The primary motivation for creating the Federal Reserve System was to address banking panics. Other purposes are stated in the Federal Reserve Act, such as "to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes." Before the founding of the Federal Reserve, the United States underwent several financial crises. A particularly severe crisis in 1907 led Congress to enact the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. Today the Fed has broader responsibilities than only ensuring the stability of the financial system.
Current functions of the Federal Reserve System include:
* To address the problem of banking panics
* To serve as the central bank for the United States
* To strike a balance between private interests of banks and the centralized responsibility of government
o To supervise and regulate banking institutions
o To protect the credit rights of consumers
* To manage the nation's money supply through monetary policy to achieve the sometimes-conflicting goals of
o maximum employment
o stable prices, including prevention of either inflation or deflation
o moderate long-term interest rates
* To maintain the stability of the financial system and contain systemic risk in financial markets
* To provide financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government, and foreign official institutions, including playing a major role in operating the nation’s payments system
o To facilitate the exchange of payments among regions
o To respond to local liquidity needs
* To strengthen U.S. standing in the world economy
Critics of the Federal Reserve System state that it is not able to accomplish these goals.
 Addressing the problem of bank panics
Further information: bank run and fractional-reserve banking
Bank runs occur because all banking institutions in the United States practice fractional-reserve banking and do not keep enough cash in reserve to give to all of their depositors simultaneously. Bank runs can lead to a multitude of social and economic problems. The Federal Reserve was designed as an attempt to prevent or minimize the occurrence of bank runs, and possibly act as a lender of last resort if a bank run does occur.
 Elastic currency
One way to prevent bank runs is to have a money supply that can expand when money is needed. The term "elastic currency" in the Federal Reserve Act doesn't just mean the ability to expand the money supply, but also to contract it. Some economic theories have been developed that support the idea of expanding or shrinking a money supply as economic conditions warrant. Elastic currency is defined by the Federal Reserve as:
Currency that can, by the actions of the central monetary authority, expand or contract in amount warranted by economic conditions.
Monetary policy of the Federal Reserve System is based partially on the theory that it is best overall to expand or contract the money supply as economic conditions change. In practice, the Federal Reserve has never contracted the monetary supply since the Great Depression, on the fear that contracting the money supply may cause a deflationary recession, and because according to the operating theory of the Federal Reserve, monetary supply should expand as the economy expands to accommodate larger volumes of transaction.
 Check clearing system
Because some banks refused to clear checks from certain other banks during times of economic uncertainty, which increased financial problems, a check-clearing system was created in the Federal Reserve System. It is briefly described in The Federal Reserve System—Purposes and Functions:
By creating the Federal Reserve System, Congress intended to eliminate the severe financial crises that had periodically swept the nation, especially the sort of financial panic that occurred in 1907. During that episode, payments were disrupted throughout the country because many banks and clearinghouses refused to clear checks drawn on certain other banks, a practice that contributed to the failure of otherwise solvent banks. To address these problems, Congress gave the Federal Reserve System the authority to establish a nationwide check-clearing system. The System, then, was to provide not only an elastic currency—that is, a currency that would expand or shrink in amount as economic conditions warranted—but also an efficient and equitable check-collection system.
 Lender of last resort
Further information: Lender of last resort
The Federal Reserve has the authority to act as “lender of last resort” by extending credit to depository institutions or to other entities in unusual circumstances involving a national or regional emergency, where failure to obtain credit would have a severe adverse impact on the economy.
Through its discount and credit operations, Reserve Banks provide liquidity to banks to meet short-term needs stemming from seasonal fluctuations in deposits or unexpected withdrawals. Longer term liquidity may also be provided in exceptional circumstances. The rate the Fed charges banks for these loans is the discount rate (officially the primary credit rate).
In making these loans, the Fed serves as a buffer against unexpected day-to-day fluctuations in reserve demand and supply. This contributes to the effective functioning of the banking system, alleviates pressure in the reserves market and reduces the extent of unexpected movements in the interest rates.
