Investing in a 10 Year Rising Stock Market

It is hard not to feel very smart or lucky if you have made investments in the stock market during its 10 year bull run. Virtually all asset classes in 2019 increased in the high teens to more than 20% for broad market indexes. These are great returns especially when compared to risk-free CDs, which have earned 2% or less annually during the same period.

Most forecasts for 2020 support continuation of the current 2% GDP growth trends and a rising stock market. No recession or market retreat is foreseen. What could possibly go wrong?

Looking at Some Details

To the extent stock prices reflect the present value of anticipated future earnings, there seems to be a growing disconnect between stock prices and projected earnings. Especially for smaller companies. A cautionary analysis of 2019’s soaring market was written by James Mackintosh in the WSJ last Friday. He points out that the percentage of all listed companies reporting losses in the last 12 months is close to 40%. The highest level since the late 1990’s, outside recessionary periods.

Moreover, he cites another analyst who calculates that the proportion of US-listed companies losing money for three years also reached its highest point last year. The caveat in this second observation is that these are small companies which in total represent less than 5% of the market’s overall value.

Two thoughts. Almost all credit union member business lending is to small companies. And secondly, one of the eternal verities about market returns is “reversion to the mean.” That is average returns will revert to long term “normalized”values over time. Could 2020 be such a year?

Remembering Long-Time Members

When entering the Navy, the instructor as part of our orientation to military life, said we should join two organizations: USAA for auto insurance and the local military credit union for checking accounts.

His advice has caused our family to use USAA for auto, and later home insurance, for over 50 years.

We receive two bonus checks annually as part of this relationship.

The first for $412 was the annual distribution (dividend) from the Subscriber’s Account, a portion of the capital base for this mutual insurance company. USAA stated that the amount was partly from the sale of their asset management company as well as from their overall net income.

That equates to three to four months of my combined auto/home premium payments.

The Senior Bonus

But there is more to come. The senior bonus paid in mid-February is for those with at least 40 years of membership. It is a partial distribution of the capital in the Subscribers Account held in my name. It will be an even larger payout than the annual dividend based on prior year’s payouts.

A growing number of credit unions are paying special dividends, interest rebates and holiday bonuses to members when 2019’s annual results are well in hand.

One of the vital strengths of the cooperative model is their relationships with their member-owners. These year-end special payments acknowledge the owner’s stake in the cooperative.

USAA’s 40-year senior bonuses show their recognition and the importance of long-term loyalty. Is there a parallel for credit unions in this example?

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

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

Several observations:

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

Not Covered by Mainstream Business Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Issue

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

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

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

Ten Consecutive Years of Losses at Ben Franklin

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

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

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

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

Questions the Board Should Be Asking on Behalf of Members

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

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

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

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

The Job Outlook for US Manufacturing – the GM Strike

In no other sector of the “post-war” economy, has the impact of automation, robotics and AI been more important than manufacturing. This is one of the factors underlying the current GM strike. Not only are jobs being lost to automation and outsourcing, the demand for more simply-assembled electronic vehicles may further reduce the need for skilled auto workers.

Real manufacturing output has grown consistently through greater productivity while total employment in this sector peaked in the late 1970s. This long term trend (1947-2014) is shown in this graph by economics professor Alan Gin:

More Jobs Being Created

Employment keeps expanding, but the allocation of jobs between sectors is changing. The bureau of labor statistics publishes an annual ten-year forecast of job growth by sector. Its latest projection https://www.bls.gov/emp/ is as follows:

Implications

The implications for credit unions serving communities or SEGs are many. The fastest growing job segments tend to be lower paying as indicated by May 2018 salaries.

Two of the fastest growing sectors are driven by the response to climate change and energy production. Higher paying jobs would appear to require more college than lower paying ones. Both wholesale and retail trades show shrinking levels of employment.

The manufacturing sector is the one industry with the highest rate of projected job decline.

Credit unions have traditionally done a good job of knowing much about their members. However, as more credit unions seek ways to have a positive impact and influence the economic direction of the communities they serve, monitoring local job trends will be increasingly critical when making loans and future infrastructure investments.

Why Cooperatives Exist in a Market Economy

While it is true that cooperatives create “common wealth” to be paid forward for use by future generations of cooperative members, the context of why this option is critical in a market economy is often overlooked.

