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What is Investment Banking?

by Lucas Finis
What is Investment Banking?

Investment banking is a vast sector that includes a variety of financial services aimed at facilitating transactions, business acquisitions and mergers, corporate restructuring, and capital financing operations. Investment banks function as mediators for investors and firms, raising funds and providing advice services.

Commercial banks provide deposits, loans, and basic financial services to consumers and small businesses, whereas investment banks generally serve major firms, wealthy customers, pension funds, and other institutional investors. Their responsibilities include underwriting new security issuance, creating markets, trading securities, and advising on mergers and acquisitions.

In this article, we will examine the main business areas and roles of investment banks. We’ll explore their services, how transactions are structured, common revenue sources, and career opportunities. We’ll also discuss current trends and topics impacting the industry. By understanding investment banking at a fundamental level, one gains insight into capital markets and how large corporations access financing.

Origins and Evolution

Some of the earliest examples of investment banking date back to Italy in the 15th-16th centuries as financial intermediaries helped fund government war debts. In the 1800s, the Gold Rush and emerging railroad companies in the United States fueled greater demand for capital raising beyond individual or family sources.

Investment Banking
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This gave birth to full-service banks in Europe and America, which financed public stock offerings while providing commercial banking services. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 eventually separated these functions, preventing conventional deposit-taking banks from directly engaging in securities transactions.

The late twentieth century saw fast globalization and innovative financial products. This resulted in the eventual elimination of Glass-Steagall restrictions and the expansion of huge, internationally integrated investment banks that provide comprehensive consulting, funding, and trading services to corporate and institutional customers.

Key Business Lines

Investment banks generate revenue through several core business lines including mergers & acquisitions (M&A) advisory, equity and debt underwriting, sales and trading, private placements, and lending. Let’s look more closely at some of the main areas:

  • M&A Advisory: Banks provide strategic advisory and support for mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, leveraged buyouts, and other corporate restructuring transactions.
  • Equity Underwriting: Banks underwrite and distribute new stock issuances, helping companies raise capital and providing liquidity to public shareholders.
  • Debt Underwriting: Similar to equity underwriting, banks help structure and distribute new bond offerings for corporate and municipal borrowing needs.
  • Sales & Trading: Bank traders buy and sell stocks, bonds, currencies, and derivatives on behalf of clients to generate profits from price differences or on a commission basis.
  • Private Placements: Banks privately arrange direct investments or loans between institutional clients and companies seeking capital with customized financing terms.

Service Models and Revenue

Investment banks generate the bulk of their revenues from fees rather than retaining assets long-term. Common fee structures include:

  • Advisory Fees: Typically 1-2% of the transaction value for M&A deals involving sell-side due diligence, valuation, and negotiation support.
  • Underwriting Spreads: The difference between the security purchase price from issuers and the sale price to investors. Higher for riskier borrowers.
  • Commissions: Trading desks earn small percentages of the total value of each securities transaction handled for clients.
  • Placement Fees: 1-2% of the amount raised for private financing between institutional clients.

Banks aim to provide value across the deal lifecycle through an integrated suite of advisory, financing, and market-linked products and services tailored to each client. Repeat/referral business generates the bulk of revenues.

Careers in Investment Banking  

Investment Banking

Due to the sophisticated and intellectually stimulating nature of the work, investment banking offers appealing career options across front-office sales/trading roles or back-office support functions:

  • Investment Bankers: Advice on M&A deals, initial public offerings, debt/equity underwriting, and valuations.
  • Equity/Credit Research Analysts: Analyze companies and industries to produce investment theses and ratings.
  • Traders: Investors who trade securities and derivatives on trading desks.
  • Capital Markets/Banking Associates: Support senior bankers and traders, and conduct financial modeling.
  • Compliance/Risk Analysts: Ensure adherence to regulations amid complex financial products/transactions.
  • Accounting/Tax Specialists: Support valuation work and transaction structuring.

Entry-level analysts typically hold undergraduate degrees from top schools and work long hours over 2-4 years before transitioning to associate/vice president roles.

Current Trends in Investment Banking

One tendency indicates that private equity companies will play an increasingly important role. Large private equity firms now advise on and fund transactions that were formerly underwritten by banks. Furthermore, financial technology firms have disrupted the business with robo-advisory services, online crowdfunding portals, and other virtual markets.

Regulations have also developed, with innovations such as Basel III and the Volcker Rule introducing additional limits. Sales techniques and proprietary trading are developing attention. Alternative asset sectors, such as green technology, cannabis, and infrastructure, have seen increased investment and transactions. Online lending platforms and token sales are democratizing access to money by eliminating barriers to traditional IPOs and venture financing. Sustainable finance is currently driving strategic mergers and acquisitions, as well as renewable energy funding. Investment banks also make money through new business models such as subscription research/tools and wealth management. Ongoing consolidation is reshaping the sector, as seen by mergers such as Travelers-Citicorp and US Bank-Bank of America.


In a nutshell investment banks play an important role in capital formation and economic growth by structuring and facilitating transactions in both public and private markets. Their consulting and financing solutions enable organizations at all stages to achieve strategic goals, innovate, and generate employment and wealth by using global capital pools strategically. Understanding this crucial function highlights global changes in financial systems and organizations.

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