. Jackson fiercely opposed the idea of a central bank and decided to overthrow it. His attack on the central banks’ monopoly received support from many Americans. Thus, when the Second Bank’s charter expired in 1836, it was not renewed further.
The period from 1837 to 1863 is known as the free banking era in the history of American banking. After the first two central banks received a tepid response, the advocates of states’ rights gained power against the federalists, and the states chartered all banks. Alabama, New Jersey, and Illinois were among the earliest adopters of Free Banking. State-chartered banks and unchartered “free banks” gained momentum during this period. These banks issued their banknotes against their gold and silver deposits.5
These notes were non-negotiable, and they derived their value mainly from the size of the issuing bank.
Not just banks but insurance and railroad companies and also drugstores issued paper currencies. There wasn’t any standard format for the notes, and forgers found it very easy to release counterfeit coins. The state-run banks also began offering demand deposits to boost commerce. Nearly half of these banks failed with an average lifespan of five years.
In January of that year, the National Bank Act of 1863 was introduced in the Senate to bring financial stability and fund the war effort.6 The National Banking Act of 1863 was passed during the Civil War, and it served as the federal charter and supervision system for the national banks.
The Act aimed at circulating a stable and uniform national currency backed by federal bonds that each bank deposits with the comptroller of the currency. The National Banking Act also regulated the national chartered banks’ minimum capital requirements — the reserve balances, the credit that they offer, and the bank reserves to be held against notes and deposits.
Lincoln and Chase working on the national banking legislation. National banks organized under the Act were required to purchase government bonds as a prerequisite to starting up. As those bonds were deposited with the Federal Government, the bank could issue notes up to 90% of the market value of the bonds on deposit.
The National Bank Act improved the nation’s economy, but it did not address its financial problems. Around 1500 state banks issuing banknotes were converted to national banks by the amendment to the original Bank Act passed in June 1864. Other state banks went out of business after a 10% federal tax on the issued notes in 1865.
In 1907, Wall Street was in a speculation mode that resulted in particularly severe panic and a severe banking crisis. The economy stabilized only after the finance mogul JP Morgan decided to step in and rescue it.
It was evident that the nation’s banking and financial system was up for a significant overhaul. However, the country had a lot of internal conflicts to deal with. The Progressives vehemently opposed the Conservatives and powerful “money trusts” in the big eastern cities. Many believed that President Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust policies resulted in the 1907 panic. He also had unending conflicts with JP Morgan.7
Despite all this, the entire nation felt the need for a central banking authority to ensure a healthy banking system and a robust currency system.
The Aldrich-Vreeland Act was an emergency currency law passed on May 30, 1908, to respond to the bank panics of 1907 and future financial panics.8 The act also resulted in the formation of the National Monetary Commission to investigate monetary systems and banking and suggest Congress reforms of the American banking system.
Under the leadership of Senator Nelson Aldrich, the commission developed a banker-controlled plan. However, Former Secretary of States William Jennings Bryan and other progressives launched an attack on the agenda.9 They aimed for a central bank under public control instead of banker control. The 1912 election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson killed the Republican Aldrich plan, but the stage was set for a decentralized central bank.
Between 1907 and 1913, government officials and top bankers formed the National Monetary Commission. They visited Europe several times to analyze and understand the working of the foreign official institutions and other central banks and systems there.10 They drew inspiration from the German and British systems. A proposal for a central bank was floated by Republican Carter Glass and a professor at Washington and Lee University, Henry Willis.
From December 1912 to December 1913, there was a hot debate around the Glass-Willis proposal, which was reshaped several times. Finally, on December 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law. The law brought into force a decentralized central bank that offered a balance between the interests of private banks and the sentiment of the commoner.
The bank bestowed powers in the hands of the nation’s money supply and economy. The Federal Reserve Act mandated each Reserve Bank to have a minimum capital of $4 million. Member banks had to subscribe to an amount equal to 6% of their capital and surplus in their bank reserves.
