From the Field: A CEO’s Budget Review Message

“Later next week we will finalize the [financial] report book and publish. I wanted to send this summary out to you and the team to see the tact and our confidence about the future based on traditional thinking. Our numbers are GREAT! But not for the right reasons. 

We are doing the right things. But what are we risking in just doing the right things for now, and not the right things for the coming post-COVID future? COVID is not unprecedented, it’s just another year after year revolving pressing issue. We knock down the pressing issue of the year, every year – chaos is constant, and adjustments are forever needed.

Remember: to see COVID as simply another challenge to success is not dismissing COVID, it simply is recognizing that as cooperative business people, we have the means and the skills to endure and prosper. When you read this financial update, I hope that is what you infer between the lines. Take care, stay safe.”

The Key CEO Question: What are the right things we should be doing now for the post-COVID future?

From the Field: Will New Leadership Change NCUA?


(A response to What NCUA Nominee Kyle Hauptman can learn from McWatters’ NCUA Tenure)

“I’m sure you are familiar with the story of Passover. At the beginning of the Seder, the children ask the famous 4 questions. It begins with the phrase “Ma Nistanah”. Why is this night different from other nights? Among Jews, family members, we use the phrase as a question: why will this be any different? So if your wife’s mother does the same silly thing again, and you say to your wife “Ma Nishtanah”- you both get it. Sometimes the reference is more serious and that’s unfortunately what I would say about a new NCUA Board Member. Chosen by the same patronage process, using the examples of behavior of the existing board members, and being trained by the same existing staff. “Ma Nishtanah”- why should we expect anything different?”

One Credit Union Blog Ends: Another Enters Stage

Friday, July 31 was the final post for Dr. Keith Leggett, who was an economist at the American Bankers Association.

From June 2009 thru last week, he wrote over 11,000 entries. He never joined a credit union. He was an industry skeptic who often highlighted bankers’ concerns with the industry. Most of his columns were reprints of stories or events which he believed justified his disbelief in the cooperative model.

His point of view will be missed. Credit unions value relationships and are reluctant to challenge the errant behaviors of their own. And without critics, a show can get off track so that it becomes too late for the audience to save it.

A New-Old Kid on the Credit Union Beat

Last week I read a new blogger’s article about the ongoing fate of the taxi medallion borrowers whose loans NCUA sold to a private hedge fund, Marblegate Asset Management.

The story was written by David Baumann, a reporter for Credit Union Times who had been recently laid off due to COVI . Using his knowledge and contacts in the industry, he started a blog to produce original stories:

He focuses on events in DC that could affect credit unions. He does his own leg work with interviews and follow ups.

His approach could provide new insights over the next year as the prospect of wholesale political change looms over the country and with it, at Congress and NCUA.

The blog is well designed, latest stories up front, with searchable “topics” of past articles. It’s free. I signed up.

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Should NCUA Create a Credit Union Advisory Board?

I am skeptical about whether a politically chosen advisory board is an effective venue for credit unions to influence NCUA. Both the Federal Reserve and CFPB have advisory boards in which credit unions are members.

Whether these forums are more than a public relations event is difficult to determine. Therefore, I thought listening to an actual proceeding of the FDIC’s Advisory Committee could be useful.

A Four-Hour Advisory Board Experience

On July 28, the FDIC held its semiannual meeting of its 18-person Advisory Committee on Community Banking. Established in 2009, the representatives are CEOs from stock, mutual and private community banking firms. Due to the Covid situation, the meeting was held virtually with video so anyone could watch. Normally the dialogue would be private.

The meeting began with the CEOs’ descriptions of the state of their institutions and local economies. Reports were from smaller communities in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Kentucky and Iowa, to name a few. These five-minute updates were impressive. These senior executives talked about internal responses to Covid shutdowns, the distribution of PPP loans, buildups of cash savings, requests for loan deferrals and other shared experiences in the current environment.

