The sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March 2023 was a sobering reminder that even the biggest banks can fail — and potentially take their customers’ deposits with them.
The federal government stepped in to cover Silicon Valley Bank’s customers’ deposits, preventing large-scale deposit losses. But because SVB’s failure occurred in part because it mismanaged its customers’ deposits, the ordeal got regular people asking: What do banks and credit unions actually do with our money?
The short answer is pretty simple and probably not too surprising: Banks mostly use your money to make more money for themselves. There’s more to the story, though. And exactly how banks use deposits to make more money is an important consideration when choosing a bank and assessing how safe your deposits really are.
What Do Banks Do With Your Money?
Banks keep a relatively small amount of deposits accessible. This portion is known as a cash or capital reserve or sometimes fractional reserve.
Until March 2020, federal regulators required banks to maintain specific minimum reserves to cover withdrawal requests and offset possible losses on loans and other investments. The Federal Reserve managed a three-tiered system that set reserve requirements as a percentage of net transaction value. The Fed still updates the tiers because the laws requires it to do so, but it no longer enforces compliance.
Banks still keep some cash in reserve to cover withdrawal requests, but the government no longer requires them to maintain a specific minimum.
Banks use most of their deposits to fund loans and investments they hope will turn a profit. They aim to earn more on these loans and investments than they pay out in interest on deposits.
While they maintain detailed accounts of their customers’ funds, banks treat cash held in most common account types more or less the same. Whether you have a checking account, savings account, money market account, or CD — or all four — your bank keeps some of the cash in reserve and uses the rest to make money.
How Bank Reserves Work
In the old days, reserves would be literal cash in bank vaults.
Banks still keep some physical cash on hand, but a lot of their spare money sits in special accounts with the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. That’s safer and more secure, anyway, and in an increasingly cashless world, it’s more practical too.
How Lending & Investing Work
The exact proportion of total deposits a given bank lends depends on factors like its lending strategy, financial health, economic conditions, and operating expenses.
However, under normal circumstances, banks try to lend as much of their cash as possible while still fulfilling their reserve requirements, which for practical reasons they likely still have internally whether the government enforces it or not. That’s how most banks make their money.
“Lend” can mean many different things, including some less obvious to nonexperts. In fact, it’s more accurate to think of a bank’s lending activities as part of its broader investment strategy. That’s how the bank sees it.
And while many banks stick to investing in various types of consumer and business loans, some also invest in more exotic (and risky) assets like public and private company stock, venture capital funds, and commercial real estate.
These common bank lending activities rely on customer deposits:
- Issuing credit cards: Credit cards are super-profitable for many banks, from big names like Capital One to small players you’ve probably never heard of. That’s because credit card interest rates are much higher than the rates banks pay on even the highest-yielding savings accounts and CDs.
- Making unsecured installment loans and lines of credit: Many banks make good money on unsecured personal loans and lines of credit. Because the bank can’t seize an asset to cover losses on these loans, they’re relatively risky and carry higher interest rates than mortgages or auto loans.
- Making secured installment loans and lines of credit: These include mortgages, vehicle loans, and home equity loans and lines of credit. They generally have lower interest rates than unsecured loans and lines because they’re less risky for banks, but they still can be very profitable.
- Providing financing to businesses: Many banks and credit unions offer financing to businesses and nonprofits. Community banks are particularly active in this space and tend to serve businesses in their own communities — an important consideration for bank customers who want to help local entrepreneurs indirectly.
- Buying bonds: You can expect predictable interest payments and eventually the return of your initial investment in bonds. Banks appreciate bonds’ relative safety and predictability, though they’re not risk-free — Silicon Valley Bank failed in part because it made bad bond bets.
How Do Banks Protect Your Money?
When you open and fund a deposit account, you give your bank or credit union the right to use your deposits as it sees fit. But you’re still the rightful owner of that money and can withdraw it pretty much on demand, allowing for reasonable restrictions and penalties that depend on the account type and are spelled out in the deposit agreement.
So your bank or credit union is obligated to protect your money and ensure it’s available for withdrawal when you need it. It does this in several ways, some voluntary and others required by law or regulation.
Although the Federal Reserve eliminated specific capital reserve requirements in March 2020, every bank keeps a significant amount of its customers’ money in cash and cash equivalent, like short-term Treasury notes.
Capital reserves don’t directly protect your money. Your bank doesn’t maintain separate reserve accounts for each customer account. But it does know about how much customers withdraw in a typical day and ensures it has more than enough on hand to cover those requests.
In an even less direct sense, your bank’s reserves protect your money by ensuring the bank can pay its bills and keep operating normally.
Daily Withdrawal Limits
Banks can’t keep all their customers’ money in reserve. With no spare cash to make loans, they’d go out of business in short order. In fact, banks want to keep as little cash in reserve as possible while still covering operating expenses and expected withdrawals.
To manage the tension between their obligation to fulfill withdrawal requests and their prerogative to make money, banks often set daily withdrawal limits on all or certain accounts.
These limits tend to be lowest for cash transactions. For example, you might be limited to just a few hundred dollars per day in ATM withdrawals. They’re usually higher for electronic and wire transfers — typically $50,000 or more.
Deposit Insurance Coverage
State and federal banking regulations require banks and credit unions to carry deposit insurance.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation provides federal deposit insurance to banks, while the National Credit Union Administration provides federal deposit insurance to credit unions.
For both, the maximum deposit insurance limit is $250,000 per account ownership type, which means you have full insurance on up to $250,000 across all individual accounts with the same bank and full insurance on another $250,000 across all joint accounts in that bank. (There are other account ownership types, but individual and joint are the most common.)
In addition to directly protecting customer deposits, deposit insurance helps prevent bank runs by providing assurances that customers won’t lose insured funds if the bank fails.
When that happens, the FDIC steps in and temporarily takes control of the bank, with the short-term goal of either finding another bank to assume its deposits or to sell off its assets piecemeal. In either case, deposit insurance kicks in and protects customer deposits.
This process has proven extremely reliable over the years. Since the FDIC’s inception in 1933, no bank customers have lost funds under the FDIC insurance limit. Uninsured losses have occurred, but in recent years, the federal government has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect deposits above the insurance limit as well. Despite well over 90% of its deposits being uninsured, Silicon Valley Bank didn’t lose a cent of its customers’ money when it failed.
Your bank probably uses most of the money in your accounts to fund loans to other customers. It might also buy government or corporate bonds with your money. It reserves a small slice of your cash to cover withdrawal requests and operating expenses.
That’s pretty much it. The details can get really convoluted, but you don’t need a finance degree to gain a basic understanding of how banks use customers’ money. And if you’re like me, you probably find that oddly reassuring.