What’s with the Statue?

The Seated Boxer, an iconic ancient Greek work of art, shows a grizzled veteran of the ring, equal parts resigned and ready to spring into action. 

What I like is a sense of respite from competition, the powerful athletic physique and the tiredness that surrounds his humanity.  Is he a winner this day? Are there more fights to go?  How will his efforts be remembered?

These are questions that all of us encounter, in literal or figurative ways, in our daily efforts. 

Continue reading “What’s with the Statue?”

An Incredible Chartering Story

The headline tells it all:  This Black Barber Opened The First Credit Union In Arkansas Since 1996.

It is the story of Arlo Washington’s journey to create People Trust Community FCU chartered in  September 2022.   The article in Next City describes Arlo’s journey after his mother died in 1995.  He followed a mentor’s model and became a barber.  His business instincts led him to open multiple shops and organize a barber college.

At the barber college he set aside $1,000 per month from profits to make small loans to the community.  This micro lending service grew until  the lending program was converted into a CDFI.  People Trust Community Loan Fund, the government recognized non-profit, then became the basis for his credit union charter application.

The Story within the Story

The author, Oscar Abello,  also weaves in another, longer tale, of the decline in new credit union charters.  Several of his observations follow:

It’s never been very easy to start a credit union, but it used to be easier and much more frequent than it has been in recent years. Prior to 1970, it was common to see 500 or 600 new credit unions chartered every year across the entire country.

People Trust was one of four new credit unions chartered in 2022; just 25 new credit unions have been chartered over the past 10 years. . .

There are almost always more interested groups looking to establish new credit unions, says Monica Copeland, MDI network director at Inclusiv, a trade group for credit unions focused on low-to-moderate income communities, “but it’s hard to track until they actually get through the process. It takes organizing groups years.”. . .

Or take Everest Federal Credit Union, which is based in Queens, New York and serving Nepali immigrants across the country. Its organizers started their work in 2015 and only recently opened for business. Part of their challenge was the startup capital they had to raise, from donations they ultimately gathered over the past seven years from hundreds of donors across the country.

Each of these efforts has had to go through the National Credit Union Administration – the federal agency that charters, regulates and insures deposits held at U.S. credit unions.  . .

There are multiple reasons for the dramatic falloff in new credit unions since 1970. Now a credit union consultant, Brian Gately worked as a credit union examiner at the NCUA in the ‘70s and ‘80s. According to Gately, the agency gradually lost touch with its purpose over the course of his tenure.

He started out winning awards for helping new credit unions get chartered to serve vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but eventually left after refusing orders from higher-ups to shut down a new credit union serving a largely Puerto Rican migrant community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.”

The article presents further examples of the chartering hurdles.  These challenges help a reader understand the miracle that any new credit union charter represents today.

Missing the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

According to the Commerce Institute over 5.0 million new small businesses were started in 2022.  Only 4 new credit union charters were issued last year.  During the year credit unions announced or completed four to five times that number of whole bank purchases.

Credit unions are not tapping into  America’s inherent entrepreneurial market-based culture.  A system that fails to attract new entrants will slowly mature, consolidate and lose relevance. Other startups will arise  intent on  taking away a declining industry’s  current and future customers.

The article is an engaging description of one person’s efforts to pursue the possibilities of a credit union charter.   It also documents how difficult that process is, especially as it depicts NCUA’s role.

If a reporter who does not follow credit unions as a regular beat can so thoroughly document the new charter failings of the movement, why can’t credit unions see this challenge?

It raises the question as well of how many interested charter groups give up in frustration and look elsewhere for financial services?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing the Cooperative Spirit?

This slide is from a November 2021 speech on credit union history at the Credit UnionLeadership Institute.  Facilitator:  Gary Regoli, CEO Achieva Credit Union.

It is a statement of the existential choice every credit union makes, often on a daily basis.

Credit unions continue to lose ground with consumers, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s most recent finance study. Credit unions’ score has dropped by one point to 75—falling behind banks for the fourth consecutive year.

