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‘Sheer panic’ has gripped Silicon Valley VCs and founders amid worries that the startup industry’s most important bank is in trouble

Silicon's Valley's clubby world of venture capital investors and entrepreneurs plunged into panic on Thursday amid fast-spreading reports of financial trouble at one of the startup industry's most important banks.

Silicon Valley Bank—one of the most prolific lenders and banking institutions in the private market ecosystem—announced a day earlier that it was selling off securities and seeking to raise billions in a public share sale to cover steep losses on its balance sheet. Shares of Silicon Valley Bank crashed by roughly 60% in regular trading on Thursday, while the bank’s tech clients scrambled to figure out whether to withdraw their deposits, sparking concerns of an old-fashioned bank run.

Six venture capital investors spoke with Fortune, most of whom say they spent all of Thursday on the phone with founders, reassuring them, sifting through legal agreements, or advising them on where to park their money.

“I’ve easily spoken to 70 of them today,” one venture investor, who asked to remain anonymous, told Fortune. “It’s a massive f****ing shit show. Silicon Valley Bank is like a top 20 bank. It’s the leader of tech banking, so I don’t know how this lands, but it doesn’t smell good right now and there’s a lot of panic.”

Another VC who was at an investor conference on Thursday said that “all the VCs phones are going off the hook.” The investor said that their portfolio company founders are pulling out money and that their advice is to put “6-12 months cash burn somewhere else safer” in case the bank goes insolvent.

SVB officials raced to stem the crisis, telling venture firms “SVB is well-capitalized” and “has a high-quality, liquid balance sheet,” according to an email seen by Fortune. CEO Greg Becker urged calm during a zoom call with venture firms early Thursday afternoon, according to tech news site The Information. “We have been supporting you and your startups for 30 years. We now ask you not to panic,” Becker said. In an SEC filing on Wednesday, Silicon Valley Bank said it still had around $180 billion in available liquidity.

But despite the bank’s assurances, signs of trouble were spreading. Two sources confirmed to Fortune that they couldn’t log in to SVB’s website, adding they’re hearing others are having trouble too. According to The Information, at least four SVB clients were told that their wire transfers could be delayed.

SVB touches every corner of the private markets. The 40-year-old bank has estimated that it has relationships with more than 50% of all venture-backed companies in the U.S.—and it is a predominant lender to venture capital and private equity firms alike—with venture or private equity funds making up approximately 56% of its global banking portfolio in 2022, per the company’s 2022 annual report. The bank also has a private wealth management arm that services the startup industry’s wealthy entrepreneurs.

Should Silicon Valley Bank go insolvent, it could freeze the entire venture and private market ecosystem, limiting firms from drawing on lines of credit and freezing deal execution. Founders who just raised millions in capital may not have access to that capital for some time.

“If those accounts get frozen, deals can’t get met, software can’t get paid for—these kinds of delays, even by a few weeks, can be really catastrophic for business,” a venture investor says, adding: “I don't think we actually lose everything—but it could be frozen for quite some time, which is essentially the same thing,” a venture investor says.

An SVB spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Amid the mayhem, some VCs chided their counterparts for feeding into the panic, potentially leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erica Brescia, a managing director at Redpoint Ventures, told Fortune in a private Twitter message that she believed “the current panic is fueled by the subset of VCs that are trying to ‘race’ their way out of SVB. This is causing more panic, and is entirely manufactured. If we all just remain calm and do not fuel the fire, we will all come out in a better place. The VC community is not that big. If enough of us just talk to each other and work to calm things down, everyone will be better off.”

Signage for high-tech commercial bank Silicon Valley Bank, on Sand Hill Road in the Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park, California, August 25, 2016. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
Signage for high-tech commercial bank Silicon Valley Bank, on Sand Hill Road in the Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park, California, August 25, 2016. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

Meanwhile Derek Flanzraich, founder and CEO of wellness credit card startup Ness, which banks with SVB, told Fortune in a private message that they “are taking a less alarmist approach despite getting some emails from investors. We're diversifying where we hold our cash,” noting that they’re a credit card company and so they moved some money to their sponsor bank. “We feel confident SVB isn't going anywhere and they've been great partners to us so far—plus mean a lot to the ecosystem as a whole.”

But many founders appear to be fleeing the bank altogether, moving their capital to banks like Mercury or First Republic, and some are only leaving balances of $250,000 at Silicon Valley Bank—as that is what is covered under FDIC insurance, one investor says.

Flanzraich said they had withdrawn some money from SVB on Thursday and intended to withdraw more on Friday.

This week’s events are causing some venture investors to recall the mayhem of the 2008 financial crisis: “For those that haven't understood what 2008 felt like, this is a very small version of it, but this is it,” one venture investor whose fund and whose portfolio companies use SVB, told Fortune, describing “sheer panic.” The investor speculated that “I don't believe this will be an independent company by next week. Unless there's something material that's not General Atlantic investing $500 million, I think it's an extraordinarily low likelihood, not zero admittedly, that these accounts do not find their way into safer, ...deeper pocketed hands: J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo.” Another venture investor speculated that “SVB is not going to go down,” adding a reference to 2008: “It can’t—it’s like, too big to fail.”

The investor whose fund banked with SVB estimated that over half of their portfolio companies Series B size and up have venture debt with SVB, as well as deposits. They said they believed the panic to be overblown, but “once you say, ‘Please don’t panic,’ you’ve lost the plot.” The investor told Fortune they’re not sending mass communications to their founders as of early Thursday afternoon because drawing attention to it “only further accelerates” the bank run psychology.

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