Friday Updates

The following are updates from posts this past week.

VyStar’s Challenges: Continuing to Expand in Georgia

Both CU Today and Credit Union Times report that VyStar has called off its $195.7  million purchase of Heritage Southeast Banking Corporation, a holding company for three local banks located outside Atlanta.

The local TV station NEWS4JAX covering the story included the following quote from CEO Brian Wolfburg :  “Following a thorough evaluation of the transaction between VyStar and HSBI, we have mutually agreed that moving forward separately is the prudent decision. VyStar will continue to expand our services in Georgia.”

This Georgia expansion seems tone deaf to the concerns of members in the credit union’s legacy Jacksonville market.  This recovery challenge appears greater than a botched conversion.

There are dozens of comments posted after every NEWS4Jax story:

Mark 2 HRS AGO

It seems that Vystar management made a poor decision with NYMBUS and are having to force it down members (co-owners) throats, regardless of the inconvenience and future inadequacies of software capabilities. The NYMBUS salesperson probably made bundle of commission off of this sales job to Vystar.

BigSwifty500 21 HRS AGO

This story is worthless and full of non-truths. The login page still says it is “temporarily unavailable”. Time to move my accounts elsewhere.

B coffey 2 DAYS AGO

N Y M B U S….this is the name of the company vystar is sharing “relations” with. They performed, designed this mess. Both companies share Board members. Nymbus  is even located in their (Vystars) building in Jax. Vystar is listed as a Nymbus investor. Starting to see a forming problem here?????

john marshall 2 DAYS AGO

This “upgrade” (that isn’t one) ought to be called Wolfburg’s Folly!

Racemedic

Translation: “We know a dumpster fire when we see one and we know to run the other way. Sincerely, HSBI”

Jthall76

Glad I switched to Community First CU

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Crypto Crash: The Selloff in Crypto Assets Resumes (CNBD Disrupter article, June 16)

Bitcoin fell again today as a sell-off in global risk assets resumed, with crypto investors reeling from a dramatic plunge over the last few days that saw the world’s largest cryptocurrency almost drop below $20,000. . .  

Bitcoin is sitting at levels not seen since late 2020. The digital currency is down more than 20% in the last week and has dropped more than 60% from its all-time high in November. . 

The current bear market is often dubbed a new “crypto winter”.  . .

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“Good Angel-Bad Angel”-The House Hearings on January 6th Insurrection

When the Music Stopped for VyStar

On May 2, 2022 the $12 billion VyStar Credit Union celebrated its 70th anniversary with a ceremony at its founding location, the Naval Air Station, Jackson, FL.

The press release included the following announcementVyStar is also leading a digital transformation that includes a new website and online & mobile banking platform.  But then reality set in.

The Music Stops

On May 14,2022 the confetti hit the fan. The conversion to the new online and mobile platform failed.  As of the following Friday there were more than 13,444 comments posted on the VyStar Facebook page about the outage.

The situation as described in a CU Times story on May 22:  The brief outage, as explained to members, was planned to last for two days. As May 20 rolled around, seven days later, the $12.3 billion credit union’s 822,000 members still were offline and furious.   One Facebook posting:  “How in the Hell Does a Credit Union go a week with its online systems completely DOWN in 2022???”

The CEO Returns

Brian Wolfburg, CEO had been  on vacation overseas.  Upon his return he was interviewed by a reporter Jim Piggott for the local TV station, NEWS4 JAX.  The complete  18 minute interview is here.  The on air report excerpt  was just six minutes.

Wolfburg repeatedly references the credit union’s 70 year history to indicate that the credit union will “get it right.”   Members posted their skepticism in comments after the story such as:

Mikey19 DAYS AGO: I think the CEO should resign and the person that is in charge of this mess should be fired. Who is with me on this. Let’s email the Board of Directors to let them know our thoughts. VyStarBoard@vystarcu.org

Members File Complaints with Regulator

A June 6, CU Times article detailed member complaints with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation:

Complaint Filed May 20:  “VyStar Online Banking has been unavailable to members for 7 days now with no date given as when to expect the system to be operational. VyStar Management has been vague and evasive with little to no accountability for the botched roll out of its new online banking system. They have gone ‘dark’.   The story added:

CU Times has repeatedly asked for interviews with VyStar executives and board members. The interview requests have not been granted.

