Asset Bubbles and Credit Unions

During his time as Vice Chair of the FDIC, Thomas Hoenig challenged the agency’s implementation of risk-based capital requirements.  He questioned both the theory and practice, pointing to the lending distortions which contributed to banking losses during the Great Recession.

I became aware of  his views when in 2014 NCUA began the process of imposing the same flawed system on credit unions.   Hoenig believed the best capital indicator was  a simple leverage ratio, the credit union model for 110 years, until December 2021.  Then NCUA dictated a complex, three-part capital structure, CCULR/RBC, to replace this century long capital standard.

Hoenig’s Other Regulatory Dissent

Hoenig was a career regulator.  He began as an economist in bank supervision at the Kansas City District Federal Reserve Bank an area of the country where he had grown up. In the 1970’s during a period of unprecedented double-digit inflation, he saw first-hand the impact on lenders and their borrowers whose relationships were underwritten with collateral-based loans.   The security was believed to be ironclad during this decade of ever-rising prices for farmland and commercial real estate.

Hoenig’s story is told in a new book, The Lords of Easy Money,  and a summary article in Politico. The article describes how he became the lone dissenting vote in November 2010 on the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee.  He opposed extending the monetary policy called quantitative easing beyond the Great Recession to jump start the economy.

His opposition was based on his early Midwestern regulatory experience, as the Fed tried to get inflation under control. From Politico:

“Under Volcker, the Fed raised short-term interest rates from 10 percent in 1979 to 20 percent in 1981, the highest they have ever been.

“You could see, Hoenig recalls, that no one anticipated that adjustment.” More than 1,600 banks failed between 1980 and 1994, the worst failure rate since Depression.”

But the banking failures and borrower bankruptcies were not the primary reason for Hoenig to  oppose Fed Chair Bernanke’s continued quantitative easing.

The “Allocative Effect” of Asset Bubbles

When borrowing rates are effectively negative, as now, this fuels inflation with surplus liquidity looking for places to go.   Too many dollars chasing too few goods. With funding costs near zero, any reasonable investment looks like a sure thing.

As asset prices rise quickly, a feedback loop develops. Higher asset prices today drive tomorrow’s asset prices ever higher. Especially when those assets are pledged to support more borrowing.

For Hoenig, his greatest concern with this low interest rate policy is the distortion or  “allocative effects”  of the additional wealth created by this monetary stimulus.

As summarized in Politico:

“Quantitative easing stoked asset prices, which primarily benefited the very rich. By making money so cheap and available, it also encouraged riskier lending and financial engineering tactics like debt-fueled stock buybacks and mergers, which did virtually nothing to improve the lot of millions of people who earned a living through their paychecks.

Hoenig was worried primarily that the Fed was taking a risky path that would deepen income inequality, stoke dangerous asset bubbles and enrich the biggest banks over everyone else. He also warned that it would suck the Fed into a money-printing quagmire that the central bank would not be able to escape without destabilizing the entire financial system.”

The Economic Consequences Hoenig Warned About

Those distortions are here now.  One need only look general stock market levels as well as individual company valuations that are unhinged from  performance to see examples that don’t compute.

In a January 7 essay “A Stock Market Crash is Coming and Everyone Knows It” the writer notes wild stock valuations: The price earnings ratio for the S&P index of stocks historically averages 15.  Today the ratio is 29 times;  Amazon’s ratio is 60 and Tesla’s 330.

This disconnect between stock prices and a company’s financials is most visible in meme stocks, IPO’s and SPAC’s often with no history of positive net income.  These new offerings and crypto-currency  asset hype are explained as harbingers of  a  newly emerging digital-metaverse economy.  Predictions of these asset bubbles bursting go back at least two years.  Because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean the Fed’s changed policy won’t be disruptive.

The Credit Union Impact

Credit unions are creatures of the market. Co-ops whether by design or neglect that have become distant from their members, are even more dependent on market sourced opportunities.

Approximately 80% of all credit union loans are secured by autos, first and second mortgages, or commercial assets. Before asset bubbles burst, decisions about new loans and investments look straightforward, easy to project future returns.

The most frequent example today of this financial euphoria is credit unions buying whole banks, frequently in new markets.  When the cost of funds is .25- .50 basis points, paying a premium of 1.5 to 2.0 times book value for a bank looks like a can’t lose opportunity.   Even when the bank’s financial performance is being supported by the same low cost of funds and its underwriting  secured by commercial loans with continuously appreciating assets.

GreenState Credit Union in Iowa, Hoenig’s home state, is so eager to take advantage of these current opportunities that it is buying and absorbing three banks simultaneously, all operating outside its core markets.

In North Carolina, Truliant  Federal Credit Union announced in December that it had raised $50 million in an unsecured  subordinated term note at a fixed rate of 3.625%, The purpose reported in the press: “Truliant has primarily grown the credit union’s loan portfolio organically, however management is open to acquisitions in the $500-$750 million asset range.” 

The announcement is a public invitation for brokers to bring their deals to Truliant’s table.

When funding looks inexpensive and asset values stable or rising, what could go wrong?

The short answer is that  the Fed’s inflation response will disrupt all asset valuations and their expected returns.  The larger question is whether buying businesses whose owners believe now is the time to cash out, and whose results were created by a very different model and charter, will even match a credit union’s capabilities.

In an earlier analysis of credit union whole bank purchases I raised these issues:

As credit unions pursue whole bank acquisitions, are they buying “tired” business models built with different values and goals? Are these credit unions giving up the advantages of cooperative design and innovation attempting to purchase scale? Will combining competitors’ experiences (and customers) with the credit union tax exemption create an illusion of financial opportunity that fails to prove out when evaluated years down the road.

The Discipline Required of the Co-op Model

The co-op member-owner model protects credit unions from some of the rough and tumble accountability of constantly changing stock market valuations.  This difference requires strong management and board discipline to remain focused on the people (members) who respond to and need a credit union relationship.

Buying into new markets and customers through financial leverage, versus winning them in competition, is a new game for credit unions.  Organic growth builds on known capabilities and experiences, not externally purchased originations.

Hoenig’s critiques offer a third lesson relevant for these leveraged buyouts.  The financial consequences of public policy changes can take years  for their consequences to be found out.

It took seven years for the FDIC to recognize there was no cost-benefit outcome with RBC. And eleven years to understand the full economic impacts from when he first opposed quantitative easing as the primary tool for the fed to keep the economy growing.

Credit union success is not because they are bigger, financially more sophisticated, or even led by superior managers versus banks.   They win when their capabilities  align with member needs.  Members join based on their choice, not because their account was bought from another firm.

The beginning of a significant economic pivot, long forecast by the Fed, seems a very suspect time to use member capital to pay out bank owners.   The bank owners are asking for members’ cash, not the stock that other bank purchasers would offer, to protect these sellers from valuation uncertainties.

Credit union leaders buying banks are betting (paying premiums) that they can  manage the bank’s assets and liabilities for a higher future return than their for-profit managers were able to do.

Rather than compete with a superior business design, buying banks intending to run them more effectively, feels like surrendering to the opposition.