The CEOs were articulate and prepared. Their firms ranged in size from $100 million to just over $1 billion in assets. Three specifically mentioned credit union competition. The North Dakota CEO gave the example of a credit union making a $1 million commercial real estate loan for a property in foreclosure at a rate of 1%. “We can’t compete with that.”

Many spoke of margin compression from the declines in market rates. This revenue loss being partially offset by loan origination fees, especially mortgages, and gains on investment sales.

Each gave updates on their local economies: the loss of revenue from tourism, the prospects for good crop harvests, the decline from local unemployment peaks and one example of refinancing a loan to their local municipality thus saving the city over $500,000 in interest.

Several offered recent exam experiences, one with the new “remote” process. Comments on FDIC policy were suggested. For example, a request the agency keep a moratorium on new ILC banking charters for firms like Walmart.

All in all, these brief financial, economic and management summaries were thoughtful, detailed and eloquent testimonials about community bankers’ multiple roles in the current climate.

Then Two Hours of Agency Updates

The rest of the four-hour meeting was centered around FDIC briefings including:

  • An economic outlook with a focus on commercial real estate and agricultural sectors;
  • A report from a subcommittee on Minority Depository Policy;
  • Updates on deferral accounting changes mandated under the CARES act, the lowering of the bank leverage ratio requirement from 9% to 8%, loan appraisal deferrals and related call report revisions;
  • A CECL update by a FASB board member;
  • FDIC’s diversity and inclusion program information;
  • Changes in how the FDIC insurance fee would exempt CARES Act loans;
  • A description of the Rapid Prototyping Project. The goal is to make the current call report process obsolete by using the latest technology. There were 30 companies invited to provide concept papers, followed by a 90-day period to develop a demo, and another 90 days to prototype the new model.

Was the Advisory Board Example Instructive?

The most informative or “real” part of the day for me were the bankers’ conversations. The FDIC presentations were dry, general policy updates with little interaction. They elaborated on decisions already in place. They were staff briefings. There was little give and take. The two hours of staff slides were a useful reminder of how regulatory “burdens” do not lessen even in a pandemic.

My assessment was that the bankers were more in touch with the realities in their communities than what the FDIC presented. Each FDIC update, even the pandemic “accommodations,” ended with the same caveat: “subject to proper risk management.” Even though the CEOs had spent several hours demonstrating their management competencies, the FDIC’s focus was on more rules or reinterpretations of existing ones.

The proceedings were polite. Both sides  appreciated the event. But the impression I was left with was while the FDIC might hear, they do not listen. This was not a democratic or collaborative process.

I don’t believe this is a model for credit unions. For the NCUA has a different structure, oversees a unique financial design, and manages cooperative resources meant to benefit the industry.  To be a meaningful process, it would have to be collaborative in both design and outcomes.

However even if an advisory board were  just for show, a live virtual open meeting could still be an eye opener for viewers.




Effective and Ineffective NCUA Leadership in Crises: Case Studies for the Current Pandemic Challenges

What works – and what doesn’t – is the subject of virtually any study of organizations, whether political, business or nonprofit. The topic of governmental leadership is even more critical in a crisis. Survival of an organization or even a movement could be at stake.

Many sectors of American society face existential challenges now. Can credit unions navigate these events with their mission and system intact?

Two Case Studies of Crisis Response

The word “change” traditionally signifies something new. But the ultimate irony is that transformation, what today’s protesters might call “real change,” most often occurs not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart.

In addressing current economic, pandemic and financial uncertainties, understanding how credit union regulators reacted in two previous economic downturns is enlightening.

The first economic disruption, 1981-1985, accelerated the deregulation of financial services. This change occurred in the midst of double-digit inflation and unemployment. Interest rates reached the mid-teens, their highest level since establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Voters chose new national political leadership.

The second event was the Great Recession in 2008-2009. This was characterized by a bubble in home prices exacerbated by investment products (CMOs) leveraging unsustainable spikes in property values. Again Presidential political leadership changed.

Two Different Outcomes

In the first case, credit unions came out winners. In the decade 1979-1989 the industry achieved compounded annual growth in shares of 12.9%; in capital, 10.9%; and steady member expansion, 3.9%.