Potential Legal Trouble

A June 8 article in CU Today described the  potential of a class action suit.  Also the credit union would end its fee refund of fees incurred by the outage.

VyStar said that it proactively refunded/is refunding fees that it charged members from May 14 through June 9 as a result of the online and mobile banking conversion, but as of June 10 it will not do so.

Members Leaving

In a June 9 CU Today update, the story described members intentions to leave the credit union:

Action News Jax said it contacted VyStar CU regarding how many members have closed out memberships, but said the credit union did not provide any data. 

Class Action Suit Filed

June 13, CU Today reported on a class action suit:

In an interview with FirstCoastNews.com two weeks after the solutions went down, Attorney Austin Griffin, a partner in StoryGriffin PA, a consumer justice law firm in Jacksonville Beach. Fla., told FirstCoastNews VyStar members could go after the credit union with three possible claims: negligence, breach of contract and fiduciary duty.

Griffin told the publication that since VyStar is a credit union and not a bank, there is “an expected higher standard of care.”

VyStar’s Status Today

The latest update on VyStar’s web site reads:

Online statements now available. Access your accounts and make External and Internal Transfers via your computer, tablet or mobile device at online.vystarcu.org. Please note: We will continue to have planned daily maintenance from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. EST when system access may be unavailable.

The Credit Union Times latest summary  is as of June 14.  Over 28,000 comments have been posted by members frustrated with their experience.

Context for the Event: VyStar Invests $20 Million in Nymbus

There are more factors to this story than a botched conversion.

In  July 2021, VyStar signed a deal with the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Nymbus as the credit union’s online and mobile banking partner.

This statement by Joe Colca, Seniro Vice President of Digital Experience was part of the release:  “Our previous investment already demonstrated our confidence in Nymbus. We’re now proud to lead by example for other credit unions seeking a trusted fintech partner to implement sophisticated technology, people and processes to offer progressive products and member experiences.”

In October 6, 2021 Credit Union Times reported Nymbus had moved into VyStar’s head office location.  “A fintech with credit union funding is moving from Miami Beach to the campus that houses the headquarters of VyStar Credit Union in Jacksonville, Fla.

Nymbus said in a news release Tuesday that it made the move because of its relationship with VyStar ($11 billion in assets, 778,348 members). VyStar invested $20 million in April to help develop Nymbus’ month-old Nymbus CUSO to better extend its services to credit unions. In July, VyStar chose Nymbus as its new online and mobile banking solution partner.

In September 2019, VyStar created a $10 million fund to invest exclusively in fintech companies. VyStar has said it has supported Nymbus because it provides a way for it and other credit unions to keep up with members’ rising expectations for sophisticated online services. Nymbus’ website said it saves banks and credit unions “decades” in developing such services.”

Two senior managers of VyStar were also  members of Nymbus’s Board. Joe Colca, VyStar’s SVP on the board was quoted:

“Nymbus has proven to be an effective, valuable partner in our efforts to improve the member experience at VyStar and strengthen the credit union industry as a whole,” Colca said.

 VyStar’s FOM Expansion and Bank Purchases

Vystar’s first bank purchase was announced on January 15, 2019 with the  purchase of First Citizens Bank: VyStar Credit Union announced it plans to acquire $280-million Citizens State Bank, a Florida state-chartered bank headquartered in Perry. CSB has four locations: two branches in Gainesville, and branches in Perry and Steinhatchee, Fla.

The article continued that this purchase was possible because of an FOM expansion:

In November 2018  VyStar received approval from the Florida Office of Financial Regulation to significantly expand its field of membership by 27 counties—more than doubling the original 22 counties—to include all 49 counties of Central to North Florida. This expansion included Taylor County, where CSB’s Perry and Steinhatchee offices are located. VyStar currently serves the Gainesville community with two branch locations with plans to open additional offices in Alachua and Ocala by mid-year, the CU said.

