Explore the connection between the economic indicators and real-world issues. These lessons typically can be done in one class period.
Current Key Economic Indicatorsas of April 4, 2015
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.2% in February on a seasonally adjusted basis. Over the last 12 months, the all-items price index was unchanged. The energy index increased after several months of decline. Core inflation rose 0.2% in February, the same increase as in January.
The unemployment rate stayed at 5.5% in March, 2015, according to the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 3, 2015. The number of jobs added was much lower than in previous months, with only 126,000 new jobs added to the economy, the fewest number since December of 2013. Some job categories added workers, including health care, professional and business services, financial services, and retail. Average hourly wage growth was 7 cents, but average hours worked fell.
Real GDP increased 2.2% in the fourth quarter of 2014, according to the final estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This estimate is consistent with the revised estimate. In the third quarter, real GDP increased 5.0%. Consumer spending rose 4.4%, compared to 3.2% in the third quarter. Business investment and exports also increased. Offsetting these gains were increases in imports and decreases in federal government spending, particularly defense spending. (
In its March 18, 2015, statement, the FOMC cited the continued growth of the labor market, increased household and business spending, and below-target inflation as indicators of an economy that continues to recover. They expect below-target inflation to rise as oil prices increase in the medium term. The statement reaffirmed the FOMC intention to keep the federal funds rate at its current low level, but also said that a rate hike was highly unlikely at its April meeting. Notably, the FOMC dropped the word "patient" from its language describing its stance on an improving economy and a rate hike. The Fed revised downward its economic projections, including the rate of unemployment that would sustain a stable inflation rate.
Reasons for a Case Study on the Federal Open Market Committee
Following Federal Open Market Committee announcements, newspapers across the country have front-page stories about Federal Reserve actions to change the target for interest rates with a goal of either boosting spending and employment in the U.S. economy or slowing growth in spending and employment. The announcements often reflect serious concerns with the state and direction of the economy and recommend appropriate policy actions.
This case study is intended to guide students and teachers through an analysis of the actions the Federal Reserve is taking and can take in influencing prices, employment, and economic growth. An understanding of monetary policy in action is fundamental to developing a thorough understanding of macroeconomics and the U.S. economy.
Notes to Teachers
The material in this case study in italics is not included in the student version. This initial case study of the semester introduces relevant concepts and issues. Subsequent case studies following FOMC announcements will describe the announcement and add concepts and complexity throughout the semester. This case adds an explanation of the discount rate and a comparison with the previous announcement. (Slides showing each paragraph of the excerpts of the announcement are included in the accompanying PowerPoint slides.)
You may wish to use the following larger versions of the graphs and tables from this lesson for overhead projection or handouts in class:
The following is an excerpt from the March 21, 2007 announcement.
The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 5-1/4 percent.
Recent indicators have been mixed and the adjustment in the housing sector is ongoing. Nevertheless, the economy seems likely to continue to expand at a moderate pace over coming quarters.
Recent readings on core inflation have been somewhat elevated. Although inflation pressures seem likely to moderate over time, the high level of resource utilization has the potential to sustain those pressures.
In these circumstances, the Committee's predominant policy concern remains the risk that inflation will fail to moderate as expected. Future policy adjustments will depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth, as implied by incoming information.
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 May 9, 2007 .) The seven Governors of the Federal Reserve Board and five of the twelve Presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks make up the committee. The staff of the Federal Reserve implements the recommended policies.
The seven members of the Board of Governors are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve 14-year terms of office. Members may serve only one full term, but a member who has been appointed to complete an unexpired term may be reappointed to a full term. The President designates, and the Senate confirms, two members of the Board to be Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, for four-year terms.
The seven Board members constitute a majority of the 12-member FOMC. The other five members of the FOMC are Reserve Bank presidents, one of whom is always the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York . The other Bank presidents serve one-year terms on a rotating basis. Traditionally, the Chairman of the Board of Governors serves as the Chairman of the FOMC.
Guide To Announcement
A brief summary of the reasoning behind the decision is presented in the second, third, and fourth paragraphs,
In the second paragraph, reference is made to mixed signals as to whether the economy will grow more slowly or faster. The reference to the housing market points to concerns with falling housing prices in some areas, an overstock of available housing, and an increase in numbers of mortgages in default. The second sentence is identical to the same sentence in the previous announcement.
