National Commercial Banks

SIC 6021

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This classification includes commercial bank and trust companies (accepting deposits) chartered under the National Bank Act. Trust companies engaged in fiduciary business but not regularly engaged in deposit banking are classified in SIC 6091: Nondeposit Trust Facilities.

Industry Snapshot

Commercial banking was among the first industries to develop in the United States. Subject to a convoluted set of regulations at the state and federal levels, the banking industry is broad in scope and complex in nature. Modern commercial banks provide both individual and corporate customers with an increasing number of financial services. Innovations in this industry in the late twentieth century included the introduction of credit cards, accounting services for corporate firms, factoring, leasing, trade in Eurodollars, lock box banking, and security investment. Banks constantly seek to improve service to customers by expanding the quality and number of their services.

Commercial banks perform at least eight major functions in the U.S. economy. First, banks facilitate the elastic credit system that is necessary for economic progress and steady growth. Second, they allow the efficient transfer of money between firms and individuals. Third, they encourage the pooling of savings, making these savings available for lending. Fourth, banks extend credit to credit-worthy borrowers, increasing production and capital investment. Fifth, banks facilitate the financing of foreign trade by converting various currencies. Sixth, they act as trust administrators and advisors. Seventh, they aid in the safekeeping of valuables. Finally, since 1999, banks have been allowed to engage in brokering activities, buying and selling securities for customers.

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), 6,676 national commercial banks employed nearly 1.9 million people in the United States in 2010. As the second decade of the twenty-first century began, the industry was in the midst of a major overhaul, and many of the commercial banks that thrived in the 2000s no longer existed.

Organization and Structure

The National Bank Act of 1863 created the basis for the first national U.S. banking system and continued to serve as the basic banking law for American national banks. The act was originally created to provide a uniform national currency backed by U.S. government bonds that would replace the various currencies issued by state banks and other forms of exchange that were then in use. The original plan for the national banking system was outlined by Salmon Chase, the secretary of the treasury, in 1861.

National banks are chartered and supervised by the Comptroller of the Currency of the United States. The charters issued by the comptroller are of indefinite duration. Upon the submission of an application, a national bank examiner in the region where the proposed national bank will be located initiates an investigation of the bank, focusing on the character and experience of the organizers, existing banking facilities, and prospects for success. A national bank must meet certain capitalization requirements depending on its location and cannot begin operation until it has paid-in surplus equal to 20 percent of its capital. The examiner puts the capital and paid-in surplus of each bank to an "adequacy" test that subjects each potential bank to criteria based on established minimal capitalization levels and analysis of local conditions. If the application is accepted, the Comptroller of the Currency issues the necessary documentation to the bank and, eventually, a certificate to commence business.

All national banks are required to be members of the Federal Reserve bank of their district and to invest in the capital stock of the bank as required by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which requires that 6 percent of the national bank's capital and surplus must be pledged and 3 percent deposited as payment. National banks are further required to be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

National banks have 20 enumerated, general powers, which are effective upon the execution and filing of the articles of association and the organization certificate. Such powers include the obvious--receiving and loaning money--as well as the obscure--providing travel services for customers. National banks are granted general corporate powers, which include making contracts, suing and being sued, electing and appointing directors, and prescribing bylaws. They are also allowed to establish branch offices in the United States and abroad, under specified conditions. They conduct a range of activities involving real estate, U.S. government securities, the establishment of trusts, and other financial activities. Such broadly construed powers enable national banks to engage in far more than strictly commercial banking.

Commercial banks may be classified as either unit or branch banks. In the United States, unlike other countries, banks of both types exist. Historically, however, unit banking has been the most common. Under unit banking, services are provided by a single office or institution. The system of unit banking is the product of an earlier American social and economic structure in which a single local bank could serve the needs of a relatively small and insular town. As communication became more efficient and the economic environment became more complex and interdependent, however, branch banking became dominant in many areas of the country. Branch banking is a system under which a single banking firm operates at two or more locations. There are different degrees of branch banking across the country. In general, the more densely populated areas, such as the East and West coasts, adopted branch banking, while more sparsely populated areas maintained unit banking.

Despite the increasingly relaxed regulatory climate, the banking industry is one of the most regulated parts of the U.S. financial system. The industry operates under the supervision of three regulatory agencies: the Federal Reserve System, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The Federal Reserve System, created in 1913, is the central bank of the United States and is responsible for monetary policy. Its operations are carried out by its twelve regional banks. The OCC has wide discretionary authority, which it uses in routine examinations of all national banks' books to identify unsafe or unsound banking practices. This agency is the most involved with national bank regulation. The OCC has the authority to take any actions necessary to correct the conditions resulting from violations of law or sound and safe banking practices. Finally, the FDIC was created to reduce the risk of making deposits by insuring the deposits of member banks, both national and state.

