Sunday, March 19, 2023

What Did These Three Banks Have In Common? Uninsured High-Liquidity...,

NC  |  Three different banks with very different business strategies and asset mixes got in trouble at the same time.1 Some like Barney Frank, on the board of Signature Bank, argue that the common element was a regulatory crackdown on banks too cozy with the crypto industry. But that’s not really the case with Silicon Valley Bank, which has been suffering for a while from declines in its deposits due to a falloff in new funding all across tech land, as well as more difficult business conditions leading to not much in the way of new customers and falling deposit balances at most existing customers.

What the three banks did have in common was a very high level of uninsured deposits which made them particularly vulnerable to runs and therefore should have led the banks’ managements to be very mindful of asset-liability mismatches and liquidity. And they should have focused on fees rather than the balance sheet to achieve better than ho-hum profits.

Silicon Valley Bank has attempted to wrap itself in the mantle of being a stalwart of those rent-extracting innovative tech companies. But Silicon Valley Bank is hiding behind the skirts of venture capital firms. They are the ones who provided and then kept organizing the influx of capital to these companies. The story of the life of a venture capital backed business is multiple rounds of equity funding. Borrowing is very rarely a significant source of capital. So the idea that Silicon Valley Bank was a lender to portfolio companies is greatly exaggerated.2

Both the press and several readers have confirmed that the reason for Silicon Valley Bank’s lock on the banking business of venture-capital-funded companies was that the VCs required that the companies keep their deposits there. And that’s because the VCs could keep much tighter tabs on their investee companies by having the bank monitor fund in and outflows on a more active basis than the VCs could via periodic management and financial reports.

Now what flows from that? One of the basic rules of business is that it is vastly cheaper to keep customers than find them. Silicon Valley Bank would be highly motivated to attract and retain both the fund and the personal business of its venture capital kingpins. Accordingly, the press has pointed out that loans to vineyards and venture capital honchos’ mortgages were important businesses. It’s not hard to think that these were done on preferential terms to members of a big VC firm’s “family” as a loyalty bonus of sorts.

On top of that, recall that Silicon Valley Bank bought Boston Private with over $10 billion in assets, in July 2021. The wealth management firm also had a very strong registered investment adviser platform and additional assets under management. That suggests Silicon Valley recognized increasingly that the care and feeding of its rich individual clients was core to its strategy.

It’s impossible to prove at this juncture, but I strongly suspect that the individual account withdrawals were at least as important to Silicon Valley Bank’s demise as any corporate pullouts. One tell was the demand for a backstop of all unsecured deposits, and not accounts that held payrolls. A search engine gander quickly shows that it’s recommended practice for companies to keep their payroll funds in a bank account separate from that of operating funds. One has to assume that the venture capital overlords would have their portfolio companies adhere to these practices.

The press also had anedcata about wealthy customers in Boston getting so rowdy when trying to get their money out that the bank called the police, as well as Peter Thiel (to the tune of $50 million), Oprah, and Harry & Meghan as serious depositors.

Similarly, there is evidence that the run at Signature Bank was that of rich people. Lambert presented this tidbit from the Wall Street Journal yesterday in Water Cooler:

A rush by New York City real-estate investors to yank money out of Signature Bank last week played a significant role in the bank’s collapse, according to building owners and state regulators. The withdrawals gained momentum as talk circulated about the exposure Signature had to cryptocurrency firms and that its fate might follow the same path as Silicon Valley Bank, which suffered a run on the bank last week before collapsing and forcing the government to step in. Word that landlords were withdrawing cash spread rapidly in the close-knit community of New York’s real-estate families, prompting others to follow suit. Regulators closed Signature Bank on Sunday in one of the biggest bank failures in U.S. history. Real-estate investor Marx Realty was among the many New York firms to cash out, withdrawing several million dollars early last week from Signature accounts tied to an office building, said chief executive Craig Deitelzweig.

This selection also illustrates a point that makes it hard to analyze these bank crashes well. The very wealthy regularly use corporate entities for personal investments, so looking at corporate versus purely individual account holdings is often misleading in terms of who is holding the strings. A business owned by a billionaire does not operate like a similar-sized company with a typical corporate governance structure.3

Ironically, First Republic Bank, which holds itself out as primarily a private bank, had the lowest level of uninsured deposits, 67% versus 86% at Silicon Valley Bank and 89% at Signature. But its balance sheet was heavy on long-term municipal bonds, which are not eligible collateral at the discount window or the Fed’s new Bank Term Funding Program facility. Hence the need for a private bailout.

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