Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Uninsured Bank Depositor Bailouts Make A Mockery Of "Too Big To Fail"

 nationalreview |  The 2008 financial collapse and resulting Wall Street bailout popularized the concept of “too big to fail” — the idea that certain institutions were so massive, and so intertwined with the rest of the financial system, that their failure could trigger a complete meltdown of the economy. 

While I opposed that bailout on ideological grounds, I at least recognized the tremendous risk that the implosion of the nation’s major investment banks would pose for the broader financial system. But Sunday’s decision by regulators to bail out uninsured depositors of the failed Silicon Valley Bank would dramatically lower the threshold for federal intervention in financial markets. 
To be sure, there are reasons to believe the collapse of SVB carries broader consequences. While the FDIC guarantees deposits up to $250,000, the overwhelming majority of SVB deposits exceeded that amount. It was the bank of choice for many tech start-ups. Without access to their cash, those companies would have difficulty meeting payroll. Additionally, the sudden collapse of SVB could lead companies and individuals who have deposits in other similar financial institutions to withdraw their money starting on Monday, triggering more bank runs, and more bank collapses. 
While regulators are not stepping in to rescue SVB as an institution, the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, and FDIC have announced that they will make sure that all depositors at SVB as well as another failed institution, Signature Bank, will have access to their money on Monday even if those deposits exceed the $250,000 threshold. In a statement, regulators promise, “No losses associated with the resolution of Silicon Valley Bank will be borne by the taxpayer.”  
Defenders of this decision will try to make it seem as if it’s an extraordinary, one-off decision by regulators, but in practice, it has created a huge moral hazard by signaling that the $250,000 FDIC limit on deposit insurance does not exist in practice. The clear signal it sends is that when financial institutions make poor decisions, the government will swoop in to clean up the mess. There are plenty of ways in which poor decisions made by financial institutions could have larger implications. But in 2008, the justification for intervention was systemic risk. 
This was not a case in which the whole economy would be threatened if an intervention were not taken. There would be disruption to a number of companies in the tech sector and their employees, as well as potential problems for similarly situated financial institutions. But the vast majority of banks are well capitalized right now, and there is no credible risk of this causing a complete financial meltdown. 
In fact, it isn’t even clear that depositors were going to be wiped out, absent federal intervention. When SVB was shut down, it still had real assets that were worth money, which can be sold to pay back investors. Due to poor risk management, what they were not able to do is avoid a panic in which a large number of depositors tried to withdraw their money at the same time, which is what happened last week. Under one estimate from a Jefferies analyst, when liquidated, SVB has the assets to pay off 95 percent of deposits. This is no doubt one reason why regulators are stating so confidently that they don’t expect this to cost taxpayers money. Another reason is that they claim any losses incurred would be repaid by “a special assessment on banks” which will inevitably end up being passed on to their customers. 
Anybody who considers themselves a free-market conservative should be especially concerned about this action. Regardless of the particulars, it will just add to the talking point that when Wall Street or well-connected tech companies are in trouble, the government swoops in to the rescue. And yet lawmakers won’t eliminate student debt, give away free health care, pay for child care, guarantee affordable housing . . . and insert whatever cause you like. If you support socialism for tech companies, don’t be surprised when you get it for everything else.


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