Ask most finance experts about the “world’s largest financial institutions,” and you’ll hear names like Citigroup, ICBC (China’s largest bank) and HSBC. However, governments top the list of large financial institutions, with investment and insurance operations that dwarf those of any private enterprise. For instance, last year the U.S. federal government made almost all student loans and backed over 97% of newly originated mortgages. Add to that Uncle Sam’s lending activities for agriculture, small business, energy and trade, plus its provision of insurance for private pensions and deposits, and you’ll discover it’s an $18-trillion financial institution. By comparison, JP Morgan Chase, the largest U.S. bank, had assets totaling about $2.4 trillion.
While government practices differ across countries, the basic story is much the same everywhere. As the world’s largest and most interconnected financial institutions — and through their activities as rule-makers and regulators — governments have an enormous influence on the allocation of capital and risk in society. And as financial actors they are confronted with the same critical issues as their private-sector peers: How should a government assess its cost of capital? How should its financial activities be accounted for? What are the systemic and macroeconomic effects? Are the institutions well-managed? Are its financial products well-designed?