Monday, June 21, 2010


A bank is a financial intermediary that accepts deposits and channels those deposits into lending activities, either directly or through capital markets. A bank connects customers with capital deficits to customers with capital surpluses.

Banking is generally a highly regulated industry, and government restrictions on financial activities by banks have varied over time and location. The current set of global bank capital standards are called Basel II. In some countries such as Germany, banks have historically owned major stakes in industrial corporations while in other countries such as the United States banks are prohibited from owning non-financial companies. In Japan, banks are usually the nexus of a cross-share holding entity known as the keiretsu.

The oldest bank still in existence is Monte dei Paschi di Siena, headquartered in Siena, Italy, which has been operating continuously since 1472.[1]


Banks date back to ancient times. During the 3rd century AD, banks in Persia and other territories in the Persian Sassanid Empire issued letters of credit known as Ṣakks. Muslim traders are known to have used the cheque or ṣakk system since the time of Harun al-Rashid (9th century) of the Abbasid Caliphate. In the 9th century, a Muslim businessman could cash an early form of the cheque in China drawn on sources in Baghdad,[2] a tradition that was significantly strengthened in the 13th and 14th centuries, during the Mongol Empire.[citation needed] Fragments found in the Cairo Geniza indicate that in the 12th century cheques remarkably similar to our own were in use, only smaller to save costs on the paper. They contain a sum to be paid and then the order "May so and so pay the bearer such and such an amount". The date and name of the issuer are also apparent. The earliest known state deposit bank, Banco di San Giorgio (Bank of St. George), was founded in 1407 at Genoa, Italy.[3] Banking in the modern sense of the word can be traced to medieval and early Renaissance Italy, to the rich cities in the north like Florence, Venice and Genoa. The Bardi and Peruzzi families dominated banking in 14th century Florence, establishing branches in many other parts of Europe[4]. Perhaps the most famous Italian bank was the Medici bank, set up by Giovanni Medici in 1397[5].

Origin of the word

The name bank derives from the Italian word banco "desk/bench", used during the Renaissance by Jewish Florentine bankers, who used to make their transactions above a desk covered by a green tablecloth.[6]

The earliest evidence of money-changing activity is depicted on a silver drachm coin from ancient Hellenic colony Trapezus on the Black Sea, modern Trabzon, c. 350–325 BC, presented in the British Museum in London. The coin shows a banker's table (trapeza) laden with coins, a pun on the name of the city. In fact, even today in Modern Greek the word Trapeza (Τράπεζα) means both a table and a bank.


The definition of a bank varies from country to country. See the relevant country page (below) for more information.

Under English common law, a banker is defined as a person who carries on the business of banking, which is specified as:[7]

conducting current accounts for his customers
paying cheques drawn on him, and
collecting cheques for his customers.
In most English common law jurisdictions there is a Bills of Exchange Act that codifies the law in relation to negotiable instruments, including cheques, and this Act contains a statutory definition of the term banker: banker includes a body of persons, whether incorporated or not, who carry on the business of banking' (Section 2, Interpretation). Although this definition seems circular, it is actually functional, because it ensures that the legal basis for bank transactions such as cheques does not depend on how the bank is organised or regulated.

The business of banking is in many English common law countries not defined by statute but by common law, the definition above. In other English common law jurisdictions there are statutory definitions of the business of banking or banking business. When looking at these definitions it is important to keep in mind that they are defining the business of banking for the purposes of the legislation, and not necessarily in general. In particular, most of the definitions are from legislation that has the purposes of entry regulating and supervising banks rather than regulating the actual business of banking. However, in many cases the statutory definition closely mirrors the common law one. Examples of statutory definitions:

"banking business" means the business of receiving money on current or deposit account, paying and collecting cheques drawn by or paid in by customers, the making of advances to customers, and includes such other business as the Authority may prescribe for the purposes of this Act; (Banking Act (Singapore), Section 2, Interpretation).
"banking business" means the business of either or both of the following:
1.receiving from the general public money on current, deposit, savings or other similar account repayable on demand or within less than [3 months] ... or with a period of call or notice of less than that period;
2.paying or collecting cheques drawn by or paid in by customers[8]
Since the advent of EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale), direct credit, direct debit and internet banking, the cheque has lost its primacy in most banking systems as a payment instrument. This has led legal theorists to suggest that the cheque based definition should be broadened to include financial institutions that conduct current accounts for customers and enable customers to pay and be paid by third parties, even if they do not pay and collect cheques.[9]


Standard activities

Banks act as payment agents by conducting checking or current accounts for customers, paying cheques drawn by customers on the bank, and collecting cheques deposited to customers' current accounts. Banks also enable customer payments via other payment methods such as telegraphic transfer, EFTPOS, and ATM.

