How Silicon Valley Bank’s Failure Could Have Spread Far and Wide

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s rescue of two failed banks last month has drawn criticism from some lawmakers and investors, who accuse the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve of bailing out wealthy customers in California and New York and sticking bank customers in Middle America with the bill.

But new data help explain why government officials declared the failures of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank to be a risk to not just their customers, but also the entire financial system. The numbers suggest that a run on deposits at those two banks could have set off a cascading series of bank failures, crippling small businesses and economic activity across wide parts of the country.

The analysis of geographic risks from a banking crisis, prepared at the request of The New York Times, was done by economists at Stanford University, the University of Southern California, Columbia University and Northwestern University.

The results show the continuing potential for widespread damage to the entire banking system, which has seen many banks’ financial positions deteriorate as the Fed has raised interest rates to tame inflation. Those rate increases have reduced the value of some government bonds that many banks hold in their portfolios.

Although the damage has so far been contained, the research shows that larger runs on banks vulnerable to rate increases could result in a significant drop in credit available to store owners, home borrowers and more. Because so many counties rely on a relatively small number of financial institutions for deposits and loans, and because so many small businesses keep their money close to home, even a modest run on vulnerable banks could effectively stifle access to credit for entire communities.

That sort of credit paralysis, the researchers estimate, could afflict nearly half the counties in Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi — and every county in Vermont, Maine and Hawaii.

The analysis helps buttress the case that government officials were making based on anecdotes and preliminary data they had when they orchestrated the bank rescues during that weekend in March. As fears of a wider financial crisis mounted, the Fed, the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation acted together to ensure depositors could have access to all their money after the banks collapsed — even if their accounts exceeded the $250,000 limit on federally insured deposits. Fed officials also announced they would offer attractive loans to banks that needed help covering depositors’ demands.

The moves allowed big companies — like Roku — that kept all their money with Silicon Valley Bank to be fully protected despite the bank’s collapse. That has prompted criticism from lawmakers and analysts who said the government was effectively encouraging risky behavior by bank managers and depositors alike.

Even with those moves, the analysts warn, regulators have not permanently addressed the vulnerabilities in the banking system. Those risks leave some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country susceptible to banking shocks ranging from a pullback in small-business lending, which may already be underway, to a new depositor run that could effectively cut off easy access to credit for people and companies in counties across the nation.

Federal Reserve staff hinted at the risks of a broader banking-related hit to the American economy in minutes from the Fed’s March meeting, which was released on Wednesday. “If banking and financial conditions and their effects on macroeconomic conditions were to deteriorate more than assumed in the baseline,” staff members were reported as saying, “then the risks around the baseline would be skewed to the downside for both economic activity and inflation.”

Administration and Fed officials say the actions they took to rescue depositors have stabilized the financial system — including banks that could have been threatened by a depositor run.

“The banking system is very sound — it’s stable,” Lael Brainard, director of President Biden’s National Economic Council, said on Wednesday at an event in Washington hosted by the media outlet Semafor. “The core of the banking system has a great deal of capital.”

“What is important is that banks have now seen, bank executives have now seen, some of the stresses that the failed banks were under, and they’re shoring up their balance sheets,” she said.

But the researchers behind the new study caution that it is historically difficult for banks to quickly make large changes to their financial holdings. Their data does not account for efforts smaller banks have taken in recent weeks to reduce their exposure to higher interest rates. But the researchers note smaller and regional banks face new risks in the current economic climate, including a downturn in the commercial real estate market, that could set off another run on deposits.

“We have to be very careful,” said Amit Seru, an economist at Stanford Graduate School of Business and an author of the study. “These communities are still pretty vulnerable.”

Biden administration officials were monitoring a long list of regional banks in the hours after Silicon Valley Bank failed on March 10. They became alarmed when data and anecdotes suggested depositors were lining up to pull money out of many of them.

The costs of the rescue they engineered will ultimately be paid by other banks, through a special fee levied by the government.

The moves drew criticism, particularly from conservatives. “These losses are borne by the deposit insurance fund,” Senator Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee, said in a recent Banking Committee hearing on the rescues. “That fund is going to be replenished by banks across the nation that had nothing to do with the mismanagement of Silicon Valley Bank or the failure of supervision here.”

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, wrote on Twitter that he would try to block banks from passing on the special fee to consumers. “No way MO customers are paying for a woke bailout,” he said.

The researchers found Silicon Valley Bank was more exposed than most banks to the risks of a rapid increase in interest rates, which reduced the value of securities like Treasury bills that it held in its portfolios and set the stage for insolvency when depositors rushed to pull their money from the bank.

But using federal regulator data from 2022, the team also found hundreds of U.S. banks had dangerous amounts of deterioration in their balance sheets over the past year as the Fed rapidly raised rates.

To map the vulnerabilities of smaller banks across the country, the researchers calculated how much the Fed’s interest rate increases have reduced the value of the asset holdings for individual banks, compared with the value of its deposits. They used that data to effectively estimate the risk of a bank failing in the event of a run on its deposits, which would force bank officials to sell undervalued assets to raise money. Then they calculated the share of banks at risk of failure for every county in the country.

Those banks are disproportionately located in low-income communities, areas with high shares of Black and Hispanic populations and places where few residents hold a college degree.

They are also the economic backbone of some of the nation’s most conservative states: Two-thirds of the counties in Texas and four-fifths of the counties in West Virginia could have a paralyzing number of their banks go under in the event of even a medium-sized run on deposits, the researchers calculate.

In counties across the country, smaller banks are crucial engines of economic activity. In 95 percent of counties, Goldman Sachs researchers recently estimated, at least 70 percent of small business lending comes from smaller and regional banks. Those banks, the Goldman researchers warned, are pulling back on lending “disproportionately” in the wake of the Silicon Valley Bank collapse.

Analysts will get new indications of the degree to which banks are moving quickly to pull back on lending and building up capital when three large financial institutions report quarterly earnings on Friday: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

Mr. Seru of Stanford said the communities that were particularly vulnerable to both a lending slowdown and a potential regional bank run were also the ones that suffered most in the pandemic recession. He said larger financial institutions were unlikely to quickly fill any lending vacuum in those communities if smaller banks failed.

Mr. Seru and his colleagues have urged the government to help address those communities’ vulnerabilities by requiring banks to raise more capital to shore up their balance sheets.

“The recovery in these neighborhoods is still not there yet,” he said. “And the last thing we want is disruption there.”

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