Surrounded by members of Congress, President Barack Obama signs the Dodd-Frank bill on July 21, 2010.
Three years after the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, we have a wealth of data on meetings between financial agency officials and outside groups discussing its implementation, without which Lee Drutman’s analyses and visualizations would be impossible. But as much as big data can tell us about how the big financial institutions that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis are dominating the rule writing, our reporting has alerted us to the limitations of the data — and to how important it is to watchdog.
After passage of Dodd-Frank, the main federal financial agencies charged with writing the regulations to implement it, all volunteered to post online information about which outside groups were meeting with agency officials. Each of these agencies–the Treasury Department, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Coporation (FDIC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), makes this information available on its website. However, they all choose their own way of displaying it and release the data on different schedules. Names of individuals and organizations are not standardized. Most agencies do not present the information in a machine readable format.
Any bleary-eyed reporter who spends some time digging into the data will find anomalies. For example, as Drutman writes, the data show that most meetings attended by pro-reform groups centered on the formation of the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That makes intuitive sense. But why is it that Elizabeth Warren, when she served at Treasury, reported so many more meetings and listed so many more participants when her boss, then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, reported so few? It is quite possible that Geithner held fewer meetings than Warren, but it is also quite likely that Warren, an outspoken consumer advocate who since has been elected to the Senate, was more assiduous about reporting every contact she had. Because the disclosure is voluntary, there is no way to know how well officials are adhering to the spirit of transparency.
A case in point: when we were covering the aftermath of the MF Global meltdown, we discovered a gap in the CFTC meeting logs. Several commissioners had not reported meetings they’d had with executives from Newedge, a company that had co-signed a letter with MF Global asking the agency to ease rules on brokerage firms’ investment of customer funds. After publication of our piece, the meeting records were added to the website.
Sometimes the agencies also fall behind on their pledges. Soon after news hit that JP Morgan had lost billions in a questionable trade–the very sort that might be regulated under the still-not-finalized Volcker rule prohibiting proprietary trading by banks–we hit the Treasury Department meeting logs to see what they could tell us. However, the Treasury Department, which already delays the information it releases by a month (so in July the most recently posted meetings are from May), had missed its deadline. After we reported this, the agency quickly posted the information–and as it happened Geithner had indeed met with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to discuss . . . the Volcker rule.
Of course it is commendable that the agencies make an effort to disclose this information at all. But it is also our job to point out how they can do it better. Our Dodd-Frank meeting tracker is an attempt to bring all these data together in one searchable interface, but it suffers because of the inconsistencies in the data, which each agency reports in different formats and on different schedules.
Below is a summary of how each agency has approached the challenge and some of the problems we have encountered.
- Treasury Department. At the close of every month, the agency releases information about meetings that occurred the previous month. The agency also states it may, under “limited circumstances…delay the disclosure of particularly sensitive meetings, if disclosing the meetings could cause market speculation or result in substantial harm ot the government or financial system. Find the information here.
- Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The commission gets the best score for making information available in a timely fashion, posting meetings within days of when they occurred and providing a quick way to see what has been newly posted. However, the information is not easily searchable and the user must click through to another view to see details about any given meeting. Find the meeting data here.
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The agency releases information bi-weekly, and provides a link where all meeting records can be downloaded into .csv format that can be viewed in a spreadsheet program. However, only 127 records are contained in the full set. The most recent meeting listed is from April 12, 2013; however, the most recent meeting before that was in September 2012. Most of the meetings listed occurred in 2010 and 2011. See the information here.
- Federal Reserve. Information is released in a PDF format organized by each regulation that the agency is considering. To view the information, users must click link by link, making it difficult to search across a range of meetings for a particular organization or individual. It is not clear how often the site is updated. See the meeting data here.
- Securities and Exchange Commission. The commission gets points for providing information about all ex parte meetings relating to ongoing rulemaking, not just Dodd-Frank information. There is no simple way, however, to filter the information to see only rules relating to Dodd-Frank. Also, the interface is unwieldy. A user must click on links under particular rulemakings to see the comments and records of meetings with outside groups. It is not clear how often the website is updated.
(Photo credit: The White House via Flickr)