How Do Commercial Banks Work, and Why Do They Matter?

Commercial Bank

Yurle Villegas / Investopedia

What Is a Commercial Bank?

The term “commercial bank” refers to a financial institution that accepts deposits, offers checking account services, makes various loans, and offers basic financial products like certificates of deposit (CDs) and savings accounts to individuals and small businesses. A commercial bank is where most people do their banking.

Commercial banks make money by providing and earning interest from loans such as mortgages, auto loans, business loans, and personal loans. Customer deposits provide banks with the capital to make these loans.

Key Takeaways

  • Commercial banks offer basic banking services, including deposit accounts and loans, to consumers and small to midsize businesses.
  • Commercial banks make money from a variety of fees and by earning interest income from loans.
  • Commercial banks have traditionally been located in physical locations, but a growing number now operate exclusively online.
  • Commercial banks are important to the economy because they create capital, credit, and liquidity in the market.

Commercial Bank

How Commercial Banks Work

Commercial banks provide basic banking services and products to the general public, both individual consumers and small to midsize businesses. These services include checking and savings accounts; loans and mortgages; basic investment services such as CDs; and other services such as safe deposit boxes.

Banks make money from service charges and fees. These fees vary based on the products, ranging from account fees (monthly maintenance charges, minimum balance fees, overdraft fees, and non-sufficient funds [NSF] charges), safe deposit box fees, and late fees. Many loan products also contain fees in addition to interest charges.

Banks also earn money from interest they earn by lending out money to other clients. The funds they lend comes from customer deposits. However, the interest rate paid by banks on the money they borrow is less than the rate charged on the money they lend. For example, a bank may offer savings account customers an annual interest rate of 0.25%, while charging mortgage clients 4.75% in interest annually.

Commercial banks have traditionally been located in buildings where customers come to use teller window services and automated teller machines (ATMs) to do their routine banking. With the rise in internet technology, most banks now allow their customers to do most of the same services online that they could do in person, including transfers, deposits, and bill payments.

A growing number of commercial banks operate exclusively online, where all transactions with the commercial bank must be made electronically. Because these banks don’t have any brick-and-mortar locations, they can offer a wider range of products and services at a lower cost—or none at all—to their customers.

Significance of Commercial Banks

Commercial banks are an important part of the economy. They not only provide consumers with an essential service but also help create capital and liquidity in the market.

Commercial banks ensure liquidity by taking the funds that their customers deposit in their accounts and lending them out to others. Commercial banks play a role in the creation of credit, which leads to an increase in production, employment, and consumer spending, thereby boosting the economy.

As such, commercial banks are heavily regulated by a central bank in their country or region. For instance, central banks impose reserve requirements on commercial banks. This means that banks are required to hold a certain percentage of their consumer deposits at the central bank as a cushion if there’s a rush to withdraw funds by the general public.

Special Considerations

Customers find commercial bank investments, such as savings accounts and CDs, attractive because they are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), and money can be easily withdrawn. Customers have the option to withdraw money upon demand, and the balances are fully insured up to $250,000. Therefore, banks do not have to pay much for this money.

Many banks pay no interest at all (or at least pay very little) on checking account balances and offer interest rates for savings accounts that are well below U.S. Treasury bond (T-bond) rates.

Consumer lending makes up the bulk of North American bank lending, and of this, residential mortgages make up by far the largest share. Mortgages are used to buy properties, and the homes themselves are often the security that collateralizes the loan. Mortgages are typically written for 30-year repayment periods, and interest rates may be fixed, adjustable, or variable. Although a variety of more exotic mortgage products were offered during the U.S. housing bubble of the 2000s, many of the riskier products, including pick-a-payment mortgages and negative amortization loans, are much less common now.

Automobile lending is another significant category of secured lending for many banks. Compared to mortgage lending, auto loans are typically for shorter terms and higher rates. Banks face extensive competition in auto lending from other financial institutions, like captive auto financing operations run by automobile manufacturers and dealers.

