Reading: Financial Institutions

Financial Institutions

For financial transactions to happen, money must change hands. How do such exchanges occur? At any given point in time, some individuals, businesses, and government agencies have more money than they need for current activities; some have less than they need. Thus, we need a mechanism to match up savers (those with surplus money that they’re willing to lend out) with borrowers (those with deficits who want to borrow money). We could just let borrowers search out savers and negotiate loans, but the system would be both inefficient and risky. Even if you had a few extra dollars, would you lend money to a total stranger? If you needed money, would you want to walk around town looking for someone with a little to spare?

Depository and Nondepository Institutions

Now you know why we have financial institutions: they act as intermediaries between savers and borrowers and they direct the flow of funds between them. With funds deposited by savers in checking, savings, and money market accounts, they make loans to individual and commercial borrowers. In the next section, we will discuss the most common types of depository institutions (banks that accept deposits), including commercial banks, savings banks, and credit unions. We’ll also discuss several nondepository institutions (which provide financial services but don’t accept deposits), including finance companies, insurance companies, brokerage firms, and pension funds.

Commercial Banks

Commercial banks are the most common financial institutions in the United States, with total financial assets of about $13.5 trillion (85 percent of the total assets of the banking institutions). They generate profit not only by charging borrowers higher interest rates than they pay to savers but also by providing such services as check processing, trust- and retirement-account management, and electronic banking. The country’s 7,000 commercial banks range in size from very large (Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase) to very small (local community banks). Because of mergers and financial problems, the number of banks has declined significantly in recent years, but, by the same token, surviving banks have grown quite large. If you’ve been with one bank over the past ten years or so, you’ve probably seen the name change at least once or twice.

Savings Banks

Savings banks (also called thrift institutions and savings and loan associations, or S&Ls) were originally set up to encourage personal saving and provide mortgages to local home buyers. Today, however, they provide a range of services similar to those offered by commercial banks. Though not as dominant as commercial banks, they’re an important component of the industry, holding total financial assets of almost $1.5 trillion (10 percent of the total assets of the banking institutions). The largest S&L, Sovereign Bancorp, has close to 750 branches in nine Northeastern states. Savings banks can be owned by their depositors (mutual ownership) or by shareholders (stock ownership).

Credit Unions

To bank at a credit union, you must be linked to a particular group, such as employees of United Airlines, employees of the state of North Carolina, teachers in Pasadena, California, or current and former members of the U.S. Navy. Credit unions are owned by their members, who receive shares of their profits. They offer almost anything that a commercial bank or savings and loan does, including savings accounts, checking accounts, home and car loans, credit cards, and even some commercial loans. Collectively, they hold about $812 billion in financial assets (around 5 percent of the total assets of the financial institutions).

Pie chart with three categories. 5% Credit unions $812 billion; 10% savings banks $1.5 trillion; 85% commercial banks $13.5 trillion. Figure 1. Where Our Money Is Deposited

Finance Companies

Finance companies are nondeposit institutions because they do not accept deposits from individuals or provide traditional banking services, such as checking accounts. They do, however, make loans to individuals and businesses, using funds acquired by selling securities or borrowed from commercial banks. They hold about $1.9 trillion in assets. Those that lend money to businesses, such as General Electric Capital Corporation, are commercial finance companies, and those that make loans to individuals or issue credit cards, such a Citgroup, are consumer finance companies. Some, such as General Motors Acceptance Corporation, provide loans to both consumers (car buyers) and businesses (GM dealers).

Insurance Companies

Insurance companies sell protection against losses incurred by illness, disability, death, and property damage. To finance claims payments, they collect premiums from policyholders, which they invest in stocks, bonds, and other assets. They also use a portion of their funds to make loans to individuals, businesses, and government agencies.

Brokerage Firms

Companies like A.G. Edwards & Sons and T. Rowe Price, which buy and sell stocks, bonds, and other investments for clients, are brokerage firms (also called securities investment dealers). A mutual fund invests money from a pool of investors in stocks, bonds, and other securities. Investors become part owners of the fund. Mutual funds reduce risk by diversifying investment: because assets are invested in dozens of companies in a variety of industries, poor performance by some firms is usually offset by good performance by others. Mutual funds may be stock funds, bond funds, and money market funds, which invest in safe, highly liquid securities. (Liquidity is the speed with which an asset can be converted to cash.)

Finally, pension funds, which manage contributions made by participating employees and employers and provide members with retirement income, are also nondeposit institutions.

