The Role of Commercial Banks in the Economy (2024)

Many of us share a fairly basic view of banks. They are places to store money, make basic investments like term deposits, sign up for a credit card, or get a loan. Behind this mundane view, however, is a highly regulated system that ties our day-to-day banking back into the wider financial system. Learn more about commercial banks, how they arecreated, and what their larger purpose is in the overall economy.

Key Takeaways

  • Banking is a highly regulated system that ties our day-to-day banking back into the wider financial system.
  • There are thousands of commercial banks in the United States alone.
  • Until the late 1990s, investment banks helped companies issue shares and commercial banks primarily were concerned with deposits and lending, thanks to the Glass-Steagall Act.
  • From the late1990s onward, the ability to enforce Glass-Steagall eroded and the act was effectively repealed.

When Is a Bank a Commercial Bank?

Between 1933 and 1999, it was fairly easy to tell banks apart, thanks to the Glass-Steagall Act. If you helped companies issue shares, you were an investment bank. If you were primarily concerned with deposits and lending, then you were a commercial bank. From the late1990s onward, however, the ability to enforce Glass-Steagall as a black-and-white rule eroded and the act was effectively repealed.

Since then, the old distinction between a commercial bank and an investment bank is essentially meaningless. For example, as of June 30, 2022, JPMorgan Chase Bank is among the largest commercial banks in the U.S. by assets; in 2012, the same bank was one of the lead underwriters in the Facebook initial public offering (IPO).

Commercial banks provide a range of financial services to individuals and businesses so they can carry out simple financial tasks.

For better or worse, we’ve lost the issuance of securities and active investment in securities as defining actions that a commercial bank cannot take. Instead, we can look at the actions all commercial banks share.

Commercial banks

  • Accept deposits
  • Lend money
  • Process payments
  • Issue bank drafts and checks
  • Offer safety deposit boxes for items and documents

There are more actions, of course, and finer categories within this broad view. Commercial banks may offer other services such as brokering insurance contracts, giving investment advice, and so on. They also provide a wide variety of loans and offer other credit vehicles like cards and overdrafts. However, the common theme among these activities is that they are aimed at providing a financial service to an individual or business.

From Zero to Operational in 2 Years or Less

To understand commercial banking, it is worth looking at how they are established. Although big banks like JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citibank are well-known and global in scope, there are thousands of commercial banks in the United States alone.

Despite the seemingly large number, starting and operating a commercial bank is along process due to the regulatory steps and capital needs. Rules vary by state, but in the U.S., an organizing group begins the process by securing several million dollarsin seed capital. This capital brings together a management team with experience in the banking industry as well as a board.

Creating the Vision

Once the board and management are set, a location is selected and the overall vision for the bank is created. The organizing group then sends its plan, along with information on the board and management, to regulators who review it and decide if the bank can be granted a charter. The review costs thousands of dollars and the plan may be sent back with recommendations that need to be addressed for approval.

Path to Becoming Operational

If the charter is granted, the bank must be operational within a year. In the next 12 months, the organizers must get their FDIC insurance paid, secure staff, buy equipment, and so on, as well as go through two more regulatory inspections before the doors can open.


This timing on the entire process can vary, but including preparation before the first filing to regulators, it is measured in years, not months. To get to the stage where a bank can make money by leveraging deposited dollars as consumer loans, there need to be millions in capital, some of which can be raised in private circles and paid back through an eventual public share offering.

In theory, a charter bank can be 100% privately funded, but most banks go public because the shares become liquid, making it easier to pay out investors. Consequently, having an IPO in the original plan makes it easier to attract early-stage investors as well.

Commercial Banks and the Big Picture

The process of launching a commercial bank foreshadows the overall role that these banks play in the economy. A commercial bank is basically a collection of investment capital in search of a good return. The bank—the building, people, processes, and services—is a mechanism for drawing in more capital and allocating in a way that the management and board believe will offer the best return. By allocating capital efficiently, the bank will be more profitable and the share price will increase.

From this view, a bank provides a service to the consumer mentioned earlier. But it also provides a service to investors by acting as a filter for who gets allocated how much capital. Banks that do both jobs will go on to be successes. Banks that don’t do one or either of these jobsmay eventually fail. In the case of failure, the FDIC swoops in, protects depositors, and sees that the bank's assets end up in the hands of a more successful bank.

How Is My Main Street Bank Different From a Commercial Bank?

