A Fed Official’s 2020 Trade Drew Outcry. It Went Further Than First Disclosed.

on Jan7
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Richard H. Clarida, the departing vice chair of the Federal Reserve, failed to initially disclose the extent of a financial transaction he made in early 2020 as the Fed was preparing to swoop in and rescue markets amid the unfolding pandemic.

Mr. Clarida previously came under fire for buying shares on Feb. 27 in an investment fund that holds stocks — one day before the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, announced that the central bank stood ready to help the economy as the pandemic set in. The transaction drew an outcry from lawmakers and watchdog groups because it put Mr. Clarida in a position to benefit as the Fed restored market confidence.

Mr. Clarida’s recently amended financial disclosure showed that the vice chair sold that same stock fund on Feb. 24, at a moment when financial markets were plunging amid fears of the virus.

The Fed initially described the Feb. 27 transaction as a previously planned move by Mr. Clarida away from bonds and into stocks, the type of “rebalancing” investors often do when they want to take on more risk and earn higher returns over time. But the rapid move out of stocks and then back in makes it look less like a planned, long-term financial maneuver and more like a response to market conditions.

That’s because Fed officials were actively rescuing a broad swath of markets in 2020: In March and April, they slashed rates to zero, bought mortgage-tied and government bonds in mass quantities, and rolled out rescue programs for corporate and municipal debt. Continuing to trade in affected securities for their own portfolios throughout the year could have given them room to profit from their privileged knowledge. At a minimum, it created an appearance problem, one that Mr. Powell himself has acknowledged.

Mr. Kaplan resigned in September, citing the scandal; Mr. Rosengren resigned simultaneously, citing health issues. Mr. Clarida’s term ends at the close of this month, which it was scheduled to do before news of the scandal broke.

Mr. Clarida’s trades, which Bloomberg reported earlier, also raised eyebrows among lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has demanded a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Fed officials’ 2020 trading. But many ethics experts had seen the transaction as more benign, if poorly timed, because it happened in a broad-based index and the Fed had said it was part of a planned and longer-term investment strategy.

The new disclosure casts doubt on that explanation, given that Mr. Clarida sold out of stocks just days before moving back into them.

“It’s peculiar,” said Norman Eisen, an ethics official in the Obama White House who said he probably would not have approved such a trade. “It’s fair to ask — in what respect does this constitute a rebalancing?”

Ms. Warren reacted to the news on Twitter, calling the situation “deeply troubling” and saying that stock trading should be banned among federal officials.

It is unclear whether Mr. Clarida benefited financially from the trade, but it was most likely a lucrative move. By selling the stock fund as its value began to plummet and buying it back days later when the price per share was lower, Mr. Clarida would have ended up holding more shares, assuming he reinvested all of the money that he had withdrawn. The financial disclosures put both transactions in a range of $1 million to $5 million.

The sale-and-purchase move would have made money within a few days, as stock markets and the fund in question increased in value after Mr. Powell’s announcement. The investment would have then lost money as stocks sank again amid the deepening pandemic crisis.

But the fund’s value recovered after the Fed’s extensive interventions in markets. Assuming they were held, the holdings would ultimately have appreciated in value and turned a bigger profit than they would have had Mr. Clarida merely held the original investment without selling or buying.

The Fed was aware of the reputational risk around trading as the pandemic kicked into high gear — the Board of Governors’ ethics office sent an email in late March 2020 encouraging officials to hold off on personal trades — but notable transactions happened in late February and again as early as May in spite of that, its officials’ disclosures suggest.

Mr. Powell has acknowledged the optics and ethics problem the trading created, saying that “no one is happy” to “have these questions raised.” He and his colleagues moved quickly to overhaul the Fed’s trading-related rules after the revelations, releasing new and stricter ethics standards that will force officials to trade less rapidly while banning many types of investment.

The individuals in question also faced censure. They are under independent investigation to see if their transactions were legal and consistent with internal central bank rules. The S.E.C. declined to comment on whether it has opened or will open an investigation into Mr. Clarida’s trades and his colleagues’, as Ms. Warren had requested.

While the officials who came under the most scrutiny for their trades have left or will leave soon, the new disclosure could cause problems for the Fed’s remaining leaders — including Mr. Powell, whom President Biden recently renominated to a second term as chair.



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