A Dangerous Way of Thinking: Clayton Christensen’s Final Message

Harvard Business School Professor and creator of disruptive innovation theory, Clayton Christensen described the use of marginal cost/revenue analysis as “a dangerous way of thinking.”

Here is the critique from his case analysis of Blockbuster’s corporate failure:

Blockbuster followed a principle that is taught in every fundamental course in finance and economics: When evaluating alternative investments, ignore sunk and fixed costs (costs that have already been incurred), and instead base decisions on the marginal costs and marginal revenues (the new costs and revenues) that each alternative entails.

But it’s a dangerous way of thinking. This doctrine biases companies to leverage what they have put in place to succeed in the past, instead of guiding them to create the capabilities they’ll need in the future. 

Previously I showed how he applied this concept to personal, moral decisions.  How easy it is to give into the ever-present temptation to do something “just this once.”

But he also had great doubt about this approach to everyday business decisions.  I believe his analysis is relevant to some of the largest transactions now undertaken by credit unions:  buying whole banks.

How Credit Union Whole Bank Purchases are an Example of Christensen’s Concern with Marginal Cost Analysis

Twelve whole bank purchases have been announced by credit unions in 2021.  These are cash purchases of all the assets and liabilities of a bank.  A credit union cannot own a bank charter so the existing firm is bought as a single entity,  and any activities not authorized for credit unions sold off.

Cash is paid because credit unions cannot issue stock.  Stock is the more common currency in which interbank purchases are transacted.   The selling shareholders receive shares in the new combined entity.  These shares’ future value will depend on institutional performance and market trends.   There is no such future risk with a cash sale.  The seller can use the proceeds for any purpose.

These sales are off-market transactions.   That is credit unions negotiate the purchase in private, and unless the bank is publicly traded, the terms are rarely revealed.  Because the transactions are carried out without credit union-buyer disclosures, the bank seller controls the critical information about other offers and why the credit union was the chosen purchaser.

Unlike bank sales paid for with shares of stock, there is no  follow-up process  to determine if the promised benefits and/or institutional goals are achieved.   Sometimes the stated purposes is to offer bank customers the advantages of credit union services.   This is circular reasoning. In a purchase customers do not choose to join the credit union, their accounts were sold to benefit the bank’s stockholders.  It might even be counter- productive for the credit union to re-write customer loans purchased if this lowered the rates and thus the ROI on the credit union’s investment.

Without public statements of expected outcomes, the results of mergers become mashed in with all the credit union’s other financial outcomes.   There is no separate accounting of whether the return benefits the current member-owners.

The existing members’  should be informed how their value is increased  when their collective savings (reserves) are paid out to bank owners.  The price paid is often at a significant pick up over the bank’s reported book  or stock value.   This is especially important when the acquisition is outside of the credit union’s current market area and bringing no immediate service benefits.

Christensen’s critique of marginal analysis is most critically a strategic concern.  The prospect of  incremental growth is the frequently  stated or implied  reason for these purchases.   By adding  the existing savings and loans of bank customers,  the credit union will increase scale and incremental ROA and  maybe eliminate duplicate overhead expenses when combining firms.

Moreover the credit union’s net income is tax exempt, a fact that may be used to project enhanced earnings results than achieved by the bank.

Christensen’s observation of “dangerous thinking” is not about the financial math.  There can be more revenue, cost cuts and higher net income when adding more assets and liabilities.   That is not his point.

In these transactions credit unions are buying businesses that are mature.  The bank owners decided to cash out now and seek a better return for their funds versus continuing to grow  the bank’s business.

Marginal analysis to support investments in yesterday’s business models can jeopardize a credit union’s future.   Tomorrow’s financial services are being shaped by new fin-tech models, the growth of crypto currency transactions, and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO’s) which operate outside current regulatory boundaries.  This is not what credit union’s are buying in these transaction.

Even the increased regulatory and competitive threats to overdraft (courtesy pay) income and credit and debit exchange fees, could upend the financial assumptions in these purchases.

Credit unions are buying financial firms whose owners believe their best days are over.  These credit union purchases are cash spent on yesterday’s businesses not tomorrow’s. Buying a firm’s old business models might boost short term marginal  revenue  but accelerate a longer run decline in competitive positioning.

Quantifying the Risk

As the number and scale of these transactions grows so does the risk. Most transactions are done at a premium over the latest stock price or a multiple of  book value. One analysis reports  recent sale prices range from 1.3 to 1.9 times book value

In the examples that follow, the three credit union purchasers report total net worth of $1.863 billion in their September 30 call reports.   The five banks being purchased by these credit unions report total book equity of $678 million.  If the agreed purchase price was just for book value, these  bank  investments would average 36% of the credit unions’ total net worth.

However, if the purchase price was greater than book, for example at 1.5 times, then the credit unions have paid out cash of over $1.0 billion, or 55% if their net worth, to these bank stockholders.  The difference between the bank’s book value and purchase price would be recorded as goodwill, an intangible asset, for the credit union.

The examples share common operational challenges and also demonstrate three different primary risks.   They illustrate why increased transparency by  credit unions in these deals is sorely needed.

In each example, the credit unions are playing with “house money” that is the members’ collective savings/reserves. If the risks assessed and returns hoped for are not achieved, then the investment shortfalls will reduce existing member-owners  value. And if the purchase proves totally mistaken, the risk is the entire credit union system’s.

Playing with House Money

Example 1:

Vystar’s Purchase of Heritage Southeast Bancorporation (HSBI) is the largest bank acquisition announced so far.   HSBI is a bank holding company, a recent combination of three previously separate firms, with $1.6 billion in assets and 22 branch locations.

Before the purchase was announced, HSBI’s stock price traded in the $14-$!5 range.   Immediately after Vystar’s offer of $27 per share (approximately $196 million) the stock jumped overnight to $25-$26, where it has stayed since.

HSBI’s assets are only 14% of Vystar’s $11.4 billion.  But this investment would equal approximately 21% of the credit union’s September 30 net worth.    The critical question in this deal: was HSBI woefully undervalued by the market and Vystar negotiated a good deal?

Can Vystar turn around a three-bank conglomerate that had yet to achieve its financial potential?  If the pre-purchase market price is a better indicator of HSBI’s franchise value, Vystar has bet almost $100 million that the market value was under-priced and that it can realize its full value.

Example II:

In early August the $1.027billion Orion FCU announced the purchase of the  $751 million Financial Federal Bank, in Memphis, to “expand its products and services and deepen market share in private banking, residential and commercial lending.”

At September 30, Financial Federal’s $792 million in assets were77% of Orion’s total assets.  This would be by far the largest whole bank acquisition as a % of the purchasing credit union’s assets.

Financial Federal is privately owned.   The bank’s capital at September was $93 million.  If the purchase price were 1.5 times book, this would be a cash payment of about $140 million.   This amount would be 120% of Orion’s September 30 net worth.   If book value was the cash purchase price, that would equal 80% of Orion’s reserves.

