Bank's Failure Hits California's Wine Industry

Silicon Valley Bank had been an influential lender to vineyards.

A vineyard in Agua Dulce, Calif., Feb. 24, 2023.
A vineyard in Agua Dulce, Calif., Feb. 24, 2023.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

NEW YORK (AP) — It was called Silicon Valley Bank, but its collapse is causing shockwaves around the world.

From winemakers in California to startups across the Atlantic Ocean, companies are scrambling to figure out how to manage their finances after their bank suddenly shut down Friday. The meltdown means distress not only for businesses but also for all their workers whose paychecks may get tied up in the chaos.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Saturday that he's talking with the White House to help "stabilize the situation as quickly as possible, to protect jobs, people's livelihoods, and the entire innovation ecosystem that has served as a tent pole for our economy."

U.S. customers with less than $250,000 in the bank can count on insurance provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Regulators are trying to find a buyer for the bank in hopes customers with more than that can be made whole.

That includes customers like Circle, a big player in the cryptocurrency industry. It said it has about $3.3 billion of the roughly $40 billion in reserves for its USDC coin at SVB. That caused USD Coin's value, which tries to stay firmly at $1, to briefly plunge below 87 cents Saturday. It later rose back above 97 cents, according to CoinDesk.

Across the Atlantic, startup companies woke up Saturday to find SVB's U.K. business will stop making payments or accepting deposits. The Bank of England said late Friday that it will put Silicon Valley Bank UK in its insolvency procedure, which will pay out eligible depositors up to 170,000 British pounds ($204,544) for joint accounts "as quickly as possible."

"We know that there are a large number of startups and investors in the ecosystem who have significant exposure to SVB UK and will be very concerned," Dom Hallas, executive director of Coadec, which represents British startups, said on Twitter. He cited "concern and panic."

The Bank of England said SVB UK's assets would be sold to pay creditors.

It's not just startups feeling the pain. The bank's collapse is having an effect on another important California industry: fine wines. It's been an influential lender to vineyards since the 1990s.

"This is a huge disappointment," said winemaker Jasmine Hirsch, the general manager of Hirsch Vineyards in California's Sonoma County.

Hirsch said she expects her business will be fine. But she's worried about the broader effects for smaller vintners looking for lines of credit to plant new vines.

"They really understand the wine business," Hirsch said. "The disappearance of this bank, as one of the most important lenders, is absolutely going to have an effect on the wine industry, especially in an environment where interest rates have gone up."

In Seattle, Shelf Engine CEO Stefan Kalb found himself immersed in emergency meetings devoted to figuring how to meet payroll instead of focusing on his startup company's business of helping grocers manage their food orders.

"It's been a brutal day. We literally have every single penny in Silicon Valley Bank," Kalb said Friday, pegging the deposit amount that's now tied up at millions of dollars.

He is filing a claim for the $250,000 limit, but that won't be enough to keep paying Shelf Engine's 40 employees for long. That could force him into a decision about whether to begin furloughing employees until the mess is cleaned up.

"I'm just hoping the bank gets sold during the weekend," Kalb said.

Tara Fung, co-founder and CEO of tech startup Co:Create that helps launch digital loyalty and rewards programs, said her firm uses multiple banks besides Silicon Valley Bank so was able switch over its payroll and vendor payments to another bank Friday.

Fung said her firm chose the bank as a partner because it is the "gold standard for tech firms and banking partnerships," and she was upset that some people seemed to be gloating about its failure and unfairly tying it to doubts about cryptocurrency ventures.

San Francisco-based employee performance management company was among the Silicon Valley Bank depositors that rushed to pull their money out before regulators seized the bank.

Co-founder David Murray credits an email from one of Confirm's venture capital investors, which urged the company to withdraw its funds "immediately," citing signs of a run on the bank. Such actions accelerated the flight of cash, which led to the bank's collapse.

"I think a lot of founders were sharing the logic that, you know, there's no downside to pulling up the money to be safe," Murray said. "And so we all did that, hence the bank run."

The U.S. government needs to act more quickly to stanch further damage, said Martín Varsavsky, an Argentinian entrepreneur who has investments across the tech industry and Silicon Valley.

One of his companies, Overture Life, which employs about 50 people, had some $1.5 million in deposits in the financially embattled bank but can rely on other holdings elsewhere to meet payroll.

But other companies have high percentages of their cash in Silicon Valley Bank, and they need access to more than the amount protected by the FDIC.

"If the government allows people to take at least half of the money they have in Silicon Valley Bank next week, I think everything will be fine," Varsavsky said Saturday. "But if they stick to the $250,000, it will be an absolute disaster in which so many companies won't be able to meet payroll."

Andrew Alexander, a calculus teacher at a private San Francisco high school that uses Silicon Valley Bank, wasn't overly worried. His next paycheck isn't scheduled for another two weeks, and he's confident many of the issues can be resolved by then.

But he worries for friends whose livelihoods are more deeply intertwined with the tech industry and Silicon Valley.

"I have a lot of friends in the startup world who are just like terrified," Alexander said, "and I really feel for them. It's pretty scary for them."

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