“The Public Purpose” of the Credit Union Cooperative System

In every new administration and most assuredly  following economic or other national crisis (Covid, natural disasters), the need to review governmental and agency responsiveness is raised.  Are changes needed?

Whether prompted by political priorities or  performance shortcomings, this is how existing policies are reassessed.

Another motivator is when market competition carries over to the political arena . Firms call out their rival’s more favorable regulatory  or tax status in their lobbying messaging.

In last week’s posts listed below, I noted the current absence of a policy framework at NCUA for the cooperative system.  I believe this leaves the system vulnerable to priorities set by others or to purely personal agendas.

The Reviews Begin

Last week the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced a review of the FHLB system.  FHFA, created in 2008, is the successor to the five person FHLB board.  This single administrator oversees the eleven FHLB’s and the conserved Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The assessment of the 90-year old FHLB’s $ 1 trillion assets is to determine if  its modern day activities fully match its original mission of supporting mortgage lending.

FHFA Director Thompson’s purpose is to ensure the banks “remain positioned to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.”  One outside observer noted: “The home-loan banks lack a well-articulated contemporary purpose.”

Similar to credit unions, the FHLB cooperatives are exempt from corporate federal, state, and local taxation, except for local real estate tax.  For individuals, all FHLB bonds are also exempt from state and local taxes.

Credit Union’s Tax Exemption On the Agenda

A month earlier on July 27, columnist David Bauman wrote how the GAO was urging the OMB to study tax expenditures,  a budget category that includes the credit union tax exemption.  Are numerous tax exempt organizations still fulfilling their mission?

Bauman points out  the Treasury Department estimated the credit union tax immunity will cost the federal government $25.3 billion between 2022 and 2031.  This issue he wrote is “part of an ongoing battle between the banking and credit union industries.”

Scrutiny Not a New Process

From 1981 through 1985, the credit union system was part of four national studies directed by the Regan administration.  These were in  response to record high inflation, unprecedented interest rates,  disintermediation, financial innovation and growing concerns with institutional solvency.  For example, the Penn Square Bank’s 1982 failure was the largest FDIC liquidation post WW II.

In addition to the normal inter-agency or industry councils such as the FFIEC, NASCUS and multiple studies such as CUNA’s CapitalizationCommission, NCUA’s Chair was directly assigned to these four government-wide  assessments.

  1. The Depository Institutions Deregulation Committee (DIDC) was a six-member committee established in 1980 by Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act passed on March 31, 1980. DIDC’s primary purpose was phasing out interest rate ceilings on deposit accounts by 1986.

NCUA Chairman Callahan was one of five federal depository regulators. Chaired by Treasury Secretary Regan, all banks and S&L’s were given until June 1987 to end all federal controls on deposits.

NCUA chose not to follow the banking group’s timetable, eliminating all regulations in one new rule in May 1982. The decision effectively gave credit unions a five-year head start in the new market-facing era for financial intermediaries.

  1. The Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, known as the “Deposit Insurance Flexibility Act” mandated that the three regulatory agencies study their insurance funds and make any recommendations for future changes.

On April 15, 1983, NCUA forwarded its 71-page, five-chapter study containing four policy recommendations.  This study became the foundation for the NCUSIF’s financial redesign approved by Congress in The Deficit Reduction Act  signed by the President  on July 18, 1984,

In Chairman Callahan’s forwarding letter to the study he noted:  “For credit unions there are very clear answers to the issues raised by Congress.  This is because credit unions . . .have actual experience with the options and alternatives suggested. . .Our responses are based on historical facts and current operational realities rather than academic theories or untried options. The credit union experience with insurance has been substantially different from the other agencies and our recommendations accordingly reflect this unique heritage.”

  1. The Private Sector Survey on Cost Control(PSSCC), commonly referred to as The Grace Commission, was an investigation requested by President Ronald Reagan, authorized in Executive Order 12369 on June 30, 1982.

The focus was waste and inefficiency in the US Federal government. Its head, businessman J. Peter Grace, asked the members of that commission to “Be bold and work like tireless bloodhounds, don’t leave any stone unturned in your search to root out inefficiency.”

The Grace Commission Report was presented to Congress in January 1984.  The Report included this observation:   “NCUA Chairman Callahan is a role model for government agency executives.  In one year NCUA reduced Agency staff 15% and its budget, 2.5%, while maintaining their commitment to preserving the safety and soundness of the credit union industry.” (NCUA 1983 Annual Report, page 3).

  1. The Vice President’s Task Group on the Regulation of Financial Services was formed in late 1982. Treasury Secretary Regan, the five financial regulators, the Attorney General, Directors of OMB, chairs of the SEC and FTC and state regulators raised the total principals to thirteen. The Group was given one-year to make recommendations to address the challenges of the emerging financial markets after deregulation and the potential repeal the Glass Steagall Act.

A final report was issued in November 1984. The Group’s recommendations were summarized by John Shad, Chairman of the SEC, in a later speech. He closed saying:

The lines of demarcation between the financial service industries have eroded. These activities should be regulated, and permitted to compete, according to their functions, rather than outmoded industry classifications.  

NCUA and the independent cooperative system were not mentioned in the Group’s regulatory recommendations.

NCUA and credit unions thrived in this transformative period of rapid financial change and increased scrutiny by completing the institutional, regulatory and policy foundations for a separate, unique and sound cooperative system.

Why a Cooperative Policy Framework is Essential

Without a clearly stated understanding of credit union’s role, every government study above could have drawn credit unions into their macro policy recommendations.

Instead NCUA demonstrated its ability to develop, document  and implement  how the deregulated cooperative system was successfully meeting its public purpose role serving members.

The cooperative system’s soundness was based of the values of self-help, self funding, and democratic volunteer leadership.  The “moral hazard” concern from FDIC/FSLIC insurance of private financial ownership  was absent in  cooperative’s creation of “common wealth.”

Today the ability to articulate this purpose is missing.  Regulations, especially the recently imposed RBC/CCULR were defended as being virtually identical to bank capital requirements.  New charters are rarely issued raising the question of credit union relevance today.  Whole bank purchases are routinely approved by NCUA even though  this use of member savings would seem contrary to why a cooperative system was created.

Absent an awareness of cooperative history and precedents, policy pronouncements or priorities of board members may just seem  like comfortable generalities.

In Harper’ July 2022 investiture address, he reflected on his year and half tenure as Chairman:

In achieving each of these things (regulatory activities), we have followed a philosophy that should guide all financial services regulators. Specifically, we were fair and forward looking; innovative, inclusive, and independent; risk focused and ready to act when needed; and engaged appropriately with stakeholders to develop effective regulation and efficient supervision. This philosophy will continue to drive our actions in the years ahead.

Is this the regulatory understanding that credit union cooperatives are seeking?

Sooner or later credit union’s special identity will be challenged by some governmental or political process.

The cooperative system navigated the multiple reviews from 1981-1985  because NCUA and credit unions earned a reputation for trust, expertise, mutual respect, shared purpose and performance.  This achievement was recognized by the industry and throughout the executive and legislative branches of both state and federal government.

NCUA Chairman Callahan in the Agency’s 1984 Annual Report observed:  The only threat to credit unions is the bureaucratic tendency to treat them, for convenience sake, the same as banks and savings and loans.  This is a mistake, for they are made of a different fabric.  It  is a fabric  woven tightly by thousands of volunteers, sponsoring companies, credit union organizations and NCUA-all working together. (page 3) 

Should  the movement aspire for anything less in this time?



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