The credit union is putting all of its chips on the table with this purchase.  In November a state judge imposed a temporary injunction  on the purchase  at the request of the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions.  TDFI argued that it is a prohibited transaction under the state’s banking act.

If upheld, might TDFI have done a favor for the credit union?

Example III:

The $7.91 billion GreenState credit union headquartered in North Liberty, Iowa has announced three bank purchase and assumptions in 2021. They are:

  1. Oxford Bank, Oakbrook, Il. $759mn Assets and $71 mn capital
  2. Premier Bank, Omaha, NB. $383 mn Assets and        $40 mn capital
  3. Midwest Community Bank, St Charles, IL. $352 mn Assets and $54.3 mn capital

The three are privately owned and no terms of  the transactions have been announced.   The total assets of the three at September 30 are $1.5 billion with capital of  $166.3 million.

These $ totals would be 19% and 21% of the GreenState’s assets and capital respectively.  If the purchase prices averaged 1.5 X book,  the cash payouts would be 30% of GreenState’s new worth.

What makes this series of transaction different is not the financial risk scale but rather the operational complexity.   Three banks, three different computer systems, three geographic markets and three very different business models  tied into their local communities.

Oxford has six branches and a head office, Premier bank four branches, and Midwest Community, three branches, a loan production office and a subsidiary Blue Leaf with six loan production offices.

In addition to the operational transitions, are the cultural challenges introducing employees to the credit union way of doing things.  The three bank franchises are distant from GreenState’s existing service network and market network.   This brings the additional challenge of introducing the credit union’s brand to three or more, new marketplaces when the prior community legacies no longer exist.

In March of 2020, Greenstate completed purchase of seven branches of the First American Bank in Iowa with total deposits of $470 million, $200 million in loans and 10,000 customers. The transaction was closed despite the objection of the Iowa banking regulator, himself a bank owner:

The superintendent’s approval of the application is solely for the purpose of settling this dispute, and the superintendent does not admit that an Iowa state-chartered bank may sell substantially all of its assets and liabilities to a credit union under Iowa code. Rather, the superintendent reiterates his conclusion that such a transaction is not authorized and that IDOB will quickly deny any future application based on a similarly structured transaction.

Did this regulatory opposition force GreenState to look out-of-state for future bank purchases?

What Needs to be Done

Christensen’s “dangerous way of thinking” analysis cautioned against the temptation to justify investment decisions by incremental short term benefit at the cost of long term sustainability.

No one knows whether these whole bank purchases above will succeed or turn out bust. Or somewhere in between.  ROI will take years to assess.  In the meantime many other events can make subsequent analysis difficult.

An immediate step to improve the soundness of these transactions is to ensure the full details are disclosed to the members whose funds are being put at risk and to the credit union system which is the ultimate backstop.

Keeping everyone in the dark except the deal makers means no one is accountable.   The asymmetry of information in which the seller holds most of the cards puts credit unions at a disadvantage when sizing up a selling bank.  Every bank owner’s goal is to buy low and sell high.

An example: if the purchase is to gain expertise (eg. commercial lending experience) and/or relationships the credit union does not possess, how does the credit union evaluate situations they claim to know little about?

The credit union model expects leaders to be responsive to members.  But when the data and assumptions underwriting these investments is withheld, there is no accountability.  The transaction is “off market” for members; only the bank sellers are in position to decide it this is a satisfactory deal.

The quicker the entire purchase picture is in the open, only then can those whose funds are at risk and the credit union community at large determine whether these deals make sense.

The time to make this a routine disclosure is before one of these deals goes really bad, not after the lesson becomes a Blockbuster-type case for the cooperative system.














Harper’s NCUA Priorities: “Fiddling While Rome Burns”

Chairman Harper’s Senate hearing for a second term confirmed his intentions for NCUA.  In his opening statement and when answering questions, he reiterated his regulatory to-do list.  Along with prior speeches and proposals these include:

  • Establishing a separate consumer examination force (he stated NCUA is working on a white paper to validate this need).
  • Eliminate all current legislative constraints on NCUSIF funding and premium assessments.
  • Seek authority for examining and supervising third party vendors serving credit unions.
  • Climate change risk must be included when evaluating safety and soundness.
  • And the need for multiple agency investments to “continue prioritizing capital and liquidity, cybersecurity, consumer financial protection, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

His opening Senate statement reflects his experiences as entirely within the “legislative, regulatory and policy” arena.  He sees the scope and purpose of his role as running a government agency, not facilitating the relevance, role and reach, i.e. the sustainability of the cooperative system.

Since the late 1990s, I have worked as an advisor, manager, and executive on banking, insurance, and securities legislation and regulation. These jobs have given me broad knowledge of financial services policy and a deep understanding of the many issues facing our nation’s $2 trillion credit union system. 

One Vote Short to Enact Harper’s Agenda

Sooner or later all of Harper’s desires to expand NCUA’s authority and resources will receive a second board vote.  Either by convincing a current member that “bipartisan compromise” is the correct leadership response, or due to the expiration of one of the other board member’s term.

Harper’s positions are not driven by facts, data analysis, or even trends.  He has been advocating for risk-based capital (now linked with CCULR) since 2014 despite all the factual evidence that it is both unneeded and does not work.  He persists in immediately imposing this 400+ page rule even in the face of statements such as this by former board Member McWatters at a June 2019 board meeting:

Board Member McWatters: Okay, so there’s work to be done on the rule. And I should also note that when this rule was proposed and finalized, I dissented from it. And I dissented from the rule because in my view, as a lawyer for over 37 years, the rule violates the Federal Credit Union Act. I said that twice in written dissents in some detail in some legal analysis.

Now, I understand that reasonable minds may differ. Other people, other people in this room have a different view. I respect those views, but I also think that if this delay passes, we should look at that. We should go through that analysis again. I don’t want a rule on the books that in my view as a lawyer dealing with issues like this for a long, long time simply does not comply with what Congress told us to do. So I hope that, I hope that we can do that.

The Danger of a Misguided Regulator

We all see what we want to see.

Harper has spent most of his professional life working on legislative and regulatory policy. His goal is to enhance government’s role, not sustain the cooperative movement that created the agency in the first place.

His position on issues is to promote a regulation- heavy outcome.

His lack of credit union experience, knowledge and operations is a serious blind spot.

Today the credit union movement faces growing challenges. They have nothing to do with Harper’s understanding of safety and soundness, forecasting the next recession or even competitors overwhelming the movement through innovation or scale.

There are two wildfires burning uncontrolled throughout the cooperative environment. Both were started internally, and each is continuously fed by NCUA’s actions.

Not “Mergers” but “Collective Euthanasia”

The first wildfire is the increasing use of self-interested mergers, allegedly for economies of scale by managers of sound, stable and long-standing credit unions to become part of a larger one.  The increasingly brazen appropriation of credit union members’ common wealth is exemplified by a CEO’s arranging $35 million in funding for the non-profit organization he will run after his $650 million credit union is merged.

These acts of the CEO and senior leadership cashing out via merger are not new.  But they are increasingly promoted by third parties who draw up “change of control” clauses for CEO contracts.  Then the same CEO’s go out and negotiate their own change to collect the bonus.

