Largest Ever Credit Union Board Election Closes October 3

The 2.6 million members of the State Employees Credit Union, North Carolina are voting among six candidates to fill three board vacancies.
This is the highest number of potential voters for an election ever conducted in a credit union.
Online voting ends October 3rd.  In person voting can take place at the October 10th Annual Meeting where the election outcome will be announced.
While this event is vital to SECU’s future, it could also impact every credit union in America.   The public perception  of cooperative member-owner governance could be transformed by this example.  Here’s why:
The second largest credit union has implemented a process that provides every member a chance to vote.  There is no excuse for any credit union not holding a franchise for director elections in the future in which all members can participate, not just those few able to show up at the annual meeting.
The current practice of election of directors by “acclamation” at the required annual meeting with few members in attendance, should become the exception, not the rule.
What does democratic oversight mean if members are never able to vote?
The member are engaged in their ownership role,  a unique but rarely practiced aspect of cooperative design.  They are transformed into more than customers. See letter which follows.
The directors are learning the importance of communication with members.   Leadership is more than closed monthly meetings, private decision making and a scripted annual meeting.
Directors are the owners’ representatives. They are not remote “trustees” hand picked by their predecessors based on personal relationships or supposed expertise.
Directors in turn must respect members’ ownership role  with transparency and continual dialogue.
The cooperative design is on public display.  The North Carolina press is following the story.  This election is a precedent for members everywhere who want to see more responsive leadership from their Boards.

A Member Explains His Vote

Here is how one member feels about this election in a letter to the local newspaper,  Oxford Ledger:

North Carolina’s most Impactful election this fall will surprise you.

The most crucial upcoming election in North Carolina isn’t for a governmental position but for a seat on the North Carolina State Employees Credit Union (SECU) Board. For over 85 years, SECU has provided affordable financial services to the state’s employees, teachers, and their families, applying consistent low interest rates on mortgages, loans, and credit cards for all members, regardless of their economic background.

Unfortunately, the current SECU Board, composed mainly of politically influential former state employees, has strayed from this equitable approach. They’ve begun charging higher interest rates to middle-class and lower-income members while offering lower rates to wealthier individuals.

This shift appears to prioritize the board’s interests over serving the hundreds of thousands of Highway Patrolmen, Correctional Officers, Department of Transportation workers, and Teachers that SECU was originally established to assist.

Moreover, the current board has reduced services, increased interest rates for most members, and neglected to raise rates for savings accounts.

They’ve also altered the election rules and bylaws to maintain their power and hinder potential opposition.

To rectify this situation, it’s crucial to vote for the three self-nominated candidates who advocate for restoring SECU to its historical mission. The board’s changes threaten to transform SECU into a conventional bank that favors the wealthy, undermining its original purpose.

Voting for these candidates is vital for safeguarding our Credit Union. Visit before October 3, 2023, to support this cause and ensure SECU serves its members as it was intended.

Camden Carver

Member/Owner of the North Carolina State Employee’s Credit Union

Former Employee

This event matters, so tune in on October 10 to learn the results.  Unfortunately at this point SECU ended the previous practice of a live virtual broadcast of the annual meeting-not a positive sign when a widespread concern of members was open communication and transparency.

Important New Data from NCUA’s Recent Board Meeting

In anticipation of the NCUSIF update at last week’s board meeting I described several topics of vital importance. These included the fund’s operating stability, the investment lag from market rates, the loss reserving level and the reliability of projections of future performance.

In answering Board member Hood’s questions, there was important new data from staff.

The Fund’s Normal Operating Level is Stable and Growing

As in any enterprise with a bottom line, NCUA’s outcome is to optimize the fund’s retained earnings. Adding the 1% required credit union deposits, these two factors sustain a stable Normal Operating level.  CFO Schied responded that the actual level of the NOL ratio at June 2023 would be 1.29% if the retained earnings and required 1% trueup were recorded in the same accounting period.

Staff’s NOL projection in May had been for a 1.25% at June. This 4 basis point projection materially understated the Fund’s trends and financial stability.

Moreover, we learned that using a six month old data point to calculate the 1% trueup, overstated the reported December 2022 actual ratio.  There had been a $5 billion decline in total savings in the last half of 2022.  That resulted in  $72 million net returns of the 1% deposits from June’s 2022 total. Using this six-month old 1% datapoint resulted in a higher NOL number than if all three ratio factors were from the same accounting period.

