Climate tech becomes too big to fail, and two more hard lessons from a wild weekend
Fed SVB backstop eases immediate panic but expands bailout universe to an entirely new asset class
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(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc. His climate columns have appeared in USA Today, The Independent, and New Thinking magazine).
LONDON (Callaway Climate Insights) — Silicon Valley Bank is no Lehman Brothers moment.
Of that we were assured by regulators, banking executives and any number of media pundits over the weekend who took pains to draw SVB’s collapse as an outlier. But as the shock waves spread around the world Sunday, from Wall Street and here in London to Asia, it became horrifically clear that an entire new and important asset class would now need to be protected — climate tech.
The concentration of climate startups and the venture capitalists who back them with deposits in SVB made the nation’s 16th largest bank particularly vulnerable to a disaster as almost all of its deposits were above the $250,000 level the government typically insures for mom-and-pop depositors. That the collapse was the result of investment mismanagement and risk taking by SVB’s leadership was not the issue. It was the fact that the universe of customers in this case — in the U.S., UK and around the world — is at the forefront of the next generation of tech companies: the ones dedicated to the renewable energy transition.
In the end, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and officials from the Federal Reserve, unable to sell SVB’s assets before the market opened today, decided to do what the government didn’t do during Lehman. Step in and backstop the crisis. By contrast, the British government was able to sell SVB’s UK assets to HSBC HSBC 0.00%↑ PLC just hours before the Monday market open in London.
For the climate tech firms who now have access to their money and are no longer in danger, from the solar companies such as Sunrun RUN 0.00%↑, California’s wine industry and any number of Chinese startups to Roku ROKU 0.00%↑ and stablecoin (USDC), Sunday night was time to breathe a sigh of relief. No sigh was louder than from the climate tech startups and their VC’s who had their money tied in.
But plunging markets on Monday remind us that there is a risk in guaranteeing the risk-takers. The surprising speed with which SVB — and then suddenly Signature Bank on Sunday night — collapsed, bodes poorly for any of the smaller, regional U.S. banks who may have similar concentrated deposit bases. First Republic FRC 0.00%↑ in particular is being hit hard today.
There are three lessons to take from this ongoing debacle. The first is that while climate tech is a diverse and multifaceted community of entrepreneurs and technologies, the finance behind it is tightly concentrated. It is a relatively new asset class that at least for now, under this Biden government, has been deemed important enough to insure. What that means as the asset class grows — from carbon removal and storage companies to batteries, solar and wind — is the question of the moment.
“It’s going to make it even harder than it already was to raise capital in this environment,” said Chris Lustrino, founder and CEO of KingsCrowd, a four-year-old startup and one of the leading research companies on private investment markets. “It’s just a tough environment, but all we can do is keep pushing forward.”
Second, investment mismanagement or not, the crisis is a direct result of soaring interest rates tied to the Federal Reserve’s relentless campaign to tackle inflation. Rising rates have a lagging effect on the economy, so any potential damage existing increases have caused is still to come. If anything, this weekend should finally start to dampen the Fed’s ardor for raising rates further. The pain is moving up the ladder.
Finally, the bailout of SVB, whether one politically agrees with it or not, would not have been possible in a decentralized, crypto currency world. The fact that Signature Bank, one of the biggest crypto lenders, was folded into the backstop speaks volumes about the Fed’s sustained control over any attempts to subvert it. And should thwart more talk about regulated crypto currency at least for years to come.
I’ve covered every major financial crisis since the stock market crash of 1987. Each one was different, but all involved runaway speculation on a specific asset class that investors had grown to believe was too good to be true. In this case, low interest rate Treasuries. This latest crisis harks back to the banking collapse of the early 1990s, where every week for a while the Feds were shutting banks, stretching the yellow tape around bank branches on late Friday afternoons as depositors looked on in helpless horror.
Instead of real estate investors this time, it’s investors and entrepreneurs in the most important new technologies who are vulnerable. We can argue about whether they deserved a bailout, and what this means for future investors and asset classes. But for the sake of the climate tech behind the money in this case, and its potential broader impact on our world, it was the right decision.
David Callaway explains why his column is called Zeus in The coming battle with the climate gods: How mortal innovators and investors will save the planet.
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