Credit Unions and Community Impact Lending: A Gold Mine

For decades Vancity Credit Union has been a leading innovation of cooperatives in Canada. US credit unions have traveled north of the border to visit this creative center of credit union evolution.

Today, Vancity is Canada’s largest community credit union, with $27.4 billion in assets plus assets under administration, more than 534,000 member-owners and 59 branches in Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Victoria, Squamish and Alert Bay.

As one element of its strategic plan, the credit union developed the concept of “impact lending and investing.”

Vancity also provides stories to illustrate how these concepts apply in both traditional and non-traditional lending programs.

The Need and a US Example

A number of credit unions have also explored this “impact” approach for their communities. This focus has become more critical as companies of all sizes are finding it harder to get loans. In a Pepperdine/Dunn & Bradstreet survey only 28% of small business reported success in getting bank loans during the September quarter, down from 32% in the second quarter.

California Coast Credit Union has tried to increase its community impact in several ways, with small business lending a more recent area for focus.

Robert Disotell, Chief Lending Officer, sent me a case study of how this opportunity is being implemented:

The business owners (husband and wife) had been individual members for many years. They decided to leave their jobs and form a company that leveraged their many years of experience as employees of other companies. They opened several business accounts with CalCoast, but no loan products since they didn’t have an immediate need. And we did not offer business loans or lines of credit at that time.

 Fast forward 18 months. The members happened to mention to one of our tellers that they may need an equipment loan. Good timing, since we had just rolled out our equipment term loan and line of credit products. The teller contacted our Commercial Services Officer and he in turn set up a meeting with the members. He and I met with them to find out more about their business.

I should mention at this point we were somewhat skeptical. The company was less than two years old, they were a contractor, and most of their work was through the government. All high risk red flags. But we took the time to meet at their facility, and we were impressed. Here is what we found:

  • They had excellent revenue growth their first full year of operation
  • Their expenses were extremely well-managed
  • They had grown with no debt, completely unleveraged (except for small trade balances)
  • They had accumulated significant cash balances in their business accounts (on a daily average basis)
  • Their Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable were in great shape and well-managed
  • They managed to do all this without a line of credit. This is almost unheard of for a contractor, where cash cycles tend to be longer than other businesses.

We felt their story was compelling enough to go forward and provide them with an equipment loan ( a basic five year amortizing loan) and a one year line of credit at Prime +2%. They still haven’t used the line of credit, but they said they believe they will soon because revenues are on track to almost triple this year!

From a community impact standpoint, the additional equipment has given them the ability to bid on larger, more profitable jobs. It also meant hiring additional employees to form a crew to operate the machinery. So certainly helpful for the local economy. Also, this is a woman and minority-owned (Hispanic) company.

The lesson is this. There are so many opportunities to work with your local businesses. They are being abandoned by not only the big banks, but also smaller regional and community banks. This is a gold mine for CUs. Take the time to learn their business. Understand and assess their character. Ask probing questions. Be one of their key partnerships. Learning and understanding how your local businesses operate – it is extremely fun and rewarding (and profitable!).

 Robert Disotell | Chief Lending Officer

California Coast Credit Union | 858.636.4282 |


Learning About Leadership: From a Mentor and Father Time

I recently received the following comment from Doug Fecher, CEO of Wright-Patt Credit Union reflecting on celebrating another year of experiences. Or as he opens his remarks: “knowing that we know a whole lot less than we did just a few years ago.”

His reflection is a reminder of a leader’s influence as a mentor, whether intended or not.

I remember my first boss in credit unions – a former Ohio State All American who played for Woody Hayes, won a Rose Bowl and national championship with the Buckeyes in 1954, and played for the Steelers for a year or two until he blew out his knees (before they knew how to fix them). Bill came home a local hero for his success on the football field so they made him manager of the local credit union.

I’m starting to understand what Bill must have thought about us young kids as we went at our jobs like we knew it all. Of course he’d forgotten more than we knew about credit unions and the business of running them. His genius was in letting us make our mistakes so that we’d come to know what he did: that none of us is as smart as we think we are. Of course he would never let us make a serious mistake, and he went about it in a way in which none of us really knew how much he was teaching us. I remember him growling at us (he always growled even when he was being nice … I think it was the football player in him). “I don’t care what you do, just do something even if it’s wrong!” (I removed the expletives he used about every third word.)

Sitting still was never Bill’s style … Moving the ball down the field was his way, even if every once in a while you’d get thrown for a loss.

I think about Bill every so often, and especially as each year goes by. He played the part of a dumb football player pretty well … dumb as a fox. The man taught me more than I ever gave him credit for and I only started realizing that a few years ago.

Some days I think that’s the way people look at me, as if our business is starting to pass me by. And it makes me smile.