The Fund’s Loss Reserve Equals Four Times Its Recent Loss Rate

CFO Schied reported net cash losses in the fund since the taxi medallion write offs, were just .31 basis points of insured shares.   The current loss provision ($204 million) is 3.8 times this recent experience and equals 1.2% of insured savings.

The actual net cash loss for the first six months of 2023 is only $1 million. However,  over $20 million has been added to the provision expense.  When asked why this difference, Schied replied:  “The general reserve is derived using an internal econometric model that applies estimated probability of failure and loss rates.” 

No details of this model were provided to evaluate  assumptions and whether they were validated by actual experience. This is critical detail for users to have confidence in the financial estimates provided.

The loss provision expense comes directly from retained earnings.  The current level reduces the reported NOL level  by over 1 basis point of insured savings.

The NCUSIF’s Below Market Valuation

Current short-term rates under two years are yielding over 5%.   The NCUSIF’s portfolio has a YTD yield of 1.79%.  This was due to the Fund’s continual investing out to seven years when rates were near zero.  The result was a weighted average maturity for the portfolio of almost three years.  That is the time it will take to bring the portfolio back to par once rates normalize.

The market value of the portfolio went negative in December 2021 and was $1.5 billion below book at June, 2023.   This results in revenue far below current yields.   Investment revenue is the primary driver of retained earnings.  This is the most critical management responsibility in the NCUSIF’s financial performance.

When asked about the status of the investment committee’s  policy review begun early in 2022 Schied’s response: The investment policy has not been updated.  The investment committee has identified a few modest updates and clarification, and is still considering one item.  So again, at this point the policy that is on our website remains the current investment policy.

Is there a more important priority for the board than to understand the reasons for the recent underperformance?  And then to update the NCUSIF’s interest rate risk management policy/practice to avoid this outcome in the future?

The Accuracy of Staff Projections

The June forecast for the NCUSIF’s NOL was 1.25% provided to the  board in late May.  The actual outcome was 4 basis points higher at 1.29%.

The staff gave an updated NOL projection for this December of 1.27%.   Projecting the Fund’s actual numbers at June, this would be a gain of $70 million in net income, or lower than the first six month’s bottom line.  The 12-month growth in insured shares was forecast at 4.2%.   The real growth for the first half of the year was 1.8% from the previous June.  In 2022 last two quarters there was a net outflow of $5 billion.

There was no information to support these assumptions and the NOL of 1.27.   If  share growth is zero from June, and the same net income estimate, the retained earnings ratio would rise to .2948 at yearend. This would be an increase from the actual .2922 at December ‘22.

As with the econometric model used in the loss provision expense, this NOL forecast cannot be evaluated without the underlying assumptions being transparent.

The Board Meeting Process

The board members’ comments, their Q & A with staff and staff’s responses were all scripted.  Board members read their statements, there was no effort at dialogue, there was no learning from the supposedly differing points of view represented.

Only Hood engaged the staff on what the NCUSIF numbers mean.  Chair Harper followed his ever present “MO” of hyping future risks after acknowledging the fund’s sound condition.  Hauptman talked about how interest rates are set by buyers and sellers of money, but did not apply his observation to the current outlook for rates.  And how this might affect future decisions.

Hood’s questions brought out some very important aspects of the NCUSIF’s management.  New information from Schied included a positive  forecast of $12 million in further recoveries from US Central’s AME.

The Q&A highlighted the shortcoming of current accounting presentations and  investment practices.  These can mislead users of the financials statement.

The Fund’s below market investment performance will cause lower revenue for the fund and its credit union owners by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Moreover the investment position compromises the two primary goals stated for the investment committee’s performance.  These are liquidity (never borrowing to meet the fund’s obligations) and meeting all operating expenses, plus dividend.  These two outcomes should be a walk in the park in current conditions.

If the fund were earning 5% on its portfolio, total revenue would be over $1 billion, a result that would pay real dividends to credit unions for their underwriting commitment.

There is great potential for the cooperative structure of the NCUSIF to be a positive contributor to the credit union system.  It will be up to the board to ensure this outcome is indeed realized.

People Helping People-A Major Government Agency’s Program

“People Helping People”

No, this is not  NCUA’S  motto.  It is the IRS’s. And it relies on volunteers.