The final Act stated “to furnish an elastic currency” meaning that the Federal Reserve System is responsible for ensuring sufficient cash in the vaults of banks to satisfy the flow of transactions and prevent bank runs.
The Act also established a Reserve Bank Organization Committee (RBOC), which announced the location and district boundaries of twelve Reserve Banks in April 1914.11
By November 16, 1914, the Federal Reserve opened for business in 12 regions, just when the unfortunate World War I broke in. These regions included Boston (District 1), New York (District 2), Philadelphia (District 3), Cleveland (District 4), Richmond (District 5), Atlanta (District 6), Chicago (District 7), St. Louis (District 8), Minneapolis (District 9), Kansas City (District 10), Dallas (District 11), and San Francisco (District 12).
Charles S. Hamlin was selected as the first chairman, also called “governor” before 1935, of the Federal Reserve Board.12 He assumed office on August 10, 1914, and remained in power until August 9, 1916. After that, Hamlin remained as a Board member until February 1936. He served the Board as special counsel until his death on April 24, 1938. Hamlin was a Boston-based lawyer. He received two honorary doctor of laws degrees from Washington and Lee University and Columbia University.
Chairman Charles S. Hamlin shaped the organizational structure to help the Board accomplish its mission under the Federal Reserve Act. However, in reality, the Treasury secretary was ex-officio chairman and presided over the Board meetings. This meant that a person appointed as a governor had a subordinate role. The Board under Hamlin assumed a passive approach to policymaking. It also allowed the Treasury to dictate the terms of the policy during that era.
When World War I broke out in mid-1914, banks in America could generally operate because of the Aldrich-Vreeland Act’s emergency currency issued in 1908.
The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 led to a financial crisis, including a stock market shutdown and a run on many banks. But Reserve Banks had just started to set up shop. Meanwhile, another conflict arose. A massive inflow of European gold for paying U.S. exports increased the money supply. However, the conflict placed the budding Federal Reserve under pressure.
Amid the crisis, the Federal Reserve evolved into a central bank in the true sense by boosting its financial resources and turning the U.S. dollar into a major international currency.13 Economist Allan Meltzer, in his work A History of the Federal Reserve, stated, “The war reshaped the Federal Reserve System in many ways.”
It facilitated war bond sales and provided loans at preferential rates to banks by purchasing Treasury certificates. Due to this mechanism, the United States could support the flow of trade goods to Europe, which was an indirect way of financing the war until 1917. The Federal Bank also took action to lower inflation.
After World War I, Benjamin Strong, the head of the New York Fed from 1914 to 1928, inferred that gold wasn’t the central factor in control and provided credit anymore.14
During the 1920s, the Federal Reserve started using open market operations as a monetary policy tool. When the recession hit the United States in 1923, Strong took aggressive steps to avert financial crises through a large purchase of government securities.
It became evident that open market operations were powerful enough to influence the depository institutions’ banking system’s credit conditions and interest rates.
Before this period, the Federal Reserve relied mainly on the discount window and the rate charged for discounting bills as the primary tool to manage credit conditions in the economy. Open Market Operations were rarely used in the United States before the Federal Reserve. It was forbidden for banks with National charters to issue such securities.
During the 1920s, Virginia Representative Carter Glass cautioned the nation that widespread stock market speculation could yield detrimental results.
Unfortunately, his predictions became a reality in October 1929, when the stock market crashed, and America witnessed the worst depression in its history. Nearly 10,000 banks failed between 1930 to 1933, and by March 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared a bank holiday.
Meanwhile, government officials were thinking of various ways to ease the grave situation. Some blamed the Fed for its failure to curtail speculative lending leading to the crash. At the same time, some experts believed that the Fed’s inadequate understanding of monetary economics limited it from pursuing practical policies that could have lessened the depth of the depression.
Congress passed the Banking Act of 1933, also known as the Glass-Steagall Act, in response to the Great Depression.15 Named after its sponsors, Senator Carter Glass and Representative Henry B. Steagall, this Act separated commercial and investment banking. It also required that the government securities be used as collateral for Federal Reserve notes.