For the decade ending 2019, the annual compounded growth was much lower: shares, 5.3%; capital, 6.8%; and membership, 2.8%.

Why this difference in outcomes following these two economic downturns? What can they teach us about responding to current events?

Case I. Regulatory Leadership and Deregulation (1981-1985)

Ed Callahan became Chair of NCUA after a career as an educator and an administrator in the Illinois state government. From 1977-1981 he was Director of the Department of Financial Institutions. The Credit Union division supervised the largest number of credit union charters in any state.

Working cooperatively with Illinois’ 1,000 credit unions, the industry navigated the regulatory and economic changes characterized as “deregulation.” Callahan understood the old system of legacy guidelines and rules wasn’t working. The regulator had to let go of traditional thinking to give boards and managers the responsibility for their own business decisions.

When Callahan left the state for NCUA, the Illinois Credit Union League presented him with a framed slogan characterizing his tenure which read: We Don’t Run Credit Unions.

Chairman Callahan took the words and philosophy to NCUA in October 1981. The traditional regulatory system wasn’t working there either. “Survival” during these unprecedented economic events was the most pressing concern for the entire industry.

Deregulation–putting responsibility for business decisions in the hands of boards and managers, those closest to the member–meant doing away with the old rule-making concepts. In one short paragraph, the agency in April 1982 eliminated all prior rules and practices controlling the rates and terms on all share accounts. The agency reinterpreted the common bond to be more flexible and inclusive, participated in and endorsed a capital adequacy study by CUNA, and eliminated dozens other regulations accumulated over the years.

Two Institutional Makeovers

In his prior educational and state leadership roles, Chairman Callahan was regarded as an outstanding administrator. He enjoyed managing people and institutions even in bureaucracies enveloped by politics and patronage. He transformed organizations to be more effective and efficient.

At NCUA this management emphasis resulted in two major priorities.

The first was a multifaceted effort at transparency and continuous dialogue with credit unions. So that credit unions could see the agency at work, board meetings were taken on the road to cities in each of NCUA’s six regions. The NCUA Video Network was created to send credit unions video updates on major issues or policy changes.

Open press conferences were held after each Board meeting. Senior agency personnel spoke at credit union conferences across the country. The agency’s publications were issued with full details of key events for the three areas of NCUA’s responsibilities: the CLF, NCUSIF, and FCU chartering and supervision.

The pinnacle of this cooperative industry engagement was the December 1984 credit union conference in Las Vegas organized by the Agency. Over 3,000 attendees including state and federal regulators and examiners, and credit unions from all over the country joined to hear and attend breakouts on multiple topics of industry importance.

Callahan knew that for NCUA to succeed with deregulation, credit unions must step up and assume responsibility for their future.

Reforming the Agency

Callahan’s second priority was to upgrade all aspects of the agency’s internal administration and restructure critical functions. Ed practiced careful stewardship of credit union resources which fund all the agency’s activities.

The agency instituted an annual exam cycle of all FCUs. Operational responsibility for exams and supervision was put in the hands of the regional directors; and headquarters staff were transferred to support field operations. External audits by CPA firms were started for all three agency funds to ensure accurate reporting. Call reports were collected from all credit unions and the information formatted into peer analysis for each credit union. The agency’s internal operations were automated. Operating expenses were reduced annually, and the operating fee scheduled for FCUs was lowered four consecutive years.

Two of the agency’s most important functions were reconfigured to make them more responsive in the deregulated era. Through a partnership with the corporate network, the CLF was organized so that all credit unions would be members. The NCUSIF was capitalized emulating the member owner cooperative model. Every credit union now sent 1% of member share accounts as a capital deposit in the fund.

By eliminating the regulator’s traditional “controlling” mindset, credit unions were free to make their own decisions of how best to serve their members. The change initiated a growth boom for the cooperative system.

