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Occupy Silicon Valley

Where Is Occupy Silicon Valley?

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Bank failures tend to come in waves, and we are experiencing at least a mini-wave now.

Banks fail for three basic reasons: 1. Credit transformation: deterioration in borrower creditworthiness, usually due to an adverse economic shock (e.g., a real estate bust). 2. Maturity transformation: borrowing short, lending long, and then getting hammered when interest rates rise. 3. Liquidity transformation combined with an exogenous liquidity shock, a la Diamond-Dybvig, where idiosyncratic depositor needs for cash lead to withdrawals that exceed liquid assets and therefore trigger fire sales of illiquid assets.

The two most notable failures of late–Silicon Valley Bank and Silvergate–are examples of 2 and 3 respectively. 

In some respects, SVB is the most astounding. Not because a bank failed in the old-fashioned way, but because it was funded primarily by the deposits of supposed financial sophisticates–and because of the disgusting policy response of the Treasury and the Fed. 

SVB took in oodles of cash, especially in the past couple of years. The cashcade was so immense that SVB could not find enough traditional banking business (loans) to soak it up, so they bought lots of Treasuries. And long duration Treasuries to boot.

And then Powell and the Fed applied the boot, jacking up rates. Bonds have cratered in the last year, and took SVB’s balance sheet with it. 

Again, an old story. And hardly a harbinger of systemic risk–unless such reckless maturity mismatches are systemic. 

SVB was the Banker to the Silicon Valley Stars, notably VCs and tech firms. These firms are the ones that deposited immense sums in exchange for a pittance of return. Case in point, Roku, put almost $500 million–yes, you read that right, 9 figures led with a 5–into SVB!!! 

I mean: what the eff? Was the Treasurer a moron? For who other than a moron would hold that much in cash in a single institution? (Roku claims its devices “make your home a smarter.” Maybe they should have hired a smarter treasurer and CFO, or replaced them with one of its devices). Hell, why is a company holding that much in cash period?

A few of these alleged masters of the universe (like Palantir) saw the writing on the wall and yanked their deposits: deposits fell by a quarter on Friday alone, sealing the bank’s doom. Those who were slow to run howled to the high heavens over the weekend that if there was not a bailout there would be a holocaust in the tech sector.

Even though the systemic risk posed by SVB’s failure is nil (or if not, then every bank is systemically important), the Treasury Department and the Fed responded to these howls and guaranteed all the deposits–even though the FDIC’s formal deposit insurance limit is $250,000. You know, .05 percent of Roku’s deposit. 

When evaluating this, one cannot ignore the reality that the Democratic Party is completely beholden to Silicon Valley. This is beyond scandalous. 

Occupy Silicon Valley, anyone?

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen insulted our intelligence by assuring us this is not a bailout. Well, it’s not a taxpayer bailout, strictly speaking, because the Treasury is not providing the backstop. Instead, it is being funded by a “special assessment” on solvent banks. Which are owned and funded by people who also pay taxes. And such an “assessment” is a tax in everything but name–because it is a contribution by private entities compelled by the government. 

The policy implications of this are disastrous. The whole problem with such bailouts is moral hazard. What is to stop banks from engaging in such reckless behavior as SVB did if they can obtain seemingly unlimited funding from those who know that they will be bailed out if things go pear-shaped? 

And the regulatory failure here demonstrates that bank regulation–despite the supposed “reforms” of Frankendodd–can’t even catch or constrain the oldest bet-the-bank strategy in the book. Free banking–no deposit insurance, no bailing out of depositors–couldn’t do worse, and would likely do better. 

No, the failure of SVB is not the scandal here. The scandal is the political response to it. This reveals yet again how captured the government is. This time not by Wall Street, but by tech companies and oligarchs that are currently the primary source of Democratic political funding. 

A couple of weeks ago the Silvergate story looked juicy, but SVB has put it in the shade. Silvergate also grew dramatically, but on the back of crypto rather than SV tech. It became the main banker for many crypto firms and entrepreneurs. The crypto meltdown did not affect Silvergate directly, but it did crush its depositors, the aforesaid crypto firms and entrepreneurs. They withdrew a lot of funding, and an old-fashioned liquidity mismatch did it in.

In traditional banks, deposit funding is “sticky.” Banks that rely on wholesale funding (“hot money”) are more vulnerable to runs. Silvergate’s funding was not traditional sticky deposit funding, nor was it hot money per se. It was money that was pretty cool as long as crypto was cool, and became hot once crypto melted down.

A run started, but the run was precipitated by a liquidity shock. Simple story, really.

Silvergate’s failure was not a scandal. SVB’s failure per se was not a scandal (except to the extent that our vaunted banking regulators failed to prevent the most prosaic type of failure). 

Again–the scandal is the politically tainted response that will have baleful consequences in the future, as the response virtually guarantees that there will be more SVBs in the future.



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Author

  • Craig Pirrong

    Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

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