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Changing the discount rate

The Federal Reserve was founded in the aftermath of the Financial Panic of 1907 when many banks failed as a result of bank runs. As mentioned earlier, since banks make profits by lending out their deposits, no bank, even those that are not bankrupt, can withstand a bank run. As a result of the Panic, the Federal Reserve was founded to be the “lender of last resort.” In the event of a bank run, sound banks, (banks that were not bankrupt) could borrow as much cash as they needed from the Fed’s discount “window” to quell the bank run. The interest rate banks pay for such loans is called the discount rate    . (They are so named because loans are made against the bank’s outstanding loans “at a discount” of their face value.) Once depositors became convinced that the bank would be able to honor their withdrawals, they no longer had a reason to make a run on the bank. In short, the Federal Reserve was originally intended to provide credit passively, but in the years since its founding, the Fed has taken on a more active role with monetary policy.

So, the third traditional method for conducting monetary policy is to raise or lower the discount rate. If the central bank raises the discount rate, then commercial banks will reduce their borrowing of reserves from the Fed, and instead call in loans to replace those reserves. Since fewer loans are available, the money supply falls and market interest rates rise. If the central bank lowers the discount rate it charges to banks, the process works in reverse.

In recent decades, the Federal Reserve has made relatively few discount loans. Before a bank borrows from the Federal Reserve to fill out its required reserves, the bank is expected to first borrow from other available sources, like other banks. This is encouraged by Fed’s charging a higher discount rate, than the federal funds rate. Given that most banks borrow little at the discount rate, changing the discount rate up or down has little impact on their behavior. More importantly, the Fed has found from experience that open market operations are a more precise and powerful means of executing any desired monetary policy.

In the Federal Reserve Act, the phrase “...to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper” is contained in its long title. This tool was seen as the main tool for monetary policy when the Fed was initially created. This illustrates how monetary policy has evolved and how it continues to do so.

Key concepts and summary

A central bank has three traditional tools to conduct monetary policy: open market operations, which involves buying and selling government bonds with banks; reserve requirements, which determine what level of reserves a bank is legally required to hold; and discount rates, which is the interest rate charged by the central bank on the loans that it gives to other commercial banks. The most commonly used tool is open market operations.


Suppose the Fed conducts an open market purchase by buying $10 million in Treasury bonds from Acme Bank. Sketch out the balance sheet changes that will occur as Acme converts the bond sale proceeds to new loans. The initial Acme bank balance sheet contains the following information: Assets – reserves 30, bonds 50, and loans 50; Liabilities – deposits 300 and equity 30.

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Suppose the Fed conducts an open market sale by selling $10 million in Treasury bonds to Acme Bank. Sketch out the balance sheet changes that will occur as Acme restores its required reserves (10% of deposits) by reducing its loans. The initial balance sheet for Acme Bank contains the following information: Assets – reserves 30, bonds 50, and loans 250; Liabilities – deposits 300 and equity 30.

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Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Federal Open Market Committee.” Accessed September 3, 2013. http://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/fomc.htm.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Reserve Requirements.” Accessed November 5, 2013. http://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/reservereq.htm.

Cox, Jeff. 2014. "Fed Completes the Taper." Accessed March 31, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/id/102132961.

Jahan, Sarwat. n.d. "Inflation Targeting: Holding the Line." International Monetary Fund. Accessed March 31, 2015. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/basics/target.htm.

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