ECB Marks Its 1,000th Board Meeting With Tutankhamun and Rhymes

  • Central bank commemorates anniversary with private exhibition
  • Documents displayed include poetic ‘Declarations of Greatness’

It didn’t exactly start with a bang.

“The provisional agenda was adopted,” was the first decision taken by the European Central Bank’s Executive Board on its inaugural meeting in 1998. On Tuesday, the board holds its 1,000th gathering when its six members prepare for this week’s monetary-policy decision. The ECB is marking the occasion with a small exhibition inside its Frankfurt headquarters that gives a taste of the institution’s history -- and something it’s less well-known for: a sense of humor.

Sirkka Haemaelaeinen, Wim Duisenberg, Otmar Issing, Eugenio Domingo Solans, Christian Noyer, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa

Courtesy ECB

On October 23, 2003, Wim Duisenberg’s final day in office as the institution’s first president, the board’s secretariat slipped into his papers a “Strictly Confidential” document entitled “Declaration of Greatness.” It read:

“I flew like a butterfly, I stung like a bee; I was the greatest (and only) President the first five years did ever see.”

The memo was signed by Duisenberg without any remark, and is on display in the central bank’s library along with some of the gifts board members received over the years. Those include a 20-centimeter (8-inch) pair of gold earrings given by South Korea during its Group of 20 presidency and a wooden statue of Tutankhamun that came from -- well, nobody can remember.

The exhibition, which is only accessible to ECB staff and guests, keeps things light. While the past 18 years of the euro area have seen a fair share of excitement, anyone seeking insights into officials’ closed-door deliberations during the region’s 2010 debt crisis, the flirtation with deflation or Greece’s near-exit from the bloc in 2015 will be disappointed. Acts of the Executive Board, which formulates policies for approval by the Governing Council, are kept secret for 30 years.

Tuesday’s meeting is likely to be one of the less dramatic. The Governing Council agreed only last month to the board’s proposal to extend the ECB’s bond-buying program until the end of 2017, and is seen as unlikely to spring any surprises when it sets policy on Thursday.

Consistency and Change

The ECB succeeded the European Monetary Institute on June 1, 1998, with the first board meeting held the next day. In some ways, not much has changed since. Policy makers still gather on Tuesdays, the logo and the font of ECB documents are the same, and men remain prevalent at the top -- the photos of the 19 past and present officials include just three women.

The meetings have moved though. The ECB relocated into a 1.3 billion-euro ($1.4 billion) custom-built skyscraper in the east end of Frankfurt in 2014. The number of people working for the central bank has increased to just under 4,000, up from about 400 in 1998, and the number of euro-area nations has risen to 19 from 11.

Meanwhile, rhyming rhetoric may have become a tradition.

“I was the second captain of this mighty ship; 
Mais sacre Bleu! that WAS some trip
Some early ‘leaks,’ a growing ‘army’
These historic times will continue to keep you busy
I leave this team, en passant, with much emotion
And - most deservedly - with your admiration!”

That was the outgoing ode for the second ECB president, France’s Jean-Claude Trichet. When he signed his “Declaration of Greatness” on Oct. 21, 2011, he added a note commending his staff’s witticism.

The third captain, President Mario Draghi, is due to step down in October 2019. Poetic suggestions welcome.

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