The key takeaways from the Senate’s bank failure hearing

Federal Reserve Board Vice Chair for Supervision Michael S. Barr (R) testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee March 28, 2023 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of "Recent Bank Failures and the Federal Regulatory Response." Also pictured is Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairman Martin Gruenberg.
Win McNamee—Getty Images

It didn’t take long for Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senior senator from Ohio, to open yesterday’s Senate Banking Committee Hearing by blaming venture capitalists for a bank failure that brought flashbacks to 2008.

“I spent that weekend on the phone with Ohio small businesses and banks and credit unions,” he said, giving introductory comments as the first speaker of yesterday’s more than two-hour hearing. “Ohio small business owners simply wanted to make payroll. They didn’t want to see years of hard work go down the drain because of venture capitalists panicking on Twitter, 2,000 miles away.”

There’s been a lot of blame cast in the last several weeks over who did what and when. We’ve already seen lawsuits, terminations, a high-profile bankruptcy, and a slew of takeovers. Venture capitalists have become an easy villain for politicians to point to—rich tech bros with their private jets and self-aggrandizing rocket ship emojis are an easy target, so easy that plenty of venture capitalists and founders themselves are doing their fair share of finger-pointing at one another, too. 

For all the highly-opinionated people ranting over how the panic started, and who is responsible for taking their money out first, testimony made by officials from the Federal Reserve, FDIC, and Treasury served as a welcome reminder that there’s a more important matter: Why there was widespread fear and panic in the first place. 

We’ve been reporting on Silicon Valley Bank’s highly problematic balance sheet, its lack of a chief risk officer (which Fortune was the first news outlet to report), and how, even before its financial disclosure sparked the bank run, SVB was arguably close to insolvent, and rapidly heading for failure. Early findings from federal investigations paint a clear picture of what the bank itself was responsible for, and testimony suggested that current regulations allowed Silicon Valley Bank to continue to operate irresponsibly for nearly two years.

“This is a textbook case of bank mismanagement,” testified Michael Barr, vice chair for supervision of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. He noted that interest rate risk and liquidity risk are the “bread and butter of banking issues” and that SVB was made “quite aware of those issues.”

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who championed the original Dodd-Frank Act after the 2008 financial crisis, pointedly asked the three testifying officials whether more regulation was needed to monitor the banking sector, they all said yes.

If you don’t want to listen to the whole hearing yourself (I don’t blame you), here’s my highlight reel. Speakers were Barr; FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg; and Nellie Liang, under secretary for domestic finance for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

– Barr said that Silicon Valley Bank’s management had been rated a CAMELS 3, meaning that it was “not well managed.” At the holding company level, referring to SVB Financial, it was rated deficient, which is “also clearly not well managed.”

– Barr said SVB had alerted the Federal Reserve the morning of Friday, March 10, that there was $100 billion of withdrawal requests in the queue for that day—and they didn’t have the collateral to withstand that. The California financial regulator shut the bank down for this reason. (If you recall, that’s on top of the $42 billion withdrawn on Thursday.)

– Barr said the Federal Reserve is doing a self-assessment, but will also welcome independent reviews of their actions.

– Gruenberg said that there were two bids for SVB on Sunday right after the collapse. One bank bidder hadn’t received approval from their board, so it didn’t qualify. The other would have cost the FDIC more than a liquidation. “We did not have an acceptable bid,” he said.

– Barr said that SVB had been told by the San Francisco Federal Reserve about the risks to their business all the way back in November 2021, and highlighted how investors were talking about problems with interest rate and liquidity risks publicly, and the bank still “didn’t take the action necessary.”

– When asked whether the FDIC would claw back compensation from senior banking executives, Gruenberg said that the FDIC is investigating the conduct of the members of the board and management and that the agency can, depending on the findings, impose civil money penalties, restitution, and bar individuals from the business of banking. The FDIC, under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, does not have explicit authority to clawback compensation, but “we can get to some of that with our other authorities,” Gruenberg said.

– There were repeated questions from senators over whether the FDIC took too long or mismanaged the sale process. Gruenberg defended the FDIC’s actions and said the agency had acted quickly: “It was really a determination that we made to try to set up two bridge institutions to manage for a short period of time these two failed banks, and then to organize…an open bidding process for both institutions, which we ultimately were able to implement successfully,” he said.

– Barr said the Fed Reserve will need to go through a formal rulemaking process, but he anticipates the agency needs to “strengthen capital and liquidity standards for firms over $100 billion.”

– When Warren asked Gruenberg if he would roll back changes Jelena McWilliams, who was appointed  FDIC chair during the Trump presidency, made to FDIC regulations, Gruenberg, who had voted against those measures, said it was “certainly” appropriate for the FDIC to go back and review in light of the recent episode and consider changes. “My views haven’t changed,” he said.

– Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) pressed questions about whether the San Francisco Fed threatened to fine SVB when the bank didn’t address its concerns and why the Fed regulators did not “drop the hammer” on the bank. “I agree that the risks were there, that the regulators were pointing them out, and the bank didn’t take action,” Barr said. “It’s ultimately in the first instance the bank management’s responsibility to fix these problems, and they failed to do it. Where we didn’t take enough action, and if the Federal Reserve supervisors didn’t take enough action, we’re going to be talking about that in our review and we expect to be held accountable for it.”

There will be a slew of individuals in the hot seat as more information surfaces. Some of that will probably happen at 10 a.m. ET today, when the House Financial Services Committee grills the same officials, which you can attend here. And more to come when the Federal Reserve publishes its formal report on what happened on May 1.

