Last Friday’s blog described the multiple losses should the merger of Vermont State Employees (VSECU) with New England FCU proceed on January 1, 2023.
The members lose their credit union; 190 employees their career paths and individual agency; local communities– their partnerships; the state of Vermont– its leading cooperative financial institution; and the overall credit union system, another pubic example of purpose compromised by leaders’ self-interest.
The tragedy of the commons occurs when persons in positions of responsibility exploit the common resources of the community which they oversee for personal gain.
Should credit union leaders continually seek to acquire and merge sound, long serving credit unions, like VSECU, to fulfill their individual ambitions, I believe this will lead to the demise of the cooperative credit union movement.
VSECU’s example and innovative track record were so successful, that it was the subject of a 15- page analysis by Callahan’s September 2021 Quarterly Report. Several of these accomplishments were republished in five articles in January 2022 on cu.com, for example this description responding to the COVID crisis.
At September 30, 2022 the credit union reported $1.1 billion in assets; 71,625 members and 9 branches; $6.5 million in YTD net income and $102 million in equity. Average salary and benefits per employee exceeded $100,000.
Against this documented track record of long-term innovative performance, VSECU’s merger information offered nothing about the future. The credit union was already more than full service; it had pioneered special initiatives pursing a “greener” environment.
The continuing credit union’s leaders at NEFCU made no commitments to VSECU’s 71,000 credit union members’ who hold $922 million loans and $980 million savings. These members will be under the full sway of a board they did not elect and management that has no connection with their firm.
So undefined is this transaction that both CEO’s admitted in this twitter post, the consolidation would take over a full year to conclude and will require a completely new brand identity and name.
The back office conversions, product/service alignments and leadership selections will be the top priority at a time when members of both credit unions face economic uncertainty and anxiety from decades-high inflation.
In the Calling All Members website, the opponents point out that the two credit unions have very different fields of membership, histories, and market focus:
The continuing federal credit union’s Field of Membership will not be based on geography or residency. It will be numerous employer groups and organizations located in Vt, MA, ME, RI, CT, MI and even groups headquarters in San Diego and San Francisco. . . our statewide cooperative built by Vermonters for Vermonters will be gone—forever.
Why Should Credit Unions Care?
Two typical industry reactions to this latest example of a successful credit union being acquired by another include: “Not my problem” and “Didn’t the members approve?”
I believe this pattern of sellouts and acquisitions by cooperative leaders will ultimately lead to the end of a cooperative financial system in America. Here’s why.
The foundation of every credit union is member relationships. Almost all credit unions were started with no capital. They earned the loyalty of members by promising to be a different kind of financial firm.
Member-owners were invited to put their trust in their leaders and board. The affirmation of this process is the democratic one-member, one-vote design.
This merger now places VSECU’s relationships under the direction of strangers.
The action is based on the illusion that size is all that matters. Credit unions have never competed on size. It is a unique coop fantasy that coops can marry two mice and produce an elephant.
When size is the dominate goal, it becomes a trap of endless growth not creation of member value.
VSECU’s members have continually contributed more than sufficient resources to continue a long-term vision of hope empowered by local control and focus. The credit union has become a financial “sanctuary” established by members’ belief and trust.
Now their leaders (senior management and board) have abandoned them for the “Golden Calf” of “instant mass,” not substance. There has been no planning or discernment with those that built the institution and who own it.
The process of voting is nothing but an administrative fig leaf completely under the control and oversight of those temporarily in power and who have a vested conflict of interest. Only 21% of members voted. Of the total membership. just 316 votes (.4%) is the difference between those supporting and those opposing. This was certainly no vote of confidence in charter cancellation.
It would seem fool hardy to decide the fate of a 75-year old, high performing coop with such a micro thin margin of owner approval. It also raises the question of how the voting was managed by those who advocated only their side of the issue.
Regulators continue turning a blind eye and washing their hands of responsibility.
Mergers are the wild west of today’s financial markets. Second only to Crypto transactions, until that industry’s implosion is over.
Coop CEOs/boards are literally buying and selling millions of member relationships to firms with no connections, increasingly out of state, and who are unconstrained with what they can do with them. These kinds of hollow transactions and disclosures would normally attract the intense scrutiny of an SEC or FTC regulator if these were stock owned institutions.
Coop regulators would rather talk about inflation, consumer protection, fintech, DEI or other current topics rather than the elephant in their room.
