WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen offered firm, upbeat reassurances to rattled bank depositors and investors Thursday, even as American financial institutions and European agencies ordered fresh rescue efforts following the second-largest bank collapse in U.S. history.
Questioned closely, sometimes aggressively, Yellen told senators at a Capitol hearing that the U.S. banking system “remains sound” and Americans “can feel confident” about the safety of their deposits.
Her remarks, against the backdrop of deepening concerns about the health of the global financial system, were an effort to signal to markets that there would be no broader contagion from the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in California and Signature Bank in New York.
By the time her testimony was over, another major institution, First Republic Bank, received an emergency infusion of $30 billion in deposits from 11 banks, according to Treasury. And in Europe hours earlier, Credit Suisse, Switzerland’s second-largest lender, got a promise from the Swiss central bank of a loan of up to 50 billion francs ($54 billion).
Wall Street rallied on the rescue news.
Republican senators laid a big part of the blame for the problems on Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
“The reckless tax and spend agenda that was forced through Congress” contributed to record high inflation that the Federal Reserve is having to compensate for through increasing interest rates, said Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho. And those surging rates have caused banks — as well as regular citizens — problems.
The Republicans also questioned Biden’s assurances that taxpayers won’t bear the brunt of the commitment to make depositors whole.
Yellen resisted that scenario, though she said, “We certainly need to analyze carefully what happened to trigger these bank failures and examine our rules and supervision” to prevent them from happening again. She defended the government’s argument that taxpayers will not end up paying the cost of protecting uninsured money at Silicon Valley and Signature.
The Treasury secretary was the first administration official to face lawmakers over the decision to protect uninsured money at the two failed regional banks, a move some have criticized as a bank “bailout.”
“The government took decisive and forceful actions to strengthen public confidence” in the U.S. banking system, Yellen testified. “I can reassure the members of the committee that our banking system remains sound, and that Americans can feel confident that their deposits will be there when they need them.”
The week has been a whirlwind for markets globally on worries about banks that may be bending under the weight of the fastest hikes to interest rates in decades, increasures intended to quell rising inflation on consumer goods.
In less than a week, Silicon Valley Bank, based in Santa Clara, California, failed after depositors rushed to withdraw money amid anxiety over the bank’s health. Then, regulators convened over the weekend and announced that New York-based Signature Bank also failed. They said that all depositors, including those holding uninsured funds exceeding $250,000, would be protected by federal deposit insurance.
The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have since launched investigations into the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, and President Joe Biden has called on Congress to strengthen rules on regional banks.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday, “There are things that we can do in the administration, but in order to really deal with this issue we have to act. Congress needs to act.”
Thursday’s hearing, originally scheduled to address Biden’s budget proposa for the fiscal year beginning next October, came after the sudden collapse of Silicon Valley, the nation’s 16th-biggest bank and a go-to financial institution for tech entrepreneurs. While lawmakers questioned Yellen on the federal deficit and upcoming debt ceiling negotiations, many focused instead on the bank failures and who was to blame.
The Biden administration’s “handling of the economy contributed to this,” insisted Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. “I plan to hold the regulators accountable.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., asked, “Where were the regulators in all of this?”
“Nerves are certainly frayed at this moment,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the committee. “One of the most important steps the Congress can take now is make sure there are no questions about the full faith and credit of the United States,” he said, referring to raising the federal debt ceiling.
Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the committee’s top Republican, said, “I’m concerned about the precedent of guaranteeing all deposits,” calling the federal rescue action a “moral hazard.”
Yellen said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” last Sunday that a banks bailout was not on the table.
“We’re not going to do that again,” she said, referring to the government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, which led to massive government rescues for large U.S. banks.
Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair and past president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve during the 2008 financial crisis, was a leading figure in the resolution this past weekend, which was engineered to prevent a wider systemic banking problem.
“This week’s actions demonstrate our resolute commitment to ensure that depositors’ savings remain safe,” she said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, compared the banks’ collapse to rail industry deregulation lobbying that Democrats say contributed to the East Palestine train derailment that rocked an Ohio community. “We see aggressive lobbying like this from banks as well,” he said.
In Europe, troubles at Credit Suisse deepened concerns about the global financial system.
The Swiss giant was having issues long before the U.S. banks collapsed, but the news Wednesday that the bank’s biggest shareholder would not inject more money led shares of European banks to plunge. On Thursday, they rose after the Swiss Central Bank’s action.
Regulators in the U.S. and abroad are trying to reassure depositors that their money is safe. They “don’t want anybody to be the person who sits in a darkened room or darkened cinema and shouts fire, because that’s what prompts a rush for the exits,” said Russ Mould, investment director at the online investment platform AJ Bell.
Despite the banking turmoil, the European Central Bank hiked interest rates by a half percentage point in its latest effort to curb stubbornly high inflation, saying Europe’s banking sector is “resilient,” with strong finances and plenty of available cash.
ECB President Christine Lagarde said the central bank would provide additional support to the banking system if necessary. She said banks “are in a completely different position from 2008” because of safeguards added after the financial crisis.
ECB Vice President Luis de Guindos also said Europe’s exposure to Credit Suisse, which is outside the European Union’s banking supervision structure, was “quite limited.”
The Swiss bank, which has seen its stock decline for years, has been pushing to raise money from investors and roll out a new strategy to overcome an array of troubles, including bad bets on hedge funds, repeated shake-ups of its top management and a spying scandal involving Zurich rival UBS.