The Fed Unbound Central Banking in a Time of Crisis
Do the Fed’s efforts to stabilize the economy worsen inequality?
The Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, was built for a monetary system composed primarily of investor-owned, government-chartered banks. But over the years, the erosion of banking law and the rise of alternative forms of money created outside of the banking system have pushed the Fed to take on more and more responsibilities to keep the economy out of recession, as it did during the 2008 crisis, and again during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it created $3 trillion to stop another financial panic.
Legal scholar and former Treasury official Lev Menand explains how the Fed did this, and argues that it is time to cure the disease that has plagued the American economy for decades, and not just rely on the Fed to treat its symptoms. The Fed Unbound is an urgent appeal to Congress to reform the U.S. economic and financial infrastructure.
“On a monetary-policy bookshelf weighed down with thick, self-congratulatory tomes from big-name practitioners who too often obscure more than they explain, Mr. Menand delivers a minor miracle of sorts: a short, crisp, nuanced volume that will help you understand what the Fed is up to.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A clear, textbook-style history of the founding of the Fed and an explanation of what it actually does in the money markets.” —The Washington Post
“In a refreshingly quick read, Lev Menand takes a deep look at the history of the Federal Reserve, its recent actions in times of crisis, and its future possibilities.” —Porchlight Books, editor’s choice
“A clear and cogent assessment of how the nation’s central bank might be reformed.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A fascinating and deep analysis of what has gone wrong with the American financial system. Lev Menand peels back the layers of mythology and hagiography surrounding the Federal Reserve, to reveal just another government agency that fell in love with deregulation and now struggles with the consequences. The rise and rise of the repo market is central to how a stable and well-functioning financial system became so precarious. This is a must read for anyone who cares about macroeconomic policy and the future of the global economy.” —Simon Johnson, professor at MIT Sloan, and coauthor of 13 Bankers
“No American institution is more important, or more opaque to the outsider, than the Fed. Now, Lev Menand has somehow, magically, made its functioning, its history, its limitations, and its possible futures completely lucid, even for the non-mathematically inclined, and, along the way, managed to sound several alarms about the risks even the most well-meaning opaque institution presents to democracy.” —Adam Gopnik, author of A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
“Born out of the need to govern the private money supply in a democracy, the Federal Reserve System manages a marriage between the state and the banks it is designed to regulate. As Menand shows, neither partner has been able to effectively contain the other. The outcome of this ‘quixotic dance’ is The Fed Unbound. A crucial read for anybody interested in the structural causes of today’s monetary policy.” —Katharina Pistor, professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Code of Capital: How Law Creates Wealth and Inequality
“Over the past century, the Federal Reserve has grown massively in power, size and influence. Yet the reasons for this evolution, and the myriad consequences that flow from it, have often remained shrouded from view. In The Fed Unbound, Menand provides a provocative and fresh account of the Fed’s rise to one of the most important institutions of our time. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in how the government or financial markets actually work.” —Kathryn Judge, professor at Columbia Law School and author of Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source
“Lev Menand explains that shadow banking and some newer innovations should be treated as within the private part of the monetary system, while the Fed should not be treated as an all-purpose substitute for the elected Congress. These profound propositions need urgent attention given U.S. world leadership depends on the effectiveness, integrity, and legitimacy of the Fed. Read this book.” —Paul Tucker, author of Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State
“The Fed Unbound is a wonderfully lucid and provocative account of the Fed’s ever-expanding role in the U.S. and global economies. Everyone who reads Menand’s account will rethink their understanding of the Fed’s place in the U.S. economy and in the government. This book will be a landmark in the growing field of law and macroeconomics.” —Yair Listokin, professor at Yale Law School and author of Law and Macroeconomics: Legal Remedies to Recessions
”Lev Menand’s incisive analysis of the Fed’s authorities could not be timelier. The Fed Unbound demonstrates how our chronic dependency on the central banking system—and thus, private banks—has failed to benefit the broader public, even in times of crises. In a rare feat, Menand’s work not only interrogates the Fed’s power on a technical level, but points toward the reconstruction of power that should not be.” —Raúl Carrillo, Deputy Director, Law & Political Economy Project
The Rise of Shadow Banking — Hidden Forces podcast “Having done this for many years, I can tell all of you that this episode will be listened to for a long time. It is one of those foundational pieces of content that everyone needs to listen to.” —Demetri Kofinas, host
The Fed Keeps Getting More Powerful. Is It Bad for America? — ProPublica
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About the author
Lev Menand is an associate professor of law at Columbia Law School. He served as senior advisor to the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury from 2015–2016 and senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions from 2014‐2015. He has also worked as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the Bank’s Supervision Group. He lives in New York City. @LevMenand