Yesterday a long investigative report on the contested SECU board director election was published in The Assembly. This digital investigative journal’s role is to publish “deep reporting on power and place in North Carolina.” Carli Brosseau has written a lengthy description of the circumstances around this election.
The article is well- researched, provides multiple points of view, and important context. She contacted me as part of her reporting. I referred to my blogs on SECU for why this event was significant for the entire credit union system.
What It means to be a Credit Union
Carli provides a straight forward description of their unique design for her readers: “Credit unions are set up as not-for-profit cooperatives where every member, no matter their account balance, is an equal part- owner. That ownership share is the reason members get a say in who’s on the board. It’s also part of what makes them different from banks, which are for-profit and owned by investors. “
Her story provides two themes about how this coop democratic design is at the core of this election.
The first is the multiple ways the incumbent leadership has tried to thwart the members’ role in elections. The nominating committee refused three member petitions to be on the ballot. The “self nomination” process was changed to limit to ten days the time to gather the required 500 signatures once the “official’ candidates were announced. The annual meeting process has been modified to prevent traditional new and old business from being brought to the floor. This was how the initial member concerns had been raised.
This recounting of board incumbent’s trying to protect their position and to discourage or ignore member views is not new. In almost all cases thwarting these attempts is successful. The result is no democratic coop governance. Incumbency perpetuates itself. Boards crystallize into a ruling elite.
This SECU example is important because it shows that even in a very large coop, the members can make their voice heard-albeit with much perseverance.
The Debate Over Loan Pricing
The second element of democratic design at issue is how should the loan and saving products offered members be priced. Should members using the same service such as an auto loan or a CD be given the same pricing? Or, should those who are better off receive more favorable terms than those who have lesser funds?
SECU’s adoption of risk-based lending is the other theme in the story that is relevant for credit unions role as an alternative to for-profit banks.
Most financial firms and credit unions use risk-based pricing today. SECU is an outlier. Its 85-year history shows a single pricing model can succeed. Carli’s story clearly presents these contrasting views of its role in SECU.
CEO Brady’s logic and initial results are reported as follows:
“SECU opted for a more compressed pricing structure than most other lenders use, said Leigh Brady,
“SECU launched risk-based lending for car loans in March, with a 4.5 percent spread between what a borrower in the lowest credit tier pays compared to a borrower in the top tier, Brady said. And the credit union’s core members—state employees and retirees—get a 0.5 percent discount.
“From Brady’s perspective, the policy is working. More members are opting for car loans from SECU, and a greater share of those borrowers have credit scores in the top tier—18 percent in March 2022, and 28 percent a year later, according to data Brady provided.
“SECU is still willing to lend to people with low credit scores, she said. “There are lenders that just absolutely will not lend to anyone below a 660 credit score,” said Brady. “We do. We lend below 540.”
“She thinks the new loan policy is actually fairer than the old one.
“Brady said she came to recognize the “harsh reality” that SECU had been overcharging its members with the best credit.
“Another factor, director Wooten said, was persistent questioning by regulators about the diversity of the loan portfolio. “We had regulators that were always concerned that we had all of our lending in one bucket,” he said. “We had all of these mortgage loans, and they were in this bucket where most of the folk were in, you know, this middle tier or lower.”
The contrasting view is presented by one member-nominated candidate’s letter sent to SECU’s chair following the risk based pricing discussion at the 2022 annual meeting:
“Clements laid out his credentials—he had been a member for 45 years, currently serves on the local advisory board, and was previously on the SECU Foundation board and a loan review committee—and said he was appalled by the board’s adoption of risk-based lending. “This policy clearly signifies that all our members are NOT equal.”
What is a Credit Union’s Purpose?
The debate is joined. How should a democratic, member-owned coop behave after the votes are counted. Does this democratic foundation end at the ballot box, or is it intended to carry over in the business practices of the credit union? Should a member with more resources get a better deal than one with less?
Or even more direct, should those with a lesser financial status be charged more on loans so that the well-to-do pay less?
Both models can and do work. Is coop design intended to perpetuate the financial inequalities that members bring to their relationships or to give everyone an equal place on the financial starting line?
The distribution of wealth in America is increasing year after year. Those that have the least or know the least, pay the most. If the coop model does not address these growing disparities in financial outcomes, how can democratic economic opportunity be realized?
The article presents clearly the credit union challenge of democratic governance and opportunity in a capitalist economy where accomplishment and status is often equated with personal wealth.
After interviewing many of the principals, the author concludes with this outlook:
“It’s unclear which vision will win members’ approval in the board election, or how many people will seize the chance to have a say.”
Now it is up to the members to decide. This is how the democracy is supposed to function. This is the first-year online voting is an option.
One person, one vote is an important aspect of coop uniqueness. Letting the members vote is Doing the Right Thing.
On October 10th, the livestream link of SECU’s annual meeting will be available from the SECU website www.ncsecu.org at 1:00 p.m. Tune in.