How Can This Merger Be in the Members’ Best Interest?

Top 5 managers can gain $9.8 million additional compensation; 158,000 members will have one-time “special dividend” of $4.0 million if they approve merger

On October 23, 2019, the Chair of Schools Financial Credit Union sent a letter to all members saying the board and management had decided to merger the $2.1 billion Sacramento-based credit union with SchoolsFirst FCU($16.1 billion) in Orange County.

The seven-page summary can be found on the NCUA’s website.

CEO could benefit by over $8.0 million

Two full pages are used to describe potential additional compensation benefits for the five senior managers, the bulk of which would go to the CEO. His total of over $8.0 million includes potential severance pay and salary guarantees, a three-year bonus prospect of $1.2 million, accelerated vesting of the existing supplemental retirement plan and an amended split dollar life insurance retirement benefit. These additional payments are on top of existing salaries.

The 158,000 owners of the coop will receive an average of $25 from a $4.0 million “dividend”  paid from their common equity of over $260 million. Using the credit union’s average share balance of $11,453 and the pro-rata table showing payment by average account size, this would equate to a distribution rate of 15 basis points, or 0.15%.

This token “tip” to the members, as an incentive to vote for the merger, insults both their century-long loyalty and their trust in the cooperative.

In contrast to this $25 payment, each member’s actual share of the $260 million equity averages over $1,710. This “book value” does not recognize the real market worth of the credit union if goodwill, market presence and performance were priced in a true arm’s length transaction.

The true market value would be a 150-200% of book for a franchise with its 96-year history.

So why is this merger being proposed? Why should members be asked to give up their collective capital and the legacy of member contributions since 1933? What are they gaining in return, if anything? What other services and benefits will they surrender and what is the greater Sacramento community losing?

The front cover of the credit union’s 2018 Annual Report is headlined “Members First”. The cover has a picture of a couple who have been members since 1986 with the following quote:

ABC10 Teacher of the Month! “The personal attention and family atmosphere keep us banking at Schools Financial.”

This couple have been members longer than any of the five senior management beneficiaries of the merger have worked at the credit union. In fact, this proposed merger places members last!

I believe an objective review of the credit union’s public information describing its unique role and the sparse rationale in the member mailing clearly demonstrate that the only people gaining from this merger are the CEO and his four senior executives. They are receiving increased compensation while at the same time, giving up all the responsibilities of leadership.

What the members lose

The members lose control for how their $2.0 billion in collective resources and $260 million of equity are utilized for their own circumstances. They have no control for which unique products (e.g. a special 7% Banking for Everyone Savings, Senior Savers Club and business accounts) are retained, whether to continue participating in the 5,000 shared branching service centers or even which branches remain open.

Once the Sacramento-based charter is given up, the local community relations with realtors, car dealers, school districts, community organizations and media are now directed by managers located in Orange County overseeing $16 billion in their home market. There is no more local credit union elected leadership accountable for relationships with the Sacramento community.

Here is how the credit union currently describes this leadership in Sacramento:

Community & Education Outreach

https://www.schools.org/about-us/news-publications/news-special-offers#EducationOutreach

Schools Financial Credit Union strives to be an active partner in our community. We recognize that practicing good Corporate Citizenship supports the Credit Union Philosophy of “People Helping People.” Furthermore, we aspire to help raise the overall level of social and economic well-being of those in our community through direct financial support and participation in public service activities, in addition to championing the education sector. The Credit Union is always looking for ways to better position us to reach out and serve — as only credit unions can — those people in greatest need of affordable financial services.

Abdication by the Board

One has to question why, if this project was fully considered, it was not discussed with members in the March 17, 2019 annual meeting. The board has further abdicated its fiduciary responsibility to members providing just 49 days from the mailing of the announcement to the final vote and meeting on December 12. A 96-year-old, member-owned institution dissolved in a two-month process, with the only documented benefits going to the five senior managers.

The Board is charged with representing the member-owners’ interests. This is both a legal and moral role. Nowhere are the actual costs to members of the merger outlined, only the required listing of enhanced management compensation. What we do know is that the board has approved spending at least $13 million to induce members to give up their charter. That action alone seems to be a highly questionable decision and raises fundamental issues of fiduciary accountability.

