The Federal Reserve and the Discount Rate

How the Fed Uses its Discount Window

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The discount rate is a tool the Federal Reserve uses to influence monetary policy. It is similar to the federal funds rate; this is the benchmark “interest rate” often referred to in discussions of federal rate policy. But there are a few key differences. First and foremost, the discount rate applies when banks need to borrow from the U.S. central bank, often as a last resort.

Learn more about the discount rate, how it is implemented, and how it affects monetary policy.

Key Takeaways

  • Banks and other financial institutions borrow from each other at the federal funds rate; they borrow from the Fed at the discount rate.
  • The Fed qualifies loans to financial institutions as either primary credit, secondary credit, or seasonal credit. These are listed in order of stability.
  • The discount window is a tool used to protect banks from failure. It also helps them maintain liquidity levels.
  • The FOMC lowers interest rates to fuel economic growth; it raises rates to slow growth and curb inflation.

How Does the Discount Rate Work?

Banks are subject to reserve requirements. This means they must maintain adequate deposits to meet potential withdrawals. At the end of each night, some banks fall below this requirement; others have surplus funds. Banks that need to boost their funds overnight often borrow from other banks at the federal funds rate.

Financial institutions also have other means of borrowing. One of these methods is to borrow directly from the Fed via the “discount window.” The rate at which the Fed lends to banks via this method is known as the “discount rate.”

Note

The Fed can adjust the discount rate independently from the federal funds rate. The discount rate is most often higher than the federal funds rate. It is used as a last resort by banks that need to borrow.

For instance, in early 2012, the primary discount rate was 0.75%. At the same time, the federal funds rate was targeted in a range from 0% to 0.25%. Bank borrowers also need to put up collateral to borrow from the discount window. The Fed banks can opt not to extend a discount window loan.

What Are the Three Types of Credit?

Since 2003, there have been three types of credit that depository institutions can acquire at the Fed’s discount window: primary credit, secondary credit, and seasonal credit. Each has its own interest rate. Secondary credit is often higher than primary credit; seasonal credit tends to be lower. 

Underlying all three credit types is the Fed's intention to maintain adequate depository institution liquidity. They also work to keep weaker institutions out of trouble. The soundest institutions receive the "primary credit" interest rate; those that are less stable but viable receive the "secondary credit" rate. And this is also true of those with "severe financial difficulties." 

The seasonal interest rate is extended to smaller institutions serving regional markets with time-dependent needs. These could be banks serving an agricultural or resort community with widely varying seasonal financial needs. The chart below illustrates both the discount rate and federal funds rate from 2008 to 2022.

What Is the Broad Purpose of the “Discount Window”?

The discount window is further discussed in the Fed's 2002 proposed amendment to Regulation A to replace existing programs with new discount window programs to be called "primary credit" and "secondary credit." It proposes that the discount window has two purposes. These are:

  • To make funds available at times when open market reserves are insufficient to meet surges in demand.
  • To help "financially sound" depository institutions avoid account overdrafts or related reserve requirement shortfalls.

Why Does the Fed Adjust the Discount Rate?

As is the case with the federal funds rate, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) seeks to influence interest rates. This is done in order to achieve its “dual mandate” of maximizing employment and minimizing inflation.

Note

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is the committee within the Fed that determines interest rate policy.

When the FOMC wants to support economic growth, it sets its target rate low. The lower the cost of money, in theory, the more likely people and businesses will borrow to fuel projects. For instance, the construction of a commercial property can in turn put people to work.

When the Fed wants to curb inflation, it can do the opposite: raise interest rates in order to slow growth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the federal discount rate the same as the federal funds rate?

They are not the same. The federal fund rate is the interest rate at which banks borrow on the general market, or from one another, whereas the federal discount rate is the interest rate at which banks borrow from the U.S. central bank.

Does the discount rate affect regular consumers or just banks?

The discount rate does not apply directly to the general public, but there is a trickle-down effect. When banks have to pay a higher interest rate to borrow money, they will adjust the interest rates they offer on their own loan and credit services to consumers in order to keep their business profitable.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Annual Report 2012: Statistical Table 3."

  2. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "Effective Federal Funds Rate," Enter 2012 year parameters in "Federal Funds Chart."

  3. Federal Reserve Discount Window. "The Discount Window."

  4. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Press Release, Release Date: January 6, 2003."

  5. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Monetary Policy Report to the Congress Submitted Pursuant to Section 2B of the Federal Reserve Act, February 11, 2003."

  6. Federal Reserve Discount Window. "The Primary & Secondary Lending Programs."

  7. Federal Reserve Discount Window. "Seasonal Lending Program."

  8. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Proposal to Revise Federal Reserve Discount Window Programs," Pages 1-2. 

  9. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "The FOMC Conducts Monetary Policy."

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