Strategy: How Important is Scale?

A common assumption by many working in credit unions is that scale, that is increasing a credit union’s balance sheet size, is critical to competitiveness, and therefore survival. As one CEO wrote:  “Given our market and community field of membership, we believe scale is more important than ever.”

Facts versus Truth

This belief in “scale economies” is often supported by citing average financial performance by peer group size.   These averages do show that larger credit unions tend to grow both members and assets faster than smaller ones.   Also, they generally operate with lower expense ratios, larger dividend payouts, and generally higher ROA’s and loan to share ratios.

However even within the same peer group (over $1 billion in assets) there is a wide variation in these ratios.  Becoming larger does not automatically create these outcomes.

The logic that data confirms the necessity for scale, does not hold true across all situations.  Facts alone may not reveal underlying truths about successful cooperative performance.

Moreover, the facts used may rely on an assumption or mindset, that itself is debatable.

The Scarcity Mindset

Scale matters in a competitive market, some argue, because it can lead to larger market share and therefore greater economic power.

Scale is achieved by growth, that often means out running competitors.  This can be done organically or more recently, by some credit unions soliciting mergers or buying out bank competitors.

Growth thus becomes the primary objective, if not the mission of the credit union.  It is driven by an assumption of limited resources (or members) and that an institution must get their “share” before someone else takes it away.

I call this the “scarcity mindset” myth.   Credit unions think of strategy as a struggle to get more and more, and can never slow down, because ultimate scale is always unreachable.  The end point keeps growing from $100 million, to $1 billion to $10 billion in assets.  No asset size is ever enough.

The Cooperative Abundance Assumption

Credit union were founded on belief in the power and resources of community.  That by working together we can mobilize savers (those with more) to help borrowers (those with less).

By institutionalizing this process, members become empowered and the well-being of all is improved.  It is not the amount of resources that matter, but rather how they are managed for the common welfare.

This approach created by self-help and collaboration rests on the assumption of abundance. Credit unions are motivated by relationships and mission.  This focus creates trust that underwrites the inevitable cycles of economic fortune that will occur either individually or organizationally.

Instead of a scarcity mindset that focuses on getting whatever one can to grow an institution, credit union design rests on a belief in commerce organized around neighborliness and community.  In my individual capacity, I may not have what I need; but in my collective contributions, there is enough for all.

A Fork in the Strategic Road

The vast majority of credit unions have never had a major merger.  Most credit unions do not seek to buy out their financial competitors.

However, there is a commercial motivation promulgated by self-interested brokers, consultants and growth-oriented CEO’s and boards that assert survival depends on outmaneuvering the competition through size.  This market driven ideology of institutional success subverts the cooperative focus on purpose.

The cooperative model was created to give member-owners the opportunity to create and manage their own financial options in a market dominated by firms that make a profit from relationships.

The cooperative goal is to transform individual options and bring the resources of like-minded persons to build an institution using the resources available, that is a belief in an “economy of abundance.”

The credit union approach is sustained by a community of shared values, not just more plentiful resources.

Questions to Consider

As boards consider strategy, it may be helpful to ask the following:

  • How do we measure our scale, if that is an objective: institutional outcomes or member relationships?
  • Is our motivation for growth from fear or confidence? If it is fear from uncertainty, will we survive by doubling down on the familiar?
  • If scale is critical, what is the plateau we are aiming for? How is it determined?

As I look across the multiple examples of success among all credit union asset groups, I note that those who possess less are less possessed by motives for scale.   And instead of intending to be sustained by their savings from scale, they rely instead on the member’s trust and loyalty.

Why the Appeals Court Ruling on NCUA’s FOM Rule Is Irrelevant

According to the US Census Bureau’s population clock, the estimated 2018 United States population (February 2018) is 327.16 million.

This is a bit lower than the 329.06 million estimated by the United Nations.