For generations members gave their financial resources to the board’s care What is most disappointing is that the board’s decision to put the credit union out of business in just 46 days draws upon the members’ longstanding trust and loyalty to follow their lead. This board’s action reeks of betrayal.

The merger rationale

The document used to justify the merger is the 7-page letter to members from the Chair. The key factors cited are the intent to “re-focus its efforts upon educators on a state-wide basis.” The reasons given include the historical loyalty of educators, the value of a market niche for growth and the need to differentiate itself and gain more economies of scale.

Even though School Financial’s state charter reports a potential FOM of over 4 million, it now claims to grow it must merge with SchoolsFirst FCU in Southern California with $16.1 billion assets and its historical roots in Orange Country.

Indeed, the explanation seems to merely adopt SchoolsFirst state-wide strategy not the implementation of an independent judgment by Schools Financial.

Nowhere are the details for how this justification will better serve the interests of the Sacramento-based membership. There are broad generalities about further commitment to member service, providing low cost accounts, long-term stability and expanding “rather than competing with our existing branch/ATM footprint.”

However, all the details are left open-ended about what these changes might be, as for example:

  • The existing branches will remain open for three years unless leases expire sooner.
  • The credit union’s participation in the shared branch will be evaluated later and the participation in the ATM network will be maintained.
  • The retention of federal share insurance reads like the logic of giving the sleeves off one’s vest since that is the case now.
  • All employees are “being offered retention bonuses to help ensure a smooth transition and successful integration”- an amount not disclosed. Of course there would be no retention bonus if the employees don’t support the change, another example of “tipping” interested parties to go along with proposal.

So the letter’s assurance seems to be nothing much is going to change, and if it does, it will be for some undefined future in which the only definite reality is the members will be part of an $18 billion credit union with its main headquarters almost 500 miles away.

There are no side by side comparisons of savings or loan rates, or fees ( one example only) or any other standard performance indicators that would suggest members might be better off transferring the management and leadership of their collective and personal interests to another organization with which they have no relationship.

Reviewing the latest facts

Savings: Different rates reflect different ALM strategies

Both of these credit unions are very successful using any financial performance measures. The differences that do exist reflect the different business models each has developed in their respective markets over the past decades.

For example, the letter says that SchoolsFirst pays its members higher rates on savings as measured by the average cost of funds. This is accurate: 1.05% for SchoolsFirst and 0.54% for Schools Financial through September 30, 2019.

However, the credit unions’ call reports show exactly the same rates on the core accounts, regular shares and share drafts. The difference in cost of funds is that SchoolsFirst has 28% of its savings in higher paying CDs, versus Schools Financial’s 12%. This funding difference reflects the contrasting loan strategies discussed below, in which SchoolsFirst is more concentrated on mortgage loans.

Moreover, Schools Financial provides options not available at SchoolsFirst including a special 7% Banking for Everyone savings, Senior Savers Club and business accounts.

The latest rates posted by Schools Financial for $1,000 minimum CDs ranging from 1.10% to 2.55%, appear to be more than competitive in almost any local or out of area market.

Two distinct lending portfolio priorities

The same analysis shows that Schools Financial’s 86% loan-to-share portfolio is very different from SchoolsFirst’s 70% ratio. Real estate loans are 54% of SchoolsFirst’s portfolio, versus 33% of Schools Financial’s. The yield on the member loans at Schools Financial is 3.98% versus 4.87% at SchoolsFirst. As reported in the September 30 call report Schools Financial’s rates are lower for credit cards and 1st liens, but higher for auto loans which are 59% of their portfolio, versus 31% for SchoolsFirst.

In both cases the credit unions offer excellent member value for their markets and their differing business strategies.

Institutional performance

The September 2019 data also shows that scale seems to make little difference in overall performance

Some comparisons of note:

Ratio                                   Schools  Financial            Schools First

Efficiency                         60%                                        66%

Net Worth                        12.2%                                     11.6%

ROA (YTD)                        1.85%                                    1.16%

Delinquency                    0.22%                                   0.46%

Net C-O/ave loans        0.39%                                  0.49%

Allow/Del Loans            2.47X                                     1.58X

On many productivity measures the numbers are virtually the same even though the credit unions have contrasting business models. The average member relationship is $21.5K at Schools Financial versus $25K at SchoolsFirst, but the rate of growth in this comparison is faster at Schools Financial.