The third paragraph is almost identical to the third paragraph in the previous announcement, with the important exception that here the statement is made the inflation is "somewhat elevated". In the previous announcement, the statement was made that inflation had “improved modestly”. Reference is made to increased core inflation rates. (See the most recent inflation case study.) Core inflation is the rate of inflation excluding energy and food prices and is meant to indicate trends and expectations of further inflation. The last sentence refers to the fact that the economy is using much of its capacity and increased use may create additional inflationary pressures.
The fourth paragraph is also almost identical to the previous announcement. The committee is concerned about the continuing risk of inflation. The last sentence, in essence, states that new information will affect its future discussions and decisions.
There are also fifth and sometimes sixth paragraphs in a typical announcement. Those paragraphs will be discussed in the next case study.
The FOMC has used its policies actively throughout much of the 1990s and into this decade. The FOMC 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. See the figure showing changes in the target. (The periods of the 1990-1991 recession and the 2001 recession are shown in gray on the graph.)
Then as inflationary pressures began to increase in 1994, the Federal Reserve began to raise rates. In response to increased inflationary pressures once again in 1999, the Federal Reserve raised rates six times from June 1999 through May of 2000. Those changes are obvious in the graph.
Growth began to slow at the end of 2000. The slowing growth was one indication of the need for a change in monetary policy that would boost spending in the economy. The FOMC responded by cutting the target federal funds rate throughout the year.
Then as the economy began to recover from the recession and the FOMC turned to concerns that the economy did not need as much stimulation, a series of increases in the target federal funds rate were undertaken and are continued through June of 2006.
The Federal Open Market Committee increased the target for its federal funds rate at each of its meetings from June 2004 to June 2006. The seventeen consecutive increases of ¼ of one percent raised the target for the federal funds rate from 1 percent to 5.25 percent, where it remains today.
Tools of the Federal Reserve
The Federal Reserve buys and sells bonds and by doing so, increases or decreases banks' reserves and banks' abilities to make loans. As banks increase or decrease loans, the nation's money supply increases or decreases. That, in turn, decreases or increases interest rates. The purchase and sale of bonds by the Federal Reserve is called open market operations. The Federal Reserve is “operating”, that is buying or selling, in the “open market” for U.S. Treasury securities.
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. The opposite occurs when the Federal Reserve buys a bond. The Federal Reserve gives a check to the seller of the bond. The seller deposits the check in their account. Their bank adds to the amount to the deposits and thus the money supply increases. The bank also presents the check back to the Federal Reserve, which in turn adds the amount to the bank's reserves. Because the bank has to keep only a portion of those reserves, the bank makes loans with the remainder. Thus the money supply expands even further. As banks attempt to make more loans, interest rates fall.
Open market operations are the primary tool of the Federal Reserve. It is a tool that is often used and is quite powerful. This is what the Federal Reserve actually does when it announces a new target for its 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 because the Federal Reserve has sold bonds, that interest rate is likely to increase. If the supply of reserves is increased because the Federal Reserve has purchased bonds, that interest rate is likely to decrease.
Banks earn profits by accepting deposits and lending part 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.
The Federal Reserve also has two other tools that may be used to influence the expansion of and contraction in the money supply and those will be introduced in the next FOMC case study.
The Discount Rate
The discount rate is the interest rate the Federal Reserve charges banks if banks borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve itself. Banks may need to borrow reserves if they have made too many loans, have experienced withdrawals of deposits or currency, or have had fewer deposits than they expected.
In reality, banks seldom borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve and tend to rely more on borrowing reserves from other banks when they are needed. They will still pay an interest rate (the federal funds rate), but that is a rate determined in the market for reserves and influenced by the open market operations of the Federal Reserve.
The discount rate is most often changed along with the target for the federal funds rate, but the discount rate change does not have a very important effect as so few banks actually use that means of borrowing reserves. In this announcement, the discount rate is increased along with the federal funds rate.
Figure 2 shows the discount rate along with the federal funds rate. Notice that the discount rate typically changes along with the target for the federal funds rate. Prior to 2003, the discount rate was below the target federal funds rate. Since then the discount rate has been one percent above the target federal funds rate. That is an additional reason that there is little current borrowing of reserves directly from the Federal Reserve.
