What is IBM Doing to Stay Relevant?

In an era when the longevity of an S&P 500 company is about two decades, the fact that IBM is still around from its 1911 initial combination of three businesses, raises the question of how it has survived. This is an especially challenging issue in an era of unending technology change in which the Internet has replaced the in-house main frame as the core of back office processing.

IBM began as the Computing, Tabulating & Recording Company (C-T-R). Their first large contract was to provide tabulating equipment for the tabulation and analysis of the 1890 US census.

Thomas Watson Sr. became CEO in 1914 and in the early 1920s the name was changed to International Business Machines (IBM). When he renamed the company, he put a plaque on his New York head office building in the 1930s reading, World Peace through World Trade.

From Machines to Intangibles

Following WWII, IBM became the world leader in providing computer systems for both business and scientific applications. The company continued to excel at inventing and making things (machines). In 1964, IBM revolutionized the industry by bringing out the first comprehensive family of computers (the System/360). This caused many of their competitors to either merge or go bankrupt, leaving IBM in an even more dominant position.

IBM’s historical role as a manufacturer of computer mainframes now makes up only 10% of the company’s revenue, even after 55 years of market dominance. 85% of the company’s revenue is from software and information management.

Its primary service is helping companies manage and transfer data. It is placing itself at the center of the “data economy” an intangible (compared with manufactured goods) network of information and transaction processing vital to every business. Its software and managed services are involved in 87% of the world’s credit card processing and service 90% of top 10 retail firms.

An Exploding Market

Today over 70% of the firm’s revenue is from outside the US. While global trade in goods and services is declining, the “trade” in data transmission and digital information is exploding.

The digital economy is a world economy, not limited by traditional physical boundaries and barriers. One estimate is that over 80 terabytes of information flow into and out of the US every minute of every day, a volume of information equal to eight Libraries of Congress.

The digital revolution is part of the service economy that today dwarfs the manufacturing sector in the US. Operating the “back office” of this growing information and processing activity is how IBM intends to build ongoing success.

The company, over 100 yeas old, was formed at the same the time as the first credit unions were chartered. Are there parallels in IBM’s evolution serving businesses, for what credit unions do for members? What might be vital information management needs in the digital economy that credit unions can provide members? Answering that question and designing services providing relevant data could be the key to the next 100 years of cooperative success with members.

588,000 Members About to Lose Their Credit Union

On June 12 I described NCUA’s May 17, 2019 conservatorship of Municipal Credit Union in New York City. The critical point was who will be the conservator? What will be the plan? Will NCUA’s chosen leader knock the place down or build it up? We now have an answer.

In less than two months on the job, the conservator recorded a June 30, second quarter loss of $125 million. This results in a reduction of net worth from 7.60% (well-capitalized) at March 30 to 3.41% (under-capitalized) at June 30.

Municipal’s 2-Year Report

The conservatorship was initiated by New York regulators in June 2018 by removing the full board and appointing an administrator, who was then let go earlier this year. New York then appointed NCUA conservator.

In late June several “unnamed sources” placed a leak in a CUToday story saying the credit union had a large underfunded defined benefit plan in an amount of over $100 million. NCUA declined to comment on the story, continuing a pattern of silent neglect throughout the entire conservatorship.

But the loss was a lot more than a benefit funding issue for a credit union which had reported a $3 million net income in the 2019 first quarter. The conservator’s total expenses in the quarter of $168.6 million were more than three times the first quarter total of $49 million. Of this increase, $130 was added to personal expenses, $19.1 quarterly increase in office operations, $8.9 million spent on professional services and $9.3 million in loan loss provision. This loss provision increased the coverage ratio from 147% to 177% even though there was no increase of delinquency at .76% of loans.

Who is Acting in the Members’ Best Interest?

The clear answer is nobody. For any so called expert to come in and wipe out half of a credit union’s net worth in less than 45 days on the job shows an inability to look at options, identify alternatives and develop a plan to sustain operations. An underfunded pension obligation is not a new situation for both public or private organizations. Defined benefits are paid out in decades to come and funding plans similarly are long term. Multiple options are available to manage underfunding which is why actuarial assessments are a normal part of a plan’s annual review. The only time cash in full is required is if the plan is to be terminated immediately which can result in every plan member being 100% vested in full whatever the plan’s actuarial cash requirements might be.

