Excitement and frustration: the publication of the first ECB “minutes”
The ECB has published its first “minutes” of the Governing Council (those of the meeting held on 21-22 January 2015). They raise much interest given the high stakes of the discussions during that meeting (QE). And also they follow up on an earlier debate and promise that took place last year to publish such discussions (see here for an earlier post on this).
What can we make of these “minutes”? Their publication can be interpreted as good news in terms of the institution’s transparency: we can now know in some detail what happened during the Governing Council. At least on the surface, the ECB is now at par with the Bank of England’s and the US Federal Reserve’s practice. This is part of a larger movement toward greater openness and follows another recent important release, namely the publication of the 2007-2009 Court of Directors’ minutes by the Bank of England earlier this year.
Importantly the ECB in fact does not talk of “minutes” (contrary to what the FT’s title suggests for instance) but instead of an “account” of the monetary policy meeting:
Account of the monetary policy meeting of 21 and 22 January 2015 http://t.co/I2Dikm7IJk
— ECB (@ecb) February 19, 2015
The document does not indeed constitute minutes of the meeting properly speaking: it is not as detailed as one could hope. It is replete with vague expressions such as “there was a broad agreement” and “the assessment was widely shared” (both on page 9) or “some members” (twice on page 13). In particular, we read that “a large majority of voting members supported the decision to launch an expanded asset purchase programme (…)” (page 16) but we obviously do not know the composition of this “large” majority. And as regards the interpretation in the Governing Council of the inflationary/deflationary trends, we are not much more advanced either: “the members broadly shared the assessment that inflation dynamics had continued to be weaker than expected.” (page 12).
A significant part of the account is focusing on the “review of financial, economic and monetary developments and policy options” (pages 1 to 9), “economic and monetary analyses (pages 9 to 12). Only Benoît Coeuré and Peter Praet are individually named; they presented statistics and general economic and monetary analyses. It is only towards the end of the account that QE is really tackled – but again without the names being named. As a consequence, it is difficult to see the debate that (may have) happened during the meeting.
“Account” vs “minutes”
Such an account is very frustrating when compared to the proper minutes of the now defunct Committee of Governors of the European Economic Community (EEC). These minutes are also available on the ECB website (released after 30 years), and a quick look at one of them can suffice to see how much more detailed they were. The comment of each and every participant is available (although the transcription is not a word for word). The latest minutes made public – those of a meeting held on 12 December 1984 – show this very well.
Little surprise that from an economic historian’s point of view this was a much more interesting document. A careful reading of the multiple Committee of Governors’ minutes sheds much light, for instance, on the genesis of the European Monetary System (EMS). They help better trace the evolution of national positions in the midst of the turbulent 1970s, and understand how disagreements could – or could not – be overcome. In short: the debate is rendered very vividly in minutes, by contrast to the “account” released today.
A typical example is that of the EMS negotiations, when two different proposals were competing, one French-led and one German-led. The solution to this opposition came from the so-called Belgian compromise, the emergence of which can now be traced through the Committee of Governors’ minutes (and also those of other Committee meetings). We can also know the point of view of each and every governor; his interpretation and doubts about the economic situation then. Many pieces of information – as French governor Bernard Clappier’s irritation at a German contribution to the discussion that did not show “any compromise effort” (see picture of the 14 November 1978 meeting of the Committee of Governors, page 7) – are thus left in the dark. The absence of details about spats between individuals may not necessarily matter; but the inability to trace back individual positions does.
The open question is then whether the ECB has released the only “minutes” that it holds or whether there exists a more detailed, comprehensive record-taking of the Governing Council’s meetings, that may have been kept secret, and that would only be released in 30 years or so. That possibility may be disappointing in terms of immediate transparency; but as an economic historian, I do hope it will prove to be true.
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