Hey Bud, Wanna Buy a Central Bank? Part 1

Hey Bud, Wanna Buy a Central Bank?


Bryan Taylor, Chief Economist, Global Financial Data




              Yes, Virginia, you can buy shares in central banks. Today, you can buy shares in five central banks in Belgium, Greece, Japan, South Africa, Turkey and Switzerland. Until the 1940s, most central banks were publicly traded and you could invest in central banks in over a thirty different countries. When most of these banks were founded, they were not central banks in the modern sense of the word.  A central bank is a bank for other banks. Central banks were established by the government to issue banknotes, to act as a bank for the government’s funds, to be a bank for other banks, and to discount and provide loans to domestic companies. Multiple banks were sometimes allowed to issue banknotes, but eventually the national bank established a monopoly on note issue.  So bank note issue is not a defining criterion of being a central bank. Instead, it is being a bank to other banks, being a lender of last resort, and taking on the responsibility for the stability of the country’s financial system.


The central bank can change the discount rate, or lending rate, to influence the nation’s economy and encourage or discourage capital from flowing into and out of the country. In the beginning, the national bank was usually the only bank in the country. Over time, the government allowed more banks to be established and the national bank’s role in lending to the private sector shrank became more limited.  The national bank slowly became only a bank to other banks and finally a central bank whose primary responsibility was maintaining the stability of the national economy. Many central banks were nationalized after World War II and although the central banks are independent of the government today, they either are owned by the government or are restricted by the government in what the bank can do.  Even for publicly traded banks, you cannot make a hostile takeover of a central bank.  The national government already controls them.


              Between the founding of each central bank and their nationalization, anyone could buy shares in the bank.  Since the national bank was the bank to the government, it had a degree of safety that other banks did not have.  The government simply could not allow the central bank to go bankrupt.  In this sense, the central bank was as safe as government bonds.  However, because the central bank was a private entity, it was supposed to provide profits to its shareholders.  Profits should rise over time. Although most central banks provided excess profits to the government, they could increase their dividend.  In this sense, the central bank was more like a utility that was regulated by the government than a private corporation and was too important to fail.


              Although you could buy shares in a central bank, you could not buy up all the shares and own the central bank.  The government had the right to choose the people who ran the central bank, impose regulations on its behavior, and ultimately, to take over the running of the central bank.  As a shareholder you could receive dividends and profit from any change in the price of the central bank, but that was all.


              So were investors wise to invest in central banks, either today or in the past?  Did the returns exceed those on government bonds?  How did returns compare to the stock market as a whole?  Just based upon risk, national banks should have outperformed government bonds, but underperformed the stock market as a whole.  In the beginning, the central bank was sometimes the entire stock market, but by the 1830s and 1840s, railroads began to dominate the stock market in each country and governments allowed other banks to come into existence.  Central banks’ importance in the stock market slowly shrank.


The Role of Central Banks


One of the principal duties of central banks is to print currency for the country.  Normally, the central bank, or the government itself, is the only printer of currency. In some countries, multiple banks were allowed to issue currency.  This was especially true in Anglo countries and colonies, such as Scotland, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, or Hong Kong, as well as many Latin American countries. Today, only in a few countries are there multiple currency issuers: Hong Kong, Northern Ireland and Scotland are examples.          


What makes a central bank a central bank?  Generally, the central bank is a bank to other banks and is responsible for overseeing the financial side of the economy.  In the past, the central bank was responsible for printing currency, controlling the money supply, promoting a stable economy and financial system, keeping inflation to a minimum, maintaining the value of the currency, acting as a fiscal agent for the government, providing loans to other banks by discounting paper, and acting as a lender of last resort.  In the past, many central banks were also commercial banks that made loans to corporations, but today such loans are generally limited to commercial banks.


              Table 1 provides a list of central banks for 30 different central banks providing information on when each bank was founded and when each bank was nationalized by the government.  Central banks for which there is no information on the date of nationalization are publicly traded. The Danmarks Nationalbank and Banca d’Italia were the first central banks to be nationalized in 1936. Since then, more central banks have been nationalized in each decade.






Bank of Albania




National Bank of Angola




Central Bank of Argentina




Oesterreichische Nationalbank




Banque Nationale de Belgique




Bank of Canada




El Banco de la Republica




Danmarks Nationalbank




Central Reserve bank of El Salvador

El Salvador



Bank of England




Bank of Estonia




Banque de France




Prussian National Bank








Bank of Greece




Bank of the Republic of Haiti




Reserve Bank of India




Javasche Bank




Banca d'Italia




Bank of Japan




Banco de Mexico




Nederlandsche Bank




Reserve Bank of New Zealand

New Zealand



State bank of Pakistan




Bank of Portugal




National Bank of Romania




South African National Bank

South Africa



Banco de Espana




Sveriges Riksbank




Swiss National Bank





Table 1. Founding and Nationalization Dates for Central Banks




Central Banks That Are Publicly Traded Today


              There are several central banks that are publicly traded today.  These include the Swiss National Bank, the Bank of Japan, the South African Reserve Bank, the Bank of Greece, and the National Bank of Belgium. However, don’t plan on making a hostile takeover of any of these banks or making a fortune off your investment.  In each country, the government restricts ownership of shares and limits the dividend that can be paid on each stock.