For example, on September 16, 2008, the Federal Reserve Board authorized an $85 billion loan to stave off the bankruptcy of international insurance giant American International Group (AIG).
The Federal Reserve System's role as lender of last resort is criticized for shifting risk and responsibility away from lenders and borrowers and placing them on others in the form of taxes and/or inflation.
 Central bank
Further information: Central bank
In its role as the central bank of the United States, the Fed serves as a banker's bank and as the government's bank. As the banker's bank, it helps to assure the safety and efficiency of the payments system. As the government's bank, or fiscal agent, the Fed processes a variety of financial transactions involving trillions of dollars. Just as an individual might keep an account at a bank, the U.S. Treasury keeps a checking account with the Federal Reserve through which incoming federal tax deposits and outgoing government payments are handled. As part of this service relationship, the Fed sells and redeems U.S. government securities such as savings bonds and Treasury bills, notes and bonds. It also issues the nation's coin and paper currency. The U.S. Treasury, through its Bureau of the Mint and Bureau of Engraving and Printing, actually produces the nation's cash supply and, in effect, sells it to the Federal Reserve Banks at manufacturing cost, currently about 4 cents per bill for paper currency. The Federal Reserve Banks then distribute it to other financial institutions in various ways.
 Federal funds
Main article: Federal funds
Federal funds are the reserve balances that private banks keep at their local Federal Reserve Bank. These balances are the namesake reserves of the Federal Reserve System. The purpose of keeping funds at a Federal Reserve Bank is to have a mechanism through which private banks can lend funds to one another. This market for funds plays an important role in the Federal Reserve System as it is what inspired the name of the system and it is what is used as the basis for monetary policy. Monetary policy works by influencing how much money the private banks charge each other for the lending of these funds.
 Balance between private banks and responsibility of governments
The system was designed out of a compromise between the competing philosophies of privatization and government regulation. While planning the design of the system, some people wanted the system to have generally private aspects whereas others wanted more government involvement. The system that resulted ended up being a compromise between these two philosophies. In 2006 Donald L. Kohn, vice chairman of the Board of Governors, summarized the history of this compromise:
Agrarian and progressive interests, led by William Jennings Bryan, favored a central bank under public, rather than banker, control. But the vast majority of the nation's bankers, concerned about government intervention in the banking business, opposed a central bank structure directed by political appointees.
The legislation that Congress ultimately adopted in 1913 reflected a hard-fought battle to balance these two competing views and created the hybrid public-private, centralized-decentralized structure that we have today.
In the current system, private banks are for-profit businesses but government regulation places restrictions on what they can do. The Federal Reserve System is the part of government that regulates the private banks. The balance between privatization and government involvement is also seen in the structure of the system. Private banks elect members of the board of directors at their regional Federal Reserve Bank while the members of the Board of Governors are selected by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. The private banks give input to the government officials about their economic situation and these government officials use this input in Federal Reserve policy decisions. In the end, private banking businesses are able to run a profitable business while the U.S. government, through the Federal Reserve System, oversees and regulates the activities of the private banks.
 Government regulation and supervision
The Board of Governors is the part of the Federal Reserve System that is responsible for supervising the private banks. A general description of the types of regulation and supervision involved is given by the Federal Reserve:
The Board also plays a major role in the supervision and regulation of the U.S. banking system. It has supervisory responsibilities for state-chartered banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System, bank holding companies (companies that control banks), the foreign activities of member banks, the U.S. activities of foreign banks, and Edge Act and agreement corporations (limited-purpose institutions that engage in a foreign banking business). The Board and, under delegated authority, the Federal Reserve Banks, supervise approximately 900 state member banks and 5,000 bank holding companies. Other federal agencies also serve as the primary federal supervisors of commercial banks; the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency supervises national banks, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation supervises state banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System.
Some regulations issued by the Board apply to the entire banking industry, whereas others apply only to member banks, that is, state banks that have chosen to join the Federal Reserve System and national banks, which by law must be members of the System. The Board also issues regulations to carry out major federal laws governing consumer credit protection, such as the Truth in Lending, Equal Credit Opportunity, and Home Mortgage Disclosure Acts. Many of these consumer protection regulations apply to various lenders outside the banking industry as well as to banks.
