Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve released FOMC transcripts and related materials from 2010. One of the issues—an important one—discussed in October and November of 2010 concerned Fed disclosure of inside information. Those transcripts hit one of my hot buttons. Fed leadership, instead of being defensive as shown in the 2010 transcripts, should be vocal in explaining why non-public activities further the cause of sound monetary policy.
Consider first an extreme view, a view that will help to frame disclosure issues. Would we want the Fed to confine its contacts with outsiders to public meetings at which press were present, or could be present? In that case, the FOMC would make its policy decisions solely on the basis of publically available information, such as that released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other statistical agencies. Keep in mind that under this view Fed officials would not only cease to have any non-public meetings with private sector individuals but also with government officials.
I add government officials to the mix because it is well known that some members of Congress and congressional staff make stock trades based on inside information.
FOMC practice has long been to gather nonpublic information, some of which is presented in FOMC meetings. The beginning of every FOMC meeting is occupied with presentation, and discussion, of anecdotal information. I always made an effort to smoke out expectations about the future from my sources. Forward-looking information is especially important because there is little formal statistical data on business plans for hiring and investment. As an example, I routinely asked my contacts at FedEx and UPS about their plans to add capacity in the busy holiday season and what their customers were telling them about their expectations. I asked my Wal-Mart contact about his interpretation of retail sales. Did he think that recent sales reflected idiosyncratic issues for his own company or were the trends more general?
The FOMC has long believed that such information strengthened the policy process. I know of no study that has attempted to quantify the policy value of anecdotal information, but have to believe that this approach is sound. Fed critics remind me of the old saw about the weatherman. Look out the window. Can’t you see that it is snowing? Do you want the Fed to stop looking out the window? Would it not have been helpful in 2008 if the Fed had had some detailed inside information about the condition of Lehman and AIG?
The Federal Reserve has long had robust policies, and active internal controls, to prevent insider trading by all employees, especially those with access to confidential policy information. Yes, nonpublic contacts with industry insiders do raise the risk of improper disclosure. What is the evidence on that score?
I know of only three prominent, evident or possible violations of this confidentiality. One is ongoing today: an unresolved case concerning an alleged leak of FOMC information in 2012 to Medley Global Advisors. In the second case, Rohit Bansal, a former Goldman-Sachs employee, was convicted this past November of obtaining inside information from Jason Gross, a former bank examiner at the New York Fed, who was also convicted. In the third case, Robert A. Rough, a former director of the New York Fed pleaded guilty in 1989 to disclosing discount rate actions to securities traders while he was in office. The New York Times story on the case noted that, “Samuel A. Alito Jr., the United States Attorney for New Jersey, said Mr. Rough was the first director in the 75-year history of the Federal Reserve System to be convicted of criminal wrongdoing.”
As far as I know, that is it. A damn good record, I would say. I challenge anyone to find an agency of this size and longevity with a superior record. The very highest level of integrity is built into the Fed’s day-to-day procedures and its DNA. Fed leadership should be defending its disclosure and research policies rather than dancing away, dodging the issue.
A CBS segment on 60 Minutes in November 2011 discussed insider trading by some members of Congress and congressional staff. Public outrage ensued and led Congress to pass the Stock Act, which became law April 4, 2012. By April 15, 2013 Congress had modified the Act, largely gutting it.
The most gentle way I know to summarize the concerns of some members of Congress over Federal Reserve disclosure is that they represent rank hypocrisy.