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In the wake of the Silicon Valley Bank failure earlier this year, should credit union board members be alarmed? What can you do given banking industry challenges?
Until recently, few directors asked these questions.
I attend a lot of credit union strategic planning sessions and didn’t hear any discussion of banking system safety last year or early in 2023.
Of course, general anxiety over the Federal Reserve’s inflation fight was an all-consuming topic because that battle was being fought with historically unprecedented increases in short-term market interest rates.
Worries about the prospects of recession, rising unemployment, and the possible erosion of asset quality were common. Loan growth was strong in 2022 (nearly 20% at credit unions) and saving growth was weak (just over 3% at credit unions), so loan-to-share ratios were rising significantly.
Liquidity was (and is) tight. Discussion of these issues dominated our meetings.
But conversations changed dramatically in March when the $210 billion asset Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) failed.
SVB concentrated its business in venture-capital-backed start-ups, mostly in the technology sector. At the time, the bank’s collapse marked the second-largest depository failure in U.S. history after Washington Mutual’s in 2008.
Then, in rapid succession, Silvergate Bank, a cryptocurrency industry-focused bank with $11 billion in assets, announced plans to wind-down operations, followed soon after by the failure of $110 billion asset Signature Bank, which catered to high-net-worth customers. Other banks were obviously teetering.
Fortunately, the Fed, U.S. Treasury Department, and FDIC quickly responded, instituting aggressive policies aimed at stabilizing markets and restoring confidence. Those actions seemed effective.
While federal policy responses tended to calm nerves, material weakness at many large depositories persisted. Common characteristics of the troubled banks include:
Overall, the bank’s year-end 2022 average deposit totaled $2.5 million—well above the regional bank average of $177,000 and the banking industry average of $7,700. That’s well above the $250,000 per-account FDIC limit.
Recently, deep concern over financial system stability was reignited when on May 1 First Republic Bank failed. The $212 billion asset bank catered to high net-worth individuals—and more than two-thirds of the bank’s deposits were uninsured.
The failure knocked SVB from its unenviable perch as the second largest bank failure ever to the third largest.
At a basic level, these banking industry challenges increase the risk that the U.S. will suffer recession—perhaps deeper and longer than current consensus expectations would suggest.
Banks have generally tightened underwriting standards in the wake of the failures described above, and more failures would undoubtedly cause more significant reactions. As it stands, some now suggest that tighter underwriting may have the economic equivalent effect of a 50-basis-point drop to a 100-basis-point increase in the federal funds interest rate.
More broadly, the financial system is built on confidence. And confidence can be frighteningly fragile. NFL coaching great Vince Lombardi put it best: “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence."
This fragility has always been a component of our depository insurance system, but it seems especially concerning today. Internet and social media age narratives (true and untrue) are shared and repeated extensively, and many can be damaging and downright dangerous.
Pundits, bloggers, podcasters, and other “influencers” with large audiences have joined the ranks of equity analysts in using the Securities and Exchange Commission, FDIC, and other publicly available data to opine on the health of both individual banks—and the banking system as a whole.
Large, publicly traded banks have thousands of stockholders, and any diverse investor base is apt to include at least a handful of those with big bets on failure rather than success. The ability to short bank stocks means investors can profit from bad news.
This, combined with recent accusations of insider trading—both within banks and within the ranks of policy makers—has almost certainly colored the average consumer’s perception of the system.
In a survey conducted between March 16-20, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 10% of U.S. adults say they have high confidence in the nation’s banks and other financial institutions. That’s down from 22% in 2020.
Separately, on May 4 Gallup published research results that reveal more than half of consumers say they’re concerned about bank deposits. That’s on par with the level of worry measured during the financial crisis in 2008 when financial institutions previously believed to be “too big to fail” collapsed.
Declining confidence and the possibility of contagion and spillover effects grow against the backdrop of a steady drumbeat of negative press.
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