Photo from the Wall Street Journal
Rumors spread about the financial state of a bank. Some depositors begin to withdraw funds from their accounts. Suddenly a wave of withdrawals occurs and regulators step in and close the bank. A description of a run on a bank in New York City in the fall of 1930? No. This happened to Silicon Valley Bank, headquartered in Santa Clara, California and the sixteenth largest bank in the United States, on Friday, March 10, 2023.
Background on Bank Runs
In Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.4 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.4) we describe the basic reasons why a run on a bank may occur. We describe bank runs in greater detail in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 12. We reproduce here a key paragraph on the underlying fragility of commercial banking from Chapter 12 of the money and banking text:
The basic activities of commercial banks are to accept short-term deposits, such as checking account deposits, and use the funds to make loans—including car loans, mortgages, and business loans—and to buy long-term securities, such as municipal bonds. In other words, banks borrow short term from depositors and lend, often long term, to households, firms, and governments. As a result, banks have a maturity mismatch because the maturity of their liabilities—primarily deposits—is much shorter than the maturity of their assets—primarily loans and securities. Banks are relatively illiquid because depositors can demand their money back at any time, while banks may have difficulty selling the loans in which they have invested depositors’ money. Banks, therefore, face liquidity risk because they can have difficulty meeting their depositors’ demands to withdraw their money. If more depositors ask to withdraw their money than a bank has money on hand, the bank has to borrow money, usually from other banks. If banks are unable to borrow to meet deposit withdrawals, then they have to sell assets to raise the funds. If a bank has made loans and bought securities that have declined in value, the bank may be insolvent, which means that the value of its assets is less than the value of its liabilities, so its net worth, or capital, is negative. An insolvent bank may be unable to meet its obligations to pay off its depositors.
The Founding of the Fed and the Establishment of the FDIC as a Response to Bank Runs
The instability of the banking system led to a number of financial crises during the 1800s and early 1900s, culminating in the Panic of 1907. Congress responded by passing the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, establishing the Federal Reserve System. The Fed was given the role of lender of last resort, making discount loans to banks that were experiencing deposit runs but that remained solvent. The failure of the Fed to stop the bank panics of the early 1930s led Congress to establish the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to ensure deposits in commercial banks, originally up to a limit of $2,500 per deposit, per bank. The current limit is $250,000.
Deposit insurance reduced the likelihood of runs but increased moral hazard in the banking system by eliminating the incentive insured depositors had to monitor the actions of bank managers. In principle, bank managers still have an incentive to avoid making risky loans and other investments for fear of withdrawals by households and firms with deposits that exceed the dollar deposit limit.
Contagion, Moral Hazard, and the Too-Big-to-Fail Policy
But if these depositors fail to monitor risk taking by bank managers or if a bank’s loans and investments decline in price even though they weren’t excessively risky at the time they were made, the FDIC and the Fed face a dilemma. Allowing banks to fail and large depositors to be only partially paid back may set off a process of contagion that results in runs spreading to other banks. Problems in the banking system can affect the wider economy by making it more difficult for households and firms that depend on bank loans to finance their spending. (We discuss the process of contagion in this post on the Diamond-Dybvig model.)
The Fed and the FDIC can stop the process of contagion if they are willing to ensure that large depositors don’t suffer losses. One mechanism to achieve this result is facilitating a merger between an insolvent bank and another bank that agrees to assume responsibility for meeting depositors withdrawals from the insolvent bank. But stopping contagion in this manner with no depositors suffering losses can be interpreted as amounting to deposit insurance having no dollar limit. The result is a further increase in moral hazard in the banking system. When the federal government does not allow large financial firms to fail for fear of damaging the financial system, it is said to be following a too-big-to-fail policy.
Silicon Valley Bank and VCs
Runs on commercial banks have been rare in recent decades, which is why the run on Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) took many people by surprise. As its name indicates, SVB is located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley and the bank played an important role in the financing of many startups in the area. As such, SVB provided banking services to many venture capital (VC) firms. As we note in Chapter 9, Section 9.2 of the money and banking text, venture capital firms play an important role in providing funding to startup firms:
VCs such as Sequoia Capital, Accel, and Andreessen Horowitz raise funds from investors and invest in small startup firms, often in high-technology industries. In recent years, VCs have raised large amounts from institutional investors, such as pension funds and university endowments. A VC frequently takes a large ownership stake in a startup firm, often placing its own employees on the board of directors or even having them serve as managers. These steps can reduce principal–agent problems because the VC has a greater ability to closely monitor the managers of the firm it’s investing in. The firm’s managers are likely to be attentive to the wishes of a large investor because having a large investor sell its stake in the firm may make it difficult to raise funds from new investors. In addition, a VC avoids the free-rider problem when investing in a firm that is not publicly traded because other investors cannot copy the VC’s investment strategy.