As a result, retail banks could not use depositors’ funds for risky investments. They could underwrite government bonds, and only 10% of their income could come from securities sales. Similarly, Investment banks could organize the initial public offering and facilitate mergers and acquisitions.
The law empowered the Federal Reserve to regulate retail banks. It also created the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), enabling the Fed to implement monetary policy better. The Glass-Steagall Act also prevented banks from paying interest on checking accounts while allowing the Fed to set ceilings on interest paid on other deposits.
The Act also established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Federal deposit insurance became effective on January 1, 1934, under which depositors had credit rights entitled to a $2,500 coverage.16 It was a big step in restoring public confidence and in the banking system promoting stable prices.
Also, as part of the massive reforms, Roosevelt recalled all gold and silver certificates, ending the gold and any other metallic standard.
In 1935, another Banking Act was passed that called for further changes in the structure of the Federal Reserve Bank. This included making the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) a separate legal entity. The Banking Act of 1935 also removed the Treasury Secretary and the Comptroller of the Currency from the Fed’s governors and established the members’ terms at 14 years.17 The Act also gave the Board of Governors control over other monetary policy tools.
After 1935, whenever any financial crisis came, FDIC stepped in to cover the lost money of the account holders. While some were opposed to it back then, noted academics predicted its positive long-run consequences.
The Monetary Accord of 1951, or the Treasury Accord, was an agreement between the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. This accord reinstated the Federal Reserve’s independence and set the stage for the Fed’s control of monetary policy as the nation’s central bank.18
After World War II in 1942, the U.S. Treasury requested the Fed keep interest rates meager to bring stability to the securities market and enable the Government to borrow funds for war at low rates.19
The Fed was forced to give up control of the size of its portfolio and the money stock to maintain the peg after the start of the Korean War in 1950. This led to a conflict between the Treasury and the Fed. After a long-drawn power struggle between the Fed and the Treasury for control over the monetary policy and interest rates, the dispute was settled in an agreement known as the Treasury-Fed Accord.
This accord eliminated the Fed’s obligation to monetize the Treasury’s debt at a fixed rate and become an independent determinant of U.S. monetary policy.
With the 1956 Bank Holding Company Act, Congress allowed the Federal Reserve a more extensive banking industry oversight. It named the Fed the regulator of bank holding companies owning more than one bank.20 According to the 1956 Act, a bank holding company was the one that held a stake in 25% or more of the shares of two or more banks.
The Act also gave the Federal Reserve bank broader regulatory powers over bank holding companies which had to submit to the Fed for its supervisory responsibilities. Another significant outcome of the 1956 Act was that it required all bank holding companies to divest their ownership in firms involved in non-bank activities, i.e., commercial and industrial businesses.
The Humphrey-Hawkins Act or the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 altered the focus of U.S. economic policy from price stability to a dual mandate that included employment.21 The Act was authored by Hubert Humphrey and Augustus Hawkins, and it required the Fed chairman to testify before Congress twice annually on monetary policy goals and objectives.
The Post-Vietnam environment caused distrust in the Government, while the stagflation of the 1970s led to people’s distrust in the Federal Reserve. To add to the woes, the 1976 Memorandum of Discussion that demanded minutes of the FOMC to be released—was also terminated. Hence, the Act called for the Federal Reserve to work in close cooperation with the Government.
The Monetary Control Act passed in 1980 led to a sweeping change in the role of the Federal Reserve in the interbank clearing markets.22 The Act required the Fed to price its financial services competitively against private sector providers and establish reserve requirements for all eligible banking institutions.
The Act marked the onset of modern banking industry reforms. After the Monetary Control Act of 1980, interstate banking prospered, and banks began offering interest-paying accounts. They also started offering other instruments to attract typical brokerage firms’ customers.
