Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Secrecy at the Federal Reserve

Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson writes:
The Federal Reserve has great power in modern American society, including the ability to move the economy and, at least indirectly, to create or destroy fortunes. Its powers operate in two ways: through control over monetary policy, meaning interest rates and credit conditions more broadly, and through its influence over how the financial system is regulated generally and how specific large banks are treated.

The secrecy of our central bank has long been a source of controversy. In line with changes at central banks in other countries over recent decades, the Fed’s chairman, Ben Bernanke, has pushed for more transparency regarding how individual members of the Federal Open Market Committee view the economy — and thus how they are thinking about the future course of interest rates (and the Fed keeps us posted). This is a commendable change, helping people throughout the economy understand what the Fed is trying to do and why.

Under pressure from both left and right — consider the unlikely alliance of Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Representative Ron Paul of Texas — the Fed has also, after the fact, disclosed more of its actions during the recent financial crisis.

But in terms of its process for determining financial-sector regulation, the Federal Reserve — at least at the level of the Board of Governors in Washington — is moving in the wrong direction.

Fed officials do testify frequently before Congress — 11 times last year on regulatory and supervisory matters, by the Fed’s count. But the Fed’s decision-making process is nowhere near as open and transparent as that of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (about which I wrote recently).

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that during the 1980s the Fed’s board held 20 to 30 public meetings a year, but these dwindled during the Greenspan years to fewer than five a year in the 2000s and “only two public meetings since July 2010.” At the same time, “the Fed has taken on a much larger regulatory role than at any time in history” — including “47 separate votes on financial regulations” since July 2010, The Journal said.

This high level of secrecy is a concern. It is particularly alarming when combined with the disproportionate access afforded to industry participants in the arguments about what constitutes sensible financial reform.

Just on the Volcker Rule — the provision in Dodd-Frank to limit proprietary trading and other high-risk activities by megabanks — Fed board members and staff members apparently met with JPMorgan Chase 16 times, Bank of America 10 times, Goldman Sachs nine times, Barclays seven times and Morgan Stanley seven times (as depicted in a chart that accompanies the Wall Street Journal article).

How many meetings does a single company need on one specific issue? How many would you get?

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