In Webcast debut, Fed meeting to propose limiting bank debit card fees

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The Federal Reserve Board takes a step into 21st century transparency this afternoon when it offers a first-ever webcast meeting, giving the public a peek into how the secretive U.S. central bank operates.

But Fed-watchers hoping to see any heated discussions on monetary policy or inflation rates will be disappointed. Instead, the meeting will discuss the Dodd-Frank financial reform law’s mandate for the Fed to limit debit card fees – a multi-billion-dollar source of revenue for banks.

The webcast comes just before Republican Ron Paul of Texas takes the gavel as chairman of a House Financial Services subcommittee overseeing the Fed. Paul is a longtime critic of the central bank and wrote a book whose title sums up his views: End the Fed.

Opening the Fed meeting to a webcast “is a symbolic gesture,” said Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon who writes a blog, Fed Watch. “It’s consistent with the notion the Fed wants to be more transparent … especially in a period where its political independence appears to have been threatened.”

The Fed has traditionally remained behind a cloak of secrecy, saying that public meetings could move markets and threaten its independence.

The Fed pumped trillions of dollars into credit markets and took unprecedented measures in 2008 that it said were vital to save a sinking economy. That prompted more scrutiny of the institution and new transparency measures, including a televised 60 Minutes interview with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in June 2009, where he sought to explain the Fed’s decisions to the public.