The lack of any explanation, public discussion or consideration of alternatives plus the abruptness of the action, suggests kick-the-barn-down strategy to justify a merger of this $3.0 billion credit union chartered in 1916. For cashing out the plan, if that is the reason for the expense, would leave any subsequent leader with no options and with having to develop a new retirement benefit for employees.

Silence and quiet leaks to the press are not patterns of accountability. NCUA board members may make speeches about all sorts of future risks and opportunities but fail to speak to the immediate needs of 588,000 members who have seen a complete breakdown of regulatory responsibility and accountability.

Every year NCUA and the state have examined the credit union. The credit union must have a CPA annual audit which would include an actuarial assessment of the benefit plan. And yet no action was taken until the CEO was found to have embezzled money. Compounding the failure to address the defined benefit funding (if it was an exam issue) is choosing a conservator with no ability to develop a plan for sustainability. Conservatorship becomes nothing more than preparation for a fire sale.

The members have no voice, they have been denied any role in their CU’s future. The credit union has a 22 branch network and a sound and diverse $2.0 billion loan portfolio and over $660 million in cash. Shares are up 6% and loans over 8% from June 2018, during a full year of conservatorship. And the reward for their loyalty and patronage is to be tossed aside as the regulators attempt to cover with silence their repeated failures to address issues that were clearly disclosed previously.

The Cooperative Advantage

Two factors provide credit unions a major advantage when problems occur. The first is the member relationship, loyalty and trust. The second, derived from the first, is patience when resolving problems.

There is no public pressure on stock price to divest of problems and move to new markets. With the right leadership in place credit unions have survived the most severe crises.

In the June 12 article of NCUA’s actions, a line from Hamilton states, “you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” There are only two sources for help—can the members mobilize to assert their rightful role? Will credit unions demand accountability from a regulator whose absence from the fray is a stunning dereliction of duty?

Face to Face: A Credit Union’s Irreplaceable Advantage

Our society seems intent on replacing human interaction with technology. In the independent Atlantic Baseball League, an experiment to automate the calling of balls and strikes is underway. The umpire still stands behind the plate but gets the ball or strike call via an Apple AirPod earpiece from a computer equipped with an artificial intelligence program.

Credit unions are deploying options so members speak to their phones or their home speakers, asking questions that were once answerable only by another human being. From account opening, to on boarding, to completely automated credit decisions, the race is on to take the human out of every conceivable member need and experience.

So what are the events that defy Google questioning and experiences we can only have through face to face interaction with another human? Answering that challenge is how credit unions will not only remain relevant but also define how each will compete no matter the asset size, number of branches or range of services. For what will be the cooperative advantage if people helping people simply becomes computer programs massaging each members’ data and responding based on software logic, no matter how intelligently designed?

A Modest Proposal for Secondary Capital

NCUA’s June delay in implementing a new risk based capital (RBC) rule was in part explained by the need to examine whether a secondary capital option should be part of the new capital model.

Cooperative design and history suggest there is an immediate and straightforward additional capital option. This solution can be implemented regardless of the outcome of the RBC discussions.

The 1934 Federal Credit Union Act mandated that the par value “shall be $5 per share,” an amount in the law based on twenty five years of state-chartered credit union practice.

Credit unions had no share insurance funds, state or federal, until the 1970s.  Prior to that all member shares were at risk, that is equity for the institution.   An ongoing consequence of this financial structure, even in the era of deregulation, is that credit union shares are second in payment priority in event of liquidation to all other liabilities. This means that third party lenders to credit unions, such as the FHLB system or banks, know that equity is more than a credit union’s retained earnings. In the event of failure, the insurance fund must pay lenders’ outstanding loans ahead of shares.

