By Brandon Smith
There has been an avalanche of information and numerous theories circulating the past few days about the fate of a bank in California know as SVB (Silicon Valley Bank). SVB was the 16th largest bank in the US until it abruptly failed and went into insolvency on March 10th. The impetus for the collapse of the bank is tied to a $2 billion liquidity loss on bond sales which caused the institution’s stock value to plummet over 60%, triggering a bank run by customers fearful of losing some or most of their deposits.
There are many fine articles out there covering the details of the SVB situation, but what I want to talk about more is the root of it all. The bank’s shortfalls are not really the cause of the crisis, they are a symptom of a wider liquidity drought that I predicted here at Alt-Market months ago, including the timing of the event.
First, though, let’s discuss the core issue, which is fiscal tightening and the Federal Reserve. In my article ‘The Fed’s Catch-22 Taper Is A Weapon, Not A Policy Error’, published in December of 2021, I noted that the Fed was on a clear path towards tightening into economic weakness, very similar to what they did in the early 1980s during the stagflation era and also somewhat similar to what they did at the onset of the Great Depression. Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke even openly admitted that the Fed caused the depression to spiral out of control due to their tightening policies.
In that same article I discussed the “yield curve” being a red flag for an incoming crisis:
“…The central bank is the largest investor in US bonds. If the Fed raises interest rates into weakness and tapers asset purchases, then we may see a repeat of 2018 when the yield curve started to flatten. This means that short term treasury bonds will end up with the same yield as long term bonds and investment in long term bonds will fall.”
As of this past week the yield curve has been inverted, signaling a potential liquidity crunch. Both Jerome Powell (Fed Charman) and Janet Yellen (Treasury Secretary) have indicated that tightening policies will continue and that reducing inflation to 2% is the goal. Given the many trillions of dollars the Fed has pumped into the financial system in the past decade as well as the overall weakness of general economy, it would not take much QT to crush credit markets and by extension stock markets.
As I also noted in 2021:
“We are now at that stage again where price inflation tied to money printing is clashing with the stock market’s complete reliance on stimulus to stay afloat. There are some that continue to claim the Fed will never sacrifice the markets by tapering. I say the Fed does not actually care, it is only waiting for the right time to pull the plug on the US economy.”
But is that time now? I expanded on this analysis in my article ‘Major Economic Contraction Coming In 2023 – Followed By Even More Inflation’, published in December of 2022. I noted that:
“This is the situation we are currently in today as 2022 comes to a close. The Fed is in the midst of a rather aggressive rate hike program in a “fight” against the stagflationary crisis that they created through years of fiat stimulus measures. The problem is that the higher interest rates are not bringing prices down, nor are they really slowing stock market speculation. Easy money has been too entrenched for far too long, which means a hard landing is the most likely scenario.”
“In the early 2000s the Fed had been engaged in artificially low interest rates which inflated the housing and derivatives bubble. In 2004, they shifted into a tightening process. Rates in 2004 were at 1% and by 2006 they rose to over 5%. This is when cracks began to appear in the credit structure, with 4.5% – 5.5% being the magic cutoff point before debt became too expensive for the system to continue the charade. By 2007/2008 the nation witnessed an exponential implosion of credit…”
Finally, I made my prediction for March/April of 2023:
“Since nothing was actually fixed by the Fed back then, I will continue to use the 5% funds rate as a marker for when we will see another major contraction…The 1% excise tax added on top of a 5% Fed funds rate creates a 6% millstone on any money borrowed to finance future buybacks. This cost is going to be far too high and buybacks will falter. Meaning, stock markets will also stop, and drop. It will likely take two or three months before the tax and the rate hikes create a visible effect on markets. This would put our time frame for contraction around March or April of 2023.”
We are now in the middle of March and it appears that the first signs of liquidity crisis are bubbling to the surface with the insolvency of SVB and the shuttering of another institution in New York called Signature Bank.
Everything is tied back to liquidity. With higher rates, banks are hard-pressed to borrow from the Fed and companies are hard-pressed to borrow from banks. This means companies that were hiding financial weakness and exposure to bad investments using easy credit no longer have that option. They won’t be able to artificially support operations that are not profitable, they will have to abandon stock buybacks that make their shares appear valuable and they will have to initiate mass layoffs in order to protect their bottom line.
SVB is not quite Bear Stearns, but it is likely a canary in the coal mine, telling us what is about to happen on a wider scale. Many of their depositors were founded in venture capital fueled by easy credit, not to mention all the ESG related companies dependent on woke loans. That money is gone – It’s dead. Those businesses are quietly but quickly crumbling which also conjured a black hole for deposits within SVB. It’s a terribly destructive cycle. Surely, there are numerous other banks in the US in the same exact position.
I believe this is just the beginning of a liquidity and credit crisis that will combine with overt inflation to produce perhaps the biggest economic crash America has ever seen. SVB’s failure may not be THE initiator, only one among many. I suspect that in this scenario larger US banks may avoid the kind of credit crash that we saw with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008. But, contagion could still strike multiple mid-sized banks and the effects could be similar in a short period of time.
With all the news flooding the wire on SVB it’s easy to forget that all of this boils down to a single vital issue: The Fed’s stimulus measures created an economy utterly addicted to easy and cheap liquidity. Now, they have taken that easy money away. In light of the SVB crash, will the central bank reverse course on tightening, or will they continue forward and risk contagion?
For now, Janet Yellen and the Fed have implemented a limited backstop and a guarantee on deposits at SVB and Signature. This will theoretically prevent a “haircut” on depositor accounts and lure retail investors with dreams of endless stimulus. It is a half-measure, though – Central bankers have to at least look like they are trying.
SVB’s assets sit at around $200 billion and Signature’s assets are around $100 billion, but what about interbank exposure and what about the wider implications? How many banks are barely scraping by to meet their liquidity obligations, and how many companies have evaporating deposits? The backstop will do nothing to prevent a major contagion.
There are many financial tricks that might slow the pace of a credit crash, but not by much. And, here’s the kicker – Unlike in 2008, the Fed has created a situation in which there is no escape. If they do pivot and return to systemic bailouts, stagflation will skyrocket even more. If they don’t use QE, then banks crash, companies crash and even bonds become untenable, which puts the world reserve status of the Dollar under threat. What does that lead to? More stagflation. In either case, rapidly rising prices on most necessities will be the consequence.
How long will this process take? It all depends on how the Fed responds. They might be able to drag the crash out for a few months with various stop-gaps. If they go back to stimulus then the banks will be saved along with equities (for a while) but rising inflation will suffocate consumers in the span of a year and companies will still falter. My gut tells me that they will rely on contained interventions but will not reverse rate hikes as many analysts seem to expect.
The Fed will goose markets up at times using jawboning and false hopes of a return to aggressive QE or near-zero rates, but ultimately the trend of credit markets and stocks will be steady and downward. Like a brush fire in a wind storm, once the flames are sparked there is no way to put things back the way they were. If their goal was in fact a liquidity crunch, well, mission accomplished. They have created that exact scenario. Read my articles linked above to understand why they might do this deliberately.
In the meantime, it appears that my predictions on timing are correct so far. We will have to wait and see what happens in the coming weeks. I will keep readers apprised of events as new details unfold. The situation is rapidly evolving.