In a dramatic turnaround Municipal Credit Union (MCU) reported a $30 million reduction in its 2019 final year to date loss compared with its reported September 30 financial position.
$40 Million Improvement in Six Months
In the September 5300 call report, MCU’s bottom line was a $113.1 million loss. As of December, there was an improvement with a reported loss of only $82.7 million. This was on top of a $10 million-dollar gain from the June 2019 year to date loss of $123.3 million.
How is this dramatic $40 million turnaround in just six months possible? Is it too good to be true?
The short answer is Yes. It is neither true nor good.
A brief summary of MCU’s situation from a November 2018 news article outlines the CEO’s embezzlement starting in 2013 to pay for addictions, his total compensation of $5.8 million in 2016, the removal of the Supervisory Committee and Board in 2018, followed by the appointment by New York’s Department of Financial Services of a former bank President and CFO Mark Ricca as CEO in October 2018.
At year-end 2018 MCU, led by the new CEO, reported a positive bottom line of $11.4 million, a net worth of 8% and a stable balance sheet with delinquency of 0.85% more than covered by an allowance account exceeding 228% of past due loans.
NCUA Conservatorship in May 2019
Then on May 17, 2019, NCUA took over the credit union and appointed Kay Woods as the CEO. Forty-five days later the credit union announced a year to date loss of $123 million versus the first quarter’s net income of a positive $2.9 million under the prior CEO.
There was no public discussion by the credit union or NCUA explaining this catastrophic loss. The lack of any reasons raises the question whether this was a hasty judgment or a predetermined action by NCUA. The result reduced the credit union’s 2019 mid-year net worth ratio to critically undercapitalized at 3.4% from well capitalized over 7%, 90 days earlier.
Even without any explanation, it did not take a forensic analyst to determine that NCUA’s new conservator had ended MCU’s defined benefit retirement plan and fully expensed the potential accounting deficit shown on the balance sheet as a negative $114 million at March 2019. This entry shown as other comprehensive income/loss has been reported on MCU’s balance sheet for over a decade.
The labor union representing 450 of the credit union’s employees confirmed this benefit cancellation had occurred and been replaced by a 401K defined contribution program in Local 153’s 2019 winter newsletter. The union’s contract had expired in January 2019. There has been no announcement of a new one.
How to Stage a $40 Million or More Turnaround
One way of capping a defined benefit plan’s future liability is to close it. This action will cause all employees covered under the plan to be 100% vested regardless of their vested status at the time of the closing.
The actuarial estimates of a plan’s future funding requirements do not require cash outlays until employees begin to draw benefits, which may be years or decades into the future. Closing the plan however, makes all covered employees fully vested in all earned benefits, regardless of years of service. This vested amount can be paid out if they leave employment instead of drawing the plan’s benefits for years after retiring.
Since the plan’s termination, employment has declined from 688 FTE equivalents to 523. In addition, the credit union announced in December that it was closing six more branches reducing total locations from 23 to 16 as of January 31, 2020.
As more employees will be asked to leave, each will be eligible to receive 100% of vested benefits in cash for rollover into another retirement program or an IRA. Individual lump sum payments will depend on length of service and level of compensation. However, the year-end average salary and benefit of $310,481 per employee (where the payout expense is recorded) suggests the average vested amounts are in excess of several hundred thousand per departure.
Every time an employee leaves, the payment reduces the actuarially projected shortfall of $114 million shown at March 31, 2019. That total assumed the plan’s on-going nature with liabilities projected from current employee staffing, their accumulated tenure and plan vesting schedules.
The $114 million write-down in the June quarter was an accrual estimate, presented as a loss using plan assumptions that were no longer valid since the plan had been terminated.
By presenting what is at best a misleading, and possibly false financial narrative, the credit union created a source to pay laid off and departing employees a “severance” (their 100% vested amount), a rationale for pushing back union contract demands, a reason for closing branches, and an urgency to dismantle the credit union’s operating capabilities, plank by plank.
Six months after the $123 “loss” was reported, the reversal of the accrued liability, appears to be $40 million and rising as layoffs continue. In fact, the $30 million 4th quarter improvement is due almost entirely to a correction of the earlier significant incorrect presentation of a future liability.
Downsizing Goes On
Currently MCU lists over 25 vacancies on its web job site. Branch closings continue. One has caused a landlord to initiate legal action against early termination. Korn Ferry has been hired to recruit a new Chief Human Resource Officer with “10-15 years’ experience” and one who is “willing to roll up their sleeves as needed.” The union’s latest newsletter said negotiations are still ongoing with no contract.
Lending to members has slowed by 40% from $773 million in total 2018 loan originations, to $465 million in 2019. Loan quality remains strong and delinquencies are still covered by more than 200% in an allowance account reserve. However, this lending slowdown could impair revenue for years to come.
What is the Real Problem?
If the $123 million “loss” was not really a loss, then what is the reason for the accounting manipulation?
Financial reports from prior years portray a credit union that on the surface was doing OK. The credit union avoided both the taxi medallion problems (2017-2019) and mortgage backed security crisis (2008/09). It had a balanced, growing loan portfolio and was serving many blue collar, middle income, civic and nonprofit employees in the New York City area. Chartered in 1916, it is New York’s oldest credit union and had previously survived a previous conservatorship in 1977.
