“Bailout” became a curse word in American politics following the 2008 global financial crisis, fueling backlash among people who felt the risks and potential consequences of capitalism didn’t apply to big corporations or the wealthy.
Now the recent failure of two major banks, Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank — and federal intervention to backstop the banks’ uninsured depositors — have pushed the B-word back to the center of the nation’s political and economic debates.
While the back-and-forth about whether this intervention was a bailout can be chalked up to semantics, it raises key questions about the structure of the financial system and who the government protects during moments of crisis — and who it leaves out.
“Part of what’s going on stems from the belief that the system is rigged against the little guy,” said Gerald Epstein, a progressive economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the university’s Political Economy Research Institute. “That’s why there’s so much debate. People are feeling like, ‘Here we go again.’”
Bailout is a popular term, not a technical one, and there is no universal definition of what it means, Epstein said. A financial bailout is generally considered to be providing compensation for losses when there was reckless, irresponsible or nefarious behavior at play, he added.
Yet the term still carries social and political weight. This resulted in part from the 2008 crisis, when the federal government injected taxpayer money to rescue banks that engaged in risky lending practices. Most executives who watched over the collapse faced few or no repercussions.
“Bailout is a dirty word. People think there’s something nefarious or unfair about it,” Epstein said. “When homeowners in California get wiped out by a wildfire and the government comes in to help them, no one calls that a bailout.”
Experts say this latest response was a bailout, but there are major differences from 2008.
The politics of bailouts
Bailout politics have returned in response to the Silicon Valley and Signature meltdown.
Over the weekend, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation moved to the repay uninsured depositors — removing the $250,000 cap on insured deposits — of Silicon Valley and Signature in full through the FDIC insurance fund, which is funded by taxes on bank deposits.
The agencies took these steps to try to prevent bank runs and help businesses that deposited sums with Silicon Valley and Signature to continue to make payroll and fund their operations. They said the two banks’ shareholders and certain unsecured debtholders would not be protected and senior management would be removed.
The Fed also said it will create a new facility — the Bank Term Funding Program — to offer eligible banks loans for up to a year against US Treasuries and other assets at their original value. This move, essentially loaning to banks at a discount, was designed to prevent any financial contagion from spreading to other banks, unlike 2008.
President Joe Biden and administration officials have tried to make a distinction between the measures they are taking to protect depositors and stabilize the financial system from a response similar to the one in 2008.
“No losses will be borne by the taxpayers. Let me repeat that: No losses will be borne by the taxpayers,” Biden said in a speech Monday. “The management of these banks will be fired. If the bank is taken over by FDIC, the people running the bank should not work there anymore.”
But Republicans have been quick to try to tie Biden to prior bailouts funded by taxpayers.
“Joe Biden is pretending this isn’t a bailout. It is,” said Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and a 2024 Republican presidential candidate.
UMass Amherst’s Epstein does not believe small depositors and firms who relied on the banks for basic services were being bailed out. But it’s not yet clear whether there were venture capitalists funds or other depositors who engaged in reckless practices. If those depositors are made whole, that would constitute a bailout, he said.
“You don’t want to bail people out for bad behavior and create moral hazard,” he said.
He also said the debate over bailouts distracted from more important issues: what caused this and how we can prevent it from happening again.
Amiyatosh Purnanandam, a finance professor at the University of Michigan who studies bank bailouts, considers these actions to be bailouts because the government — the lender of last resort — stepped in and gave depositors something they couldn’t get from the market.
Taxpayers also could get hit in the future in the form of fees or other costs as banks replenish the FDIC’s deposit insurance fund, he warned.
To restore public confidence in accountability, Purnanandam said regulators and lawmakers could seek to impose further costs on executives who may have engaged in reckless behavior that sparked this latest crisis: “Are we clawing back bonuses? Can they work in the financial industry in the future?”
-— CNN’s Matt Egan and Phil Mattingly contributed to this article.