When the U.S. government announced this month that it had stepped in to take over Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank, it was a 90-year-old Great Depression-era agency that took the lead in assuring depositors that their funds were safe and quelling a bank run that threatened broader damage to the industry.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took control of SVB on March 10 and Signature Bank two days later, moves that rendered the publicly traded stock of both institutions worthless but preserved other assets for distribution to account holders and each bank's creditors.
In a decision some found surprising, the FDIC announced that all deposits held at both banks would be fully guaranteed. Historically, depositors have been protected up to $250,000, a limit designed to keep the overwhelming majority of individual depositors safe from loss.
The agency decided, however, that to prevent 'contagion' - panic about one failing bank spreading to broader panic about others - it would make all depositors whole.
The decision was also likely motivated by the fact that many businesses, primarily in the tech sector, kept large accounts at SVB that they used to meet payroll and ordinary business expenses. The impact of so many companies suddenly being unable to pay thousands of employees would have been hard to estimate but could have potentially damaged the economy.
The FDIC and the Biden administration were quick to deny that the two banks had been the subjects of a 'bailout,' stressing that bank executives had been fired, stockholders' equity had been wiped out, and any funds supplied by the agency to make depositors whole would come from an insurance fund financed by premiums paid by insured banks.
The FDIC, however, will have to raise assessments on banks to replenish what money it spends on the resolution of SVB and Signature. Banks will likely pass these costs on to their customers by charging higher fees or increasing interest on loans.
FILE - Attorney Randy Medina reads a notice posted on the door of a Silicon Valley Bank branch that reads, 'FDIC Acts to Protect All Depositors of the former Silicon Valley Bank,' in Pasadena, Calif., March 13, 2023.
History of the FDIC
The FDIC was created in 1933, after the U.S. weathered years of panic during the Great Depression, which led to the closures of thousands of banks. Between 1921 and 1929, approximately 5,700 banks across the U.S. failed, some because of poor management and many because depositors lost confidence and demanded withdrawals so rapidly that the banks simply ran out of cash.
Things worsened between 1929 and 1933, when nearly 10,000 banks across the country failed. During a particularly difficult week in February 1933, bank panics were so pervasive that governors in almost all U.S. states acted to temporarily close all banks.
The FDIC was created in the aftermath of that crisis, when the federal government finally acted on a long-delayed plan to establish national deposit insurance. The agency originally guaranteed individual deposits of up to $2,500, a level that has been periodically increased over the decades.
The agency is funded by premiums that banks and savings associations pay for deposit insurance coverage. It is managed by a board of five presidential appointees. The current chair of the FDIC is Martin J. Gruenberg. By statute, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Comptroller of the Currency, whose agency supervises nationally chartered banks, are also members. Two other appointees round out the board, which cannot have more than three members of the same political party.
In its nine decades, the FDIC has closed hundreds of failed banks, but insured deposits have always been repaid in full.
Promoting financial stability
'The mission of the FDIC is to promote financial stability,' said Diane Ellis, the former director of the agency's Division of Insurance and Research. 'The FDIC does that by exercising several authorities. One is to provide deposit insurance so that bank depositors can be confident that they'll get their money back regardless of what happens with their bank.'
In addition, the agency has the authority to 'resolve' failed banks, which can involve selling the bank outright to another institution, creating a 'bridge' bank that provides ongoing services to depositors while the agency works toward a resolution, or selling off the bank's assets to return as much money as possible to depositors whose holdings exceed the coverage limit.
Ellis, now a senior managing director at the banking network IntraFi, noted that the agency also has oversight authority over the banks it insures.
'For open banks, examiners conduct regular examinations to make sure banks are operating in a safe and sound manner ... promoting a healthy, stable banking system, which is important for economic growth,' she told VOA.
FILE - A door to a branch of Signature Bank is pictured, March 12, 2023, in New York. Regulators announced that the New York-based bank had failed and was being seized.
Avoiding 'moral hazard'
When the FDIC was established, capping the standard insurance amount per depositor was a central feature of its design. The creators of the agency were concerned about a problem called 'moral hazard.' They worried that if the federal government guaranteed 100% of deposits, individuals and businesses would fail to exercise due diligence when deciding what banks to trust with their money, and that lack of scrutiny would result in banks taking excessive risks.
'Legislators wanted to strike a balance, to protect people up to a certain amount, but not everything, so that there'd be an incentive for people to make sure that their money was in a safe bank rather than a dangerous one,' said John Bovenzi, who served as chief operating officer and deputy to the chairman of the FDIC from 1999 to 2009.
Bovenzi, the co-founder of the Bovenzi Group, a financial services consultancy, told VOA that he was initially surprised by the decision of the FDIC and other regulators to make all uninsured depositors whole.
'These weren't the largest institutions. Silicon Valley and Signature, they were in sort of a second tier and weren't viewed as 'too big to fail,'' he said.
However, Bovenzi said, it soon became apparent to regulators that there were other banks in the country that operated with business models similar to that of SVB, which had large amounts of low-interest securities on its books, the value of which was being systematically undercut by the Federal Reserve's decision to raise interest rates dramatically over the past year.
'What happened was that they saw there was too much spillover effect to other institutions, so they invoked what's called a 'systemic risk exception,'' he said. Had this not been the case, he said, the FDIC would have had to conduct the closing in a way that resulted in the least cost to it and the government to save money, 'and that would have meant uninsured taking losses. By protecting the uninsured, the FDIC raises its own costs to cover it. And so it needed to say, 'We don't want to do it for the institution, but we need to do it for the system.''
Setting a precedent
The decision to protect all deposits at SVB and Signature was not unique. During the financial crisis sparked by widespread defaults in the subprime mortgage sector from 2007 to 2010, regulators shuttered several hundred banks in the space of a few years, and implemented a policy of protecting all deposits to avoid increasing the damage to the broader economy.
The decision to do so for SVB and Signature, though, absent such a widespread crisis, has raised questions about whether a precedent has been set that will lead depositors to expect to be rescued by the government if their bank fails.
In testimony before Congress Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the treatment of SVB and Signature should not be taken as a signal that similar protection will be extended to other banks in the future.
Such action, she said, would take place only when 'failure to protect uninsured depositors would create systemic risk and significant economic and financial consequences.'