“The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program offers free tax help to low- to moderate-income (generally, $60,000 and below) people who cannot prepare their own tax returns. Certified volunteers sponsored by various organizations receive training to help prepare basic tax returns in communities across the country.

“VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls, and other convenient locations(such as credit unions). Most locations also offer free electronic filing.”

Free Tax Return Preparation for You by Volunteers

“If you are an individual interested in becoming a volunteer, but need to find an organization in your area to link up with, please submit your contact information using the VITA/TCE Volunteer and Partner Sign Up. Your information will be forwarded to the appropriate local IRS office.

VITA Volunteer Testimonials

“One VITA Site Coordinator had this to say about her VITA site, “I feel comfortable saying all taxpayers using our services were extremely grateful for the patience, expertise and timeliness of volunteers preparing the tax return.

We have many repeat ‘customers’ from year to year and – even during the down months – we are greeted throughout the community with a warm hello and ‘see you at tax time.’ This speaks highly for the good work these gifted volunteers perform.”

A VITA volunteer stated this about her volunteer experience, “VITA helped me acquire more knowledge on my tax benefits. I really love it because you are learning and helping the community at the same time. It’s the best feeling.”

An Example for the Cooperative Regulator

This is the IRS — a government agency which seeks and encourages volunteers to carry out its mission of tax filing and compliance.   The words come right out of the credit union playbook.   I wonder why this spirit is not part of NCUA’s game plan?

Two Ways of Reflecting on  Life’s Possibilities: The Poetic and the Practical

The Poetic

A teenager’s college essay on the value and difficulty of alternative ways of seeing the world  from the Free Press:

“In another scene from The History Boys, one English schoolboy preparing for Oxbridge entrance exams, Timms, asks Hector why they are reading the poetry of A. E. Housman instead of doing something “practical.” 

Timms: I don’t always understand poetry!

Hector: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now, and you will understand it. . . whenever.

Timms: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready!

Like Timms, I sometimes don’t understand what I’m learning or memorizing when I study poetry, but I believe Hector when he says it prepares us for the very real events of the world—going to war, falling in love, falling out of love, making a friend, losing a friend, having a child, losing a child. 

Understanding ancient authors as they understood themselves is the surest means of finding alternatives to our current way of seeing the world.”

The Pragmatic

From Jake Meador’s essay, The Misunderstood Reason Why Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church:

“Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success.

Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.” 

Freedom’s Reality

The last two weekends Joan and I have gone to two Ukrainian events.  The first was a three-day folk festival at St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Spring, Maryland.

A tote bag from the festival.

Yesterday we attended the Sunday service at the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia  which featured the women of the Kiev Symphony Orchestra.  They are on a 35-day tour of the Eastern US.  The men of the chorus are unable to leave the country,

The women in concert.

Why Ukraine Matters

Timothy Snyder is a Yale history professor who has written extensively on Ukraine.

His course, The Making of Modern Ukraine, is 23 lectures on the country’s  history, completed in December 2022.  Every lecture can be viewed here.

This article is from last week.  The author presents Snyder’s brief historical context for the war.  More immediate, he addresses current political debates including Musk’s recent “non-activation” of his starlink satellite network stopping a Ukrainian attack on the Russian navy in Crimea.

Snyder provides the logic for why this war matters for America.  In the following paragraphs he presents an essential fact about freedom, whether in Ukraine, in America or even in the governance of credit unions.

“The freedom that Ukraine seeks today is “the value of values” because it is a “condition in which you are able to make choices among other values and realize those choices.”

“Americans (and many others) owe Ukrainians a huge debt of gratitude for their resistance to Russian aggression. .  .

“The greatest debt concerns freedom. This is a word that we Americans use quite a lot, but we sometimes lose track of what it really means.

“For the past thirty years or so, we have fallen into a very bad habit of believing that freedom is something that is delivered to us by larger forces, for example by capitalism. This is simply not true, and believing it has made us less free.

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty,” Frederick Douglass said, “shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle.” It will always be the case that freedom depends upon some kind of risky effort made against the larger forces.

“Freedom, in other words, will always depend upon an ethical commitment to a different and better world, and will always suffer when we believe that the world itself will do the work for us.“

Or, as the Ukrainian sailor defending a Snake Island outpost gestures in defiance  to a Russian warship’s  demand they surrender–an action portrayed on a commemorative stamp:

The Extraordinary Advantage of Local

IN 1973 a critic of mainstream economic thought was published in  Small is Beautiful: A Study  of Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher.

