Mar 13, 2023 - Technology

Silicon Valley pulls back from bank failure abyss

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The lightning collapse of Silicon Valley Bank Friday raised the specter of a broad tech-industry crash for the first time since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.

Driving the news: That threat, which loomed all weekend as legions of the startups that made up the bank's clientele worried about meeting next week's payrolls, receded after the federal government intervened Sunday to backstop depositors' assets even over the $250,000 FDIC threshold.

Yes, but: After a year of layoffs and market retreats, the run on the industry's own community bank put tech's new status as a troubled business in sharp relief.

Why it matters: The federal rescue of Silicon Valley Bank customers offers a visceral reminder of just how deeply dependent on government the industry remains.

  • For decades much of the tech intelligentsia has argued that the nation-state is outmoded, the public sector is more nuisance than necessity, and tech products offer efficient replacements for the old-fashioned institutions that undergird civic life.
  • The crypto movement has long preached that new currencies and institutions built on computer code will turn today's financial system into a relic.
  • But in a financial crisis, it sure is nice to have a government that can arrest a confidence meltdown and block a bank failure from taking out an entire sector.

The big picture: Silicon Valley Bank was an institution uniquely centered on the needs of the startup ecosystem.

  • Small companies whose meager cashflow gave traditional bankers heartburn found SVB was willing to take their business.

Scott Rosenberg's thought bubble: If you've been around the industry for a while, odds are good you've had some kind of experience with Silicon Valley Bank. It was, for instance, the only bank that would extend a loan to the overextended digital media startup I worked for when the bottom fell out of the market in the early 2000s.

Those experiences with SVB gave people who work in tech a very different sense of what was at stake in this crisis from most Americans.

  • To much of the country beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, the bank just sounded like a place for tech people to stash their riches. In an era of growing unease with big tech firms' power and wealth, some cheered the bank's woes.
  • "I believe that if Silicon Valley Bank were instead called Farmers Bank Of Santa Clara (they bank a lot of winegrowers!) we would have had this easily resolved," veteran investor and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman tweeted Sunday.

In reality, SVB was simply the bank closest to the most startups. Founders would park the money they raised from investors there so they could pay their employees and bills.

  • SVB took into account the nuances of an industry whose main assets were people, whose young companies often had little or no revenue, and whose workers often had wealth concentrated in stock options that could not yet be exercised or sold.
  • The company funded and sponsored all manner of organizations, from civic institutions to sports teams to efforts aimed at diversifying the tech industry. Just last month, for example, it led funding for LabCentral Ignite, an effort to address racial, gender, and other underrepresentation in the life sciences and biotech industry.
  • It has also served as the financial home for a disproportionate share of Bay Area nonprofits.

Startup founders and venture capitalists spent the weekend in conversations and on social media to ensure that more people — especially politicians — understood that preventing a wipe-out of the bank's customers was less about protecting billionaire portfolios than meeting payrolls.

  • A host of venture investors wrote a letter pledging to support a new, well capitalized bank that serves the role Silicon Valley Bank used to play.
  • Startup CEOs, such as RevenueCat's Jacob Eiting, took to Twitter to put human faces on the crisis to help sway public sentiment. "I didn't make risky bets," the 36-year old employer of 60 wrote on Twitter. "I wasn't doing anything illegal. We just put our money in a bank account and now, our business is a precarious position for it."

What's next: It is still unclear what will happen to the various parts of Silicon Valley Bank itself — as well as who, if anyone, will fill its unique role.

Go deeper