Background and Development

The first incorporated commercial bank in North America was opened in Philadelphia on January 7, 1782, one week after the Continental Congress granted a perpetual charter to the Bank of North America. This bank was intended to be a pillar of American credit that would play a significant role in the financial management of the fledgling republic. The number of banks in the United States grew exponentially in the early nineteenth century. By 1816 there were 246 banks in the United States and, by 1840, there were three times as many as there had been in 1820. Between 1840 and 1860, this number again doubled, to 1,500.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, both the North and the South had well-developed banking, but the systems were decentralized. Before the war, banking policy was controlled by the individual states. However, the war strengthened the central government and began a new era in banking. In 1863 the government crafted legislation giving the federal government powers to regulate banking. For the first time, the nation had a uniform bank currency controlled by a central authority. This step marked the beginning of what is called the "dual banking system," which consists of banks chartered by the states and other banks chartered by the federal government.

The existence of a strong federal banking structure after the Civil War underlay the explosion of productive capability that characterized the United States in the late nineteenth century. Yet, while a dependable money supply aided economic expansion, it also prompted distrust of those controlling the flow of money. By the end of the nineteenth century, reformers looked to further banking legislation to smooth economic turmoil. In 1913 the Federal Reserve Act created the system of Federal Reserve banks. The Federal Reserve Act was created to bring stability to commerce and industry, prevent financial panics, make commercial credit available, and discourage speculating by banks. Although this legislation was initially opposed by bankers, the Federal Reserve has since developed into a cornerstone of the current banking system.

Despite improved supervision and economic prosperity, nearly one-quarter of the banks operating in the mid-1920s had closed by the end of the decade. Between 1921 and 1929, more than 5,700 banks closed, far exceeding the total for the previous 56 years. After the stock market crash in 1929, banks continued to close at an alarming rate. The rampant failure of banks led to the implementation of a deposit insurance program created by the Banking Act of 1933, or the Glass-Steagall Act. One important part of this legislation was the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guaranteed the deposits of investors up to a certain limit. The Glass-Steagall Act also created the distinction between commercial and investment banking. Commercial banks were prohibited from underwriting securities, engaging in the stock market, and a host of other activities that legislators felt had contributed to the financial crisis. Commercial banks were to focus on accepting deposits and providing commercial loans. The act also built on long-standing distrust in the United States of centralized monetary institutions by regulating and restricting bank branching.

After 1945, U.S. banks began to expand their operations to encompass a wide range of financial services. In the 1960s, banks began to represent themselves as "full-service banks," indicating their involvement in a growing range of financial activities, as regulatory constraints were relaxed. This trend toward deregulation continued throughout the second half of the twentieth century. After 1965, banks began to expand into foreign markets, while foreign banks also began to gain footholds in the United States.

Commercial banking assumed an increasingly international posture through the late twentieth century. In 1965, thirteen U.S. banks maintained operations abroad, controlling $10 billion in assets; by 1980 the number had grown to 159, holding assets of $340 billion. However, U.S. creditors began to realize in the early 1980s that they had overextended themselves in emerging markets, as foreign borrowers failed to service their debts, resulting in massive losses. Not until the early 1990s were commercial banks confident about lending in such markets again. U.S. bank assets held $861 billion in foreign assets in 1998, while 82 banks maintained foreign branch offices, down significantly from the 162 in 1985.

In February 1993 the General Accounting Office (GAO) announced that despite the extensive bureaucracy, the federal government did a poor job of examining the books of banks and thrift. The Treasury Department suggested that the fundamental changes needed in the banking industry required thorough reconsideration of the foundations of the financial system, including the scope and operation of the federal deposit insurance system, the nature of bank supervision and regulation, and bank and nonbank affiliations. Four broad principles to guide the reform process were proposed by the Treasury Department, which suggested that banks should preserve deposit insurance for small depositors, but protect taxpayers by exposing large depositors to some risk; create a system of incentives and sanctions that encourages higher levels of capital; allow banks to engage in a broader range of business activities and to operate nationwide; and make the regulatory structure more efficient to strengthen the banking system.

In 1994, the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act eliminated most of the remaining regulatory barriers impeding interstate banking activity. The act unleashed a massive reorganization of banking structures. Previously, banks maintained separate subsidiaries in states other than those in which they were headquartered. With the passage of Riegle-Neal, banks could organize all their operations under one institution with separate branches across state lines, enabling more streamlined networks and diversification of product lines. In the first six months after the bill's passage, the number of interstate branches of U.S. commercial banks more than doubled.

