As the nation's central bank, the Federal Reserve is charged with promoting a healthy economy--broadly speaking, an economy with low unemployment, low and stable inflation, and a financial system that meets the economy's needs for credit and other services and that is not itself a source of instability. We pursue these goals through a variety of means. Together with other federal supervisory agencies, we oversee banks and other financial institutions. We monitor the financial system as a whole for possible risks to its stability. We encourage financial and economic literacy, promote equal access to credit, and advance local economic development by working with communities, nonprofit organizations, and others around the country. We also provide some basic services to the financial sector--for example, by processing payments and distributing currency and coin to banks.
But today I want to focus on a role that is particularly identified with the Federal Reserve--the making of monetary policy. The goals of monetary policy--maximum employment and price stability--are given to us by the Congress. These goals mean, basically, that we would like to see as many Americans as possible who want jobs to have jobs, and that we aim to keep the rate of increase in consumer prices low and stable.
In normal circumstances, the Federal Reserve implements monetary policy through its influence on short-term interest rates, which in turn affect other interest rates and asset prices.1 Generally, if economic weakness is the primary concern, the Fed acts to reduce interest rates, which supports the economy by inducing businesses to invest more in new capital goods and by leading households to spend more on houses, autos, and other goods and services. Likewise, if the economy is overheating, the Fed can raise interest rates to help cool total demand and constrain inflationary pressures.
Following this standard approach, the Fed cut short-term interest rates rapidly during the financial crisis, reducing them to nearly zero by the end of 2008--a time when the economy was contracting sharply. At that point, however, we faced a real challenge: Once at zero, the short-term interest rate could not be cut further, so our traditional policy tool for dealing with economic weakness was no longer available. Yet, with unemployment soaring, the economy and job market clearly needed more support. Central banks around the world found themselves in a similar predicament. We asked ourselves, "What do we do now?"
To answer this question, we could draw on the experience of Japan, where short-term interest rates have been near zero for many years, as well as a good deal of academic work. Unable to reduce short-term interest rates further, we looked instead for ways to influence longer-term interest rates, which remained well above zero. We reasoned that, as with traditional monetary policy, bringing down longer-term rates should support economic growth and employment by lowering the cost of borrowing to buy homes and cars or to finance capital investments. Since 2008, we've used two types of less-traditional monetary policy tools to bring down longer-term rates.
The first of these less-traditional tools involves the Fed purchasing longer-term securities on the open market--principally Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Fed's purchases reduce the amount of longer-term securities held by investors and put downward pressure on the interest rates on those securities. That downward pressure transmits to a wide range of interest rates that individuals and businesses pay. For example, when the Fed first announced purchases of mortgage-backed securities in late 2008, 30-year mortgage interest rates averaged a little above 6percent; today they average about 3-1/2 percent. Lower mortgage rates are one reason for the improvement we have been seeing in the housing market, which in turn is benefiting the economy more broadly. Other important interest rates, such as corporate bond rates and rates on auto loans, have also come down. Lower interest rates also put upward pressure on the prices of assets, such as stocks and homes, providing further impetus to household and business spending.