- Distinguish among different types of financial institutions.
- Discuss the services that financial institutions provide and explain their role in expanding the money supply.
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’ll 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 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) (Insurance Information Institute, 2011). 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 (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) (Insurance Information Institute, 2010). 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).
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 (Pennsylvania Association of Community Bankers, 2011). Collectively, they hold about $812 billion in financial assets (around 5 percent of the total assets of the financial institutions).
Figure 13.3 “Where Our Money Is Deposited” summarizes the distribution of assets among the nation’s depository institutions.
Finance companies are nondeposit institutions because they don’t 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 (Insurance Information Institute, 2010). 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 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.
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. (Recall our definition of liquidity in Chapter 12 “The Role of Accounting in Business” as the speed with which an asset can be converted into cash.)
Finally, pension funds, which manage contributions made by participating employees and employers and provide members with retirement income, are also nondeposit institutions.