The Fed is now in damage control mode after the Prospect reported Monday that Chairman Jay Powell was among senior Fed officials who had sold shares while the Fed was taking heroic measures to prop up the economy. The Fed responded with new ethics ruleswhich fail to cover what Powell did.
The release expressly says: As a result of the new policies, senior Federal Reserve officials will be limited to purchasing diversified investment vehicles, like mutual funds. But Powells big October 1, 2020, trade was the sale of between $1 million and $5 million from an index fund, which is a mutual fund that closely tracks the broad market. This kind of trade would still be permitted.
The potential for conflicts of interest on the part of senior Fed officials is not solely around individual securities, but is based on their privileged knowledge of how pending Fed policy will likely affect the direction of the market as a whole.
The rules prohibit senior officials from trading individual stocks or bonds, or from all trading during periods of heightened financial market stress. They also require that officials give 45 days notice and obtain approval for any purchase or sale of securities, and they vow to restrict active trading, though thats undefined.
If strictly enforced, these rules could make some difference. But the definition of a period of financial market stress, approval of trades, and other restrictions would be entirely up to the same officials that waved through questionable trades previously.
For example, Powells defenders have argued both that his October 1, 2020, trade was no big deal, and that he has always adhered to the letter of the law. But a close review of Powells prior trades reveals that he executed five securities trades involving mutual funds and exchange-traded funds on December 11, 2019, during the blackout period just before and after meetings of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee, which he chairs. This is expressly prohibited, and yet it was allowed.
Those Powell trades were smaller than the October 1, 2020, trade, totaling between $167,000 and $420,000. The disclosure forms offer no information as to whether they were automatic reinvestments or other rebalancing. But if there are exemptions given for the size, manner, and type of securities traded, even when there is a definitive prohibition, what are the rules, really? Are ethics officials there to enforce the rules or to accommodate Fed officials (who are, as it happens, their bosses)?
Meanwhile, The New York Times has reported that in March 2020, the Feds ethics office sent out a warning, advising that senior officials should desist from unnecessary trades during the period of special Fed support. This was ignored by at least four senior officials.
In deciding whether to reappoint Powell as chair, three factors must weigh on President Biden. First, has the trading scandalhis own trades and those of three other senior Fed officialsfatally tarnished Powells credibility? Second, are Powells very conservative views on financial regulation consistent with Bidens own regulatory policies?
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And third, should Biden reappoint a conservative Republican or take this opportunity to remake the Fed with a progressive majoritythree of whom would very likely be women? A new poll by Data for Progress, exclusive to the Prospect, finds that 58 percent of Americans and 85 percent of Democrats support Biden appointing a diverse team of women to the top three leadership roles at the Federal Reserve.
By no small coincidence, three of the leading candidates for seats on the Fed Board of Governors are Lael Brainard, a sitting governor who is a likely choice for chair if Powell is passed over; former Fed governor and deputy Treasury secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin; and Michigan State economist Lisa Cook.