Part I: The Half-Billion Dollar Wealth Transfer in the SchoolsFirst FCU Merger

Note: As background for this article, please see previous posts: How Can This Merger in the Members’ Best interests and What Credit Unions Can Learn from Bank Purchases

Largest Ever “Special Credit Union Dividend” of $540 Million Paid to Members on January 1, 2020

In a December 26 release to the credit union press, Schools Financial CU announced it was paying its members a special pre-merger dividend of $4 million before it completed combining with SchoolsFirst FCU on January 1, 2020.

What the announcement omitted was that the January 1, 2020 merger will also transfer over $540 million of the reserves and net worth of Schools Financial members to the Board and members of SchoolsFirst FCU.

Each Financial Schools member’s pro rata share of this transfer is  $3,420 versus the token $26 they were given upon approval of the merger.

This is the largest wealth transfer by the members of one credit union to another credit union’s control. The use and disposition of over a half billion dollars of common wealth created by the former member-owners of Schools Financial CU since 1933 is no longer theirs to determine.

How the $540 Million Wealth Transfer Occurs

In this merger of two sound, well-run credit unions, the terms called for the entire equity of Schools Financial CU to be transferred at par. The estimated year-end net worth based on the credit union’s announced 2019 ROA of 1.73% is $270 million. This becomes “equity acquired in a merger” and is added directly to the net worth of SchoolsFirst FCU.

In addition, under the accounting standards codification for “business combinations,” Schools Financials’ merged assets and liabilities assumed by SchoolsFirst are recorded at their fair values. To simplify the numerous calculations, prior year end audits certify that the assets of Schools Financial when “fairly presented” exceed the liabilities by the amount of the net worth, which would be the estimated $270 million reserves at December 31, 2019.

This excess of assets over liabilities acquired is recognized as income on the books of SchoolsFirst FCU. It is called a “bargain purchase gain” or “negative goodwill.”

The merger of two stable credit unions creates a wealth transfer similar to a credit union which makes a “whole bank purchase.” Unlike a bank purchase however, none of the shareholders’ equity is paid to the member-owners whose loyalty and patronage created the wealth. Nor is there any additional amount, that is a “premium” over book value, offered as would be expected in a purchase of a sound bank.

The Duties of Credit Union Directors

The fiduciary duties of credit union directors, established by NCUA rule and standard legal practice, are summarized in the following article:

The five key legal concepts relating to director responsibility and liability are excerpted in part below:

    1. Business Judgment Rule

The business judgment rule dictates that a court must presume a director based his or her decision on an informed and honest belief that the decision was in the best interests of the institution and members… To receive the business judgment rule’s presumptive protection, directors must inform themselves of all material information and then act with care.

    1. Duty of Care

Fiduciary duty of due care requires directors to use that amount of care which ordinarily careful and prudent persons would use in similar circumstances and consider all material information reasonably available when making business decisions.

    1. Duty of Loyalty

This duty forbids corporate directors from using their position of trust to further their own private interest (i.e. “self-dealing”)… Additionally, directors are required to act in an “adversarial and arms-length manner” when negotiating transactions between the corporation and the director.

    1. Duty of Good Faith

Breach of the duty of good faith occurs if the directors consciously and intentionally disregard their responsibilities, adopting a “we don’t care about the risks” attitude concerning a material decision. Moreover, deliberate indifference and inaction in the face of a duty to act epitomizes bad faith.

    1. Waste

Waste is defined as a director irrationally squandering asset. To prove waste, the plaintiff must establish that an exchange was so one-sided that no businessperson of ordinary, sound judgment could conclude that the credit union received compensation.

I believe each of these standards is relevant when assessing this transaction.

What the Members of Schools Financial Were Told About the Merger

The primary document provided members was an October 23, 2019 letter to members from the Board Chair. NCUA did not post the financials referred to in the letter so it is not clear how the financial combination was presented, or even if it would have been understood by a member if received.

The Chair’s letter states the merger was a result of a mid-2017 board decision to refocus the credit union’s “efforts upon educators on a state-wide basis.” One public announcement since that mid-2017 date was on January 22, 2019 in which the two credit unions in a joint press statement announced their intent to merge. The Chairman’s announcement of the member vote in October was the implementation of this January decision.

The letter to members is very general in its justifications. The most specific language was two pages of detail about the potential increase of compensation to be received by the CEO ($8 million of the total $9 million described) and five most senior managers as a result of the merger.

The letter did not state:

  • That the credit union’s accumulated wealth of over half a billion dollars would be transferred to another credit union’s control and use;
  • That the credit union’s resources would now be controlled by a board of directors for which no information was provided and is located over 400 miles from Schools Financial primary service area;
  • That the operating control of the credit union’s assets and shares would now be under the control of a management team about which no information was provided and which, like the board, is over 400 miles removed from the Sacramento membership;
  • Any immediate changes of rates on savings or loans that would occur as a result of the merger;
  • Any information about ongoing roles negotiated for Schools Financial’s Board of Directors;
  • Any commitments relating to products and services provided by Schools Financial that are not offered by SchoolsFirst such as Banking for Everyone Savings, business accounts or the shared branching outlets-“each to be evaluated to determine whether to continue or discontinue them after the merger;”
  • Any impact on Schools Financial’s field of membership granted by the State of California which according to the September 5300 Call Report covered up to 4 million potential members.

