Investment banking

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Investment banks help companies and governments and their agencies to raise money by issuing and selling securities in the primary market. They assist public and private corporations in raising funds in the capital markets (both equity and debt), as well as in providing strategic advisory services for mergers, acquisitions and other types of financial transactions.

Investment banks also act as intermediaries in trading for clients. Investment banks differ from commercial banks, which take deposits and make commercial and retail loans. In recent years, however, the lines between the two types of structures have blurred, especially as commercial banks have offered more investment banking services. In the US, the Glass-Steagall Act, initially created in the wake of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, prohibited banks from both accepting deposits and underwriting securities; Glass-Steagall was repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999. Investment banks may also differ from brokerages, which in general assist in the purchase and sale of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. However some firms operate as both brokerages and investment banks; this includes some of the best known financial services firms in the world.

In the strictest definition, investment banking is the raising of funds, both in debt and equity, and the division handling this in an investment bank is often called the "Investment Banking Division" (IBD). However, only a few small firms solely provide this service. Almost all investment banks are heavily involved in providing additional financial services for clients, such as the trading of fixed income, foreign exchange, commodity, and equity securities. It is therefore acceptable to refer to both the "Investment Banking Division" and other 'front office' divisions such as "Fixed Income" as part of "investment banking," and any employee involved in either side as an "investment banker." Furthermore, one who engages in these activities in-house at a non-investment bank is also considered an investment banker. That said, many if not most IBD employees consider the title of Investment Banker reserved to them alone and bristle at self-referential use of this title by employees of other IB divisions, especially those engaged in Sales & Trading.

More commonly used today to characterize what was traditionally termed "investment banking" is "sell side." This is trading securities for cash or securities (i.e., facilitating transactions, market-making), or the promotion of securities (i.e. underwriting, research, etc.).

The "buy side" constitutes the pension funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, and the investing public who consume the products and services of the sell-side in order to maximize their return on investment. Many firms have both buy and sell side components.

Generally speaking, those on the sell side are engaged in persuading those on the buy side. As such, it is sometimes considered to be more desirable to be on the buy side, since discretionary control over decisions lies with them. This said, it is not necessarily the case that the buy side is more personally lucrative than the sell side. As with most other endeavors, financial rewards await those who through luck or skill identify opportunity, regardless of whether they are selling or buying.

Organizational structure of an investment bank

The main activities and units

The primary function of an investment bank is buying and selling products both on behalf of the bank's clients and also for the bank itself. Banks undertake risk through proprietary trading, done by a special set of traders who do not interface with clients and through Principal Risk, risk undertaken by a trader after he or she buys or sells a product to a client and does not hedge his or her total exposure. Banks seek to maximize profitability for a given amount of risk on their balance sheet.

An investment bank is split into the so-called Front Office, Middle Office and Back Office. The individual activities are described below:

Front Office

  • Investment Banking is the traditional aspect of investment banks which involves helping customers raise funds in the Capital Markets and advising on mergers and acquisitions. Investment bankers prepare idea pitches that they bring to meetings with their clients, with the expectation that their effort will be rewarded with a mandate when the client is ready to undertake a transaction. Once mandated, an investment bank is responsible for preparing all materials necessary for the transaction as well as the execution of the deal, which may involve subscribing investors to a security issuance, coordinating with bidders, or negotiating with a merger target. Other terms for the Investment Banking Division include Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) and Corporate Finance (often pronounced "corpfin").
  • Investment management is the professional management of various securities (shares, bonds etc) and other assets (e.g. real estate), to meet specified investment goals for the benefit of the investors. Investors may be institutions (insurance companies, pension funds, corporations etc.) or private investors (both directly via investment contracts and more commonly via collective investment schemes eg. mutual funds) .
  • Financial Markets is split into four key divisions: Sales, Trading, Research and Structuring.
    • Sales and Trading is often the most profitable area of an investment bank, responsible for the majority of revenue of most investment banks. In the process of market making, traders will buy and sell financial products with the goal of making an incremental amount of money on each trade. Sales is the term for the investment banks sales force, whose primary job is to call on institutional and high-net-worth investors to suggest trading ideas (on caveat emptor basis) and take orders. Sales desks then communicate their clients' orders to the appropriate trading desks, who can price and execute trades, or structure new products that fit a specific need.
    • Research is the division which reviews companies and writes reports about their prospects, often with "buy" or "sell" ratings. While the research division generates no revenue, its resources are used to assist traders in trading, the sales force in suggesting ideas to customers, and investment bankers by covering their clients. In recent years the relationship between investment banking and research has become highly regulated, reducing its importance to the investment bank.
    • Structuring has been a relatively recent division as derivatives have come into play, with highly technical and numerate employees working on creating complex structured products which typically offer much greater margins and returns than underlying cash securities.

