Why I Blog

Every so often, institutions become rigid and need to be revived, reformed, and reborn. When coops become institutional machines more than movements, it’s a sign that they must shake off their historical and bureaucratic calcification to continue evolving as a living movement.

Just as in our own lives, growth is never in a straight line; it is often three steps forward and two steps backward.

This feels like a good time to again inspire motivation “from the bottom up.” Rather than coming from those in power, the most effective and lasting change happens at the grass-roots level.

Being on the “edge of the inside” means not being dependent on the status quo.

What are the essential elements of the cooperative tradition? By asking right questions, one can attempt to clear away the rubble of unhelpful strategy, low-level thinking, abuses of power, and convenient truisms.

A FinTech Prospecting Tool: Product Hunt

How do venture capitalists, or more importantly designers of new products, determine market interest in their idea or innovation—without going broke?

At the April FDIC sponsored FinTech conference, one approach to this learning was presented. The website Product Hunt was created in November 2013.  Users submit products which are listed linearly (https://www.producthunt.com/newest)  every day.

These designs are voted upon by viewers with those ideas receiving the most votes rising to the top.

Since launch the site has listed over 40,000 products in categories such as mobile apps, hardware, games, books, podcasts.

The voting is simple and transparent.  It provides entrepreneurs and investors an initial public reaction.  The voting and comments provide signals for both investors and founders about potential market demand.

The FDIC presentation focused on the topic of voter bias and whether a simple addition of votes is an accurate means of getting unbiased feedback.  In other words, how representative of market interest are the vote tallies?

The site overwhelms one on first visit. Multiple articles, multiple product concepts, and an endless inventory of articles for anyone thinking of launching a business.

What did impress me was the effort to “democratize” product and business development.  Might this approach have an application for cooperatives? Every year boards and CEOs make business investments with members’ funds.  These include distribution commitments (virtual, mobile, branches, call centers), service options, product, pricing and fee adjustments.

However well researched, the member or market reaction is determined after the investment is made.  Or more likely, the investment is copying what other firms are doing in the market.

Might credit unions seek member reaction as a part of the decision making, design phase to underwrite more effective service and product changes?

As a member, this approach would provide insight into what management is thinking as well as a channel for “grass roots” reaction. Would a Product Hunt application help credit unions identify the most helpful innovations that members value?

The Source of Credit Union Greatness

“Cooperation made the movement great. Yet many do not realize that there are still as many ways to cooperate as there were in the past. . . what I mean is going beyond the attending of meetings and sharing of ideas, but instead pooling of resources, mainly in the form of CUSO’s.”

(Ed Callahan April 1988, Callahan Report)

The Origins of Mother’s Day

The beginning of Mother’s Day goes back to 1870.  Julia Ward Howe – an abolitionist remembered as the poet who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic” worked to establish a Mother’s Peace Day.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared it a national holiday and a “public expression of our love and reverence for all mothers.”

The goals of Ward’s original proclamation in 1870 were about peace.  More importantly that women must take the lead-in an era when they had no vote and no offices or formal roles in public life.  A true grass roots movement.

The Proclamation

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Change, even when well-founded, can take time. But ultimately the grass roots prevail.  The key:  keep the vision alive.

A Top Priority for New NCUA Chair Hood: Lead the Way in Setting a New Tone

While NCUA Chairs have different leadership approaches, all share one common challenge: setting the “tone” for the relationship between the regulator and the regulated.

Whether a chair is a hands-on manager or distant from operations, the chair’s attitude toward the industry will be seen and heard by all within and without the agency.

For the past decade the relationship between NCUA and credit unions has varied from openly adversarial to indifference to credit union knowledge and judgments. There has been a lack of respect for the experience, capabilities, and analysis of credit union professionals. This attitude is still present in some exam confrontations, and at the board level, in the total dismissal of required credit union commentary on issues such as the merger of the TCCUSF and NCUSIF.

The Relationship Needed

Chairman Hood enjoys opera. He is not tone deaf. His professional experiences focus on outreach efforts. The tone needed between NCUA and the regulated is one of mutual respect.

This is more than public speeches or a specific set of policy initiatives. NCUA should acknowledge the overwhelmingly positive track record of credit unions and their leaders’ deep, proven, expertise: wisdom and commitment to cooperative evolution.

A Place to Start with a New Tone

On May 7, NCUA released the names of nine credit unions who were fined a total of $4,069 in civil money penalties for late filing of the September 2018 call report, which was due at the end of October.

