May 12, 2020 - Economy & Business

Americans don't trust the Federal Reserve to look out for them

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Data: Ipsos/Axios survey; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The Federal Reserve's unprecedented response to the coronavirus pandemic has not helped it win the battle for public opinion as a little more than half of Americans indicate they don't trust the central bank, per the latest Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Why it matters: As an unelected institution that has been granted the power to independently oversee monetary policy by Congress, the Fed's power "is contingent on securing as well as maintaining broad political and public support," Mark Spindel and Sarah Binder wrote in their 2017 book "The Myth of Independence: How Congress Governs the Federal Reserve."

One level deeper: Mistrust of the Fed defies age, race and even education level, as a majority of respondents across the board say they either had not very much or no trust at all in the central bank.

  • Just 7% of respondents say they trust the Fed a great deal, compared to 16% who say they do not trust the Fed at all.

The big picture: The survey comes at a time when the Fed should be at its most popular — chair Jerome Powell led an early and effective response to the pandemic that stopped a market panic and returned liquidity to the global financial system.

Between the lines: In a separate study conducted by data firm CivicScience, 42% of respondents said the Fed had done somewhat or very well in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, while 34% said the Fed had done poorly.

  • 16% said the Fed had done very poorly, compared to 14% who said very well.
  • 24% of respondents said they weren't sure or had no opinion.

Politicians have long targeted the Fed for wielding undue influence over the economy and for bailing out Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis while ordinary Americans lost their homes and life savings.

  • Powell has taken great strides to improve the Fed's recognition and standing with the public, including holding press conferences at every policy meeting, creating the "Fed Listens" town hall series, and appearing on television shows like NBC's "Today."

Flashback: The Fed's popularity is lower than it was in 2014 when a Pew Research study found 47% of Americans held a favorable view and 37% had an unfavorable view.

  • With President Obama in office and his nominee, Janet Yellen, as Fed chair, Democrats had far more positive views than Republicans, in contrast to today.

The bottom line: Despite historic job losses and a recession expected to be the worst since the Great Depression, many Americans remain optimistic about the future.

  • If that tide turns and politicians refocus their ire on the Fed, it will have built negligible public support and its independence could be in danger.

Go deeper: The Fed's coronavirus response could have unintended results

Go deeper

The Fed's balance sheet expansion may be slowing inflation

Data: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chart: Axios Visuals

Coins and bills in circulation make up only 10% of the money supply today, Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist Torsten Sløk points out in a note to clients.

What it means: The majority of the money supply is now used by the Fed for its balance sheet and in the banking sector to purchase financial assets.

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