Banks now surpass credit unions in nearly every service category as rated by U.S. consumers, according to this year’s survey. On the ACSI’s 100-point scale, credit unions now trail banks by three percentage points. Banks’ overall score (78) has remained relatively unchanged over the last four ACSI reports.

“The 2021-2022 study, which was based on more than 13,500 customer interviews, covers banks, credit unions, financial advisers and online investment. According to researchers, rapid membership growth fueled by the pandemic and ongoing industry consolidation could be affecting credit union customers, though the credit union industry’s traditional area of strength in the annual survey—in-person service—has remained consistent.

“Credit unions continue a long, slow decline in member satisfaction that is now in its fifth consecutive year,” said Forrest Morgeson, assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University and director of research emeritus at ACSI.”

Source: ABA Banking Journal, November 16, 2022

 

Resume and Eulogy Virtues

Last week I quoted New York Times columnist David Brooks’ philosophy in which he distinguished resume virtues from eulogy ones.

Résumé virtues are what people bring to the marketplace: Are they clever, devoted, and ambitious employees? Eulogy virtues are what they bring to relationships not governed by the market: Are they kind, honest, and faithful partners and friends?

This past weekend I received a copy of a funeral message from a friend I have known since college. His wife of 28 years had died in January.  She had been chronically ill their entire marriage–some of the times were good, but others in and out of hospital.

He celebrated her spirit with these words:

She was the most selfless person I have ever known. I really believe she hung onto life all these years for us, and I hope the rest of my life will be worthy of her sacrifice, because it was not easy for her to stay with us. She gave her life for her friends and family.

Organizations Do Not Have Souls

In the life witness of Jan Karski which I described last week, I quoted his observation that “Governments do not have souls. Only people do.”  I believe his words are applicable to any organization not just “governments” which was the focus of Karski’s anti-Nazi Polish underground activities.

Doing the right thing is sometimes very hard.   Especially when one’s views set them apart from the prevailing practice or beliefs of the organizations in which they work or are members.

Puritan John Winthrop in this lecture (A Model of Christian Charity) prior to sailing for the new world, warned his fellow Puritans that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us”, meaning, if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant with God, then their sins and errors would be exposed for all the world to see.

That biblical reference of “a city upon a hill” has been later used by four Presidents to describe their vision for America.

Cooperatives were endowed with the hope of being  “a city on the hill” in a country where individuals were often taken advantage of by the prevailing economic system. That system still exists today.

What the above examples suggest is that credit union design is not what makes the difference.  Rather it is the quality of leaders chosen to continue a firm’s legacy.

Being in the minority, such as living at the boundary between health and illness in the circumstance referred to in the funeral, is never easy.  But examples of resolution and spirit should remind us of the aspirations of our own better selves.

 

 

 

Looking for Credit Union Prophets

In America, the public has traditionally associated prophecy with forecasts about the future.

However their religious and political context  is quite different.  In past and present  societies, they are seen as troublemakers.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation describes how this “truth-telling” might be viewed today.

After reading his understanding of prophets, I wonder if the credit union movement could benefit from this voice today?  Or is each credit union’s current profit more than sufficient?

The Prophet from Richard Rohr

“One of the gifts of the prophets is that they evoke a crisis where one did not appear to exist before their truth-telling.

“Prophets always talk about the untalkable and open a huge new area of “talkability.” For those who are willing to go there, it helps us see what we didn’t know how to see until they helped us to see it.

“It’s the nature of culture to have its agreed-upon lies. Culture holds itself together by projecting its shadow side elsewhere. That’s called the “scapegoat mechanism.”

“It seems the prophet’s job is first to deconstruct current illusions, which is the status quo, and then reconstruct on a new and honest foundation. That is why the prophet is never popular with the comfortable or with those in power. 

“Prophets are difficult to have around. No one wants to claim the title or do the work because of it. In this postmodern age, everybody is uncomfortable with prophets. They yell when you don’t want them to. They ask for trouble when you could avoid it. They don’t have a politically correct bone in their bodies….

“Prophets are leaders, but not leaders of their own choosing. Inevitably, they have some sort of . . . encounter. . .They’re quirky and more than a little weird. “

Please share any experience with credit union prophets which you have seen currently.  I would like to share their message.