The following statement by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, in a May 29, 2014 speech, outlines the importance of the contribution from cooperative design:

Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long term dynamism of capitalism itself. . .Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital; that is the links, shared values, and beliefs in a society which encourages individuals not only to take responsibility for themselves and their families, but also to trust each other and work collaboratively to support each other.”

Just Another Bank?

From the 2008 Filene study: The Credit Union Brand: What is it good for?

“For years now, it seems that credit unions have placed themselves more and more in the bank brandscape, and our research supports this conclusion. What a pity that credit union members think that credit unions are just another bank. But when you look at credit unions, what is there about them that signals to consumers that they are not banks? The buildings are often designed to look exactly like a bank. Consumers conduct their financial affairs in a similar manner. Often even the advertising shouts “bank!” These signals do not go unnoticed by consumers. And, it appears that some credit union management may have felt that credit unions as financial institutions didn’t get the same respect as banks in the past; thus a natural reaction would be to try to make credit unions more like banks to attain the same status. (page 41)

The Cost of Not Learning from Our Brethren’s Mistakes

Over the past twelve months the credit union community is on the hook or paid the bills for the following situations:

  1. A $1 billion cash payout for the Melrose CU and LOMTO FCU liquidations;
  2. An estimated $40.5 million shortfall for a two decade embezzlement by the CEO at CBS Employees FCU;
  3. A $125 Million write off at Municipal Credit Union at June 30, while under NCUA conservatorship.

In each situation there has been no objective, public discussion of what happened. No lessons have been taken away from these extraordinary losses and how they might be eliminated or mitigated in the future.

Specifically:

  • NCUA has said nothing about its Municipal Credit Union conservatorship as the credit union reported the largest loss ever at June 30.
  • In Melrose’s case the primary publicity has been about suing the former CEO for accepting vendor’s trips and other self-interested actions.
  • For CBS Employees FCU’s extraordinary embezzlement, the throw away characterization has been that the CEO was a former NCUA examiner and therefore knew how to hide his two decade defalcation based on his examiner experience.

No Return for Casting Judgment

When a loss occurs, there is a rush to judgment. What went wrong? Who screwed up? Why did this happen, again?

The natural response is to point fingers, blame someone for the problem. Then punish or banish wrongdoers from ever working at a credit union. And resolve the loss by paying for the shortfall out of the NCUSIF—and move on.

While indicting possible malfeasance may be necessary, it can miss entirely the lessons to be learned. The result is that there is no return on the money expended. Credit union monies are swallowed up in a regulatory “black hole.”

Discernment: A Powerful Form of Judgment

For informed judgement is about discernment, understanding the circumstances of what happened and identifying the possibly numerous opportunities to have done something about the situation much earlier.

Judgement is much more than holding people accountable. In the cooperative community, all members pay for the individual losses via the NCUSIF. Therefore the most important benefit should be corrective actions or processes that can prevent similar circumstances from getting “out of hand” in the future.

For example, NCUA says correctly that it sent a letter about potential problems in the taxi medallion industry to all examiners in 2014. The letter did not identify the possible disruption of the entire industry by Uber and Lyft, but it did reinforce proper underwriting including the ability of borrowers to service the debt.

But somehow the problem grew and grew and no one knew how to manage through a cyclical decline in asset values. This is not a new situation for credit unions. Loans secured by real estate, autos and leases, and/or commercial properties and farm land will all have changes in the value of security during the term of the loan.

But somehow these inevitable fluctuations in value cause reactions as if the problem has never occurred. Before. This panic often exacerbates the situation, freezing new responses and resulting in irreversible financial decisions at the lowest point of value for the security.

A Responsibility to and for the Community

Cooperatives are interdependent on each other for market success. The most consequential connection is via the shared capital pool created in the NCUSIF. While the temptation may be to approach difficult situations with an eye to eliminating the problem, that not only may be the least desirable outcome for members of the credit union, but more importantly, it may not be the positive example needed by the whole cooperative community.

Credit unions were created to solve problems especially for members and in circumstances when normal market options were unavailable or too expensive. When problems are just done away with and all circumstances swept under the rug because of sufficient resources to do so, everyone loses. Other credit unions facing similar loan challenges as the taxi medallion example, those with concerns about the adequacy of their internal and external audits; or credit unions with underfunded pension or other liabilities could all benefit from a thorough knowledge of the above cases.

