Thursday, March 16, 2023

Rescuing Anything Touched By SVB Is A Catastrophic Policy Error

wired  |  When Silicon Valley Bank collapsed on March 10, Garry Tan, president and CEO of startup incubator Y Combinator, called SVB’s failure “an extinction level event for startups” that “will set startups and innovation back by 10 years or more.” People have been quick to point out how quickly the cadre of small-government, libertarian tech bros has come calling for government intervention in the form of a bailout when it’s their money on the line.

Late yesterday, the US government announced that SVB depositors will regain access to all their money, thanks to the Federal Deposit Insurance Company's backstop funded by member banks. Yet the shock to the tech ecosystem and its elite may still bring down a reckoning for many who believe it’s got nothing to do with them.

SVB’s 40,000 customers are mostly tech companies—the bank provided services to around half of US startups—but those tech companies are tattooed into the fabric of daily lives across the US and beyond. The power of the West Coast tech industry means that most digital lives are rarely more than a single degree of separation away from a startup banking with SVB.

The bank's customers may now be getting their money back but the services SVB once provided are gone. That void and the shock of last week may cause—or force—startups and their investors to drastically change how they manage their money and businesses, with effects far beyond Silicon Valley.

Most immediately, the many startups who depended on SVB have workers far from the bank’s home turf. “These companies and people are not just in Silicon Valley,” says Sarah Kunst, managing director of Cleo Capital, a San Francisco firm that invests in early-stage startups.

Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham said yesterday that the incubator’s companies banking with SVB have more than a quarter of a million employers, around a third of whom are based outside California. If they and other SVB customers suffer cash crunches or cut back expansion plans, rent payments in many parts of the world may be delayed and staff may no longer buy coffees and lunches at the corner deli. Cautious about the future, businesses may withhold new hires, and staff who remain may respond in kind, cutting local spending or delaying home purchases or renovation work.

The second- and third-order impacts of startups hitting financial trouble or just slowing down could be more pernicious. “When you say: ‘Oh, I don’t care about Silicon Valley,’ yes, that might sound fine. But the reality is very few of us are Luddites,” Kunst says. “Imagine you wake up and go to unlock your door, and because they’re a tech company banking with SVB who can no longer make payroll, your app isn’t working and you’re struggling to unlock your door.” Perhaps you try a rideshare company or want to hop on a pay-by-the-hour electric scooter, but can’t because their payment system is provided by an SVB client who now can’t operate.


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