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Merchant banks and investment banks, in their purest forms, are different kinds of financial institutions that perform different services. In practice, the fine lines that separate the functions of merchant banks and investment banks tend to blur. Traditional merchant banks often expand into the field of securities underwriting, while many investment banks participate in trade financing activities. In theory, investment banks and merchant banks perform different functions.

Pure investment banks raise funds for businesses and some governments by registering and issuing debt or equity and selling it on a market. Traditionally, investment banks only participated in underwriting and selling securities in large blocks. Investment banks facilitate mergers and acquisitions through share sales and provide research and financial consulting to companies. Traditionally, investment banks did not deal with the general public.

Traditional merchant banks primarily perform international financing activities such as foreign corporate investing, foreign real estate investment, trade finance and international transaction facilitation. Some of the activities that a pure merchant bank is involved in may include issuing letters of credit, transferring funds internationally, trade consulting and co-investment in projects involving trade of one form or another.

The current offerings of investment banks and merchant banks varies by the institution offering the services, but there are a few characteristics that most companies that offer both investment and merchant banking share.

As a general rule, investment banks focus on initial public offerings (IPOs) and large public and private share offerings. Merchant banks tend to operate on small-scale companies and offer creative equity financing, bridge financing, mezzanine financing and a number of corporate credit products. While investment banks tend to focus on larger companies, merchant banks offer their services to companies that are too big for venture capital firms to serve properly, but are still too small to make a compelling public share offering on a large exchange. In order to bridge the gap between venture capital and a public offering, larger merchant banks tend to privately place equity with other financial institutions, often taking on large portions of ownership in companies that are believed to have strong growth potential.

Merchant banks still offer trade financing products to their clients. Investment banks rarely offer trade financing because most investment banking clients have already outgrown the need for trade financing and the various credit products linked to it.

For more information, read What is the difference between publicly- and privately-held companies?

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