As reported in Pentagon FCU’s June 30, 2019 quarterly call report, every one in the US is eligible to become a member. The data submitted by  the credit union is as follows:

2. Number of current members (not number of accounts) 1,788,610 083
3. Number of potential members 329,152,485 084


When Credit Unions Aligned with Communities of Faith for Social Progress

Catholic Energies is a non-profit, five-person organization that helps churches and schools convert to solar energy. Based in the District, the key capability they offer is collaboration with church owned properties, solar companies and investors seeking solar tax credits

In D.C. the group worked with the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to build a solar array on a church owned field that will light 260 homes by feeding into the local power grid. The energy credits will offset the costs of electricity across twelve of the charities’ properties in the district.

Catholic Energies is a subgroup of the non-profit Catholic Climate Covenant. This national initiative was launched to educate and engage US Catholics in caring for the environment. The sub group, Catholic Energies, was also responding to Pope Francis’ release in 2015 of Laudate Si, which argued for partnerships between religion and science to respond to climate change.

A Credit Union Social Action Precedent

The Catholic church’s involvement in issues of social progress embraced the credit union movement in the past. According to an article in the Grand Rapids Press from December 20, 1926, the National Catholic Welfare Conference intends to establish “a nationwide system of credit unions to lend money to wage earners. These short term loans will be extended to the 36 states with credit union laws.”

The article described the “parish credit union as a cooperative savings and loan society. Depositors buy shares at the par value, usually $5, and get a 6% a year interest. The capital thus obtained is loaned out at 8%.”

To understand the importance of this organizational effort, one need scan an alphabetical listing in any state in the following 50 years to see all the credit unions starting with “St.” followed by the parish name. In Massachusetts today there are still nine credit unions listed by parish names.

And like solar energy today, this effort had formal church support. Fr. Otto Thiel wrote an article in the December 1941 issue of Franciscan Studies explaining the church’s involvement.

It begins: “The religious and economic are the two predominant influences which have moulded man’s character and the world’s history. Religious motives are more intense than economic, but their direct actions seldom extends over so large a part of life (as do the economic ones).” After surveying the history of pawnbrokers or usurers to meet the economic needs of people of small means, he continues, “a way was discovered by which honest and responsible working people could supply themselves credit from within their own ranks. That discovery properly marked the origins of the movement which has produced the credit union of our day. . . It is neither a purely charitable nor a mere business organization, but one of self-help or co-operation. Its origins might be traced back to the Mons Pietatis of the later Middle ages, an organization to provide credit facilities for poor borrowers.”

More Than Catholics

Even prior to this national effort, other faiths promoted the credit union solution. In the January 1920 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an article described multiple efforts to create new thrift organizations to serve the needs of both rural and urban borrowers.

As reported in the article The New American Thrift Loan: “According to the latest report of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, several of the rural credit unions in New York have been obliged to wind up their affairs. In place of the eight credit unions among farmers reported in 1916, only three now exist. . . and no mention is made regarding the present status of credit unions among Jewish farmers in the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts. “

A Current Day Example

In June I met Greg Truex, the manager of the two year old, $16 million ELCA FCU. It is remarkably successful as a new startup relying on a largely virtual operating model. The credit union is sponsored by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The mission statement : God’s Work. Our Hands.

To succeed credit unions need more than capital. The hundreds if not thousands of credit unions sponsored by religious organizations, show the importance of both purpose and collaboration. And that heritage is still an invaluable coop advantage in today’s ever more crowded financial arena.

What is IBM Doing to Stay Relevant?

In an era when the longevity of an S&P 500 company is about two decades, the fact that IBM is still around from its 1911 initial combination of three businesses, raises the question of how it has survived. This is an especially challenging issue in an era of unending technology change in which the Internet has replaced the in-house main frame as the core of back office processing.

IBM began as the Computing, Tabulating & Recording Company (C-T-R). Their first large contract was to provide tabulating equipment for the tabulation and analysis of the 1890 US census.

Thomas Watson Sr. became CEO in 1914 and in the early 1920s the name was changed to International Business Machines (IBM). When he renamed the company, he put a plaque on his New York head office building in the 1930s reading, World Peace through World Trade.

From Machines to Intangibles

Following WWII, IBM became the world leader in providing computer systems for both business and scientific applications. The company continued to excel at inventing and making things (machines). In 1964, IBM revolutionized the industry by bringing out the first comprehensive family of computers (the System/360). This caused many of their competitors to either merge or go bankrupt, leaving IBM in an even more dominant position.

