Silicon Valley Bank’s Ex-C.E.O. is ‘Truly Sorry’ but Deflects Blame
In his first public remarks since Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, triggering widespread industry turmoil, the lender’s former chief executive pointed the finger at pretty much everybody but himself for the lender’s demise, casting blame on regulators, the media, his board of directors and even the bank’s own depositors.
Gregory Becker, who was fired from SVB shortly after its March failure, earned bipartisan derision on Tuesday for his explanations during testimony with the Senate Banking Committee. Though Mr. Becker repeatedly said that SVB’s unwinding was caused by unforeseeable circumstances, senators took a sharper view of his decision making.
“It was bone-deep, down-to-the-marrow stupidity,” Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, told him.
SVB’s collapse two months ago has prompted criticism from all corners. The San Francisco lender, with a high concentration of clients in the technology and venture capital industries, unraveled after a bank run that lasted just a few days. In its aftermath, two other lenders, Signature Bank and First Republic, also collapsed, while several other midsize banks remain subjects of serious concern among investors.
The collapse was precipitated by the bank’s decision to buy up government bonds in an era of low interest rates, particularly during the pandemic. Those bonds dropped in value when runaway inflation caused policymakers to quickly raise interest rates, making relatively low-yielding, older bonds less attractive to investors and blowing a hole in SVB’s books.
SVB also had an unusually high proportion of accounts with more than $250,000 in deposits, the cutoff to be government insured in the event of a failure, making it particularly at risk of a bank run — as depositors who were worried about their cash rushed to withdraw it.
Mr. Becker hadn’t publicly addressed the collapse until Tuesday’s hearing. A three-decade SVB veteran, he became chief executive in 2011 and oversaw its rapid growth in the following years.
“I worked at a place I truly loved,” he said, calling himself “truly sorry” for what happened.
Mr. Becker said that at the time of SVB’s failure, he was working with regulators to shore up the bank. He said SVB’s large, uninsured accounts were a function of its focus on businesses and individuals whose own wealth was growing, and that he could not have imagined they would all pull en mass because of their long history with the bank.
He blamed the media for raising questions about the firm’s financial disclosures and government officials for allowing inflation to spike to the point where rapid interest rate increases were necessary. Asked to identify any of his own failures, he could not.
“It sounds a lot like my dog ate my homework,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio.
The Federal Reserve, which regulates banks, last month partly blamed itself for ignoring warning signs at SVB. Its strongest criticism, however, was aimed at the bank’s leaders, including Mr. Becker, who it said took untenable financial risks to keep the lender growing quickly.
At a separate hearing Tuesday, Michael Barr, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, said that
when SVB executives found a problem with their liquidity stress testing, they changed the test to make it less conservative, calling that “the opposite of what you’d want a bank to do” when it was facing risk.
Many of the questions faced by Mr. Becker Tuesday involved his pay, which rose as the bank grew. He earned nearly $10 million in 2022 and cashed out millions in stock options in the weeks before the lender’s collapse. He testified that those sales were preplanned and that he wasn’t acting on any nonpublic information.
“From the standpoint of compensation, that is determined by the board of directors. I know they believed it was fair, and I believe they were accurate,” he said.
When senators from both parties asked if he would give back any of his bonuses, Mr. Becker repeatedly said he was waiting to see if regulators would force him to.
“Let’s say it was legal,” asked Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio. “Was it ethical?”
Mr. Becker declined to answer.
Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.
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