An article on bloomberg.com summarized SVB’s role in Silicon Valley. SVB is
the single most critical financial institution for the nascent tech scene, serving half of all venture-backed companies in the US and 44% of the venture-backed technology and health-care companies that went public last year. And its offerings were vast — ranging from standard checking accounts, to VC investment, to loans, to currency risk management.
Note from this description that SVB acted as a VC—that is, it made investments in startup firms—as well as engaging in conventional commercial banking activities, such as making loans and accepting deposits. The CEO of one startup was quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “For startups, all roads lead to Silicon Valley Bank.” (The Wall Street Journal article describing the run on SVB can be found here. A subscription may be required.)
SVB’s Vulnerability to a Run
As with any commercial bank, the bulk of SVB’s liabilities were short-term deposits whereas the bulk of its assets were long-term loans and other investments. We’ve discussed above that this maturity mismatch means that SVB—like other commercial banks—was vulnerable to a run if depositors withdraw their funds. We’ve also seen that in practice bank runs are very rare in the United States. Why then did SVB experience a run? SVB was particularly vulnerable to a run for two related reasons:
1. Its deposits are more concentrated than is true of a typical bank. Many startups and VCs maintain large checking account balances with SVB. According to the Wall Street Journal, at the end of 2022, SVB had $157 billion in deposits, the bulk of which were in just 37,000 accounts. Startups often initially generate little or no revenue and rely on VC funding to meet their expenses. Most Silicon Valley VCs advised the startups they were invested in to establish checking accounts with SVB.
2. Accordingly, the bulk of the value of deposits at SVB was greater than the $250,000 FDIC insurance limit. Apparently 93 percent to 97 percent of deposits were above the deposit limit as opposed to about 50 percent for most commercial banks.
Economics writer Noah Smith notes that SVB required that startups it was lending to keep their deposits with SVB as a condition for receiving a loan. (Smith’s discussion of SVB can be found on his Substack blog here. A subscription may be required.)
The Reasons for the Run on SVB
When the Fed began increasing its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022 in response to a sharp increase in inflation, longer term interest rates, including interest rates on U.S. Treasury securities, also increased. For example the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note increased from less than 2 percent in March 2022 to more than 4 percent in March 2023. The interest rate on the 2-year Treasury note increased even more, from 1.5 percent in March 2022 to around 5 percent in March 2023.
As we discuss in the appendix to Macroeconomics, Chapter 6 (Economics, Chapter 8) and in greater detail in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 3, the price of a bond or other security equals the present value of the payments the owner of the security will receive. When market interest rates rise, as happened during 2022 and early 2023, the value of the payments received on existing securities—and therefore the prices of these securities—fall. Treasury securities are free from default risk, which is the risk that the Treasury won’t make the interest and principal payments on the security, but are subject to interest-rate risk, which is the risk that the price of security will decrease as market interest rates rise.
As interest rates rose, the value of bonds and other long-term assets that SVB owned fell. The price of an asset on the balance sheet of a firm is said to be marked to market if the price is adjusted to reflect fluctuations in the asset’s market price. However, banking law allows a bank to keep constant the prices of bonds on its balance sheets if it intends to hold the bonds until they mature, at which point the bank will receive a payment equal to the principal of the bond. But if a bank needs to sell bonds, perhaps to meet its liquidity needs as depositors make withdrawals, then the losses on the bonds have to be reflected on the bank’s balance sheet.
SVB’s problems began on Wednesday, March 8 when it surprised Wall Street analysts and the bank’s Silicon Valley clients by announcing that to raise funds it had sold $21 billion in securities at a loss of $1.8 billion. It also announced that it was selling stock to raise additional funds. (SVB’s announcement can be found here.) SVB’s CEO also announced that the bank would borrow an additional $15 billion. Although the CEO stated that the bank was solvent, as an article on fortune.com put it, “Investors didn’t buy it.” In addition to the news that SVB had suffered a loss on its bond sales and had to raise funds, some analysts raised the further concern that the downturn in the technology sector meant that some of the firms that SVB had made loans to might default on the loans.
Problems for SVB compounded the next day, Thursday, March 9, when Peter Theil, a co-founder of PayPal and Founders Fund, a leading VC, advised firms Founders Fund was invested in to withdraw their deposits from SVB. Other VCs began to pull their money from SVB and advised their firms to do the same and a classic bank run was on. Because commercial banks lack the funds to pay off a significant fraction of their depositors over a short period of time, in a run, depositors with funds above the $250,000 deposit insurance limit know that they need to withdraw their funds before other depositors do and the bank is forced to close. This fact makes it difficult for a bank to stop a run once it gets started.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, by the end of business on Thursday, depositors had attempted to withdraw $42 billion from SVB. The FDIC took control of SVB the next day, Friday, March 10, before the bank could open for business.
