"The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate unchanged at 1-3/4 percent.

"Signs that weakness in demand is abating and economic activity is beginning to firm have become more prevalent. With the forces restraining the economy starting to diminish, and with the long-term prospects for productivity growth remaining favorable and monetary policy accommodative, the outlook for economic recovery has become more promising.

"The degree of any strength in business capital and household spending, however, is still uncertain. Hence, the Committee continues to believe that, against the background of its long-run goals of price stability and sustainable economic growth and of the information currently available, the risks are weighted mainly toward conditions that may generate economic weakness in the foreseeable future."

This press release is available at:

Reasons For A Case Study On The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee

Following recent Federal Open Market Committee announcements, newspapers across the country have had front-page stories about the Federal Reserve actions to lower interest rates and boost spending and employment in the U.S. economy. Attention has only increased as the economy entered a recession beginning in March of last year and real GDP actually fell in the third quarter of the year. The announcements reflect serious concerns with the state and direction of the economy. This case study is intended to guide students and teachers through an analysis of the actions the Federal Reserve began to take last year in an effort to strengthen the economy. An understanding of monetary policy in action is fundamental to developing a thorough understanding of macroeconomics and the U.S. economy.

Guide To Announcement

From January 3 to December 11 of 2001, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) lowered the target federal funds rate 11 times from 6.50 percent to 1.75 percent (a total reduction of 4.75 percent). This is the lowest target federal funds rate in forty years. At the January 29/30 meeting, the FOMC decided to leave the federal funds rate unchanged.

The FOMC establishes monetary policy. The first paragraph of the announcement summarizes the current policy changes - the decision to leave target federal funds rate unchanged. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors also sets the discount rate, through a technical process of approving requests of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks. The discount rate also remained unchanged at this meeting and is not mentioned in the announcement.

In the second paragraph, the Federal Reserve discusses the reasoning behind their decision. Spending in the economy is beginning to increase at more rapid rates than the lower levels in 2001 and that the economy appears to be strengthening. The Federal Reserve's long-run outlook for productivity growth and the overall state of economy continues to be optimistic.

The Federal Reserve indicates in the third paragraph that current increases in spending should be viewed with uncertainty. The Federal Reserve is still concerned with possible worsening conditions in the future. With these economic concerns in mind, the Federal Reserve believes the best way to maintain stable prices and sustain economic growth is to leave the target federal funds interest rate unchanged at this meeting. This paragraph also indicates that the Federal Reserve is not opposed to future reductions in the target federal funds if economic weakness necessitates them.

The Target Federal Funds Rate and the Discount Rate

Data Trends

The Federal Reserve lowered the target federal funds rate in a series of steps beginning in July of 1990 until September of 1992, all in response to a recession beginning in July of 1990 and ending in March of 1991. Then as inflationary pressures began to increase in 1994, the Federal Reserve began to raise rates in February. In response to increased inflationary pressures once again in 1999, the Federal Reserve raised rates six times from June 1999 through May of 2000.

The rate of growth in real GDP has been increasing over the last several years, but began to slow in the middle of 2000. GDP increased at an annual rate of 4.1 percent for both 1999 and 2000. During 2001, the rate of growth of GDP slowed significantly to 1.1 percent overall and quarterly rates of 1.3, 0.3, -1.3 and 0.2 percent, respectively. The slowing growth over the last two quarters of 2000 and the first two quarters of 2001, cumulating in the decline in GDP during the third quarter of 2001, was one indicator of the need to use a monetary policy that would boost spending in the economy. (For more on changes in the rate of growth of real GDP and the current recession, see the most recent GDP Case Study.)


On November 26, The National Bureau of Economic Research announced though its Business Cycle Dating Committee that it had determined that a peak in business activity occurred in March of 2001. That signals the official beginning to a recession.

The NBER defines a recession as a "significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade." The current data show a decline in employment, but not as large as in the previous recession. We should expect unemployment to continue to increase, as rates of unemployment typically lag changes in spending. Real income growth has slowed but not declined. Manufacturing and trade sales and industrial production have both declined and have been doing so for some time.

While the common media definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of decline in real GDP, this recession is began before quarterly real GDP actually declined. If the current estimates for the fourth quarter are not revised, the recession will likely include on a single quarter of actual decreasing real GDP.

Current news reports do discuss possibilities of the recent terrorist attacks actually increasing the severity and length of the recession. If that happens, it would likely be due to falling consumption spending due to declining consumer confidence, declines in industries most directly affected by the terrorism (travel and tourism, being prime examples), and further cutbacks in business investment spending. The last recession began in July of 1990 and ended in March of 1991, a period of eight months. However, the beginning of the recession was not announced until April of 1991 (after the recession had actually ended). The end of the recession was announced in December of 1992, almost 21 months later. One of the reasons the end of the recession was so difficult to determine was the economy did not grow very rapidly even after it came out a period of falling output and income.

For the full press release from the National Bureau of Economic Research see:

Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)

The primary function of the FOMC is to direct monetary policy for the U.S. economy. The FOMC meets about every six weeks. (The next meeting is March 19.) Seven Governors of the Federal Reserve Board and five of the twelve Presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks make up the committee. Governors are appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks are selected by the Boards of each Bank.

Monetary policy works by affecting the amount of money that is circulating in the economy. The Federal Reserve can change the amount of money that banks are holding in reserves by buying or selling existing U.S. Treasury bonds. When the Federal Reserve buys a bond, the seller deposits the Federal Reserves' check in her bank account. As a bank's reserves increase, it has an increased ability to make more loans, which in turn will increase the amount of money in the economy.

