Should Credit Unions Buy Banks?

Two major credit union purchase and assumptions of commercial banks have been announced recently.   The $7.5 billion GreenState Credit Union in North Liberty, IA is buying two banks outside Its home state with total assets of $1.1 billion.

In April the $10 billion Vystar Credit Union in Jacksonville, Fla., agreed to buy the $1.5 billion Heritage Southeast Bank of Jonesboro, Ga., for $189 million, becoming the credit union industry’s largest bank acquisition.

Excess Cash on Hand?

With the average annual asset growth over 20% for the largest credit unions, the explanation that buying size to get to the future faster  would seem questionable.  Organic growth has taken off.

Is it possible that all the excess cash on hand is burning holes in credit union pockets?   If that is a factor than it is well to remember the age-old wisdom about money and value: asset values of banks tend to benefit from excess liquidity and suffer from a dearth of it, like most other asset classes.

Three Ways of Approaching the Issue

In upcoming blogs I will look at several examples, some pending and others completed, around three topics.

  1. Is the purchase of whole banks consistent with the public policy role of credit unions, a role that  justifies their exemption from income tax?  In the political arena, local and nationally, do these transactions help or harm credit union’s reputation?
  2. How do purchases benefit existing member owners? Are the disclosures and information credit union CEOs provide about these transactions adequate for existing members whose loyalty created the capacity to do these cash purchases?
  3. Looking at several examples, albeit with incomplete details, do these investments appear to be financially sound, especially in instances where the announced price is substantially above recent market value?

No Easy Answers and No System Dialogue

At each level of analysis there will be differing viewpoints.  NCUA has taken a hands-off approach signaling that these are merely “market-based transactions.”   I believe this is a misuse of the term.  At one point Chairman Harper, as a board member, indicated concern that “former consumers of the acquired banks will not have the same level of consumer financial protection oversight in their new credit union.”

Because an activity is legal does not mean it is wise.  Either as policy or in a specific instance.

Another difficulty is assessing the financial impact of these larger events on the purchasing credit union.  It may not be possible for years to know the benefits or costs on the acquiring credit union or the communities and customers  whose accounts were transferred.  For example what is the retention rate of depositors?  It is one thing to acquire assets, it is another skillset to manage them effectively.

As a general maxim, the purchase or merger of commercial entities tends to reduce shareholder value.  Before its recent disposal of its media assets, AT&T (T) spun off its DirecTV and other pay-tv services into a separate company, with private-equity firm TPG Capital as a 30% owner of the new entity. The deal valued the pay-tv services at a combined $16.25 billion, compared to the $66 billion that AT&T paid for DirecTV alone in 2015. (CNBC)

My goal in following articles will be to ask questions and to confront the seemingly nonchalant acceptance of this activity within the credit union community.   Through dialogue I hope credit unions can become more aware of what is at stake and what future actions might be, if different from the vacuum that now surrounds these activities.

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