Understanding Reserve Requirements: A Guide to Banking Reserve Regulations


Reserve requirements are regulations that dictate the amount of cash financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, and savings and loan associations, must maintain in their vaults or at the Federal Reserve bank in proportion to their customer deposits. These requirements are set by the Federal Reserve’s board of governors and are a fundamental tool of monetary policy, influencing the money supply and interest rates. This article delves into the definition, history, and significance of reserve requirements in the financial system.

Reserve requirements definition

Reserve requirements are the amount of funds that a bank holds in reserve to ensure that it is able to meet liabilities in case of sudden withdrawals. Financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, and savings and loan associations, must adhere to these requirements, as well as U.S. branches and agencies of foreign banks, Edge Act corporations, and agreement corporations.

Understanding reserve requirements

Banks determine the amount of money they can loan to customers based on a fraction of the cash they hold. In exchange for this lending capability, the government mandates that banks maintain a certain percentage of deposits as reserve requirements. This reserved amount cannot be lent out.

If a bank falls short of meeting its reserve requirement, it can borrow from other banks or access funds through the Federal Reserve’s discount window. This interbank borrowing carries an interest rate known as the federal funds rate, influencing various interest rates in the economy.

The Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors sets the reserve requirement percentage, along with the interest rate paid on excess reserves. This interest rate, known as the interest rate on excess reserves, has broad implications for the financial system.

Reserve requirements serve as a tool for the Federal Reserve to control liquidity in the financial system. Reducing the reserve requirement constitutes an expansionary monetary policy, while raising it signifies a contractionary monetary policy.

Reserve requirements history

The practice of holding reserves dates back to the early 19th century when commercial banks issued their own notes. To facilitate note exchange between banks in different regions, banks agreed to maintain a deposit of gold or its equivalent at each other’s branches.

The National Bank Act of 1863 established reserve requirements of 25% for banks under its jurisdiction. These requirements, coupled with a tax on state banknotes in 1865, promoted national banknotes as the primary medium of exchange.

With the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, reserve requirements were standardized, and they varied at 13%, 10%, and 7% for different types of banks in 1917. Over time, these requirements evolved, culminating in the reduction of reserve requirements to zero across all deposit tiers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Reserve requirements vs. capital requirements

Some countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden, do not have reserve requirements. Instead, they adhere to capital requirements, which dictate the amount of equity banks or financial institutions must hold as mandated by financial regulators.

Reserve requirements focus on liquid assets to safeguard against deposit runs, while capital requirements are designed to absorb losses on loans and investments.

Example of reserve requirements

Consider a bank with $200 million in deposits and a 10% reserve requirement. This bank can lend out $180 million, which significantly affects its lending capacity. Adjusting reserve requirements can either inject money into the economy, lowering rates, or reduce it, raising interest rates.

Who sets the reserve requirement?

In the United States, the Federal Reserve Board establishes reserve requirements in line with the Federal Reserve Act. These requirements serve as a tool to execute monetary policy on depository institutions’ deposits and liabilities.

Effects of lower and higher reserve requirements

A lower reserve requirement reflects an expansionary monetary policy, allowing banks to have more funds available for consumer and business loans. Conversely, a higher reserve requirement signals a contractionary policy, reducing lending capacity but providing a buffer against economic downturns or bank runs.

Frequently asked questions

What are reserve requirements?

Reserve requirements refer to the percentage of a bank’s deposits that it must hold in reserve in the form of cash or deposits with the Federal Reserve. These reserves are a precautionary measure to ensure that banks can meet customer withdrawals and maintain financial stability.

How do reserve requirements affect banks?

Reserve requirements impact a bank’s ability to lend money. When reserve requirements are high, banks have less money available for loans, which can lead to higher interest rates for borrowers. Conversely, lower reserve requirements free up more funds for lending, potentially lowering interest rates.

Why did the Federal Reserve reduce reserve requirements to zero in 2020?

The Federal Reserve reduced reserve requirements to zero in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This move aimed to encourage banks to lend more money to individuals and businesses, providing economic stimulus during a challenging time.

Do all countries have reserve requirements?

No, not all countries have reserve requirements. Some countries, like Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden, rely on capital requirements instead. These requirements focus on the amount of equity a bank must maintain, rather than holding a specific percentage of deposits in reserve.

How often does the Federal Reserve adjust reserve requirements?

The Federal Reserve doesn’t frequently adjust reserve requirements. Changes are typically made to address economic conditions. Historically, reserve requirement adjustments have been relatively rare and often related to major economic events.

Can reserve requirements be used as a tool for monetary policy?

Yes, reserve requirements can be used as a tool for monetary policy. When the Federal Reserve wants to stimulate economic activity, it may lower reserve requirements, allowing banks to lend more. Conversely, raising reserve requirements can be part of a contractionary monetary policy to cool down an overheated economy.

Are reserve requirements the same as capital requirements?

No, reserve requirements and capital requirements are different. Reserve requirements specify the percentage of customer deposits that banks must hold in reserve. Capital requirements, on the other hand, dictate the amount of equity or capital a bank must maintain to absorb potential losses on loans and investments.

What happens if a bank fails to meet its reserve requirements?

If a bank fails to meet its reserve requirements, it can borrow funds from other banks or access the Federal Reserve’s discount window. However, borrowing from these sources may come with interest costs. Failing to meet reserve requirements can also have implications for a bank’s overall financial stability and regulatory compliance.

Key takeaways

  • Reserve requirements are regulations mandating financial institutions to maintain a specific amount of cash in proportion to customer deposits.
  • The Federal Reserve uses reserve requirements as a tool to influence the money supply and interest rates.
  • Reserve requirements have been reduced to zero in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to stimulate lending and economic activity.
  • Capital requirements, distinct from reserve requirements, focus on the amount of equity financial institutions must hold as regulated by financial authorities.
View article sources
  1. Reserve Requirements – Federal Reserve Board
  2. Reserve Requirements of Depository Institutions – Federal Register
  3. Reserve requirements – Banco Central do Brasil