Why Supervise Banks? The Foundations of the American Monetary Settlement
Administrative agencies are generally designed to operate at arm’s length, making rules and adjudicating cases. But the banking agencies are different: they are designed to supervise. They work cooperatively with banks and their remedial powers are so extensive they rarely use them. Oversight proceeds through informal, confidential dialogue.
Today, supervision is under threat: banks oppose it, the banking agencies restrict it, and scholars misconstrue it. Recently, the critique has turned legal. Supervision’s skeptics draw on a uniform, flattened view of administrative law to argue that supervision is inconsistent with norms of due process and transparency. These arguments erode the intellectual and political foundations of supervision. They also obscure its distinguished past and deny its continued necessity.
This Article rescues supervision and recovers its historical pedigree. It argues that our current understanding of supervision is both historically and conceptually blinkered. Understanding supervision requires understanding the theory of banking motivating it and revealing the broader institutional order that depends on it. This Article terms that order the “American Monetary Settlement” (“AMS”). The AMS is designed to solve an extremely difficult governance problem—creating an elastic money supply. It uses specially chartered banks to create money and supervisors to act as outsourcers, overseeing the managers who operate banks.
Supervision is now under increasing pressure due to fundamental changes in the political economy of finance. Beginning in the 1950s, the government started to allow nonbanks to expand the money supply, devaluing the banking franchise. Then, the government weakened the link between supervision and money creation by permitting banks to engage in unrelated business activities. This transformation undermined the normative foundations of supervisory governance, fueling today’s desupervisory movement. Desupervision, in turn, cedes public power to private actors and risks endemic economic instability.