Epitaph for THE Cooperative Book of Discovery

This post is a eulogy.  For 36 years credit unions were provided a comprehensive report on their collective progress.   That publishing effort grew in scope, analysis and detail while keeping the same title: The Credit Union Directory.  It is no more.

The Credit Union System’s Essential Resource

 

In 1986 Callahan’s introduced the first complete Directory of all active credit unions for the industry’s and general public’s use.   It was a complete census by state of every credit union, a task never accomplished in the eight decades since the first charter.

One reason for this gap was there was no centralized source for information.  NCUA’s call report included only federally insured data. There were approximately 1,800 cooperatively insured credit unions in over 20 states that offered a choice of share insurance.

Prior directories were periodically attempted.  One listed the  4,000 largest credit unions by assets.  Some state leagues published listings, but they were not for public use.

A Calling Card

The Directory was Ed Callahan’s  idea.  At great expense, Callahans had established a database of all NCUA data, augmented with cooperatively insured information. We believed the industry and public would beat a path to our door for the latest, most complete data on credit unions.

The company had an outstanding invoice for over $100,000 with a local service bureau that managed the information.  No one came knocking.  Ed decided we needed a “calling card” to let people know about our analytic capability.  Hence the first Directory, with 1985 data listing every credit union, was released at the  February 1986  CUNA governmental affairs conference.

The initial product was a literal directory organized by state listings in credit union alphabetical order.  The single line of information with the credit union was the CEO’s name, contact information and summary financial data:  total assets, loans, members and capital.

As the Directory became an annual effort, the content expanded.  Advertising was added to support production costs.  The concept of  a one stop information resource  became widely valued.  At least three other competitors entered the market:  NCUA printed and gave away a  state listing of its insured; Thompson’s added a credit union volume to their bank and S&L publications; and CUNA attempted its own version.

All subsequently dropped their “directory”  efforts.  For Callahan’s, this calling card expanded with more analysis and industry listings.  It demonstrated the firm’s software capabilities that eventually led to the development of Peer to Peer as the premier industry analysis product.

Annual  Publications:  The 2006 Example

The listings remained central, but the annual analysis expanded in multiple ways.

New reference material was included to give added value and market reach.  For example, the top 100 Canadian credit unions were listed in the belief this might open up a northern market.  It didn’t.  World Council information was presented showing the US totals in a worldwide context.

An example of this ever expanding effort is the 2006 edition which totals 646 pages in four tabbed sections.

Each year, the Directory’s cover was redesigned. A theme summarizing the movement’s progress was introduced .  In 2006, the message was Communities United by the Cooperative Difference.

The first tab, State of the Industry, presented the industry’s consolidated balance sheet and income statement, key trends and auto  loan share by state; 30 “best in class” leader tables;  an analysis of the corporate network;  a listing of CUSO’s, credit union auditors, leading technology providers and a list of mergers.  Contact information for all state and federal regulators, leagues and trade associations and Canada’s largest 100 credit unions were provided in just the first 125 pages.

Tab two was  the traditional listings provided by state.  Each state was headed by a five year performance summary and a top 50 by assets table preceding the alphabetical list of all the credit unions.  Seven pages were devoted to comparing state by state performance on key ratios.

The third tab was a cross reference listing where a user could look up credit unions alphabetically by name,  by city, or by the manager’s last name.  For example, seven Carlsons and 65 Johnsons.  Buffalo, NY, reported 42 credit unions with home offices in the city; Carmel, IN, had just two.

If one wanted a quick summary of credit unions by employment, the reader could look up credit unions that had Post Office or Postal, IBM, State Farm as a first name.  Or, if looking for parish-based credit unions, one would find 185 credit unions whose name began with St. (Agnes, et al ).

The final section was a buyer’s guide which showed 115 vendors serving the credit union community.   And helped to underwrite the Directory’s printing costs.  The sponsor for 2006 was Charlie MAC.  For those not familiar with US Central, this was a secondary market initiative for credit unions to compete with the government sponsored GSE’s.

