Q: Who owns the Federal Reserve Bank?
A: There are actually 12 different Federal Reserve Banks around the country, and they are owned by big private banks. But the banks don’t necessarily run the show. Nationally, the Federal Reserve System is led by a Board of Governors whose seven members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
The stockholders in the 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks are the privately owned banks that fall under the Federal Reserve System. These include all national banks (chartered by the federal government) and those state-chartered banks that wish to join and meet certain requirements. About 38 percent of the nation’s more than 8,000 banks are members of the system, and thus own the Fed banks.
The concept of "ownership" needs some explaining here, however. The member banks must by law invest 3 percent of their capital as stock in the Reserve Banks, and they cannot sell or trade their stock or even use that stock as collateral to borrow money. They do receive dividends of 6 percent per year from the Reserve Banks and get to elect each Reserve Bank’s board of directors.
The private banks also have a voice in regulating the nation’s money supply and setting targets for short-term interest rates, but it’s a minority voice. Those decisions are made by the Federal Open Market Committee, which has a dozen voting members, only five of whom come from the banks. The remaining seven, a voting majority, are the Fed’s Board of Governors who, as mentioned, are appointed by the president.
The Fed is a little defensive about the question of ownership. In its Frequently Asked Questions section, the Federal Reserve Board says: "The Federal Reserve System is not ‘owned’ by anyone and is not a private, profit-making institution. Instead, it is an independent entity within the government, having both public purposes and private aspects." It continues:
Federal Reserve Board: As the nation’s central bank, the Federal Reserve derives its authority from the U.S. Congress. It is considered an independent central bank because its decisions do not have to be ratified by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branch of government, it does not receive funding appropriated by Congress, and the terms of the members of the Board of Governors span multiple presidential and congressional terms. However, the Federal Reserve is subject to oversight by Congress, which periodically reviews its activities and can alter its responsibilities by statute. Also, the Federal Reserve must work within the framework of the overall objectives of economic and financial policy established by the government. Therefore, the Federal Reserve can be more accurately described as "independent within the government."
The twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks, which were established by Congress as the operating arms of the nation’s central banking system, are organized much like private corporations–possibly leading to some confusion about "ownership." For example, the Reserve Banks issue shares of stock to member banks. However, owning Reserve Bank stock is quite different from owning stock in a private company. The Reserve Banks are not operated for profit, and ownership of a certain amount of stock is, by law, a condition of membership in the System. The stock may not be sold, traded, or pledged as security for a loan; dividends are, by law, 6 percent per year.
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “The Federal Reserve Structure Tour,” undated document accessed 21 March 2008.
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Frequently Asked Questions: Who Owns The Federal Reserve,” Web site accessed 21 March 2008.