The reach of large national commercial banks expanded rapidly, moving across state and national borders and swallowing smaller banks that found it increasingly difficult to remain profitable in the face of competition from their more leveraged competitors. The fiercely competitive market forced banking institutions to offer a greater range of services and to "out-local" the national banks, "out-national" the local banks, or both. By 1998 roughly 25 percent of all commercial banking assets were controlled by institutions with operations in more than one state. The control of assets likewise gravitated toward the largest national banks. The largest 100 commercial banks maintained about 70 percent of domestic banking assets in 1998, up from 50 percent in 1980. Small community banks, however, managed to hold their own in their localized markets.

The passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act, repealed the Glass-Steagall Act late in 1999, capping a 20-year effort by lobbyists. The law allowed banks to engage in a range of activities prohibited since the Great Depression. By establishing financial holding companies (FHCs), banks could establish brokerages, insurance operations, and other financial service offerings in addition to their traditional banking activities all under one institution. The ruling sparked additional merger activity, especially across financial sectors. Bank of America, for instance, took advantage of the opening to become the first bank to reorganize its insurance operations from an operating subsidiary to a financial subsidiary, relocating it to the bank's headquarters. To establish a FHC, national banks were required to meet the following criteria: they had to be considered well capitalized, determined by a ratio of at least 10 percent total capital to risk-adjusted assets, as evaluated by the Federal Reserve; receive a satisfactory rating under the Community Reinvestment Act; and show that aggregate, consolidated assets of all the banks' financial subsidiaries amounted to either less than $50 billion or 45 percent of the banks' total assets, whichever was lower.

While the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was certainly a landmark piece of legislation, banks' nonbanking activities had been extensive for years. The Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 was filled with loopholes, particularly Regulations K and Y, which allowed banks to invest in nonbanking institutions through small business investment companies (SBICs). Moreover, in the years leading up to the new law, federal regulators had become so lenient in interpreting legal loopholes that the Glass-Steagall Act, meant specifically to prevent combinations between banks that lend money and Wall Street brokers in the business of offering corporate securities to the public, was nearly meaningless. Nonetheless, the Gramm bill did fuel further consolidation in the financial services industries.

Numerous banks in the 2000s took advantage of the Gramm legislation. Although only 600 in number in 2004, over half of the nation's largest banks (with assets in excess of $10 billion) had elected to become FHCs. By the mid-2000s, FHCs controlled more than 75 percent of all bank holding company assets. The top FHCs in 2005 were Citigroup, Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Company, Wells Fargo, and Wachovia Corporation.

The frenetic pace of industry consolidation that had characterized the 1990s began to slow in the 2000s, partly because the number of players had dropped so considerably. Indicative of the massive consolidation of financial services in the United States, there were 7,350 commercial banks in operation in June 2007, down from 8,129 in 2002 and down dramatically from 18,769 at the end of 1975. The number of new banks established had also dropped to 122 in 2004 compared to 217 in 2000. The number of new banks increased in 2007 to 191, the most since 2000. While consolidation had slowed, major deals continued to take place, including the merger between Chase Manhattan and J. P. Morgan and Company Inc., which created J. P. Morgan Chase and Co., the second-largest bank in the United States. U.S. Bank and Firstar Bank also completed a merger, creating U.S. Bancorp, the eighth-largest financial services holding company in the United States.

In 2001, in an effort to stimulate a lagging economy, the Federal Reserve began cutting interest rates, which in turn stimulated the housing market. The number of houses sold and the prices of houses rose dramatically in 2002. In addition, scores of Americans took the opportunity to refinance their homes to the lower interest rates. In 2004, construction lending was up by more than 25 percent and home equity loans jumped more than 40 percent. The Federal Reserve reported a total of 5,863 bank holding companies (BHCs) in operation, which controlled 6,235 insured commercial banks and held about 96 percent of all commercial bank assets.

Many of these so-called subprime mortgages were packaged and sold as bundled securities to investors on Wall Street. The resulting profitability of mortgages encouraged banks to loosen lending standards and grant mortgages to even more consumers, including those with little or questionable credit. In addition, exporting much of the risk of mortgages to investors freed up capital for banks, and they started to offer very low adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), which allowed consumers that may not be able to afford to by a home to buy one with a low mortgage payment.