The Incalculable Resource

Each edition attempted to list the major system components and the businesses serving credit unions.  To address concerns about timeliness of the data (publication occurred about 4-5 months after the financial information), Callahans in 2006 created a “Directory Online” with 24/7 access.  This digital version was updated with the latest financial as well as contact changes.

By publishing annually, the industry had a comprehensive set of performance benchmarks in one volume.   Who had moved in or out of the top 200?  How many credit unions have home offices in DC?  Or,  what states have the fastest growing coop system?  While the information was at a point in time, it was a starting place for limitless stories and analysis, then or in years later.

Leaving the Scene

Callahans last annual printed Directory was volume 36, published in 2021 using December 2020 data.  This edition had 221 pages including a 29-page buyer’s guide.

There was industry analysis with ten-year trends, leader tables, and peer group comparisons.  There was still a state-of-the-state section in which all the individual credit unions were listed.  Contact information was also provided for CUSO’s, Corporates, regulators, and trade associations.

There was no introductory analysis or theme, undoubtedly hindered by the Covid lockdown and recovery during the production cycle.

In 2022, there was no printed edition.  The industry trends, top 50 or 100 listings, the corporate network and state summaries are available online.  If printed, the  information would  total 132 pages.  There is no advertising or buyer’s guide.

Does It matter that there is no longer a printed Directory?

There are certainly virtual substitutes for some of the data listings and contact information.  One can search on NCUA’s site for peer information and trends.  Pulling other categories of information (CUSO’s, trade associations) would require someone with a knowledge of relevant  resources.  If interested in a year’s key industry events such as large mergers, charter conversions, bank purchases, or even newer data sets such as subordinated debt or goodwill, one would have to find a credit union database resource such as Peer to Peer.

The Directory’s function expanded assembling  performance and individual credit union data to serve as a starting point for insight and analysis.  At a macro level, the Directory was the only source for  ten-year financial trends and a two-year balance sheet and income statement that includes all credit unions, not just NCUSIF insured.

But the Directory was more than a useful compilation for quick reference.  It presented the industry’s multiple connections and comprehensive participants.  Each volume was a census of all key movement participants (by name and organization) and  an almanac of the  year’s trends.

Each edition presented the collective industry’s performance, information missing from all other yearend reports.  For example, NCUA’s Annual Report records its activities and financial audits, not credit unions’ role in the economy.  Trade groups report  their advocacy, education and  information services.  Individual credit unions promote their own success and accomplishments.

What is lost is the sense of cooperative identity, a shared destiny and a system with special purpose that serves over 100 million member-owners.   If one were to understand the history of the credit union system, especially the post deregulation era, the Directory would be the major resource.

This bridge connecting the past to the present no longer exists.  Each future writer or researcher will have to find their own way to the history.

The Directory memorialized multiple national, state and local  milestones for a movement whose future should be more consequential than its past.

Without this collective benchmarking, can there be a shared purpose? If one fails to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or other key events, life goes on.  So will credit unions but with less of a sense of who they are and where they have come from.

A movement without a collective memory can slowly disintegrate into individual contemporary stories.   The shared destiny is lost as firms follow their own independent journey. A Community United by the Cooperative Difference no longer has a record of who they are.

 

 

 

Two Messages from Clayton Christensen

How would the author of “disruptive strategy” counsel credit unions in this time of rising rates and tightening liquidity?

I met Clayton Christensen  following his participation on an expert panel debating the future of higher education and its ever increasing costs.

His message was that college and post graduate institutions were subject to the same disruptive challenges that he had described in multiple businesses.  His theory explained why successful companies often fail even though they appear to have a dominate competitive position.

Further he announced, during the panel, that he would inaugurate such a disruptive effort at Harvard Business School with an Internet course based on his strategic  theory.   I asked if Callahans might talk with him to see if  this course might be a resource adaptable for credit unions.  He gave me his card, his administrative assistant’s name was on the back, and said to call and make an appointment.

Several months later a team from Callahans went to Cambridge.MA to meet his colleagues filming the course modules  for Internet delivery.  After taking the course and adapting concepts to the cooperative context, Callahans launched a course on disruptive strategy for the credit union market.

