Financial shockwaves rippled across the country this week following two of the biggest bank failures in American history.
Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank were shut down by regulators last weekend.
On Monday, President Biden, trying to prevent more failures, took the unusual step of promising that all depositors at those collapsed banks would be made whole.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also addressed the banking concerns this week when she testified before Congress.
Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury: Our banking system is sound.
Americans can feel confident that their deposits will be there when they need them.
William Brangham: But fears do remain.
On Thursday, some of the nation's biggest lenders gave $30 billion to a smaller rival, First Republic Bank, trying to assure its survival.
Here in Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to know what went wrong and why bank management and their regulators were caught so flat-footed, especially following the 2008 financial crisis.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): We need to learn from what has just happened with these banks and go forward by tightening the regulations.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD): I think it would be premature to start talking about solutions before we fully define the problem and ultimately get answers from the regulators about why they were asleep at the job.
William Brangham: So, this economic unease coupled with ongoing concerns about inflation raise the stakes for a highly anticipated Federal Reserve meeting next week, where Chairman Jerome Powell is expected to announce the Fed's next move on interest rates.
Joining me now to discuss all of this and more is Neil Irwin, he's the chief economic correspondent from Axios.
And here with me in the studio, Fin Gomez is the political director for CBS News, Zolan Kanno-Youngs covers the White House for The New York Times, and Kayla Tausche, she is an anchor and senior White House correspondent for CNBC.
Welcome to all of you.
Thanks so much for being here.
I'm feeling that I did not wear green like everybody else did.
Kayla, to you first.
This week, we saw two banks collapse, this very aggressive move by the federal government.
We saw this injection of billions of dollars into another lender.
All of this to calm the jitters but the jitters do not seem to be calmed.
Is it your sense that we are through the worst of this yet?
Kayla Tausche, Anchor and Senior White House Correspondent, CNBC: I think there is still a lot more to be learned, because we know what the government and private sector has done so far and what they have disclosed but we got a very important data point this week from the Federal Reserve on Thursday, which is what its balance sheet looks like, how much money has the Fed had to give out to other undisclosed bank.?
That number $153 billion.
That's the highest on record, even higher than any single time during the global financial crisis back in 2008.
So, that tells you that there are a lot of banks we don't know about who have run to the arms of the Fed for low-cost capital because they're worried about their own companies.
We won't know who those banks are for another two years, and even for the deal that 11 major U.S. banks did for First Republic, where they essentially handed over $30 billion in deposits, they only did that for -- William Brangham: Opened up $30 billion in checking accounts.
Kayla Tausche: Well, some might say that they just transferred back $30 billion in deposits the First Republic customers had very worriedly moved to their banks, and so it was a returned gift, so to speak.
But that deal only lasts for about 120 days.
We could see what happens to First Republic.
Can it find a buyer?
Is the bank's operation even worse after that time or is this situation over?
Does the tide come back in?
We still don't know and there's a lot we're waiting to learn.
William Brangham: Neil Irwin, to you on this question.
There has been some second-guessing about this aggressive move that the administration and the Fed took to try to stop the bleeding here.
What do you think?
Was this -- did it seem appropriate to the moment?
Neil Irwin, Chief Economic Correspondent, Axios: Look, this time, a week ago, they saw a profound risk of systemic crisis, of a run on deposits at banks around the nation.
They decided it was better to do too much than too little in that situation and that it was worth it to kind of take the risk off the table that your deposits, even over the federal limit of $250,000, might be at risk.
Look, there's going to be a lot of picking over whether it was the right thing to do, whether what the long-term costs are, how the long-term regulatory structure ought to change the results.
But the judgment that I think is not at all crazy, and quite reasonable, is that if we get into real financial crisis where every bank is seeing mass withdrawals, that's a very bad situation to be in, it would be devastating for the U.S. economy going forward.
William Brangham: Indeed.
Zolan, can I ask you, what is the White House's view of all of this?
