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Behind the £1 deal that staved off the tech bank’s collapse in the UK

Behind the £1 deal that staved off the tech bank’s collapse in the UK

While its quick slip into financial hardship has left American bankers reeling, its UK division is surprisingly fine. But the tech sector isn’t out of trouble yet

Last week, if you had heard of Silicon Valley Bank UK, you probably worked in tech. The bank had only been spun out in to a separate entity last summer, after its few thousand corporate customers pushed it over a regulatory threshold, and while SVB had grown to almost hold £10bn of deposits, with £5.5bn of outstanding loans, it was very much a specialist player.

The bank’s selling point was that it understood the needs of the “innovation economy”, something that high street banks frequently failed to acknowledge. A startup might have zero revenue, yet hold £5m in the bank and have 10 employees, a profile fundamentally different from a typical small business. As a result, trying to get something as simple as a corporate credit card could be a surprising hassle, and when SVB arrived on the UK scene, it was enthusiastically adopted by founders and venture capitalists alike.

This week, though, things are different. The Gary Lineker row may have held the collapse of SVB off many UK front pages, but it is far closer to a household name than anyone wanted it to be. And yet, as the dust settles, everything looks … OK? The Bank of England just navigated potentially its largest bank failure since Northern Rock, and early appearances are that it managed to protect depositors without throwing taxpayer money at the problem.

Made in America

The story is different in the US, where SVB’s much larger parent organisation was based. There, the tale is one of a mid-sized regional bank growing too fast, avoiding the steely gaze of regulators and then making a series of bad calls until, by the beginning of this week, it was forced to admit it was having solvency issues.

Like its British subsidiary, the US division specialised in providing banking to startups. And it offered a much wider range of services: not only could your startup get a credit card, but you as a founder could get a mortgage, or a loan that let you exercise stock options. There were even deals with venture capitalists that saw some companies receive funding that was conditional on them banking with SVB, letting it offer a truly cradle-to-grave service for companies.

While it innovated in the services it provided, SVB didn’t do as well in the actual job of being a bank. It made a huge bet on interest rates staying flat just months before they started rising, and watched its reserves evaporate. It may have been possible to survive that, but a botched communication of its fundraising plans meant it ended up announcing that it needed money before it had secured any, ultimately scuppering the entire raise.

Customers noticed; in group chats across the tech sector, fears were being raised that SVB was in trouble. Technologically, the American banking sector is a few years behind Europe, with instant transfers being new on the scene, but SVB’s clients were uniquely online and connected. Over just two days, almost a quarter of its reserves were withdrawn, and on Friday morning, the government stepped in to stem the flow.

Across the pond

But here’s the thing: SVB UK was fine. The company was a legally distinct subsidiary of the US parent, with a much healthier balance sheet. Yet as California wobbled, regulators in Britain had two concerns.

One was simple: might SVB try and cannibalise its subsidiary to keep itself afloat? A similar tactic had been tried at the height of the financial crisis, when Icelandic banks attempted to repatriate funds from British subsidiaries to stave off collapse. The Financial Conduct Authority could theoretically prevent such transfers, literally setting up shop in the subsidiaries offices if needs be, but it is hard to do while the bank operates as a going concern.

The other is trickier. Even if SVB UK was completely solvent and protected from the troubles at its parent, would customers believe that to be the case? A bank run is a maddening thing to have to prevent, because the only thing worse than racing to pull your deposits out of a bank is not racing to pull your deposits out of a bank as everyone else does.

Even though SVB UK was solvent, £5.5bn of its assets were in the form of loans. If too many depositors tried to withdraw their money at once, it would face a liquidity crisis. And if it tried to sell its loan book for cash in a rush, that liquidity crisis could easily turn into a solvency crisis, bringing the British subsidiary crashing down, too. By Friday, that £10bn of deposits had already shrunk to £7bn, according to the FT.

So the regulators stepped in and froze the bank. The Bank of England’s process for small troubled banks like SVB is simple: it pushes them into insolvency and lets it progress like normal. Since SVB wasn’t insolvent, the process might have been resolved relatively quickly, with the company either being bought or reconstituting itself, and the run being snuffed out in the meantime. Or it might have seen the company being liquidated entirely, with depositors returned their money at the end of the process.

A tech bank

That decision, however, didn’t take account of the importance of SVB to the UK tech sector. Startups had their accounts frozen; they turned for help to their funders, the venture capital firms, only to learn that they also had their accounts frozen. Even if there was revenue rolling in, they couldn’t access payments, and if they were able to spin up a second account elsewhere, many of them learned that their own customers also had their accounts frozen.