NCUA routinely signs off on these self-serving charter cancellations.  The problem is more than self-enrichment.  Every merger of these long serving credit unions rips out roots feeding the cooperative model. Members’ accounts, loyalty and common resources are transferred to a third party which has little to no relationship to the community which loses their decades old local financial institution.

These mergers destroy the credit union system at its roots.  Members leave and the entire basis of the credit union’s soundness, the member relationship, withers and dies.

The continuing credit union may seem strong, but that is a temporary illusion.  Loyalty, trust and confidence cannot be bought.  They are earned via long standing service relationships.

The common bond which first brought the credit union to life is now transformed into an act of  cooperative euthanasia in these merger manipulations.

The rot then shows up in the continuing credit union even when it tries to regain former member’s allegiance. The roots have been severed.  As a result  the solution is sometimes to ask its own members to approve this collective merger death ritual by the continuing credit union— the story of Xceed CU.

Using Member Reserves to Buy Banks

The second challenge is credit unions using members’ accumulated reserves to buy banks.  Often these are outside the credit union’s existing network and market influence.  The reasons are to grow faster than might otherwise occur, especially in new markets.

However, paying $1.50 to $2.00 for each $1.00 of book assets sooner or later will lead to a financial dead end.  Unlike mergers, these purchases are for cash.  There will have to be a return over years to support the premiums being paid for these assets.  The results of each purchase will not be known for some time.  Meanwhile, credit unions will have to convert new employees, customers and  products and services in a process different from the credit union’s traditional member-chosen relationships.

The jury is out as to whether these financial investments will ever payout.  But one trend is apparent.  Bank purchases to pursue growth becomes a narcotic.  It is like an opioid that a CEO and board become addicted to when their own efforts at internal expansion no longer seem enticing. Some credit unions have completed more than one bank purchase.  It is not unusual to see a credit union undertake two transactions back-to-back or in a current case, two at once.

The Common Source for these Growing Cooperative Wildfires

Both of these activities are failings of fiduciary duties.  The common characteristic in both is  credit unions have lost touch with their own members.  Their leaders believe the credit union is their personal fiefdom to do as they like, even when the decision is to ask members to commit cooperative suicide by giving up their generations-old charter.

As institutional growth and performance is prioritized over member well-being, the credit union model becomes more and more like the competitors’ it was meant to replace.

In both activities members are kept in the dark- told nothing about bank purchases. Or in mergers, members are given  a series of assertions about better products and services that omit significant information or misrepresent the entire situation—and given less than 45 days to act before voting.  Few vote, rightly sensing the system is rigged against them, which is often the case.

The solution to these two failings is as straight forward as the cause—empower members to be truly informed and engaged about their credit union’s activities.  Transparency is critical whenever members’ collective wealth is used outside the normal business model.

In mergers members are given nothing more than PR cliches.  Should ending a successful, sound charter be so much easier than what is required for a new charter in the first place?

Harper sees “consumer protection” as crossing every “T” and dotting every “I”.  That approach is  fiddling while the cooperative industry burns down.  In the meantime, members’ collective legacies are stripped away by their boards and managers.

Sound, well run credit unions are losing their cooperative roots and purpose.  No one is willing to address the situation for what it is and stop these extermination.  Unfortunately, we know how this movie ends.  The original version was called the S & L industry.


When a Bank Owner is Better Off than a Credit Union Owner

On September 3rd, South Division Credit Union’s merger with Scott Credit Union was completed.  In this time of political and ethical disorder, this combination raises a critical issue for the future of the cooperative system.

I described the unusual circumstances of South Division’s merger in an August 13 post, Can’t We Do Better Than this?

The credit union’s commitment  to its members was clear on the website:

Once a Member, Always a Member

Membership with SDCU is on your terms. No matter where you move or how your life changes, you can maintain Membership with us. And when those life-altering moments do occur, SDCU assures you that we will be there to offer support and personalized financial services to suit all of your needs.

Our commitment to you is the driving force behind our credit union, because your life is our priority.

But the July 14, 2021 Special Meeting Notice from the CEO and seven directors recommending merger, paint a very different picture as follows:

South Division Credit Union has not grown in size or membership participation for several years and has been faced with increasing operational, regulatory and compliance expenses; lack of managerial expertise, aging Board of Directors and no effective succession plans. 

Multiple facts support this self-confessed failure.  Membership has fallen from 6,724 at December 2016 to 5,287 at June 2021.  Net worth has almost been cut in half, from 14% at yearend 2019, to 7.47 at this midyear.

This capital decline was due to operating losses of $1.995 million in 2020 and another $252,211 for the first six months of 2021.

Full time equivalent employees have been reduced from 26 to 17.  Total member loan balances have fallen by $2.5 million or 15% over the past twelve months. Top line total revenue has decreased year over year since 2016, and by 14% in the first six months of 2021 versus comparable period of 2020.

An Abandoned Ship?

Members and employees both appear to be fleeing a leaking if not sinking ship. However, during these years of declines, the CEO was garnering significant recognition from the credit union system.

At the merger date, the CEO had been in place since 1987, or 35 years.  A July 2013  Illinois Business Journal profile listed her many career involvements including :

  • Director of the ICUL board since 2003
  • Chairman of ICUL in 2014
  • President of two credit union chapters
  • 30 Year Member of CUES and Illinois CUES Council Chair
  • 30 Year Member of the IL Political Action Council and past chair
  • Service on Cuna’s Governmental Affairs Committee
  • Three years on CUNA’s state government subcommittee
  • Internationally, a member of the World Council of Credit Unions for 25 years and a founding member of the Women’s Global Leadership network.

The article also enumerated more than a dozen local charities, school and educational involvements plus multiple civic engagements by the CEO.

The awards granted to the CEO in just the past decade include:

  • The Evergreen Park Chamber of Commerce “Business Person” of the Year for 2011
  • Induction into the Illinois credit Union Hall of Fame-April 2017
  • The Credit Union House Hall of Leaders Recognition at Capitol Hill-March 2018: “a distinguished group of individuals whose leadership serves as a model for credit union leaders throughout the country.”
  • The Perpetual Tribute Award from the Illinois Credit Union Foundation at the ICUL’s 89th Annual meeting-April 2019

The Final Tally

One of the reasons for South Division’s loss in 2020 was the increase of over $1.0 million (74%) in salaries and benefits from the prior year. Was this a bonus or other benefit paid prior to announcing the merger where a disclosure would be required?

State chartered credit unions must file 990 IRS forms by May 15 after each yearend which would disclose the compensation for senior management and to the board, if any. There was no IRS 990 on file for South Division for 2020 as of the merger date.

Prior year’s filings report total CEO compensation rising annually  from $206,643 in 2016 to $290,474 for 2019. In addition, the 990’s show a split dollar life insurance plan as an asset for $3.8 million and a pension plan balance of $2.8 million.

The Merger and the Members

At June 30, 2021 the credit union reported net worth of $3.9 million less an “other comprehensive income” account of negative $2.5 million, not otherwise explained.  If this is a pension plan or other unfunded benefit, it is not clear what the obligation at the merger would be or who is responsible-Scott or South Division-if anyone.

