Banks safeguard money and valuables and provide loans, credit, and payment services, such as checking accounts, money orders, and cashier’s checks. With the passage of the Financial Modernization Act in 1999, banks also may offer investment and insurance products, which they were once prohibited from selling. As a variety of models for cooperation and integration between the financial services industries have emerged, some of the traditional distinctions between banks, insurance companies, and securities firms have diminished. In spite of these changes, banks continue to maintain and perform their primary role in the financial system-accepting deposits and lending funds from these deposits.
There are several types of banks, which differ in the number of services they provide and the clientele they serve. Although some of the differences between these types of banks have lessened as they begin to expand the range of products and services they offer, there are still key distinguishing traits. Commercial banks, which dominate this industry, offer a full range of services for individuals, businesses, and governments. These banks come in a wide range of sizes, from large global banks to regional and community banks. Global banks are involved in international lending and foreign currency trading, in addition to the more typical banking services. Regional banks have numerous branches and automated teller machine (ATM) locations throughout a multi-state area that provide banking services to individuals. Community banks are based locally and offer more personal attention, which many individuals and small businesses prefer. In recent years, online banks-which provide all services entirely over the Internet-have entered the market, with some success. However, many traditional banks have also expanded to offer online banking, and some formerly Internet-only banks are opting to open branches.
Savings banks and savings and loan associations, sometimes called thrift institutions, are the second largest group of depository institutions. They were first established as community-based institutions to finance mortgages for people to buy homes and still cater mostly to the savings and lending needs of individuals.
Credit unions are another kind of depository institution. Most credit unions are formed by people with a common bond, such as those who work for the same company or belong to the same labor union or church. Members pool their savings and, when they need money, they may borrow from the credit union, often at a lower interest rate than that demanded by other financial institutions.
Federal Reserve banks are Government agencies that perform many financial services for the Government. Their chief responsibilities are to regulate the banking industry and to control the Nation’s money supply-the total quantity of money in the country, including cash and bank deposits. Federal Reserve banks also perform a variety of services for other banks. For example, they make emergency loans to banks that are short of cash and clear checks that are drawn and paid out by different banks.
Interest on loans is the principal source of revenue for most banks, making their various lending departments critical to their success. The commercial lending department loans money to companies to start or expand a business or to purchase inventory and capital equipment. The consumer lending department handles student loans, credit cards, and loans for home improvements, debt consolidation, and automobile purchases. Finally, the mortgage lending department loans money to individuals and businesses to purchase real estate.
The money to lend comes primarily from deposits in checking and savings accounts, certificates of deposit, money market accounts, and other deposit accounts that consumers and businesses set up with the bank. These deposits often earn interest for the owner, and accounts that offer checking provide an easy method for making payments safely without using cash. Deposits in many banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which ensures that depositors will get their money back, up to a stated limit, if a bank should fail.
Technology is having a major impact on the banking industry. For example, many routine bank services that once required a teller, such as making a withdrawal or deposit, are now available through ATMs that allow people to access their accounts 24 hours a day. Also, direct deposit allows companies and governments to electronically transfer payments into various accounts. Further, debit cards, which oftentimes double as ATM cards, instantaneously deduct money from an account when the card is swiped across a machine at a store’s cash register. Electronic banking by phone or computer allows customers to pay bills and transfer money from one account to another. Through these channels, bank customers can also access information such as account balances and statement history. Some banks have begun offering online account aggregation, which makes available in one place detailed and up-to date information on a customer’s accounts held at various different institutions.
Advancements in technology have also led to improvements in the ways in which banks process information. Use of check imaging, which allows banks to store photographed checks on the computer, is one such example that has recently been implemented by some banks. Other types of technology have greatly impacted the lending side of banking., For example, the availability and growing use of credit scoring software allows loans to be approved in minutes-rather than days-making lending departments more efficient.
Other fundamental changes are occurring in the industry as banks diversify their services to become more competitive. Many banks now offer their customers financial planning and asset management services, as well as brokerage and insurance services, often through a subsidiary or third party. Others are beginning to provide investment banking services that help companies and governments raise money through the issuance of stocks and bonds, also usually through a subsidiary. As banks respond to deregulation and as competition in this sector grows, the nature of the banking industry will continue to undergo significant change.