The author espoused a principle that small, appropriate technologies, policies, and polities were a superior alternative to the accepted ethos of “bigger is better”.

His thesis is the exact opposite of the forces driving market capitalism   In a competitive economy firms strive for market  dominance to achieve  monopolistic-like power to better control  the organization’s financial outcomes.

Schumacher advocated for a  “persons-first” or humanistic economics as opposed to contemporary theories which emphasized institutional financial success over human well-being–sometimes caricatured as trickle-down economics.

In the same decade of the 1970’s, active credit union charters reached a peak of nearly 22,000.   Some saw credit unions as an example of the book’s relevance.

While the author’s critique may have been on point, I believe his alternative approach was insufficient.  For the antidote to overpowering corporate influence is not small, but local.

What Local Enables-Growing Big by Staying Small

Local does not necessarily mean small.  One of the geniuses of the business model developed by the $50 billion asset State Employees Credit Union North Carolina (SECU) was the ability to grow to become the second largest credit union by staying local, that is acting small.

This “local” strategy required providing authority and responsibility for the credit union’s operations all the way down to each branch.  Loan decisions, collections and business priorities were set at the branch level.  Each branch’s connections to their communities were enabled through dozens of local advisory boards, member loan reviews,  and  engaged local community relationships.

Each branch operated as a “small” credit union  enabled by central funding and resources including back office transaction and delivery system support, and an ATM network and call center.   The result was 85 years of continuous growth creating an employee culture based on “doing the right thing” for the members.

This approach continues in other credit unions.  In an article on economic empowerment in a new area,  Golden 1 Credit Union’s  Erica  Taylor, VP for Community  Relations, summarized  their approach in  a disadvantaged community  as  hyper-local and multipronged:

If all goes well — and the concentrated, hyperlocal investment works in Del Paso Heights — Golden 1 hopes to partner with other communities to replicate the initiative throughout the state.

“One of the biggest lessons learned is there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Taylor says. “Each neighborhood, state, or municipality is going to have unique needs. It’s important to start by asking what those needs are and listening.”

Branch Expansions Continue

I believe this advantage is also reflected in the continuing expansion of credit union branches.   As reported yesterday in a review  of midyear data: ” A CU Times analysis of NCUA data released Sept. 7 shows the nation’s 4,780 credit unions . . .had 21,835 locations as of June 30, having added 53 since March.”

Another number from the article: The average credit union branch in June served 6,370 members, up from 6,335 in March and 5,828 in December 2019.

Presence matters.   Branches are still the major investment for demonstrating a credit union’s relevance for members in a community.

The  Decline of Local institutions

It is often difficult for small organizations to survive alone, without the support of external expertise.  Especially in a community or section of a city that is economically stagnant.

When one looks at long serving organizations that continue to thrive locally such as the Boy/Girl Scouts, college sororities/fraternities, the PTA, national food franchises, the Catholic church and many other successful institutions, the formula is local leadership and centralized common support.

The following  excerpt is from an interim pastor whose responsibility was to close a local church which could no longer sustain itself.  In this summary event, he laments the loss of this “local” presence:

It is hard to imagine another place where this particular group of people would have gathered together for a common purpose. Eugene Peterson reminds us in his book Subversive Spirituality:

“The work of salvation is always local. Geography is as much a part of the gospel as theology. The creation of land and water, star and planet, tree and mountain, grass and flower provides ground and environment for the blessings of providence and the mysteries of salvation … nothing spiritual in our scripture is served up apart from material … this street, these trees, this humidity, these houses. Without reverence for the locale, obedience floats on the clouds of abstraction.”

Imagine being told you can no longer go to a place that you returned to every day for decades, a place you returned to not because you had to, but because it was where you wanted to be. But now it is going to be closed, sold, and, depending on the buyer, it might be torn down and turned into an apartment complex or a storage facility.

This is the same loss that occurs when a credit union merges. Leadership and focus move away from long standing community ties.   It is an  economic, emotional and existential loss for members and their community.

A current interpretation of Schumacher’s “humanistic economics” is George Hofheimer.   He worked for Filene and CUES for decades and is now an industry consultant.   He wrote Banking on a Human Scale to describe how credit unions build relationships, implementing the advantage of local solutions.

His thesis:  “In a world dominated by scale and technology, smaller community based  credit unions and banks have the chance to serve more people and serve them better by making banking more human.”

SECU turned the widely practiced financial growth model in financial services of a centralized, top-down command and control  on its head.  It grew by staying local in focus, execution and relevance.

It implemented the oldest rule of political success which is “all politics is local.”  This reality is how people see the impact of their representative’s decisions on their lives, jobs and communities.  Are they in touch or a remote elite?

Credit unions, as democratically designed, have this same political capacity which when enabled, no competitor can match.  Have you ever tried to oppose a Capital One branch closing for example?

The founder and current CEO of Nvidia, the fastest growing technology stock this year, has a philosophy described by one employee: “He is big on staying as small as possible while still doing big things. “

For credit unions I would insert the word “local” for small.   Member-owners can see how their money is being used and feel their participation matters.  SECU’s experience shows how powerful it is to be large and local at the same time.  Scale, branding and technology cannot defeat the entrenched advantages of community pride and loyalty.


Transparency: A Test for the Cooperative System

“Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

That is the official slogan of The Washington Post, adopted in 2017. The slogan was introduced on the newspaper’s website on February 22, 2017.  The phrase was popularized by investigative journalist Bob Woodward, who used it in a 2007 piece criticizing government secrecy.

Yesterday long-time credit union supporter and reporter Frank Diekmann published an “editorial” on the CU Today web site, Why NCUA Should Require Credit Unions to Disclose What They’re Paying for Banks.

Based on years of covering bank purchases, he critiques the absence of meaningful data in many of these transitions.  No information is provided, such as the purchase price,  that would show how the members collective capital is being used to pay off owners of banks.  Here is some of his logic:

“Why the secrecy?

“It’s quite the hypocritical disconnect for a CU community that defends the federal tax exemption largely on the back of the “structure,” that is that credit unions are democratically run cooperatives where the members are the owners, to then turn around and say certain information belongs to some but not others (never a good sign in a democracy) and that some cooperators are more equal than others. . .

“There is another big, CU-principal-grounded reason for letting members know how much of their money is being spent and for what, and it’s a real ironic kicker: if the acquiring credit union were a publicly traded bank buying up another bank, it would be required to disclose the purchase price, and analysts/customers/the market would have the opportunity to put the ROI under the microscope. . .

“And then there is this other “let’s not go there” issue. But I say, let’s do. While this may not be the primary reason for buying a bank, it’s also not an innocent bystander: CEOs who have language in their contracts tying their compensation to asset size are getting raises out of these deals. Members have a right to know about that, especially since—again—it’s their money being used to goose the comp.

“It’s time to dispense with the rosy sounding but generic banality and to specifically document how members of the acquiring credit union benefit, and how the former customers are better off, with some real dollar figures around the savings on loans and fees and the increased rates on deposits. You know, how much more is going into people’s pockets?”

Transparency Is the Lifeblood of Democracy

Frank’s concern about credit union’s secrecy extends far beyond bank purchases.  Boards and CEO’s have grown used  to not disclosing or even explaining anything to members especially around their leadership roles and activities.

Credit unions want to retain their “private” character, but to act unfettered in the public market place.  CEO and board salaries are  not required to be disclosed by federal charters.  For states the information is supposed to be provided in the 990 filing, but it is often late, after the major participants have left and not reviewed by any authority for accuracy.  Many credit unions check the disclosure box on the report as provided only “on demand.”

While some merger disclosures were required from a 2018 rule, NCUA’s oversight of the rule is inconsistent and lacking in any meaningful effort to inform members about the transaction.  Merger actors have perfected the arts of circumventing required benefit disclosures.

The supposed democratic governance model of one person one vote in annual board elections never happens, because there are no elections.   The board controls the nominations to just equal the vacancies.

Even when the rare election takes place, the ability of members to learn about candidates’ position is not offered by the credit union-except for incumbents.  See the current SECU board contest as an example.

In almost all other institutions dealing with the public, the SEC mandates disclosures far beyond anything credit unions provide so that owners of companies can be informed about the basis for transactions.

NCUA has completely ignored any obligation to protect the rights of member-owners compromising the fundamental governance mechanism in a cooperative.

Transparency Is a Requirement for Democracy

It’s no accident that the Post’s motto was aimed at governmental secrecy. The one exception I would raise to Frank’s thesis is that he wants NCUA to require greater disclosure.  The regulators are part of the problem.