For nearly four decades NCUA had never fined a credit union for a late call report. During this time the report was extended semi-annually to quarterly, and the data requested increased exponentially.

NCUA’s rationale for public fining was in part because the late filers were holding up the timely release of all credit union data.

So, six months after the deed has occurred, NCUA releases the names for public shaming and sends the pennies collected to the US Treasury.

Timely submission of call reports is critical. But instead of fining shouldn’t the agency just send to all examiners the day after each filing deadline all reports not received? Examiners make a follow up phone call, and if not filed promptly, that would warrant a special visit.

Why the delay? Is it due to bookkeeping shortcomings (no timely cash reconciliations), personnel issues, or even operational problems?

How much staff time and effort has been wasted analyzing each late report with the three criteria below—and how many were not fined as a result of these investigations?

Mutual respect would direct that the agency use any report delay as a signal for examiner follow up. Get the data, forget the shaming and get on with the process of ensuring a safe and sound credit union operation.

Stop the penny ante, power trip of imposing a “parking ticket” fine. Treat credit unions with respect knowing that problems occur all the time that should be looked into.

Putting a CMP scarlet letter stamp and publishing the name of credit unions as an example of effective regulatory oversight is not professional. Some in authority may believe acting tough makes them effective. Most will see it as lacking grasp of the situation.

Regulators live in a glass house. Until McWatters became Chair, NCUA had failed to meet the statutorily deadline of April 1 for submitting its Annual Report to the President and Congress for decades–even missing the filing entirely in one year.

Chairman Hood, take away the CMP stamp and ask examiners to do their job. It would be a small, but important first step, in making the system more cooperative.

The Cooperative Liquidity Advantage of Member Ownership

The primary focus of credit union strategy is the member-owner. While business lending is growing, it is only a small percentage of loans. For almost all credit unions, member shares are the primary source of funding, not borrowings or large organizational deposits. The same is not true, on average, for banks.

Following is a comparison of insured deposits (balances less than $250,000) as a % of total deposits for banks and credit unions for the past five years:

Year-end:              Credit Unions % Insured Savings         Bank % Insured Deposits

2018:                                     93.0%                                                    59.6%

2017:                                     93.2%                                                    59.0%

2016:                                     93.6%                                                    59.2%

2015:                                     94.1%                                                    59.5%

2014:                                     94.5%                                                    61.0%

The $79.9 billion in savings in excess of the $250,000 NCUSIF insurance coverage are dispersed among 3,628 credit unions.

Over 40% of banks’ total funding is in uninsured deposits totaling $4.99 trillion at December 2018 year end. The peak year for insured deposits for banks was in 1991 at 82.1%.

In evaluating liquidity risk, the most common assumption is that consumer deposits, are the most dependable source of funding in a crisis.

The cooperative member-owner design further enhances this financial strategy. It is the member relationship, sometimes developed over generations, that is the intangible capital providing credit unions stability and relevance, especially when financial markets are disrupted. The value is real, even when unrecorded or perhaps unrecognized.

As a member, I trust the credit union values my participation as more than a consumer of products.

E Pluribus Unum or the Reverse?

“Out of many, one” is the motto of the United states. The many states joining to form one union.

This is often how we approach any project, piece by piece, brick by brick, member by member.

Yet cooperative design rests on a different premise.  From a place of community (later called field of membership), the credit union emerges to serve individual needs.

Community is the foundation of cooperative design. Even as individual credit unions become financially self sufficient (post sponsor era), and accountable for their individual performance, sustainability requires continuing to create a sense of community. This may be geographic, values based, common employment or even shared purpose.

A shared commonality is the key to maintaining member relationships, which are the real capital on which every credit union depends.


This play by Ayad Akhtar is a story of the financial industry in the mid-1980s and the disruption caused by the creation of junk bond financing. The play is loosely based on the career of Michael Milken who perfected the technique of leveraged buyouts funded by high-risk high reward bonds.  It introduced a whole new means of financing outside the traditional options provided by the “white shoe” Wall Street investment firms that had dominated market access.

The play’s leading character describes this financial innovation by his repeated assertion that “debt is an asset.”

As credit unions increasingly push access to “secondary capital” to the top of their regulatory or strategic priorities, it may be useful to remember that “secondary capital” is nothing more than an unsecured term borrowing at rates much higher than credit unions pay their members for shares.

Calling these long term, high cost financial borrowings capital, because of payment priority in the very remote event of liquidation by NCUA, seems akin to calling “debt an asset.”