How Management of Public Assets Can Boost or Bust Economic Growth
Most countries’ public wealth is larger than their public debt. While managing debt has become a matter of great concern during the financial crisis, public wealth remains opaque and largely ignored.
The polarised debate between privatisers and nationalisers has missed the most important point – the quality of asset management.
According to our calculations an achievable improvement in public wealth management would yield returns greater than the world’s combined investment in infrastructure such as transport, power, water and communications.
This book explores how some countries are experimenting with institutional setups, such as National Wealth Funds that achieve sounder management and cleaner democracy.
Public wealth is vast, but largely overlooked as an asset class. Improving its management is one of the most important economic issues of our time. Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster shed much light on the subject. One can only hope that their book will kickstart a debate that ushers in better stewardship of state land, buildings, utilities and other assets. The potential gains are enormous.
At a time of mistrust in traditional politics and weak public finances, Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster show politicians the way to demonstrate they are on the side of the people and to manage government assets better. There should be no excuse for those in power to dismiss these ideas.
Chris Giles, Economics Editor
Better government handling of public assets is, or should be, a key issue in many countries. With his background as a former President of Stattum, the Swedish government holding company, Dag Detter can speak with great authority and depth of practical experience on the alternative approaches which governments might take. The Public Wealth of Nations is an important contribution to a debate of vital concern to governments across the world.
Lord Sassoon, former Commercial Secretary, HM Treasury
Governments track their debts to the penny, peso, and yen, yet know surprisingly little about the buildings, businesses, natural resources, and other assets they own. As Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster demonstrate, that neglect creates needless economic harm, and an opportunity for leaders bold enough to correct it. By better managing their assets, governments can enhance transparency, boost growth, and strengthen their fiscal positions.
Donald Marron, former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and acting director of the Congressional Budget Office.
The debate about the role of the state tends to take place on simplistic terms: Is it good or bad? A more fruitful approach is to ask how to make the state work better. Yet it is hard to have an informed discussion about this because public accounts are woefully primitive: government budgets are generally drawn up on a cash basis and public debts are measured but not public assets. That’s where this ground-breaking new book by Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster comes in. It documents how governments have huge assets that they rarely account for, let alone make good use of. And it argues persuasively that if governments of all stripes managed their commercial assets better, they could unlock resources that enhance citizens’ welfare. The Public Wealth of Nations is a must-read.
Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics
Governments around the world have been acting recklessly in managing their public wealth, which is the key ingredient for securing the welfare of their citizens. This provocative book is a wake-up call for governments to become more responsible in managing their citizen’s wealth and securing the foundation for future generations.
Marcel Fratzscher, Member of the Advisory Council of the Ministry of Economy of Germany, President of DIW Berlin
The Public Wealth of Nations is a very timely reminder of the importance of fiscal transparency and accountability for the sound management of public finances through the often neglected asset side of a government’s balance sheet. A very readable and passionate case for governments to focus on their public wealth while taking a long-term view of the implications of their fiscal policies.
Marco Cangiano, Assistant Director at the Fiscal Affairs Department
The Public Wealth of Nations asks what can be gained by applying lessons from the private sector to the management of public assets. A lot, as it turns out. Many countries continue to ignore the economic return on public assets and focus instead on policy goals of government ownership, or get tangled up in privatization debates. Unsurprisingly, government finances suffer. Using examples from countries such as Sweden and Singapore, the authors show how countries can unlock economic returns, and how government and economic development can benefit. Policy makers and government managers from across the political and development spectrum can learn from this book how the management of assets can truly be in the public interest: by placing financial performance side-by-side with policy objectives.
Jim Brumby, Director Governance Global Practice
Many governments have huge debts, some of which they attempt to hide. Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster show that, rather surprisingly, governments all over the world have hidden valuable real commercial assets that can be monetized in a number of ways: outright privatization, private concessions and more efficient and accountable management of these assets under continued public ownership are just three of these. Efficiency and accountability start with transparency and better information. This important book shows the way forward in turning the latent Public Wealth of Nations into actual riches.
Willem H. Buiter, Global Chief Economist
With public finances under pressure in many countries due to a combination of structurally slower growth and high levels of indebtedness, the ‘Public Wealth of Nations’ couldn’t be better timed. It is a welcome reminder that the analysis of public finance has hitherto been too narrow, exclusively focussing on debt and its funding costs. In this important book, the authors convincingly argue using many examples that, like with pension funds or even households, an asset-liability approach is needed for public finance as well. They show that intelligent management of public assets can have a huge impact on government revenues, creating room for tax cuts, and on economic growth.
Dr. William De Vijlder, Group Chief Economist
This insightful book is particularly relevant at a time when public finances are strained and governments are keen to bolster their coffers. Importantly, however, Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster argue that increasing the yield on public assets is not merely another way to boost government revenues. They persuasively argue that a properly designed and politically legitimate stewardship of public assets also confers significant societal benefits, including higher productivity and a more equitable inter-generational distribution of the commons
Larry Hatheway, Chief Economist
The Public Wealth of Nations shows how independent public asset governance is an important tool for a more efficient use of society’s resources.
Ricardo Hausmann, Head of Centre for International Development at Harvard Kennedy School
The Public Wealth of Nations is a must read for policy makers and scholars. It invites readers to think of sovereign wealth in novel ways and brings private solutions to the management of public assets.
Aldo Musacchio, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School and Faculty
This thought-provoking book shows how unlocking public wealth in the right way can provide a significant boost to the public finances and growth prospects of economies around the world.
Eswar Prasad, Senior Fellow at Brookings, Professor at Cornell University
Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster have dug up a gold mine of state assets which could be used more profitably and transparently to deliver value for all citizens, including using the revenue to reduce taxes. All it takes is more transparency and better management of such hidden assets. This book deserves much more public awareness of the hidden wealth of nations, often managed incompetently, but sometimes corruptly.
Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow
The Public Wealth of Nations masterfully uncovers the hidden assets of states and convincingly shows how countries can capitalizse on their public commercial assets, if only they managed them better. It is a breath of fresh air in these gloomy times of fiscal austerity and public debt pessimism. Detter and Fölster’s book should be required reading for policymakers and for every student of public finance.
Matthias Matthijs, Assistant Professor of International Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University
Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster have made a significant contribution to the discourse on the role of the state in this book. They have assembled a wealth of information on state assets that analysts will find useful while also providing a balanced but compelling argument for a practical-minded approach to unlocking the value of those assets. They identify the drawbacks of state ownership but also offer solutions that would reduce those disadvantages in both developed as well as developing economies.
Manu Bhaskaran, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and founding Director of Centennial Asia Advisors