The $5 Par Share Value Today

The historical par value of  $5 was often purchased on an installment plan, for example,  25 cents a week. This par value, now a variable amount, was the foundation for all funding and was at risk should the credit union not succeed.  Virtually all FCUs and state charters still active today, were financed with this membership shares-at-risk model. This shared fate meant that the cooperative model was indeed based on common values and purpose.

The value of the $5 initial member share purchase requirement today depends on which index one uses to analyze changes in economic value.   There are at least seven choices from the consumer price index to various efforts that track the cost of labor, to nominal GDP per capita. The range of results from these various indexes shows that the value of the $5 share in 1934 would range from $62.70 (CPI) to $373 (GDP per capita) in 2019.

Reengaging Members in the Cooperative Model

The option to ask members to purchase one at risk (uninsured) capital share with specified minimum par value would provide additional equity but more importantly signify once again the uniqueness of the cooperative model. It would be available only to members, limited in individual amounts, and subject to terms and conditions set by the boards.

There is no need to invent multiple plans for secondary capital sold to third parties creating a potential conflict with member’s returns. Instead the original design that successfully launched tens of thousands of charters could become today’s solution for capital flexibility when that is in the members’ best interest.

My Favorite Summer Movie Experience: Shining Night

Summer movies can provide escape, inspire, provoke and entertain.

All of these qualities are in the documentary Shining Night about American Composer Morten Lauridsen. I sought out the movie following a week of learning to sing Lux Aeterna, (a contemporary requiem composed on Lauridsen’s mother’s death), at a Richmond, VA choral workshop organized by Berkshire Choral International.

A Composer’s Thoughts

Born in 1943, three of his compositions are the most popular choral sheet music ever sold: Lux Alterna, O Magnum Mysterium, and Dirait-On.

The movie is a biography of the composer, and more importantly conversations about his creative motivations. Lauridsen is a mystic who translates both older Christian scriptures and contemporary poetry (“time tested words”) into musical expressions.

His descriptions of the these efforts are insightful. He is inspired by the belief that “There is something bigger than us out there. We must tap into that.”

He talks about “an absolute desire” to create because you have been sparked by something that makes you “feel whole” and provides inner peace.

An Inner Song

For Lauridsen, his way of finding meaning was writing music to share “this inner song.”

Very few are blessed with the genius of combining words and music to express one’s purpose. He acknowledges that sharing an “inner song” is no easy task, but that doing so “will change lives.”

That is the creative contribution we too often take for granted. But that is the light or to use his Latin word, Lux, that helps each of us believe each day is indeed worth living.

I hope an experience that enlightens will also be part of your summer.

The Cooperative Model’s Longevity Advantage

Creative destruction has been a characteristic of capitalistic markets especially in the last 100 years of public markets and plentiful financial takeover funds.

The result is that the average lifetime of a Fortune 500 company becomes shorter and shorter. According to one study, the 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1964 narrowed to 24 years by 2016, and is forecast to shrink to just 12 years by 2027. (https://www.innosight.com/insight/creative-destruction/)

But good news for mutual and cooperative design just came from an updated list of the 500 largest insurance mutual and coops.

The average longevity (i.e. the age or number of years in business) of the world’s 500 largest mutual insurers companies is 97 years, supporting the theory that mutual and cooperative insurers are closely associated with sustainability, stability and long-termism. Notably, 235 (equivalent to 48%) of the Global 500 have been in operation for 100 years or more; 71 (or 14%) have been in business for 150 years or more; and 16 companies (3.3%) were over 200 years old.

Source: The world’s 500 largest mutual and cooperative insurance companies have once again been ranked by the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF) in the 2019 edition of its Global 500 report.

Why Closing a Newspaper is Like Merging a Healthy Credit Union

This July 7 article in the Washington Post described the impact on the community of the decision to close Youngstown, Ohio’s only local newspaper, the Vindicator, after 150 years of operations.

Some reactions and consequences described in the article were the following:

“Mere moments after the start of the hastily called community forum, the tears started to flow.

“Gobsmacked,” was how one Youngstown reader described her horrified reaction to the surprise announcement,

“The Vindy connects us all. A community without a strong, central newspaper is missing leadership — and a big part of its identity.”