Even though Christensen died in 2020, today his course on disruption lives on as part of the Business school’s online offerings.

From the Bottom Up

The central theme of successful disruption is challenging market leaders from the “bottom up.” Credit unions might say from the “grass roots”up.

Successful firms generally grow beyond their initial markets and increasingly focus on more profitable segments.   They neglect early and familiar targets to go after more lucrative ones by expanding with more sophisticated and complex solutions.

Then their lower end markets  become vulnerable if new entrants better define the “job to be done”  and add value where the larger firm is no longer investing.  A new entrant gains a foothold at the lower end and can then relentlessly innovate to move up market.

His theory is a framework that asks questions and introduces concepts to sharpen leaders’ strategic intent.  It is not a model dependent on technology driven advantage, but one of business model disruption.

The cooperative design based on local, defined markets (members),  the values of service and collaboration, and self-funded financing is very compatible with Christensen’s theory. For many decades credit unions have been an example of his strategy playing out in consumer financial services.   Their success is measurable and market gains real.

However as credit unions became more financially self-sufficient and the focus on original groups lessens, market ambitions expand.  Today a number of credit unions seem to embrace the “top down” pursuit of more affluent consumers served by regional and national financial institutions.

Some credit unions openly proclaim multi-state, national,  and even global market ambitions.  Others purchase entry into new markets by buying banks or pursing mergers far distant from their proven success.

In doing so credit unions are sacrificing their  competitive advantage of alignment with members or groups.  These credit unions have become “market players” going wherever an opportunity appears, versus serving a distinct area or need.

The Liquidity Challenge

A current example.  Many credit unions today are facing liquidity pressures.  Slowing share growth, continuing loan demand, underwater investments and rising rate competition for shares pose new challenges versus the decade of easy money.  Some respond the way the big players do by bidding for money with CD rates currently in the 4.25-4.75% range and advertising openly for anyone’s cash.

Others have taken a look at their core strengths including local relationships, community presence, branch networks and the fact that many employers are looking for a special benefit to attract and retain employees.   Their back-to-future share growth with new members’s savings rely on credit unions’ core local advantages and reputations within communities that took years to establish.

A Second Message

The public reputation of credit unions rests partly on their values and democratic origins.  One CEO’s mission statement simply reads:  Do the Right Thing.  In the for-profit competitive consumer finance markets, this appeal is distinctive.  Value is about more than price or even great service.

The New York Times columnist  David Brooks  distinguishes between what he calls “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

Résumé virtues are what people bring to the marketplace: Are they clever, devoted, and ambitious employees? Eulogy virtues are what they bring to relationships not governed by the market: Are they kind, honest, and faithful partners and friends?

In a YouTube video Christensen summarizes his understanding from his own life and work in a 2012 Ted talk How Will You Measure Your Life?  This 19 minute video opens with his discussion of why successful companies fail.  Then he extends the analysis to his own HBS classmates lives and the personal disappointments they have encountered while achieving material success.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvos4nORf_Y)

The source of both corporate and personal disappointments is the same.  We live in a system that rewards short term achievements, investments that will pay off now, not in the years to come.  Creating successful relationships whether in family or businesses, does not result from short-term thinking.

He closes  with how to “measure” your life’s success at minute 17.  If you have only two minutes, listen as he presents what David Brooks calls the eulogy virtues.

Christensen’s Two Messages

Christensen’s  theory of disruption is a classic way of understanding credit union advantages from a strategic standpoint.  The framework focuses on long-term competencies combined with “job-to-be-done” tactics.

This approach asserts that it is not the demographic characteristics of the member that motivate market choices; rather it is what the member wants to accomplish that determines which financial firm the member will chose.

The second point is equally consequential.  Your “success” (personal and professional) will depend on “how well you help other people to become better.” Even if this just entails giving your business card to a stranger in the audience.

Both observations seem to me an endorsement of  a credit union “calling.”

 

 

 

Climate Change at Home

Recently our electricity company informed me that this month’s average temperature was 3 degrees warmer than the same period  one year ago.

