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The bank the Bay built
It was the second-largest bank collapse in American history—and it went down at fibre optic speed.


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“Silicon Valley bank run” by DALL∙E 2

Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), the bank for Bay Area tech startups, took a punt on interest rates staying low. They bought long-term bonds and hoped to profit. But interest rate hikes crippled the bank's capital base and left them almost insolvent. The firm's customers, most of whom had more than the $250,000 guarantee limit on deposit, panicked. They fled and tried to pull their money before others did.

It was an old-fashioned bank run, accelerated by the speed of digital banking. At the peak of the run, customers were pulling $500,000 per second, and the bank didn't have the money. This forced the regulator to step in and shut the bank. Within hours, the suits from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) had taken over.

The collapse wiped out shareholders, and bondholders will take buzzcuts. But that is not a failure of the financial system. Instead, the bank's bosses botched it, and a mismanaged business has gone bust.

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Herein lies the problem. The bank had enough assets to cover deposits, but that process would have taken a long time. Many tech firms couldn't pay staff or suppliers, and sackings would have followed. Lawmakers feared the panic would spread and depositors would run on other banks. As a result, on March 12th, the government announced it would guarantee all SVB's deposits. Further, they said if asset sales don't cover costs, the gap will come from the FDIC fund, into which banks have paid.

SVB's collapse was chaotic because the bank had been exempt from some parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, a series of regulations designed to prevent these kinds of improvised bailouts. As part of the rules, banks with more than $50bn in assets would have to hold more capital and pass stress tests. They would also have to have an orderly handover plan ready for if the bank failed. Finally, should a crisis hit and the bank need capital, bonds would automatically convert to equity. The idea was that fat layers of capital would prevent these big banks from dragging everyone else down if they collapsed. Share-and-bondholders, not depositors or the taxpayer, would pay the price.

But in 2018, the government diluted the regulations and raised the $50bn limit to $250bn. A group of banks, including SVB, lobbied for this and won. As a result, the bank could hold less capital, avoid stress tests, and couldn't get the emergency capital it needed. Instead of bonds converting to equity, the bank tried and failed to sell shares into a sinking market. Regulators were flying by the seat of their pants.

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Emergency loans from the Federal Reserve should have been available to SVB earlier. The bank had plenty of good collateral, including Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). But the Fed was a day late and a dollar short. The central bank's job is to maintain financial stability, but they were too slow. If they had lent to SVB sooner, they could have averted the crisis and prevented the collapse of a major bank.

Walter Bagehot, the godfather of central banking, is spinning in his grave. Bagehot's dictum says that to avert panic, the central bank should not hesitate. It should lend early and without limit to solvent firms with good collateral. But it should also lend with punitive terms. That is almost what the Fed will now do to shore up other banks—but what it didn't do for SVB.

A new program will let banks borrow against government bonds and MBSs. Exactly like the ones SVB had mountains of. But, a facility like this would usually impose a price cut on the bonds used as collateral. This one won't. Instead, it will recognise the face value of the bonds—hair extensions as opposed to hair cuts. This generous support for banks is undue. It is a handout for bank shareholders. Although it will stop a crisis, subsidising banks for lousy interest rate bets is crummy.

Tighten the leash

The lesson lawmakers must learn is that banks are different from other businesses. They are public-private partnerships. The government gives them the right to create money, a public monopoly, but keep the profits. As such, bank regulation must serve the public purpose. Policymakers must realise this and fix it soon.

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