Minibubbles in US banking are popping with costs in the billions | Insights

Minibubbles in US banking are popping with costs in the billions | Insights

As the number of lenders getting stung kept climbing in recent years, some industry stalwarts grew flummoxed by the willingness of so many bankers to eschew longstanding tenets against taking concentrated risks from a single or unproven source.

“Areas that skyrocket all of a sudden are, almost by definition, going to come back to Earth, and have outsize risk and very little likelihood of consistent reward,” said Gene Ludwig, a comptroller of the currency under President Bill Clinton. “Finance of any sort is a potential fire and that conflagration can get roaring pretty quick.”

Firms including Signature Bank and Customers Bancorp Inc. that once excited shareholders with forays into crypto-related business lines have instead been trying to assuage their concerns in recent months.

Then last week, a bank that flew even higher, Silvergate Capital Corp., chalked one of the most dramatic drops yet. At one point, it lost almost half its market value in a matter of hours.

Silvergate had soaked up roughly $12 billion in deposits from crypto ventures, turning a profit by plowing the money into securities. That stopped working during FTX’s downfall, when depositors rushed to pull their cash and weather the storm. To keep up with payouts, Silvergate sold off holdings at a loss and tapped wholesale funding, including $4.3 billion in short-term cash advances from the Federal Home Loan Bank as of the end of last month.

The firm’s market capitalization peaked at $5.9 billion in 2021, almost 20 times greater than at the start of 2020. That was down to $386 million on Wednesday — a dramatic wipeout for shareholders in a bank where annual profits never breached $100 million.

Provident has said it remains well capitalized despite losses on loans to crypto miners. Last month the Amesbury, Massachusetts-based lender named interim replacements for its chief executive officer. There was no response to messages seeking comment.

Silvergate has said it “still believes in the digital-asset industry,” and is committed to maintaining a “highly liquid balance sheet with a strong capital position.”

Watchdogs’ Warning

With cautionary tales piling up, regulators warned banks this month not to go too deep into digital currencies.

“It is important that risks related to the crypto-asset sector that cannot be mitigated or controlled do not migrate to the banking system,” the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said in a joint statement, expressing concern about business models that are too concentrated in crypto-related activities.

But crypto is just the latest example of an age-old phenomenon where a handful of smaller firms become the go-to banks for some business fad. For investors who get in early, the booms offer a rare chance to multiply their money betting on an industry that — when risk-taking is conservative — can draw derisive comparisons to utilities.

Such fortunes can fade quickly.

Signature and Customers both saw their stock prices multiply ahead of Bitcoin’s peak in 2021, only to give up much or all of the gains last year. This month, Metropolitan Commercial Bank announced a retreat from crypto-related services that once boosted its revenue and deposits.

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About Caroline Vega 228 Articles
Caroline Vega combines over a decade of digital strategy expertise with a deep passion for journalism, originating from her academic roots at Louisiana State University. As an editor based in New Orleans, she directs the editorial narrative at Commercial Lending News, where she crafts compelling content on commercial lending. Her unique approach weaves her background in finance and digital marketing into stories that not only inform but also drive industry conversations forward.