Middle Office

  • Risk Management involves analysing the market and credit risk that traders are taking onto the balance sheet in conducting their daily trades, and setting limits on the amount of capital that they are able to trade in order to prevent 'bad' trades having a detrimental effect to a desk overall. Another key Middle Office role is to ensure that the above mentioned economic risks are captured accurately (as per agreement of commercial terms with the counterparty) correctly (as per standardised booking models in the most appropriate systems) and on time (typically within 30 minutes of trade execution). In recent years the risk of errors has become known as "operational risk" and the assurance Middle Offices provide now include measures to address this risk. When this assurance is not in place, market and credit risk analysis can be unreliable and open to deliberate manipulation.

Back Office

  • Operations involves data-checking trades that have been conducted, ensuring that they are not erroneous, and transacting the required transfers. While it provides the greatest job security of the divisions within an investment bank, it is a critical part of the bank that involves managing the financial information of the bank and ensures efficient capital markets through the financial reporting function. The staff in these areas are often highly qualified and need to understand in depth the deals and transactions that occur across all the divisions of the bank. .


  • Every major investment bank has considerable amounts of in-house software, created by the Technology team, who are also responsible for Computer and Telecommunications-based support. Technology has changed considerably in the last few years as more sales and trading desks are using electronic trading platforms. These platforms can serve as auto-executed hedging to complex model driven algorithms...

Size of industry

Global investment banking revenue increased for the third year running in 2005, to $52.8bn. This was up 14% on the previous year, but 7% below the 2000 peak. The recovery in the global economy and capital markets resulted in an increase in M&A activity, which has been the primary source of investment banking revenue in recent years. Credit spreads are tightening and intense competition within the field has ensured that the banking industry is on its toes.

The US was the primary source of investment banking income in 2005, with 51% of the total, a proportion which has fallen somewhat during the past decade. Europe (with Middle East and Africa) generated 31% of the total, slightly up on its 30% share a decade ago. Asian countries generated the remaining 18%. Between 2002 and 2005, fee income from Asia increased by 98%. This compares with a 55% increase in Europe, and a 46% increase in the US, during this time period.

Recent evolution of the business

New products

Investment banking is one of the most global industries and is hence continuously challenged to respond to new developments and innovation in the global financial markets. Throughout the history of investment banking, many have theorized that all investment banking products and services would be commoditized. New products with higher margins are constantly invented and manufactured by bankers in hopes of winning over clients and developing trading know-how in new markets. However, since these can usually not be patented or copyrighted, they are very often copied quickly by competing banks, pushing down trading margins.

For example, trading bonds and equities for customers is now a commodity business, but structuring and trading derivatives is highly profitable. Each OTC contract has to be uniquely structured and could involve complex pay-off and risk profiles. Listed option contracts are traded through major exchanges, such as the CBOE, and are almost as commoditized as general equity securities.

In addition, while many products have been commoditized, an increasing amount of profit within investment banks has come from proprietary trading, where size creates a positive network benefit (since the more trades an investment bank does, the more it knows about the market flow, allowing it to theoretically make better trades and pass on better guidance to clients).

Vertical Integration

Another trend in Investment Banking at the dawn of the 21st century has been the vertical integration of debt securitization. Previously, investment banks had assisted lenders in raising more lending funds and having the ability to offer longer term fixed interest rates by converting the lenders' outstanding loans into bonds. For example, a mortgage lender would make a house loan, and then use the investment bank to sell bonds to fund the debt, the money from the sale of the bonds can be used to make new loans, while the lender accepts loan payments and passes the payments on to the bondholders. This process is called securitization. However, lenders have begun to securitize loans themselves, especially in the areas of mortgage loans. Because of this, and because of the fear that this will continue, many Investment Banks have focused on becoming lenders themselves, making loans with the goal of securitizing them. In fact, in the areas of commercial mortgages, many Investment Banks lend at loss leader interest rates in order to make money securitizing the loans, causing them to be a very popular financing option for commercial property investors and developers.

Possible conflicts of interest

Potential conflicts of interest may arise between different parts of a bank, creating the potential for financial movements that could be market manipulation. Authorities that regulate investment banking (the FSA in the United Kingdom and the SEC in the United States) require that banks impose a Chinese wall which prohibits communication between investment banking on one side and research and equities on the other.

Some of the conflicts of interest that can be found in investment banking are listed here:

  • Historically, equity research firms were founded and owned by investment banks. One common practice is for equity analysts to initiate coverage on a company in order to develop relationships that lead to highly profitable investment banking business. In the 1990s, many equity researchers allegedly traded positive stock ratings directly for investment banking business. On the flip side of the coin: companies would threaten to divert investment banking business to competitors unless their stock was rated favorably. Politicians acted to pass laws to criminalize such acts. Increased pressure from regulators and a series of lawsuits, settlements, and prosecutions curbed this business to a large extent following the 2001 stock market tumble.
  • Many investment banks also own retail brokerages. Also during the 1990s, some retail brokerages sold consumers securities which did not meet their stated risk profile. This behaviour may have led to investment banking business or even sales of surplus shares during a public offering to keep public perception of the stock favorable.
  • Since investment banks engage heavily in trading for their own account, there is always the temptation or possibility that they might engage in some form of front running.

Investment banks

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