Why Silicon Valley Bank isn’t Lehman

Customers waiting in line outside a branch of Silicon Valley Bank in Massachusetts on March 13, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK – If there is one thing almost all observers of the economic scene have agreed about, it is that the issues facing the US economy in 2023 are very different from those it faced in its last crisis in 2008.

Back then, we were dealing with collapsing banks and plunging demand; these days, banking has been a back-burner issue and the big problem has seemed to be inflation, driven by too much demand relative to the available supply.

Oh, there were some echoes of past follies, because there always are. Hype springs eternal; the crypto cult shares some obvious features with the rise and fall of sub-prime mortgages, with people lured into complex financial arrangements they do not understand. But nobody expected a repeat of those frightening weeks when the bottom seemed to be falling out of the world financial system.

Yet suddenly, we seem to be replaying some of the same old scenes. Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was not among the largest financial institutions in the United States, but then neither was Lehman Brothers in 2008. And nobody who paid attention in 2008 can help feeling the shivers while watching an old-fashioned bank run.

But SVB is not Lehman, and 2023 is not 2008. We probably are not looking at a systemic financial crisis. And while the government has stepped in to stabilise the situation, taxpayers probably will not be on the hook for large sums of money.

To make sense of what happened, you need to understand the reality of what SVB was and what it did.

SVB portrayed itself as “the bank of the global innovation economy”, which might lead you to think that it was mostly investing in highly speculative technology projects.

In fact, however, while it did provide financial services to start-ups, it did not lend them a lot of money, since they were often flush with venture capital cash. Instead, the cash flow went in the opposite direction, with tech businesses depositing large sums with SVB – sometimes as a quid pro quo but largely, I suspect, because people in the tech world thought of SVB as their kind of bank.

The bank, in turn, parked much of that money in boring, extremely safe assets, mainly long-term bonds issued by the US government and government-backed agencies. It made money, for a while, because in a low interest rate world, long-term bonds normally pay higher interest rates than short-term assets, including bank deposits.

But SVB’s strategy was subject to two huge risks.

First, what would happen if and when short-term interest rates rose? (They could not fall significantly, because they were already extremely low.) The spread on which SVB’s profits depended would disappear – and if long-term interest rates rose as well, the market value of SVB’s bonds, which paid lower interest than new bonds, would fall, creating large capital losses. And that, of course, is exactly what has happened as the Federal Reserve has raised rates to fight inflation.

Second, while the value of bank deposits is federally insured, that insurance extends up to only US$250,000 (S$337,000). SVB, however, got its deposits mainly from business clients with multimillion-dollar accounts – at least one client (a crypto firm, of course) had US$3.3 billion at SVB. Since SVB’s clients were effectively uninsured, the bank was vulnerable to a bank run, in which everyone rushes to withdraw money while there is still something left.

And the run came. Now what?

Even if the government had done nothing, the fall of SVB probably would not have had huge economic repercussions. In 2008, there were fire sales of whole asset classes, especially mortgage-backed securities; since SVB’s investments were so boring, similar fallout would be unlikely. The main damage would come from disruption of business as firms found themselves unable to get at their cash, which would be worse if SVB’s fall led to runs on other medium-sized banks.

That said, on precautionary grounds, government officials felt – understandably – that they needed to find a way to guarantee all of SVB’s deposits.

It is important to note that this does not mean bailing out stockholders: SVB has been seized by the government, and its equity has been wiped out. It does mean saving some businesses from the consequences of their own foolishness in putting so much money in a single bank, which is infuriating – especially because so many tech types were vocal libertarians until they themselves needed a bailout.

Indeed, probably none of this would have happened if SVB and others in the industry had not successfully lobbied the Trump administration and Congress for a relaxation of bank regulations, a move rightly condemned at the time by Dr Lael Brainard, who has just become the Biden administration’s top economist.

The good news is that taxpayers in the US probably will not be on the hook for much, if any, money. It is not at all clear that SVB was actually insolvent; what it could not do was raise enough cash to deal with a sudden exodus of depositors. Once things have stabilised, its assets will probably be worth enough, or almost enough, to pay off depositors without an infusion of additional funds.

And then we will be able to return to our regularly scheduled crisis programming. NYTIMES

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