Subsequently,  on March 31, 2021 VyStar’s purchase of the $1.6 billion Heritage Southeast Banking group  for $189 million was announced.  The closing has been deferred three times.   This would be the largest purchase of a bank by a credit union.

Largest Subdebt Placement by a Credit Union

To support these bank purchases and rapid growth, VyStar issued $200 million of subordinated debt in the first quarter of 2022.  This is the largest subdebt capital placed in credit unions to date. Arranged by Olden Capital, the issue was sold to 41 investors including credit unions, banks, insurance companies and asset managers.

Without this external capital infusion, Vystar’s net worth would have been 7.9% of March 31, 2022 assets.  With the debt and using a four quarter asset average as the denominator, VyStar reported a net worth ratio of 10.15%.

“Values-centric” brand campaign: “Do Good. Bank Better.”

From an October 2021’s CU Today story  New Branding Campaign:

VyStar Credit Union has launched a new “values-centric” brand campaign, “Do Good. Bank Better.”

VyStar said the multimedia campaign has been inspired by the people, businesses and organizations that it serves, and that it elevates VyStar’s “powerful promise to support its members and communities by offering better banking options and giving back to strengthen the places it calls home.”

“We proudly live by the words, Do Good. Bank Better., and this is just the beginning of our efforts to continue sharing our nearly 70-year story,” said VyStar President/CEO Brian Wolfburg in a statement. “As we evolve as an organization, we remain true to our roots by upholding our standard of leading by example and showing goodwill in everything we do.”

The Member’s Chance for a  Choice

VyStar has been on a very ambitious multiyear growth spurt:  converting charters and expanding the FOM, purchasing whole banks, investing in multiple fintech companies, raising external capital and launching a new public relations and branding campaign.

Members’ reaction to the online conversion failure shows how much confidence has been lost in these many expansion efforts.  The situation calls into question multiple initiatives especially the credit union’s investment and role in Nymbus plus its thrice-deferred bank purchase.

This episode and its background are now occurring in a rapidly changing economic and financial environment.  Investments and other assets that appear sound when the cost of funds is near zero now have a very different risk profile.

Once again the regulators have been on vacation.

The credit union’s reputation is being stained. Its operations, business initiatives and internal capabilities appear strained on several levels.  The net worth ratio is created, not earned.

The best solution may be to follow the advice of the member who posted:  Let’s email the Board of Directors to let them know our thoughts. VyStarBoard@vystarcu.org 

Members are the owners.  They should do more than vent frustration by exercising their power to choose their representatives for the board.  They should take back their “home” if they truly want to see the credit union “do right” for its members and communities.

 

 

 

 

 

FOMO Business Decisions

One of the most common sales pitches in life is “hurry up and get this  deal before someone else buys it.”

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has many variations.   For some it impels stocking up on toilet paper in a pandemic.  For others it is a rush into NFT’s, crypto currencies, a meme stock or  IPO offering.  Home sales today are increasingly all cash offers, no contingencies-FOMO.

For the virtual generation, it is the sharing pictures on social media of a special meal  or vacation adventures to stay in touch with peers-FOMO.

In credit unions, this tendency shows up most frequently in mergers and whole bank purchases. Both transactions are enabled by consultants, brokers and other experts who only get paid if a sale occurs.   Creating a sense of urgency-FOMO- around each opportunity is part of the pitch.

This blog will focus on bank purchases.  Many press  announcements  of another deal close with a momentum building observation such as:  “The pioneer (arranger) for credit union purchases of banks, emphasized again that the speed of CU purchases of banks is quickening.” FOMO

FOMO Bank Purchases

A number of credit union bank purchases are repeat buyers.   GreenState in Iowa during 2021 announced three  bank purchases in a 12-month period.  All were out of state and entering separate new markets.  Three deals with different banks, requiring multiple system and cultural conversions all at once.  To keep up with this purchased growth, the credit union has issued $60 million in subdebt to sustain its capital ratio.