NCUA repeatedly draws its own curtains of secrecy over its actions and even “facts.”  Listen closely to today’s hearing on the NCUSIF for reference to undisclosed econometric models and staff actions not subject to public or even board scrutiny.

When the NCUA chair was asked recently about a well-publicized problem in a credit union, he commented that he couldn’t talk about such situations and pivoted to the need for more authority over vendors.   NCUA itself fails to put on the public record the details for its decisions leaving both members and the industry in the dark about its effectiveness or even awareness of key events.

The Transparency Advantage

Frank closes with another reason, beyond the owners right for relevant information to make informed decisions about the credit union’s activities.

It is a moral issue that can put cooperatives on the ethical high ground or cast them as just another form of  self-serving enterprise:

“Not only would documenting all that (about bank purchases) be the right and ethical thing to do, it would make for an effective response to critics. . . that claim credit unions are just “profit-seeking enterprises masquerading as tax-exempt non-profits.”

Transparency is a leadership requirement.  It creates trust and confidence even when things go wrong.  Doing the right thing should not require a rule or reg.   It is a character trait.  Cooperatives and transparency are naturally intertwined, until pulled apart.  As Frank points out, that separation undermines the special possibilities and accomplishments cooperatives were empowered to do.


What to Listen For in Thursday’s NCUSIF Update at NCUA

Cooperative design is a unique competitive advantage in a capitalist society.  The success of for- profit firms is based on their ability to extract value from their customers to create maximum return for their owners.

In coops the owners are the customers.  This alignment creates a financial and a trust superiority versus competitors when the model is managed well.

In 1984 the NCUSIF was redesigned following coop practice. This change drew from the experiences of over a dozen successful state chartered insurance funds. The design’s core feature is the 1% deposit perpetual underwriting with explicit checks on the oversight and management of the fund by NCUA.

One of these oversight tools is the monthly posting of the full NCUSIF financials on NCUA’s website. This is the same regular reporting NCUA requires by credit unions to their member-owners.

Quarterly the NCUSIF Board is publicly briefed on staff’s management of the fund.   This provides the credit union owners insight into the Board’s oversight of credit union members’ funds.

The June 2023 financials have been posted.   There will be additional numbers  such  as CAMELS score distributions, projections and updates on investment management-the Fund’s largest asset in the meeting.

What should credit unions look for in the briefing?  How do board members query staff’s performance?

What NCUA Staff Manages: Retained Earnings

The primary indicator of the Fund’s performance is retained earnings.  The responsibility is to maintain a retained earnings ratio of  .20% to .30% (the traditional floor and cap) of insured savings.   This ratio can be tracked every quarter as the industry reports its insured share total in the 5300 call reports, and NCUA reports NCUSIF’s retained earnings for the same quarter end.

The history shows this ratio tends to be very stable with minimal change even when some factors, such as share growth, show wide fluctuations. Below are the actual results of this ratio over the past three and a half years:

Dec ‘20:  .3179%

Dec ’21:  .2942%

Dec ’22:  .2922%

Mar ’23; .2883%

Jun  ‘23:  .2908%

Adding the 1% of insured savings as of the same date shows that the normal operating level (NOL) has been very steady at the upper end of its traditional cap of 1.3%.

In the May 2023 NCUSIF board update as of March, staff projected an NOL of 1.25% at June, down from the December ’22 ratio of 1.3%. This hypothetical forecast suggested the retained earnings “cushion” would fall by half in just six months.  It was misleading and incorrect.

This 4 basis point error was due to two inaccurate projections in the presentation:  the retained earnings for June came in $31.3 million  higher and insured share growth $32.3 billion lower than the forecasted numbers.  This outcome should be a caution about future projections. This estimate was provided just  45 days before the June month end with  recent trends readily available.

Managing the Retained Earnings Outcome

One revenue and two expense items are management’s responsibility in achieving  retained earnings.

The first and most immediate is operating expenses.  Through June the NCUSIF expenses have grown 13.7% or $14 million more than expended through the first six months of 2022.  This is double the Fund’s long term rate of expense growth since 2008 of 6.9%.  Across all three credit union provided funds, the combined expenses grew 14% in the first six months of 2023, an indication of government’s ability to spend when checks and balances are lacking.

