Right, But for a Different Reason

The Wall Street Journal‘s editors’ headline and subheadline is on a reasonable track:

Punishing Banks for Regulatory Failure
Regulators want to saddle midsize banks with new capital rules.

The editors the proceed to disparage the regulators’ move, and they’re correct about that. They’re mistaken in their lede, though, and that leads them to the erroneous aspect of their disparagement:

Silicon Valley Bank failed owing to rising interest rates and lapses by regulators, not a shortage of capital.

It’s true that a shortage of capital did not cause SVB’s failure, except as the proximate outcome of the real cause of the failure, an outcome that made the failure inevitable.

SVB did run short of capital value, and that meant it couldn’t survive the rapid outflow of cash through depositor withdrawals. But rising interest rates were only the means of that capital shortfall and bank failure, not the cause. Nor were lapses by regulators—and there were some serious ones, including their lack of oversight diligence, which should have led to better enforcement of existing rules—involved in the bank’s failure.

The bank’s managers failed in their own fiscal duties, overbalancing as they did the nature of their capital holdings in the face of those rising interest rates: those managers chose not to balance the interest rate risk related to their deposits and the rates they were paying against the interest rate risk related to their capital holdings and the way rising rates were devaluing their holdings.

Those managers could see as well as any of us, and as well as their depositors, what rising rates were doing to their bank’s capital, and those managers could see as well as any of us, and as well as their depositors, the increasing risk to the bank of the decreasing interest rate spread between what the bank paid depositors and what it earned on its loans, loans the bank was increasingly unable to make in the face of those rising interest rates. And that exacerbated the impact of the bank’s decreasing capital holdings, which those managers could see as well as any of us, and as well as their depositors.

Nor did lack of overt regulator intervention have much of anything to do with SVB’s failure. Bank managers, any enterprise managers, are paid to act on their own initiative, not to wait until they’re told what to do and then, subsequently, told to go ahead and do it.

SVB’s managers were no exception to that.

This was an SVB management failure, and Regulators have no place for writing new capital rules. It’s sufficient for the market place to apply the appropriate sanctions, even if that deprives government bureaucrats of an opportunity to feel good about themselves by Doing Something.

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