15 Insider Facts To Demystify The Federal Reserve

Without realizing it, our everyday rants about housing, grocery prices and car loans are sprinkled with Federal Reserve influences.

Even if you don't actually utter the words "the Fed" in such conversations, you are touched in numerous ways by our nation's central bank. The intimacy seems to stop there. Most people feel they need an economics degree to understand how the Fed works. But it isn't that complicated.

If you've ever played Monopoly, then explaining how the Fed operates and why you should care is a cinch. We asked financial experts across the country for 15 Fed facts that will stun you, and this is what they said:

1. The Fed is the banker, as in Monopoly. If you ever played Monopoly with siblings, you know it was important to assign the banker job to someone trustworthy. The Fed is charged with promoting a healthy economy that gives us low unemployment, low and stable inflation and a financial system that works.

2. The Fed is a private institution not controlled by the government. That said, the seven Board of Governors' members -- led by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke -- are appointed by the U.S. president and confirmed by Congress. It's political by nature but intended to be separate. Fortunately, board members serve 14-year terms, outliving any one presidential administration.

3. The less you hear about the Fed, the better. When the economy is humming along, you won't hear much about the Fed. It should be like your air conditioner or heater -- you don't want to hear it, you just want to know that it works, said Pete D'Arruda, president of Capital Financial Advisory Group in Cary, N.C.

4. The Fed doesn't print money (the Treasury does) but it does decide when to release it. Congress has the exclusive power to regulate and set the standard for currency but has no power to create money, said Michael D. Greaney, director of research at the Center for Economic and Social Justice in Arlington, Va.

5. The Fed monitors banks to make sure there's no funny business. The Fed aims to maximize employment and price stability, regulates the amount banks can borrow and keeps the reserves in place.

6. It has lots of moving parts. The Federal Reserve system is composed of the Board of Governors and 12 regional Federal Reserve banks, located in major cities across the country.

7. Federal Reserve banks don't provide banking services to individuals. Their services are similar to those provided by commercial banks, except they supervise Federal Reserve System bank holding companies and commercial banks for "safety and soundness" and participate in setting monetary policy (a big job between 2007 and 2010 when "too-big-to-fail" banks actually profited from policies that were meant to protect them).

8. The Beige Book isn't for bedtime reading. Eight times a year, the 12 Federal Reserve banks compile economic data and summarize the information in The Beige Book report (also known as the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions).

9. People like to blame the Fed for their money problems. D'Arruda said people complain about the Fed, but it does the best with what it has been given. The Fed's job is to instill confidence in our monetary system. Low interest rates, inflation, mortgage rates and unemployment -- enough said.

10. The Fed isn't only about greenbacks. Post-2008, the Fed began using other monetary tools besides dollars to bring down longer-term rates. The less traditional tools include Treasury securities and mortgage-backed loans, which led to lower interest rates on corporate bonds and auto loans, said Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner at Lexion Capital Management LLC in New York City.

11. A lot of senior citizens don't like what the Fed is doing with interest rates. Those living on a fixed income planned to rely on the interest from their savings to supplement their income. With interest rates at record lows, seniors have to do without.

12. The Fed's monetary policy could lead to inflation. With inflation hovering at 2% per year for several decades, some fear the Fed's policies could drive it higher. In an October speech, Bernanke argued that low interest rate policies and other measures such as acquiring Treasury securities can be adjusted without overheating the economy.

13. The Fed is responsible for replacing tedious check writing with electronic payments. You should thank the Fed every time you electronically pay your bills. It was their idea.

14. Hopefully, Bernanke has a book deal. For all the hassle of a thankless job operating on a national scale, Bernanke's chairman's salary is $199,700.

15. The Fed is nearly as old as the Girl Scouts. The Girl Scouts turned 100 this year, and the Fed hits its anniversary in 2013.

The InvestingAnswer: While no system is perfect, if you can't trust the banker, who can you trust? The Fed is the great stabilizer. Without it, interest rates could jump from 2% one week to 10% the next. You can be annoyed that your savings account isn't earning any interest, but your car loan and mortgage rate are lower than ever.

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