Banking, the business of providing financial services to consumers and businesses. The basic services a bank provides are checking accounts, which can be used as money to make payments and purchase goods and services; savings accounts and time deposits that can be used to save money for future use; loans that consumers and businesses can use to purchase goods and services; and basic cash management services such as check cashing and foreign currency exchange. Four types of banks specialize in offering these basic banking services: commercial banks, savings and loan associations, savings banks, and credit unions.
A broader definition of a bank is any financial institution that receives, collects, transfers pay, exchanges lends, invests, or safeguards money for its customers. This broader definition includes many other financial institutions that are not usually thought of as banks but which nevertheless provide one or more of these broadly defined banking services. These institutions include finance companies, investment companies, investment banks, insurance companies, pension funds, security brokers and dealers, mortgage companies, and real estate investment trusts. This article, however, focuses on the narrower definition of a bank and the services provided by banks in Canada and the United States.
Banking services are extremely important in a free market economy such as that found in Canada and the United States. Banking services serve two primary purposes. First, by supplying customers with the basic mediums-of-exchange (cash, checking accounts, and credit cards), banks play a key role in the way goods and services are purchased. Without these familiar methods of payment, goods could only be exchanged by barter (trading one good for another), which is extremely time-consuming and inefficient. Second, by accepting money deposits from savers and then lending the money to borrowers, banks encourage the flow of money to productive use and investments. This, in turn, allows the economy to grow. Without this flow, savings would sit idle in someone’s safe or pocket, money would not be available to borrow, people would not be able to purchase cars or houses, and businesses would not be able to build the new factories the economy needs to produce more goods and grow. Enabling the flow of money from savers to investors is called financial intermediation, and it is extremely important to a free market economy.