Author: Claire Jarvis
The collapse of the SVB on March 10, 2023 made national headlines, and prompted fear of a looming financial crisis and a return to government bailouts. For biotech investors and employees, the collapse of the tech-focused bank raises additional concerns about the stability of the biotech sector.
What is the Silicon Valley Bank?
The Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was the 16th largest bank in the USA. Founded in 1983, it catered almost exclusively to technology companies by providing the venture capital funds necessary for biotech start-ups to grow. Prior to the events of early March, the bank was worth $212 billion.
Why did it collapse?
In early March 2023 the SVB announced it needed to raise more money, citing rising interest rates and inflation. This announcement caused panic, and customers and investors rushed to withdraw their money, leading to the collapse of the bank’s value. Within 48 hours the damage was done, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) took over the emergency operation of the bank.
The FDIC is currently trying to sell SVB as part of its break-up plan.
Is this a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis?
Following the collapse of the SVB, Silvergate Bank and Signature Bank fell in quick succession a few days later. Although the successive liquidation of US banks is alarming, and the overall likelihood of a recession in the next few years has risen, the fallout from the SVB collapse is mostly contained to the biotech sector and other medium-sized banks who cater to a narrow selection of industries (both Silvergate and Signature focused on cryptocurrencies).
Some issues appear unique to SVB’s downfall, such as the role of a chief risk officer being unfilled last year. The bank also stored its money in long-dated Treasury deposits, which give modest returns on investments. When inflation rose, the bonds no longer yielded satisfactory returns.
How does the Silicon Valley Bank affect the biotech industry?
Silicon Valley Bank was seen as the bank of choice for young biotech companies, because they tailored their services to venture-backed start-ups and agile biotechs looking to grow. Unlike commercial banks, most of SVB clients deposited amounts greater than $250,000, which is the maximum amount of savings protected by the FDIC in the event of a financial collapse. It’s estimated that 85% of SVB’s bank deposits were uninsured. It’s therefore not clear how much damage has been wrought on the biotech sector, and it will take a time for companies to disclose any losses. It’s possible the US government will bail out companies who lost uninsured deposits if the crisis deepens, but that’s not happened yet.
In early 2023, biotech start-ups are already struggling thanks to rising interest rates and a hiring slowdown. Established companies have the diversified portfolio necessary to withstand economic shocks better than start-ups with only one or two pipeline products.
However, the failure of Silicon Valley Bank may see a slowdown in the biotech sector as venture capitalists become more cautious about investing in biotechs, or the regulations around life sciences investment increase. What this does for the biotech sector as a whole remains to be seen.