By Kevin Tutani, political economy analyst
THERE is a common saying in economics ‘When the US economy sneezes, the whole world catches a cold’.
A look at the great recession of 2008 is an ample testament to the importance of activities in the US towards all other economies.
At that time, the crisis in the US financial markets spread globally and led to one of the worst recessions in 80 years.
The hub of the world’s newfound economic and financial problems was stemming from both unusually low-interest rates and the unsparing issuing of mortgage loans within the US’s domestic market.
As interest rates eventually rose, demand for housing and subsequent prices fell off a cliff, whilst borrowers could not continue with their mortgage repayments.
There was both a liquidity and credit crunch (shortage) in the US, which spread onto global interbank markets.
The results were catastrophic, as, globally, people lost their houses, jobs and savings, or all three.
Global GDP fell by 1% and world trade fell by a staggering 10%. In South Africa, a recession was experienced for the first time in 17 years.
The recovery from that steep decline was prolonged, as it took 18 months for the US to retain its upward trajectory, for instance.
Fast forward to 2023, the months of March, April and May have had echoes of 2008, as some notable regional banks, in the US, have collapsed, causing widespread concerns about whether this will spread to the overall domestic banking sector and abroad.
With such a background, the fretting is justified and there is a need to bring clarity to the nature of risk and the possibility of another US and global financial crisis.
It becomes vital to shedding more light on each of the recent bank failures, resultant interventions provided by the US banking authorities, outstanding threats and the eventual determination of how much risk awaits the domestic and global financial markets at this stage.
Ultimately, the objective is to discern whether the proverbial “glass” of turmoil in the financial markets is half-empty, meaning, official responses to the problem are depleting the crisis, or it is half-full, as an indication that the situation will continue and eventually spill into a full-scale catastrophe.
Currently, four key banks have failed in the U.S., in the short space of time, from March to May.
These are Silvergate Bank, Signature Bank, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), and First Republic Bank.
The latter three have become the second, third and fourth-largest bank failures in the history of the US, all just under Washington Mutual which folded in the 2008 crisis.
It is also notable to articulate that the recently collapsed banks are regional financial institutions, unlike the gargantuan national banks, such as JP Morgan Chase Bank.
However, those regional banks used to provide about half of the commercial lending in the US.
Thus their demise will curtail the availability of credit in the market.
Amid already high-interest rates, this portends a recession, anytime from 2023.
Before narrating the activities leading to the failure of the four banks, it is essential to briefly explain the inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates, plus, the “crypto winter” which was characterised by the failure of cryptocurrency firms. It is these two phenomena, which were at the core of the recent banking crisis.
When interest rates rise, holders of previously purchased bonds with lower interest rates will see a decline in the market value of their securities, in the case that they may want to trade them for cash.
An example may be sufficient to explain this scenario. Suppose an investor purchases a 10-year bond at $1000, with a 2% yield.
That investor will get 2% yearly payments, culminating into $20 per year, which is also $200 over the next 10 years.
At the end of the 10 years, the $1000 invested initially will also be repaid.
In the case that regulators or the central bank raise interest rates to 3%, anyone seeking to purchase a $1000 bond will require at least a 3% return per year, which is $30 in nominal value.
If the holder of the bond with a 2% yield needs cash and intends to sell the $1000 bond for fundraising, its selling price has to be lowered below $1000, so that it can at least have a 3% yield and become competitive in the market.
This is the same development that caused most of the fallen banks to collapse.
They had invested heavily in long-term bonds with low yields, during periods of low interest rates, such as the year 2020, when interest rates were below 1%.
However, from 2021 to 2023, interest rates began to rise until, the current 5.5% mark, leaving the yields of previously bought bonds to be unattractive in the market.
When there were bank runs owing to plummeting cryptocurrency prices, the banks ended up selling their long-term bonds at a loss so that they could meet the deposit requests of customers.
The cryptocurrency had an impressive hike in prices, particularly from 2020 to 2021. This was spurred by low interest rates that were being offered by US banks, at the time.
Approximately, one in five Americans were using cryptocurrency and more U.S. dollar investments were being channelled into crypto.
Nevertheless, from early 2022, changes began to occur which led to a tapering down of demand and subsequently a collapse in crypto prices.
Due to incoming inflation, the Federal Reserve started to increase interest rates, which served as a competitor to crypto investments and limited the availability of funds which were previously directed towards cryptocurrency.
Due to a lack of regulation of the crypto market, it also became apparent that some prominent firms in the sector were outright fraudulent companies.
These developments caused a plunge in demand and prices of cryptocurrency, including for those firms which were operating with integrity.
Banks that were heavily involved with cryptocurrency companies were not spared from the meltdown.
Silvergate Bank was California-based and provided much of its lending and deposit-taking services to businesses in the cryptocurrency market.
At one time, more than 50% of its deposits were from Sam Bankman-Fried’s entities, such as FTX.
Due to its specialized services to the crypto market, by q4 2022, around 90% of its deposits were cryptocurrency-related.
Apart from lending to the crypto market, the bank’s assets were also assigned to long-term assets such as US Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities.
Trouble initially emerged when cryptocurrency firms were losing their value, during “crypto winter “, whilst some, such as FTX, were proven to be fraudulent.
There was a resultant run on the bank which saw requests of daily withdrawals reaching $8 billion, at one time.