Every credit union board and CEO any CPA or auditing firm and every DP, bonding and any vendor connected to the credit unions above, has an interest in knowing what happened. That knowledge is necessary if there is to be a common commitment to do better in the future. NCUA has to lead by example. The three circumstances above would be excellent places to start with full public reviews. Credit unions have received nothing for the $1.25 billion spent so far. The buck has to stop somewhere before credit unions run out of bucks.

Strategy: How Important is Scale?

A common assumption by many working in credit unions is that scale, that is increasing a credit union’s balance sheet size, is critical to competitiveness, and therefore survival. As one CEO wrote:  “Given our market and community field of membership, we believe scale is more important than ever.”

Facts versus Truth

This belief in “scale economies” is often supported by citing average financial performance by peer group size.   These averages do show that larger credit unions tend to grow both members and assets faster than smaller ones.   Also, they generally operate with lower expense ratios, larger dividend payouts, and generally higher ROA’s and loan to share ratios.

However even within the same peer group (over $1 billion in assets) there is a wide variation in these ratios.  Becoming larger does not automatically create these outcomes.

The logic that data confirms the necessity for scale, does not hold true across all situations.  Facts alone may not reveal underlying truths about successful cooperative performance.

Moreover, the facts used may rely on an assumption or mindset, that itself is debatable.

The Scarcity Mindset

Scale matters in a competitive market, some argue, because it can lead to larger market share and therefore greater economic power.

Scale is achieved by growth, that often means out running competitors.  This can be done organically or more recently, by some credit unions soliciting mergers or buying out bank competitors.

Growth thus becomes the primary objective, if not the mission of the credit union.  It is driven by an assumption of limited resources (or members) and that an institution must get their “share” before someone else takes it away.

I call this the “scarcity mindset” myth.   Credit unions think of strategy as a struggle to get more and more, and can never slow down, because ultimate scale is always unreachable.  The end point keeps growing from $100 million, to $1 billion to $10 billion in assets.  No asset size is ever enough.

The Cooperative Abundance Assumption

Credit union were founded on belief in the power and resources of community.  That by working together we can mobilize savers (those with more) to help borrowers (those with less).

By institutionalizing this process, members become empowered and the well-being of all is improved.  It is not the amount of resources that matter, but rather how they are managed for the common welfare.

This approach created by self-help and collaboration rests on the assumption of abundance. Credit unions are motivated by relationships and mission.  This focus creates trust that underwrites the inevitable cycles of economic fortune that will occur either individually or organizationally.

Instead of a scarcity mindset that focuses on getting whatever one can to grow an institution, credit union design rests on a belief in commerce organized around neighborliness and community.  In my individual capacity, I may not have what I need; but in my collective contributions, there is enough for all.

A Fork in the Strategic Road

The vast majority of credit unions have never had a major merger.  Most credit unions do not seek to buy out their financial competitors.

However, there is a commercial motivation promulgated by self-interested brokers, consultants and growth-oriented CEO’s and boards that assert survival depends on outmaneuvering the competition through size.  This market driven ideology of institutional success subverts the cooperative focus on purpose.

The cooperative model was created to give member-owners the opportunity to create and manage their own financial options in a market dominated by firms that make a profit from relationships.

The cooperative goal is to transform individual options and bring the resources of like-minded persons to build an institution using the resources available, that is a belief in an “economy of abundance.”

The credit union approach is sustained by a community of shared values, not just more plentiful resources.

Questions to Consider

As boards consider strategy, it may be helpful to ask the following:

  • How do we measure our scale, if that is an objective: institutional outcomes or member relationships?
  • Is our motivation for growth from fear or confidence? If it is fear from uncertainty, will we survive by doubling down on the familiar?
  • If scale is critical, what is the plateau we are aiming for? How is it determined?

As I look across the multiple examples of success among all credit union asset groups, I note that those who possess less are less possessed by motives for scale.   And instead of intending to be sustained by their savings from scale, they rely instead on the member’s trust and loyalty.

The Cooperative Model’s Longevity Advantage

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

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

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

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

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