Silicon Valley Bank Fails After Run on Deposits


The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took control of the bank’s assets on Friday. The failure raised concerns that other banks could face problems, too.

By: Emily Flitter and Rob Copeland cover Wall Street and finance.

Published March 10, 2023 and Updated March 13, 2023, 11:30 a.m. ET

One of the most prominent lenders in the world of technology start-ups, struggling under the weight of ill-fated decisions and panicked customers, collapsed on Friday, forcing the federal government to step in.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said on Friday that it would take over Silicon Valley Bank, a 40-year-old institution based in Santa Clara, Calif. The bank’s failure is the second-largest in U.S. history, and the largest since the financial crisis of 2008.

The move put nearly $175 billion in customer deposits under the regulator’s control. While the swift downfall of the nation’s 16th largest bank evoked memories of the global financial panic of a decade and a half ago, it did not immediately touch off fears of widespread destruction in the financial industry or the global economy.

Silicon Valley Bank’s failure came two days after its emergency moves to handle withdrawal requests and a precipitous decline in the value of its investment holdings shocked Wall Street and depositors, sending its stock careening.

The bank, which had $209 billion in assets at the end of 2022, had been working with financial advisers until Friday morning to find a buyer, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said.

While the woes facing Silicon Valley Bank are unique to it, a financial contagion appeared to spread through parts of the banking sector, prompting Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to publicly reassure investors that the banking system was resilient.

Investors dumped stocks of peers of Silicon Valley Bank, including First Republic, Signature Bank and Western Alliance, many of which cater to start-up clients and have similar investment portfolios.

Trading in shares of at least five banks was halted repeatedly throughout the day as their steep declines triggered stock exchange volatility limits.

By comparison, some of the nation’s largest banks appeared more insulated from the fallout. After a slump on Thursday, shares of JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Citigroup all were generally flat on Friday.

That’s because the biggest banks operate in a vastly different world. Their capital requirements are more stringent and they also have far broader deposit bases than banks like Silicon Valley, which do not attract masses of retail customers. Regulators have also tried to keep the big banks from focusing too heavily in a single area of business, and they have largely stayed away from riskier assets like cryptocurrencies.

“I don’t think that this is an issue for the big banks — that’s the good news, they’re diversified,” said Sheila Bair, former chair of the F.D.I.C. Ms. Bair added that since the largest banks were required to hold cash equivalents even against the safest forms of government debt, they should be expected to have plenty of liquidity.

On Friday, Ms. Yellen discussed the issues surrounding Silicon Valley Bank with banking regulators, according to a statement from the Treasury Department.

A worker telling people on Friday that the headquarters were closed.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Representatives from the Federal Reserve and the F.D.I.C. also held a bipartisan briefing for members of Congress organized by Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California and the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Silicon Valley Bank’s downward spiral accelerated with incredible speed this week, but its troubles have been brewing for more than a year. Founded in 1983, the bank had long been a go-to lender for start-ups and their executives.

Though the bank advertised itself as a “partner for the innovation economy,” some decidedly old-fashioned decisions led to this moment.

Flush with cash from high-flying start-ups that had raised a lot of money from venture capitalists, Silicon Valley Bank did what all banks do: It kept a fraction of the deposits on hand and invested the rest with the hope of earning a return. In particular, the bank put a large share of customer deposits into long-dated Treasury bonds and mortgage bonds which promised modest, steady returns when interest rates were low.

That had worked well for years. The bank’s deposits doubled to $102 billion at the end of 2020 from $49 billion in 2018. One year later, in 2021, it had $189.2 billion in its coffers as start-ups and technology companies enjoyed heady profits during the pandemic.

But it bought huge amounts of bonds just before the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates a little more than a year ago, then failed to make provisions for the possibility that interest rates would rise very quickly. As rates rose, those holdings became less attractive because newer government bonds paid more in interest.

