A Guide to the Top Custodian Banks: What They Do and How They Work

Edited 3/24/2023

“Banking is a very good business if you don’t do anything dumb.”

Warren Buffett

Banking is a fascinating sector; it provides the lifeblood of capitalism credit, and its history intertwines with humankind. Think about it, railroads, automobiles, telephones, airplanes, and all tech came after banks, with many of the US’s biggest banks tracing their lineage to the country’s beginnings.

Custodian banks have played a large part in that growth from the first colonies in the US as holders of the wealth necessary to build and grow the country.

key takeways about best custodian banks and what they are and how they operate

Along with commercial banks, brokerages, investment banks, and the good old community bank, banks have provided the financial backbone for many people worldwide. Let us uncover a lesser-known type of bank important to the economy’s financial health.

In today’s post, we will learn:

Let’s dive in and learn more about the top custodian banks.

What Does a Custodian Bank Do?

Before we dive in and look deeper into what a custodian bank does, let’s define what the custodian bank is:

A custodian or custodian bank is a financial institution that holds customers’ securities for safekeeping to prevent them from being stolen or lost. The custodian may hold stocks or other assets in electronic or physical form.”

Custodian bank building examples

Because these firms are responsible for the safety of assets and securities worth billions, the custodial banks tend to be large, reputable firms.

In some cases, custodian banks operate only in this manner, which means they don’t make deposits or loans in the conventional sense. Rather, they operate only in a custodial mode.

Others offer custodial services as part of the overall package of banking services the bank offers its customers.

Custodians are appointed to manage a minor child’s assets, but today’s conversation will focus on custodial banks.

As mentioned above, custodian banks don’t offer the traditional services that most banks offer, such as mortgage lending, personal loans, branch banking, personal checking accounts, or ATMs.

Instead, custodian banks offer:

  • hold in safekeeping assets/securities such as stocks, bonds, commodities such as precious metals and currency (cash), domestic and foreign
  • arrange settlement of any purchases and sales, and deliveries in/out of such securities and currency
  • collect information on and income from such assets (dividends in the case of stocks/equities and coupons (interest payments) in the case of bonds) and administer related tax withholding documents and foreign tax reclamation
  • administer voluntary and involuntary corporate actions on securities such as stock dividends, stock splits, business combinations (mergers), tender offers, bond calls, etc.
  • provide information on the securities and their issuers, such as annual general meetings and related proxies
  • maintain currency/cash bank accounts, effect deposits, effect withdrawals, and manage other cash transactions
  • perform foreign exchange transactions
  • often perform additional services for particular clients such as mutual funds; examples include fund accounting, administration, legal, compliance, and tax support services.”

The above list is comprehensive and outlines all the roles that custodian banks offer their clients. The bulk of the banks includes housing and handling the client’s assets.

Not only do banks offer these services; for example, Charles Schwab also houses the assets of different investment firms. A firm might offer clients the opportunity to invest in a mutual fund, where the investment firm doesn’t hold the securities held by the mutual fund. Instead, Charles Schwab holds them for the investment firm.

Understanding the custodian bank’s role; think of it this way. If you buy a share of Apple, you don’t physically own that share because of the transaction’s electronic nature.

With the chain of ownership occurring through the brokerage you purchased the share from, and Disney, the custodial bank or custodial service will hold that share for you if ownership is disputed or questioned.

Long ago, the powers in charge considered it impractical to register each and every share ever traded on public exchanges in each specific shareholder’s name, thus creating custodian banks.

This is a great example of how the custodian bank functions in retirement accounts and mutual funds.

In the case of retirement accounts, the IRS code in the US requires that the custodian hold the assets of the IRA on behalf of the IRA owner. The custodian of the IRA assets performs all functions related to the management of the assets, such as:

  • custody of assets
  • processes all transactions
  • maintains all records
  • file reports with the IRS

In the mutual fund case, the custodian bank holds the securities the mutual fund owns. Most mutual funds use third-party custodians, as the SEC requires.

How Does a Custodian Bank Make Money?

