For most of us, the words “bank failure” immediately trigger the same recent memory: the financial crisis of 2008. That was a year no investor could ever forget. The year some of the largest, most storied financial institutions in the world — think Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and others — collapsed, never to return.
Similarly, for anyone who has studied history, the words “run on the bank” immediately trigger images of the early days of the Great Depression. For others, it’s perhaps scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life. (Or Mary Poppins, if you prefer.) Dramatic moments now consigned to the waste bin of time. Surely not something that could happen in this day and age.
But on Friday, March 10, all these words — bank failure, bank run – happened to the Silicon Valley Bank in northern California. It’s an event that has many investors, scarred by the memory of 2008, wondering if the same thing could happen to other banks. An event that has only added to the fearful mood currently pervading the markets.
As you probably know, when the news broke on that Friday morning, all three major indices immediately tumbled, capping off a rough week for the markets. So, I want to briefly explain what was going on with this semi-obscure bank and why it spooked investors. Then, I want to go over what we can learn from it.
Prior to collapsing, Silicon Valley Bank was the 16th largest in the country, holding approximately $209 billion in assets.1 If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s probably because the bank specialized in lending money to start-up companies; the kind of fledgling tech firms Silicon Valley breeds each year. Now, it has the dubious distinction of being the largest bank to fail since 2008.1
So how did a bank this large fail so suddenly? Truth be told, it’s a tale that anyone who lived through 2008 also remembers well: The bank simply made too many bad decisions at precisely the wrong time. During the pandemic, tech companies saw a surge in business. This led to a host of new, hopeful tech companies popping up, each flush with venture capital. As a result, banks that specialize in serving these types of companies enjoyed their own surge: A surge in deposits.
Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was one of these banks. But while business was booming, this was also when the problems started. You see, like most banks, SVB only keeps a fraction of its deposits in-house at any given time. The rest is lent out or invested. In this case, SVB purchased tens of billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds.
To be fair, there was a certain logic here. Treasury bonds are historically seen as one of the safest investments in the world. Given the market uncertainty we saw during the pandemic, the bank probably thought it was being prudent with customers’ money. Unfortunately, the bank forgot one important detail: While Treasurys don’t usually see the kind of volatility that stocks or other securities do, they are vulnerable to a very specific kind of risk. The risk of rising interest rates.
While this was going on, the economy started changing. Inflation skyrocketed. Interest rates, in turn, rose to the highest levels in decades. That meant all those Treasurys purchased when interest rates were low were suddenly far less valuable. (Newer government bonds pay far more in interest than those purchased before the rate hikes began.) At the same time, those tech companies that profited during the pandemic saw business – and their stock prices – fall. For SVB, that meant fewer and fewer deposits coming in. Suddenly, SVB was faced with a nightmare scenario: A lack of liquidity and a lack of new funds.
None of that might have mattered so long as customers didn’t start withdrawing their money. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Faced with their own economic distress, all those tech companies – and their executives – started asking for their money back. Given that they only kept a fraction of that money in reserve, SVB had no choice but to sell its investments at a major discount. The result was a major loss of nearly $2 billion, which the bank revealed earlier in the week.1
When news of the situation got out, customers began panicking. This led to a classic, seldom-seen-but-much-feared scenario: A run on the bank.
In the days that followed, the bank was unable to stop the bleeding. So, on Friday, the government stepped in and took control of the bank’s remaining $175 billion in customer deposits.2
Okay. That’s the story. But why the impact on the markets?
Aside from being eerily similar to 2008 – a bank makes risky financial decisions at the exact wrong time and crumbles – the situation has investors wondering if there are other banks out there that might soon experience the same problem. No surprise, then, that shares of banks with similar business models fell sharply as the news about SVB greeted the markets.
But it’s more than that. Right now, investors are gripped with fears of a recession. On the surface, that may seem counterintuitive, as most areas of the economy remain in decent health. But until the economy cools down, inflation will continue to run hot…which means the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates. (Indeed, the Fed chairman announced on March 8 that he expects rates to rise “higher than previously anticipated.”)3
With each rate hike, the threat of a recession grows larger.
Right now, investors are hyper-sensitive to anything that looks like the first sign of a recession. And the failure of a major bank certainly qualifies. Hence the turmoil we saw in the markets following these developments and that we may keep seeing for the foreseeable future.
So, what can we learn from this? To my mind, there are a few lessons:
- When making investing decisions, always prioritize your long-term goals. In the wake of the pandemic, SVB made too many short-term decisions that locked up its long-term options. We will never do that. Here at Harvest Wealth our approach will always be to take the slower-but-surer path to your financial goals. We will always emulate the tortoise, not the hare.
- Never forget the importance of liquidity. We are not a bank. We are human beings, and human beings must contend with the unexpected. That means we sometimes need quick access to our money. That’s why we will always invest, save, and plan accordingly.
- Know that our focus on companies that pay secure dividends, grow them consistently, and meet their growth objectives with free cash flow all serve to minimize our dependence on bank’s decision making and on fed policy. It is a great strategy to combat inflation and to weather recessions.
- Hold to our long-term strategy and never invest based on stories or emotions. Right now, too many investors are trying to divine when a recession will strike. They are overreacting to every headline. We won’t do that, either.
We are experiencing a time of uncertainty in the markets. Such times are rarely fun, but they’re not unexpected. The good news is that my team and I continue to have confidence in both our long-term strategy and the road you are taking toward your financial goals. We will continue to monitor the markets very carefully and keep you updated on what’s going on.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Harvest Wealth we are thriving in all aspects – and well positioned to continue to be able to meet you and your family’s financial needs with no competing agendas.
As always, please let me, Scott, and/or Vytas know if you have any questions or concerns. We are always here for you. Have a great month!
1 “Silicon Valley Bank Closed by Regulators, FDIC Takes Control,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2023. https://www.wsj.com/articles/svb-financial-pulls-capital-raise-explores-alternatives-including-possible-sale-sources-say-11de7522
2 “Silicon Valley Bank Fails After Run by Venture Capital Customers,” The NY Times, March 10, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/10/business/silicon-valley-bank-stock.html
3 “Fed Chair Powell says interest rates are ‘likely to be higher’ than previously anticipated,” CNBC, March 7, 2023. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/07/fed-chair-powell-says-interest-rates-are-likely-to-be-higher-than-previously-anticipated.html
The views stated in this letter are not necessarily the opinion of Cetera Advisor Networks LLC and should not be construed directly or indirectly as an offer to buy or sell any securities mentioned herein. Due to volatility within the markets mentioned, opinions are subject to change without notice. Information is based on sources believed to be reliable; however, their accuracy or completeness cannot be guaranteed. Past performance does not guarantee future results.