The U.S. Department of the Treasury, What It Does, and Its Economic Impact

Hand holding up a $10 bill in front of the U.S. Treasury
••• Photo: Derin Thorpe/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of the Treasury is the executive agency of the federal government that manages national finances. It collects taxes through the Internal Revenue Service and funds the U.S. debt through selling Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. It also advises the president on financial, trade, and tax policies.

Even though it's so closely involved with the nation's finances, the Treasury doesn't set fiscal policy. The U.S. Constitution gave that power to Congress. Still, the Treasury has an enormous impact on the nation's economy—and on you.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Department of the Treasury manages the nation’s finances.
  • It collects taxes and manages America's financial instruments.
  • Treasury bonds affect interest rates and the dollar’s value.
  • It also prints currency, mints coins, monitors national banks, and even enforces alcohol and tobacco laws.

What the Treasury Department Does

In 1789, Congress created the Treasury Department and the other two executive departments of Defense and State. Today, most of the work of the Treasury is done by its 10 bureaus. 

  1. The Internal Revenue Service collects federal income taxes.
  2. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration prevents IRS fraud, waste, and abuse.
  3. The Bureau of the Fiscal Service manages the public debt.
  4. The U.S. Mint prints postage stamps and coinage.
  5. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing designs and prints U.S. paper currency and securities.
  6. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency regulates national banks.
  7. The Inspector General conducts audits of all Treasury departments.
  8. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network investigates and prosecutes tax evaders, counterfeiters, and forgers. It also aids the War on Terror by identifying and freezing funds of terrorists.
  9. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau enforces laws controlling alcohol and tobacco. It also collects firearms and ammunition taxes.
  10. The Community Development Financial Institution Fund expands credit in poor communities.

Overseeing all of these activities is the Secretary of the Treasury. In their capacity as the chief financial officer of the federal government, they advise the president on all financial, economic, and tax policies. They also help set fiscal and budgetary policies. 

How It Affects the U.S. Economy

The Treasury auctions Treasury bonds to pay for the U.S. debt. The 10-year Treasury note sets the benchmark rate for all other long-term debt. The Treasury yield reflects the demand for government debt. The greater the demand, the lower the yield. That reduces interest rates on fixed-interest 15-year and 30-year mortgages. 

Low mortgage rates strengthen the economy by opening the market to more home buyers and enabling them to buy bigger houses. That stimulates the real estate industry. Low rates also encourage homeowners to borrow more against the equity in their homes, which permits them to spend more on consumer products.

The Treasury plays a critical role whenever Congress delays raising the debt ceiling. Once the public debt hits the ceiling, Treasury must stop auctioning new Treasury notes.

If necessary, the Treasury borrows from federally managed retirement funds except for Social Security. It then starts to borrow from the Treasury notes purchased by the Federal Reserve.

Once it exhausts these emergency measures, the Treasury must rely on incoming tax revenue to pay the government's bills. For most of the year, that's not enough. It may not be able to pay benefits to Social Security and Medicare recipients. Federal employees may have to be furloughed. 

If it couldn't pay the interest on the debt, then the United States would go into debt default. Congress came close to allowing this when it created a debt crisis in 2011 and shut down the government in 2013, 2018, and 2019. 

How It Affects You

The U.S. Department of the Treasury affects you directly. Every April, the IRS expects a check from you unless it has withheld enough from your paycheck. You may also have U.S. savings bonds. If you are concerned about inflation, you might own I bonds from the Bureau of the Public Debt.

Most important, Treasury bonds influence mortgage interest rates. That affects your ability to buy and sell your home and to get equity loans. It also affects the value of the dollar, which impacts the cost of imports and inflation. Over the long haul, a declining dollar erodes your retirement savings to the point that you may have to keep working past 65.

Demand for Treasury notes reflects the demand for U.S. dollars.

When demand is high, it keeps the price of imports low, reducing inflation. But the current U.S. account deficit could reduce confidence in the dollar's value. That would increase the cost of imports, aggravating inflation. Worse, it could also trigger a dollar crash.

Finding Money That Belongs to You

If you think the government might owe you money, the Treasury Department has a page devoted to helping you find unclaimed money. The site has information about where to file claims for missing IRS refund checks, savings bonds, and Treasury bonds. It helps you track property from states you've lived in, class action suits, and unclaimed credit union shares. The U.S. Treasury Unclaimed Money website will help you find anything you might be owed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who was the first Secretary of the Treasury?

Alexander Hamilton served as the first Secretary of the Treasury for the U.S. His jobs included tackling the debt created by the Revolutionary War and planning out the nation's currency and minting.

What is a Treasury security?

The term "Treasury security" simply refers to any financial instrument issued by the U.S. Treasury, including bills, bonds, and notes. These financial securities are popular with traders and investors around the globe for their liquidity and relative safety.

Article Sources

  1. Department of the Treasury. "Role of the Treasury."

  2. Department of the Interior. "History of the Department of the Interior."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “The Agency, Its Mission and Statutory Authority.”

  4. Department of the Treasury. "Treasury Inspector General For Tax Administration."

  5. Bureau of the Fiscal Service. "About Us."

  6. United States Mint. "About Us."

  7. Department of the Treasury. "About the BEP."

  8. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. "About Us."

  9. Department of the Treasury. “Office of the Inspector General.”

  10. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "What We Do."

  11. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. "TTB Regulated Industries."

  12. Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. “About Us.”

  13. “Unclaimed Money From the Government.”

  14. Department of the Treasury. "Alexander Hamilton (1789-1795)."

  15. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. "U.S. Treasury Securities."