1. The Banking System: Introduction
  2. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - What Banks Do
  3. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - Economic Concepts in Banking
  4. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - How Banks Make Money
  5. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - Business Lending
  6. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - Operations
  7. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - How Banks Are Regulated
  8. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - Where Commercial Banks Are Vulnerable
  9. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - Bank Crises And Panics
  10. The Banking System: Commercial Banking - Key Ratios/Factors
  11. The Banking System: Federal Reserve System
  12. The Banking System: Non-Bank Financial Institutions
  13. The Banking System: Conclusion

ByStephen D. Simpson, CFA

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 started 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
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.

Private Banks
While there used to be a significant number of independent private banks operating in the United States, the independent dedicated private bank is all but extinct. Private banks are increasingly part of larger commercial banks and international financial institutions. Almost every nationally known bank and financial services firm has a division that caters to wealthy clients.

Private banks target high net-worth individuals and do not encourage, or in many cases accept, people of lesser means opening accounts. Private banks look to provide a host of services beyond simple checking and savings accounts. Wealthy individuals often spend considerable resources sheltering their incomes and assets from the tax collector; tax planning, as well as the creation and sale of tax-minimizing investment projects, is a major service of private banks.

Investment and Merchant Banks
investment banks may be called "banks," their operations are far different than deposit-gathering commercial banks. Complicating matters further, many major commercial banks bought investment banks, and some investment banks have reorganized themselves as commercial banks, in many cases to make themselves eligible for government-funded bailouts.

Investment banks are principally involved in underwriting debt and equity offerings, trading securities, making markets and providing corporate advisory services. Investment banks are also active counterparties in a variety of derivative transactions. Confusing matters further, some investment banks, including those without true bank subsidiaries, will engage in bank-like activity. It is not uncommon for investment banks to provide bridge loans and stand-by financing commitments for mergers and acquisitions.

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.

Merchant banking has changed more than perhaps any other category of banking. Merchant banks used to exist to finance international trade, providing financing, letters of introduction and credit, for ocean-going voyages. Merchant banks then evolved into something more like what private equity is today; very few institutions call themselves "merchant banks" today.

Shadow 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.

Many estimates of the size of the shadow banking system suggest that it had grown to match the size of the traditional U.S. banking system by 2008.

Apart from the absence of regulation and reporting requirements, the nature of the operations within the shadow banking system created several problems. Specifically, many of these institutions "borrowed short" to "lend long." In other words, they financed long-term commitments with short-term debt. This left these institutions very vulnerable to increases in short-term rates and when those rates rose, it forced many institutions to rush to liquidate investments and make margin calls. Moreover, as these institutions were not part of the formal banking system, they did not have access to the same emergency funding facilities. (Learn more in The Rise And Fall Of The Shadow Banking System.)

Islamic Banks
Islamic banks exist to fill the need for financial services that are compliant with Islamic rules concerning interest. Sharia law forbids the charging, or acceptance, of interest or other fees related to borrowing money. In the place of interest, Islamic banks make use of profit sharing arrangements, "safekeeping" agreements, joint ventures, leasing and cost-plus accounting to extend credit in a way that is compliant with Sharia.

As an example, an Islamic bank would not loan money to someone who wished to borrow a house or car. Instead, the bank might buy the asset itself, agree to resell it to the would-be borrower at a higher price and take the payments in installments. In practice, then, it is almost identical to how a regular mortgage or equipment loan works, as most mortgage borrowers pay equal fixed amounts for the duration of the loan, but there is no formal interest involved.

Many Islamic countries have regular banks operating in their borders, but this is nevertheless a growth market. If nothing else, many of these businesses are creative in how they establish workable business models that comply with rules on interest, and so on. Not surprisingly, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and UAE are among the leading nations in terms of assets managed by Islamic financial institutions.

Industrial Banks
Industrial banks are a special category of financial institution that exists for very specific purposes. Industrial banks are financial institutions owned by non-financial institutions.

As they are able to lend money, industrial banks are often used by their parent companies to facilitate financing for customers. Not all of these banks engage in lending; sometimes companies create industrial banks, simply to improve payment settlement efficiency and to reduce the costs of managing working capital accounts.

The Banking System: Conclusion
Related Articles
  1. Investing

    What is a Bank?

    A bank is a financial institution licensed to receive deposits or issue new securities to the public.
  2. Insights

    The World's Top 10 Banks

    Learn more about the world's largest banks and how more financial power shifts eastward as China is home to four of the world's largest banks.
  3. Personal Finance

    Banking Has Changed: What Does It Mean For Consumers?

    Banks have long been leading spenders on technological innovations. Learn the key changes in the banking industry and what institution is right for you.
  4. Personal Finance

    Career Advice: Investment Banking Vs. Commercial Banking

    Read an in-depth review of the differences between a career in investment banking and a career in commercial banking, including how to decide between them.
  5. Personal Finance

    The Evolution of Banking

    Banks are a part of ancient history. Find out how this system of money management developed into what we know today.
  6. Personal Finance

    Choose To Beat The Bank

    From internet banking to credit unions, it's in your power to cut fees and maximize service.
  7. Investing

    What is the Shadow Banking System?

    The shadow banking system is composed of financial institutions that do not take deposits in the tradition sense.
Frequently Asked Questions
  1. How did the ABX index behave during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis?

    Read about the disastrous performance of the various ABX indexes in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 during the middle ...
  2. How did moral hazard contribute to the 2008 financial crisis?

    Learn about moral hazard, how it can affect outcomes and how it contributed to the conditions that led to the 2008 financial ...
  3. Which mutual funds made money in 2008?

    Read about the only mutual fund that turned a profit in 2008. Learn about risk-averse investment strategies and the financial ...
  4. Were Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) Responsible for the 2008 Financial Crisis?

    Collateralized debt obligations are exotic financial instruments that can be difficult to understand, Learn the role they ...
Trading Center