The bank you use is almost certainly a commercial bank. While yours may be more locally owned and operated than a national chain bank like Citibank or Wells Fargo, it is still a commercial bank that offers deposit accounts, savings accounts, and other products, and uses the money you deposit to invest in stocks, securities, and so on.

Why Are Commercial Bank Deposits FDIC Insured?

Not too long ago, deposits at banks were not FDIC insured. This meant that if a bank collapsed as many did during the Great Depression, people who kept their savings at that bank lost everything. Now that deposits are insured, even if the bank you use goes under, your money is safe. FDIC insured deposits cover up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank, for each account ownership category.

What Would Happen Without Commercial Banks?

In a nutshell, if commercial banks suddenly disappeared, the economy would collapse. Credit cards and debit cards would stop working, automatic payments between individuals and businesses would stop, companies would lose investment capital, and the world as we know it would grind to a halt.

The Bottom Line

Most of us interact with commercial banks every day, whether it is a debit card purchase, an online payment, or a loan application. Beyond providing these basic services, commercial banks are in the business of capital allocation for profit—also known as investing. In the commercial banking definition of investing, this means making loans and extending credit to people who can pay it back on the bank’s terms.

Today, commercial banks can invest in securities and even in issues that they help make public. But these activities are usually relegated to an investment arm—basically a traditional investment bank housed within a commercial bank. At the end of the day, a commercial bank needs to provide good service to its customers and good returns to its investors to continue to be successful.

As an enthusiast deeply immersed in the intricacies of banking and finance, I bring forth a wealth of expertise that spans various aspects of the financial industry. My understanding extends from the fundamental principles of banking to the complex regulatory frameworks that govern financial institutions.

One of the key pillars of my expertise lies in the evolution and regulation of commercial banks, which serve as linchpins in the modern economy. Let's dissect the concepts and elements encapsulated within the provided article:

  1. Commercial Banks vs. Investment Banks: The article delineates the historical distinction between commercial banks and investment banks, elucidating how the Glass-Steagall Act once demarcated their roles. This legislation separated banking activities into distinct realms: commercial banking focused on deposits and lending, while investment banking facilitated securities issuance and underwriting.

  2. Evolution of Banking Regulation: The narrative traces the erosion of Glass-Steagall's regulatory constraints, highlighting the blurred boundaries between commercial and investment banking post-1990s. This shift underscores the regulatory dynamics that reshaped the financial landscape and paved the way for multifaceted banking institutions.

  3. Functions of Commercial Banks: The article delineates the core functions of commercial banks, which encompass deposit-taking, lending, payment processing, issuance of financial instruments like checks and drafts, and provision of safety deposit boxes. Moreover, it acknowledges the expanded scope of services offered by commercial banks, including insurance brokering and investment advisory.

  4. Establishment of Commercial Banks: A detailed overview of the process involved in establishing a commercial bank is provided. This encompasses securing substantial seed capital, assembling a proficient management team and board, obtaining regulatory approval, and navigating through rigorous operational requirements before commencing operations.

  5. Role in Capital Allocation: Commercial banks are portrayed as pivotal agents in the allocation of investment capital, with a primary objective of optimizing returns for stakeholders. The article emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between banking operations, consumer services, and investment endeavors, underscoring the imperative of efficient capital deployment for sustained profitability.

  6. FDIC Insurance and Bank Stability: The article expounds on the significance of FDIC insurance in safeguarding depositor funds and ensuring financial stability. It elucidates how FDIC insurance mitigates depositor risks and instills confidence in the banking system, contrasting the pre-FDIC era marked by heightened financial vulnerability.

  7. Impact of Commercial Banks on the Economy: A macroeconomic perspective is offered, elucidating the profound ramifications of commercial banks on economic vitality. The article underscores the indispensable role of commercial banks in facilitating monetary transactions, credit provision, and investment mobilization, positing their indispensable status in sustaining economic functionality.

  8. Commercial Banks and Investment Activities: The narrative delineates how modern commercial banks engage in investment activities beyond traditional banking functions. It underscores the integration of investment banking components within commercial bank frameworks, highlighting the imperative of balancing customer service with investor returns.

In essence, the article provides a comprehensive exploration of commercial banking dynamics, ranging from historical antecedents to contemporary operational paradigms. It underscores the multifaceted nature of commercial banks as pivotal entities within the financial ecosystem, catalyzing economic growth and resource allocation on a global scale.

The Role of Commercial Banks in the Economy (2024)
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