Bank Credit Cards

Credit cards are another significant type of financing. Credit cards are, in essence, personal lines of credit that can be drawn down at any time. Private card issuers offer them through commercial banks.

Visa and Mastercard run the proprietary networks through which money is moved around between the shopper’s bank and the merchant’s bank after a transaction. Not all banks engage in credit card lending, as the rates of default are traditionally much higher than in mortgage lending or other types of secured lending.

That said, credit card lending delivers lucrative fees for banks—interchange fees charged to merchants for accepting the card and entering into the transaction, late-payment fees, currency exchange, over-limit, and other fees for the card user, as well as elevated rates on the balances that credit card users carry from one month to the next.

Commercial Banks vs. Investment Banks

Both commercial and investment banks provide important services and play key roles in the economy. For much of the 20th century, these two branches of the banking industry were generally kept separate from one another in the United States, thanks to the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which was passed during the Great Depression. It was largely repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, allowing for the creation of financial holding companies that could have both commercial and investment bank subsidiaries.

While it tore down the commercial and investment bank wall, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act did maintain some safeguards: It forbids a bank and a nonbank subsidiary of the same holding company from marketing the products or services of the other entity—to prevent banks from promoting securities underwritten by other subsidiaries to their customers—and placed size limitations on subsidiaries.

While commercial banks have traditionally provided services to individuals and businesses, investment banking offers banking services to large companies and institutional investors. They act as financial intermediaries, providing their clients with underwriting services, merger and acquisition (M&A) strategies, corporate reorganization services, and other types of brokerage services for institutional and high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs).

While commercial banking clients include individual consumers and small businesses, investment banking clients include governments, hedge funds, other financial institutions, pension funds, and large companies.

Examples of Commercial Banks

Some of the world’s largest financial institutions are commercial banks or have commercial banking operations—many of which can be found in the U.S. For instance, Chase Bank is the commercial banking unit of JPMorgan Chase. Headquartered in New York City, Chase Bank reported more than $3.3 trillion in assets as of September 2022. Bank of America is the second-largest U.S. bank, with more than $2.4 trillion in assets and 67 million customers, including both retail clients and small and midsize businesses.

Is my bank a commercial bank?

Possibly! Commercial banks are what most people think of when they hear the term “bank.” Commercial banks are for-profit institutions that accept deposits, make loans, safeguard assets, and work with many different types of clients, including the general public and businesses. However, if your account is with a community bank or credit union, it probably would not be a commercial bank.

What role do commercial banks play in the economy?

Commercial banks are crucial to the fractional reserve banking system, currently found in most developed countries. This allows banks to extend new loans of up to (typically) 90% of the deposits they have on hand, theoretically growing the economy by freeing capital for lending.

Is my money safe at a commercial bank?

For the most part, yes. Commercial banks are heavily regulated, and most deposit accounts are covered up to $250,000 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). Moreover, commercial banking and investment banking funds cannot be comingled by law.

The Bottom Line

Commercial banks are a critical component of the U.S. economy by providing vital capital to businesses and individuals in the form of credit and loans. They provide a secure place where people save money, earn interest, and make payments through checks, debit cards, and credit cards.

Commercial banks are typically in brick-and-mortar locations in cities and towns, many with extensive branch networks. A growing number have no physical location, however—instead, they are accessible online and through mobile applications.

Article Sources
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  1. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. “Understanding Deposit Insurance.”

  2. Federal Reserve History. “Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall).”

  3. GovInfo. “Public Law 106-102: Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act,” 113 Stat. 1349 (Page 13 of PDF).

  4. Federal Reserve System. “Statistical Release: Large Commercial Banks.”

  5. Bank of America, Newsroom. “Company Overview.”

  6. GovInfo. “Public Law 106-102: Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act,” 113 Stat. 1399 (Page 62 of PDF).