Competition among banks forces interest rates down as banks compete with one another to make more loans. If businesses are able to borrow more to build new stores and factories and buy more computers, total spending increases. Consumer spending that partially depends upon levels of interest rates (automobile, appliances, etc.) is also affected. Output will tend to follow and employment may also increase. Thus unemployment will fall. Prices may also increase.

When the Federal Reserve employs an expansionary monetary policy, it buys bonds in order to expand the money supply and simultaneously lower interest rates. Although gross domestic product and investment increase, this may also stimulate inflation. If growth in spending exceeds growth in capacity, inflationary pressures tend to emerge. If growth in spending is less than the growth in capacity, then the economy will not be producing as much as it could. As a result, unemployment may rise.

When the Federal Reserve adopts a restrictive monetary policy it sells bonds in order to reduce the money supply and this results in higher interest rates. A restrictive monetary policy will decrease inflationary pressures, but it may also decrease investment and real gross domestic product. See the inflation case study for a more detailed discussion of inflation. See the inflation case study for a more detailed discussion of inflation.

How long does it take monetary policy to have an effect on the economy?

Comparison of Monetary and Fiscal Policy

The FOMC has been reacting to the slowing economy throughout this year. While the monetary policy has not been sufficient to prevent a recession, it surely has made the recession milder than it would have otherwise been and has likely contributed to the recession ending sooner.

Fiscal policy, the taxing and spending policies of the federal government, has the potential to influence economic conditions. Throughout this year, there have been debates in Congress about what to do with spending and taxes in order to stimulate spending. Those debates continue and little has been accomplished. This points to one of the key differences between fiscal and monetary policy. Fiscal policy is much more difficult to implement. Monetary policy decisions are much easier and more responsive to economic conditions.

Federal Reserve Goals

The stated goals of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee are to maintain price stability and sustainable economic growth. (See the last sentence in the second paragraph of the announcement.) The price stability goal means that the Federal Reserve will try to minimize inflation or at least hold inflation to an amount that will not change most peoples' decisions. For all practical purposes, that rate has been between about 2 to 4 percent in recent years.

The goal of sustainable economic growth translates into holding the growth in spending to a level that equals the growth in our capacity. The latter is determined by changes in technology, the amount and quality of labor and the amount of capital - machines, factories, computers, and inventories.

Tools of the Federal Reserve

Reserve Requirements:

Banks are required to hold a portion (either 10 or 3 percent, depending upon the size of the bank) of some of their deposits in reserve. Reserves consist of the amount of currency that a bank holds in its vaults and its deposits at Federal Reserve banks. If banks have more reserves than they are required to have, they can increase their lending. If they have insufficient reserves, they have to curtail their lending or borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve or from another bank that may have extra or excess reserves. The requirement is seldom changed, but it is potentially very powerful.

Open Market Operations:

The Federal Reserve buys and sells bonds and by doing so, increases or decreases banks' reserves and their abilities to make loans. As banks increase or decrease loans, the nation's money supply changes. That, in turn, decreases or increases interest rates. Open market operations are the primary tool of the Federal Reserve. They are often used and are quite powerful. This is what the Federal Reserve actually does when it announces a new target federal funds rate. The federal funds rate is the interest rate banks charge one another in return for a loan of reserves. If the supply of reserves is reduced, that interest rate is likely to increase.

Banks earn profits by accepting deposits and lending some of those deposits to someone else. They sometimes charge fees for establishing and maintaining accounts and always charge borrowers an interest rate. Banks are required by the Federal Reserve System to hold reserves in the form of currency in their vaults or deposits with Federal Reserve System.

When the Federal Reserve sells a bond, an individual or institution buys the bond with a check on their account and gives the check to the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve removes an equal amount from the customer's bank's reserves. The bank, in turn, removes the same amount from the customer's account. Thus, the money supply shrinks.

Discount Rate:

The discount rate is the interest rate the Federal Reserve charges banks if banks borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve itself. Banks seldom borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve and tend to rely more on borrowing reserves from other banks when they are needed. The discount rate is often changed as it is in this announcement, but the change does not have a very important effect.

For more background on the Federal Reserve and resources to use in the classroom, go to:

How often does the Federal Reserve engage in open market operations?


  1. Explain why the Federal Reserve lowered target federal funds rate throughout 2001 and left the target rate unchanged in January 2002
  2. Explain why the Federal Reserve raised the target federal funds rate in 1999 and 2000.
  3. How does a change in the target federal funds rate affect spending?
  4. What are the risks in the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates?
  5. A role of the Federal Reserve is to maintain the money supply. What is money?
  6. How do changes in the target federal funds rate affect GDP?

An Activity

A productive activity is to form a Federal Open Market Committee in your class. Current data and forecasts can be examined. Votes can be taken as to the proper policy. Some roles can be assigned. Bankers, farmers, laborers, stockholders all have opinions and interests in the outcomes of the meetings.

The "beige book" consists of the reports of the economic conditions in the 12 Federal Reserve Banks across the country. Those data are part of the information considered by the FOMC when it makes its decisions. Refer to the most recent (April 13, 2011) beige book ( in order to discern the opinions of different workers, industries and retailers. In the current economic slowdown, the following questions might be asked:

Which cities are faring the worst; which are the best?
Which sectors of the economy are faring the worst; which are the best?

The Federal Reserve also has a web-site for economic students located at Additional information on monetary policy may be found there. Additional and more recent beige books can be found at: