Open board meetings are the public’s opportunity to see members officially at work. Current practice is that all statements, questions, and staff answers are fully scripted in advance.
Even so these presentations demonstrate members’ grasp of issues, their knowledge of credit union operations and their view of cooperative’s role.
The one January topic with immediate effect was reviewing the 18% usury cap on all FCU loan rates-except for PALS short term advances.
The Missing ALM Context
Setting loan and savings rates is an everyday event for credit unions.
The most important aspect of loan pricing is its ALM context. The goal is to manage the net interest margin, the key factor in bottom line net income. That’s how credit unions “make their living.”
That fundamental ALM context was never introduced by either staff or board members.
As of September 30, the net interest margin for all credit unions was 2.79% up 20 basis points from the year earlier. The average cost of funds to assets was 42 basis points. As an approximation, a loan priced at 18% would have a spread of 17% over the average cost of funds. Subtracting an average operating expense of 3%, would leave a net margin of 14%.
Loans are the fastest growing component of the credit unions’ collective balance sheet. The year over year increase was 19% as of September 2022–the highest rate in decades.
There is scant evidence that the 18% is limiting credit union lending options or earnings.
The Board’s Discussion
Chairman Harper reported all three members had different positions on the ceiling. He supported the 18%. The agency had obtained a letter from Treasury which concluded: As a result, we believe that presently there are not compelling reasons to change the current 18 percent loan rate ceiling for federal credit unions.
This was the first time Treasury had ever commented on the topic. Even more concerning was their offer to an “independent” agency: Treasury is available to consult on any future consideration of the interest rate ceiling.
Harper said he was willing to review the topic again in April along with the possibility of a floating rate cap.
The other two board members made no reference to the ALM context or operating margins. Their intent seemed to find a way to give credit unions more leeway.
Both advanced an interesting economic theory: charging more for loans will actually increase demand. To better serve members who pay high loan rates elsewhere, credit unions must charge higher rates themselves. The cure for high member loan rates, is higher rates!
This view certainly supports the market’s practice that those who have the least or know the least, pay the most for financial services.
In the words of Vice Chair Hauptman: Low-income and CDFI credit unions depend upon the ‘head room,’ the ceiling provides above the statutory rate of 15 percent. . . to serve their neediest members.
He then showed a bizarre slide of a personal example of the late fee assessed by a governmental authority when a required payment was not made on time. His apparent point was governmental authorities charge different late penalties which he equated to usury ceilings on loans. He asked for further research and review of the issue in April.
Hood acknowledged: when you talk about the interest rate ceiling, we really need to think about how this impacts members. He gave several anecdotes such as:
One credit union told me that their concern is that if the NCUA maintains the interest ceiling at 18 percent, as rates continue to rise, they would have to deny potential credit card applications unless the credit union member had an excellent credit score.
NCUA staff seemed to embrace this view that higher rates are the only antidote for higher risk.
The reversion to a 15 percent interest rate ceiling would constrain an FCU’s ability to apply risk-based pricing to higher risk credits and reduce net interest margins in the current rising rate environment. In particular, a reduction in the interest rate ceiling would adversely affect a relatively large number of low-income designated FCUs (LIFCUs) and their members’ access to credit.
Much Ado About Nothing
Since 1987 the board has reviewed and approved the 18% cap twenty-four consecutive times. All three board members voted for the 18% ceiling extension to September 2024.
This meeting displayed each board member’s understanding and approach to this hither to fore routine event. I can’t wait to see the sequel in April’s meeting.