The dividends for Japan, Switzerland and South Africa are limited by their par capital. Switzerland’s dividend is fixed at 15 CHF per annum (the stock is around 5,000 CHF), Japan at 5 Yen (about 5 cents) and South Africa at 0.10 Rand (about 0.5 cents). Only Belgium and Greece can change their dividend each year. The National Bank of Belgium cut its dividend to 1 Euro from 93 Euros in 2023, reducing the dividend to 0.2%.  Before 2023, Belgium paid a fixed 6% dividend and then paid additional dividends on top of that based upon profitability, but rising interest rates caused the National Bank of Belgium to lose money in 2023 for the first time in 70 years. They chose to slash their dividend, driving the stock price down. Consequently, only the Bank of Greece pays a decent dividend of 4%, though the stock has fallen from 92 in 2006 to 16 today. The South African Reserve Bank stock is fairly illiquid and has a small float.  No shareholder is allowed to hold more than 10,000 of the 2 million outstanding shares.  Shares of the Bank of Greece, National Bank of Belgium and Bank of Japan have all declined in price over the past 35 years.  Only the Schweizerisches National Bank stock has performed well, primarily because it has invested its assets wisely in stocks that appreciated in value.


Let’s look at each of the central banks that is publicly traded and see how they have done.





Founded: 1850


Nationalized: March 4, 1948 semi-nationalized, government takes a 50% stake


Annual Return from 1850 to 2022: (Bank 5.82%, Stocks 6.97%, 3.95% Bonds)


Shares Outstanding: 05/05/1850 (25,000 shares), 1872 (50,000 shares), 1927 (200,000 shares)


Market Capitalization: 1850 ($6 million), 1886 ($28.53 million), 1900 ($31.05 million), 1925 ($11.98 million), 1950 ($26.40 million), 1975 ($216.22 million), 2000 ($533.3 million), 2010 ($2,366 million), 2022 ($292 million)


              Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1831. The Société Générale de Belgique was established in 1822 and was allowed to issue banknotes.  The banking crisis following the Revolution in Paris in 1848 led to the suspension of the convertibility of banknotes in both France and Belgium. The Belgian banking system was reformed in 1850 and the Banque Nationale de Belgique was established to have a monopoly on the issue of banknotes in Belgium. The bank could also discount short-term bills and acted as the fiscal agent for the Treasury. The bank was required to keep a metal reserve equal to one-third of its note issue and acted as a lender of last resort.


              Belgium joined the Latin Monetary Union in 1865 along with France, Italy and Switzerland, and silver coins became legal tender. During the German occupation during World War I, the German authorities withdrew the right of note issue and granted this right to the Société Générale de Belgique. After the war, the right to issue banknotes was returned to the Banque Nationale. The Banque Nationale was semi-nationalized on March 4, 1948 with the government taking control of 50% of the shares. The bank remains a publicly traded company, and it is a member of the European System of Central Banks.


              Until recently, shares of the Banque Nationale de Belgique behaved similarly to the Belgian stock market as is illustrated in Figure 1; however, the price of Belgian National Bank shares plunged during the past two years as rising interest rates caused the bank to lose money for the first time in 70 years.  This forced the bank to lower its dividend from 96.63 to 1.05. The stock has returned to the level it was at in 1975.



Figure 1.  Banque Nationale de Belgique and the Belgium Price Index, 1850 to 2023







Founded: 1928


Annual Return from 1993 to 2022: (Bank 9.71%, Stocks 3.09%, Bonds -14.14%)


Shares Outstanding: 1993 (19,864,886 shares)


Market Capitalization: 1993 ($89 million), 2007 ($2,132 million), 2022 ($356 million)


              An investment in the Bank of Greece would have lost money during the past 15 years. If Bank of Greece stock outperformed the Greek stock market in general, it is only because the Greek stock market has done so poorly since 2000. The Greek stock market and Bank of Greece stock did very well as Greece qualified to join the Euro in 2001.  Greece suffered high inflation during the twentieth century, and it was thought that the Euro would provide Greece the stability it needed to develop in the twenty-first century. The Greek economy did well in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and it was thought this would continue in the twenty-first century. The stock market declined after Greece joined the Euro, recovered into 2008, then declined dramatically, losing 80% of its value after 2008. As the Euro crisis grew worse, both the dividend and Bank of Greece stock declined in value. Greece defaulted in 2012 and banks were closed in 2015 when Greece threatened to leave the Euro. Since 2015 the banking system has shown a modest recovery.  Because of the default, investors lost money on Greek bonds.  Greece may pay the highest dividend of any of the five central banks, but its fundamentals are still shaky.  Bank of Greece stock hasn’t budged since 2012.  The central bank is only as sound as the country it is in.



Figure 2. Bank of Greece stock and the Athens SE General Index, 1993-2023





Founded: 1882


Annual Return from 1988 to 2022: (Bank -8.84%, Stocks -0.52%, Bonds 2.97%)


Shares Outstanding: 1980 (1 million shares)


Market Capitalization: 1988 ($5,603 million), 2000 ($568 million), 2022 ($185 million)


              Investors in Bank of Japan stock have done poorly since the Japanese stock market bubble popped in 1989.  However, investors holding Bank of Japan stock have done even worse than Japanese equity investors in general as Figure 3 shows.  The price of Bank of Japan stock has declined from 700,000 Yen at the end of 1988 to 24,300 Yen at the end of 2022, a decline of over 96%.  The annual dividend of 5 Yen (about 5 cents) provides little compensation and investors receive the lowest dividend of any central bank. Most of the profits of the Bank of Japan go to the government. The Bank of Japan currently owns the majority of Japanese government debt. While the Japanese stock market hit bottom in 2012 and has risen during the past ten years, Bank of Japan shares have continued to decline.  Despite their low yields, Japanese government bonds have outperformed both stocks and Bank of Japan stock during the past 35 years. The federal government owns 55% of the bank’s shares.  Shareholders have no right to select BOJ officials and in the case of the dissolution of the bank, shareholders would only receive about 100 Yen per share. Bank of Japan shares have been and continue to be a very poor investment.