However, news accounts stated that the CEO been supporting addiction habits via embezzlement since 2013. A supervisory committee member, board member and prior human resource executive, have been accused of helping with the wrongdoing.
In early 2018, the MCU board took the lead role for terminating MCU’s CFO, CHRO, and CEO based on investigations following receipt of DOJ subpoenas that alerted the directors to problems. After the board acted, and the investigations completed, they were then removed by the regulator.
The allegedly underfunded defined benefit plan was never an issue in these 2018 events. It had been openly shown in call reports for over a decade. MCU’s executive salaries and benefits, including the $6 million paid in 2016 to the CEO were disclosed in the required IRS 990 filings year after year. Both of these accounts should have been thoroughly reviewed by examiners.
The news reports and 5300 call reports suggest that the core issues, whether in 2018 or 2019 were in plain sight all along. Every year NCUA and DFS conduct joint exams with dozens of trained personnel on premises over many weeks. The credit union’s board and supervisory committee records are read, CEO compensation and any loans to executives/board members examined, MCU’s internal audits and the external CPA audit (including the future funding projections for the defined benefit) are all part of the exam process.
External Audit Issued During the Board’s CEO Investigation
The external audit as of December 2017, dated April 11, 2018 from Eisner Amper LLP provided the normal “clean” opinion of MCU’s financial position:
“In our opinion, the financial statements referred to above present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Municipal Credit Union as of December 31, 2017 and 2016, and the results of its operations and its cash flows for each of the years in the two-year period ended December 31, 2017 in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”
Annual regulator exams cover all aspects of financial reporting, loan analysis, reserve adequacy, compliance and IT security, just to name some of the areas in a normal on-site review. As a $3 billion credit union, MCU should have been assigned NCUA’s most experienced examiners.
Either NCUA had not identified the CEO’s five-year scheme or was unable to resolve it. The MCU board’s removal occurred only after they terminated the three suspected “bad actors” in 2018. And it was one full year later that NCUA’s current conservator reported the “surprise” loss from the benefit plan termination.
Was the exaggerated loss, currently $40 million, NCUA’s way of creating a “financial emergency” to force their changes on the credit union? Was this an after the fact effort to divert attention from years of regulatory oversights enabling the CEO’s defalcations to go unnoticed?
Silence Creates Uncertainty, Erodes Confidence
What compounds the impression of accounting manipulation, is the continuing vacuum about NCUA and the conservator’s plans. Both have declined to talk to the press. Without transparency, anything goes. There is no accountability, no need to justify actions, no explanations of alternatives. Everything is done by force majeure, justified by an inflated expense recorded a full year after the board is removed with the regulator 100% in charge.
NCUA’s nineteen-month silence during these two separate events, and failure to provide a public spokesperson willing to take responsibility for the conservator’s actions and purpose, suggests that it is avoiding any discussion of its supervisory responsibilities. Instead it wants to point to a $123 million shiny object and reprise a two-year-old act of a confessed CEO embezzlement scheme. An embezzlement loss that should be fully recoverable from bond claims and restitution.
The easy part is over. Anyone can knock a barn down. It takes a carpenter to build one. Restoring employee and member trust and morale is not achieved by merely showing an improving net worth or high ROA. A wrecking crew approach may remove obstacles to change, but it will also lead to unforeseen consequences when seeking persons to build a resilient future for MCU.
MCU’s financial progress is inevitable, for the credit union was showing ROA and reasonable growth before using the defined benefit plan cancellation as a hammer to justify downsizing and layoffs. Financial results matter, but the critical processes that will show if the situation is on the right track include:
- Restore meaningful input from the membership, both employee groups and individuals;
- Find long term senior managers/leaders who understand the requirements to build a sustainable organization with what is left of operations;
- A frequent and open reporting to all public stakeholders, with timely updates from both those running the credit union and NCUA/DFS who outsourced their oversight to those now operating in secret.
Why Transparency Matters the Most
This final step is in fact the most critical. NCUA has aided and abetted a false narrative of the credit union’s financial situation begun with its purported loss in June 2019.
Cooperatives are very different from for-profit financial firms. Ownership is held in commonwealth, not by individual stockholders. When regulators act without presenting their goals for public understanding, there is no accountability for those exposable for the situation.
When problems occur from external events or internal failings, all cooperative parties have an equal responsibility for resolving them: the credit union leadership and board, the regulators and third parties such as auditors and bonding companies all share oversight responsibility. Effective solutions require collaboration and respect for everyone’s role.
When one party operates unilaterally in secret, or attempts to put blame on another, then collaboration and positive resolution is replaced with scapegoating. Vital information and capabilities are lost. Options are unexamined. And the situation can quickly descend into a failing spiral that no person or team can reverse.
For what employee would want to trust their career prospects to a firm without a leader, with no governance process in place, no stated plan or goals, continuing uncertainty and loss of market confidence? But this is becoming the situation today. Instead of preserving value, NCUA’s actions are destroying the prospects for recovery. It needs to make its case otherwise in public as soon as possible, if it has one.
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