Breakingviews: SVB dies, but its disease lives on

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People walk down Broadway past the Wall Street subway station in New York September 15, 2008.
People walk down Broadway past the Wall Street subway station in New York September 15, 2008. REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES)

NEW YORK, March 10 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Nearly three years with no U.S. bank failures just came to an unseemly end. Silicon Valley Bank, which counts among its customers half of all U.S. venture-capital backed startups, was taken into receivership by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp on Friday after a slide in deposits and a hasty capital raising failed to restore confidence. By acting quickly, regulators have stopped one crisis, but may have laid the groundwork for more.

Customers in American banks typically don’t have to worry about what happens if a lender goes under, thanks to a guarantee from Uncle Sam to pay back depositors if an institution fails. But there’s a big exception. Balances over $250,000 aren’t covered. Above that level, customers must fight with other creditors for scraps.

The bank owned by SVB Financial (SIVB.O) relied more heavily on large, and therefore, uninsured, deposits than other banks. Some 94% of the funds held at SVB weren’t guaranteed at the end of 2022, according to its regulatory filings, compared with 52% at JPMorgan (JPM.N), and 58% at Silvergate Bank, a crypto-focused lender that is also closing its doors this week after depositors turned tail. SVB was also skewed towards young tech companies that burn through cash. As interest rates have risen and the economy has cooled, startups have been drawing down their deposits more swiftly than before. SVB thought the situation would improve at the end of last year; it was wrong.

Uninsured depositors will now get a certificate entitling them to dividends – possibly – as SVB’s assets are sold off. They may in the end get most of their money back. SVB’s assets were mostly cash and government-backed fixed-income securities at the last count, and of the loans that made up roughly one-third of its $212 billion balance sheet, most were in reasonably safe areas. A buyer – say, a bank that covets SVB’s relationship with upwardly mobile entrepreneurs – might swoop in and buy the whole thing. But the uncertainty is still disastrous for startup customers who need regular and immediate access to large sums to keep their lights on.

Anyone with uninsured deposits is now, effectively, on notice that these balances aren’t guaranteed when push comes to shove. That message probably gets forgotten in peacetime. And while few banks have the concentration of tech-sector risk that made SVB’s customers lose their nerve, many have a substantial reliance on deposits that are now revealed to be anything but rock solid. If the regulators’ goal was to make mega-banks like JPMorgan and Bank of America (BAC.N) even bigger, they couldn’t have found a better way.

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(The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.)


Silicon Valley Bank, owned by SVB Financial, was taken into receivership on March 10 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, two days after it said it was raising $1.8 billion in equity to shore up its balance sheet.

The FDIC said that insured depositors would get access to their funds by the morning of March 13 at the latest. Other depositors would receive certificates of receivership, which entitle them to dividends payable from the proceeds of selling the bank’s assets.

Chief Executive Greg Becker had said in a letter to investors that elevated cash burn at the companies it banks had led to lower-than-expected deposits in February, according to a Reuters story on March 9. SVB also lost $1.8 billion on its sale of a bond portfolio consisting mostly of U.S. Treasuries.

SVB had around $165 billion in deposits as of Feb. 28, it said in a presentation on March 8. That compared with $173 billion at the end of 2022.

Editing by Lauren Silva Laughlin and Amanda Gomez

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