Whatever the case, if this shortfall must be funded, certainly that requirement would seem to qualify as a merger related benefit requiring disclosure to members.  If not, then should the members have received some of the almost $4.0 million of net worth as a result of their patronage since 1935?

Enter Scott Credit Union

South Division has been in decline for years, even as the CEO garnered multiple awards and participated in numerous outside activities.

The credit union is a mess, according to its own leaders’ statement above.  Who cleans it up? How can the members be given what the cooperative promised to deliver?

Scott Credit Union would seem to be a very handsome and strong white knight riding to the rescue.  Its adherence to the cooperative model is presented on its website:

Our Cooperative Structure

Founded in 1943, Scott Credit Union is a full-service financial institution providing financial services for individuals and businesses, including free checking accounts with interest, ATMs, credit and debit cards.  .  .

Scott Credit Union, like all credit unions, is a not-for-profit financial cooperative that offers banking services. When someone opens an account with a credit union, they become a member and an owner.

Your experience with Scott Credit Union is about more than money, it’s about you getting the most value for your money and reaching your financial goals.

Our products and services and pricing are driven by our members, not by stock holders looking to increase their net worth.

So far so good; just two nagging questions.  Why was no Chicago area credit union approached to help where there would be local knowledge and an immediate network delivery expansion for members?

Scott is 240 miles and a four-to-five hour drive from South Division, so what is their game plan? So how will members benefit from a leadership team whose focus and experience is in a very different market and far away?

Was there any due diligence by Scott? How will Scott make things right for South Division members who have been “short-changed” for years?

The Other Shoe Drops

My earlier view was that Scott had drawn the “short straw” in its willingness to resuscitate South Division members’ credit union experience.  This was especially so since it is far removed from its own network and market reputation.

But then came the stunning announcement.  On August 20, 2021 Scott announced it had agreed to buy Sugar Creek Financial Corp and its Tempo Bank subsidiary with $93 million in assets. That was just ten days prior to the South Division members’ vote on merger-a done deal given Illinois’ use of proxies in mergers.

The stunning part was not the bank purchase.  Tempo Bank was in Scott’s home market and would “increase its total footprint to 22 locations across the Metro East and St. Louis area.”

No, the stunner was the juxtaposition of how Scott treated the bank’s owners versus the credit union owners of South Division.

Start with the bank’s CEO, Robert Stroh, who will retire after 45 years of service but will be “offered a consulting agreement with Scott for a period of time following consolidation.” No such agreement for South Division leaders.

The bank’s CEO observed: “We know our customers will benefit from all the additional resources that Scott Credit Union has to offer while knowing that their money is staying right here in the community.” Hmm, not the Chicago market?

But Scott’s true colors show in how they are treating the bank’s shareholders versus the credit union’s member-owners.

Scott is offering $14.2 million or a premium of approximately  $4.0 million, or 38%, over the bank’s book value at June 30, 2021.

The day before the purchase announcement, the bank’s stock closed at $11.41.  The Sugar Creek shareholders are projected to receive between $14.50-$16.50 in cash, subject to valuation adjustments when closing the P&A.  South Division members get $0.

South Division members were given words, the general promise of a better future, but no cash or even plans. Better to be a bank shareholder than a credit union owner!

But the situation is worse. Scott gets a lot more from South Division than four branches, 5,287 “underserved” members and $51 million in assets.   It receives approximately $4.0 million in South Division equity to be able to pay the premium to the owners of Sugar Creek Financial!

Scott appears to be no white knight for South Division members.  Rather, the combination seems to be birds of a feather finding each other.  Scott’s real heart is in Southern Illinois, where it is investing the $4.0 million, not suburban Chicago.

Of the three CEO’s, it is the bank executive who showed the greatest attention to their owners’ welfare.

“It Happens Every Day”

Credit union CEO’s  using mergers for self-advantage with members receiving only promises  has become  more common. The precedent of a retiring CEO  leaving with multiple industry honors, rather than honor, is not new.

Examples of CEO’s selling out the institution that provided them the platform on which they stood for much of their professional careers is an increasing pattern.

One of my former colleagues would counsel me, “it happens every day.”  I don’t accept that as a reason for “leaders” betraying their member-owner’s loyalty.

As the movement stays silent, we become complicit.  The lesson of South Division and Scott is that indifference is toxic, and it seeps into the soil upon which we all stand.

Credit unions have always asserted they have a higher role than profits and institutional growth.  Acting in the members’ best interest may be an open-ended standard, but this kind of member exploitation is a specific harm.

When some credit union leaders demonstrate they respect bank owners more than their own member-owners, the cooperative model is in trouble. They are doing things for which there is no excuse and if unchallenged, this behavior will metastasize.

The issue isn’t only the members’ welfare at South Division, Xceed, Post Office Employees, Sperry Associates or dozens of others abandoned by their “leadership.” Rather it is about the next generation of members who will not have a credit union option that seems to be anything other than just a banking choice.

That loss of uniqueness will end the valuable cooperative experiment unless current leaders have the courage to say enough is enough.

But the greater squandering is of an American economy, with deepening inequalities,  urgently in need of organizations willing to put consumers’ best interests first.

 Current Whole Bank Purchases Illuminate Core Issues and a Glaring Deficiency

The five whole bank purchases by credit unions announced in 2021 illustrate the importance of answering the ten “transaction level” questions posed yesterday.  Each instances adds more complexity to those common issues . A review of these four credit unions’ actions follows.

  1. This month, Wings Financial Credit Union completed the acquisition of the $72.4 million Brainerd Savings and Loan, a Mutual Federal Savings Charter.

This in-market acquisition’s primary difference is Brainerd’s mutual ownership structure.  Brainerd and Wings cannot legally enter into a merger agreement, so the transaction is structured as a branch sale of Brainerd’s sole office, with a purchase and assumption of assets and liabilities, a voluntary liquidation of Brainerd, followed by a distribution of any residual assets to Brainerd’s mutual depositors.

Completed early in June, both parties have kept details private.  There have been no disclosures of valuation for assets and liabilities nor how the well-capitalized mutual’s reserves will be distributed.

Secrecy creates a situation lacking accountability.  How should depositors’ collective wealth be allocated to executives who facilitate the sale?  For the directors of both institutions, what is their fiduciary responsibility for disclosures to their owners?

Converting mutual banking charters serving the general public into private sales with no disclosure is an unsettling precedent. Because CEO’s and boards manage common wealth, respect for the values of honesty, openness, and trust are a vital factor of mutual and co-op design.  How will Wing’s leaders inform their member-owners about this use of their reserves and the benefits they should expect?

2. Vystar’s purchase of HSBI is the largest bank acquisition by a credit union to date.

Heritage Southeast Bancorporation, Inc. (HSBI) serves as the holding company operating three legacy brands Heritage Bank, Providence Bank and The Heritage Bank in their historical home markets. The holding company oversees $1.6 billion in assets and 22 branch locations across Southeast Georgia, through Savannah and into the Greater Atlanta Metro area.