In that same period, the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates, which were nearing the 5% mark.
With the aim to meet withdrawal requests, the bank eventually sold its long-term securities at a loss, resulting in an overall $718 million loss.
On 8 March, the institution eventually communicated that it would wind down its business and liquidate to meet all its obligations to depositors and other creditors.
Silicon Valley Bank was based in California and at its peak was the 16th largest banking corporation in the US.
It served mostly technology companies and wealthy clients with deposits exceeding $250 000 per account.
This is noteworthy because such deposits do not get a reimbursement beyond the $250 000 from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), in the case of a bank collapse.
It also served more than half of venture-capital-backed health and technology companies.
At the end of 2022, the bank had $209 billion in assets, made up of equity and investments in Treasury bonds, loans to clients, etc.
When the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates, clients of the bank began to use their cash deposited at the bank instead of expensive credit.
As concerns over the massive withdrawals grew, customers with deposits exceeding $250 000 also began to pull out their funds, as they were concerned that the FDIC would not provide insurance for their excess funds.
This led to a thorough bank run until SVB had to sell some of its Treasury bonds to meet deposit requests.
Their share price also plunged and on 10 March, the bank was taken over by the FDIC and ultimately sold to First Citizens BancShares, just over two weeks later.
Signature Bank was focused on serving clients in New York City at the time of its demise.
In a similar situation to Silvergate Bank, the institution was highly invested in the property and cryptocurrency business, issuing loans to and handling deposits of participants in those sectors.
At the beginning of this year, the bank became the second largest provider of banking services to the cryptocurrency industry, second only to Silvergate Bank.
As cryptocurrency prices began to tumble, in 2022, the bank had huge deposit withdrawals.
On March 12, due to the bank runs, and a sharp decline in its share price on the stock market, Signature Bank was closed by regulators and sold to New York Community Bank, seven days later.
As March was tumultuous, April was pursued with more news of imminent bank collapses.
On the 28th of April, First Republic Bank, another prominent regional bank, was taken over by the authorities (FDIC) and sold to JP Morgan Chase, by 1 May.
The bank also provided services to wealthy clients who had deposits beyond $250 000.
This invoked deposit-withdrawal stress as depositors were concerned that any amount above $250 000 would not be insured by the FDIC.
It had been under scrutiny since early March and its stock prices also plummeted sharply, towards its demise.
There are yet more banks which are closely being watched, as their financial health is precarious.
These are PacWest Bancorp, Western Alliance Bancorporation, First Horizon, etc.
In response to the crisis, the Federal Reserve introduced two pertinent programs.
The first was the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP) which provides loans to banks in distress, in exchange for high-quality assets such as Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities.
The BTFP aims to prevent banks from selling bonds at a loss as they try to meet massive withdrawal requirements.
In this case, banks are loaned out their cash requirements against the face value of their bonds, which is not discounted even owing to high-interest rates.
$81.3 billion has so far been loaned to banks via this program, at the end of April.
Loans were also made available, with less-stringent requirements, through the discount window, via which banks have traditionally been borrowing.
A record $153 billion has been borrowed by banks through this facility, as of April 2023.
Investigations into the conduct and transactions of collapsed banks have been launched in order to evaluate whether they were breaching banking ethics.
The “tailoring rules”, which had been prescribed to reduce oversight of the Federal Reserve over small banks have also been revoked, and adjusted, in some parts.
Stress tests and other inspection methods are now set to be applied more intensely for the smaller banks with assets between $50- $100 billion.
The failed banks have received funds from the FDIC repository, which contains amounts that were contributed by all operational banks, over the past years, for such an eventuality as this.
If the FDIC funds are depleted, all banks in the U.S. will be charged a higher yearly fee by the regulator, in order to replenish the insurance fund.
The Biden administration also intimated that all deposits of the collapsed banks, since SVB’s demise, will be guaranteed.
Eventually, Congress has to pass this into law, although, in the meantime, this has provided assurance and dealt with bank runs to a certain degree.
Outstanding threats still await the banking sector, especially in the form of an impending US debt default, owing to the impasse in Congress regarding the raising of the Treasury debt ceiling.
If the US defaults, interest rates will go higher up and this might mark the beginning of a fully-fledged domestic banking crisis in the form of credit unavailability, expensive credit for the fewer who will qualify for the loans, a liquidity crunch owing to failure to repay or all of the three.
It is fair to argue that the worst of this crisis has not yet been registered unless the debt ceiling impasse is resolved.
To arrive at a credible conclusion, it is reasonable to say that over-reliance on the cryptocurrency sector coupled with high volumes of long-term, low-yield securities, were the major contributions to the demise of the four banks.
Additionally, serving mostly high-net-worth clients with deposits of over $250 000 per account holder, increased the intensity of bank runs, as the holders of such accounts knew that their deposits were not insured and thus not set to be reimbursed in the case of a collapse of their banks.
As it stands, the larger banks, with higher asset values, are not substantively exposed to cryptocurrency firms and an unbalanced clientele of exclusively elite customers, as the collapsed regional banks.
Therefore, this has provided a sense of assurance to regulators in the US.
Nevertheless, in the case of a government debt default, which may occur as early as June, there may be a continued but deeper banking crisis which may spread globally, as some large banks in the US are of international significance.
Views expressed in this article belong to the author.