Should the ECB publish its minutes?

Hans Gersbach, Volker Hahn 07 October 2013

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Mario Draghi has voiced his support for the quick release of minutes and has confirmed that the ECB is to take a decision on this issue in the near future (Reuters 2013). Joerg Asmussen, a member of the ECB's Executive Board, recently proposed that the ECB should publish the minutes of the ECB council meetings immediately and demanded that the members’ individual positions be revealed (Bloomberg 2013). There is no doubt that the current tendency towards more transparency in monetary policy1 enhances central banks' accountability towards the public. Yet, the ECB's unique position as a central bank in a monetary union of independent states makes the publication of attributed minutes and voting records undesirable.

The main argument

Our research (see, for example, Gersbach and Hahn 2009) leads to the conclusion that the publication of attributed minutes or voting records is problematic for the ECB because of a unique combination of three institutional features:

1. A majority of the ECB’s council members are the heads of the national central banks, who are appointed by national governments, which are accountable to their national electorates.
2. While the terms of some members, namely the six members of the Executive Board, are non-renewable, there is no bar to the re-appointment of the remaining members, i.e., the heads of the national central banks.2 The national governments’ power to reappoint them is the weak spot in the defences designed to ensure the ECB’s independence.
3. There are conflicts of interest among some countries of the monetary union.

In Gersbach and Hahn (2009), we lay out and develop the main argument against the publication of attributed minutes and voting records at the ECB. We consider a monetary policy committee in a monetary union wherein national central bankers are angling for reappointment and national governments pursue national interests. Our findings are clear-cut:

  • The publication of attributed minutes or voting records induces each central banker to vote so as to further his or her government’s interests, with re-appointment as the prospective reward. This is harmful for the monetary union as a whole, as the central bank’s policy becomes more sensitive to regional shocks and regional demands to change monetary policy.
  • By contrast, the secrecy of voting records shields national central bankers from the harmful influence of national governments, and thereby encourages behavior that promotes the well-being of the currency union as a whole. As a result, monetary policy will react only to Eurozone-wide shocks and the ECB will be more successful in achieving price stability.

Aggravation of the problem

Current and future institutional developments are likely to worsen the drawbacks of attributed voting transparency. The number of central bankers appointed at the European level, i.e., the members of the Executive Board, is small compared to the number of national central bankers. This disparity has increased over time. While the size of the Executive Board is fixed at six members, the accession of new countries to the Eurozone has yielded a group of seventeen national central bankers, compared to eleven when the euro was introduced in 1999. Lithuania, which will adopt the euro in January 2014, is also waiting in the wings.

We surmise that the conflicts between national interests have sharpened of late. This is supported by the following observations:

  • While in its initial phase, the ECB claimed to reach decisions by consensus, voting is now no longer invariably unanimous (Bloomberg 2010).
  • Individual countries’ debt purchases have redistributive implications among member countries, as they lower interest rates for some, but may increase interest rates for others’ debt, e.g., by re-allocating default risk. Similarly, the announcement of such purchases (see the OMT program) already has potentially redistributive consequences.
  • The ECB has been entrusted with new responsibilities regarding the supervision of banks. The ensuing decisions, e.g., to restructure or close individual banks, are likely to involve massively conflicting national interests.

A widely used argument for transparency?

Any argument for opacity has to be treated with caution, and weighed against the central argument in favour of transparency: transparency enhances the accountability of a public authority towards its citizens. The accumulation of power induced by the ECB’s new competencies in banking supervision calls for close, democratically legitimated control. This, in turn, may call for stringent transparency and accountability standards. While the publication of voting records and attributed minutes would make individual central bankers more accountable to their national governments, it would also reduce the ECB’s ability to align its policies with the interests of the citizens of the Eurozone as a whole. Hence, the central argument in favour of transparency has no bite in the context of voting transparency – and may even turn into an argument in favour of secrecy.

Conclusion

Given the ECB’s current institutional framework, the publication of attributed minutes or voting records is likely to be harmful, because it will induce national central bankers to promote their countries’ own national interests. If at some point in the future, however, a reform under which all members of the ECB council are appointed at European level were adopted, then the immediate publication of attributed voting records and minutes should be re-considered.3 The release of non-attributed summary minutes, on the other hand, could be introduced today. Such minutes may enhance the public’s understanding of the ECB’s thinking and strengthen accountability.

References

Baldwin, R and L Reichlin (2013), “Is Inflation Targeting Dead? Central Banking After the Crisis”, VoxEU.org, 14 April.

Bloomberg (2010), “Trichet Indicates ECB Decision to Buy Bonds Wasn't Backed by All Members”, 10 May, retrieved 20 September 2013.

Bloomberg (2013), “ECB’s Asmussen Says Minutes Should Disclose Who Voted for What”, retrieved 20 September 2013.

Reuters (2013) “Draghi Says Wants ECB Minutes Published”, Thomson Reuters, 30 July, retrieved 20 September 2013.

Gersbach, H and V Hahn (2012), “Information Acquisition and Transparency in Committees”, International Journal of Game Theory 41(2): 427-453.

Gersbach, H and V Hahn (2011), “Monetary Policy Inclinations”, Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 43(8): 1707-1717.

Gersbach, H and V Hahn (2009), “Voting Transparency in a Monetary Union”, Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 41(5): 809-830.

Hahn, V (2013), "Committee Design with Endogenous Participation", University of Konstanz Working Paper 2013-12.

Jansen, D-J and J de Haan (2013), “Communication by the European Central Bank: Inconsistent, Yet Effective?”, VoxEU.org, 13 May.


1 For example, forward guidance has been addressed in Gersbach and Hahn (2011). For the future of central banking after the crisis, see, Baldwin and Reichlin (2013). Jansen and de Haan (2013) indicate that the communication policy of the ECB has been quite consistent up to now.

2 Moreover, after their term on the Executive Board, central bankers can be appointed as heads of a national central bank.

3 For example, recent research suggests that transparent committees may lead to better-informed members (see Gersbach and Hahn 2012 and Hahn 2013).

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Topics:  EU institutions Institutions and economics

Tags:  ECB