Vystar’s purchase of Heritage Southeast Bancorporation, Inc. ( HSBI )is the largest bank acquisition by a credit union to date. HSBI is a holding company of three local community  banks which together manage $1.6 billion in 22 branches across Southeast Georgia, through Savannah and into the Greater Atlanta Metro area.

To support this acquisition, the Jacksonville based Vystar just issued $200 million in subdebt to maintain its net worth ratio.  The final closing has been postponed twice this year.

In early March  he $2 billion Barksdale Federal Credit Union in Bossier City, La., agreed to buy the $74 million Homebank of Arkansas in Portland, Ark.  Here are some details from the Credit Union Times story:

This is Barksdale FCU’s first bank purchase. Homebank was founded in 1908, employees 25 and has about 1,000 customers.  The bank was issued FDIC Consent Orders in 2011 and 2019.  The Bank reported a loss in 2020 of $419,000 and $50,000 in 2021.  Capital is $7.4 million

In explaining the purchase which would seem to bail out the bank’s owners, Barksdale’s CEO  stated:   “We believe that the structure and policies we have in place with our operation will satisfy the consent order items.”   One wonders what the members would think of this use of their funds.

The Risks in Bank Purchases

Buying whole banks at multiples of book value, or at prices much higher than recent market valuations,  creates an intangible asset called goodwill.   These are all  cash purchases. The total member funds paid for the premium and net worth goes to the bank’s shareholders.

In almost every case, but especially in private bank purchases, there is very little transparency for members or analysts to evaluate how the decision will succeed financially.  There is no expected ROI on the investment, nor business plans for achieving it. The incantation used is variations on the theme of scale.

In cases of very large transactions relative to the credit union’s assets  (see Memphis-based Orion FCU’s efforts), or multiple acquisitions in a short time, or when the bank is underperforming, all of the normal risks are multiplied.   Yet the actual outcome may not be known until years down the road.

A  Former CEO’s Observations

I was copied on an email in which Jim Blaine, retired CEO of SECU (NC) highlighted some of the differences in community bank practice and credit unions.   The dialogue began after a credit union member asked his impression of the $4.8 billion Summit Credit Union’s intent to buy the $837 million Commerce State Bank in West Bend Wisconsin.  Here is a part of what  Blaine wrote:

This is an example of the “other problem” floating around in CUs. As you’ll note, Summit is not merging, it is “acquiring” an investor-owned  bank. First, it is illegal for a CU to own a bank charter, so actually Summit is acquiring only the assets/liabilities of the bank (the loans and deposits, the buildings, computers, etc but not the capital!)…and after doing so the bank charter is cancelled.

To judge the fairness of the deal, look for the acquisition multiple…usually quoted as some multiple of the the bank’s net worth (i.e. capital)…if the bank’s net worth is $100 million for example and Summit is purchasing the assets/liabilities for a multiple of “1.5X”then Summit will pay $150 million to the bank stockholders. (Paying 150% of the book value!!)

Just as with CU mergers, these bank “purchases” can be open to significant valuation variance. In an investor-to-investor transaction the owners on both sides scrutinize whether or not the deal is for “fair value”. With a CU there is not an activist group of shareholders to protest a bad deal. Not too hard to imagine an insider “wink and nod” transaction…in the example above that $50million excess might lead to some “flexible ethics” …certainly happened with the mutual S&Ls!

Many folks question both the viability of small banks and those branches! (ed. Commerce is the 32nd largest bank in Wisconsin) And besides in banking, customers are loyal to the individual banker, not the bank. The officers and directors at the bank will usually collect on the sale of the bank stock and then as soon as possible leave and take their book of business to another bank…and of course refinance away those loans the CU bought! On the deposit side, many of the larger deposits are tied to loan customers who  will also leave. Lastly, all the bank customers have always had the chance to join the CU…and didn’t…what does that tell you about their future loyalty?

A Different Kind of Deal

Other acquisitions this year include the $2.8 billion Arizona FCU (AFCU) purchase of the $539 million Horizon Community Bank in Lake Havasu City;  Georgia’s Own purchase of Vining Bank; and Robins Financial acquisition of Persons Banking company.

