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Why small banks take issue with bailing out Silicon Valley and Signature banks

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

About $22 billion - that's how much the U.S. government expects to spend to rescue customers of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank. And that's money other lenders will have to pay back. As NPR's David Gura reports, smaller community banks are not happy.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: More than a thousand miles away from Santa Clara, Calif., where Silicon Valley Bank was headquartered, is the town of Columbia Falls in northwest Montana. It has a population of about 5,500, and it's right on the banks of the Flathead River.

DON BENNETT: We're a tourist town. We're about 20 miles from Glacier National Park.

GURA: It's where Don Bennett founded Freedom Bank almost two decades ago in his basement. Since then, it's grown. Bennett moved it into a trailer, then into a brick building downtown. But Freedom Bank's business model has not changed, and it's nothing fancy. It caters to locals, Bennett says, offering a mix of mortgages, car loans and commercial loans.

BENNETT: Freedom Bank is approximately $140 million in size. We're a vital part of our community, and we're doing very well.

GURA: Unlike many other lenders, including Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, Freedom Bank did not load up on government bonds when interest rates were low. Those investments have lost value as interest rates have gone up, and it was a big reason why those two banks failed.

BENNETT: We don't have any losses in our portfolio whatsoever.

GURA: It's ironic, Bennett says, that just a few hours before Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, he was explaining Freedom Bank's conservative, commonsense approach to shareholders, telling them why the bank hadn't bought bonds. Still, Bennett says he supported the government's decision to intervene.

BENNETT: I feel like if that did not happen, there would have been a huge hot mess all across the country. So I think they did the right thing there.

GURA: But now Bennett is worried Freedom Bank will be on the hook. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation - the FDIC - is required by law to do a special assessment of its member banks to recoup the money it spent extending a lifeline to customers whose deposits were not insured, who had more than $250,000 in the bank. And ultimately, it'll be up to the FDIC to decide which banks pay it.

BENNETT: I don't think that community banks should pay the price of, you know, the disaster that took place with those two or three banks. We had nothing to do with it. Our business models are different.

GURA: Other small community banks are making the same case to the FDIC. About 20 miles south of Columbia Falls is the town of Kalispell, where A.J. King runs Three Rivers Bank of Montana. It has about $300 million in assets, and King also wants no part of the special assessment.

A J KING: We're totally innocent in this. Now they're saying, OK, banks, you're going to have to pay for this. I don't think we should be responsible for paying for what other banks did.

GURA: According to King, Three Rivers Bank has a strong loan portfolio. It works with shops and restaurants, loggers and concessionaires in the national park. King believes the bank forks over enough already to the FDIC to ensure customers' deposits.

KING: We're paying up around $130,000 a year. And for the size of our bank, that's a big expense. That's a commercial lender salary.

GURA: King's been a banker for 37 years, and he says it's not as much fun as it used to be. Today, Three Rivers Bank has just over 50 employees, and King claims half of them are focused only on complying with regulations. Back in Columbia Falls, Don Bennett of Freedom Bank also worries about the impact of any special assessment or any new regulations.

BENNETT: Right now, I'm telling you, it's so difficult to be a small, independent community bank these days.

GURA: The chair of the FDIC recently told lawmakers he's sympathetic to the concerns of bankers like Bennett. And the White House backs an exemption for small community banks. We expect to see the FDIC's proposal for the special assessment in May.

David Gura, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.