The New York Times asked in a recent article Why Hasn’t It Snowed Yet in New York City? The lead pointed out that this is the longest stretch of winter without snow since 1973.  Plenty of rain. No Snow. City residents can still travel upstate to Buffalo if they long for a real snow storm.

Here is what this time of winter used to look like here  at home in Bethesda.

Earlier this month some of my plants took an early peek to see what was going on.

The daffodils are now 3-4 inches high.

Hyacinths are poking their budding heads up.

Scottish heather is blooming early, normally it waits till February.

The neighbor’s forsythia is trying to catch up as well.

And even my early summer red poppy plant is making an appearance:

All I can say is that it is good I’m not a skier.  Here is a picture of a popular slope in Europe last week:

More rain today.  Temperature 45 degrees.  I’ll just have to content myself with memories from 2022.

Thinking About Money at the Start of the Year

At the beginning of the year, business firms, families and individuals take stock of their financial situation.  The results of last year are known. January brings the credit card bills from the holiday.  Taxes come due.

This year all segments  are reassessing their liquidity situation amidst rising interest rates and growing layoffs.

A Financial Disneyland

Since 2008’s financial crisis erupted, credit unions and members have been living in a financial Disneyland.  Interest rates were kept at historical lows.  The recent Covid response resulted in two years  of short term rates at or near zero.

The Fed’s monetary policy of quantitative easing flooded financial markets.  When capital no longer costs anything, most investments look safe. Returns on short term government securities or insured savings were most recently in single basis points. People and organizations tried new or speculative assets  such as meme stocks or crypto solutions.

The disciplines of long-term investing were overlooked. The risk-reward calculus became warped. Market and housing returns suggested only upside.  Everyone could become a winner.

What We Believe About Money

Call FCU has an unusual member financial education program.  It begins with a questionnaire.  The purpose is to learn your personality type, or in their words, “the strengths and weakness of your relationship with money.”

Everyone has a different approach and individual situations when the talk is about savings, spending and financial goals.   We live in an economy in which consumer spending drives 70% of the output.  Wealth, fame and power are the trinity of individual success for many in a capitalist economy.  Moreover if one achieves the first, the other two can be bought.

How a person or firms manage their finances express our values and ambitions.  So I think Call’s approach is an important first step in any person or organization’s approach to 2023.

One Organization’s Statement of its Financial Philosophy

Non profit organizations have a unique relationship to finances.  They are not in business to build wealth, but they must demonstrate stewardship to donors, or like private business, they can cease to exist.

The Center for Contemplation is a 501 C 3 founded by Franciscan Richard Rohr to put spiritual unity  as the center of religious practice.

The organization has published its organizational financial approach.  It defines this as a “complex process that codifies their relationship with money: how they  raise it, manage it, and spend it. Our financial philosophy centers on values concerning donations and the stewardship of resources. Those financial principles are:

  • We operate from a clear definition of “enough.”
  • We practice transparency.
  • We seek for money to never be the barrier to participation.
  • We understand exchanges of money first and foremost as vehicles for advancing our mission and message.
  • We commit to spend simply, equitably, and sustainably.
  • We lead with giving and generosity.

Should credit unions create their own statement of financial philosophy?  Is a business plan a sufficient roadmap?  Does operating in the context of cooperative design and values provide a complete picture?

Might a credit union’s leaders consider the CAC’s principles above and ask whether they describe their financial philosophy? I believe the exercise could be as revealing as Call FCU’s individual assessment.  For example, when has a credit union ever defined what “enough” might mean?

Amahl and the Night Visitors-How the Story Ends

In an earlier post about credit union’s most essential members, I quoted an aria from the short opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, Do Rich People Know?  The  mother lives with her crippled son. The three kings spend the night before continuing their journey.  The mother tries to take one small nugget and is caught stealing by the King’s page.

Here is how that confrontation works out in the opera’s final lyrics:

MELCHIOR (seeing what has erupted) Oh, good woman, you may keep the gold. The child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. Swifter than lightning, he will soon walk among us. He will bring us new life, and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor. Let us leave, my friends.

MOTHER Oh, no! Wait! Take back your gold! For such a king I’ve waited all my life… and if I weren’t so poor I would send a gift of my own to such a child.