Extra credit reading…With the Silicon Valley Bank implosion, it’s been easy to lose track of all the other, also-important-and-ongoing threads in the private markets, whether it be TikTok’s CEO testifying before Congress, Binance being sued by the CFTC, or Alibaba breaking up into six separate companies. Here are five longer reads that you may have missed during the mayhem. They are well worth your time.

How Binance really operates: The world’s largest crypto exchange boasts vast profits, hefty influencer payouts, and a ticking time bomb on its balance sheet — Shawn Tully, Fortune

You Are Not a Parrot — Elizabeth Weil, New York Magazine

Venture Capital’s 25 Favorite Cafes — Annie Goldsmith, The Information

A is for abuse: Two Harvard Grads saw big profits in African education. Children paid the price — Neha Wadekar and Ryan Grim, The Intercept

How Cigna saves millions by having its doctors reject claims without reading them — Patrick Rucker, Maya Miller and David Armstrong, ProPublica

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
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Jackson Fordyce curated the deals section of today’s newsletter.


- Isar Aerospace, a Munich-based satellite launch service company, raised $165 million in Series C funding. 7-Industries Holding, Bayern Kapital, Earlybird Venture Capital, HV Capital, Lakestar, Lombard Odier Investment Managers, Porsche Automobil Holding, UVC Partners, and Vsquared Ventures invested in the round. 

- Placemakr, a Washington, D.C.-based multifamily and hospitality operator, raised $65 million in funding. Highland Capital Partners, Harbert Growth Partners, Bernstein Management Corporation, Camber Creek, Gaw Capital, and others invested in the round.

- Graphiant, a San Jose-based edge services provider, raised $62 million in Series B funding. Two Bear Capital led the round and was joined by Sequoia Capital, Atlantic Bridge, Harpoon Venture Capital Partners, and others. 

- Salubris Biotherapeutics, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based biologic therapeutics discovery and development company, raised $35 million in funding from Shenzhen Salubris Pharmaceuticals

- Venti Technologies, a Boston-based autonomous logistics company for global supply chain and industrial hubs, raised $28.8 million in Series A funding. LG Technology Ventures led the round and was joined by Safar Partners, UOB Venture Management, Alpha JWC, and LDV Partners

- Smalls, a remote-based cat food brand, raised $19 million in funding. Companion Fund led the round and was joined by Left Lane Capital, Valor Capital, 301 INC, and Ohio State University’s endowment fund

- env0, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based infrastructure as code workflow automation and management software provider, raised an additional $18.1 million in Series A funding. Venture Guides led the round and was joined by StepStone Group, Knollwood Investment Advisory, boldstart ventures, Grove Ventures, M12, and Crescendo Venture Partners.

- Reeco, a Miami- and Tel Aviv-based hospitality buyers and suppliers marketplace, raised $10 million in seed funding co-led by Net Capital Ventures and Joule Ventures.

- Cowboy Clean Fuels, a Denver-based carbon-negative, renewable natural gas production company, raised $7.5 million in Series A funding led by Machan Investments.

- Conduit, a San Francisco-based crypto-native platform, raised $7 million in seed funding from Paradigm

- Playbook, a San Francisco-based personal finance app, raised $7 million in Series A funding. Telstra Ventures led the round and was joined by Atomic.

- Right-Hand Cybersecurity, a Phoenix-based human risk management platform, raised $5 million in Series A funding led by AZ-VC.

- Higharc, a Durham, N.C.-based homebuilding platform, raised $4.5 million in funding from Ferguson Ventures and Starwood Capital Group

- Two Boxes, a Denver-based return processing and data capturing company for brands and third-party logistic companies, raised $4.5 million in seed funding. Vinyl Capital led the round and was joined by Matchstick Ventures and Range Ventures.

- FedML, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based collaborative A.I. platform, raised $4 million in seed funding led by Camford Capital.


- EQT Growth acquired GotPhoto, a Berlin-based photography software platform. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

- In-Place Machining, a portfolio company of Levine Leichtman Capital Partners, acquired Western Machine Works, a Portland, Ore.-based mechanical design, repair, and maintenance services provider for precision components. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- Trinity Hunt Partners acquired a majority stake in Riverside Services, a Boston-based commercial landscaping maintenance provider. Financial terms were not disclosed.


- Energy Transfer agreed to acquire Lotus Midstream, a Sugar Land, Texas-based crude oil gathering and transportation system, from EnCap Flatrock Midstream, for $1.45 billion.


- REAL Messenger, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based real estate content-focused social platform, agreed to go public via a merger with Nova Vision Acquisition Corp., a SPAC. The deal values the company at $150 million.


- Torch Capital, a New York-based venture capital fund, raised $205 million for a fund focused on investing in consumer behavior brands and platforms. 


- CoinFund, a New York-based investment firm, hired Jenna Pilgrim as head of portfolio growth. Formerly, she was with Mayflower Strategic.

- IMB Partners, a Bethesda, Md.-based private equity firm, hired Lenora Robinson Mills as COO and Allison Alexander as managing director and general counsel. Formerly, Mills was with the DC Public Charter School Board and Alexander from Precision Medicine Group.

- J.P. Morgan Private Capital, the New York-based private capital arm of J.P. Morgan, hired Alex Bell as a partner of its sustainable growth equity platform. Formerly, he was with Tikehau Capital.

- Riverwood Capital, a Menlo Park, Calif.-, Miami-, New York-, and São Paulo-based investment firm, promoted Joe De Pinho, Alex Porto, and Ramesh Venugopal to partner.

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