Contrary to their assertion that this is just the free market at work, these are back-room deals, negotiated in private, devoid of transparency and without any public attempt to find the “best” deal for members.
Regulators avert their gaze pretending to be deaf, dumb and mute as they oversee the disintegration of the coop system.
VSECU’s leaders betrayed the trust members gave them. Credit unions embody the spirit of community. This action dissolves this special bond built by three generations of members.
The merger destroys the fundamental foundation of a cooperative leaving a financial eunuch in its place. It has no cooperative character or roots. Unlike a stock transaction, it lacks the credibility of a market affirming price. In these transactions, coops have devolved into purely private entities, controlled by individuals acting to consolidate and accrete their own power.
These are not people helping people; rather these mergers demonstrate CEO’s helping themselves.
One can understand why NEFCU’s CEO wants control of 71,000 member accounts with average combined member loan and savings balances of over $43,000. And to be given over $100 million of their collective savings while eliminating this vigorous, innovative competitor. No more “free” market choice for either firm’s members, or the general public.
This kind of transaction has no economic rationale or “market” driven basis. There is not a firm anywhere in America, coop or otherwise, who would not line up to accept such a generous “gift.”
VSECU’s leadership had embraced the Global Alliance for Banking Values (GABV) vision of “Finance at the service of people and the planet for the real economy.”
Their collective decision to transfer their fiduciary responsibilities to another firm show that corporate and personal values need not align. It certainly refutes the biblical adage that a person cannot serve God and mammon at the same time.
The Members Will Respond
Self-interest may appear to succeed in the short term, but in the long term, it fails as a strategy. When the vision of the cooperative is “all I want is everything” personal ambition will fail for what only a community can sustain.
People are not stupid nor uninformed about these sham transactions. Most members follow their personal financial situation as a top priority. It is a heightened concern especially in a time of rising rates. When member generosity and loyalty is compromised by self-interested mergers, their support will fade away.
These transactions will end the unique public role for credit unions. Acting like banks, they will be treated like their for-profit competitors.
Regulators who have approved these pillages of common wealth for private gain will find themselves thrown in with all other financial overseers. The playing field will indeed be level.
There will be no credit unions on it. No tax exemption. Just wealth seeking institutions led by similarly motivated individuals.
Trafficking Relationships & Destroying Good Will
The practice of buying and selling relationships is not new. It is part of the capitalist markets drive for greater and greater market share.
It is why the states and Congress authorized the tax exempt cooperatives as an option to prevent this exploitation.
A coop system reliant on values as a differentiator cannot long continue with coops and market capitalist wannabes side by side. For the latter will continue to prey on the former until everyone joins in the rush to get their share of cooperative gold.
Nothing will stop this pattern of private theft until persons of courage and confidence step up to call out this rapacious behavior. If this fails to occur, then as predicted on the Calling All Members site the national system of cooperatives, just like VSECU, will be gone-“forever.”
4 Replies to “The Tragedy of the Commons: The End of a Movement?”
This is the most persuasive and eloquent discussion I’ve seen of the regrettable doings in Vermont. I really do think that after VSECU is consigned to oblivion, CUs can and should drop the pretense of being cooperatives and should admit that they’re just tax-exempt banks that exist to please regulators and employ their managers. I yearn to be convinced otherwise.
Thank you Chip for writing this. I don’t know if you heard they put me in the America’s CU Museum. An honor indeed. I had never been to our birthplace and it is truly amazing. To walk through those rooms and immerse yourself in our history – we all need to do it. After the ceremony was over and I was back in my hotel room it struck me and I actually started to cry. As you so eloquently wrote, the national system of financial cooperatives will be gone forever. All that WILL be left is the museum if we stay on this current path…….and why aren’t more people outraged?
I also thank you Chip for this article which I found this AM when specifically looking for any commentaries on this “approved merger”. I am not sure whatever options are now available for us who have been narrowly disenfranchised other than excellent commentaries like yours and to depart VSECU while it is still VSECU. Hopefully there will be more and gaining much attention. Thankfully there are still other smaller credit unions around.
I did not agree with the move. I have been a member sense 1966. I did not have a problem the way the VSECU was being managed. I did not see the reason for the merger, as something that was very positive. Hopefully going forward will be positive for the past members of VSECU. Is there any thought to giving longer living member (56)years) some type of thank you. What is this going to cost VSECU member to change over