The transaction combining these three previously independently owned banks was completed in September 2019.  Their independent business models focused on local commercial and real estate loans with virtually no consumer lending.

These mergers are the primary reason for the five-year growth shown below in Heritage bank’s assets:

Avg Yearly Asset

2016 = $409m

2017 = $445m

2018 = $490m

2019 = $1.055b

2020 = $1.457b


Its Pretax Operating Income Trails the Peer

2016 = 0.49% ROA (6th Percentile vs. Peer)

2017 = 0.92% ROA (14th Percentile vs. Peer)

2018 = 1.21% ROA (29th Percentile vs. Peer)

2019 = 0.37% ROA (1st Percentile vs. Peer)

2020 = 0.41% ROA (3rd Percentile vs. Peer)

When HSBI’s combination of three separate banks was announced in the fall of 2019, two CEO’s explanations were included in the newspaper story:

The combination is expected to offer shareholders several benefits, including ownership in a larger, more diversified and scalable company that has increased capital flexibility and operational effectiveness and efficiency, as well as improved liquidity in their shares.

“We look forward to continuing the ‘customer first’ cultures of each of our legacy organizations, while also providing our shareholders with a more marketable stock,” said Brad Serff, the President for the legacy Providence Bank division. 

“There are advantages to the merger,” Smith, CEO of The Heritage Bank said. “As a larger institution, we’ll have better resources, we’ll have more employees together obviously, and together we’ll just be stronger. We’ll have more effective buying power, we’ll gain efficiencies. 

Smith emphasized that on the client side, Heritage Bank will be able to offer a wider array of products, and the internal changes happening will affect the consumer or client in a minor way, if at all. Everybody worries about when banks do this, Smith said. But we’re the oldest bank in the area, and everyone else has done this.

“From a client standpoint, it should not change anything as far as the products and services we offer,” Smith continued. “In fact, the services could be enhanced. That is our intention. As far as what the client will see—the reality is, our branches are all staying the same, and the people are staying the same.”

Now all those assurances except one would appear unfilled.  HSBI stock certainly became more marketable, and fast.

Vystar is paying 1.80x tangible book value ($15.16 per share at 3/31/21) or $196 million for this bank combination that had yet to be fully implemented. The stock price jumped from $14.50 to $25 when the $27 share offer was announced. The market valuation prior to the announcement was only $105 million. This offer is a windfall for the new holding company’s shareholders.

The purchase price is approximately 22% of Vystar’s March 31, 2021, reserves. How will this transaction affect its net worth ratio now and in the future?

In addition to the financial issues are the challenges of an out of area purchase. HSBI’s headquarters in Jonesboro, GA, is 400 miles from Vystar’s headquarters.  The credit union has no brand recognition, legacy, or existing networking advantages in these new markets.

The HSBI consolidation was less than 18 months along. Each bank had retained their local identity.  Now another transition is needed for employees, customers and the communities served.

Small town banks, especially in commercial lending, are in the relationship business.  Will those advantages continue?   What benefits will Vystar bring to these markets which had just gone through an ownership change?

Yahoo Finance compares HSBI’s current stock price ($25 per share) to its earnings for the trailing 12 months.  At March 31 this ratio for HSBI’s  stock price is 177 times these trailing earnings, a stratospheric number.

Offering approximately two times book value for a company assembled a year and half earlier with a limited performance record seems sudden. Vystar’s challenge will be to convert their substantial premium and  three-bank unfinished combination into a competitive benefit for the credit union and its members.

  1. Lake Michigan Credit Union purchases Pilot Bank and its six Florida branches for $97 million.

The early June announcement of the credit union purchase of this Tampa-based bank caused the per share price to jump from $4 to $6 in less than a week.  At the agreed price of $6.25 for the 15,483 shares, this equates to a total value of over 1.8 times the bank’s March 31 book value.

Pilot bank focuses on commercial and industrial loans with a specialty in aircraft financing.   This will bring Lake Michigan’s west coast Florida branches to 19 (plus 46 in Michigan.)  The credit union says this further expansion into Florida is motivated to serve members who visit there in winter.

This transaction raises a similar set of challenges as for Vystar when expanding outside a credit union’s long time operational base. Tampa is 1,250 miles from Grand Rapids. Will the Florida customers and borrowers see the Lake Michigan brand as relevant to their local circumstances?

The price is 150% higher than the total market valuation before the announcement which makes the financial return especially important for this out of area investment.  The total purchase price would be approximately 10% of the Lake Michigan’s March 31, 2021, reserves.

  1. GreenState simultaneously purchases two banks with total assets of $1.1 billion.

On a credit union performance scale of 1-10, GreenState Credit Union would rank an 11.  Their numbers and service  are almost without peer.  This makes their  announcement on May 25 to buy two banks simultaneously unusual given their extraordinary in-state record.  One acquisition is in suburban Chicago and the second in Omaha.

Oxford Bank and Trust is headquartered in Oakbrook, Illinois and has six branch locations in Addison, Naperville, Plainfield, and Westmont. The press release says Oxford has assets of $730 million, with $405 million in commercial and consumer loans, $635 million in deposits and $71 million in capital.   The two headquarters are 220 miles apart.

Premier Bank established in 2011 is a locally owned, community bank serving the Omaha and surrounding areas, as well as the Nebraska City community. The bank has three branches in Omaha, and one branch in Nebraska City. At March 31, the bank reported $383 million in total assets with almost $40 million in capital.   Loans are primarily commercial and real estate.  GreenState’s head office  is 246 miles  from Omaha.

Both banks are privately owned so there are no public stock quotations.  No financial details were released.  However, the two institutions’ book value from FDIC reports is $111 million at March 31.  Both are stable, high performing and supportive of the sale to a credit union with which they apparently have no prior experience.

Assuming a purchase price of 1.75 times book value for the banks (no numbers were announced), that would equal $195 million or 27% of the credit union’s March 31 reserves.

GreenState raised $20 million of subordinated debt in the 4th quarter to add to its reserves.  Was this in anticipation of these purchases? Was this use in the supplemental capital application filed with NCUA?  If yes, that would seem to open a whole new purpose for supplemental capital.

These two out of area mergers raise the same questions as the previous out of state transactions. The GreenState brand is new in each market; both banks’ balance sheets focus on commercial and real estate, not consumer loans.  Implementing two on boardings, conversions and integrations at once will require an intense operational focus for the next 12-18 months.

“Market-based Transactions” & Other Observations

In early 2020 NCUA proposed changes to its rule (part 708(a)) on bank combinations. The proposal, currently in limbo, received almost 40 responses.

NAFCU’s comments on the proposal were supportive, stating that this is just the market at work, describing the bank’s decisions as “the best option available for consumers:”

Combination transactions are voluntary, market-based transactions that must receive approval from both the NCUA and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and as such, should not be subject to overly prescriptive regulatory requirements that could put these transactions as well as affected consumers at risk.

