Janet Yellen will never forget’ scramble to prevent bank run after Silicon Valley Bank implosion

Matt Egan, CNN | 2/6/2024, 11:08 a.m.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen detailed on Tuesday the scramble by US officials last March to prevent the implosion of Silicon …
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Capitol Hill in March 2023 in Washington, DC. Mandatory Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen detailed on Tuesday the scramble by US officials last March to prevent the implosion of Silicon Valley Bank from infecting the broader economy.

“I will never forget it,” Yellen told lawmakers during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, referring to the weekend after Silicon Valley Bank failed.

“We did everything we could to put together a package of measures that would stop what could have become a run on the banking system — to the huge detriment to our economy and to hardworking Americans and businesses,” Yellen said.

Yellen was responding to a question from Rep. Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the committee, about efforts US officials took to “save this country from experiencing a bank run that could have actually crippled our banking system.”

Yellen noted that Silicon Valley Bank’s failure was caused by mismanagement of their interest rate risk and a heavy reliance on uninsured deposits concentrated in tech firms active on social media.

“We saw a run that was the largest and fastest of anything anyone has ever seen in this country,” Yellen said.

Although the bank crisis subsided after federal regulators launched emergency programs, some regional banks have come under renewed pressure in recent days.

Even as Yellen was speaking, shares of New York Community Bancorp plunged 15% on the day. The regional bank recently disclosed a surprise loss and a spike in loan losses as commercial real estate loans go bad.

Banking regulators are ‘focused’ on the nationwide issue of empty office buildings

“I do have a concern about commercial real estate,” Yellen told lawmakers during the House Financial Services Committee hearing, noting that some cities have been hit by a surge in empty office buildings.

Yellen said bank regulators are “quite focused” on this problem, including by working with banks to manage risks, build up reserves to cover losses, adjust dividend policies and maintain liquidity.

“I’m concerned. I believe it’s manageable, although there may be some institutions that are quite stressed by this problem,” Yellen said.

Yellen also said regulators are “very focused on helping banks manage through these situations.” She noted that higher interest rates and rising vacancy rates in office buildings have combined to cause problems — especially as real estate loans come due.

These issues in cities with high vacancy rates, according to Yellen, are “going to put a lot of stress on the owners of these properties.”

US economy is ‘headed in the right direction’

But Yellen struck a confident tone overall about the state of the American economy, pointing Tuesday to the historic boom in the job market.

“I absolutely believe it’s headed in the right direction,” Yellen said in response to a question about ex-Trump adviser Larry Kudlow admitting his recession forecast was wrong.

“Our growth is extremely strong. The labor market is at least as strong as it was prior to the pandemic. It’s been 50 years since we had a string of unemployment rates for this long under 4%,” Yellen said. “Job creation remains utterly robust.”

However, when pressed on the surging national debt, Yellen said it’s crucial that the United States get its fiscal house in order.

“It’s critically important that the US be on a fiscally sustainable path,” Yellen told lawmakers during the hearing.

Yellen argued that President Joe Biden has issued budget proposals — including tax and investment provisions — that she believes would “guarantee that we are on a fiscally sustainable path.”

She added that it’s “critical” to reduce the federal budget deficit to get on a sustainable path.

Yellen’s comments come days after her predecessor, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, said in a “60 Minutes” interview that the United States is on an “unsustainable fiscal path” because the national debt is growing faster than the economy.

“It’s probably time, or past time, to get back to an adult conversation among elected officials about getting the federal government back on a sustainable fiscal path,” Powell said.