– Doug Fecher, CEO Wright-Patt Credit Union

Top 100 US Co-ops Generated $222 Billion in 2018 Revenue

Each year the National Cooperative Bank compiles the top 100 US co-ops by total revenue. The listing for 2019 is here.

Several observations:

  • The top three serve the farming sector. Co-ops serving agriculture dominate the list.
  • Five credit unions are in the top 100 along with three other financial co-ops.
  • The co-op at number 99, NFO, Inc. lists only $27 million in assets but generated $535 million revenue
  • The Associated Press is the 100th largest co-op and the only co-op under communications.

Not Covered by Mainstream Business Media

Often co-ops fly under the business reporting news sources. No stock price to follow. Few opportunities to buy or sell. As member-owned and focused, there is less “public interest” in their performance and role.

They are most often referenced when they are doing something extraordinary as in a 60 Minutes Report on Land O Lakes, the second largest co-op by revenue. The CBS report provides an illuminating insight into the power of cooperative design and innovation, and its vital role supporting American farmers in a year when over 50% farms are expected to lose money.

Uber et al. and the Taxi Medallion Industry

It is accepted as a foregone conclusion that Uber and other shared ride platforms will eventually destroy the taxi medallion industry.

There is no contesting two facts at the moment:

  1. Ride sharing is a very popular and important addition to the public transportation industry.
  2. Medallions have been significantly devalued as collateral for lenders.

As a consequence of number 2, financing for taxi medallions has dried up in most cities. This means that medallion sales are now primarily on a cash only basis, which further lessens the value below what their actual earnings potential might be.

But will Uber and its competitors actually eliminate taxis as one form of public transportation in major cities? Recent events suggest that the future viability of ride sharing services is still uncertain.

Financial Performance as Public Companies

As Lyft and Uber are now public companies, they are filing quarterly financial reports. Neither company has ever made a profit. As one reviewer wrote about the Lyft IPO, the company loses money on every ride it makes.

Uber lost $5.4 billion in the 2019 second quarter.  Lyft’s losses for the same quarter were $644 million.

The Driver Challenge

This week, on the dominant local news and weather radio station for D.C., WTOP, Uber broadcasted an ad. Not for passengers, but for drivers. The ad stated that drivers would have a guaranteed income of $2,700 in their first 90 days. All they had to do was complete 400 rides. Even if that did not add up to the guarantee, they would still be paid that amount. That guarantee equates to an annual income of $10,800. If only the minimum total of 400 was completed, the average charge per ride would have to be $27.

If a driver had to work a 40 hour week to achieve this ride total in a 90 day period, that would work out to $5.65 per hour before taking into account any operational expenses from using one’s auto. If the rides could be done in half that time, the rate would be $11.25 per hour, fewer expenses. Still way below DC’s minimum wage law.

At a time of historically low unemployment, finding drivers for ride sharing firms will likely continue to be a challenge. Maybe that is why Uber leads this employment ad with an income guarantee.

The Uber Culture

In a new book, Super Pumped, the Battle for Uber, author Mike Isaac tells the story of the company’s early years led by founder Travis Kalanick. In the words of the book review by Leslie Berlin, “Kalanick understood that Uber could succeed only if it grew faster than any competitor, attracting large numbers of riders and drivers in cities across the globe. He let nothing get in the way of that growth–not the livelihood of the drivers, not the health and welfare of employees, not the counsel of his own advisers, not the laws and regulations of multiple states, and not the rules of Apple’s app store. He hired former NSA, FBI and CIA employees to spy on competitors.”

The review proceeds to describe the undoing of Kalanick by a number of individuals who revealed the toxic culture that had been created.

Disruption Is Not Necessarily Terminal

The future resilience of ride sharing systems, and their systematic underpricing of taxi rates, has disrupted the regulatory monopoly that taxi licensing system created. But it is not clear that the taxi industry will in fact be killed, and that the subsidized, financially losing strategy of ride sharing companies will wipe out their regulated competitors.

Hedge funds are reportedly buying up taxi medallions in New York for cash. Just as was done in the 2008 housing crisis, investors are coming in, paying cash at the low point in the valuation cycle, hoping to turn an above average return, when the market normalizes.

So the taxi medallion story is a long way from being over, even though there will be painful adjustments in the interim.

Is America THE Land of Equal Opportunity?

The points in the slide below are from a course on political polarization. The question for credit unions might be how they can address the lack of mobility especially by the lower income quartiles?

Is this a community impact opportunity for cooperatives? How might it be measured?

  • Most people (even most Republicans) believe that the federal government should attempt to increase the equality of opportunity to get ahead.
  • Many people regard the U.S. as “The Land of Opportunity”
  • But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.
  • “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries. I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.” *
  • A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.
  • Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.
  • While liberals often complain that the US has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder.
  • Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.

* Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution

What Regulatory Leadership Looks Like: Promoting Innovation and Cooperation

One of the critical qualities of leadership is the ability to rally support for vital issues through cooperation and example. When this leader is a regulator with the ultimate power of coercion, to see an approach based persuasion, logic and we’re-in-this-together is enlightening.

The FDIC Chair Jelena Williams outlined a new approach to innovation, not via a rule or policy statement, but rather in a public op-ed in the American Banker. I thought the following comments were powerful:

…if our regulatory framework is unable to evolve with technological advances, the United States may cease to be a place where ideas and concepts become the products and services that improve people’s lives.

At the FDIC, we want to foster innovation…By promoting and encouraging our supervised institutions toward a more advanced technological footing, the FDIC can help lead a transformation in the financial sector — one that results in easier access to banking products and services, brings more consumers into the banking fold, and makes the banking system safer and more stable…

We are looking for techies to join our ranks…

Should I Be Jealous of Bankers Over Their Regulator’s Appeal?

In this recent commentary, Randy Karnes outlined the leadership vacuum facing credit unions in the regulatory arena. He stated in part:

Does the credit union industry even have a process that is capable of placing a real leader of people, communities, and our CU stakeholders on the NCUA board today? Or are we doomed to a continuing future of cardboard, keep your head down, tactical players who only confirm the bureaucratic functions versus board members that could balance the need for a strong regulator with the passion for a strong credit union industry, and sell it?

Leaders Who Can be Assets, not Liabilities

In a dynamic, technology driven and competitive financial services market place, the soundness of the system is more than an aggregation of individual balance sheets and operating statements. For the cooperative system is interdependent in ways the banking industry is not. That means weakness in any leadership role can jeopardize the future of the industry. Jelena Williams shows how a proactive, positive focus can be an incalculable asset, not a liability or burden, in the ongoing arena of financial competition. Isn’t it time for credit unions to expect nothing less?

Should a Credit Union Be Bailing Out a Bank’s Stockholders?

The July 16 headline in CUToday said it all: In First-of-its Kind Deal, Corporate America Family CU Buying Bank.

Just another in the 20+ bank purchases by credit unions over the past two years? Hardly.

The article mentions that this is the first time a federal mutual holding company that converted to stock, will have its assets and liabilities sold to a credit union.

The Ben Franklin Bank of Illinois converted to a stock holding company in 2015. Ben Franklin Bank was founded in 1893 as a mutual savings and loans. Thus, one uncertainty in the transaction is the obligation to the “liquidation accounts” created for depositors in the mutual at the time of conversion. But this is not the core issue.

The Real Issue

In a joint press release by both firms’ CEOs, the “transaction has been unanimously approved by the board of directors of each party and is expected to close in early 2020.”

Steven Sjogren, President and CEO of Ben Franklin commented in the release “we have spent a long time seeking to maximize stockholder value and believe that we have negotiated an outstanding transaction for our stockholders.”

Reviewing the past ten years of Ben Franklin’s results and its stock price prior to the announcement, that would certainly appear to be a reasonable description. The question the members of Corporate America Family CU and its board should be asking is whether it’s a reasonable deal for them.

Ten Consecutive Years of Losses at Ben Franklin

Reviewing the annual reports and 10K filings on the Ben Franklin website, the following facts stand out:

  • June 30, 2019 data shows: $97.8 million in assets, $77.6 million in deposits; $11 million in equity; a $7.0 million FHLB loan; and loans of $73.7 million.
  • The bank has had negative income every year since 2008.
  • The efficiency ratio for 2018 was 111.08% and for 2017, 129.0%. At June 2019, 127.8%.This means operating expenses exceeded net interest income plus all other revenue.
  • The bank raised $4.5 million by issuing 600,000 new shares for a price of $7.50 per share in January 2018. The cost of the offering was $366,000 or 8.1% of the gross proceeds
  • Two consent orders have been issued by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The one on Dec 19, 2012 was followed by a second on November 2015 designated the bank a “troubled institution”. This order was ended in February 2019.
  • The stock price before the purchase announcement was $6.80 jumping to $9.56 the day after the announcement. The credit union announced a purchase price per share of 10.33-$10.70 subject to various costs and other factors to be determined.
  • In the 2018 annual report, the following outlook is given: We do not anticipate net income until we experience significant growth in our earning. At mid-year 2019, the credit union’s operating loss was $262,000.
  • At a price of $10.50 per share, the purchase would be at approximately $2.4 million higher than the June 2019 equity, that is 122% of the current book value.
  • The bank’s 2018 annual report states its share of bank deposits in its core markets are 1.69% Arlington Heights, 2.83% Rolling Meadows, and .03% in Cook County.

