Financial Intermediaries - Meaning, Role and Its Importance

Introduction

A financial intermediary is a firm or an institution that acts an intermediary between a provider of service and the consumer. It is the institution or individual that is in between two or more parties in a financial context. In theoretical terms, a financial intermediary channels savings into investments. Financial intermediaries exist for profit in the financial system and sometimes there is a need to regulate the activities of the same. Also, recent trends suggest that financial intermediaries role in savings and investment functions can be used for an efficient market system or like the sub-prime crisis shows, they can be a cause for concern as well.

Financial Intermediation

Financial intermediaries work in the savings/investment cycle of an economy by serving as conduits to finance between the borrowers and the lenders. In the financial system, intermediaries like banks and insurance companies have a huge role to play given that it has been estimated that a major proportion of every dollar financed externally has been done by the banks. Financial intermediaries are an important source of external funding for corporates. Unlike the capital markets where investors contract directly with the corporates creating marketable securities, financial intermediaries borrow from lenders or consumers and lend to the companies that need investment.

Role of the Financial Intermediaries

The reason for the all-pervasive nature of the financial intermediaries like banks and insurance companies lies in their uniqueness. As outlined above, Banks often serve as the “intermediaries” between those who have the resources and those who want resources. Financial intermediaries like banks are asset based or fee based on the kind of service they provide along with the nature of the clientele they handle. Asset based financial intermediaries are institutions like banks and insurance companies whereas fee based financial intermediaries provide portfolio management and syndication services.

Need for regulation

The very nature of the complex financial system that we have at this point in time makes the need for regulation that much more necessary and urgent. As the sub-prime crisis has shown, any financial institution cannot be made to hold the financial system hostage to its questionable business practices. As the manifestations of the crisis are being felt and it is now apparent that the asset backed derivatives and other “exotic” instruments are amounting to trillions, the role of the central bank or the monetary authorities in reining in the rogue financial institutions is necessary to prevent systemic collapse.

As capital becomes mobile and unfettered, it is the monetary authorities that have to step in and ensure that there are proper checks and balances in the system so as to prevent losses to investors and the economy in general.

Recent trends

Recent trends in the evolution of financial intermediaries, particularly in the developing world have shown that these institutions have a pivotal role to play in the elimination of poverty and other debt reduction programs. Some of the initiatives like micro-credit reaching out to the masses have increased the economic well being of hitherto neglected sectors of the population.

Further, the financial intermediaries like banks are now evolving into umbrella institutions that cater to the complete needs of investors and borrowers alike and are maturing into “financial hyper marts”.

Conclusion

As we have seen, financial intermediaries have a key role to play in the world economy today. They are the “lubricants” that keep the economy going. Due to the increased complexity of financial transactions, it becomes imperative for the financial intermediaries to keep re-inventing themselves and cater to the diverse portfolios and needs of the investors. The financial intermediaries have a significant responsibility towards the borrowers as well as the lenders. The very term intermediary would suggest that these institutions are pivotal to the working of the economy and they along with the monetary authorities have to ensure that credit reaches to the needy without jeopardizing the interests of the investors. This is one of the main challenges before them.

Financial intermediaries have a central role to play in a market economy where efficient allocation of resources is the responsibility of the market mechanism. In these days of increased complexity of the financial system, banks and other financial intermediaries have to come up with new and innovative products and services to cater to the diverse needs of the borrowers and lenders. It is the right mix of financial products along with the need for reducing systemic risk that determines the efficacy of a financial intermediary.


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