As the first financial sector to fully deregulate deposit rates, credit unions had a head start in the art of setting rates based on market pricing. The result was a five-year compounded annual share growth of over 15% from 1982 through 1987. Banks and S&Ls were not given this full freedom until 1987.

This period of transformative change through effective public leadership rested on two pillars: the efficient management of agency resources and continuous, open communication to enlist credit union support.

Case II. Responding to the 2008-2009 Great Recession

NCUA responded exactly opposite in the next economic crisis, the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Because of uncertainty about the ultimate value of investments by corporates, the entire corporate network was required to sign a single letter of understanding and agreement with NCUA, effectively putting them under government control.

The agency conserved the two largest corporates in April 2009 and appointed their chosen managers reporting only to NCUA staff. This approach resulted in the liquidation of five corporates in September 2010.

Multiple extra premiums for the NCUSIF and the newly created TCCUSF were assessed to pay for liquidations and ever-increasing agency budgets.

Staff and agency expenditures grew without limit, justified by the economic emergency. A new CPA firm was brought in for the NCUSIF to modify the accounting standard to avoid private sector disclosures mandated by GAAP.

The agency’s supervisory actions were unilateral. Workout plans were developed behind closed doors for the $100 billion in the five liquidated corporates. Credit union expertise and interests were shunted aside. New corporate rules were imposed that neutered the network’s critical roles in aggregation, payments and liquidity.

The CLF was eviscerated. A new liquidity rule was passed to substitute for the prior system-wide CLF safety net. A 400-page risk-based capital rule was imposed in 2016 over the widespread objections of the industry.

Instead of transformation, the agency forced its determinations on the industry. Individual credit unions were required to implement examiner dictates or merge. The agency believed money, not management, solved problems. Even after the crisis was long over, the agency doubled down on its regulatory fiats.

In the great recession, the agency ignored the critical lesson from the 1981-85 crisis: members’ relationship with their credit unions are the foundation of sustainable success, not government diktats. NCUA imposed its judgmental certitudes even when faced with contrary facts and better options. Resolving problems through patient workouts was not acceptable. Instead of the CLF and NCUSIF partnerships helping credit unions, the industry learned that credit unions were on their own when it came to addressing problems.

Two Crises, Two Contrasting Outcomes

At the core of Callahan’s philosophy, “We Don’t Run Credit Unions,” was a deeply held belief about human nature. Freedom is a powerful motivator. It enables innovation and sacrifice. It affirms purpose for those with leadership responsibilities. The results are much more positive than when government dictates solutions. The data prove it.

Public leadership is more than good management. Political regulatory appointments involve a relationship between persons in authority and those they supervise. Effectiveness means both are positively transformed by their interactions. Productive democratic governance requires reaching consensus among groups with different perspectives and interests.

The best example of how this process works is an excerpt from NCUA’s first Video Network presentation on deregulation. The 24-minute discussion features Ed Callahan in conversation with a panel of credit union industry representatives.

Jim Barr, CUNA, to Chairman Callahan: How much input will the credit union response actually have to your [deregulation] proposal?

Callahan: It will have everything to do with what we ultimately do on this subject. While I am philosophically opposed to government making these business decisions, should the majority of credit unions say they want things to stay the way they are, I’ll support them and I’ll back them. In fact, I will read every single letter credit union people send to me addressing this subject. (Source: The NCUA Review, February 1982, pg 6)

I believe the results of these two regulatory approaches offer a startling contrast. One positioned credit unions to prosper for the next 25 years. The second severely hurt the industry’s capabilities.

In this crisis the future of a distinct cooperative financial system may be at stake, depending on how NCUA decides to interact with the industry.

McWatters’ Legacy: Comments as Chair at the February 2017 GAC Conference

“The agency should diligently work to preserve small credit unions, as well as minority and women-operated credit unions. In addition, the agency should require all merger solicitation documents to provide, without limitation, a discussion of any change-in-control payments and other management compensation awards and agreements, and that such disclosures are written in plain language and delivered to voting members in a reasonable time prior to the scheduled merger vote.”