None of this operating history was discussed in the press release or how the credit union expected this decade long losing operation to be turned around.

As of June 2019, Corporate American Family reports $605 million in assets and 20 branches in ten states including AZ, CT, GA, CA(2), OH, PA VA TX and IL. Its year over year share growth was -0.81% and loan growth 4.68%. ROA was 0.61% and net worth 17.17%

Questions the Board Should Be Asking on Behalf of Members

Why is this purchase in the members’ best interest? How would Corporate American Family be able to turnaround an operation that has lost money every year for over a decade? What are the all-up transaction costs in addition to the stock purchase price?

How was the offer price determined given the stock price at the time of the announcement ($6.59) and the recently completed 600,000 new shares at a price of $7.50, less transaction costs?

The CEO of Ben Franklin is correct: This is an “outstanding transaction for our shareholders,” (especially for those that bought in at $7.50 per share 18 months earlier). It would not seem to be the same value for the member-owners of the credit union.

Is this first-of-its-kind deal why NCUA recently announced its intent to consider requiring more transparency around credit union’s purchase of banks?

Doing What’s Right for Our Members

An earlier blog I wrote (August 1) discussed the harm done to local communities and members when sound, well run credit unions are merged into firms outside the traditional community or market areas being served.

The poster child for this concern was the announced merger between two credit unions over 1,200 mile apart:  Infinity in Westbrook, Maine, and Vibrant in Moline, Illinois.

On September 24, the merging credit union Infinity FCU reported that the deal was off, stating in part:

“The merger process brought some important differences to light and it became evident that the integration was simply not a good fit. The talks ended amicably, with both sides agreeing to work as collaborators rather than partners going forward. Infinity FCU continues to be a strong and financially sound organization and we are committed to achieving our vision for the future of doing what’s right for our members, our communities, and our employees.”

Congratulations to the CEO Elizabeth Hayes and the Infinity Board for this change of direction. It is hard to reverse course when an initiative is publicly announced. As noted above “doing what’s right for our members” is always a fail safe policy touchstone.

When a President Promoted Credit Unions

The White House
Washington D.C.
July 2, 1936


What do you think of some
publicity on Federal Credit Unions?
I understand 1,479 of them have already
been organized, with an estimated
membership of 205,000. We might do
something to push this. They are


My only question is, who brought this opportunity to FDR’s attention? That is the kind of “Washington presence” credit unions should have today!

How Shadow Banks and Fintechs Keep Increasing Their Role As Financial Intermediaries

Amit Seru, a Stanford University Professor, presented his most recent data updates on the role of shadow banks and FinTechs at the FDIC’s 19th Annual Research Conference last week.

The slides he used can be found here.

The trends show that more and more lending is originated by non-depository institutions in both the mortgage and consumer lending arenas.

Two of his slides (#10 & 11) illustrate this growing market penetration geographically by county between 2008 and 2015.

These alternative financial firms enter markets as depository firms withdraw primarily due to their lack of profitability.

FinTechs’ role

Seru was especially interested in the role of FinTechs firms, which he defines as firms relying on virtual channel operations that can be completed from beginning to end without human intervention.

The FinTech advantages of faster processing, use of broader data sets for marketing and decisioning, and a superior quality online experience, are well known.

But he also suggests their success is not because of a price advantage over banks. In some cases consumers pay more for online convenience and speed.

Why the loss of market share?

Seru concludes that the Fintech technical advantages account for only 30-40% of the shift in market share. He asserts the most important factor (60-70%) in this ten-year market share change is the impact of regulation on banks’ ability or willingness to continue serving specific markets. This regulatory burden has increased substantially since the 2008 financial crisis primarily as a result of regulations from the Dodd-Frank legislation.

Even with a lesser regulatory burden, FinTechs are not all-powerful. He points out they are mostly dependent on the secondary market for final loan funding. Importantly, the balance sheets of depository institutions gives them more flexibility in certain products such as jumbo loans. Should the secondary markets become more selective or volatile, then the banks traditional funding advantages may reassert themselves.

Credit union takeaways

For both traditional and new entrants in the consumer and small business lending markets, the key factor to long term growth and resilience is access to liquidity. Generally depositor relationships are more stable and often less expensive than wholesale and secondary market reliance. Convenience, not price, seems to be the primary reason FinTechs disrupt traditional service models. However this advantage in the digital channel is rarely permanent. An all-channel strategy is especially valuable for community institutions.

Credit union relationships based on loyalty and trust are a significant advantage versus competitors focused on transaction capture. For 110 years the cooperative model has followed a second-to-market innovation strategy that has resulted in growth and evolving business models. Cooperative design, aligning with members’ needs, would seem to be a continuing advantage regardless of where disruption may occur.