Bankers’ baseless attacks on the credit union industry regarding the sale of banks to credit unions have raised false alarms—these are voluntary, market-based transactions, wherein the banks’ board of directors are voting to sell to credit unions as the best option available for consumers.

However actual events are more complicated than this defense.  Each transaction above for which the sale price is known is a significant commitment of capital (10-22%) and major operational undertaking. Unlike organic growth initiatives, these “opportunities” are brought to credit unions by consultants or brokers reaching out for ready buyers. The serendipity nature of these offers should remind that they may or may not readily match a credit union’s market vision or operational readiness.

The examples where a sale price is disclosed suggest that bank owners have mastered the art of buying low and selling high. This raises a question: why would these shareholders sell for cash if they believed their bank had this inherent future potential?

A former credit union CEO commented on these events: Credit unions enter negotiations with the idea of buying market share and bragging rights.  Who brags about buying a trophy?  Banks arrive at the table with one thing in mind– ROI.

What alternatives for organic growth are being pushed down credit unions’ to-do lists? Are GreenState’s in-state opportunities and appeal so saturated that venturing into suburban Chicago and Omaha are a better option for members?

Each credit union has previous purchase transactions. What were their customer retention  outcomes?  How long was payback on these investments?  In what way did these experiences benefit current members?

Others who have evaluated these opportunities claim that they come down to a simple buy-versus-build financial calculus when considering a new market:

“When I calculated the cost and effort to build my way into a new market with high barriers to entry, I proved to myself that the costs associated with acquiring a turn-key, profitable book of business was in the ballpark.”

An Unsettling Lack of Transparency

What is common to all five purchases is the lack of information to evaluate the transactions on impartial, objective criteria with market comparisons.

Relevant details are not disclosed before the deals are closed as occurs in most bank-to-bank purchases.  Such public scrutiny can dampen excesses that may occur when core facts are not disclosed.  This secrecy also prevents the credit union system from learning from these examples.  The expertise relied upon now is at best conflicted as their compensation primarily comes when closing the deal.

These purchases have significant consequences for members, their credit union, the customers acquired and the employees and communities where the banks are operating. The credit union’s value proposition should be in writing and available to all affected parties.

Because coops manage “common wealth,” transparency is a critical leadership competency.  Without relevant information, confidence in these transactions is difficult to support.  Sooner or later, this lack of openness could lead to disappointing outcomes—but the sellers will have already taken their money to the bank, so to speak.

Chapter III will review what the member-owner’s.role should be in this use of their collective capital. They are not only owners but also the beneficiaries, or losers, should these deals turn out to be poor decisions.

Ten Questions for Whole Bank Purchases     

Some proponents assert that buying banks is just another market option for a credit union.   Similar to expanding a branch network, investing in technology or launching a rebranding campaign, this is just a business decision that needs to be “pencilled out” to see if it makes financial sense.

Analyzing a purchase transaction is not simple.  Every transaction has a different market context and unique financial data.

Ten Questions Before Any Purchase

Credit unions buy banks with cash, not stock, which is the common practice in bank-to-bank purchases.  Some data provided in bank announcements to enlist shareholder support are also relevant for credit unions.

The following list focuses on evaluating the purchase transaction itself, not the broader public policy implications or a credit union’s strategic framework.

  1. What will be the total expenses of the transaction for all fees, consultants, contract cancellations etc., and how will these costs be recorded by the credit union? What transparency will the credit union provide to demonstrate its own due diligence work.
  2.  What is the dollar total of bank assets and/or liabilities the credit union must sell as ineligible for a credit union charter? If significant, why is the merger being considered?
  3.  How will key personnel be retained and will there be a cultural fit? What obligations will the credit union have to the former executives and employees of the bank? Will covenants or conditions such as non-compete clauses limit major stockholders, senior and/or key executives whose stock has been paid out from becoming competitors. An observation from a merger veteran:  Credit unions talk about “buying” skills during a merger.  If you can’t keep a commercial lending team, mortgage banking team, wealth management team, then you are not buying anything.  Those jobs are like free agency – they sell their skills to the highest bidder.  You are not acquiring a piece of equipment, a patent, or a manufacturing process, you are buying people.  This is a service and relationship (networking) industry.  A star performer can take their network (and team) anywhere.  A merger is often the “nudge” the star performer needed to make a change to a different employer.  If they don’t see a direct benefit from the merger, you run the risk of losing them.
  4. How will the transaction affect the credit union’s net worth position? If all bank capital is absorbed in the acquisition, will the credit union remain well capitalized and able to realize its growth prospects in the newly obtained market?
  5. How will the additional assets affect the credit union’s overall ROA, efficiency, and concentration ratios? What is the payback period (breakeven) on the cash paid out in the transaction? How do various customer retention scenarios affect this return?(Proforma balance sheet and income statements before and after the purchase are useful in addressing these changes.)
  6. How much overlap with current markets exists? If high overlap, why merge to begin with?  If low overlap, is the credit union reaching too far from its geographic core?  How will an investment in a market where the credit union has no presence benefit current members?
  7. How will the bank customers become “involved” credit union members? These bank customers did not choose the credit union, have no direct experience with it and are probably unfamiliar with their acquirer. Can the credit union retain these relationships plus gain new ones?
  8. Why did the credit union pay a premium over the market valuation for this transaction? If the franchise is so desirable, why were there no other bids? How will existing market competitors–bank or credit unions–react?  Will there be critical comments such as taking away jobs, tax revenue, deposits, and local leadership from the community? Might competitors hire away key personnel?
  9. What are the regulatory requirements to be navigated? Will FDIC require public announcements be placed in affected markets?  What process will each regulator follow when evaluating the purchase—will different criteria be used for the FDIC and NCUA? Depending on the selling bank’s structure, will potential double taxation affect the price–  once on the asset value increases in liquidation and again on gains from shareholders’ stock sale.
  10. What existing plans will this acquisition defer, disrupt or postpone? What new risk mitigation measures will this event require?

Knowing questions to ask in any undertaking does not lead to easy answers. Any list of due diligence questions is incomplete as each circumstance introduces special factors.

However, using a check list can help assemble the basic information and analysis to consider versus the generalizations sometimes used to justify these purchases.

Tomorrow I will look at the four current transactions and their individual explanations.


Chapter II: Bank Purchases by Credit Unions: Just Another “market transaction?”

(Two blogs precede this chapter II. One posed the issues of credit unions buying banks; a second reviewed cooperatives’ public policy role.)

As of mid-June, four credit unions have announced agreements to purchase five whole banks. Each of the four purchasing credit unions—Lake Michigan, Vystar, Wings Financial and GreenState (buying two banks at once)—have had prior instances buying a whole bank and/or branch combinations.

These events raise both policy and transaction questions. One explanation by NCUA and trade associations is that whole bank purchases are “just the free market at work.” Nothing out of the ordinary. Two independent firms make decisions in the interests of both sets of owners and their communities.

Not Market-Tracking Decisions

However, this explanation is neither complete nor useful. It is incomplete because only one side of the sale is open to owner scrutiny—the selling bank which must have shareholder approval. The credit unions purchasing the assets and liabilities act like private buyers. They rarely release any factual or financial data except press release generalities such as market expansion, diversification, acquiring new lines of business or adding professional expertise.