Did they think that their actions -- certainly, the president is out there championing it, saying we've got you covered, we are going to make sure this doesn't get worse.
Do they think secretly behind closed doors that the worst is over?
Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House Correspondent, The New York Times: Well, I mean, the president is out there saying that but also emphasizing at this time accountability for banking executives.
I think that, definitely, they feel that the actions this week were necessary but to say that there's no anxiety both politically and for the actual issue here we are talking about with the financial sector, I don't think we could say that.
Look, politically, we have to understand the concern here.
I think we have to take a step back and realize how this president has -- what image he has projected over these past two years, one of the champion of the middle class, how many events have we seen recently where he is going and talking in front of unions, as well talking about bolstering the manufacturing industry.
He often talks about the sanctity of labor as well.
Now, you also have that same president that was in his west wing office watching what happened in 2008 when a bailout happened and it was met with backlash as well.
That still haunts Washington today.
So, absolutely there is concerned.
I think you can still say -- two things can be true.
I think they still are comfortable with the actions taken this week but at the same time, politically as well going forward, there is concern in the Administration.
William Brangham: Yes.
Fin, Zolan used the B word, and that is not the B word that the administration has been willing to say, that this was a, quote/unquote, bailout.
Can you remind us why that is such a sensitive issue for this White House and particularly for this president?
Fin Gomez, Political Director, CBS News: Well, you used the word jitters, and I think that's exactly what that word -- the concern that that word would cause, I think, among the American public, within the administration, if they utilize that word.
It harkens back to that 2008 global crisis that happened that still has that impact, that still has permeated throughout the political landscape.
Now, you are seeing it used rhetorically by Republicans, especially from the Senate side, but it's also being used by potential Republican presidential hopefuls, presidential candidates, who are saying that this is, in fact, a bailout.
And I think it also could be a prelude to what may come as we continue forward into this presidential cycle.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs: There's also a question here too.
I mean, remember what one of the political vulnerabilities was for this president.
Even before this, it was also inflation for the past two years.
How will the Fed's actions going forward impact how they are trying to tame a red-hot economy, try to tame inflation as well?
How will this impact the decision in the weeks to come around raising interest rates?
All of that also factors into sort of the concern and anxiety about the actions.
Kayla Tausche: But there's a very real risk that the Fed continues to send mixed messages.
Because last weekend when they came to the rescue of Silicon Valley Bank and they took control of Signature Bank, they did so under the rationale that there was a systemic risk to the economy.
At the same time they are trying to shore up confidence, they are saying this could spill over.
And so it's a double-edged sword and they run the risk of doing the same next week with their interest rate decision because they have said inflation is persistent, it runs the risk of getting entrenched, we cannot stop now.
If they stopped, they are signaling to the markets and the economy and the broader American public that they are worried.
That's like your parents getting worried and you as a kid, like, oh, no, I wasn't scared until I saw you get scared.
William Brangham: Mom looks scared, watch out.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Exactly.
William Brangham: Neil Irwin, several Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have argued that the 2018 rollbacks of some of the Dodd-Frank reforms that were put in place after the '08 crisis, that those rollbacks were complicit in what went down this week.
What is the evidence for that?
Neil Irwin: So, look, in a narrow sense, I think the evidence is ambiguous, that if those legal changes to the regulatory structure in 2018 hadn't happened, would we have avoided all of this.
That said, the tone that enveloped Washington over bank regulation in the last few years, it's unquestionable that was in the direction of these mid-sized banks do not deserve the kind of scrutiny that the giant banks gets.
And so what that law that you are referencing did was said banks that have $240 billion in assets, they don't need to be treated the way a JPMorgan, Citibank does.
And so we're going to lower the level of scrutiny.
And apart, again, from the specific question of whether if that law hadn't been passed, whether Silicon Valley Bank would still be operating, I think the open question is was there a broader situation where regulators felt like they could not push hard and not really scrutinize and drop the hammer on banks that were taking inappropriate risks in the last couple of years?
