A financial institution is an establishment that conducts financial transactions such as investments, loans, and deposits. Almost everyone deals with financial institutions on a regular basis. Everything from depositing money to taking out loans and exchanging currencies must be done through financial institutions. Here is an overview of some of the major categories of financial institutions and their roles in the financial system.
Commercial banks accept deposits and provide security and convenience to their customers. Part of the original purpose of banks was to offer customers safe keeping for their money. By keeping physical cash at home or in a wallet, there are risks of loss due to theft and accidents, not to mention the loss of possible income from interest. With banks, consumers no longer need to keep large amounts of currency on hand; transactions can be handled with checks, debit cards or credit cards, instead. Commercial banks also make loans that individuals and businesses use to buy goods or expand business operations, which in turn lead to more deposited funds that make their way to banks. If banks can lend money at a higher interest rate than they have to pay for funds and operating costs, they make money.
Banks also serve often under-appreciated roles as payment agents within a country and between nations. Not only do banks issue debit cards that allow account holders to pay for goods with the swipe of a card, they can also arrange wire transfers with other institutions. Banks essentially underwrite financial transactions by lending their reputation and credibility to the transaction; a check is basically just a promissory note between two people, but without a bank’s name and information on that note, no merchant would accept it. As payment agents, banks make commercial transactions much more convenient; it is not necessary to carry around large amounts of physical currency when merchants will accept the checks, debit cards or credit cards that banks provide.
The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression caused the United States government to increase financial market regulation. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 resulted in the separation of investment banking from commercial banking.
While investment banks may be called “banks,” their operations are far different than deposit-gathering commercial banks. An investment bank is a financial intermediary that performs a variety of services for businesses and some governments. These services include underwriting debt and equity offerings, acting as an intermediary between an issuer of securities and the investing public, making markets, facilitating mergers and other corporate reorganizations, and acting as a broker for institutional clients. They may also provide research and financial advisory services to companies. As a general rule, investment banks focus on initial public offerings (IPOs) and large public and private share offerings. Traditionally, investment banks do not deal with the general public. However, some of the big names in investment banking, such as JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup, also operate commercial banks. Other past and present investment banks you may have heard of include Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and First Boston.
Generally speaking, investment banks are subject to less regulation than commercial banks. While investment banks operate under the supervision of regulatory bodies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, FINRA, and the U.S. Treasury, there are typically fewer restrictions when it comes to maintaining capital ratios or introducing new products.
Insurance companies pool risk by collecting premiums from a large group of people who want to protect themselves and/or their loved ones against a particular loss, such as a fire, car accident, illness, lawsuit, disability or death. Insurance helps individuals and companies manage risk and preserve wealth. By insuring a large number of people, insurance companies can operate profitably and at the same time pay for claims that may arise. Insurance companies use statistical analysis to project what their actual losses will be within a given class. They know that not all insured individuals will suffer losses at the same time or at all.
A brokerage acts as an intermediary between buyers and sellers to facilitate securities transactions. Brokerage companies are compensated via commission after the transaction has been successfully completed. For example, when a trade order for a stock is carried out, an individual often pays a transaction fee for the brokerage company’s efforts to execute the trade.
A brokerage can be either full service or discount. A full service brokerage provides investment advice, portfolio management and trade execution. In exchange for this high level of service, customers pay significant commissions on each trade. Discount brokers allow investors to perform their own investment research and make their own decisions. The brokerage still executes the investor’s trades, but since it doesn’t provide the other services of a full-service brokerage, its trade commissions are much smaller.
An investment company is a corporation or a trust through which individuals invest in diversified, professionally managed portfolios of securities by pooling their funds with those of other investors. Rather than purchasing combinations of individual stocks and bonds for a portfolio, an investor can purchase securities indirectly through a package product like a mutual fund.
Nonbank Financial Institutions
The following institutions are not technically banks but provide some of the same services as banks.
Savings and Loans
Savings and loan associations, also known as S&Ls or thrifts, resemble banks in many respects. Most consumers don’t know the differences between commercial banks and S&Ls. By law, savings and loan companies must have 65% or more of their lending in residential mortgages, though other types of lending is allowed. S&Ls emerged largely in response to the exclusivity of commercial banks. There was a time when banks would only accept deposits from people of relatively high wealth, with references, and would not lend to ordinary workers. Savings and loans typically offered lower borrowing rates than commercial banks and higher interest rates on deposits; the narrower profit margin was a byproduct of the fact that such S&Ls were privately or mutually owned.
Credit unions are another alternative to regular commercial banks. Credit unions are almost always organized as not-for-profit cooperatives. Like banks and S&Ls, credit unions can be chartered at the federal or state level. Like S&Ls, credit unions typically offer higher rates on deposits and charge lower rates on loans in comparison to commercial banks. In exchange for a little added freedom, there is one particular restriction on credit unions; membership is not open to the public, but rather restricted to a particular membership group. In the past, this has meant that employees of certain companies, members of certain churches, and so on, were the only ones allowed to join a credit union. In recent years, though, these restrictions have been eased considerably, very much over the objections of banks.
The housing bubble and subsequent credit crisis brought attention to what is commonly called “the shadow banking system.” This is a collection of investment banks, hedge funds, insurers and other non-bank financial institutions that replicate some of the activities of regulated banks, but do not operate in the same regulatory environment.
The shadow banking system funneled a great deal of money into the U.S. residential mortgage market during the bubble. Insurance companies would buy mortgage bonds from investment banks, which would then use the proceeds to buy more mortgages, so that they could issue more mortgage bonds. The banks would use the money obtained from selling mortgages to write still more mortgages.
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