Selective transparency at the Fed

It’s something of a dissonant communications strategy: Fed officials are willing to tell us what they think will happen three years from now, but not what they discussed three years ago.

The Federal Reserve’s public relations arm holds up the chairmanship of Ben Bernanke as a model of transparency. And it’s true. Press conferences and federal funds rate forecasts are major steps forward for a central bank that until the mid-1990s didn’t even tell the markets what it was doing with interest rates.

Still, the old habits of secrecy die hard. Monetary policy transparency aside, the Fed has remained adamantly opaque in other ways – to the point that it took a Bloomberg News lawsuit for it to name the recipients of emergency era loans.

Similarly, it took a Freedom of Information Act request from MSNBC and The Huffington Post to obtain a mostly blacked out version of transcripts for Fed meetings during the worst of the U.S. financial crisis. The Fed only releases full transcripts of its meetings with a five year lag, arguing that this allows policymakers to conduct their discussions more freely.

New research from economists Xavier Freixa and Christian Laux examining the nature of regulatory failures during the crisis makes an interesting distinction between mere disclosure, the raw release of data, and transparency, which is a more directed effort to communicate that information to the public.

Chile, Singapore among most transparent SWFs

Chile, UAE, Singapore, Azerbaijan, Ireland and Norway claim top rankings on the latest transparency index, published by SWF Institute. At the bottom of the ranking is Venezuela, Oman, Nigeria, Mauritania, Kiribati, Iran, Brunei and Algeria.

The Linaburg-Maduell index is calculated with 10 principles — such as whether the fund provides up-to-date, independently audited annual reports, or whether it provides clear strategies and objectives. It also gives points on whether the fund gives ownership percentage of company hodlings, total market value, returns and management compensation.

Enhancing transparency is a key task for sovereign wealth funds, whose often opaque operations have come under heavy criticism by some Western politicians who suspect them of investing with political, rather than commercial, motives.