SVB collapse forces rethink on interest rates and hits bank stocks

The failure of Silicon Valley Bank has torn into global markets, with investors ripping up their forecasts for further rises in interest rates and dumping bank stocks around the world.

Government bond prices soared on Monday, posting some of the biggest rallies since the crisis of 2008, as fund managers ramped up bets that the US Federal Reserve would now leave interest rates unchanged at its next scheduled monetary policy meeting this month to steady the global financial system. As recently as last week, markets were braced for another half-percentage point rise.

Meanwhile, bank stocks dropped heavily. Europe’s Stoxx banking index fell 7 per cent, taking its decline since the middle of last week to just over 11 per cent, with all 22 stocks in the index in negative territory. Several lenders suffered double-digit declines on Monday alone, including Spain’s Banco Sabadell and Germany’s Commerzbank. Austria’s Bawag Group fell 8.9 per cent.

Futures contracts tracking Wall Street’s S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 were down 0.7 per cent and 0.3 per cent ahead of the New York open, giving up earlier gains which came after US regulators said on Sunday that SVB depositors would be fully repaid and unveiled emergency funding measures in a bid to contain the fallout. In the UK, the Bank of England brokered a deal to sell the UK arm of SVB to HSBC for £1.

Futures in big US banks fell about 2 per cent and investors were picking off weaker names. Shares in First Republic, another San Francisco-based bank, dropped as much as 68 per cent in pre-market trading despite a statement on Sunday that it had more than $70bn in unused liquidity.

The failure of SVB, and closure of Signature Bank have come just months after the shortlived crisis in UK government bonds, underlining the risks buried in the financial system that are coming to light as central banks remove the largesse that shielded markets following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Investors and analysts said policymakers at the Fed and elsewhere would need to tread carefully as they sought to hose down inflation.

“The SVB situation is a reminder that Fed hikes are having an effect, even if the economy has held up so far,” said Mark Haefele, chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth Management in a note to clients. “Concerns over bank earnings and balance sheets also add to the negative sentiment for . . . equity markets.”

Futures markets show investors believe the US central bank will temper the path of interest rate rises from here, despite Fed chair Jay Powell’s reminder a week ago of his determination to pull down inflation, and despite data on Friday showing that the US economy added 311,000 jobs, higher than the 225,000 forecast by economists.

After weeks of debate about whether the US central bank would raise interest rates by 0.5 or 0.25 per cent, Refinitiv data now shows that traders see a 60 per cent probability that the US central bank will leave rates unchanged — in a range of 4.5-4.75 per cent — later this month.

Goldman Sachs said on Monday that it no longer expected any increase at the Fed’s meeting ending on March 22 “in light of recent stress in the banking system”.

Investors also scaled back their bets on how high the European Central Bank would raise its deposit rate later this year to 3.25 per cent, down from a peak of 4.2 per cent only last week. 

The shake-up in bond markets was substantial. Germany’s interest rate-sensitive two-year bond yield plummeted 0.48 percentage points to 2.62 per cent on Monday, as bond markets rallied sharply in response to fading expectations of further increases in borrowing costs. The rate has fallen from the 14-year high of 3.3 per cent it hit last week, showing how sharply investors have repriced their rate expectations since SVB’s collapse.

In the US, the two-year Treasury yield, which moves with interest rate expectations, fell by 0.41 percentage points to 4.18 per cent. It had previously slipped below 4 per cent to its lowest level since September. The benchmark 10-year government bond yield slipped 0.22 percentage points to 3.47 per cent.

George Saravelos, a strategist at Deutsche Bank, said the SVB rescue package from the Fed, which includes an offer to absorb government debt and mortgage-backed bonds at above-market prices, represented a new form of quantitative easing — the bond-buying programme that US policymakers fired up after the pandemic hit to stabilise the financial system.

“Both the speed and end point of the Fed hiking cycle should come down,” Saravelos said. “We’ve learnt two things over the last few days. First, that this monetary policy tightening cycle is operating with a lag, like every other. Second, that this tightening cycle will now be amplified due to stress in the US banking system.”

Michael Every, an analyst at Rabobank, said the implications of the Fed’s “bailout of Silicon Valley venture capitalists funding Instagram filters that make cats look like dogs” were potentially “enormous”.

“The Fed is de facto allowing a massive easing of financial conditions as well as soaring moral hazard,” he said in a note to clients.

Currencies that perform well in times of stress also rallied. The Japanese yen and the Swiss franc both climbed more than 1 per cent against the dollar.

The rapid collapse of SVB had made market participants “more aware again that the Fed will eventually break something if it keeps raising rates”, said Lee Hardman, currency analyst at MUFG.

The bank’s collapse had also “taken the wind out the US dollar’s sails” by highlighting risks associated with rising rates, Hardman added. A measure of the dollar’s strength against a basket of six international peers fell 0.6 per cent on Monday.

Additional reporting by Martin Arnold in Frankfurt