Two months ago when the Federal Reserve admitted that its site had been hacked, questions circulated about the central bank’s cyber security measures. The Fed quieted concerns by saying that “the exposure was fixed shortly after discovery and is no longer an issue. This incident did not affect critical operations of the Federal Reserve System”.
The story faded and the media moved on. But what happened last week didn’t help.
The Fed admitted last Wednesday that the minutes from its last policy meeting – which as a rule are carefully guarded market-moving words – were inadvertently sent out a day early to Congressional staffers and trade groups…and some of Wall Street’s biggest banks.
The minutes are normally due to be released at 2:00 on a Wednesday, three weeks after the Fed’s meeting. Reporters covering the minutes are allowed to see them one hour early on the understanding that they cannot release any information ahead of time.
But last Tuesday afternoon a Congressional liaison staffer accidentally sent the minutes out to 154 recipients…including contacts from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Fifth Third, UBS, Barclays, U.S. Bank, HSBC and PNC. This list also included a couple of hedge funds and a Wall Street law firm. None of the recipients reported the mistake to the Fed. And the Fed didn’t realize what had happened until 6:30 Wednesday morning.
While there were no obvious signs of early trading based on the minutes, the SEC, CFTC and the Fed’s inspector general will look into it. But even if something was uncovered, taking enforcement action would be difficult. Without question, those who had the minutes in their hand were at an advantage, but an insider trading case would be based on proving that the recipient specifically knew it was non-public information and that the release was a mistake…arguable given that the minutes were sent through normal channels to a large number of institutions.
Now the Fed is left to manage its image. The early release of sensitive information leads to obvious questions about the central bank’s internal controls and its ability to handle communication in the digital age. Beyond that, the Fed is already seen in the public eye as being too close to Wall Street…having numerous banks on a contact list and handing them an information edge doesn’t help.