Bank of New York Mellon (BK), with $1.8 trillion in assets under management, is one of the world’s largest asset managers. The bank primarily generates its revenues via the following:

  • investment services
  • asset and issuer servicing
  • treasury services
  • clearance and collateral management
  • asset and wealth management

Based on all the Bank of New York Mellon’s services, fees are the primary revenue source for any custodian bank. The bank generates revenue from fees collected for the above services that each bank coordinates.

stacking coins custodian bank

Compare that to the traditional bank, which generates most of its income from deposits and loans. A traditional bank earns income from the difference in interest rate spreads between lending and borrowing.

The traditional bank looks at creating better spreads from loans, whether mortgages, auto, or personal, by offering better terms to the customer and encouraging more borrowing. The same applies regarding deposits; offering better savings rates attracts more customers, and the higher volume helps the bank earn more.

Also, in many cases, traditional banks earn money from fees similar to custodian banks’ services but on a much smaller scale. Many of the bigger commercial banks, such as JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, offer these custodial services to their clients, and these segments earn fees for those services.

A brief story to illustrate how a custodian bank would earn its fees.

According to your account number, the checks are payable and deposited into the custodial account when Andrew deposits his money to any account.

The custodial bank might or probably will charge Andrew a fee, known as a custodial fee, for his money’s safekeeping. In addition to his money’s safekeeping, the bank will let him know quarterly or annually the status of his money, all part of the service offered to him.

Let’s say Andrew is tired of his investment in Apple and wants to sell his shares; the custodian bank will assist in that transaction. Because we live in the electronic world, the buyer and seller never meet, but the bank ensures that the money goes to the exact person and vice versa.

After Andrew informs the bank he wishes to sell his shares of Apple, the custodian will arrange to find a buyer for his shares of Apple and trade his stock for money.

The custodial bank will charge Andrew a transaction fee to buy or sell his Apple shares.

Let’s say that Andrew’s Disney (DIS) shares announce a dividend offering.

Andrew needs to ensure he receives that dividend. The custodian bank will make all the arrangements to receive his dividend. The custodian bank will also file all paperwork necessary to report those dividends to the IRS.

The above illustration highlights how a custodian bank makes money, primarily through client services fees.

The custodial fees are the primary source for assets under management and transaction fees. Therefore, the larger the assets under management for a custodial bank, the better.

For example, one of the largest custodian banks out there, Bank of New York Mellon, earned, per their latest 10-k from 2022:

  • Total Revenue – $16,377 million
  • Fee Income – $12,873 million
    • 78.6% of income from fees

Likewise, as the main driver of its earnings is services or fees, the vast majority of its expenses are via staffing and other management expenses such as:

  • Professional services
  • Software and equipment
  • Legal

How to Analyze Custodian Banks

Many of the usual suspects are available to analyze a custodian bank, such as:

Many standard metrics are available as we analyze other banks, helping us determine custodian banks’ viability. But we also need to analyze the fee margins and profits from the fees, particularly in relation to the expenses associated with those fees.

data to analyze stocks using ratios

As with traditional banks, the interest margin is also available to analyze. Like traditional banks, custodian banks make loans, but most of the earnings come from fees, as illustrated by the notation above.

Let’s look at several of the bigger custodian banks and analyze them on a relative basis, which compares each bank to similar metrics.

Bank of New York Mellon:

  • Net Interest Margin – 1.0%
  • Return on Assets – 0.61%
  • Return on Equity – 6.14%
  • Price to Earnings – 15.7
  • Price to Book – 1.03
  • Dividends Per Share – $1.42

State Street (STT)

  • Net Interest Margin – 1.0%
  • Return on Assets – 0.9%
  • Return on Equity – 10.56%
  • Price to Earnings – 10.79
  • Price to Book – 1.17
  • Dividends Per Share – $2.40

Based on the preliminary ratios, the Bank of New York Mellon is cheaper than State Street. Based on equity and asset metrics, the Bank of New York Mellon seems a bit less profitable.

