Part II: An Uncertain Future for Credit Unions

One Entrepreneur’s Effort to Create a New Co-op Model

“Encouraging the formation of new banks is another top FDIC priority. A key feature of any competitive industry is the ability for new startups to enter the market. In the banking industry, de novo banks are a key source of capital, talent, ideas, and ways to serve customers. They bring innovation and new energy to the industry.”

– FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams on June 12, 2019 at the CATO Institute

In the second part of this series, I share a case study of the regulatory difficulty cooperative entrepreneurs confront when trying to obtain and sustain a credit union charter. This contrasts with the FDIC’s very public effort to encourage de novo banks as a “key source of talent, ideas and ways to serve customers.”

Internet Archive Credit Union (2011-2015), while not set up by students, is perhaps one of the greatest missed opportunities for the American cooperative movement. Its demise is told in this video and article from the Internet Archive blog: http://blog.archive.org/2015/12/14/internet-credit-union-2011-2015-rip/

Leo Sammallahti, marketing officer for Coop Exchange, sent me his summary of this landmark effort:

Started by one of the founding pioneers of the internet age, Brewster Kahle, it attracted tech talent alongside experienced people from the financial sector. They had innovative ideas on how they could use technology to transform banking, motivated by a genuine passion to help people, not to make profits for themselves.

They managed to charter the credit union in 2011, but the regulations crushed it in 2015. Just one example – their total loan portfolio was restricted to $37,000 when they had $1,000,000 in reserve for bad loans!

I have only read their account of the events, simply because there is no one making the case that the regulations that crushed them were reasonable. Maybe someone knows something I don’t, and it makes more sense. But I’m afraid that is not the case. And if so, who suffers? Ordinary consumers – the same persons the regulations seek to protect but who now have a diminishing amount of choices where to put their money. 

But here’s one interesting thing the founders mentioned that might give some hope. They said that technology makes it “easier”, not harder to start a credit union than ever before. Sometimes the reason why new credit unions are not considered is partly due to technology – the reasoning is that once you need sophisticated software instead of pen-and-paper to run a credit union, it gets more expensive to start one. But according to the founder of Internet Archive, the opposite is true. 

American credit unions know how to lobby – they have had to defend themselves from attacks from the banks, perhaps one of the most powerful industries in Washington. Could some of that political power make it easier to charter new credit unions? From the average American’s point of view, it would hardly be an issue anyone would be opposed to, regardless of their political leaning. Can the movement afford to miss opportunities like the Internet Archive Credit Union?

FDIC Chairwoman McWilliams’ closing commitment to new charters at CATO:

“Finally we launched a nationwide outreach initiative focusing on de novo bank formation, beginning with a roundtable discussion in DC in December. We have since hosted similar discussions in each of our six regional offices, which have been constructive and thoughtful.”

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