AFCU’s activity is somewhat more public in that some of the financial information is available.   It appears the credit union is paying about twice  book value.  In the year before the sale was announced, Horizon’s holding company stock traded between $8.20 and $10.40 per share.   The bank’s sale announcement projects  shareholders should receive approximately $18.91 per share when finalized.

In addition to the factual circumstances Blaine cites in his comments, there are two other operational challenges.    Are credit unions acquiring  matured/declining banking businesses especially when recent market valuations are substantially less than the purchase price?

The conversion of a community bank’s clientele to credit union control entails an “identity transplant” both internally and in the bank’s market.  How will the value of the acquired assets and liabilities be affected by this change?

Finally in several examples above, the credit union’s loan to asset ratios ranged from the low 40% to just over 50%.   If the leaders are unable to deploy existing funds in loans to members, how will they be more successful buying bank assets?

The lack of transparency in these purchases, the absence of any financial projections or specific business tactics suggest these are events based on good intentions but limited operational planning.

One CEO explained his purchase  this way: “We believe that quality growth and diversification is essential to continued success in our industry, and we intend to achieve it both organically and through mergers or acquisitions.”

This sounds like a strategy driven by FOMO, not member focus.

Subdebt: The Fastest Growing Balance Sheet Account for Credit Unions

Outstanding subdebt (subordinated debt) for  credit unions grew 51% in 2020 to total $452.1 million.  In 2021 the increase was 109% and with credit unions reporting  $938.9 million.

The number of credit unions using this financial option grew from 64 in 2019 to 104 credit unions at December 2021.  The total assets of these credit unions was $96 billion or about 5% of the industry’s yearend total.

A Product with Many Facets

This financial instrument has many characterizations. Subdebt is reported as a liability, that is a borrowing, on the credit union’s books.  But because of the structure of the debt, NCUA considers it to be capital when calculating net worth for RBC-CCULR and all low-income credit unions.

Subdebt can be sold to other credit unions as well as outside investors. Purchasers perceive it to be an investment, but technically it is a loan to the credit union which makes  it as an eligible “investment”  for credit unions to hold.

“A Watershed Moment”

Earlier this month Olden capital announced the largest placement yet: a $200 million borrowing sold to 41 investors including credit unions, banks, insurance companies and asset managers.

The process as described in the release required: The coordination of a team that included leaders from the credit union, investment bankers, lawyers, other consultants and service providers. . . Olden labelled it “a watershed moment, notable for its size and breadth.

Certainly considering size that is an accurate statement.  This one placement exceeds 40% of the total of all 2021 debt issuance.  Credit union demand is certainly picking up and more intermediaries are getting into the business to arrange transactions.

Olden did not name its client, although the purchasers were aware that it was Vystar Credit Union.

Why the Rapid Subdebt Growth?

This borrowing is a form of “Buy Now, Pay Later” capital for credit unions.   The terms of the debt are generally ten years with no repayment the first five, and level amortization of 20% each in the remaining years.

The interest paid is based on several factors including market rates and the credit union’s overall financial position.

Traditional credit union capital comes only from retained earnings. Maintaining well capitalized net worth means that comes only  from earnings means the process places a “growth governor” on a credit union’s balance sheet.

By raising subdebt this organic “growth governor” is removed in the short term.  Some credit unions have been bold to say that their intent is to use the newly created capital for acquisitions.  Both VyStar and GreenState ($60 million in subdebt) have been active buyers of whole banks.

The overnight increase in the well capitalized net worth category from 7% to 9% by NCUA on January 1, 2022 is also causing credit unions to look at ways to comply with this higher requirement.

Others believe it will help them accelerate investments that might otherwise be spread over several years.

Getting into the Leverage Business

Because subdebt has a price, unlike free retained earnings, and its function as capital is time-limited, its use requires increased asset growth to be cost effective.

It refocuses credit union financial priorities from creating member value to enhancing financial performance through leverage.   This leverage requires both increased funding and  matching earning assets to achieve a spread over the costs of these increased funding.  Buying whole banks is an obvious strategy to accomplish both growth goals at once.