AMAHL (pipes up) But, Mother, let me send him my crutch. Who knows, he may need one, and this, I made myself.

MOTHER (drawing in a breath sharply) But that you can’t, you can’t! Suddenly, Amahl begins to walk without his crutch.

AMAHL I walk, Mother. I walk, Mother.

First Things, First

As we enter a new year with both individual and corporate financial challenges, should we first ask what our relationship to  money is?  What “crutches” do we lean on to get us by?  What if we risked giving them away to find out who we really are, as a person and leader of a financial service?

 

 

Remembering

Where does moral courage come from?  How do we learn it?

That was the question asked of the actor in the one-man play about Jan Karski.  His character was a  soldier, member of the Polish resistance, and diplomat during  the most extreme conditions of WW II.

Karski had a photographic memory and made detailed reports of conditions as a courier in 1940–1943 to the Polish government-in-exile.  Jewish leaders in  Warsaw requested he visit the city’s Ghetto and Belzec death camp.  They asked him to report what he had seen of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jewish people to the Allies.   He did.

He was captured, tortured by the Gestapo who sent him to a hospital. His SS captors hoped to break him to learn the details of the Polish underground movement.  He escaped from the hospital.  The Nazis killed all of 32 hospital doctors and nurses where he had been treated.

He spoke directly with Churchill and Anthony Eden, the British Foreign minister.   In the US he met with FDR plus national political, press, and Jewish leaders including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  In all his meetings he gave great detail of what he had seen. He  asked Allied political leaders in both countries to act, to stop the Nazi’s genocide.

His wartime efforts are presented in a film Remember This of this one-man play.   It has just been released in heaters and will be shown on PBS Great Performances in March.

Why Remember?

Karski’s story is about more than the Holocaust.  It is about human nature in all its greatness and horror.

His words, not just his personal example, live on as timeless and timely insights into human character.

In the film he observes, “Humans have an infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”

This looking away occurs beyond  the horrors of war;  it is true of everyday life.

He commented that “Governments do not have souls.  Only people do.”  Caring for fellow humans is not done by organizations, policies or even regulation.  That is the responsibility of the leaders and members of an organization. There are no market “invisible hands” doing humane work.

When he briefed  Justice Felix Frankfurter, the first person of Jewish faith on the Court, Frankfurter replied, “I don’t believe it.”   He was not calling Karski a liar; rather he could not comprehend how humans could possibly be implementing a plan to eliminate an entire people.

A “Living Relationship”

Karksi stayed in the US following the war.  Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union.  He could not return.   For 40 yeas he was a professor of International Studies and Polish history at Georgetown  University.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama a decade after his death in 2000.

Even with this heroic story, one of the co-writers of the script on the faculty at Georgetown, confessed he had walked by Karski’s campus statue for four years and paid no attention to it.

That typical oversight is why stories need be told.  And for their relevance to today’s and future generations.

The actor in the film stated he has “living relationship” with his character.  Karski’s life resonates still.   It is more than a remembrance of an extraordinary person.  It is an example that inspires, even compels us, to ask about  at our own lives.

Our Witness Today

In the Q&A following the film’s showing at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, the question was asked of the actor: How did Karski develop the moral courage to act in these extreme circumstances?

The actor replied that he thought it was from his mother, a devout catholic.

I believe that people learn their values from watching others.  Whether in extraordinary acts of courage or lives long lived in service to people, we select those qualities we want to express in own professions.

Karski’s example is helpful for those working in the cooperatives.  One of our distinguishing features is an organizational design based on values and collaboration. We are called to a higher standard than might be practiced in other firms.

Credit unions were intended to protect and serve those who are exploited by others.  Our meme is the little guy with the umbrella.  But how easy is it to ignore our cooperative roots and imitate institutions for which credit unions were intended as an alternative?

Do we transfer responsibility for outcomes onto the organization in which we work?   Karski reminds that only persons have “soul,” that is the capacity to do the right thing.

It is not the cooperative model that fails.  Human agency matters whether consequences seem trivial or of utmost concern.

What I find compelling about his example is that after Allied leaders failed to respond to the Holocaust tragedy he reported, he never blamed others for inaction.