On critical productivity measures such as $ loan origination per full time employee, $ loan income per FTE or net revenue per FTE the credit unions are virtually the same.

The comparisons could continue. The point is that neither credit unions shows a significant performance advantage versus the other. Both are efficient, productive, and offer members excellent value.

Schools Financial further documents their value by referencing this citation on their website:

Schools Financial Named in Top 200 Healthiest Credit Unions List

DepositAccounts.com has released its list of the 2019 Top 200 Healthiest Credit Unions in America. In addition to being in the top 200, Schools Financial Credit Union has received an A+ rating for financial soundness.

The diminution of local employment and leadership

Schools Financial’s website is replete with examples of its involvement with the school districts it serves, offering special loan programs, supporting teacher recognition and local efforts at school support. Moreover, it advertises itself as a great place to work:

Top-5 Reasons to Work for Schools Financial Credit Union

      1. 100% Paid Insurance Coverage
      2. Up to 7% Employer Contribution to 401k Plan
      3. Babies in the Workplace Program
      4. Education Reimbursement
      5. Gain Sharing

In giving up their 1933 charter the members will lose control of not just their collective resources, but also of the election of local directors and governance which provides the oversight in the direction of policy and resource allocation. Business strategy and the numerous member education programs will be determined at head office and economic realities in Orange County. The priorities will then be passed down to local branches.

The relationships the credit union has created with the community–the auto dealers in its indirect program, the school district’s local support, the realtor networks which refer 1st mortgage home buyers, the media in which the credit union advertises, not to mention the civic organizations and involvement of the board and senior management—all lose their priority if not their significance once there is no longer local control.

Here is one of many examples of how Schools Financial describes its role in the community today on its website:

Community

“People Helping People” extends beyond our branches. Our members and our staff band together to extend that philosophy to those in need who reside in the communities we serve. Some of the organizations we lend a hand to are: (details omitted)

      • Children’s Miracle Network
      • Food Banks
      • Making Strides for Breast Cancer Walk®
      • Spirit of Giving

The fallacy of cooperative mergers

Credit unions rarely succeed by trying to become larger than their competitors. Rather their success is creating and cultivating member relationships. This grows loyalty and member trust. The cooperative design, uniquely among financial alternatives, encourages participation and connectedness among the member-owners.

SchoolsFirst could compete with Schools Financial, but they know how difficult that would be given the credit union’s Sacramento track record. Or, it could embrace cooperative collaboration where there are mutual benefits for members. But no, it instead is has bought out the CEO, a much easier way to expand and gain control of members’ equity without paying anything or committing to any future details.

The consequence is the member-owners will see their loyalty being sold as executives get windfalls for surrendering their leadership responsibilities. Their elected board abdicates any fiduciary role for either a democratic process or for providing genuine member value in the transaction.

The members not only lose in what is an insider-arranged “commercial sale,” but also, the credit union system loses credibility as stewards of cooperative design and member-ownership. Instead those agents charged with overseeing the model have engineered the system to serve their self-interests first, and members last, or not at all.

But the regulator approved this

The defense and one of the FAQ explanations is that the regulator approved this transaction including the statement sent to members.

Mergers of well run, independent sound institutions are seen by some as a necessary strategy. However, the inherent conflict of interest for a CEO arranging the merger of a credit union and specifically benefiting from it, has never been openly addressed.

NCUA has long abandoned its role as a steward of member interests. Cooperative leadership throughout the system has become increasingly hollowed out by the transactions of self-interested agents, including the regulator.

NCUA proclaims its basic mission is safety and soundness. However, it has turned a blind eye as one of the most basic principles of risk management is compromised by mergers of healthy credit unions. For putting more eggs into fewer and fewer baskets only creates larger risk concentrations for the next cyclical downturn.

Merger violates a sacred trust

The strength of credit unions is first and foremost the member-owners.

Cooperative design asserts that members’ well-being and what really matters to them will be kept close at hand. Credit unions can be locally sponsored and supported. To some this model seems contrary to the temper of the times and the siren attraction of size as a monument to success.

However, cooperatives are not merely financial firms, but a form of social capital based on a covenant to serve the common good.

This basic cooperative principle is compromised in this merger. For it privatizes and rewards the few from the common wealth created by generations of members. The members should vote against this merger.