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Who is the Fed accountable to?

It’s pretty clear the Federal Reserve is going to emerge as the big winner in the Obama administration’s proposed overhaul of the financial regulatory system. But any grant of new powers to the Fed must come with legislation requiring greater accountabilty from the nation’s central banker.

Now this is not meant to knock the job the Fed has done in the current financial crisis.  In many respects, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke should be applauded for showing a willingness to improvise and come up  with creative solutions for trying to limit the damage to the banking system and the economy. But throughout the crisis, Benanke &  Co. have shown an utter disdain for transparency and full disclosure.

A good illustration of this is the contracts the NY Fed signed last fall with investment advisor Blackrock to manage the distressed assets the Fed acquired from AIG, the hobbled insurance giant.  The contract between the NY Fed and Blackrock for managing the CDOs that AIG insured and the Fed took off the banks’ hands is 37 pages. But a good number of those pages are blank–some 13 page to be exact.

And what is spelled out on these blank pages? Oh, just a few minor details like the fees paid to Blackrock, the firm’s potential CDO conflicts and the firm’s key personnel managing the assets. To be clear, this information isn’t totally secret. All this information has been disclosed to the NY Fed. It’s just that Fed officials have seen fit to keep this information secret from the public.

Regulators are opaque, too

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Matthew GoldsteinSo much for more transparency in the financial system.

It’s hard for regulators to demand greater transparency from Wall Street banks when they can’t even live up to their own standard of greater disclosure. A case in point is the Treasury Department’s press release touting its decision to permit “10 of the largest U.S. financial institutions” to begin repaying $68 billion in federal bailout money. The only trouble is Treasury doesn’t name any of the banks that can begin repaying money to the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Treasury, it appears, has left it up to each of the “10 of the largest U.S. financial institutions” to make their own announcements about their intentions to repay the TARP. And some, like Morgan Stanley, didn’t waste anytime putting out a PR trumpeting its plan to repay $10 billion in TARP money.

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