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Powell Says Fed to Revamp Trading Rules09/23 06:14

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said Wednesday that 
the central bank will overhaul its financial ethics policies in response to 
growing questions about investing and trading decisions by high-ranking Fed 
officials that raise potential conflicts of interest.

   "It is now clearly seen as not adequate in sustaining the public's trust," 
Powell said at a news conference after the Fed's interest-rate setting 
committee ended a two-day policy meeting. "We need to make changes, and we're 
going to do that as a consequence of this."

   Powell stopped short of saying explicitly that the trading moves made by the 
Fed officials were inappropriate. And he offered few details about what the Fed 
might do or how it would conduct its ethics review.

   The issue arose after it was revealed that Robert Kaplan, president of the 
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, traded millions of dollars' worth of individual 
stocks such as Amazon, Chevron, Facebook and Johnson & Johnson in 2020, at the 
same time that the Fed was taking extraordinary measures to boost the economy. 
The Fed's moves likely lifted stock prices and other financial assets.

   Similar financial disclosures showed that Eric Rosengren, president of the 
Boston Fed, invested last year in real estate investment trusts that held 
mortgage-backed bonds of the type the Fed itself is buying as part of its broad 
efforts to lower borrowing rates.

   And Powell himself owns municipal bonds, which the Fed bought last year for 
the first time ever to prevent a collapse in the muni bond market, a move that 
could have driven up the value of such bonds.

   The presidents of the 12 regional banks participate in the Fed's private 
policymaking meetings, in which they discuss the central bank's interest rate 
policies and are privy to economic data not always available to the public. The 
Fed's decisions can cause sharp swings in financial markets. So can the 
presidents' speeches and comments to the media.

   Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a watchdog group, suggested 
that Powell's comments Wednesday fell far short of what is needed to reassure 
the public. He also criticized Powell's remark that the Fed follows ethics 
rules similar to those of other government agencies that, for example, bar 
trades made with inside information.

   "The Fed is not like other agencies," Kelleher asserted. "It has the most 
sensitive market-moving information of any federal agency."

   Kelleher suggested that the central bank should direct an outside agency to 
investigate all the trading practices of Fed presidents and should require 
additional information from its officials. The Fed's disclosure forms, for 
example, don't specify when Fed regional presidents Kaplan and Rosengren made 
their trades.

   "The Fed cannot investigate itself, just like Wells Fargo cannot investigate 
itself," Kelleher said, referring to that bank's regulatory troubles in recent 
years. "Only an external independent investigation will have any credibility."

   A Fed spokesman said last week that the central bank is taking "a fresh and 
comprehensive look" at its trading policies. The investments in question were 
permitted under the Fed's current rules, and Rosengren and Kaplan said that 
lawyers at their Fed banks had approved their trades. They have also both 
pledged to sell their holdings and to reinvest the proceeds into index funds 
and cash.

   At his news conference Wednesday, Powell said Fed officials are subject to 
the central bank's own trading restrictions, on top of those that all federal 
agencies follow. Officials, for example, may not trade in the 10 days before a 
policymaking meeting, when it makes critical decisions about interest rates and 
other issues. They're also barred from owning bank stocks, because the Fed 
regulates the banking sector.

   One likely change, Powell said, would be for the Fed to bar officials from 
owning any security that the central bank is itself buying. That's because the 
Fed's purchases can often -- and are intended to -- shore up the prices of such 
securities.

   Such a stricture has been harder for the Fed to follow as it has 
significantly expanded its purchases since last year to stabilize financial 
markets in the face of the pandemic recession. It bought corporate bonds for 
the first time, as well as municipal bonds, to steady markets in those 
securities.

   Powell said that his own ownership of municipal bonds was a "a real 
coincidence" because he had owned them for many years without expecting that 
the Fed would one day buy them. He said he cleared his ownership with the 
Office of Government Ethics and hasn't sold any since the Fed began buying muni 
bonds.

   Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, wrote to the 12 
regional Fed bank presidents last week urging that they bar all stock holdings 
by top officials. She asked that they report by Oct. 15 on what steps they plan 
to take.

 
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