That might not have mattered so long as the bank’s clients didn’t ask for their money back. But because the gusher of start-up funding slowed at the same time as interest rates were rising, the bank’s clients began to withdraw more of their money.

A notice on a door at a Silicon Valley Bank branch in San Francisco described the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s action.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

To pay those redemption requests, Silicon Valley Bank sold off some of its investments. In its surprise disclosure on Wednesday, the bank admitted that it had lost nearly $2 billion when it was all but forced to sell some of its holdings.

It’s the classic Jimmy Stewart problem,” said Ms. Bair, referring to the actor who played a banker trying to stave off a bank run in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “If everybody starts withdrawing money all at once, the bank has to start selling some of its assets to give money back to depositors.”

Those fears set off investor worries about some of the regional banks. Like Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank is also a lender that caters to the start-up community. It’s perhaps best known for its connections to former President Donald J. Trump and his family.

First Republic Bank, a San Francisco-based lender focused on wealth management and private banking services for high net worth clients in the tech industry, warned recently that its ability to earn profits is being hampered by rising interest rates. Its Phoenix-based peer in the wealth management industry, Western Alliance Bank, is facing similar pressures.

Separately, another bank, Silvergate, said on Wednesday that it was shutting down its operations and liquidating after suffering heavy losses from its exposure to the cryptocurrency industry.

A First Republic spokesman responded to a request for comment by sharing a filing the bank made to the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday stating that its deposit base was “strong and very-well diversified” and that its “liquidity position remains very strong.”

A Western Alliance spokeswoman pointed to a news release by the bank on Friday describing the condition of its balance sheet. “Deposits remain strong,” the statement said. “Asset quality remains excellent.”

Representatives of Signature and Silicon Valley Bank had no comment. Representatives for the Federal Reserve and F.D.I.C. declined to comment.

Some banking experts on Friday pointed out that a bank as large as Silicon Valley Bank might have managed its interest rate risks better had parts of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulatory package, put in place after the 2008 crisis, not been rolled back under President Trump.

In 2018, Mr. Trump signed a bill that lessened regulatory scrutiny for many regional banks. Silicon Valley Bank’s chief executive, Greg Becker, was a strong supporter of the change, which reduced how frequently banks with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion had to submit to stress tests by the Fed.

Mr. Becker, who had been on the San Francisco Fed’s board of directors, was no longer on the board as of Friday, a Fed spokesperson said.

A worker, standing in a partly opened door of Silicon Valley Bank, talks to a small group of people outside.

At the end of 2016, Silicon Valley Bank’s asset size was $45 billion. It had jumped to more than $115 billion by the end of 2020.

Friday’s upheaval raised uncomfortable parallels to the 2008 financial crisis. Although it’s not uncommon for small banks to fail, the last time a bank of this magnitude unraveled was in 2008, when the F.D.I.C. took over Washington Mutual.

The F.D.I.C. rarely takes over banks when the markets are open, preferring to put a failing institution into receivership on a Friday after business has closed for the weekend. But the banking regulator put out a news release in the first few hours of trading on Friday, saying that it created a new bank, the National Bank of Santa Clara, to hold the deposits and other assets of the failed one.

The regulator said that the new entity would be operating by Monday and that checks issued by the old bank would continue to clear. While customers with deposits of up to $250,000 — the maximum covered by F.D.I.C. insurance — will be made whole, there’s no guarantee that depositors with larger amounts in their accounts will get all of their money back.

Those customers will be given certificates for their uninsured funds, meaning they would be among the first in line to be paid back with funds recovered while the F.D.I.C. holds Silicon Valley Bank in receivership — although they might not get all of their money back.

When the California bank IndyMac failed in July 2008, it, like Silicon Valley Bank, did not have an immediate buyer. The F.D.I.C. held IndyMac in receivership until March 2009, and large depositors eventually only received 50 percent of their uninsured funds back. When Washington Mutual was bought by JPMorgan Chase, account holders were made whole.

Source: The New York Times, BBC News