Members of the Board of Governors are in continual contact with other policy makers in government. They frequently testify before congressional committees on the economy, monetary policy, banking supervision and regulation, consumer credit protection, financial markets, and other matters.
The Board has regular contact with members of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and other key economic officials. The Chairman also meets from time to time with the President of the United States and has regular meetings with the Secretary of the Treasury. The Chairman has formal responsibilities in the international arena as well.
 Preventing asset bubbles
The board of directors of each Federal Reserve Bank District also have regulatory and supervisory responsibilities. For example, a member bank (private bank) is not permitted to give out too many loans to people who cannot pay them back. This is because too many defaults on loans will lead to a bank run. If the board of directors has judged that a member bank is performing or behaving poorly, it will report this to the Board of Governors. This policy is described in United States Code:
Each Federal reserve bank shall keep itself informed of the general character and amount of the loans and investments of its member banks with a view to ascertaining whether undue use is being made of bank credit for the speculative carrying of or trading in securities, real estate, or commodities, or for any other purpose inconsistent with the maintenance of sound credit conditions; and, in determining whether to grant or refuse advances, rediscounts, or other credit accommodations, the Federal reserve bank shall give consideration to such information. The chairman of the Federal reserve bank shall report to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System any such undue use of bank credit by any member bank, together with his recommendation. Whenever, in the judgment of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, any member bank is making such undue use of bank credit, the Board may, in its discretion, after reasonable notice and an opportunity for a hearing, suspend such bank from the use of the credit facilities of the Federal Reserve System and may terminate such suspension or may renew it from time to time.
The punishment for making false statements or reports which overvalue an asset is also stated in the U.S. Code:
Whoever knowingly makes any false statement or report, or willfully overvalues any land, property or security, for the purpose of influencing in any way...shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.
These aspects of the Federal Reserve System are the parts intended to prevent or minimize speculative asset bubbles which ultimately lead to severe market corrections.
 National payments system
The Federal Reserve plays an important role in the U.S. payments system. The twelve Federal Reserve Banks provide banking services to depository institutions and to the federal government. For depository institutions, they maintain accounts and provide various payment services, including collecting checks, electronically transferring funds, and distributing and receiving currency and coin. For the federal government, the Reserve Banks act as fiscal agents, paying Treasury checks; processing electronic payments; and issuing, transferring, and redeeming U.S. government securities.
In passing the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980, Congress reaffirmed its intention that the Federal Reserve should promote an efficient nationwide payments system. The act subjects all depository institutions, not just member commercial banks, to reserve requirements and grants them equal access to Reserve Bank payment services. It also encourages competition between the Reserve Banks and private-sector providers of payment services by requiring the Reserve Banks to charge fees for certain payments services listed in the act and to recover the costs of providing these services over the long run.
The Federal Reserve plays a vital role in both the nation’s retail and wholesale payments systems, providing a variety of financial services to depository institutions. Retail payments are generally for relatively small-dollar amounts and often involve a depository institution’s retail clients—individuals and smaller businesses. The Reserve Banks’ retail services include distributing currency and coin, collecting checks, and electronically transferring funds through the automated clearinghouse system. By contrast, wholesale payments are generally for large-dollar amounts and often involve a depository institution’s large corporate customers or counterparties, including other financial institutions. The Reserve Banks’ wholesale services include electronically transferring funds through the Fedwire Funds Service and transferring securities issued by the U.S. government, its agencies, and certain other entities through the Fedwire Securities Service. Because of the large amounts of funds that move through the Reserve Banks every day, the System has policies and procedures to limit the risk to the Reserve Banks from a depository institution’s failure to make or settle its payments.
The Federal Reserve Banks began a multi-year restructuring of their check operations in 2003 as part of a long-term strategy to respond to the declining use of checks by consumers and businesses and the greater use of electronics in check processing. The Reserve Banks will have reduced the number of full-service check processing locations from 45 in 2003 to 4 by early 2011.