Yesterday a bank failed. Silicon Valley Bank, one of the most prominent lenders to the tech industry and the 16th largest bank in the country, was shut down by the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Company took over operations as the bank’s receiver. The collapse of SVB is the second largest bank failure in U.S. history.
Bank failures are never pretty. They often recall Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation that there are two ways to go bankrupt: “gradually, and then suddenly.” Banks operate on a foundation of trust in their stability and integrity, and when that foundation is undercut, failure can occur with breathtaking speed. That appears to be what happened with SVB.
As an interesting CNBC article recounts, SVB’s downfall took less than two days. On Wednesday, the bank advised investors that it needed to raise $2.5 billion. At that point, the bank was apparently still reasonably well capitalized; at the end of December, it reported $209 billion in assets and $175 billion in deposits. But underlying issues with the American economy had caused some start-up depositors to withdraw their assets to stay afloat, the bank found itself short of funds and was forced to sell the bonds it had available for sale at a loss, and when it announced it needed to raise additional funds the blood was in the water. The bank’s stock price plummeted, the tech investment community spread the word that deposits should be removed from the bank, and customers withdrew an astonishing $42 billion in less than 48 hours, leaving the bank with a negative cash balance of $958 million. With the bank insolvent and unable to find a buyer, regulators stepped in.
The CNBC article quotes one fintech investor as saying that the failure of SVB was “a hysteria-induced bank run” caused by venture capital firms. That’s often what happens–and the sad thing is that the people who panic, withdraw their funds, and precipitate bank failures usually end up safe, whereas the people who leave their money in the bank and trust that all is well often end up sorry. In the case of SVB, the people who kept their deposits in the bank will now have to deal with the FDIC, which insures deposits up to $250,000 per depositor. If you’re someone who had more than $250,000 on deposit at SVB, you might well find yourself out of luck.
For all of our thin veneer of civilization and sophistication, people are still prone to panic–especially panic about money. Let’s all hope that the failure of SVB, coming on the heels of cryptocurrency collapses and other recent negative financial developments, doesn’t provoke a stampede.