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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Federal Reserve is undergoing an overhaul. Conceived to keep inflation in check and oversee the country's money supply, the central bank is now essentially directing the economy and moving away from worries about rising prices.

What we're hearing: The move to act less quickly and forcefully to tamp down on inflation has been in the works for years, but some economists fear that the Fed is moving too far from its original mandate.

  • It would be "a significant shift because the new strategy I would interpret as one that tries to deliberately engineer higher rates of inflation instead of just tolerate them should they come about," Peter Ireland, an economics professor at Boston College and member of the Shadow Open Market Committee, tells Axios.
  • "I would worry if I were on the FOMC that the Fed is just trying to do too much fine tuning. ... And that by trying to do too much the Fed does risk making mistakes like it did in the past."

Between the lines: There are other concerns with the Fed's new stance.

  • "Free market enterprise no longer exists," Scott Minerd, CIO of Guggenheim Partners, tells Axios. "The Fed by essence of what it's doing has taken control of the market."

Why it matters: "The definition of market prices is whatever the Fed says it will be," says Minerd, a member of the New York Fed's Investor Advisory Committee on Financial Markets.

  • "As long as the Fed continues to manipulate the cost of credit in the manner that it's doing, which it has never done in its history, then you have to adjust your view of the investment paradigm that we're living in."

The big picture: Keeping a lid on inflation historically has been the Fed's primary objective, but with growth and inflation readings undershooting 2% for more than a decade despite near-zero interest rates in the U.S. and developed markets around the world, things look to be changing.

What it means: That change may not only mean lower rates for longer but also more room for stimulative policies like quantitative easing (QE), which was previously an emergency program that has become a standard part of the Fed's tool kit.

  • There's also long-term potential for its new special purpose vehicles that buy corporate bonds and lend money directly to businesses as mechanisms for holding up larger chunks of the economy.

The intrigue: The idea that the Fed is controlling or setting prices in financial markets was once the fodder of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

  • But since the Fed's unprecedented intervention into credit markets in late March, it has become a general understanding stated openly by economists and asset managers, including those at high-profile investment firms like Deutsche Bank and Bank of America.
Expand chart
Data: Federal Reserve; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, but: Not all of the Fed's new programs have worked as planned. After significant delays, its $600 billion Main Street Lending Program has provided less than one-tenth of 1% of its allotted funding to needy small businesses even as the Paycheck Protection program has whiffed and business closures have spiked.

Be smart: Compare that to the trillions it has used on QE and the billions it has purchased in debt from some of the country's largest companies using a backstop of taxpayer money and it's no wonder politicians and economists have called the Main Street program a "failure" and an "unmitigated disaster."

On the other side: The Fed's efforts to support large companies have helped spawn a "buy-anything market" in which even negatively correlated assets have risen together since the start of the third quarter.

  • "That creates a bit of a potential political problem for the Fed," Julia Coronado, president and founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, tells Axios.
  • "It doesn’t feel right to people on the street, on Main Street. ... That’s one reason why the Fed is underscoring the need for fiscal [stimulus]."

The push for Congress to approve fiscal spending measures could become another political problem for the central bank, warns Boston College's Ireland, who previously served as an economist at the Richmond Fed.

  • "I do get the feeling that they’ve been more aggressive in their commentary on fiscal policy and more generally on non-monetary policy issues."
  • "In an environment where they should be concerned about preserving Fed independence, they should be conscious of the fact that in turn they stick to talking about what they’re supposed to do."

Go deeper

Senate blocks Trump Fed pick Judy Shelton's confirmation

Judy Shelton testifies before Congress in February. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

President Trump's controversial Fed pick Judy Shelton appears to be blocked from joining the central bank's board, for now — a dramatic turn of events, marred by two senators who were expected to support her, but were in quarantine for COVID-related concerns.

Why it matters: Some Republicans broke ranks and opposed Shelton, who in the past has endorsed fringe economic policies and reversed her beliefs to be more in line with those of Trump. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris cast a crucial vote against Shelton on Tuesday, with the final tally coming out to 50-47.

Texas abortion law remains in effect after appeals court ruling

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters outside the Supreme Court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in November. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A U.S. appeals court transferred a challenge to Texas' law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy to the state supreme court in a 2-1 vote on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision means the country's most restrictive abortion law can remain in place for the time being.

2 hours ago - World

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.