Twitter poses a risk to the financial system and helped fuel the SVB run, says first major study to investigate the topic

A customer outside the shuttered Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) headquarters on March 10, 2023, in Santa Clara, Calif.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

In 1982, after Oklahoma’s Penn Square Bank failed, Republican Rep. Ed Weber of Ohio scolded regulators during a hearing, calling the collapse “an indictment of the regulatory system.” But officials at the Comptroller of the Currency, which was responsible for auditing Penn Square, fired back, blaming fellow regulators and the bank’s management for relying on high-risk energy loans.

Sound familiar? Last month, following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina told regulators at a hearing that they “appear to have been asleep at the wheel” before banks’ recent issues. And regulators? They blamed bank executives, with the Federal Reserve’s vice chair for supervision, Michael S. Barr, telling the Senate that SVB’s collapse was a “textbook case of mismanagement.”

Every bank failure in history has been followed by this blame game, in which politicians haul regulators before Congress and rebuke them for missing the warning signs that could have prevented a collapse, while regulators point their fingers at greedy bankers. 

Although it may sound clichéd, this time is different. Both parties agree that there’s something new to blame: social media. As Stephan Weiler, professor of economics at Colorado State University, explained to Fortune last month, SVB’s depositors were concentrated in the tech sector and well versed in social media, meaning “their ability to wipe out all of the available cash [at the bank] within 48 hours was really tremendous.” Now, professors from five different universities have confirmed in a new study that “social media did, indeed, contribute to the run on SVB.” 

“More importantly, our analysis suggests that other banks face similar risks,” the academics warned, calling it “a novel channel of bank-run risk.”

New technologies mean new risks

Many bank CEOs and economists were quick to brand the collapse of SVB last month as the first social media bank run in history. Bloomberg reported that well-connected venture capitalists used private messaging platforms and email chains to warn others of the issues plaguing their favorite lender, helping exacerbate the bank run. “It’s a complete game changer from what we’ve seen before,” Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser said of the social media fueled run in a March 23 interview.

But despite the claims, there was little in terms of concrete data to point to as evidence of the effects of social media on SVB. Now though, professors—including J. Anthony Cookson of the University of Colorado at Boulder; Corbin Fox of James Madison University; Javier Gil-Bazo of Universitat Pompeu Fabra; Juan Felipe Imbet of Université Paris Dauphine; and Christoph Schiller of Arizona State University—have teamed up to dissect roughly 5.4 million tweets from the start of the year through March 14 about publicly traded banking stocks in a study titled “Social Media as a Bank Run Catalyst.” 

By comparing bank-run-exposed stock returns with the number of negative tweets about that bank, they found that the risk of a bank run “increases markedly” when firms are repeatedly mentioned during “periods of intense Twitter conversation.” 

The study also confirmed the role of venture capitalists and startup founders in bank runs by looking at the tweets of hundreds of members of the startup community. Banks that were tied to the startup community had an increased risk of a bank run, especially when depositors were uninsured. Tweets from startup founders and VCs that expressed negative sentiment had a “significant negative effect” on bank stock returns in the study period of five minutes to 15 minutes after the tweet’s posting. 

“Given the increasingly pervasive nature of social communication on and off Twitter, we do not expect this risk to go away, but rather, it is likely to influence other outcomes, as well,” the professors concluded.

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