However, in 2006 the housing market stalled, and interest rates started to rise as the price of houses fell. Many of the ARMs granted earlier started to be reset at higher rates, resulting in large increases in many Americans' house payment. Many were not able to make this higher payment and defaulted on their loans. The investment packages that had been so popular earlier in the decade began to lose their appeal. Also, because large investors were in charge of thousands of these home loans, "negotiations over late mortgage payments were bypassed for the 'direct-to-foreclosure' model of an investor looking to cut his losses," according to Investopedia writer Ryan Barnes, and foreclosures increased to record highs. In addition, "Scores of mortgage lenders--with no more eager secondary markets or investment banks to sell their loans into--were cut off from what had become a main funding source and were forced to shut down operations". The FDIC reported 25 bank failures in 2008 and 140 in 2009. By comparison, two and three banks failed in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Some commercial banks struggled to stay above water by calling for help with troubled loans. For example, Carlton Advisory Services in New York was hired by commercial banks and Wall Street firms in November 2007 to assist with the marketing and sale of more than $1 billion in troubled real estate loans. The loans were primarily from failed condominium and development projects in the Southeast, subperforming residential mortgages, and small-balance commercial mortgages across the country. Sales included a $112 million nonperforming development loan portfolio on behalf of a top-25 bank, a $106 million nonperforming development portfolio on behalf of a top-35 bank, a $35 million residential subprime loan portfolio on behalf of a bank, a $21 million nonperforming loan secured by a first lien on a condominium conversion project on behalf of a top-30 BHC, and a $16.5 million nonperforming mezzanine loan pertaining to a condominium conversion for one of the country's top 15 BHCs.

Some of the banks that did survive incurred huge losses--Citigroup, for example, reported in 2007 that it would write off up to $11 billion worth of subprime mortgage-related securities. In response, banks started to restrict lending, which in turn made fewer funds available to the American consumer and contributed to the economic recession of the late 2000s.

In 2008, the U.S. government passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, also referred to as the bailout of the U.S. financial services industry. Provisions of the Act included the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which allowed the U.S. Department of the Treasury to purchase or insure up to $700 billion of "troubled assets" related to subprime mortgages from financial institutions. Another attempt to promote economic recovery came in 2009 from the U.S. Treasury Department with the implementation of the Financial Stability Plan.

Current Conditions

In 2009 assets of all commercial banks in the United States reached $14.1 trillion, up from $14.0 trillion in 2008. By 2010, some claimed a recovery in the banking industry had begun. According to the FDIC, insured institutions experienced profits of $21.6 billion in the second quarter of 2010, up $26 billion from the $4.4 billion net loss recorded in the second quarter of 2009. About 20 percent of institutions reported a loss in the quarter, as compared to 29 percent in the same period of 2009. In addition, net charge-offs totaled $49 billion, representing the first year-over-year decline since the fourth quarter of 2006. Despite these positive figures, banks continued to shut down. According to the FDIC, 132 banks had failed in 2010 as of mid-October.

In 2010, the banking industry was preparing to deal with the implications of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on July 21. The Act called for a massive overhaul of financial services regulation. The legislation was "expected to result in at least 243 new formal rulemakings by at least 11 federal agencies, including some new entities," according to Iowa Banking Law. Some of the changes included the creation of a Financial Stability Oversight Council and an Office of Financial Research, meant to oversee large BHCs; the establishment of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to enhance and oversee consumer rights issues; the reduction of total TARP spending from $700 billion to $475 billion; and new record-keeping requirements for hedge funds, among many other provisions. Industry participants as well as informed consumers were divided about whether the Act would benefit the U.S. financial industry.

Industry Leaders

While the number of national banks is quite large, there are several recognized leaders in terms of size of deposits and range of services. These industry leaders include Bank of America Corp., JP Morgan Chase and Co., Citigroup, and Wells Fargo.

Bank of America Corp., formed by the merger of San Francisco, California-based BankAmerica Corp. and Charlotte, North Carolina-based NationsBank Corp., was the largest BHC in 2010, based on assets, which totaled $1.78 trillion on June 2010. The bank is heavily involved in commercial banking, savings, trusts, safe deposit, and installment credit. It operates more than 5,900 branches across 40 states, as well as the District of Columbia and several foreign subsidiaries in Europe and Latin America. Bank of America purchased Merrill Lynch for approximately $50 billion in stock in 2010. The company employed 284,000 people and reported 2009 revenues of $150.1 billion.

JPMorgan Chase and Co. operated the second-largest U.S. bank in 2010, with assets of $1.71 trillion. It was formed in 2001 via the merger of investment firm J. P. Morgan and Company Inc. and Chase Manhattan Corp. Chase Manhattan had emerged when Chemical Bank purchased Chase Manhattan in 1996. At the time, the combined entity was the largest commercial bank in the United States with approximately $300 billion in pro forma assets. In 2010, JPMorgan Chase operated about 5,100 branches in more than 24 states. The firm reported revenues of $115.6 billion in 2009 with 222,316 employees. In 2004, the company laid out stock worth $60 billion to purchase BANKONE. Purchases in 2008 included Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.

