Bank regulators rolled out several tools from their tool kit to try to stem a financial crisis this week, but problems remain.
The joint announcements followed the Friday closure of Silicon Valley Bank and the surprise Sunday evening closure of Signature Bank.
Santa Clara, California-based Silicon Valley Bank had $209 billion in assets and $175 billion in deposits at the end of 2022 and went into FDIC receivership on March 10; New York-based Signature Bank had $110 billion in assets and $88.6 billion in deposits at the end of 2022 and went into receivership on March 12. Both banks failed without an acquiring institution and the FDIC has set up bridge banks to facilitate their wind downs.
Bank regulators determined both closures qualified for “systemic risk exemptions” that allowed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to cover all the deposits for the failed banks. Currently, deposit insurance covers up to $250,000; both banks focused mainly on businesses, which carry sizable account balances. About 94% of Silicon Valley’s deposits were uninsured, and 90% of Signature’s deposits were over that threshold, according to a March 14 article from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The systemic risk exemption means regulators can act without Congressional approval in limited situations to provide insurance to the entire account balance, says Ed Mills, managing director of Washington policy at the investment bank Raymond James.
The bank regulators also announced a special funding facility, which would help banks ensure they have access to adequate liquidity to meet the demands of their depositors. The facility, called the Bank Term Funding Program or BTFP, will offer wholesale funding loans with a duration of up to one year to eligible depository institutions that can pledge U.S. Treasuries, agency debt and mortgage-backed securities and other qualifying assets as collateral. The combined measures attempt to stymie further deposit runs and solve for the issue that felled Silicon Valley and Signature: a liquidity crunch.
In a normal operating environment, banks would sell bonds from their available-for-sale securities portfolio to keep up with liquidity demands, whether that’s deposit outflows or additional lending opportunities. Rising rates over the last five quarters means that aggregate unrealized losses in securities portfolios grew to $620 billion at the end of 2022 — losses many banks want to avoid recording. In the case of Silicon Valley, depositors began to pull their money after the bank announced on March 8 it would restructure its $21 billion available-for-sale securities portfolio, booking a $1.8 billion loss and requiring a $2 billion capital raise.
“The BTFP will be an additional source of liquidity [borrowed] against high-quality securities, eliminating an institution’s need to quickly sell those securities in times of stress,” the Federal Reserve said in its release on the facility. Importantly, the pledged collateral, such as U.S. Treasurys, will be valued at par. That is the “most beneficial portion” of the program and eliminates the discount many of these securities carry given their lower yields, Mills says.
The hope is that banks pledge their underwater bonds to increase their liquidity should deposits begin to leave their institution. One concern, then, is that banks hesitate to use it as a sign of weakness, Mills says. But he says, “conversations about impacts to earnings and impacts to reputation are secondary to solvency.”
Former Comptroller of the Currency Gene Ludwig tells Bank Director that he appreciates the steps the regulators took, and of President Joe Biden’s messaging that accompanied Sunday’s actions.
“I realized that for the regulators, because of the speed and the need to react quickly and over a weekend, there was a lot of wood to chop,” he says. “ It takes time, but I think they reacted with vigor.”
Although he wasn’t at the FDIC, Ludwig’s career touches on the importance of deposit coverage. In addition to serving as comptroller in the 1990s, he founded and later sold IntraFi, a reciprocal deposit network. He encourages banks to at least establish lines to the BTFP, since the application and transfers can take time.
It remains to be seen whether regulator actions will be enough to assuage depositors and the broader public. Banks have reportedly borrowed $11.9 billion from the new facility and another $152.8 billion from the discount window, according to a Bloomberg article published the afternoon of March 16. However, the facilities don’t fully address the problem that most banks are carrying substantial unrealized losses in their bond books — which may only continue to grow if the Federal Open Market Committee continues increasing rates.
“This announcement was about stemming the immediate systemic concerns, but it absolutely did not solve all of the banks’ woes,” Mills says.
It’s also possible that those tailored actions may be insufficient for certain institutions that resemble Silicon Valley Bank or Signature Bank. Clifford Stanford, an Atlanta-based partner of law firm Alston & Bird and a former assistant general counsel at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, remembers how bank failures and weakness would come in waves of activity during the Great Recession and afterward.
“There’s a lot of unknowns about who’s got what holes in their balance sheet and who’s sitting on what problems,” he says. “Every board of every bank should be asking their management right now: Do we have this problem? If we do have a risk, how are we hedging it? What sort of options do we have to backstop liquidity? What’s our plan?”