Bengaluru resident Yamini Jain spent several hours last week trying to find a way to move the funds of her startup, Gloroots, out of the California-based Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and into another U.S.-based bank. “One of my angel investors sent the news saying that SVB is heading towards the bank run … that’s when I started to panic,” Jain told Rest of World.
Gloroots helps companies employ people across borders, but Jain was having a difficult time navigating the U.S. banking system. She approached nearly a dozen banks, including legacy institutions like J.P. Morgan, but was told that because Gloroots did not have a top executive based in the U.S. and Jain did not have a social security number, she couldn’t open an account.
Eventually, on March 13, Jain managed to transfer Gloroots’ entire sum of $300,000 out of SVB and into Mercury, a neo-bank that operates solely online. “The value of the money was not a lot, but to a startup like ours — a small startup — it’s all the money we had,” Jain said. “It’s not about getting the money back, that was not the main problem. The problem was having access to funds for operations if needed.”
Jain is one of many SVB customers in the U.S. and around the world who scrambled to withdraw their funds from the bank last week right before it imploded.
The crisis started on March 8, when SVB announced it had made a $1.8 billion loss on the sale of investments in government securities, and planned to raise $2.25 billion by selling shares. The announcement triggered panic among customers, including some venture capitalists who reportedly asked their portfolio companies to move their money out of SVB. On March 9, shares of SVB Financial Group, SVB’s parent company, fell 60%, dragging down other banking stocks and triggering fears of a 2008-like financial crisis. On March 13, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the government body that insures deposits made in American banks, said it had transferred all of SVB’s deposits to a newly created “bridge bank.” The note assured that “depositors will have full access to their money beginning this morning.”
But the bank’s crash, reportedly the second-biggest bank failure in U.S. history, sent shockwaves across global tech hubs. Entrepreneurs and investors in India, Mexico, Morocco, Singapore, and China said the debacle affected them directly, and created worry about the fallout of the crisis on the funding and regulatory environment.
Gloroots’ Jain said she chose SVB over other American banks because it didn’t require a minimum balance and accounts could be opened remotely. It was also “very convenient for international wire transfers, which is the big use case for me,” Jain said. “The UI is very clean and simple.”
But SVB’s implosion effectively threatened her business operations as her clients were also SVB customers. So, when the bank collapsed, she said, “It was blocking the whole chain [of transactions].” Gloroots’ investor All In Capital, a $10 million early-stage fund that had 30% of its portfolio companies banking with SVB, created WhatsApp groups last week to help them figure out ways to get their money out of the bank. Their advice has been to diversify where startups keep their funds. “I’ll have more than one bank account for sure, and try to split at least 50% of my money in another bank,” Jain said.
SVB was the most popular choice for Chinese startups and funds that raised money in U.S. dollars, according to industry insiders. Many entrepreneurs woke up on March 10 to shock and panic, and scrambled to move their funds out of the bank, but were unable to do so. On March 15, Jiheng Lu, co-founder and CEO of Functor Z Technologies, told Rest of World his request to transfer the company’s money from SVB to China was still being processed. His business had not been impacted so far because Functor Z Technologies had made March payments to staff right before SVB’s collapse. In the future, he said, the company would distribute the offshore funds in several different accounts in the U.S. and Hong Kong.
Selma Ribica, co-founder and managing partner of Morocco-based First Circle Capital, told Rest of World the SVB incident was a useful reminder that the potential for a similar collapse happening in the African startup ecosystem is “very real.”
“The most important lesson from the collapse of SVB is its indirect impact on the ecosystem,” said Ribica, whose fund invests in companies across Africa. Though SVB’s closure has not had any direct impact on First Circle’s portfolio, Ribica said, the implosion highlights the fragility of neo-banks and payment institutions.
“What SVB collapse exposed are two old truths: First, the concentration of capital in any one bucket is bad risk management; and second, the concentration of [a] client base can be similarly fatal,” she said. “The concentration of SVB client base among VC funds meant that the herd behavior of this industry is what brought it down in 24 hours.”
Ribica said she has heard from a number of neo-banks and payment institutions in Europe and Africa that VCs are advising their startups to withdraw deposits from these fintech firms. “As VCs, we should know and do better,” she said. “Simply spreading panic, without educating, is an irresponsible act.”
Investors and entrepreneurs in Singapore who spoke to Rest of World say they’re not too worried about an immediate financial crunch in their own ecosystem. “[The] SVB collapse might have caused some domino effects causing some founders to maybe panic [in the U.S.],” Rayner Loi, co-founder and CEO of food waste technology company Lumitics, told Rest of World. Singapore-based “startups probably have our cash in SG [Singapore] banks, and SG banks probably won’t feel as dramatic of an impact from the fall of SVB.”
But there are fears of a slump in funding activity moving forward as American investors may “prioritize stabilizing their domestic markets,” Qin En Looi, principal at Saison Capital, told Rest of World.
“Against the backdrop of a challenging macroeconomic environment, we can expect a continued slowdown in funding activity as investors focus on supporting their core market portfolios,” Looi said. “The SVB meltdown has shaken the confidence in the financial ecosystem connected to the tech startup world. As SVB was known to be an established partner to startups and venture capital firms, we are seeing an industry-wide scrutiny across fintech startups, especially those who manage third-party assets.”
Some of the entrepreneurs who were impacted directly were located in Latin America. Entrepreneurs in the region told Rest of World that VC firms compelled them to open accounts in the U.S., making it a requirement for investments. So, when SVB went down, a number of companies were left in a lurch. “It was almost a requisite to have an account in the U.S. being a Mexican startup because it gave certainty to existing or potential VC investors,” Francisco García Osuna, an investment associate at the Mexico City-based VC firm Melek Ventures, told Rest of World.
“SVB was the bank where a large number of startups had their bank accounts because it was easy to open up an account in SVB. But now … startups will have to diversify their bank accounts. Maybe an account in J.P. Morgan, another one in BofA [Bank of America], and having the funds distributed in several accounts,” Osuna said.
While the FDIC has signaled a commitment that account holders would all be able to get their money back, the long-term impact could take more than a weekend to rectify. “VCs will be much more reluctant to invest in Latin America,” Gerardo Macías Monterrosas, managing partner at Astelaris, a consulting firm for startups, told Rest of World.