Financial Services

You can appreciate the diversity of the services offered by commercial banks, savings banks, and credit unions by visiting their Web sites. For example, Wells Fargo promotes services to four categories of customers: individuals, small businesses, corporate and institutional clients, and affluent clients seeking “wealth management.” In addition to traditional checking and savings accounts, the bank offers automated teller machine (ATM) services, credit cards, and debit cards. It lends money for homes, cars, college, and other personal and business needs. It provides financial advice and sells securities and other financial products, including individual retirement account (IRA), by which investors can save money that’s tax free until they retire. Wells Fargo even offers life, auto, disability, and homeowners insurance. It also provides electronic banking for customers who want to check balances, transfer funds, and pay bills online.

Bank Regulation

How would you react if you put your life savings in a bank and then, when you went to withdraw it, learned that the bank had failed—that your money no longer existed? This is exactly what happened to many people during the Great Depression. In response to the crisis, the federal government established the Federal Depository Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1933 to restore confidence in the banking system. The FDIC insures deposits in commercial banks and savings banks up to $250,000. So today if your bank failed, the government would give you back your money (up to $250,000). The money comes from fees charged member banks.

To decrease the likelihood of failure, various government agencies conduct periodic examinations to ensure that institutions are in compliance with regulations. Commercial banks are regulated by the FDIC, savings banks by the Office of Thrift Supervision, and credit unions by the National Credit Union Administration. As we’ll see later in the chapter, the Federal Reserve System also has a strong influence on the banking industry.

How Banks Expand the Money Supply

When you deposit money, your bank doesn’t set aside a special pile of cash with your name on it. It merely records the fact that you made a deposit and increases the balance in your account. Depending on the type of account, you can withdraw your share whenever you want, but until then, it’s added to all the other money held by the bank. Because the bank can be pretty sure that all its depositors won’t withdraw their money at the same time, it holds on to only a fraction of the money that it takes in—its reserves. It lends out the rest to individuals, businesses, and the government, earning interest income and expanding the money supply.

The Money Multiplier

Precisely how do banks expand the money supply? To find out, let’s pretend you win $10,000 at the blackjack tables of your local casino. You put your winnings into your savings account immediately. The bank will keep a fraction of your $10,000 in reserve; to keep matters simple, we’ll use 10 percent. The bank’s reserves, therefore, will increase by $1,000 ($10,000 × 0.10). It will then lend out the remaining $9,000. The borrowers (or the parties to whom they pay it out) will then deposit the $9,000 in their own banks. Like your bank, these banks will hold onto 10 percent of the money ($900) and lend out the remainder ($8,100). Now let’s go through the process one more time. The borrowers of the $8,100 (or, again, the parties to whom they pay it out) will put this amount into their banks, which will hold onto $810 and lend the remaining $7,290. As you can see in Figure 2, "The Effect of the Money Multiplier," total bank deposits would now be $27,100. Eventually, bank deposits would increase to $100,000, bank reserves to $10,000, and loans to $90,000. A shortcut for arriving at these numbers depends on the concept of the money multiplier, which is determined using the following formula:

Money multiplier = 1/Reserve requirement

In our example, the money multiplier is 1/0.10 = 10. So your initial deposit of $10,000 expands into total deposits of $100,000 ($10,000 × 10), additional loans of $90,000 ($9,000 × 10), and increased bank reserves of $10,000 ($1,000 × 10). In reality, the multiplier will actually be less than 10. Why? Because some of the money loaned out will be held as currency and won’t make it back into the banks.

Bar chart; x-axis is number of banks, y-axis is deposits. One bank as $10,000, two banks have $20,000, and three banks have $30,000. Figure 2. The Effect of the Money Multiplier


  • Financial institutions serve as financial intermediaries between savers and borrowers and direct the flow of funds between the two groups.
  • Those that accept deposits from customers—depository institutions—include commercial banks, savings banks, and credit unions; those that don’t—nondepository institutions—include finance companies, insurance companies, and brokerage firms.
  • Financial institutions offer a wide range of services, including checking and savings accounts, ATM services, and credit and debit cards. They also sell securities and provide financial advice.
  • A bank holds onto only a fraction of the money that it takes in—an amount called its reserves—and lends the rest out to individuals, businesses, and governments. In turn, borrowers put some of these funds back into the banking system, where they become available to other borrowers. The money multiplier effect ensures that the cycle expands the money supply.


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