This is a picture of the Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C.
Figure 14.1 Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Headquarters, Washington DC Some of the most influential decisions regarding monetary policy in the United States are made behind these doors. (modification of work by squirrel83/Flickr Creative Commons)

Bring It Home

The Problem of the Zero Percent Interest Rate Lower Bound

Most economists believe that monetary policy—the manipulation of interest rates and credit conditions by a nation’s central bank—has a powerful influence on a nation’s economy. Monetary policy works when the central bank reduces interest rates and makes credit more available. As a result, business investment and other types of spending increase, causing GDP and employment to grow.

But what if the interest rates banks pay are close to zero already? They cannot be made negative, can they? That would mean that lenders pay borrowers for the privilege of taking their money. Yet, this was the situation the U.S. Federal Reserve found itself in at the end of the 2008–2009 recession. The federal funds rate, which is the interest rate for banks that the Federal Reserve targets with its monetary policy, was slightly above 5 percent in 2007. By 2009, it had fallen to 0.16 percent.

The Federal Reserve’s situation was further complicated because fiscal policy, the other major tool for managing the economy, was constrained by fears that the federal budget deficit and the public debt were already too high. What were the Federal Reserve’s options? How could monetary policy be used to stimulate the economy? The answer, as we will see in this chapter, was to change the rules of the game.


In this chapter, you will learn about the following:

  • The Federal Reserve banking system and central banks
  • Bank regulation
  • How a central bank executes monetary policy
  • Monetary policy and economic outcomes
  • Pitfalls for nonetary policy

Money, loans, and banks are all tied together. Money is deposited in bank accounts and then loaned to businesses, individuals, and other banks. When the interlocking system of money, loans, and banks works well, economic transactions are made smoothly in goods and labor markets and savers are connected with borrowers. If the money and banking system does not operate smoothly, the economy can either fall into recession or suffer prolonged inflation.

The government of every country has public policies that support the system of money, loans, and banking. But these policies do not always work perfectly. This chapter discusses how monetary policy works and what may prevent it from working perfectly.