William Brangham: Fin, we heard from Thune and from Elizabeth Warren at the top of the show two competing ideas of what Congress ought to or ought not to in response to this.
What is your sense about does Congress have a mandate?
Is there enough of a majority of people in the House and the Senate to say we need to act, and if so, what is it that they might they do?
Fin Gomez: I think it depends on how worse this crisis gets.
I think there is a sort of this collective field of populism right now and I think that this plays into that.
And I think it affects both parties politically.
And if this crisis gets larger, if it gets bigger, it has more of an impact across the country, I think you could see some maneuvering on both sides to do something more, maybe perhaps doing something what the president called for today in having more punitive measures for some of these senior executives who have run these banks and who have led these banks into the crisis that we are seeing now.
William Brangham: Zolan, this is -- this point we've been making here, as we're saying before, the president does want to seem like a middle-class champion, and that this concern over calling this a bailout and yet also wanting to keep the economy moving in the right direction, it is an incredibly complicated circumstance for him.
It seems like he does -- in some ways he could be caught between a very real rock and a hard place here.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs: I think that's true.
And talking about some of the progressive backlash on the Hill, one thing that I thought was interesting is -- and I saw a couple of members connected also immediately saying, look, these executives may have traded stocks, may have made a profit, but at the same time, Republicans continue to block a student loan plan that I'm sure that the president would love to be galvanizing his base off right now in the courts.
So, now you also have that happening right now and that pressure on the White House too.
It is an incredibly complicated balance that he has.
I think it will probably factor into more of the events we've seen of him touting an infrastructure package, touting a chips package as well.
If we see in the weeks or in the months ahead what many expect will be a potential re-election announcement, I think you probably will see the administration double down on some of those events.
Last summer, we did see a series of legislative achievements happen and you would think that they would point to that to counter some of the criticism that might come from the past two weeks.
William Brangham: Right.
I'm sure they wish that this banking crisis would simply go away and they could talk about the record, as you're saying.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs: And, remember, that record, a lot of those benefits, it takes time for voters to feel.
William Brangham: Its' not instant.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs: That's right.
This, however, people see, people talk about immediately, people can feel immediately.
Kayla Tausche: Well, William, I think you're also going to see the administration trying to lean on the private sector very heavily.
Earlier this week, the treasury and Fed brokered a deal with the four largest banks in the country.
They had the four largest bank CEOs with them in person and the message that that sends is we build you up 15 years ago, you are a lot stronger, you bailout them out now, you bailout your peers.
They want to wash their hands of this.
They've done what they feel like they can do and now they want to lean on someone else to do it.
William Brangham: Neil one last question to you on this.
As Kayla was mentioning before, the Federal Reserve is meeting next week.
A lot of pressure on them, they want to keep moving forward against inflation but what they do next week could certainly be a signal as to what they really think about the severity of the crisis that we are in now.
What do you expect from that meeting?
Neil Irwin: So, the Fed likes to emphasize the idea of different tools for different tasks, meaning they raise interest rates to try and fight inflation, meanwhile they do all of this emergency bank lending to try and prevent a financial crisis, prevent the banks from collapsing.
In truth, those things are more intertwined than they really like to admit.
And if they do raise rates next week, that's going to make things harder on banks.
And if they back off that might make the inflation situation harder.
So, it's a really no-win situation.
I think they are probably going to go forward with that rate hike but signal openness and flexibility and they might not do it again if things really do go south.
Because the truth is, if this banking problem that happened over the last week spreads to the entire banking system results in quite a contraction, banks making less loans, making more stringent loans, that will cause an economic slowdown in a way that the Fed interest rate increases up to this point really haven't.
So, there is a possibility that we will see the disinflation, the economic slowdown they've been trying to engineer for a year now come about because of the banking slowdown but the range of uncertainty is enormous at this particular moment.
William Brangham: All right.
Neil Irwin, thank you so much for joining us.