Two financial institutions, Silvergate Capital and Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), collapsed early last week due to a series of ill-fated investment decisions which were exposed by global interest rate tightening. The collapses came after the institutions invested large amounts of capital in long-dated US government bonds, which were considered relatively low risk. However, as interest rates rose rapidly to combat spiralling inflation, bond portfolios started to lose significant value. As a result, when cash demands got high enough, Silvergate and SVB had to sell those backing assets at substantial losses. Silvergate announced a $1 billion loss on the sale of assets in the fourth quarter of last year, while SVB lost $1.8 billion. In both cases, US Treasury bonds comprised large portions of the liquidations. SVB, once the 16th largest bank in the US, then announced a $1.75bn capital raising to plug the hole caused by the sale of its bond portfolio. As one would anticipate, this news resulted in a run on the bank’s reserves, and two days later, the bank collapsed, marking the largest bank failure in the US since the global financial crisis. The US government has since guaranteed all deposits of the bank’s customers, which has attempted to address concerns of widespread contagion and further runs on other banks’ reserves. After the collapse of these institutions, the Federal Reserve announced the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP), which will provide banks and other depository institutions with emergency loans. However, JPMorgan has since stated this program could inject as much as $2 trillion into the American banking system, which would nullify all hope of inflationary pressures easing.
All of the talk in recent years has been about protecting the banking system from crypto. However, ironically, we had a situation where a digital asset had to be protected from the banking system. The SVB debacle caused USDC to temporarily lose its peg after it was revealed that its issuer, Circle, had $3.3bn wrapped up in a SVB bank account. The stablecoin fell to as low as $0.88 over the weekend before recovering after the US government’s deposit guarantee was announced.
These events have highlighted an underappreciated problem with increasing interest rates to reign in inflation. The issuance of new Treasury bonds with higher yields causes the market value of existing bonds with lower yields to decrease. As a result, all banks that hold a significant amount of Treasurys as legally required collateral are vulnerable to the same risk that has affected banks like Silvergate and Silicon Valley Bank. Recently, it looked as if the contagion effects had spread to Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse when their stock began to plummet after questions were raised about the banks’ stability. However, since then, the bank has secured a £44.5bn lifeline from the Swiss central bank. The importance of this should not be underestimated. Credit Suisse manages assets in the region of $1.6 trillion. If the bank collapses, it could trigger a domino effect, bringing about a 2008-like crisis.
All in all, it would be ironic if increasing interest rates failed to lower inflation but instead resulted in a number of banks collapsing as a result of their bad bets on treasuries. Despite this market turmoil, yesterday, the European Central Bank stuck to its plan and went with a 50bps rate hike meaning that Credit Suisse may not be out of the woods yet. In recent weeks, the market had been pricing in a 50bps rate hike from the Fed. However, the collapse of SVB and broader risks to the financial system may lead the Fed to raise interest rates by no more than a quarter percentage point next week, with some institutions such as Barclays expecting the Fed to pause all rate increases.
Despite these events, in recent days Bitcoin has significantly outperformed markets. Since the 11th of March, Bitcoin is up over 20% whilst other asset classes are up between 0-2% with 10Y US Yields down around 4%. The key reasons for this most likely come down to the dampening of US CPI data along with the decreased likelihood of future rate hikes as a consequence of the events of the past week. Ironically, while inflation and bank crisis now look more likely, the expectation of more liquidity has provided risk-on assets, such as Bitcoin, bullish momentum.
Check out the chart on TradingView here.