The Biden administration and his…regulators…are, indeed, bailing out all SVB depositors, including those with deposits larger than the FDIC’s insurance of deposits worth $250k or less. This is being done under the administration’s claimed “systemic risk exception” in order to bail out the bank’s uninsured deposits—which is to say the bank’s uninsured depositors.
That is a power that was used during the 2008 financial crisis. Measures such as this can be controversial, with some arguing that it creates what is known as a “moral hazard”—that by letting banks or their customers know the government will backstop them in a crisis, they will think less about risks.
The move was a mistake in 2008, which the House recognized when it rejected that bailout before caving and voting for it, and it’s a mistake now. It does, indeed, create the moral hazard that Uncle Sugar will save investors from their risk folly—or even from accurately assessed risk, but the odds came home against them, so there’s no need for investors to worry about risk. Here is that moral hazard made concrete:
The Federal Reserve took another action on Sunday, which was to establish something called the Bank Term Funding Program. What this will do is ensure that a bank that is holding safe assets, such as Treasurys or government-backstopped mortgage bonds, can bring them to the Fed and swap them for cash for up to a year. They could use that cash to grant customers’ requests for their deposit money.
SVB held most of its assets as precisely those Treasurys.
The problem that SVB…had with its investment securities was that the rise in interest rates last year depressed the market value of even safe assets that will almost certainly repay the banks’ money, just not for a long time. But had the banks gone to sell them now to cover deposit outflows, they wouldn’t have gotten back what they paid for them.
It is an issue that isn’t just concentrated in one or two banks: the FDIC has said that across all banks, there were about $620 billion in what are called unrealized losses as of the end of last year.
The Fed has now promised to swap these securities for cash at face value, meaning banks won’t have to realize any losses on them for now.
That spreads the moral hazard all over the banking system. No banking investor or depositor will take any risks; those risks are being laid off on us average Americans.
So regulators might have to walk a fine political line: indicating strength and decisiveness to stem further bank runs, but not looking like they are granting a free pass to banks. The regulators said any losses to the Deposit Insurance Fund to cover uninsured deposits would be recovered by a special assessment charged to banks.
No, they don’t have to walk that line at all. They could just say “No.” Instead, they’re planning on making things worse: that bit about making other banks pay for the regulators’ decision to bail out SVB’s investors. Those other banks had nothing to do with SVB management failure or the risks its depositors chose to take. Guilty, anyway, pay up, suckers.
Too, there’s a critical difference between the current situation (and the 2008 predecessor) and the Panic of 1907. The Federal government then had neither the tools nor the finances to stop that depositor run on the banking system. Private citizen, banker, and Evilly Stinking Rich, JP Morgan, along with a number of his fellow Evil Rich guaranteed their fortunes against the banks’ ability to pay depositors. The run stopped. Government intervention wasn’t needed; private citizens acted.
We don’t need government intervention today, even though wealth isn’t nearly as heavily concentrated today as it was those 115, or so, years ago. We certainly don’t need the regulators’ deliberately manufactured moral hazard systemic bailouts.