In a startling revelation, a report from the Federal Reserve's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has exposed the unchecked transformation of Silvergate Bank from a conventional community lender to a crypto-centric financial institution. The report highlights how regulatory examiners failed to raise alarm bells as the bank ventured into the high-stakes world of cryptocurrencies, ultimately leading to risks that proved to be fatal.
Silvergate Bank's journey from relative obscurity to becoming a key player in the digital assets sector was characterized by a lack of scrutiny from larger, traditional financial institutions. For approximately a decade, the bank primarily operated as a lender focused on a single industry. The OIG's investigation concluded that such a significant change in direction should have triggered a different type of registration, one that government regulators did not require. Furthermore, there were several red flags and issues that Federal Reserve examiners were slow to address, ultimately culminating in the bank's voluntary wind-down in March, following the crypto market turmoil of the previous year, which had a severe impact on its clientele.
The report points out that examiners should have taken more assertive and prompt supervisory actions in response to various concerns. These concerns included the bank's unchecked growth, its reliance on volatile funding sources, concentration of deposits, and ongoing weaknesses in key control functions.
According to banking regulations, when Silvergate shifted its focus entirely to crypto, it should have submitted an application to the Federal Reserve. However, the bank's examiners failed to require this step, as they considered Silvergate to be a standard commercial bank due to its continued acceptance of deposits and provision of loans to customers. This oversight allowed Silvergate to operate without the additional risk protections that should have accompanied its revamped business strategy.
The report also sheds light on issues within Silvergate's senior management, describing it as "ineffective" and plagued by nepotism. While the report does not delve into the specifics of the nepotism allegations, it notes that the bank's former CEO, Alan Lane, had faced criticism for appointing multiple family members to senior positions.
In conclusion, the report emphasizes that the bank's corporate governance and risk management practices failed to keep pace with its rapid growth, complexity, and evolving risk profile. Although Silvergate's voluntary liquidation spared it from an official failure, the regulatory lapses and vulnerabilities exposed in this case serve as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by regulators in overseeing the rapidly evolving cryptocurrency industry.
As a result of this investigation, the OIG has put forth internal recommendations for how Federal Reserve examiners should handle similar situations in the future. Additionally, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors has committed to developing new and expanded guidance for addressing the unique challenges posed by fast-growing banks that undergo significant changes in focus.