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Two Reasons The Fed Manipulates Interest Rates

There are two reasons the Fed manipulates interest rates. Before we talk about those reasons, though, it is important to understand that the Fed does not actually control interest rates. Interest rates are set in the bond market. Buyers and sellers (traders) bid for and offer bonds for sale. When a buyer and seller agree on a price, the trade is finalized. The specific price, in conjunction with the face value of the bond (always $1000) and the stated coupon rate attached to the bond (and the length of time until the bond matures for yield to maturity) factor into the formula which determines the current yield, or what might be called the bond’s current interest rate.

In addition, the Fed does not set the fed funds rate. The fed funds rate is the rate which member banks (banks which belong to the Federal Reserve system) pay to borrow money from each other in an overnight market. What the Fed does is announce their “target range” for fed funds.  The Fed hopes that member banks will limit their lending activity with each other to the publicly announced target range.

The Fed has direct control over only one specific interest rate – the discount rate. The discount rate is the rate which member banks pay to borrow money directly from the Federal Reserve. The specific rate which the Fed charges to member banks at its “discount window” can and does influence trading in the fed funds market.

The extent of the Fed’s influence is limited mostly to short-term rates, such as those above. Since they do not actually control interest rates, particularly long-term rates, how do they influence trading activity in the bond markets? They talk a lot. This should be obvious to most observers. A more critical factor, though, is the Fed’s active participation in the bond market, buying and selling huge amounts of U. S. Treasury securities (and CMOs more recently).


The history of the Federal Reserve is a history of interest rate manipulation. Specific interest rate policy of the Fed, and subsequent compliance (go along to get along) in the credit markets, resulted in a trend of lower interest rates dating back nearly four decades. The trend began in the 1980s and continued until just a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the collateral damage from “cheap and easy money (credit)” led to crisis conditions in the credit and foreign exchange markets.

The specter of inflation seemed ready to overwhelm the markets and the economy; and, as they have done in the past, the Fed reversed direction on interest rates. Rightly so, some would say; except that the Fed has been playing the same game since its inception in 1913 – and they have a losing record. (see Fed Interest Rate Policy – 2008, 1929, And Now). So, why does the Fed continue to play a game they keep losing?

There are two specific reasons. The first is because it is in their own self-interest.

The Federal Reserve is a private institution. It is a banker’s bank. The Fed provides an environment which allows banks to create money in perpetuity and collect interest ad infinitum.

Fed manipulation of interest rates is a misguided effort to extend and control the prosperity phase of the economic cycle. Over the past century, the effects of inflation created by the Federal Reserve has increased the volatility and frequency of financial catastrophe and economic dislocation. Hence, the Fed spends most of its time putting out fires. This, of course, conflicts with and limits the Fed and member banks abilities to grow their lending capacity and income stream from the interest they collect on their “funny money”.

The second reason for ongoing Fed manipulation of interest rates is related to the first reason; and, it involves the U.S. government.

Before the Federal Reserve was authorized by Congress, representatives of the cabal of bankers and politicians that were trying to get specific legislation through Congress and to the President’s desk for signature met with some highly placed government officials. At that meeting, a promise was made that guaranteed the U. S. government would always have the funds it wanted – if the bill passed which authorized the origin and operation (private) of the Federal Reserve. The legislation passed.

When you hear politicians today, or at any time, complain about the Federal Reserve, you can be relatively certain that any attempts by Congress to thwart the Federal Reserve and its operations won’t get very far. Bite off the hand that feeds you? Kill the golden goose? I think not.

The Federal Reserve is very happy with the arrangement, too. Biggest source of income to the Federal Reserve? Interest on U.S. government securities. That is not a coincidence. It is the perfect example of a win-win situation. (see US Government is Beholden To The Fed And Vice-Versa)


The reason the Fed began its attempt to raise interest rates is because they were at a juncture where continued easing could again trigger huge declines in the dollar. On the other hand, rising interest rates increases the risk of potential implosion in the credit markets.

We said earlier that the Fed spends most of its time putting out fires. Federal Reserve activity for the past several years is based on fear. They are afraid of triggering a complete collapse in the U.S. dollar, yet they are also afraid that their efforts to restore interest rates to a more historically normal level will be rejected and the credit markets will collapse and usher in economic depression.

The irony is that they are trying to manage the effects of inflation that is of their own making. And doing a poor job of it.

With history as a guide (see The Fed’s Changing Game Plan) and allowing for the lack of Fed success over the decades, it seems that betting on a “Fed pivot” to trigger investment profits amid new bull markets holds more potential risk than reward.

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