Greater transparency of central bank policy-making – in which committee deliberations are made more open to the public – may prevent the full and frank discussion needed to make the best decisions.
That is the conclusion of new research by Professors Ellen Meade and David Stasavage, which compares discussions of the Federal Reserve Board's Open Markets Committee (FOMC) before and after 1993, when committee members knew that all statements would eventually be made public.
Their study, which is published in the April 2008 issue of The Economic Journal, finds that after members knew that their deliberations would be made public, they were less likely to challenge the then Fed chairman,
This suggests that greater transparency prevented free deliberation and may have permitted Greenspan''s views on interest rates to dominate US policymaking. In the discussion of the current crisis in credit markets, some have
suggested that US interest rates were too low for too long.
The research looks at whether more information provided by the central bank to the public about monetary policy deliberations can affect the deliberation process itself and ultimately stifle useful debate. In other words, if policymakers worry that the content of their discussions will be released to the public, then they might hold back in those discussions for fear of looking uninformed or incompetent.
If this happens, then monetary policy might be adversely affected. The benefits of increased transparency would then need to be assessed against the resultant damage to the policy process.
Since the mid-1990s, there has been a trend towards greater transparency in economic policy-making – particularly with respect to monetary policy and the adoption of inflation targets by many central banks.
Economists have argued that this greater transparency is beneficial, making it easier to judge whether a central bank is committed to its announced policy and improving policy effectiveness by facilitating the interpretation of
policy changes. This research questions the view that all increases in transparency are beneficial and asks whether some changes might have adverse consequences. The particular aspect of transparency examined in this study
is the nature of deliberations about policy – whether they occur behind closed doors or are open to the public.
Concern about the effects of open deliberations is not new. Speaking about the secrecy rule that prevailed during the US Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison emphasised that full publicity would have made
members more reluctant to express their true opinions freely. Madison saw secrecy as having been critical to the Convention''s ultimate success.
Fed policy-makers expressed similar concerns when, in 1993, the US Congress pressured them to become more open about their decision-making process. At issue was whether the Fed would agree to publish verbatim
transcripts from meetings of its monetary policy committee, the FOMC.
In Congressional testimony, Alan Greenspan argued against publication saying that the FOMC ''could not function effectively if participants had to be concerned that their half-thought-through, but nonetheless potentially
valuable, notions would soon be made public'' even with a publication lag of five years.
Greenspan noted further that the character of the meetings would change with transcript publication, from lively, useful sessions to bland, sterile ones. In the end, the Fed made the change and has been publishing the transcripts of its meetings ever since.
This research employs a unique aspect of the situation and the transcripts themselves to analyse whether the publication of meeting records has affected the Fed''s deliberations. FOMC meetings were recorded from 1976 so
that the Fed staff could write meeting minutes. Policy-makers thought the tapes were destroyed after the minutes were written. Thus, transcripts exist from a time when policy-makers did not know that their deliberations would be
The authors compare deliberations before 1993, when Fed officials believed their remarks were private, with deliberations after 1993, when officials knew that all statements would eventually be made public. The analysis focuses on the willingness of Fed policy-makers to express verbal disagreement with Greenspan's proposed policy before and after 1993.
The results provide clear evidence of a change in the character of FOMC deliberations. This remains the case even after other potential influences on officials' views, such as current economic conditions and forecasts for
inflation, are taken into account. The results are supported by a number of parallel observations about the
changing character of FOMC debate since 1993. While before 1993, FOMC discussions were characterised by frequent ''off the cuff'' remarks and interruptions, since 1993 there has been an increase in pre-prepared
statements that may result in less real deliberation.
"Publicity of Debate and the Incentive to Dissent: Evidence from the US Federal Reserve'' by Ellen Meade and David Stasavage is published in the April 2008 issue of The Economic Journal.