Many of us share a fairly basic view of banks. They are places to store money, make basic investments like term deposits, sign up for a credit card or get a loan. Behind this mundane view, however, is a highly regulated system that ties our day-to-day banking back into the wider financial system. In this article, we’ll look at commercial banks, how they are created and what their larger purpose is in the overall economy.

When is a Bank a Commercial Bank?
Between 1933 and 1999, it was fairly easy to tell banks apart thanks to the Glass-Steagall Act. If you helped companies issue shares, you were an investment bank. If you were primarily concerned with deposits and lending, then you were a commercial bank. From the late 1990s onward, however, the ability to enforce Glass-Steagall as a black-and-white rule eroded, and the act was effectively repealed. Since then, the old distinction between a commercial bank and an investment bank is essentially meaningless. For example, as of 2013, JPMorgan Chase Bank is among the largest commercial banks in the U.S. by assets and, in 2012, the same bank was one of the lead underwriters in the Facebook IPO.

For better or worse, we’ve lost the issuance of securities and active investment in securities as defining actions that a commercial bank cannot take. Instead, we can look at the actions all commercial banks share. Commercial banks:

  • Accept deposits
  • Lend money
  • Process payments
  • Issue bank drafts and checks
  • Offer safety deposit boxes for items and documents

There are more actions, of course, and finer categories within this broad view. Commercial banks may offer other services such as brokering insurance contracts, giving investment advice and so on. They also provide a wide variety of loans and offer other credit vehicles like cards and overdrafts. However, the common theme among these activities is that they are aimed at providing a financial service to an individual or business.

From Zero to Operational in Two Years or Less
To understand commercial banking, it is worth looking at how they are established. Although big banks like JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citibank are well-known and global in scope, there are thousands of commercial banks in the United States alone. Despite the seemingly large number, starting and operating a commercial bank is a long process due to the regulatory steps and capital needs. Rules vary by state, but in the U.S. an organizing group begins the process by securing several million dollars in seed capital. This capital is used to bring together a management team with experience in the banking industry as well as a board.

Once the board and management are set, a location is selected and the overall vision for the bank is created. The organizing group then sends its plan, along with information on the board and management, to regulators who review it and decide if the bank can be granted a charter. The review costs thousands of dollars, and the plan may be sent back with recommendations that need to be addressed for approval.

If the charter is granted, the bank must be operational within a year. In the next 12 months, the organizers must get their FDIC insurance paid, secure staff, buy equipment and so on, as well as go through two more regulatory inspections before the doors can open.

This timing on the entire process can vary, but including preparation before the first filing to regulators it is measured in years, not months. To get to the stage where a bank can make money by leveraging deposited dollars as consumer loans, there needs to be millions in capital, some of which can be raised in private circles and paid back through an eventual public share offering. In theory, a charter bank can be 100% privately funded, but most banks go public because the shares become liquid, making it easier to pay out investors. Consequently, having an IPO in the original plan makes it easier to attract early-stage investors as well.

Commercial Banks and the Big Picture
The process of launching a commercial bank foreshadows the overall role that these banks play in the economy. A commercial bank is basically a collection of investment capital in search of a good return. The bank – the building, people, processes and services – is a mechanism for drawing in more capital and allocating in a way that the management and board believe will offer the best return. By allocating capital efficiently, the bank will be more profitable and the share price will increase.

From this view, a bank provides a service to the consumer mentioned earlier. But it also provides a service to investors by acting as a filter .for who gets allocated how much capital. Banks that do both jobs will go on to be successes. Banks that don’t do one or either of these jobs may eventually fail. In the case of failure, the FDIC swoops in, protects depositors and sees that the bank's assets end up in the hands of a more successful bank.

Bottom Line
Most of us interact with commercial banks every day, whether it is a debit card purchase, an online payment or a loan application. Beyond providing these basic services, commercial banks are in the business of capital allocation for profit – also known as investing. In the commercial banking definition of investing, this means making loans and extending credit to people who can pay it back on the bank’s terms. Today, commercial banks can invest in securities and even in issues that they help make public. But these activities are usually relegated to an investment arm – basically a traditional investment bank couched in a commercial bank. At the end of the day, a commercial bank needs to provide good service to its customers and good returns to its investors to continue to be successful.

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