The collapse of California’s Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) on 10 March has triggered a wave of volatility in global bank equity prices, raised questions about whether US bank regulation and its tech industry funding model are fit for purpose, and forced a rethink on the extent and pace of monetary policy tightening appropriate for the US and other advanced economies.
SVB was the US’s 16th largest bank with total assets of $212bn at the end of 2022 and a presence in eight countries around the world, including the UK. Since it was founded 40 years ago, it has maintained a strong focus on the technology sector, claiming recently that nearly half of all US venture-backed technology and life science companies banked with it. Partly as a consequence, some 95 per cent of its deposits came from corporates and hedge funds, far higher than the one-third typical of similarly sized banks.
What led to SVB’s collapse?
Ironically, SVB’s failure did not result from its core business model of serving a relatively high-risk and fast-growing sector, but rather from a dramatic failure in liquidity management. During the pandemic, SVB saw a very large inflow of corporate deposits. But rather than disincentivizing depositors or investing the funds attracted in assets of matching maturity, it chose to invest them in low credit risk, but long maturity bonds attracted by a small pick-up in return over shorter-term assets.
When US interest rates began to rise rapidly in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the value of SVB’s long-term bond portfolio declined sharply. It was left facing a large capital loss of some $15bn, roughly equivalent to its total shareholder funds. The management attempted to repair SVB’s balance sheet last week by crystalizing some of the loss and raising new capital.
But when this failed, the US supervisory authorities had no choice but to step in and close the institution. This action was quickly followed by emergency action from other regulators vis-a-vis SVB subsidiaries and offices around the world.
The US entity has formally been taken over by the FDIC and a bridge bank established. All depositors have had their funds guaranteed, going beyond the normal federal deposit insurance limit of $250,000 per customer. However, bond holders and equity holders have been wiped out. The authorities have said that any loss will be covered by the industry as a whole via the FDIC.
In the UK, the Bank of England was able to sell the ring-fenced UK subsidiary of SVB to HSBC for £1 over the weekend, so that all its depositors and other liability holders have effectively had their funds guaranteed. In contrast to previous Bank of England rescues (such as Johnson Matthey Bank in 1984, the ‘small banks’ crisis in 1991 and the global financial crisis in 2008-9) no public money has been put at risk.
Four key questions
SVB’s rapid collapse raises four central questions:
First, how was it that the bank was able to take on such a risky interest rate maturity mismatch in its US operations? Maturity transformation is standard banking industry practice, but it is usually closely monitored by regulators who place limits on the extent of interest rate maturity mismatch and require liquidity buffers to offset the risk of deposit flight and forced asset sales.
SVB’s very high concentration of corporate deposits as compared to ‘sticky’ retail deposits, means that the risk of deposit flight was unusually high and so the bank should have been more, not less, cautious in its liquidity policy. SVB was classed as a regional bank in the US which means that it did not have to meet international regulatory standards under Basle III. And in 2018, the Trump administration approved legislation removing the post-financial crisis requirement that banks with assets under $250bn submit to stress testing and relaxing liquidity buffer requirements.
But it is still hard to understand why regulators allowed SVB to commit such a classic banking error. On Monday, the Federal Reserve ordered an inquiry into what it has correctly described as a regulatory failure. This should look at the role played by all the elements of the oversight system including the auditors, KPMG.
Second, does SVB’s failure reflect a much bigger underlying risk in the US banking sector, and potentially other banking systems around the world, built up over the prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates? SVB’s collapse was followed by the failure of the $110bn Signature Bank in New York, as well as sharp falls in US regional bank stock prices – by close of play on 14 March, the S&P Regional Bank Index was down 22 per cent on a week before, with some individual bank stocks seeing much sharper falls.
To the extent that banks have been covered by international bank regulatory requirements, the risk of a much broader problem should be limited because stress testing and other regulatory tests would have looked at precisely the scenario that has happened. Even where large market losses have been incurred, capital buffers should be sufficient to cover them. But as SVB has shown, there are some large banks that are seemingly not required to follow international rules, while the latest developments at Credit Suisse indicate that market concerns may still arise when other factors are in play.
Third, how far, in the light of the potential vulnerability in banking systems, should central banks in advanced countries moderate their efforts to squeeze out inflationary pressures? While inflation already appears to have peaked in many economies and the pace of interest rate rises was expected to slow, inflation is far from vanquished, as recent data in the US has demonstrated.
Fourth, does the failure of SVB tell us something new about the financial risks facing the high technology sector? It was remarkable that a single (and not particularly large, by international standards) financial institution could have played such a central role in the tech sector in both the US and UK.
Why was this the case and does it reflect special features of the tech/start-up sector (e.g. the need for substantial cash deposits to cover relatively large negative cash flows in the early years of operation, or the need for highly specialized lending expertise). If so, should governments take steps to mitigate such risks, given the outsized importance of this sector in many national economic strategies?