The second factor is the expense provision for insurance loss. To date  in 2023 the fund has added $20 million in additional provision expense versus  actual losses of just $1 million.  The June 2022 reserve was $169 million increased to $204 million one year later.

The reserve expense comes out of retained earnings.  Currently it equals 1.2 basis points of total insured risk.  Since the taxi medallion losses, the NCUSIF has not reported net cash losses for an entire year exceeding 1 basis point since 2013.   If there is a formula NCUA uses in preparing this reserving level, then that should be published so the assumptions can be validated with actual experience.

The Single Revenue Driver

The third factor and only revenue item other than an infrequent premium, is the earnings on the $22 billion par value investment portfolio.  By law, no premium can be charged if the NOL exceeds 1.3%.

Since December 2021 the NCUSIF’s portfolio market value has been below book.  The market loss was $1.7 billion at Dec ’22, $1.3 billion at March ’23 and then rising back up to $1.5 billion at June.

The year to date yield is 1.79% but is slowly rising and was 1.95% for June.  At the close of markets yesterday,  short term treasury rates up to one year were in the 5.5% range.   The seven year bond closed at 4.47%.  The inverted yield curve started in July 2022 when short term rates were higher than longer maturities.   NCUA announced a change in its short term liquidty target in November of 2022.

The NCUSIF’s investment strategy is to provide sufficient funds “to meet operating costs and liquidity needs without having to sell investments at a loss or use the agency’s borrowing authority.” 

The market loss at every investment bucket except overnights at June monthend, shows this objective has not been met.   If even half of the $22 billion investments were short term, the yield of over 5% would produce revenue of $550 million and result in more than sufficient income to meet the fund’s operating needs, sustain a 1.3% NOL and pay a significant dividend to the credit unions underwriting the fund.

The NCUSIF’s current weighted average yield is 2.85 years. Should market rates stay at this level, that is the approximate time it would take for the entire portfolio to return to par.   This would result in a market underperformance of five years or more from the time the first time the fund showed a combined value below market.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be a critical time to see how staff has evaluated this extended period of below market performance. What changes do they anticipate going forward to better align performance with the two policy goals?  What interest rate risk monitoring enhancement is needed to avoid this situation in the future?

What about Share Growth?

The only other factor affecting the retained earnings-NOL ratio is credit union share growth.  To maintain a stable .2 to  .3 ratio, the net income must grow at the same rate as insured savings.

But NCUA staff do not control share growth, only the three factors above. In the second half of 2022, insured savings had a negative growth of $5.0 million.  That could be the outcome again in 2023.  For example the second largest credit union, SECU NC, had a negative share growth of 8% for the 12 months ending this June.

Fortunately it is very easy to model all four variables in a dynamic spread sheet through the end of the year.   For example if one assumes fund expenses of $220 million, insurance provision of .5 basis point of insured shares, 2% annual share growth, a 1.85% portfolio return, then the current retained earnings ratio would increase from the June level to .2969 or just short of the .30 historical cap triggering a dividend.

Here is the model anyone can use.  Any of the four variables can be changed, even the yearend  retained earnings currently at .30%.  The latest actual data can be input daily if necessary.

One option is to run what ifs and breakeven analysis. For example if the fund’s investment yield had been 2%  higher for this year (3.85%), and all else the same, the yearend outcome would be an retained earnings ratio of .3225 or $387 million above the .3% traditional cap resulting in  a dividend for credit unions.

The 1% True up Calculation

At the current time, NCUA uses a bifurcated ratio calculation for the yearend NOL.   It uses the most recent retained earnings and insured shares.  However staff,  instead of recognizing the 1% statutory liability from credit unions, includes a six month old figure  from June in the denominator.

The currrent NOL number is an inaccurate and misleading presentation of the fund’s real financial position.

For example using the current June 1% capital deposit number omits entirely the obligation of 49% of credit unions with assets less than $50 million.  These are not required to submit a June 1% trueup.

In the past, the use of a six month old total 1% deposit amount has led to an understatement of the actual NOL calculation at yearend.   This underreporting keeps credit unions from a potential dividend which was the commitment made for their open-ended perpetual 1% underwriting.

If that same method is used at 2023 year end and there is a major runoff in insured savings in the second half, then using the six month old 1% deposit  will overstate the NOL and potentially trigger a dividend from a ratio six months out of date.  If the 8% decline in SECU’s 12 month share growth were to occur across the industry, a dividend would be likely even with the 1.33% NOL.

