At first glance, the Silicon Valley Bank debacle seems to be a cut-and-dried financial caper. The executives running the 16th-largest bank in the US made the wrong choices in handling what seemed a fortuitous situation—a roster of clients, flush with venture capital funding, handing over billions of dollars of cash for storage in the institution's coffers. But the bank’s leaders misjudged the risks of higher interest rates and inflation. Pair that with a mini tech downturn, and the bank’s spreadsheets began turning colors. When word of its perilous situation got out, panicky depositors pulled their money. After a government takeover, everyone’s money was safe.
But although no depositor lost money, the saga looks like a traumatic event whose consequences will linger for months, or even years. Things happened that we can’t unsee. The SVB saga reminds me of what my wife, a true-crime reporter, says when people ask why she finds murder stories so interesting. A killing, she’d say, reveals the previously private, shrouded actions that define the way people live. In the course of investigating the crime, lives that looked ideal from the outside are exposed as unmade beds of secrets and lies.
Start with the bank. As has been widely reported—only now with a critical eye—Silicon Valley Bank was not only the bank of choice among Silicon Valley companies, but an ingratiating cheerleader for startup culture. The VCs and angels funding new companies would routinely send entrepreneurs to the bank, which often handled both company accounts and the personal finances of founders and executives. SVB would party with tech people—and vintners, another sector they were deep into. Some bankers had wine fridges in their offices. Salud!