What Is Retail Banking? Types and Economic Impact

How It Works and How It Affects the U.S. Economy

man writing check in bank
Retail banks provide the capital needed for the economy to grow. Photo: Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Definition: Retail banking provides financial services for families and small businesses. The three most important functions are credit, deposit and money management.

First, these banks offer consumers credit to purchase homes, cars and furniture. These include mortgages, auto loans and credit cards. The resulting consumer spending drives almost 70 percent of the U.S. economy. They provide extra liquidity to the economy this way.

Credit allows people to spend future earnings now. Retail banks also offer small business loans to entrepreneurs. These small companies create up to 65 percent of all new jobs as they grow.

Second, retail banks provide a safe place for people to deposit their money. Savings accounts, certificates of deposit and other financial products offer a better rate of return compared to stuffing their money under a mattress. Banks base their interest rates on the Fed funds rate and Treasury bond interest rates. That's why they rise and fall over time. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures most of these deposits.

Third, retail banks allow you to manage your money with checking accounts and debit cards. That means you don't have to do all your transactions with dollar bills and coins. All of this can be done online, making it an added convenience.

Types of Retail Banks

Most of America's largest banks have retail banking divisions.

These include Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup. Retail banking makes up to 50-60 percent of these banks' total revenue.

There are many smaller community banks as well. They focus on building relationships with the people in their local towns, cities and regions. They usually have less than $1 billion in total assets.

Credit unions are another type of retail bank. They restrict services to employees of companies or schools. They operate as non-profits. That means they can offer better terms to savers and borrowers because they aren't as focused on profitability as the bigger banks.

Savings and loans are retail banks that target mortgages. They've almost disappeared since the 1989 Savings and Loans Crisis

Lastly, Sharia banking conforms to the Islamic prohibition against interest rates. So borrowers share their profits with the bank instead of paying interest. This policy helped Islamic banks avoid the 2008 financial crisis. They didn't invest in risky derivatives. These banks cannot invest in alcohol, tobacco and gambling businesses. (Source: “Sharing in Risk and Reward,” Global Finance, June 01, 2008.  “Islamic Finance Is Seeing Spectacular Growth,” International Herald Tribune, November 05, 2007)

How Retail Banks Work

Retail banks use the depositors' funds to give out loans. They make money by charging higher interest rates on loans than they pay on deposits. 

The Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank, regulates most retail banks. Except for the smallest banks, it requires all other banks to keep around 10 percent of their deposits in reserve each night.

They are free to lend out the rest. At the end of each day, banks that are short of the Fed's reserve requirement borrow from other banks to make up for the shortfall. This amount borrowed is called the fed funds

How They Affect the U.S. Economy and You

Retail banks create the supply of money in the economy. Since the Fed only requires them to keep 10 percent of deposits on hand, they loan out the remaining 90 percent. Each dollar lent out goes to the borrower's bank account. That bank then lends 90percent of this money, which goes into another bank account. That's how a bank creates $9 for every dollar you deposit.

As you can imagine, this is a powerful tool for economic expansion. To ensure proper conduct, the Fed controls this as well. It sets the interest rate banks use to lend fed funds to each other.

That's called the fed funds rate. That's the most important interest rate in the world. Why? Banks set all other interest rates against it. If the Fed funds rate moves higher, so do all other rates.

Most retail banks sold off their mortgages to large banks in the secondary market. For this reason, and because they had large deposits, they were primarily spared from the banking credit crisis of 2007

Retail Banking History

Before the 1980s, banks were highly regulated. Much of this came about in response to the 1929 stock market crash. In the 1930s, the Glass-Steagall Act prohibited retail banks from using deposits to fund risky stock market purchases. 

Bank also could not operate across state lines. Retail banks could not use their depositors' funds for investments other than lending. They often could not raise interest rates. During the 1970s, these banks lost business as double-digit inflation made customers withdraw deposits. Retail banks' paltry interest rates weren't enough of a reward for people to save. Banks cried out to Congress for deregulation.

The 1980 Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act allowed banks to operate across state lines. Large banks began gobbling up small ones. In 1998, Nations Bank bought Bank of America to become the first nationwide bank. The other banks soon followed. That consolidation created the four national banking giants in operation today.

It also allowed banks to raise interest rates on deposits and loans. In fact, it overrode state limits on interest rates. Banks no longer had to direct a portion of their funds towards specific industries, such as home mortgages. They could instead use their funds in a wide range of loans, including commercial investments.

The Fed lowered its reserve requirements. That gave banks more money to lend, but it also increased risk. To compensate depositors, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation raised its limit from $40,000 to $100,000 savings. (Source: "Financial Industry Deregulation in the 1980s," Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Economic Perspectives, Vol. 9, No. September/October, 1985.)

In 1982, President Reagan signed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act. It removed restrictions on loan-to-value ratios for Savings and Loan banks. It also allowed these banks to invest in risky real estate ventures. By 1995,  more than half of them had failed. The Savings and Loan Crisis cost $160 billion.

In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed Glass-Steagall. It allowed banks to invest in even riskier ventures. They promised to restrict themselves to low-risk securities. That would diversify their portfolios and lower risk. But as competition increased, even traditional banks invested in risky derivatives to increase profit and shareholder value.

That risk destroyed many banks during the 2008 financial crisis. That changed retail banking again. Losses from derivatives forced many banks out of business. In 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. It prevented banks from using depositor funds for their own investments. They had to sell any hedge funds they owned. It also required banks to verify borrowers' income to make sure they could afford loans. 

All these extra factors forced banks to cut costs. They closed rural branch banks. They relied more on ATMs and less on tellers. They focused on personal services to high net worth clients, and began charging more fees to everyone else. (Source: "A Brief History of Retail Banking," The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2017.)