Diving a little deeper into the ratios and financials of Bank of New York Mellon, we see:

  • The bank’s net interest margin growth has grown at 1.7% over the last ten years, or almost one full percentage growth in this margin over that period.
  • Return on assets median returns over the last ten years is 0.8%, which shows the bank decreased on that metric for 2022.
  • The median return on equity was 8.3%, and the last trailing twelve months was 6.1%, a decrease of 240 basis points, translating to a decline of 2.4%.
  • The bank has grown over the last ten years at CAGR:
    • Gross loans – 4.0%
    • Earnings assets – 0.8%
    • Deposits – 1.3%
  • The company has seen a decline in its market cap from $39.9 billion to $36.8 billion over the last ten years.

The company has also carried a credit rating of Aa2, per Moody’s, indicating strong financial strength and a strong balance sheet and debt management.

Looking at the company on an intrinsic value basis, we would use a dividend discount model with a traditional bank to find the bank’s fair value.

Based on the following metrics, the dividend discount model yields a fair value:

  • Annual dividend – $1.42
  • Payout ratio – 49%
  • Retention ratio – 51%
  • Return on Equity – 6.1%
  • Beta – 0.93
  • Risk-free rate – 3.69
  • Risk Premium – 6.00

Results of the calculations = $26.24

Based on the calculation, it appears the Bank of New York trades above fair value, and based on the poor returns on equity, the company is not generating good returns from its investments and assets.

For example, as the Bank of New York Mellon generates fees from managing assets invested in the stock market, the assets will suffer losses when the markets fall as they did last year. And the asset’s values will rise when they rebound, as they have since the Corona quarter.

Realizing that impact is critical when analyzing any bank that manages investments; as the accounting rules state currently, the investment unrealized losses now occupy an income statement line item. But those losses or gains are not realized, so the impact on the company’s performance is not real, according to Warren Buffett, and I would concur.

As you can see from above, the methods and thought processes of investing in custodian banks apply many of the ideas you use for traditional banks.

Because custodian banks rely less upon interest rates than traditional banks, it corresponds with an investment that is less reliant upon the vagaries of the interest rate environments. Which means they might be a safer investment during times of uncertainty.

Top Custodian Banks

The subsequent is a short list of some of the top custodian banks:

  • Bank of New York Mellon – $43 trillion in assets
  • State Street Corporation – $38.2 trillion in assets
  • J.P. Morgan – $28.6 trillion in assets
  • Citigroup – $26.8 trillion in assets
  • BNP Paribas Securities Services – $13.9 billion in assets

The investment services are under attack from the low-fee and zero-fee brokerages that have become the norm over the last year, with the upstart Robinhood starting the trend.

bank buildings in city

As the pressure increases, reducing investor fees, investment banks and custodian banks come under pressure because both banks’ styles derive most of their income from fees. And with the elimination or reduction of those fees, the income for these banks faces risk.

The industry is adapting by reducing the impact of fees by switching to becoming a full-service administrative outsourcer and trying to help money managers reduce costs on their side, thereby earning more fees for the banks.

Custodian banks are also adapting by improving their technologies, becoming more efficient, improving their margins, and reducing fees.

Much of the industry will eventually switch to AI to perform many of the functions people perform now, reducing the fees and maybe improving investment performance.

Final Thoughts

Custodian banks play a central part in the economy’s function. They are a great way to invest in the banking industry without some of the risks of traditional banks.

Custodian banks are analyzed similarly to traditional ones, focusing on the bank’s fee income and bank efficiencies. Reducing or controlling costs is as important as the Revenue the bank drives.

At one point, Buffett owned upwards of 9% of Bank of New York Mellon, with an investment valued at $4.1 billion. He recently started to sell out of his position, but he mentioned earlier that he liked the bank’s performance and thought they were a great investment after his initial purchase of shares in 2016.

Another plus for custodial banks is their dividends, which tend to be higher than those of the S&P 500, excluding REITs. Bank of New York Mellon pays a dividend yielding 3.17%, State Street yields 3.13%, and JP Morgan yields a 2.97% dividend yielding.

We will wrap up our discussion today regarding the top custodian banks.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read today’s post, and I hope you find something of value in your investing journey.

If I can further assist, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Until next time, take care and be safe out there,


Dave Ahern

Dave, a self-taught investor, empowers investors to start investing by demystifying the stock market.

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