Rebalancing the State’s Balance Sheet

Until recently, relatively little attention was paid to states’ balance sheets. Even today, states’ liabilities receive considerable attention, while their asset sides – a major potential source of resilience to negative economic shocks – receive significantly less.

MILAN – Until recently, relatively little attention was paid to states’ balance sheets. Measurement and reporting were neglected. Even today, states’ liabilities receive considerable attention, while their asset sides receive significantly less.

In an earlier era, states owned substantial industrial assets. This “commanding heights of the economy” model was rejected largely because it seriously under-performed, especially when state-owned sectors were protected from competition (as was the norm). Efficiency declined. But, more important, the absence of entry and exit by firms, a key ingredient of innovation, caused dynamism to suffer and losses to grow over time.

The model’s shortcomings led to privatization in many developed and developing countries. In Europe, privatization was viewed as a key step in the integration process. The theory, in Europe and elsewhere, was that states could not be impartial owners of industrial assets. Through regulation, public procurement, and hidden subsidies, they would favor their own assets.

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