Fed Vice Chair Calls Silicon Valley Bank a ‘Textbook Case of Mismanagement’

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve’s vice chair for supervision blamed Silicon Valley Bank’s demise on poor internal management and excessive risk-taking and detailed the steps that Fed supervisors took to address the snowballing problems that ultimately killed the company, according to prepared remarks ahead of a congressional hearing on Tuesday.

The vice chair, Michael Barr, who will appear at a Senate Banking Committee hearing along with other regulators, also acknowledged in his written testimony that bank supervision and regulation might need to change in the wake of the collapse.

Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse this month sent shock-waves across the global banking system, prompting many depositors to pull their cash out of regional and smaller banks over concerns they could lose their money. The tumult prompted a sweeping response from the government, which pledged to make sure that even big and uninsured depositors at Silicon Valley Bank and another failed bank — Signature — were paid back. The Fed itself set up an emergency lending program to help banks who needed to raise cash in a pinch.

But as the upheaval shows tentative signs of calming, lawmakers are demanding to know what went wrong.

Mr. Barr will testify alongside Martin Gruenberg, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and Nellie Liang, the Treasury’s under secretary for domestic finance.

Mr. Gruenberg, whose testimony was also released on Monday afternoon, suggested in his prepared remarks that the F.D.I.C. would review both its oversight of Signature bank and the suitability of America’s deposit insurance system — including coverage levels, which now cap at $250,000 — in the wake of the debacle. It will release the results by May 1.

The Fed was Silicon Valley Bank’s primary regulator, and it was reviewing why it had failed to stop risks that were in plain sight. Silicon Valley Bank had grown rapidly. Its depositors were heavily concentrated in the volatile technology industry. Many of them had more than $250,000 in their accounts, meaning that their deposits were past the federal insurance limit and that they were more prone to run at the first sign of trouble. The bank’s leaders had made a bad bet that interest rates would stabilize or fall, and the bank had big losses when rates instead rose in 2022.

Mr. Barr was expected to face questions about why those glaring issues had not been stopped — and he laid out an early defense in his speech text.

“SVB’s failure is a textbook case of mismanagement,” he said, while adding that the “failure demands a thorough review of what happened, including the Federal Reserve’s oversight of the bank.”

He noted that Fed supervisors spotted a range of problems in late 2021 and throughout 2022, even rating the bank’s management as deficient, which barred it from growing by acquiring other companies. And he said that supervisors told board officials in mid-February that they were actively engaged with SVB on its interest rate risk.

“As it turned out, the full extent of the bank’s vulnerability was not apparent until the unexpected bank run on March 9,” Mr. Barr added. “In our review, we are focusing on whether the Federal Reserve’s supervision was appropriate for the rapid growth and vulnerabilities of the bank.”

Yet Mr. Barr was also likely to face questions — especially from Democrats — about whether changes to Fed regulation and supervision in recent years could have paved the way for the implosion. Congress passed a law that made midsize bank oversight less onerous in 2018, and Mr. Barr’s predecessor, Randal K. Quarles, an appointee of President Donald J. Trump, had carried out and in some cases built upon those changes in 2019.

Mr. Barr, a Biden appointee, started in his role in mid-2022. He has been carrying out a “holistic review” of bank capital standards, but that has yet to be completed.

And questions could arise about issues that Mr. Barr did not address in his remarks. For instance, while he pointed out that supervisors were aware of risks at Silicon Valley Bank, he did not note that the group of Fed Board staff members and supervisors overseeing the bank gave it a satisfactory rating when it came to liquidity in 2022 — even after a range of problems, including some with liquidity risk management, had already been flagged.

Mr. Barr did suggest that the Fed’s internal review, which he is leading and is set to conclude by May 1, was assessing whether supervisors could “distinguish risks that pose a material threat to a bank’s safety and soundness” and whether “supervisors have the tools to mitigate threats.”

But that may be too little to satisfy lawmakers, many of whom are calling for an independent review of what went wrong. Several had sent letters to the Fed requesting a thorough release of materials related to how Silicon Valley Bank was overseen.

Mr. Gruenberg suggested that the widespread problems caused by the failure of two banks that were not considered systemic under existing regulatory rules indicated that regulators needed to pay more attention to banks of their size.

“Given the financial stability risks caused by the two failed banks, the methods for planning and carrying out a resolution of banks with assets of $100 billion or more also merit special attention,” he said.

He said the F.D.I.C. had already begun investigating how senior leaders at both banks contributed to losses through bad management, adding, in what seemed like a roundabout reference to President Biden’s call for new legislation on clawbacks from failed bank executives’ stock sales, that the regulator had the power to hold individual executives accountable.

Mr. Gruenberg also seemed to nod to community bank lobbyists’ recent protesting of having to pay for making uninsured depositors at Signature and Silicon Valley Bank whole by participating in a special assessment by the F.D.I.C. to replenish the deposit insurance fund.

“The law provides the F.D.I.C. authority, in implementing the assessment, to consider ‘the types of entities that benefit from any action taken or assistance provided,’” Mr. Gruenberg said.

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