Outside tech circles, Silicon Valley Bank was relatively unknown in the UK. Now, its name is on the lips of almost everyone in business after its sudden collapse – and the swift rescue of its depositors – followed a weekend of high drama.
A wave of fear swept global financial institutions on Friday night, moving into a weekend of crisis talks involving chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey.
Here’s how City leaders found a buyer for SVB’s UK arm, handing a lifeline to a series of the UK’s most promising tech start-ups, stopping them from losing their cash and going bust.
SVB was the lender beloved of fast-growing tech companies, which had a reputation for understanding the sector’s unique blend of risk and reward. Much of its business was in the US, but it was also a key part of London’s ambition to match Silicon Valley as destination for ambitious tech firms, with its profitable UK business based in Finsbury Square.
Fears were first raised over the stability of the wider California-based bank on Thursday after it said it was seeking to raise $2.25 billion to shore up its balance sheet. It had loaded up on government bond holdings – usually safe investments easily sold to meet liabilities – but it did so at the top of the market in sovereign debt. As central banks raised interest rates, government bonds plunged in value.
In a call on Thursday aimed at reassuring shareholders, SVB CEO Greg Becker said just about the worst two words he could have: “Don’t panic.”
Carnage ensued. Shares in the bank tanked 60% by close of play Thursday, and by Friday morning, trading was halted altogether to prevent shares dropping even further. Firms in the US and UK rushed to close their accounts before it was too late. It was a run on the bank on a scale not seen since the 2008 financial crash.
By Friday afternoon, California regulators had closed the US bank altogether.
SVB’s UK arm scrambled to reassure investors it was a standalone entity that would not suffer contagion effects from the demise of its US parent. It was too little, too late. By midnight on Friday the Bank of England had stepped in to shut it down, offering deposit-holders little more than the promise of getting back the first £85,000 under the statutory financial insurance scheme.
The Bank of England said in a statement late on Friday: “SVB UK has a limited presence in the UK and no critical functions supporting the financial system.”
The Bank’s statement was met with fury by the UK tech sector, as many as 40% of whom had accounts with SVB.
Venture capital firms were horrified to discover that many of the startups they backed banked exclusively with SVB. Unless SVB could be rescued, the fate of much of the British tech industry was at stake.
Matt Clifford, co-founder of venture capital business Entrepreneur First, said: “[The] most common phrase in my inbox right now is ‘we can’t make payroll with the insured amount’.”
He told The Standard: “The core question is just what happens to those who can’t access to money they need.”
“If depositors can’t access funds, the startup ecosystem is decimated.”
Within hours, hundreds of tech firms had signed a joint letter to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, urging him to act fast to avert the collapse of huge parts of the industry.
Hunt and the Treasury’s detailed response contrasted with the words from the BoE, acknowledging SVB’s importance and kicking off emergency talks with the Prime Minister, while scouring UK financial markets for a potential buyer.
HSBC emerged as the rescuer, fighting off interest from several rivals to secure the businesses of a raft of potentially highly lucrative, cutting-edge UK companies.
The 40-year-old bank, a staple of the global tech scene, had expanded rapidly at the start of the pandemic amid a boom in global tech stocks, with its deposits as much as tripling over three years. Its expansion had been fuelled by a surge in new tech firms and lightning-fast growth of existing ones.
But tech businesses are often loss-making in their early years and burn cash at a much faster rate than in other industries. To keep pace with this, SVB had invested in lots of safe assets like government bonds and mortgage-backed securities.
That policy made perfect sense in a low-interest rate environment. But when interest rates surged, offering investors a return for parking cash with central banks, the value of SBV’s bond holdings plunged. Before long it had a $1.8 billion hole in its balance sheet.
The bank told shareholders it would sell billions in assets at a loss and would seek a $2.2 billion capital raise to keep its balance sheet in check. But rather than reassure the market, the move sparked widespread panic.
Seb Wallace, a venture capital investor at Triple Point, said “It got toward the end of the trading day and SVB realised the market wasn’t taking it well and they release an announcement which was something along the lines of ‘don’t panic.’”
“And then the market closed and everything went into freefall.”
When the markets opened on Friday morning, rather than rushing to offer further reassurances to customers and shareholders, SVB stayed completely quiet, like a deer in headlights.
At the height of the tech boom in 2021, SVB had a market cap of just under $45 billion, with several hundred billion in assets. But when its shares were suspended on Friday, the firm’s value had fallen 86% to just $6.3 billion.
“What was a bad risk management decision combined with poor communications to turn into a bank run which killed the business. It was a comms and PR disaster for something which is still a fundamentally good business,” Wallace said.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is known among Whitehall circles for his refusal to work at weekends. But he made an exception, working around the clock with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey to find a buyer for the SVB’s UK operations.
HSBC snapped it up for £1 in a last minute rescue deal announced before the markets opened on Monday, narrowly averting a major disaster in London’s key tech sector, and bringing a host of fast-growing cutting edge UK firms to the country’s biggest bank as customers.
SVB’s UK businesses has stayed profitable and the bank has a high reputation among the City’s tech community.
A group of several dozen venture capital businesses signed a statement on Saturday which read: “SVB UK is a trusted and valued partner of the entire innovation ecosystem, powering founders and the venture capital industry. It plays a pivotal role in supporting and financing Britain’s startups.
“In the event that SVB UK were to be purchased and appropriately capitalised, we would be strongly supportive and encouraged our portfolio companies to resume their banking relationship with them.”
Fred Destin, founder of Stride VC and one of the signatories, told The Standard: “This brand was built over many years through expertise and customer service.
“In crisis there is always opportunity. It may be that everybody goes ‘we want to work with you’.
“I’m sure there will be questions to answer and some trust to be rebuilt but it’s not the end of the game.”