His witness of moral courage was not a basis for faulting others.   He did the best he could so that future generations could benefit from his example.

That’s why the film is called Remember This.

Cooperatives, Credit Cards and Wealth Redistribution

Who pays for your rewards?  That was the question posed by a Federal Reserve study released in December 2022.

Their short answer is “sophisticated individuals profit from reward credit cards at the expense of naive consumers.”

The Federal Reserve study describes this outcome as a redistribution of wealth.  They calculate the result as an “aggregate annual redistribution of $15 billion from less to more educated, poorer to richer, and high to low minority areas, widening existing disparities.”

The full study is 84 pages, but the Conclusion is on pages 30-31.

“Those Who Know the Least”

How this happens is a replay of the long-standing practice that in American those that have the least, or know he least, pay the most for financial services.

The reason for this redistribution is differences in consumers’ financial management savvy.  The data “show that reward cards induce more spending, leaving naive consumers with higher unpaid balances. Naive consumers also follow a sub-optimal balance-matching heuristic when repaying their credit cards, incurring higher costs.”

The academic work supporting this documented result is summarized in this initial summary:

Consumers lacking financial sophistication often make costly mistakes.  In the consumer credit card market, such behavior can entail over indebtedness and sub-optimal repayments.

“Banks, in response, can design financial products to exploit these mistakes, combining salient benefits with shrouded payments. Naïve consumers might underestimate these payments and incur costs from usage.

“Sophisticated consumers, in contrast, might rake in the benefits while avoiding the payments and thus profit from usage. Such products can therefore generate an implicit redistribution from naïve to sophisticated consumers and thereby contribute to inequality.”

The Cooperative Challenge

Members need credit and/or debit cards for most routine transactions today.  The study documents the move away from cash payments. Credit cards are the most common way consumers transact daily and then  pay one bill at the end of the charge period.  A credit card is as important as a checking account for every consumer.

Most consumers are attracted by card rewards.  A card with only a low cost line of credit, is a difficult sale against the highly promoted barrage of reward programs.

These reward offers are not just from major banks.  The most popular cards partner with retail, travel and other services or products  to entice users to accumulate points that can be used to pay future purchases.

Cash back “immediate rewards” offer a 1-3% discount on purchases if points are not a consumer’s goal.

The Federal Reserve study shows that these benefit and rewards programs are paid for by consumers who are less adept at managing their finances.  For this user group the card becomes a loan with interest rates in double digits.  This interest income augments interchange fees and is the dominate source of bank card profits.

The Federal reserves describes these differing consumer card management habits as an income  “redistribution from less to more educated, poorer to richer, and high to low minority areas.”

Should Credit Union Card Programs Be Different?

What is a credit union’s responsibility in this wealth transfer process?   Should it not offer any rewards card and just maintain a low, universal borrowing rate for all users?

Members want rewards.  Is the response to develop multiple card programs to appeal to different segments?  Can credit unions really beat the best card offerings by highly visible national programs targeting high income individuals?

The Federal Reserve study documents what issuers implement as the universal profitability model for credit cards–borrowers pay for the benefits of those who do not carry balances.

With rare exceptions, most credit unions in their credit card offerings follow this banking model. Is this redistribution outcome consistent with cooperative purpose?

This is not a question of legality or even equity.   Rather it involves both strategic and values decisions.

If the intent is to serve all members with their diverse needs and circumstances, then marketing efforts will inevitably focus on the largest, strongest and most financially  attractive members.  They have bigger cars, larger mortgages, and higher family incomes.   This tier is every financial institution’s top priority.

To compete for this wealthier segment’s business with competitive loan and savings rates, the rest of the member base must pay more for loans and earn less on savings.  Risk based pricing is one tool used to implement this redistribution.

But is this the card model coops were intended to provide?   I don’t know the answer.  Credit unions were originally formed to serve different segments.   Today the goal for many is to serve the “whole market.”

The wealthy tend to be excellent rate shoppers. The less well-off tend to take what is offered. Is the result of an open-ended market ambition that no segment is served really well?  If so, is such a cooperative strategy sustainable?