When facts about the transaction—such as the sale price– are presented, they are from the seller’s briefing their owners not by the purchasing credit union.

In a “normal” market-driven bank purchase (or merger via exchange of stock) both parties will provide their rationale for the transaction. Here are several excerpts from 2021 sale announcements provided by the bank undertaking the purchase, not the selling party:

BancorpSouth said it expects to have $125 million in merger-related costs. The bank said it plans to save $78 million in annual non-interest expenses as a result of the merger. The bank plans to achieve 75% of its merger-related cost savings by 2022, and 100% in 2023. or,

Webster plans to cut about 11% of the combined entity’s annual noninterest expenses, American Banker reported Monday. The company expects to incur $245 million in merger-related expenses, but the deal is projected to save $120 million while the company generates an extra $440 million per year. or,

NYCB and Flagstar: Accelerating Our Transformation Strategy: NYCB estimates the merger will result in additional capital generation of $500 million annually, as well as $125 million in annual cost savings. The bank expects to incur $220 million in merger-related expenses. (the release includes full operational and financial estimates)

Each of these purchasing banks provides data about the transaction, how it will benefit shareholders, goals for cost recovery and the expected return on investment in following years.

Credit union purchases convert firms subject to market monitoring into private entities. No longer can external markets assess management’s performance. Coop member-owners are not involved in the process before or after.

Investing Beyond a Firm’s Experience

In many areas of commercial enterprise there are wealthy individuals or firms who jump into an industry by “investing” in competitive arenas different from where they made their wealth. Consider Silicon Valley entrepreneurs buying professional sports teams, wealthy heirs venturing into the film and entertainment business, young work-from-home retail investors jumping into $0 cost online stock trading, etc.

Long time professionals sometimes refer to these new entrants’ cash inflows as “dumb money”–affluent outsiders bitten by a bug to try something different or indulge a personal interest. And there are plenty of brokers, salespersons and expert third parties helping these newbies learn the ropes and get into the business—for a fee.

These promoters make their living by closing deals. Their most common message is urgency–“act now or miss out” — if you don’t, someone else will take this opportunity off the table.

But how is an interested credit union member supposed to weigh such an event? One approach is to ask if the member would buy the bank’s stock for their personal investment based on the information available to their credit union?

Would You Buy This Bank’s Stock?

Too difficult for a member? Here is an actual case.

A $605 million credit union announced in July 2019 an agreement to buy all the assets of a bank with the following performance record:

  • June 30, 2019, bank data: $97.8 million in bank 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%. Every period’s operating expenses have exceeded income.
  • Two consent orders were issued by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The December 19, 2012, one was followed by a second on November 2015 designating the bank a “troubled institution”.
  • This order was ended in February 2019 after the bank raised $4.5 million new capital issuing 600,000 new shares for a price of $7.50 per share in January 2018. The cost of the offering for the bank was $366,000 or 8.1% of the gross proceeds.
  • The bank’s 2018 annual report states its core market deposit shares as: 1.69% Arlington Heights, 2.83% Rolling Meadows, and .03% in Cook County.
  • The 2018 annual report included the bank’s outlook: We do not anticipate net income until we experience significant growth in our earnings.At mid-year 2019, just before the credit union announcement, the bank’s operating loss was $262,000.

Would a person buy this bank’s stock that has not had positive earnings for a decade, promises none going forward and has miniscule market share? The new investors in 2018 paid $7.50 per share; the day before the announcement the share price was $6.80-below what the new investors paid.

The credit union offered $10.33-$10.70 per share or $2.4 million higher than the book value and 55% higher than the market valuation prior to the sale.

The credit union addressed none of this operating history, even though the facts were public. The credit union offered no information about how this decade long losing operation would benefit it or the members. The purchase was finalized by Corporate America Family Credit union and announced on April 30, 2020.

Why did the credit union bail out this bank’s owners with their members’ collective capital? How will this $13-$14 million dollar “investment” provide any return for the credit union? No one knows; the outcome is now hidden away from external or internal oversight. On the public facts, this would not appear to be a “smart money” move.

Tomorrow I will provide critical questions to evaluate these purchase transactions.

Should Credit Unions Buy Banks?

Two major credit union purchase and assumptions of commercial banks have been announced recently.   The $7.5 billion GreenState Credit Union in North Liberty, IA is buying two banks outside Its home state with total assets of $1.1 billion.

In April the $10 billion Vystar Credit Union in Jacksonville, Fla., agreed to buy the $1.5 billion Heritage Southeast Bank of Jonesboro, Ga., for $189 million, becoming the credit union industry’s largest bank acquisition.

Excess Cash on Hand?

With the average annual asset growth over 20% for the largest credit unions, the explanation that buying size to get to the future faster  would seem questionable.  Organic growth has taken off.

Is it possible that all the excess cash on hand is burning holes in credit union pockets?   If that is a factor than it is well to remember the age-old wisdom about money and value: asset values of banks tend to benefit from excess liquidity and suffer from a dearth of it, like most other asset classes.

Three Ways of Approaching the Issue

In upcoming blogs I will look at several examples, some pending and others completed, around three topics.

  1. Is the purchase of whole banks consistent with the public policy role of credit unions, a role that  justifies their exemption from income tax?  In the political arena, local and nationally, do these transactions help or harm credit union’s reputation?
  2. How do purchases benefit existing member owners? Are the disclosures and information credit union CEOs provide about these transactions adequate for existing members whose loyalty created the capacity to do these cash purchases?
  3. Looking at several examples, albeit with incomplete details, do these investments appear to be financially sound, especially in instances where the announced price is substantially above recent market value?

No Easy Answers and No System Dialogue

At each level of analysis there will be differing viewpoints.  NCUA has taken a hands-off approach signaling that these are merely “market-based transactions.”   I believe this is a misuse of the term.  At one point Chairman Harper, as a board member, indicated concern that “former consumers of the acquired banks will not have the same level of consumer financial protection oversight in their new credit union.”

Because an activity is legal does not mean it is wise.  Either as policy or in a specific instance.

Another difficulty is assessing the financial impact of these larger events on the purchasing credit union.  It may not be possible for years to know the benefits or costs on the acquiring credit union or the communities and customers  whose accounts were transferred.  For example what is the retention rate of depositors?  It is one thing to acquire assets, it is another skillset to manage them effectively.

As a general maxim, the purchase or merger of commercial entities tends to reduce shareholder value.  Before its recent disposal of its media assets, AT&T (T) spun off its DirecTV and other pay-tv services into a separate company, with private-equity firm TPG Capital as a 30% owner of the new entity. The deal valued the pay-tv services at a combined $16.25 billion, compared to the $66 billion that AT&T paid for DirecTV alone in 2015. (CNBC)

My goal in following articles will be to ask questions and to confront the seemingly nonchalant acceptance of this activity within the credit union community.   Through dialogue I hope credit unions can become more aware of what is at stake and what future actions might be, if different from the vacuum that now surrounds these activities.