The Fed’s culture of secrecy

By Felix Salmon
January 7, 2010
soul-searching project, it shouldn't just look at its regulatory failures and its inability to spot or care about the housing bubble. It must also think long and hard about its culture of secrecy, which seems generally designed to further the interests of its big-bank shareholders while keeping the public as ignorant as possible.

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If and when the Fed embarks upon its soul-searching project, it shouldn’t just look at its regulatory failures and its inability to spot or care about the housing bubble. It must also think long and hard about its culture of secrecy, which seems generally designed to further the interests of its big-bank shareholders while keeping the public as ignorant as possible.

Hugh Son has the story of the lengths to which the Fed and its Davis Polk lawyers were consistently telling AIG to disclose as little as possible, even as the SEC was asking for more transparency from the publicly-listed corporation.

Was the Fed demanding secrecy because, as Henry Blodget says, it wanted to keep the “outrageous” details of the government bailout a secret? Yes, that’s probably part of it. And maybe there was an element of worry that public disclosure would make it more obvious what the Fed’s Maiden Lane funds comprised, making it easier for the market to try to trade against them.

But mostly I suspect that this was just a knee-jerk thing, with Fed officials (yes, Tim Geithner, that means you) and their lawyers always wanting to tell the public only what they wanted the public to know, and to keep everything else secret. If you read Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, one of the themes running through it is that public-sector officials were in serious panic mode for months, and were convinced that things were much worse than the markets and the press were indicating. It seems they thought that if they just kept things secret, maybe the markets wouldn’t find out, and could keep on running in thin air indefinitely. A bit like in the Road Runner cartoons: it’s only when you look down and see how bad things are that you actually plunge.

Michael Corkery also points out that all of this secrecy coincided with Geithner’s nomination to be Treasury secretary, which makes the whole thing stink much more: was Geithner deliberately trying to keep anything potentially damaging secret for the sake of his own personal career progression?

Both Geithner and the Fed need to come up with much better answers to all these questions than the ones they gave Bloomberg:

“Our position has always been that if AIG’s securities lawyers determine that AIG is legally obligated to make a particular filing or disclosure, then that is what AIG must do,” said Jack Gutt, a spokesman for the New York Fed, in an e- mailed statement. Gutt said it was appropriate for the New York Fed, as party to deals outlined in the filings, “to provide comments on a number of issues, including disclosures, with the understanding that the final decision rested with AIG’s securities counsel.”

Well, maybe it’s appropriate for the Fed to comment on disclosure. But that’s not the question. The question is why the Fed made the comments that it did: why was it always agitating for secrecy? That’s the big question, and unless and until the Fed can provide a reasonable explanation, the rest of us are naturally liable to assume the worst.

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