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The Logic and Limits of the Federal Reserve Act

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The Federal Reserve is a monetary authority subject to minimal executive and judicial oversight. It also has the power to create money, which permits it to disburse funds without drawing on the U.S. Treasury. Since 2008, it has leveraged this power to an unprecedented extent. It has rescued teetering financial conglomerates, purchased trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities, and opened numerous ad hoc lending facilities to support ordinary businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities.

This Article identifies the causes and consequences of the Federal Reserve’s expanded footprint by recovering the logic and limits of its enabling act. It argues that to understand the Federal Reserve—including its independence, expansion, and capacity—it is necessary first to understand the statutory scheme for money and banking. Congress chartered investor-owned banks to issue most of the money supply and established the Federal Reserve for a limited purpose: to administer the banking system. Congress equipped the Federal Reserve with an interrelated set of tools to achieve a specific objective: ensure that the banking system creates enough money to keep economic resources productively employed nationwide. The rise of shadow banks—firms that issue alternative forms of money without a bank charter—has impaired the Federal Reserve’s tools. As the Federal Reserve has scrambled to adapt, it has taken on tasks it was not built to handle. This evolution has prompted calls for the Federal Reserve to tackle even more policy challenges. It has also undermined the Federal Reserve’s ability to effectively achieve its core goals. An overloaded Federal Reserve is understandable, but not desirable. Congress should modernize the Federal Reserve Act, and the banking laws on which it depends, to improve monetary administration in the United States.

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