IBM’s historical role as a manufacturer of computer mainframes now makes up only 10% of the company’s revenue, even after 55 years of market dominance. 85% of the company’s revenue is from software and information management.

Its primary service is helping companies manage and transfer data. It is placing itself at the center of the “data economy” an intangible (compared with manufactured goods) network of information and transaction processing vital to every business. Its software and managed services are involved in 87% of the world’s credit card processing and service 90% of top 10 retail firms.

An Exploding Market

Today over 70% of the firm’s revenue is from outside the US. While global trade in goods and services is declining, the “trade” in data transmission and digital information is exploding.

The digital economy is a world economy, not limited by traditional physical boundaries and barriers. One estimate is that over 80 terabytes of information flow into and out of the US every minute of every day, a volume of information equal to eight Libraries of Congress.

The digital revolution is part of the service economy that today dwarfs the manufacturing sector in the US. Operating the “back office” of this growing information and processing activity is how IBM intends to build ongoing success.

The company, over 100 yeas old, was formed at the same the time as the first credit unions were chartered. Are there parallels in IBM’s evolution serving businesses, for what credit unions do for members? What might be vital information management needs in the digital economy that credit unions can provide members? Answering that question and designing services providing relevant data could be the key to the next 100 years of cooperative success with members.

588,000 Members About to Lose Their Credit Union

On June 12 I described NCUA’s May 17, 2019 conservatorship of Municipal Credit Union in New York City. The critical point was who will be the conservator? What will be the plan? Will NCUA’s chosen leader knock the place down or build it up? We now have an answer.

In less than two months on the job, the conservator recorded a June 30, second quarter loss of $125 million. This results in a reduction of net worth from 7.60% (well-capitalized) at March 30 to 3.41% (under-capitalized) at June 30.

Municipal’s 2-Year Report

The conservatorship was initiated by New York regulators in June 2018 by removing the full board and appointing an administrator, who was then let go earlier this year. New York then appointed NCUA conservator.

In late June several “unnamed sources” placed a leak in a CUToday story saying the credit union had a large underfunded defined benefit plan in an amount of over $100 million. NCUA declined to comment on the story, continuing a pattern of silent neglect throughout the entire conservatorship.

But the loss was a lot more than a benefit funding issue for a credit union which had reported a $3 million net income in the 2019 first quarter. The conservator’s total expenses in the quarter of $168.6 million were more than three times the first quarter total of $49 million. Of this increase, $130 was added to personal expenses, $19.1 quarterly increase in office operations, $8.9 million spent on professional services and $9.3 million in loan loss provision. This loss provision increased the coverage ratio from 147% to 177% even though there was no increase of delinquency at .76% of loans.

Who is Acting in the Members’ Best Interest?

The clear answer is nobody. For any so called expert to come in and wipe out half of a credit union’s net worth in less than 45 days on the job shows an inability to look at options, identify alternatives and develop a plan to sustain operations. An underfunded pension obligation is not a new situation for both public or private organizations. Defined benefits are paid out in decades to come and funding plans similarly are long term. Multiple options are available to manage underfunding which is why actuarial assessments are a normal part of a plan’s annual review. The only time cash in full is required is if the plan is to be terminated immediately which can result in every plan member being 100% vested in full whatever the plan’s actuarial cash requirements might be.

The lack of any explanation, public discussion or consideration of alternatives plus the abruptness of the action, suggests kick-the-barn-down strategy to justify a merger of this $3.0 billion credit union chartered in 1916. For cashing out the plan, if that is the reason for the expense, would leave any subsequent leader with no options and with having to develop a new retirement benefit for employees.

Silence and quiet leaks to the press are not patterns of accountability. NCUA board members may make speeches about all sorts of future risks and opportunities but fail to speak to the immediate needs of 588,000 members who have seen a complete breakdown of regulatory responsibility and accountability.

Every year NCUA and the state have examined the credit union. The credit union must have a CPA annual audit which would include an actuarial assessment of the benefit plan. And yet no action was taken until the CEO was found to have embezzled money. Compounding the failure to address the defined benefit funding (if it was an exam issue) is choosing a conservator with no ability to develop a plan for sustainability. Conservatorship becomes nothing more than preparation for a fire sale.

