Chairman Bernanke heads up the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary Geithner heads up the Treasury Department. Bernanke walks around spouting about his "dual mandate" and the Treasury Secretary says over and over that "...a strong dollar is in the interest in the U.S." But what is the difference between the Fed and Treasury?
Each semester I tell my class that I wish we could hold a class at the local mall asking people as they walk in if they know the difference. In fact, I tell my class that I believe that the public not knowing the difference is part of the huge debt crisis problem facing the country. Sadly, I have to say that I believe we would be lucky if one person in ten could give a coherent explanation of the difference. One important take-away from my class is understanding this difference.
I begin my explanation by drawing a big circle on the board to represent the macro economy. Inside the circle I put the main players: Households (maximize utility), Businesses (maximize profits), Government (federal, state, & local), U.S. Treasury.
The U.S. Treasury is the bank of the federal government. Our federal government borrows more than it brings in in taxes, and it does this by issuing Treasury issues bills, notes, and bonds. Much of what goes on in the circle is off setting. Notice that it's simple - there is no international sector.
Outside the circle is the Federal Reserve. It, among other functions, manages the nation's money supply. To put more money in the circle, it buys Treasury securities from the entities in the circle. In this way, it creates money out of thin air. In fact, it could buy anything - used cars or pigs, for example. In fact, in recent times in response to the financial crisis, it has expanded the financial instruments it buys.
Once the Treasuries are bought and paid for with a check drawn on the Federal Reserve, the banking system can lend out a portion of the increased deposits because it is a fractional reserve system. If there is a demand for loans, and/or banks are willing to lend, a multiple expansion of money takes place with (again) money being created out of thin air.
If we go back and think of the Treasury borrowing by issuing bills, notes and bonds and realize that these can be bought by the Federal Reserve, we arrive at the concept of "monetizing the debt." This is the modern-day version of printing money. This debases the currency over time, lessens the value of saving, and leads to the problems that are slowly coming to a head today.
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