Banks are required by law to hold a portion of some of their deposits in what are called reserves. The portion varies depending upon the type of deposits and the size of the bank. Most are required to have either 3 or 10 percent of their deposits on reserve. Reserves consist of the amount of currency that a bank holds in its vaults and the bank's deposits at Federal Reserve banks. These are portions of a bank's deposits that cannot be loaned to other customers.
If banks have more reserves than they are required to have, they can increase their lending. If they have insufficient reserves, that is, less than they are required to have, they have to curtail their lending or borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve or from another bank. If another bank has more reserves than they are required to maintain, those extra reserves are called excess reserves. The reserve requirement is seldom changed, but it has a potentially very large effect on the ability to make loans and thus on interest rates.
If the Federal Reserve were to increase the reserve requirements, banks would have to curtail loans and the money supply would shrink. If the reserve requirements were lowered, banks would have excess reserves and they could increase the amount and number of loans they make.
Note about Chairman of the Federal Reserve-- This was the seventh meeting of the FOMC chaired by the new Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank, Benjamin Bernanke. Bernanke was nominated by the President and approved by the Senate as the new chair following more than 18 years of service in that role by Alan Greenspan.
How does Monetary Policy Work?
Monetary policy works by affecting the amount of money that is circulating in the economy, the level of interest rates, and changes in spending. 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 Reserve's check in her bank account. The bank's deposits and reserves increase. The bank then has an increased ability to make 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, machines, and tools, total spending increases. Consumer spending that partially depends upon levels of interest rates (automobile and appliances, for example) is also affected. Output and employment will increase. Unemployment will fall. There may also be some upward pressure on prices.
When the Federal Reserve adopts a restrictive monetary policy, it sells bonds in order to reduce the money supply. This results in higher interest rates and less spending. A restrictive monetary policy will decrease inflationary pressures, but it may also decrease investment spending and perhaps reduce the rate of growth in real gross domestic product. See the Inflation Case Study for a more detailed discussion of inflation.
Comparison of Monetary and Fiscal Policy
The FOMC reacts to a slowing economy by expanding the money supply, lowering interest rates, and thus encouraging increased spending. The FOMC reaction to increasing inflationary pressures is to decrease the money supply, raise interest rates, and thereby slowing growth in spending.
Fiscal policy is the taxing and spending policies of the federal government. Those policies also have the potential to influence economic conditions whether deliberately or as an unintended consequences of changes in taxes and spending adopted for reasons other than to influence economic conditions. If the economy is entering a recession, fiscal policy response might be to increase government spending and to lower taxes. If spending in the economy is growing too rapidly, the fiscal response might be to decrease government spending and to increase taxes.
In those processes, there will be debates in Congress about what to do with spending and taxes in order to stimulate or slow overall spending in the economy. These debates normally take a substantial amount of time. This lag points to one of the key differences between fiscal and monetary policy. Fiscal policy is much more difficult to implement but once the decision is made, it can have an effect quickly. Monetary policy decisions are much easier to institute and more responsive to economic conditions, but may actually take longer to change spending once the decision is made.
What are the Federal Reserve current observations and concerns?
[The Federal Reserve believes that the economy is growing moderately and that the current rate should continue. It believes that the recent inflationary pressures are somewhat increased, but it sees no need to increase its target federal funds rate at this time.]
What tool will the Federal Reserve use to accomplish its goals?
[The Federal Reserve can buy or sell U.S. Treasury bonds, which in turn will lower or increase the federal funds rate. If the Federal Open Market Committee becomes increasingly concerned about inflation it will increase its target federal funds rate. It would do so by selling bonds and decreasing the money supply.]
If the Federal Reserve were to become concerned about a slowing of the economic expansion, what is it likely to do with its open market operations and the federal funds rate?
[The Federal Reserve would purchase more bonds to expand the money supply and bank reserves and that would lower the federal funds rate. The goal would be to increase overall spending in the economy.]
How do changes in monetary policy affect your family's spending and business spending in the economy?
[ If the Federal Reserve is selling bonds, banks will have lower reserves due to decreased deposits. With the decreased reserves, they will have to decrease the number and size of loans. The decrease in loans and the resulting higher interest rates discourage business (and consumer) borrowing and spending. The decreased spending in the economy should result in decreased business production and employment.]