Fed Power: How Finance Wins, by Lawrence R. Jacobs and Desmond King

In their new book, Lawrence R. Jacob and Desmond King argue that the US Federal Reserve must undergo a major regulatory overhaul if another great financial crisis is to be averted.

It is not news that the US Federal Reserve System, the Fed, has suffered as the whipping boy for financial services indiscretions since the central bank’s inception in 1913. It was created as a salve for the public’s frayed nerves after the New York Stock Exchange tumbled 50% during the 1907 Bankers’ Panic, in which a failed stock manipulation caused the collapse of a major New York City trust and led to the loss of public confidence in the banking system, a nationwide run on banks and the banks’ refusal to provide their usual short-term loans for trades on the exchange. The Fed offered some comfort for a decade or so before its inaction during the bank runs of the Great Depression exposed flaws in its efficacy, governance and ultimate understanding of what drove 20th-century financial systems.

But in this century, it was the Fed (and Henry Paulson, who was then US secretary of the Treasury) that shone with its daring, seat-of-the-pants bailout of Wall Street in 2008 — a rescue that surely averted a depression of terrifying depth and scope.

But, of course, it was the Fed itself that had abandoned (or ignored) its responsibilities leading up to what would be coined the Great Recession.

The authors of Fed Power look to this central bank — all-powerful, immune to constitutional checks and balances, cosy in its protection of the movers and shakers of high finance — as a key driver for economic inequality and instability, and most disturbingly, the next great collapse. With its profound failure to challenge the percolating subprime mortgage debacle and its highly secretive machinations regarding policy strategy and implementation, few Americans — but for the privileged — now trust the Fed as an expert, impartial organ committed to ensuring the best interests of all.

In fact, the authors argue, this institution’s very independence is eroding its credibility. Congresses and administrations and their regulatory constraints come and go. Amid the tearing down of the Glass-Steagall Act and present efforts to cripple the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the bank offers no pushback to Americans’ distaste for big government. By contrast, the authors believe that the most powerful institution in US government is due for a major regulatory overhaul, that it must be subject to much closer oversight and public accountability.

Interestingly, the authors suggest best practices from Canada’s system for monetary policy and financial management as the reform alternative best suited to a new Fed. At the very least, the authors look to the Canadian model as offering the greatest chance to avert or blunt the next financial crisis. The Bank of Canada was founded during the darkest days of the Depression’s tumult; restrictive — downright intrusive — regulation of its chartered banks was accepted as necessary. And to this day, strict oversight — with minimal political tampering, according to the authors — mandates the workings of the Bank of Canada.

Fed Power does not support an “end the Fed” solution. With clarity and a nod to Canada and its legislated commercial and investment banking regulations, Fed Power insists that the US central bank’s loathsome (and damaging) autonomy be curtailed. For the sake of the public good, and to effectively confront future crises, reform based on accountability, transparency and new mechanisms of authority is essential if the Fed is to regain some modicum of trust and value.