Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics > Teaching with FRED

Teaching with FRED

Coordinated by Scott Simkins (North Carolina A&T State University) and Mark Maier Glendale Community College)


What is FRED?

Short for Federal Reserve Economic Data, FRED is an online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources. FRED, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data. In essence, FRED helps users tell their data stories. The purpose of this article is to guide the potential (or current) FRED user through the various aspects and tools of the database.

FRED began in the early 1990s as an offshoot of the long-running legacy at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis of providing monetary data to help better understand the Fed's policy decisions. Before the popularization of the World Wide Web, the data were provided in list form on a dial-in, electronic, bulletin board system. The data were organized into categories containing roughly 300 data series and expanded from there. Perhaps surprisingly, FRED did not begin as part of a grand scheme or strategic objective. Rather, it grew over time in a very organic way. St. Louis Fed staff who were involved either directly with the FRED project or working on the periphery developed tools for the database in an independent, ad hoc manner.

Why Use FRED to teach economics?

The easily-accessed and readily-manipulated economic data at FRED

  • increases student motivation because it can connect to compelling, timely issues
  • demonstrates the connection between textbook theory and actual data
  • shows what economists actually do when then tackle economic problems

FRED data can be used for writing assignments. For examples see the module Quantitative Writing

How to Use FRED to teach economics?

From the FRED homepage, users can search for the data by typing in their search term or alternatively can browse the data through other organized points of access.

  • FRED provides several simple but powerful tools that aid the user in viewing and presenting the data in a manner that is both accurate and understandable. By far, the most popular way to view a time series in FRED is in a line chart. FRED allows the user to not only display their chosen data in this format, but also completely customize the aesthetic of this chart. Users can adjust the fonts, colors, and line weights, among other attributes of the chart. Line charts are helpful for viewing trends over time, but not always the best at comparing recent observations. For this purpose, FRED can also chart data in pie, bar, and scatter plot graphs. Beyond this, it can also be helpful to view data in its geographic context. GeoFRED allows user to view data at the state, MSA, and county level.
  • Data are often reported in units that might not be the most conducive to analysis. In FRED, units are easily modified. If the user is viewing the FRED series for "real gross domestic product in billions of chained 2005 dollars," they can quickly change this series to "percent change from a year ago" with one simple selection. Change, percent change, and compound annual rate of change are among the many selections available.
  • Getting help: Users can contact us at our email address, stlsFRED@stls.frb.org, or phone (314)444.8444.

Examples of instructional activities in economics using FRED

See Examples

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