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Air Bags Deployed to Cushion Bank Crashes

Air Bags Deployed to Cushion Bank Crashes

April 03, 2023

In recent years, COVID and a ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy) caused out-of-control inflation to swerve the economy in the wrong direction. However, the Federal Reserve and its Chairman, Jerome Powell, slammed on the brakes last year by instituting the most aggressive interest rate hiking policy in over four decades.

At the beginning of last year, interest rates (Federal Funds Rate target) stood at 0% (at the low end of the target), and today the benchmark interest rate stands at 5.0% (at the upper-end of the target) – see chart below.

Source: Trading Economics

Unfortunately, this unparalleled spike in interest rates contributed to the 2nd and 3rd largest bank failures in American history, both occurring in March. The good news is the Federal Reserve and banking regulators (the Treasury and FDIC – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) deployed some safety airbags last month. Most notably, the Fed, FDIC, and Treasury jointly announced the guarantee of all deposits at SVB, shortly after the bank failure. Moreover, the Fed and Treasury also revealed a broader emergency-lending program to make more funds available for a large swath of banks to meet withdrawal demands, and ultimately prevent additional runs on other banks.

Investors were generally relieved by the government’s response, and the financial markets reacted accordingly. The S&P 500 rose +3.5% last month, and the technology-heavy NASDAQ index catapulted even more (+6.7%). But not everyone escaped unscathed. The KBW Bank Index got pummeled by -25.2%, which also injured the small-cap and mid-cap stock indexes, which declined -5.6% (IJR) and -3.5% (IJH), respectively.

Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, slamming on the economic brakes too hard can lead to unintended consequences, for example, a bank failure or two. Well, that’s exactly what happened in the case of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), the 2nd largest bank failure in history ($209 billion in assets), and cryptocurrency-heavy Signature Bank, the 3rd largest banking collapse in history – $110 billion in assets (see below).

Source: The Wall Street Journal

How did this Silicon Valley Bank failure happen? In short, SVB suffered a bank run, meaning bank customers pulled out money faster than the bank could meet withdrawal requests. Why did this happen? For starters, SVB had a concentrated customer base of financially frail technology start-ups. With a weak stock market last year, many of the start-ups were bleeding cash (i.e., shrinking their bank deposits) and were unable to raise additional funds from investors.

As bank customers began to lose confidence in the liquidity of SVB, depositors began to accelerate withdrawals. SVB executives added gasoline to the fire by making risky investments long-term dated government bonds. Essentially, SVB was making speculative bets on the direction of future interest rates and suffered dramatic losses when the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates last year at an unprecedented rate. This unexpected outcome meant SVB had to sell many of its government bond investments at steep losses in order to meet customer withdrawal requests.

It wasn’t only the large size of this bank failure that made it notable, but it was also the speed of its demise. It was only three and a half weeks ago that SVB announced a $1.8 billion loss on their risky investment portfolio and the subsequent necessity to raise $2.3 billion to fill the hole of withdrawals and losses. The capital raise announcement only heightened depositor and investor anxiety, which led to accelerated bank withdrawals. Within a mere 24-hour period, SVB depositors attempted to withdraw a whopping $42 billion.

Other banks, such as First Republic Bank (FRB), and a European investment bank, Credit Suisse Group (CS), also collapsed on the bank crashing fears potentially rippling through other financial institutions around the globe. Fortunately, a consortium of 11 banks provided a lifeline to First Republic with a $30 billion loan. And Credit Suisse was effectively bailed out by the Swiss central bank when Credit Suisse borrowed $53 billion to bolster its liquidity.

While stockholders and bondholders lost billions of dollars in this mini-banking crisis, financial vultures swirled around the remains of the banking sector. More specifically, First Citizens BancShares (FCNA) acquired the majority of Silicon Valley Bank’s assets with the assistance of the FDIC, and UBS Group (UBS) acquired Credit Suisse for more than $3 billion, thereby providing some stability to the banking sector during a volatile period.

Many pundits have been predicting the U.S. economy to crash into a recession as a result of the aggressive, interest rate tightening policy of the Federal Reserve. So far, Mark Twain would probably agree that the death of the U.S. economy has been greatly exaggerated. Currently, the first quarter measurement of economic activity, GDP (Gross Domestic Product), is estimated to measure approximately +2.0% after closing 2022’s fourth quarter at +2.6% (see chart below). As you probably know, a definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth.

Source: Trading Economics

Regardless of the economic outcome, investors are now predicting the Federal Reserve to be at the end or near the end of its interest rate hiking cycle. Presently, there is roughly a 50/50 chance of one last 0.25% interest rate increase in May (see chart below), and then investors expect at least one interest rate cut by year-end.

Source: CME Group

Last year was a painful year for most investors, but stocks as measured by the S&P 500 have bounced approximately +18% since the October 2022 lows. Market participants are still worried about a possible recession crashing the economy later this year, but hopefully last year’s stock market collision and subsequent banking airbag protections put in place will protect against any further financial pain.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in SIVB, FCNA, UBS, FRB, CS, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.