A review by the Federal Reserve watchdog found that transactions by two top officials in 2019 and 2020, when the central bank was especially active in financial markets, did not violate the law or central bank policies.
The report from the Office of the Inspector General, released Thursday, acquitted both Chairman Jerome H. Powell and Richard Clarida, the former vice president. Both had entered into transactions that became the subject of media reports and, in Clarida’s case, drew broader criticism from lawmakers and ethics experts.
But the report does not settle what happened with the 2020 transactions carried out by Robert S. Kaplan, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Eric Rosengren, who was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Both men resigned after their financial dealings became the subject of intense media coverage, with Rosengren citing health reasons for his departure.
“The investigation of senior Reserve Bank officials is ongoing,” the report stated.
Still, the first phase of the investigation into a trade scandal that rocked the usually serious central bank and prompted it to usher in sweeping ethics reform ended with good news for the Fed. The Powell-Clarida deal “did not violate any laws, rules, regulations, or policies investigated by our office,” the report says.
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Clarida had come under particular scrutiny for a series of transactions that occurred in early 2020, as the Federal Reserve prepared its early response to the coronavirus pandemic. She sold a stock index on February 24 and then bought the stock index back a few days later, just before a Fed announcement sent stock prices higher. She revealed the initial sale of the stock index only belatedly, once her other transactions were investigated.
The watchdog review, which included interviews with relevant people and an investigation of emails and other records, noted the omission but found that the transactions themselves did not violate any rules.
The report does not detail why Clarida left the stock and returned to it a few days later, at a time of intense volatility, when the Fed’s actions were being closely watched by Wall Street. Clarida representative Tony Fratto said in a call with reporters that Clarida sold the stock fund to “create liquidity.” However, as the markets seemed to be stabilizing, he decided it would be best to go back to the stock fund.
Clarida’s repurchase of the stock fund occurred on February 27. A day later, the central bank issued a statement making clear it was prepared to help ailing markets, briefly reassuring nervous investors. Mr. Fratto said that Mr. Clarida did not know about the February 28 statement when he made the decision to repurchase the fund the day before.
“He didn’t act on inside information, that’s exactly what they were looking for,” Fratto said of the watchdog report.
Clarida’s resignation came earlier than announced, and shortly after news broke of the sale of her stock fund on February 24, calling into question her initial explanation of the February 27 move as part of a rebalancing. Mr. Fratto said that Mr. Clarida’s decision to leave was based on the timing of his term at Columbia University, where he was scheduled to begin teaching, and he had nothing to do with the transactions.
Neither the Fed nor Mr. Clarida provided a reason for their slightly early exit at the time.
Powell’s transactions, as of 2019, had been less surprising and were also approved by the Federal Reserve watchdog.
A financial adviser at Mr. Powell’s family trust executed trades during the Fed’s lockdown period, when officials are not supposed to trade, in December 2019. The report found those trades were an accident: the wife Mr. Powell was trying to obtain liquid cash for a charitable donation, the timing of the transaction intended to do so was an oversight on the part of the counselor, and Mr. Powell’s wife was unaware that it had happened during the blackout period.
“The Powell stuff, I was very pleased with both the conclusion and the description of what happened,” Kaleb Nygaard, a research fellow with the Yale Financial Stability Program, said in response to the report. But he said Mr. Clarida’s explanation of omissions and trades was not satisfactory.
“That’s definitely not enough of the story,” he said.