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Who do the central banks really belong to?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the central banks were generally privately owned rather than state-owned. However, especially after the end of the Second World War, many central banks were completely nationalized, such as the Bank of England in 1946.

Today it is the rule that the central banks are wholly state-owned. There are, however, a few exceptions, even in Europe: The Swiss National Bank (SNB) about is organized under private law as a stock corporation. Around 55 percent of the shares are owned by the public sector, with the Swiss cantons and cantonal banks in particular holding shares in the SNB. Most of the remaining shares are owned by private individuals. The shares of the SNB are publicly traded on the Swiss stock exchange (ISIN: CH0001319265).

Known especially among supporters of conspiracy theories is the US Federal Reserve. While the Federal Reserve System stresses on its website that the Fed "belongs to no one", it is true that the Fed has both state and private features, as the St. Louis Regional Central Bank admits: While the Fed was established by a law passed by Congress and the Board of Governors is referred to as an "independent institution within the government", the 12 individual regional central banks are privately owned by the commercial banks.

The private banks even have a certain influence on the monetary policy of the US Federal Reserve: The Fed chairman is nominated by the US President and confirmed by Congress. However, the central bank governors of the regional central banks, who also sit on the Open Market Committee, which is decisive for monetary policy, are determined by the member banks. All banks authorized and regulated at the US federal level are automatically part of the Fed system and must own shares in the respective regional central bank. State-approved banks can voluntarily become member banks of the Fed.

Only at first glance is it fully state-owned European Central Bank (ECB)which belongs to the national central banks of the EU according to a fixed capital key (which corresponds to the share of the respective country in the total population and the gross domestic product of the EU). Most of these national central banks (e.g. the Bundesbank) belong entirely to the respective state, but there are three exceptions: The Italian central bank does not belong to the state, but to the country's commercial banks and insurance companies. The central bank in Greece (Bank of Greece, not to be confused with the National Bank of Greece, which despite its name is a "normal" commercial bank) is owned 100 percent by private shareholders, while the National Bank of Belgium is owned half by the state and half by private shareholders belongs.

So there are two national central banks involved in the ECB (Greece, Italy) that are fully privately owned and one (Belgium) that is half privately and half publicly owned. The shares of the Belgian National Bank (ISIN: BE0003008019) and the Bank of Greece (ISIN: GRS004013009) are even listed.

However, even if central banks have private shareholders, the central banks differ from "normal" joint-stock companies. The tasks of the central banks are usually determined by law and are based on the common good, not on the profit interests of private shareholders - even if they are the only shareholders. In contrast to "normal" companies, the composition of the management bodies is usually determined politically and not by the shareholders. As a rule, a considerable part of the profits of the central banks also flows into the state budget and not to the shareholders, provided that profits are distributed at all. The rules are usually laid down in a separate law that only affects the central bank.

The following table shows all central banks worldwide that are (partially or fully) privately owned (source: Private Shareholding and Public Interest: An Analysis of an Eclectic Group of Central Banks):

countryCentral bankWho owns the central bank?listed on the stock exchange?
United StatesFederal Reserveregional central banks: 100% owned by private banks
Board of Governors: state
EurozoneEuropean Central Bank (ECB)100% national central banks, 24 of which are purely state-owned (e.g. Bundesbank), two purely private (Banca d'Italia and Bank of Greece) and one mixed (Banque Nationale de Belgique)No
GermanyBundesbank100% federal governmentNo
ItalyBanca d'Italia100% banks, insurance companies, foundations and pension fundsNo
GreeceBank of Greece100% private shareholdersyes: GRS004013009
BelgiumBanque Nationale de Belgique50% state, 50% private shareholdersyes: BE0003008019
SwitzerlandSwiss National Bankaround 55% cantons and cantonal banks, around 45% privately ownedyes: CH0001319265
JapanBank of Japan55% state, 45% private propertyyes: JP3699200006 (not tradable in Germany)
South AfricaSouth African Reserve Bank100% privately ownedno, but OTC trading
TurkeyCentral Bank of the Republic of TurkeyState (at least 51%), remainder: Turkish banks, companies and private individualsNo

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