The Unintended Consequences

The use of subdebt as a source of capital was provided as a sop to help credit unions meet NCUA’s new higher and much opposed RBC capital standards.

The irony is that its use will entail a more intense focus on balance sheet growth to pay the cost of this new source of net worth.  Unlike retained earnings, the benefit is only for a limited period.

The event will impose a new set of financial constraints or goals that have no direct connection with member well being.  It converts a credit union’s strategy from “member-centric” to maximizing balance sheet financial performance.

In later blogs I will explore some financial model options for subdebt, the transaction costs and other factors in its use.

One of the most important needs at the moment is for greater transparency for individual transactions.

These are ten-year commitments that may exceed the tenure of the managers and boards approving the borrowings. The financial benefits and impact on members will  not be known for years.  This is  especially true when the primary purpose is to acquire capital as a “hunting license” to  purchase other institutions.

This rapid and expanded use will have many consequences for the credit union system, some well-meant, others unintended.   It is a seemingly easy financial option to execute that the cooperative system will need to monitor.

CCULR/RBC Unconstrained by Statute: An Arbitrary Regulatory Act

The new RBC/CCULR rule must meet two administrative procedural tests, as any other rule, when NCUA claims to be implementing a law.  The first was outlined yesterday:  Was there substantial objective evidence presented to justify the rule?

As I described, NCUA presented no systemic data or individual case analysis whatsoever. In fact, the credit union performance record  shows an industry well capitalized and demonstrating prudent capital management over decades.

In the December board meeting Q&A , staff confirmed that in the last ten years, only one failed credit union would have been subject to RBC.  But today 83% of the industry’s assets and 705 credit unions are now subject to its microscopic financial requirements.

The second test is whether the rule conforms to Congress’s legislative constraints when giving this rule making “legislative” authority to an agency.  The PCA law was very specific in this regard when extended to the credit union system.

NCUA’s PCA implementation must meet three tests: that it apply only to “complex” credit unions, “consider the cooperative character of credit unions,” and be comparable to banking requirements.

NCUA had already passed these PCA implementation tests before. In 2004 GAO reviewed NCUA’s risk based net worth (RBNW) implementation of the 1998 PCA requirement and concluded:

The system of PCA implemented for credit unions is comparable with the PCA system that bank and thrift regulators have used for over a decade. and,

. . . available information indicates no compelling need. . . to make other significant changes to PCA as it has been implemented for credit unions.

At that time the risk based capital (RBC)  requirements had been in place for banks since 1991.

Today  NCUA’s new RBC/CCULR rules clearly fail all three of these constraining criteria.

A “Simple” Interpretation of “Complex”

NCUA 2015 RBC rule declared that the complex test include all credit unions over $100 million.  After the full burden of the rule was apparent, in 2018 the board changed complex to mean only credit unions over $500 million in assets.

Some credit unions clearly undertake operational activities or business models that are more involved than what the majority of their peers might do.

Examples could include: widespread multi-state operations, conversion to an online only delivery model,  lending focused on wholesale and indirect originations, high dependence on servicing revenue, using derivatives to manage balance sheet risk, funding reliant on borrowed funds versus consumer deposits, innovative fintech investments, or even the recent examples of credit unions’ wholesale purchases of banks.

The agency did not define “complex” using its industry expertise and examination experience to identify activities that entail greater risk.

Instead, it made the arbitrary decisions that size and risk are the same. In fact, most data suggests larger credit unions report more consistent and resilient operating performance than smaller ones.

In changing its initial ”complex” definition by 500%, it demonstrated Orwellian logic at its most absurd.  Complex turns out to be whatever NCUA wants it to mean, as long as the definition is “simple” to implement.

Universal for Banks; Targeted for Credit Unions

For banking PCA compliance, RBC was universally applied.  Every bank must follow, no complex application was intended.

By making size the sole criterion for “complex” the board reversed the statute’s clear intent that its  risk-based rule be limited in scope and circumstance when applied to credit unions.