If the insolvency process progressed as normal, those companies would start to fail. Pressure mounted to find a white knight – a company that would step in and acquire SVB UK root and branch so that it could reopen on Monday as normal.

It wasn’t an impossible sell. Based on where the company stood on Friday, it was worth around £1.4bn. And a number of the largest venture capital firms in Britain signed a promise that the run would be over if a buyer was found. “We would be strongly supportive,” they wrote, “and encourage our portfolio companies to resume their banking relationship with them.”

But any potential buyer would need to waive due diligence, accepting the risk that they would open up a big box marked “£5.5bn of loans” and find cobwebs and an IOU from Elon Musk. And the government, even as it was trying to broker a deal, got a glimpse from the US of the storm that could kick up if it was perceived to be ripping up the rules to protect the investments of tech millionaires. Yet on Monday morning, HSBC stepped up. The company agreed to take over SVB for a notional sale price of £1, keeping the tech sector afloat.

The tech sector isn’t out of trouble yet. While I understand that HSBC intends to keep SVB as an independent arm in the short term, in the mid- to long-term the industry could find itself losing the valuable specialist services that led to the bank becoming such a crucial part of the industry.

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For now, though, the story moves back to the US, where the collapse of the parent company has been rather less elegantly solved.

Welcome to SpotifyTok

Spotify logo displayed on mobile with Spotify seen on screen in this photo illustration. on 29 January 2023 in Brussels, Belgium.

“Spotify’s new design is part TikTok, part Instagram, and part YouTube”, says the Verge:

Spotify is redesigning the core homescreen of its app, trying to make it easier for users to find new stuff to listen to – and watch. The new design goes heavy on imagery and vertical scrolling, turning your homescreen from a set of album covers into a feed that much more closely resembles TikTok and Instagram. As you scroll, Spotify is also hoping to make it easier to discover new things across the Spotify ecosystem.

In 2017, the hottest design trend in smartphone apps was Stories. The first major innovation in social media since Facebook introduced the newsfeed, Stories were – and are – a row of circles along the top of your feed, each containing an individual friends’ posts, that disappeared after a day. Created by Snapchat in 2013 and lifted wholesale by Instagram in 2016, over the next year they broke containment. Airbnb introduced “travel stories”; WhatsApp introduced “Status”; YouTube introduced “Reels”, even LinkedIn and, yes, Spotify introduced their own spins on the model.

This year, the trend is “TikTok-style feeds”. Autoplaying vertical video wasn’t invented by TikTok, but the app popularised it, and Instagram followed soon enough. Twitter and YouTube have their own formats and now, it seems, Spotify is planning to join the party.

But just as with the spread of Stories, these apps seem to miss what underpins the popularity of the new format. Instagram Stories weren’t popular because people liked a little circle; they were popular because a new model of ephemeral sharing, separated from an algorithmically curated feed, allowed people to use social media in a different way, refocusing on friends and authentic content. That’s not something YouTube or LinkedIn could offer, and sure enough, their Stories products have quietly disappeared.

TikTok-style feeds will, I think, go the same way. The power of TikTok isn’t its user interface: it’s the fact that underpinning it is a world-class curation algorithm that ensures that you can keep swiping forever and never run out of content. Try to pair that with a music app that’s started to produce a few video podcasts and the outcome won’t be pretty.

The wider TechScape

Sesame Street is getting into NFTs.
  • Facebook’s move into NFTs was embarrassingly late, barely arriving before the entire sector blew up – so at least its move out of NFTs is coming quite sharpish.

  • Unfortunately, Sesame Street will now sell you a blockchain-enabled Cookie Monster digital collectible for $60.

  • Discord said it would never collect data from voice chats. Then the AI boom hit.

  • Samsung’s new cameras have a 100x zoom, and a special AI-powered “moon mode” that can take incredibly detailed pictures of the moon. Well, sort of. Turns out that the AI just knows what the moon looks like, and can add detail in to images that weren’t there to start. Real? Fake? Freal?

  • Dan Milmo looks at whether UK’s online safety bill will protect children from adult material.

  • Why does Twitter keep breaking?

  • James Ball argues that while big tech has long thought itself above the state, the SVB meltdown is stark proof that it isn’t.

  • Want more on SVB? I dive even deeper into why it was so important to the UK tech sector.

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