New York-based Citigroup Inc. was originally organized in New York in 1812. Its Citibank subsidiary was chartered under the National Banking Act in 1865. The bank conducts general banking business, including retail and wholesale operation, and operates an extensive international network covering more than 140 countries. Citigroup became the first U.S. bank to record total assets of more than $1 trillion and in 2010 held assets of $1.32 trillion. Citigroup restructured into two primary segments--the regional consumer and institutional banking units of Citicorp and the brokerage and consumer finance units of Citi Holdings--after suffering $90 billion in losses as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis. In 2009, Citigroup had 269,000 employees and revenues of $108.0 billion.

Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco operated about 6,600 branches in 40 states and was one of the top residential mortgage lenders in 2010. Wells Fargo doubled its size in 2008 when it purchased Wachovia. Assets as of June 2010 totaled $1.13 trillion. With 281,000 employees, Wells Fargo recorded revenues of $98.6 billion in 2009.


The entire banking industry employed about 1.9 million people in 2008, with about 74 percent of the jobs in commercial banks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 85 percent of establishments in banking employed fewer than 20 workers.

America and the World

Despite the intense consolidation, the U.S. banking industry remains highly fragmented when compared with other industrialized nations. However, even among those nations that already rely heavily on central banking institutions, U.S.-style consolidation remained the order of the day. The globalization of financial markets was largely responsible for this development, since typically only larger, more leveraged institutions were able to compete in overseas markets. The increasingly liquid global financial markets invited the deregulated industries to tap into new markets abroad.

The most popular entity for international banking among U.S. national banks was the foreign branch office, which maintained full access to its parent bank's capital when making lending decisions, rather than being restricted by its host country to its own balance sheet. However, in many cases, foreign tax laws or other considerations relating to the host country favored the establishment of foreign subsidiaries, legally separate entities that were responsible for, and limited to, their own asset holdings, even though they were wholly or partially owned by the parent bank. Foreign subsidiaries also shielded the parent bank from liabilities accrued by the foreign operation.

The share of U.S. bank assets booked in foreign offices was down to about 12 percent at the end of 2009, and most of these assets were held by the largest banks. According to CBC Money Watch, "lending and derivatives activities outstanding in Asia were about 12 percent of total foreign exposure, or 35 percent of total tier 1 capital," whereas the Latin American/Caribbean region and a select group of European countries (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) each had about 25 percent of total tier 1 capital.

Research and Technology

As the banking industry became ever more complex, banks around the world began to adopt new technologies and automation. Much of the investment in the 1990s was for automatic teller machines (ATMs), teller workstations, check processing equipment, and related software. Electronic check presentment (ECP), was also a major development in 2000, as was online banking. With increased emphasis on the electronic transfer of funds, however, banks were forced to invest heavily in security systems. Security spending for electronic systems such as firewalls and encryption systems skyrocketed.

In 2003, for the first time, the number of electronic payments processed through U.S. banks was greater than the number of checks, and this trend continued into the 2010s. The transition to online banking, bill pay, and increasing use of debit cards required banks to spend millions each year to upgrade and expand their technology infrastructure to accommodate the influx of electronic-based transactions. According to Bank Systems & Technology, of the 95 million U.S. households that used the Internet in 2010, 72.5 million participated in online banking and 36.4 million used online bill pay. These figures represented an increased participation rate of 84 percent in online banking and 78 percent in online bill pay since 2000. Geoff Knapp of Online Banking and Consumer Insights stated that "The face of online bill payment has changed significantly over the last decade. Early users were tech-savvy and tended to be young and male, as is typical with new technology. Now it's moms and seniors and people at all income levels using the service. Online bill payment has become mainstream, and there's still room to grow."

Another rapidly expanding area in the banking industry involved "mobile banking." According to Gartner's "Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2011", by the end of 2010, 1.2 billion people will carry handsets such as cell phones s capable of performing bank transactions. Figures from research firm IDC showed that mobile banking use nearly doubled between mid-2009 and mid-2010. Jeff Dennes, executive director of USAA, summed up the situation in a September 2010 Banking & Technology article: "Payments are absolutely going to the mobile device. When that happens is anybody's guess. But your wallet at some point will be in your mobile device." As the mobile trend surged ahead, banks struggled to keep up with the technology and maintain some level of profitability.

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