What Do Municipal Credit Union and the U.S Postal Service Have in Common? 

The following is an excerpt from Today’s Edition, a newsletter of current events:

While we should be concerned about the health of the Post Office, I do not believe that widespread alarm or panic is justified. Let me explain…

So, let’s start with a clear-eyed look at the challenges facing the Post Office. The Post Office is in trouble. It has been in trouble continuously since 2006. Why? In 2006, Congressional Republicans imposed a special rule on the Post Office. It requires the Post Office to account for its retirement obligations in a way that no other federal agency is required to do. As explained by the Institute for Policy Studies,

In 2006, Congress passed a law that imposed extraordinary costs on the U.S. Postal Service [that] required the USPS to create a $72 billion fund to pay for the cost of its post-retirement health care costs, 75 years into the future. This burden applies to no other federal agency or private corporation.

Nor does it apply to private corporations.

Since 2006, the Post Office has been on life support, beholden to Congress and the Executive for its continued sustainability because of a made-up accounting rule . . .

Government authority creating numbers to flim-flam decisions is not restricted to Congress and the Post Office. NCUA has made a habit of the same practice for over a decade.

The Situation at Municipal Credit Union, New York City

I have written about NCUA’s May 2019 conservatorship of Municipal Credit Union in three blogs. One described the reported $123 million loss for the June 2019 quarter. Another analyzed the equally unprecedented and outsized net income of $30 million achieved in the final three months of that year.

NCUA has provided no information about the conservatorship affecting almost 600,000 members in this $3.6 billion credit union. The only data comes from the quarterly call reports.

These highly unusual financial  results in conservatorship continue.

Extraordinary Return on Equity a Year Later

The June 30, 2020, call report shows a net income of almost $15 million as compared to the $123 million six-month loss in the prior year. This is certainly positive. More remarkable is the 54% gain in reserves from $104 million to $160 million in the year since June 2019. This is a return on equity of over 50%, an extraordinary outcome, perhaps unprecedented for a coop.

But these unusual financial results are not the results of operations. Rather, like the Post Office, NCUA imposed accounting “adjustments” for liabilities far into the future, in an attempt to justify its conservatorship. And NCUA avoids answering questions after examining the credit union for decades without requiring any such one-time “adjustments.”

Exaggerating problems to justify supervisory edicts does three things. It creates a public case for why regulators are needed, or as one NCUA chair explained: “to get honest numbers.” Secondly, this sudden discovery deflects questions about where the regulators were as the problems developed. Finally, it shifts the spotlight for responsibility by blaming (and sometimes suing) those in place, versus those examining.

Just prior to the conservatorship in March 2019, Municipal reported a well-capitalized net worth of almost 8%. NCUA had to justify taking over a solvent credit union in May and putting in its own management. So far, this action has resulted in 200 job losses, the closure of 7 branches and a reduction of over $150 million in loans outstanding. The allowance account has been funded to 223% of reported delinquencies, 50% higher than the industry average.

When Authority Goes Dark

Taking a credit union away from its members via conservatorship is the most serious action NCUA can take. Any credit union that reported going from a quarterly loss of $139 million to a quarterly net income of $30 million six months later would be highly suspect.

When government imposes pseudo-accounting write downs to seize control of an institution, both the organization and the government lose credibility.

NCUA has a record of dictating reserves which proved to be significantly in error and contrary to the judgment of experienced managers. This occurred in the five 2010 corporate liquidations, which the agency still defends, using exaggerated estimates of loss as recently as the June 2020 board meeting.

These staff statements continue  the practice of unfounded official projections.  For example during the NGN funding, NCUA published estimates of the  of the total estimated costs to credit unions that have proved to be more than $20 billion in error.

Municipal was not without problems. But the key question is, what did the examiners do or not do to assist the board in their oversight of this $3 billion firm? Also,, what is the plan now to restore the credit union to its member owners?  And, why has there been no explanation for the wild swings in financial results?

Lucidity in a Crisis

All crises involve uncertainty. Forecasts are no longer linear extrapolations from a settled environment. Responses must be flexible. Options are vital. Clear thinking is a must.

The issue of subjective estimates of future losses imposed by examiners is especially critical now. In past crises, examiners have dictated individual credit union’s allowance provisions,  reducing the credit union’s net worth and compromising its ability to serve members. And then, post recovery, the decisions have been found to be overly zealous.

Regulators are supposed to be where problems are. The track record in Municipal suggests their role has added to the difficulties of the credit union getting back on track. Unaccountable actions, no transparency and no one taking responsibility, is a debilitating, even dangerous, practice.

NCUA’s silence reinforces the impression that they cannot make a public case for their decisions with Municipal. There is no plan. And they hope no one notices the growing impression of regulators not up to the job.

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