More than three years ago, Fed watchers were stunned when none other than Ben Bernanke’s former special advisor, Andrew Levin, said that “a lot of people would be stunned to know” the extent to which the Federal Reserve is privately owned, stating next that the Fed “should be a fully public institution just like every other central bank.”
But is that true? Are all other central banks “fully public”? For the answer we go to a recent post from The BOE’s Banker Underground blog which looks at the question of who really owns central banks. Here is what it found.
by David Bholat and Karla Martinez Gutierrez
Around the world, central banks have a number of different ownership structures. At one end of the spectrum are central banks, like the Bank of England, that are wholly owned by the public sector. At the other end are central banks, like the Banca d’Italia, whose shareholders are wholly private sector entities. And there are central banks, like the Bank of Japan, that lie in-between. But do these differences matter?
In this blog post, we explore the variety of central bank ownership structures, both historically and globally. We also suggest areas for future research on the topic.
The separation of central bank ownership and control
Ownership is a complex concept, a bundle of rights and responsibilities. In ordinary language, if I say I own a bike, then this implies I possess the bike and can use it as I please. Ownership implies control.
However, as Thorstein Veblen, Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means first observed, control is sometimes unbundled from ownership in modern corporations. The owners of corporations (shareholders) are usually abstracted from their day-to-day operations. Instead, control of corporate resources is ordinarily exercised by its management. Therefore, to say that I own shares in a corporation has a much narrower meaning than when I say I own a bike. In the case of a corporation, I am mainly saying that I have a financial interest in the business, specifically, that I am a residual claimant on the corporation’s profits after all other claimants such as employees, creditors and the government (taxes) have been paid.
Veblen, Berle, and Means developed their ideas with for-profit private sector corporations in mind. Yet, the distinction they drew between ownership and control is surprisingly applicable to most modern central banks. The owners of central banks, mostly governments, are ordinarily responsible for making executive appointments, and receive a share of central banks’ profits. Day-to-day control of the central bank is delegated to the central bank’s senior management and policy committees.
While both modern central banks and modern corporations are often characterised by a separation between ownership and control, there are key differences in their organisational objectives. The purpose of most private sector corporations is the pursuit of profits for shareholders. By contrast, central banks typically have statutory mandates based on economy-wide goals – e.g. price stability, financial stability and market functioning. This is irrespective of whether central banks are wholly owned by government, or, as in a handful of cases detailed below, their residual claimants are private sector entities.
Consequently, the issue of central bank ownership is considered by most scholars of marginal importance. Yet the issue of central bank ownership is a salient topic to revisit at present when the constitutional basis of central banks is receiving renewed attention (Goodhart and Lastra 2017; Tucker 2018). In what follows, we offer a survey of the variety of central bank ownership structures historically and globally. …