The Government Response to the Collapse of SVB
The FDIC generally handles bank failures in one of two ways: (1) It closes the bank and pays off depositors, or (2) it purchases and assumes control of the bank while finding another bank that is willing to purchase the failed bank. If the FDIC closes a bank, it pays off the insured depositors immediately, using the bank’s assets. If those funds are insufficient, the FDIC makes up the difference from its insurance reserves, which come from payments insured banks make to the FDIC. After the FDIC has compensated insured depositors, any remaining funds are paid to uninsured depositors.
As we write this on Sunday, March 12, leaders of the Fed, the FDIC, and the Treasury Department, were considering what steps to take to avoid a process of contagion that would cause the failure of SVB to lead to deposit withdrawals and potential failures of other banks—in other words, a bank panic like the one that crippled the U.S. economy in the early 1930s, worsening the severity of the Great Depression. These agencies hoped to find another bank that would purchase SVB and assume responsibility for meeting further deposit withdrawals.
Another possibility was that the FDIC would declare that closing SVB, selling the bank’s assets, and forcing depositors above the $250,000 deposit limit to suffer losses would pose a systemic risk to the financial system. In that circumstance, the FDIC could provide insurance to all depositors however large their deposits might be. As discussed earlier, this approach would increase moral hazard in the banking system because it would, in effect, waive the limit on deposit insurance. Although the waiver would apply directly only to this particular case, large depositors in other banks might conclude that if their bank failed, the FDIC would waive the deposit limit again. Under current law, the FDIC could only announce they were waiving the deposit limit if two-thirds of the FDIC’s Board of Directors, two-thirds of the Fed’s Board of Governors, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen agreed that failure of SVB would pose a systemic risk to the financial system.
According to an article on wsj.com posted at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon, bank regulators were conducting an auction for SVB in the hopes that a buyer could be found that would assume responsibility for the bank’s uninsured deposits. [Update evening of Monday March 13: The Sunday auction failed when no U.S. banks entered a bid. Late Monday, the FDIC was planning on holding another auction, with potentially better terms available for the acquiring bank.]
Update: At 6:15 pm Sunday, the Treasury, the Fed, and the FDIC issued a statement (you can read it here). As we noted might occur above, by invoking a situation of systemic risk, the FDIC was authorized to allow all depositors–including those with funds above the deposit limit of $250,000–to access their funds on Monday morning. Here is an excerpt from the statement:
“After receiving a recommendation from the boards of the FDIC and the Federal Reserve, and consulting with the President, Secretary Yellen approved actions enabling the FDIC to complete its resolution of Silicon Valley Bank, Santa Clara, California, in a manner that fully protects all depositors. Depositors will have access to all of their money starting Monday, March 13. No losses associated with the resolution of Silicon Valley Bank will be borne by the taxpayer.”
[Update Monday morning March 13] As we discussed above, one of the problems SVB faced was a decline in the prices of its bond holdings. As a result, when it sold bonds to help meet deposit outflows, it suffered a $2.1 billion loss. Most commercial banks have invested some of their deposits in Treasury bonds and so potentially face the same problem of having to suffer losses if they need to sell the bonds to meet deposit outflows.
To deal with this issue, Sunday night the Fed announced that it was establishing the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP). Banks and other depository institutions, such as savings and loans and credit unions, can use the BTFP to borrow against their holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities and agency debt. (Agency debt consists of bonds issued by any federal government agency other than the U.S. Treasury. Most agency debt is bonds issued by the Government Sponsored Agencies (GSEs) involved in the mortgage market: Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae), and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage (Freddie Mac).) The Fed explained its reasons for setting up the BTFP: “The BTFP will be an additional source of liquidity against high-quality securities, eliminating an institution’s need to quickly sell those securities in times of stress.” You can read the Fed’s statement here.
On Sunday, Signature Bank was closed by New York state banking officials and the FDIC. As with SVB, the Fed, FDIC, and Treasury announced that all depositors, including those whose deposits were above the $250,000 deposit limit, would be able to withdraw the full amount of their deposits.
Shareholders in SVB and Signature Bank lost their investments when the FDIC took control of the banks. On Monday morning, investors were selling shares of a number of regional banks who might also face runs, fearing that their investments would be lost if the FDIC were to seize these banks.
President Biden, speaking from the White House, attempted to reassure the public that the banking system was safe. He stated that he would ask Congress to explore changes in banking regulations to reduce the likelihood of future bank failures.