In 1999 the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act overturned portions of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and allowed banks to start offering specialized financial services such as investment banking and insurance.23 The Act also included explicit provisions for the privacy protection of the customers. The banks needed to maintain transparency over information-sharing with their customers and safeguard sensitive data. The Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, did not give the SEC or any financial regulatory authority the right to regulate investment banks.
The central banking system in the U.S. played a critical role in reversing the impact of the September 11 attacks on the U.S. financial system. After the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania disrupted U.S. financial markets, the Fed issued a short statement saying, “The Federal Reserve System is open and operating.24 The discount window is available to meet liquidity needs.”
The Federal Reserve lowered interest rates and disbursed over $45 billion to financial institutions to stabilize the U.S. economy in the following days. 34 Fed lending had returned to pre-attack levels by September, thus averting a potential liquidity crunch.
The Federal Reserve strongly responded to the subprime crisis and implemented several programs to support the liquidity of financial institutions and improve the condition of financial markets.
In early 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stated, “Broadly, the Federal Reserve’s response has followed two tracks: efforts to support market liquidity and functioning and pursue our macroeconomic objectives through monetary policy.”
A study by the Government Accountability Office in 2011 found that in 2008 and 2009, the Federal Reserve Board assumed emergency authority under the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. to authorize new broad-based programs and financial assistance to individual institutions to bring stability.26
In their 2010 book, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, economist Simon Johnson and historian James Kwak criticized how the Federal reserve handled the crisis. The book highlighted that central banking should have taken charge of a mass clean-up of lousy policymakers and inculcated strong banking practices instead of randomly infusing liquidity into the system.25
Extended business closures, travel restrictions, and manufacturing suspension during the COVID-19 pandemic played havoc on the U.S. economy. The Federal Reserve stepped in to curb the economic damage by offering a $2.3 trillion package to households, employers, financial markets, and state and local governments.27 The Fed has lowered its target for the federal funds rate by a total of 1.5 percentage points since March 3, 2020, keeping it between 0% to 0.25%.28
In July 2020, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston announced the Main Street Lending Program to respond to the pandemic.29 The program’s objective was to lend to a wide range of small and medium-sized businesses that were in healthy operating condition before COVID-19 struck. The Main Street targeted entities that were too large to benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and too small to fall under the purview of the Federal Reserve facilities for the corporate bond and commercial paper markets.
The Federal Reserve terminated the program facilities on January 8, 2021.
On March 31, 2021, the Federal Regulatory services issued a Request for Information and Comment (RFI) to understand how artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning (ML) is used in the financial services industry30. The regulators comprise the Federal reserve system, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
The Fed has been contemplating creating a digital dollar for more than a year. The Boston Federal Reserve bank has associated with MIT to do a feasibility study on whether the central bank should establish its digital coin to increase efficiency in the payments system compared to traditional paper currency.
Fed Governor Lael Brainard has strongly supported the cause, even as many other officials, including Randal Quarles, the Vice-Chair for Supervision, expressed their doubts.
Brainard stated that a central bank’s digital currency’s benefits range from quick and efficient payment systems to inclusive banking.31
After the FOMC meeting concluded on September 22, 2021, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell confirmed that the Fed is actively studying to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC). He added that the paper would be released soon.32
Unlike the other cryptocurrencies, the digital dollar would be issued and backed by the Federal Reserve System.
The Federal Reserve has two core missions. Firstly, to foster price stability and secondly, to keep the unemployment rate down. While the annual inflation rate is on a decline, the yearly unemployment rate for 2020 is pretty high at 8%. Hence, given the economic uncertainty due to t0 the pandemic, the central bank has a gigantic task ahead of it.3334
By keeping the benchmark rates near zero and announcing a $2.3 trillion lending package, the Federal Reserve took significant steps to keep the U.S. economy afloat. However, critics claim that the Fed must maintain more transparency while deciding on the monetary policies and act with increased accountability.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve system explores and acts in tandem with the latest technological developments. It will be intriguing to see the Federal Reserve bank’s stance on AI/ML and cryptocurrencies in the times to come, which I suspect they’ll play a significant role.