The members have no voice, they have been denied any role in their CU’s future. The credit union has a 22 branch network and a sound and diverse $2.0 billion loan portfolio and over $660 million in cash. Shares are up 6% and loans over 8% from June 2018, during a full year of conservatorship. And the reward for their loyalty and patronage is to be tossed aside as the regulators attempt to cover with silence their repeated failures to address issues that were clearly disclosed previously.

The Cooperative Advantage

Two factors provide credit unions a major advantage when problems occur. The first is the member relationship, loyalty and trust. The second, derived from the first, is patience when resolving problems.

There is no public pressure on stock price to divest of problems and move to new markets. With the right leadership in place credit unions have survived the most severe crises.

In the June 12 article of NCUA’s actions, a line from Hamilton states, “you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” There are only two sources for help—can the members mobilize to assert their rightful role? Will credit unions demand accountability from a regulator whose absence from the fray is a stunning dereliction of duty?

Face to Face: A Credit Union’s Irreplaceable Advantage

Our society seems intent on replacing human interaction with technology. In the independent Atlantic Baseball League, an experiment to automate the calling of balls and strikes is underway. The umpire still stands behind the plate but gets the ball or strike call via an Apple AirPod earpiece from a computer equipped with an artificial intelligence program.

Credit unions are deploying options so members speak to their phones or their home speakers, asking questions that were once answerable only by another human being. From account opening, to on boarding, to completely automated credit decisions, the race is on to take the human out of every conceivable member need and experience.

So what are the events that defy Google questioning and experiences we can only have through face to face interaction with another human? Answering that challenge is how credit unions will not only remain relevant but also define how each will compete no matter the asset size, number of branches or range of services. For what will be the cooperative advantage if people helping people simply becomes computer programs massaging each members’ data and responding based on software logic, no matter how intelligently designed?

A Modest Proposal for Secondary Capital

NCUA’s June delay in implementing a new risk based capital (RBC) rule was in part explained by the need to examine whether a secondary capital option should be part of the new capital model.

Cooperative design and history suggest there is an immediate and straightforward additional capital option. This solution can be implemented regardless of the outcome of the RBC discussions.

The 1934 Federal Credit Union Act mandated that the par value “shall be $5 per share,” an amount in the law based on twenty five years of state-chartered credit union practice.

Credit unions had no share insurance funds, state or federal, until the 1970s.  Prior to that all member shares were at risk, that is equity for the institution.   An ongoing consequence of this financial structure, even in the era of deregulation, is that credit union shares are second in payment priority in event of liquidation to all other liabilities. This means that third party lenders to credit unions, such as the FHLB system or banks, know that equity is more than a credit union’s retained earnings. In the event of failure, the insurance fund must pay lenders’ outstanding loans ahead of shares.

The $5 Par Share Value Today

The historical par value of  $5 was often purchased on an installment plan, for example,  25 cents a week. This par value, now a variable amount, was the foundation for all funding and was at risk should the credit union not succeed.  Virtually all FCUs and state charters still active today, were financed with this membership shares-at-risk model. This shared fate meant that the cooperative model was indeed based on common values and purpose.

The value of the $5 initial member share purchase requirement today depends on which index one uses to analyze changes in economic value.   There are at least seven choices from the consumer price index to various efforts that track the cost of labor, to nominal GDP per capita. The range of results from these various indexes shows that the value of the $5 share in 1934 would range from $62.70 (CPI) to $373 (GDP per capita) in 2019.

Reengaging Members in the Cooperative Model

The option to ask members to purchase one at risk (uninsured) capital share with specified minimum par value would provide additional equity but more importantly signify once again the uniqueness of the cooperative model. It would be available only to members, limited in individual amounts, and subject to terms and conditions set by the boards.

There is no need to invent multiple plans for secondary capital sold to third parties creating a potential conflict with member’s returns. Instead the original design that successfully launched tens of thousands of charters could become today’s solution for capital flexibility when that is in the members’ best interest.