Banks borrow money by accepting funds deposited on current accounts, by accepting term deposits, and by issuing debt securities such as banknotes and bonds. Banks lend money by making advances to customers on current accounts, by making installment loans, and by investing in marketable debt securities and other forms of money lending.

Banks provide almost all payment services, and a bank account is considered indispensable by most businesses, individuals and governments. Non-banks that provide payment services such as remittance companies are not normally considered an adequate substitute for having a bank account.

Banks borrow most funds from households and non-financial businesses, and lend most funds to households and non-financial businesses, but non-bank lenders provide a significant and in many cases adequate substitute for bank loans, and money market funds, cash management trusts and other non-bank financial institutions in many cases provide an adequate substitute to banks for lending savings to.

Wider commercial role

The commercial role of banks is not limited to banking, and includes:

issue of banknotes (promissory notes issued by a banker and payable to bearer on demand)
processing of payments by way of telegraphic transfer, EFTPOS, internet banking or other means
issuing bank drafts and bank cheques
accepting money on term deposit
lending money by way of overdraft, installment loan or otherwise
providing documentary and standby letters of credit (trade finance), guarantees, performance bonds, securities underwriting commitments and other forms of off-balance sheet exposures
safekeeping of documents and other items in safe deposit boxes
currency exchange
acting as a 'financial supermarket' for the sale, distribution or brokerage, with or without advice, of insurance, unit trusts and similar financial products


Banks offer many different channels to access their banking and other services:

A branch is a retail location
ATM is a machine that dispenses cash and sometimes takes deposits without the need for a human bank teller. Some ATMs provide additional services.
Mail: most banks accept check deposits via mail and use mail to communicate to their customers, eg by sending out statements
Telephone banking is a service which allows its customers to perform transactions over the telephone without speaking to a human
Call center
Online banking is a term used for performing transactions, payments etc. over the Internet
Mobile banking is a method of using one's mobile phone to conduct banking transactions
Video banking is a term used for performing banking transactions or professional banking consultations via a remote video and audio connection. Video banking can be performed via purpose built banking transaction machines (similar to an Automated teller machine), or via a videoconference enabled bank branch.

Business model

A bank can generate revenue in a variety of different ways including interest, transaction fees and financial advice. The main method is via charging interest on the capital it lends out to customers. The bank profits from the differential between the level of interest it pays for deposits and other sources of funds, and the level of interest it charges in its lending activities. This difference is referred to as the spread between the cost of funds and the loan interest rate. Historically, profitability from lending activities has been cyclical and dependent on the needs and strengths of loan customers and the stage of the economic cycle. Fees and financial advice constitute a more stable revenue stream and banks have therefore placed more emphasis on these revenue lines to smooth their financial performance.

In the past 20 years American banks have taken many measures to ensure that they remain profitable while responding to increasingly changing market conditions. First, this includes the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which allows banks again to merge with investment and insurance houses. Merging banking, investment, and insurance functions allows traditional banks to respond to increasing consumer demands for "one-stop shopping" by enabling cross-selling of products (which, the banks hope, will also increase profitability). Second, they have expanded the use of risk-based pricing from business lending to consumer lending, which means charging higher interest rates to those customers that are considered to be a higher credit risk and thus increased chance of default on loans. This helps to offset the losses from bad loans, lowers the price of loans to those who have better credit histories, and offers credit products to high risk customers who would otherwise been denied credit. Third, they have sought to increase the methods of payment processing available to the general public and business clients. These products include debit cards, prepaid cards, smart cards, and credit cards. They make it easier for consumers to conveniently make transactions and smooth their consumption over time (in some countries with underdeveloped financial systems, it is still common to deal strictly in cash, including carrying suitcases filled with cash to purchase a home). However, with convenience of easy credit, there is also increased risk that consumers will mismanage their financial resources and accumulate excessive debt. Banks make money from card products through interest payments and fees charged to consumers and transaction fees to companies that accept the cards. Helps in making profit and economic development as a whole.

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