Meet FRED, every wonk’s secret weapon


The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

ST. LOUIS — Inside the staid, stone Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Keith Taylor was rocking a baby-blue hoodie with “got gdp?” splashed across the back.

The sweatshirts seemed to be everywhere in the research department where Taylor works. Several workers had “got gdp?” hoodies hanging in their cubicles like proud office sweaters. Owning one appeared to be, as they say in economics, a signal. And in certain circles — among some economic researchers, academics, wonky journalists, the sorts of people nerding out over Friday’s jobs report — this hoodie is viewed as a status item, the value conferred by the name stitched on the front: FRED.

FRED stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data. It serves as an online clearinghouse for a wealth of numbers: unemployment rates, prices of goods, GDP and CPI, things common and obscure. Today, FRED is more than a little bit famous, thanks to the public’s fascination with economic data.

Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman is a huge FRED fan. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw uses it. Former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke cited it in a textbook. The site Business Insider called it “the most amazing economics Web site in the world.”

“It definitely has a cult following,” said Eddy Elfenbein, a financial analyst in Washington and editor of CrossingWallStreet.com. For him, FRED has emerged as the central hub for finding and sorting through the reams of financial data. He can spend hours looking up trivia such as the historical price of copper in Britain. “It’s addictive,” Elfenbein said.

Taylor, in his “got gdp” hoodie, runs FRED. He’s 37 and a former attorney who, frustrated by the thought of a career handling estate cases, considered getting a PhD in economics. He took some classes and conducted some research. Then he discovered that he loved handling data — manipulating it, assembling it, giving it shape.

“I really enjoy doing that data schlepping,” Taylor said.

But he wasn’t interested in getting a PhD. So, three years ago, he applied for a job at the St. Louis Fed, eventually earning the title “data desk coordinator,” a post that includes overseeing FRED.

Now, he has to contend with FRED’s ardent fans. A former colleague of his wife, who works as a plant biologist, is known for cornering him at parties to talk about the site. Last fall, he was shocked by the reception he got at a conference in California for economics school teachers. The teachers cheered and clapped and mobbed him.

“It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect people to get real excited about,” Taylor said.

But he gets excited, too. He’s looking forward to uploading to FRED some new nontraditional economic data from the World Bank, looking at subjects such as the rate of Internet access around the globe.


Members of the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) team, from left: Monica Asselin, economic data associate; Julie Knoll, senior web developer; George Essig, senior web developer; Yvetta Fortova, senior research data associate; Christian Zimmerman, assistant vice president of Research Information Services; and Katrina Stierholz, vice president, Library and Research Information Services. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Taylor runs FRED from a high-walled cubicle tucked inside the St. Louis Fed, a few blocks from the Gateway Arch. He leads a team of five, a small group considering this regional Fed branch employs more than 1,000 people. The branch does plenty of its own economic research. It also hosts projects with names such as FRASER (economic history archive), ALFRED (archival economic data) and CASSIDI (banking analysis).

But FRED is the star.

Near Taylor’s desk, printouts of the site’s many media mentions were pushpinned to a cloth cubicle wall. A “KEEP CALM JUST USE FRED” poster hung on a pillar across the room. And, of course, there were those baby-blue hoodies — ordered up as an inside joke a few years ago by Taylor’s predecessor, the color chosen because it echoed the default background color on FRED’s data graphs. Here another economic principle comes into play: They don’t make the hoodies anymore, and scarcity seems to have driven up demand.

Taylor sat in a small conference room — algebraic scribbles written on a white board behind him — and demonstrated some of FRED’s newer powers. He pointed out how posting FRED data on social media is now easier. Charts are interactive. FRED’s maps were updated last month to be more fluid. New data series are constantly being uploaded.

These are things that, to a certain type of person, are very exciting.

FRED was born in the early 1960s out of discord over Fed policy, which at the time saw interest rates as the main lever for influencing the economy. A St. Louis Fed research director named Homer Jones was convinced that the growth rate of the money supply was more important. (Before coming to St. Louis, he briefly taught at Rutgers, where a young Milton Friedman was in one of his classes.) Jones decided to prove his point with numbers, opening up the books so others could interpret the data. In 1961, the St. Louis Fed began publishing the weekly United States Financial Data (USFD) newsletter. It was filled with numbers and hand-drawn charts, run off a mimeograph machine and then mailed to about 1,000 economists and researchers across the country.

“And really it was out of the USFD that FRED was born,” St. Louis Fed research library director Katrina Stierholz said.

In 1991, the St. Louis Fed launched an electronic bulletin board for sharing economic data. The project’s name, picked from office submissions: FRED. The site contained just 30 data series. But immediately it found an audience. Two new phones lines had to be installed for the dial-up modem. A year later, FRED held 300 data series. By 2013, that number had leapt to 64,000. Now, FRED has data from 67 different sources with more than 217,000 series.

The St. Louis Fed is coy about FRED’s traffic stats, saying only that growth has been “exponential” and is used today by millions each year. Clearly, something is happening: The site is Google’s and Yahoo’s top search result for the name “fred.”

And then there are those hoodies. A couple years ago, the St. Louis Fed decided to give one away to one person who responded to a FRED survey. David Lambert, a Kansas State agricultural economist, was the lucky winner.

He still visits FRED often. And he still has his hoodie.

“I wear it just about every day,” Lambert said.

That has nothing to do with supply or demand or cachet, he said.

It’s just really comfortable.

Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.
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