The members were urged to give up their independent charter and the direct control of their credit union’s resources and all future decisions in return for general promises of “improved financial benefits” and “to gain economies of scale to be able to compete with larger financial services companies.”

On this latter point about the benefits of scale, in the year-end special dividend announcement by Schools Financial, the full year’s ROA of 1.73% would be approximately double the industry average and .60 basis points higher than SchoolsFirst FCU which is eight times the size of the Sacramento based credit union.

Subsequent Announcements by Both Credit Unions

After the voting and special $4 million dividend were announced, the following information has been published by the credit unions on their websites after stating the merger was overwhelmingly approved:

  • The annual membership meeting of the newly enlarged SchoolsFirst FCU will be on May 19, in Tustin, CA approximately 430 miles from the location of the former office of Schools Financial CU.
  • The Nominating Committee of Schools Financial met on December 5th (one week before the December 12th Schools Financial member meeting to vote on the merger) and nominated two of the merged credit union board members to their board: Marie B. Smith who as Chair signed the merger letter, and Theresa Matista, another current board member approving the merger. The annual meeting notice also stated: “The election will not be conducted by ballot when there is only one nominee for each position to be filled. There will be no nominations from the floor.”
  • In a post-merger web announcement titled: An Exciting Time for Schools Financial Members,” Marie Smith, chair of Schools Financial stated: “I along with two other current Schools Financial CU Board Members will serve on the SchoolsFirst FCU Board of Directors. I look forward to our bright future and helping you and your family secure lasting financial security.” Apparently, the Nominating Committee didn’t get the same message for the December 5th nomination described only two board members from Schools Financial!
  • The letter also listed five potential fee reductions such as eliminating $8 incoming wire service fee. The post also reiterated the prospect of “improved savings rates and highly competitive interest rates on loans” but with no specifics.
  • In another section of the web: Returning to our Roots, Schools Financial, a division of SchoolsFirst FCU announces that their FOM is “exclusively open to current or retired school employees and their immediate families,” not the open community charter followed prior to the merger.
  • On the SchoolsFirst website, the FAQ about the merger includes the announcement that the credit union will open a new branch in the Sacramento area in the first half of 2020. But otherwise the credit union twice states, “most things will stay the same,” and again, “all products and services will stay the same.” One way to interpret this assurance is that the junior partner’s product and service profile will be conformed to that of the senior partner.

These after the fact disclosures illustrate the lack of transparency surrounding this $2.1 billion transaction. The assessment begun in May of 2017, triggering the joint merger press release in January 2019, which suggests the board had over two years to evaluate and to negotiate on behalf of the members. Yet the most detailed part of the letter to members concerns compensation to the CEO and senior managers, and no details of any potential benefits or losses for the membership.

Which raises the most important question, what options did the board consider and evaluate for the members’ best interest?

What Could $540 Million Endowment Contribute to the Sacramento Community

Separately from the issue of whether the board talked to or considered mergers with local credit unions such as Safe or Golden 1 to enhance the future for Schools Financial members, is whether the credit union even deliberated investing some or all of the wealth created by the members to benefit the future of the community which created this surplus.

Did the directors consider paying forward the reserves for helping the school districts and communities versus giving half a billion dollars to the control of a board and management whose primary responsibilities are rooted hundreds of miles away in a different part of the state?

What could a half billion-dollar fund do for the needs of the Sacramento educational community?

  • How might it help with affordable housing options for teachers to live closer to the communities they work in?
  • For scholarships to seniors from families that cannot afford to contribute to higher education expenses?
  • For teacher training especially in areas that fall outside the immediate priorities such as the arts, technical and vocational skills?
  • For equipment for schools that are short-changed versus wealthier districts in the allocation of funds for classroom technology or extracurricular sports?
  • For educational programs for those adults striving to get a GED or other certifications?
  • For pilot programs for encouraging and supporting new online educational options?
  • For reducing the college debt burden to hire new graduates for teaching careers so they do not have to worry about paying off loans?
  • For special grants to local community colleges and universities to underwrite innovations in educational experiences and curriculum?

With a 6% grant rate and a half billion-dollar fund, over $30 million could have been donated annually to benefit the community that created, supported, funded and made the credit union a force for good in the Sacramento area.

SchoolsFirst, the fifth largest credit union in the country, had the capital to absorb the credit union which would have allowed the credit union to transfer the wealth for the benefit of the community that created it in the first place. If the rejoinder is that the SchoolsFirst Board can now do the same work, one needs only look at the credit union’s track record to know that that is highly unlikely. For in the 2018 Annual Report, the $16 billion SchoolsFirst reports as follows: “In 2018 we partnered with local, national and global educational and credit union charities to give back in significant ways. We made more than $2 million in charitable donations including donations to local schools and colleges, Children’s Miracle Network, Hospitals, Habitat for Humanity and CUAid.”

Part II of this analysis will be posted tomorrow. It will address why credit unions should care about this wealth transfer and the circumstances which enabled it to occur.

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