An investment bank, which includes the likes of Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs, finances or facilitates trades and investment on a large scale for institutional clients. But that is an overly simplistic view of how investment banks make money. There are, in fact, several facets to what they do.

Key Takeaways

  • Investment banks provide a variety of financial services, including research, trading, underwriting, and advising on M&A deals.
  • Proprietary trading is an effort to make profits by trading the firm's own capital.
  • Investment banks earn commissions and fees on underwriting new issues of securities via bond offerings or stock IPOs.
  • Investment banks often serve as asset managers for their clients as well.

Brokerage and Underwriting Services

Like traditional intermediaries, large investment banks connect buyers and sellers in different markets. For this service, they charge a commission on trades. The trades range from simple stock trades for smaller investors to large trading blocks for big financial institutions.

Investment banks also perform underwriting services when companies need to raise capital. For example, a bank might buy stock in an initial public offering (IPO), and then market the shares to investors. There is a risk that the bank will be unable to sell the shares for a higher price, so the investment bank might lose money on the IPO. To combat this risk, some investment banks charge a flat fee for the underwriting process.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Investment banks charge fees to act as advisors for spinoffs and mergers and acquisitions (M&A). In a spinoff, the target company sells a piece of its operation to improve efficiency or to inject cash flow. On the other hand, acquisitions occur whenever one company buys another company. Mergers take place when two companies combine to form one entity. These are often complicated deals and require a lot of legal and financial help, especially for companies unfamiliar with the process.

Creating Collateralized Products

Investment banks might take lots of smaller loans, such as mortgages, and then package those into one security. The concept is somewhat similar to a bond mutual fund, except the collateralized instrument is a collection of smaller debt obligations rather than corporate and government bonds. Investment banks must purchase the loans to package and sell them, so they try to profit by buying cheap and selling at higher prices on the market.

Proprietary Trading

With proprietary trading, the investment bank deploys its own capital into the financial markets. Traders that risk the firm's capital are typically compensated based on performance, with successful ones earning large bonuses and unsuccessful traders losing their jobs. Proprietary trading has been much less prevalent since new regulations were imposed after the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

Dark Pools

Suppose an institutional investor wants to sell millions of shares, a size that's large enough to impact markets right away. Other investors in the market might see the big order and this opens the opportunity for an aggressive trader with high-speed technology to front-run the sale in an attempt to profit from the coming move. Investment banks established dark pools to attract institutional sellers to secretive and anonymous markets to prevent front-running. The bank charges a fee for the service.

Swaps

Investment bankers sometimes make money with swaps. Swaps create profit opportunities through a complicated form of arbitrage, where the investment bank brokers a deal between two parties that are trading their respective cash flows. The most common swaps occur whenever two parties realize they might mutually benefit from a change in a benchmark, such as interest rates or exchange rates.

Market Making

Investment banks often have market making operations that are designed to generate revenue from providing liquidity in stocks or other markets. A market maker shows a quote (buy price and sale price) and earns a small difference between the two prices, also known as the bid-ask spread.

Investment Research

Major investment banks can also sell direct research to financial specialists. Money managers often purchase research from large institutions, such as JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, to make better investment decisions.

Asset Management

In other cases, investment banks directly serve as asset managers to large clients. The bank might have internal fund departments, including internal hedge funds, which often come with attractive fee structures. Asset management can be quite lucrative because the client portfolios are large.

Lastly, investment banks sometimes partner with or create venture capital or private equity funds to raise money and invest in private assets. The idea is to buy a promising target company, often with a lot of leverage, and then resell or take the company public after it becomes more valuable.

The Bottom Line

In a capitalist economy, investment bankers play a role in helping their clients raise capital to finance various activities and grow their businesses. They are financial advisory intermediaries who help price capital and allocate it to various uses.

While this activity helps smooth the wheels of capitalism, the role of investment bankers has come under scrutiny because there is some criticism that they are paid too much in relation to the services they provide.