The financial services sector provides financial services to people and corporations. This segment of the economy is made up of a variety of financial firms including banks, investment houses, lenders, finance companies, real estate brokers, and insurance companies. As noted above, the financial services industry is probably the most important sector of the economy, leading the world in terms of earnings and equity market capitalization. Large conglomerates dominate this sector, but it also includes a diverse range of smaller companies.
According to the finance and development department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), financial services are the processes by which consumers or businesses acquire financial goods.1 For example, a payment system provider offers a financial service when it accepts and transfers funds between payers and recipients. This includes accounts settled through credit and debit cards, checks, and electronic funds transfers.
Companies in the financial services industry manage money. For instance, a financial advisor manages assets and offers advice on behalf of a client. The advisor does not directly provide investments or any other product, rather, they facilitate the movement of funds between savers and the issuers of securities and other instruments. This service is a temporary task rather than a tangible asset.
Financial goods, on the other hand, are not tasks. They are things. A mortgage loan may seem like a service, but it's actually a product that lasts beyond the initial provision. Stocks, bonds, loans, commodity assets, real estate, and insurance policies are examples of financial goods.
The Importance of the Financial Services Sector
The financial services sector is the primary driver of a nation's economy. It provides the free flow of capital and liquidity in the marketplace. When the sector is strong, the economy grows, and companies in this industry are better able to manage risk.
The strength of the financial services sector is also important to the prosperity of a country's population. When the sector and economy are strong, consumers generally earn more. This boosts their confidence and purchasing power. When they need access to credit for large purchases, they turn to the financial services sector to borrow.
A strong financial services sector can lead to economic growth, while a failing system can drag down a nation's economy.
If the financial services sector fails, though, it can drag a country's economy down. This can lead to a recession. When the financial system starts to break down, the economy starts to suffer. Capital begins to dry up as lenders tighten the reins on lending. Unemployment rises, and wages may even drop, leading consumers to stop spending. In order to compensate, central banks lower interest rates to try to boost economic growth. This is primarily what happened during the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession.
The banking industry is the foundation of the financial services group. It is most concerned with direct saving and lending, while the financial services sector incorporates investments, insurance, the redistribution of risk, and other financial activities. Banking services are provided by large commercial banks, community banks, credit unions, and other entities.
Banks earn revenue primarily on the difference in the interest rates charged for credit accounts and the rates paid to depositors. Financial services like these primarily earn revenue through fees, commissions, and other methods like the spread on interest rates between loans and deposits.
Banking is made up of several segments—retail banking, commercial banking, and investment banking. Also known as consumer or personal banking, retail banking serves consumers rather than corporations. These banks offer financial services tailored to individuals, including checking and savings accounts, mortgages, loans, and credit cards, as well as certain investment services.
Corporate, commercial, or business banking, on the other hand, deals with small businesses and large corporations. Like retail banking, it provides account services and credit products that are tailored to the specific needs of businesses.
An investment bank typically only works with deal makers and high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs)—not the general public. These banks underwrite deals, secure access to capital markets, offer wealth management and tax advice, advise companies on mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and facilitate the buying and selling of stocks and bonds. Financial advisors and discount brokerages also occupy this niche.
Individuals may access financial markets like stocks and bonds through investment services. Brokers—either human or self-directed online services—facilitate the buying and selling of securities, taking a commission for their efforts. Financial advisors may charge an annual fee based on assets under management (AUM) and direct several trades in the pursuit of constructing and managing a well-diversified portfolio. Robo-advisors are the latest incarnation of financial advice and portfolio management, with fully automated algorithmic portfolio allocations and trade executions.
Hedge funds, mutual funds, and investment partnerships invest money in the financial markets and collect management fees in the process. These organizations require custody services for trading and servicing their portfolios, as well as legal, compliance, and marketing advice. There are also software vendors that cater to the investment fund community by developing software applications for portfolio management, client reporting, and other back-office services.
Private equity funds, venture capital providers, and angel investors supply investment capital to companies in exchange for ownership stakes or profit participation. Venture capital was especially important to technology firms in the 1990s. Much of what goes on behind the scenes in the making of big deals is attributed to this group.
Insurance is another important subsector of the financial services industry. Insurance services are available for protection against death or injury (e.g. life insurance, disability income insurance, health insurance), against property loss or damage (e.g. homeowners insurance, car insurance), or against liability or lawsuit.
In the United States, an insurance agent differs from a broker. The former is a representative of the insurance carrier, while the latter represents the insured and shops around for insurance policies. This is also the realm of the underwriter, who assesses the risk of insuring clients and also advises investment bankers on loan risk. Reinsurers are in the business of selling insurance to the insurers themselves to help protect them from catastrophic losses.
Tax and Accounting Services
The sector also includes accountants and tax filing services, currency exchange and wire transfer services, and credit card machine services and networks. It also includes debt resolution services and global payment providers such as Visa and Mastercard, as well as exchanges that facilitate stock, derivatives, and commodity trades.
Accountants ensure all financial records and statements—the balance sheet, income and loss statement, cash-flow statement, and tax return—are in line with federal laws and regulations and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Accountants also compile the information needed to prepare entries to company accounts such as the general ledger, and they document business financial transactions over time. This information is used to prepare weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual closing statements and cost accounting reports. Accountants must also resolve any discrepancies or irregularities they find in records, statements, or documented transactions. They typically observe established accounting control procedures through an accounting system or software program.
Accountants are often assigned other finance-related tasks in addition to analyzing financial records and statements. Ancillary job duties include monitoring the efficiency of accounting control procedures or software programs to ensure they are up to date with federal and state regulations. Accountants are also tasked with making recommendations to various departments or C-suite staff regarding the efficient use of company resources and procedures. These recommendations aim to provide solutions to potentially costly business financial concerns or problems. In some instances, accountants may also prepare and review invoices for customers and vendors to assist with timely payment on outstanding balances. Reconciliation of payroll, verification of contracts and orders, construction of a company budget, and the development of financial models or projections may also be part of an accountant's regular responsibilities.
In addition to these duties, accountants prepare and file taxes for companies and individuals. They analyze all company assets, income earned and paid, or anticipated expenses and liabilities to reach a total tax obligation for the year. With both company and individual tax preparation and filing, accountants are expected to provide a detailed analysis of tax efficiency or inefficiency and make recommendations for how to reduce total tax liabilities in the future.
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