For the fourth time in a week, United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has taken to a microphone aiming to reassure Americans that the US banking system is safe, each time with a subtle shift in message.
But bankers and Wall Street never heard what they fervently wanted: That the government would guarantee all $19.2 trillion in US bank deposits until the banking crisis that erupted two weeks ago calms down.
Yellen is the face of the US government on the issue and her public comments have sent markets on a roller-coaster ride.
Becoming more explicit each time she has spoken, Yellen has repeatedly said the US will safeguard deposits but has stopped short of a blanket guarantee, which would insure account balances of any size, including those above the current limit of $250,000.
Her comments on Thursday more clearly indicated than previously that further guarantees for uninsured deposits would come in the form of rescues for depositors of individual failing banks where problems threaten to lead to runs on other banks.
She told US legislators that bank regulators and the Treasury were prepared to make comprehensive deposit guarantees at other banks as they did at the failed Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank.
“These are tools we could use again for an institution of any size if we judge that its failure would pose a contagion risk,” she told a US House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
The comments helped lift broad stock indexes but regional bank shares including those of struggling First Republic Bank continued to slide.
Yellen had on Wednesday told a Senate subcommittee she was not considering a move to circumvent Congress and grant “blanket insurance” on all US bank deposits.
This is a step the government and regulators took unilaterally in the 2008 global financial crisis but the administration of US President Joe Biden would now have to get approval from Congress under 2010 reforms.
Hardline Republicans oppose any increase in the current $250,000 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp limit, making it unlikely that Yellen could hastily arrange such a backstop even if the crisis worsens.
Banks and markets have found Yellen’s comments unsettling at times. On March 16, she told a Senate hearing that banks had to pose a systemic risk to win a deposit guarantee, a comment interpreted as leaving small community banks to fend for themselves.
But at a bank conference on Tuesday, she said that similar actions to the SVB guarantee “could be warranted if smaller institutions suffer deposit runs”, reassuring those institutions.
Yellen’s reluctance to endorse a universal backstop has drawn criticism from investors, including hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman. They argue that a universal guarantee is needed to prevent depositors at small and mid-size banks from fleeing for perceived safety at large banks viewed as “too big to fail”.