This 1% late trueup recognition has been raised in Board meetings for almost 2 years.   Staff has promised to provide options from an outside CPA firm’s review.   Board members have referred to recommendations in the study that provide ways to better present the actual ratio.  It’s time the NCUSIF bring this ratio into a better presentation of the fund’s stability and strength.

The NCUSIF is a Cooperative Advantage

When well managed the NCUSIF is a competitive advantage for credit unions versus FDIC insured institutions.   The FDIC ratio of fund balance to insured savings was 1.10% at June 2023.  Banks are facing increasing insurance premiums far into the future to bring the ratio back to the immediate goal of 1.35%.   For cooperatives, the 1% deposit ensures the NCUSIF size is always relatively constant to the insured shares risk.

Since the 2008/9 financial crisis and the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing to sustain the economy, short term rates have fallen to historic lows.  Folling the Covid shutdown this resulted in ZIRP, or zero interest rate policy, leading to the subsequent inflation.

The Fed has made clear its intent to return to a 2% inflation level with real interest rates in excess of that goal.   During this time of near zero rates, the NCUSIF, like many credit unions, went long hoping to pick up yield.  In doing so it fell short of its two primary objectives of liquidity (without resorting to borrowing) and easily covering operating expenses.

This Thursday’s board meeting is an opportunity to see how Board members and staff react to the changing rate environment and their role overseeing the fund’s performance.  Tune in.





A Moment of Impact for a Member

From Tim Mislansky, CEO, Wright-Patt Credit Union in Dayton, Ohio:

Kim Luke works as a Financial Coach at Area A. We have a member, David, who was declined twice for a home equity recently because he was applying for a fixed loan when his credit score would only allow for a line of credit.

Kim came across this declined application and knew this was not right and there was something we could do for him. Kim reached out to him, explained the situation, and David decided to proceed with doing the loan application.

After gathering all the information needed from David, Kim learned he was working multiple jobs and struggling with his credit. He had eighteen open lines and a mortgage on his report, all with different due dates. He was getting behind on payments due and struggling to keep up and was just generally having a tough time.

He has had some rocky payment history with us in the past because of this, but underwriters saw exactly what Kim did – the potential to drastically improve someone’s life and the loan request was approved.

With this consolidation, we paid off every debt and even had some room for home improvements he has been putting off for a while. He has gone from nineteen due dates and payments to just two. His mortgage and now this home equity. But here is the best part:

This consolidating is going to save David over $3,100 a month. This is going to completely change his life. He is going to be able to go back to working just one job again.

This loan had the ability to not only change someone’s life but also show him exactly what Wright-Patt stands for and what we can do for our members. It really put into perspective just how rewarding and fulfilling our job can be!

Thanks, Kim, for looking past what we cannot do, to what we can do, to make a big impact on David.

THE Strategic Question for the Credit Union System-and Congress

Lots of topics about credit union’s priorities last week here in DC.   The NAFCU caucus put their lobbying agenda on the table as they promoted the end of their independent efforts by merging with CUNA.

The continuing announcements of bank purchases, mergers and even member voting continue. Virginia Credit Union is asking members to approve management’s effort to convert to a federal vs state charter to “simplify” its regulatory oversight.

In these events and other well covered forums and leadership updates, one topic is missing from the discussions:  Is the credit union cooperative model still relevant?

Some credit unions still embrace their member-centered purpose.   The focus on member control follows.  But the actions of others suggest it is time to shelve that model.   The goal is to move on to some other understanding of the functions of a tax-exempt financial firm in a market economy.   As more credit unions embrace the tactics of their institutional competitors focusing on expansion and corporate success, does the coop’s role need to be rethought?

If one looks across the economy the needs of folk of modest means has not diminished.   It has actually grown.  The allocation of financial resources between the haves and have nots continues ever wider.

Cooperative design facilitates multiple business models, asset sizes, community roles and creative initiatives.   When an institution’s priorities become the center of effort versus the member-owners well-being, then is the model being disconnected from its primary purpose?

If we don’t discuss this situation openly, others will raise it for us.   Last week’s WSJ article Credit Unions Stray Far from Their Mission, was a well written hit job.  It included two supposedly academic articles to prove their point.

I would hope the concern is how can credit unions become better cooperatives for serving members, not debating competitors.   That member-focused discussion is one we would all tune in for.