With the Vindicator’s closing, Youngstown will become an unfortunate first: a good-size city with no daily newspaper of its own.

For Mark Brown, the Vindicator’s general manger, the loss is personal, devastating.

His family has owned and run the paper for 132 years. His mother, Betty Brown Jagnow, the publisher who is well into her 80s, still comes into the office regularly and has called the decision “gut-wrenching.”

“It’s all we’ve ever known and all we ever wanted to do,”

The Vindicator’s 44-member newsroom staff digs deep into local issues, and has won plenty of state awards for general excellence, for reporting and commentary, and for its website, which has no paywall.

“I’m scared for the community” the paper quoted Mark Brown.

What this means, said Joel Kaplan, associate dean of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, “is that no one in that community will be covering, on a regular basis, school board meetings, city council meetings, the cops and the courts. Democracy, as we know it, is about to die in Youngstown.”

“Scared for the Community”

The facts of the Vindy’s demise are not unusual. Decades of declining circulation, $23 million in accumulated financial losses, and no local alternatives for the community to turn to.

Whenever a locally-focused, community-based organization is closed whether by merger, failure or sell out, the community’s future is undermined. Some may respond that there are multiple mass media and social news sources to keep the community informed. But that misses the point of local ownership and focus. Local ownership matters: leadership is responsible to local priorities, not a faraway corporate business model. Local employees bring expertise and commitment to success; a legacy of  pride, community well-being and knowledge is created and sustained.

While newspapers and credit unions have very different business models, the continued merging of strong, well-managed and long-serving credit unions into much larger organizations often hundreds of miles away or even out of state, sacrifices one of the most important leadership and economic factors underwriting the viability of local towns, subdivisions and even small cities.

The myth of “expanded services” used to justify management’s surrender of a charter and assets created over generations undermines cooperative principles critical to credit unions remaining the alternative to for profit financial firms. These “voluntary” mergers violate the fiduciary, democratic foundation of cooperative governance. They are little more than commercial transactions benefitting not members, but individual and or corporate ambitions.

Like the loss of a town newspaper, every time I read about the merger of well run, established and successful credit unions, I too become scared for the community: in this case the cooperative option.

P.s. added 8/2/19

Today’s press announced a merger of two credit unions 1,200 miles apart with no historical sponsor or other connection. The $754 million Vibrant Credit Union, chartered in 1935 to serve the employees of John Deere is located in Moline, IL. Infinity FCU ($333 million) is located in Westbrook, ME, and was founded in 1921 to serve telephone workers. Why would members in Maine want to use outlets or services in Illinois? How does having an East Coast hub in Maine benefit members in Illinois? The reasons for the combination raise the question: whose interests are being served by combining two well run, strong community charters with no common heritage or prior relationship, and literally time zones apart? This disclosure should make interesting reading for the members of Infinity who must vote to give up their 100 years of local control of policy, resources, and leadership in the state of Maine.

Twenty Five Years as CEO and Counting

The Chairman of CU*Answers announced at the CUSO’s 2019 Annual Meeting that the CEO would have his twenty fifth anniversary this month.

Many important accomplishments could be listed from this quarter century of management leadership. But I would highlight two critical processes that have contributed to this success.

The first is his ability to always plan ahead, not just manage the present moment. An example was the announcement that the cooperatively-owned CUSO will be investing over $400 million in technology spending in the next five years. That fact underwrites the CUSO’s ability to “pay it forward” for future generations of users and their members. The first rule of technology management is that it requires constant reinvestment.

A second factor oftentimes overlooked, is Randy’s unceasing efforts to encourage participation by all the owners and users of the CUSO. This is accomplished by more than traditional cooperative practice of boards, committees and annual meetings. He constantly invents new ways to incent feedback by owners through boot camps, leadership conferences, board planning sessions, and a never ending deluge of emails seeking reactions.

As important as money may be to sustainability, it can never substitute for passion. And participation encourages passion and cooperative pride of ownership.