What Is a Financial Institution (FI)?

A financial institution (FI) is a company engaged in the business of dealing with financial and monetary transactions such as deposits, loans, investments, and currency exchange. Financial institutions encompass a broad range of business operations within the financial services sector including banks, trust companies, insurance companies, brokerage firms, and investment dealers. Virtually everyone living in a developed economy has an ongoing or at least periodic need for the services of financial institutions.

Financial institutions can operate at several scales from local community credit unions to international investment banks.

1:38

Financial Institution

The Basics of Financial Institutions

Financial institutions serve most people in some way, as financial operations are a critical part of any economy, with individuals and companies relying on financial institutions for transactions and investing. Governments consider it imperative to oversee and regulate banks and financial institutions because they do play such an integral part of the economy. Historically, bankruptcies of financial institutions can create panic.

In the United States, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures regular deposit accounts to reassure individuals and businesses regarding the safety of their finances with financial institutions. The health of a nation's banking system is a linchpin of economic stability. Loss of confidence in a financial institution can easily lead to a bank run.

Key Takeaways

  • A financial institution (FI) is a company engaged in the business of dealing with financial and monetary transactions such as deposits, loans, investments, and currency exchange.
  • Financial institutions encompass a broad range of business operations within the financial services sector including banks, trust companies, insurance companies, brokerage firms, and investment dealers.
  • Financial institutions can vary by size, scope, and geography.


Types of Financial Institutions

Financial institutions offer a wide range of products and services for individual and commercial clients. The specific services offered vary widely between different types of financial institutions.

A commercial bank is a type of financial institution that accepts deposits, offers checking account services, makes business, personal, and mortgage 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, as opposed to an investment bank. Banks and similar business entities, such as thrifts or credit unions, offer the most commonly recognized and frequently used financial services: checking and savings accounts, home mortgages, and other types of loans for retail and commercial customers. Banks also act as payment agents via credit cards, wire transfers, and currency exchange.

Investment banks specialize in providing services designed to facilitate business operations, such as capital expenditure financing and equity offerings, including initial public offerings (IPOs). They also commonly offer brokerage services for investors, act as market makers for trading exchanges, and manage mergers, acquisitions, and other corporate restructurings.

Among the most familiar non-bank financial institutions are insurance companies. Providing insurance, whether for individuals or corporations, is one of the oldest financial services. Protection of assets and protection against financial risk, secured through insurance products, is an essential service that facilitates individual and corporate investments that fuel economic growth.

Investment companies and brokerages, such as mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) provider Fidelity Investments, specialize in providing investment services that include wealth management and financial advisory services. They also provide access to investment products that may range from stocks and bonds all the way to lesser-known alternative investments, such as hedge funds and private equity investments.

There's also the rise of online-only banks that maintain no physical branches, and non-bank financial firms that provide niche financial services such as personal loans, money transfers, and specific investments.