The absurdity of this universal, versus particular,  definition is shown in one example. The rule puts $5.6 billion State Farm FCU, a traditional auto and consumer lender with a long-time sponsor relationship, in the same risk-based category as the $15.1 billion Alliant, the former United Airlines Credit Union. Alliant has evolved into a branchless, virtual business model with an active “trading desk” participating commercial and other loans for other credit unions.

NCUA’s “complex” application of the PCA statute is totally arbitrary based on neither reason nor fact.

Capital design: the most important aspect of “Cooperative Character”

The PCA authority additionally requires that the Board, in designing the cooperative PCA system, consider the “cooperative character of credit unions.” The criteria, listed in the law are that NCUA must take into account: that credit unions are not-for-profit cooperatives that:

(i) do not issue capital stock;

(ii) must rely on retained earnings to build net worth; and

(iii) have boards of directors that consist primarily of volunteers.

The single most distinguishing “character” of credit unions is their reserving/capital structure. Virtually all credit unions were begun with no capital, largely sweat equity of volunteers and sponsor support.

The reserves are owned by the members. They are owed to them in liquidation and even partially distributed, in some mergers.

These reserves accumulate from retained earnings, tax exempt, and are available for free in perpetuity-that is, no periodic dividends are owed.  Many members however can receive bonuses and rebates on their patronage from reserves in years of good performance.

Most products and services offered by credit unions are very similar to those of most other community banking institutions. The most distinctive aspect of the cooperative model is its capital structure, not operations.

Cooperative Capital Controlled by Democratic Governance

This pool of member-owner reserves is overseen by a democratic governance structure of one-member one- in elections.  The reserves are intended to be “paid forward” to benefit future generations.  This reserving system has been the most continuous and unique feature of cooperative “character” since 1909.

This collective ownership forms and inspires cooperative values and establishes fiduciary responsibility.  Management’s responsibility for banks is to maximize return to a small group of owners; in coops the goal is to enhance all members’ financial well-being.

This capital aspect of the cooperative charter is so important that if credit union management decides to convert to another legal structure, a minimum 20% of members must approve this change. No other financial firm has the character of a coop charter with its member-users rights and roles. Not even a mutual financial firm.

Bank’s Capital Structure Very Different from Cooperatives

For banks, capital funds are raised up front, usually from private offerings or via public stock. Owners expect to profit from their investments. Dividends are paid on the stock invested as part of this anticipated return. Today shares represent about 50% of total bank capital.  In credit unions, it is zero.

Bank capital stock, if public, can be traded daily on exchanges. The market provides an ongoing response to management’s performance.

This capital is not free as most owners expect a periodic dividend on their investment.  As an example, in the third quarter of 2021, the banking industry distributed 79% of its earnings in dividends to owners.

There is no connection between a bank’s capital owners, and the customers who use the bank, unless customers independently decide to buy shares in the bank. In credit unions, the customers are the owners.

The remaining component of bank capital is retained earnings. However, every dollar of earnings before  added to capital, is subject to state and federal income tax. Credit union retained earnings are the only source of reserves as noted in the PCA act.  These coop surpluses accumulate tax free.

In design, accumulation, use and governance credit union reserves are of a totally different  “character” than bank capital. Their purpose is to support a cooperative financial option for members and their community.

Bank capital is meant to enrich owners through dividends and/or future gains in share value.  Credit unions’ collective reserves are to benefit future generations of members.

Credit unions are not for profit.  Banks are for profit.

In a capitalist, private ownership dominated market economy, the cooperative’s capital structure is the most distinctive aspect of credit unions.  This is not because of its amount or ratio.  It is its “character,” from its origin, perpetual use and  oversight by members.

Nothing in the CCULR/RBC rules recognizes this especial “character” of credit union capital.  By not addressing this issue, the rule ignores this constraint of the  PCA enabling law.

The historical record demonstrates that  credit union reserves are not comparable to bank capital.  Rather they are a superior approach tailored to the cooperative design.

Tomorrow I will look at the third test, whether RBC/CCULR conforms to the PCA’s requirement of comparability.

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.