Is This Who We Are? Part II: Specious Merger Reasons

Yesterday, in Part I of this series, I introduced the merger of Sperry Associations FCU’s ($278.4 million) with Pentagon FCU ($25.9 billion). The merger terms in the member Notice includes this sentence: “The services currently offered by Sperry will cease to be provided and replaced by the (virtual) branch services listed in the attachment to this Notice.”

Part I described how this locally-focused, high-preforming credit union was ideally positioned in the market according to the CEO’s public testimonials. It is now to be closed in the middle of a pandemic when most needed by members. Why?

What Members Were Told About Why They Should Merge

The reasons from the FAQ on Sperry’s web site:

Q: Why did Sperry have to merge in the first place?

“In recent years, the financial services marketplace on Long Island has changed. Thanks to the entrance of more big banks and global Fin-Tech companies, it’s become more challenging for mid-sized institutions like Sperry to thrive. While Sperry is currently financially healthy and well-capitalized, our Board of Directors felt that partnering with PenFed is the best option to ensure that our membership gets the service they both expect and deserve – all while continuing the credit union mission of people helping people.”

In the required Notice of Special Meeting to Members, dated July 28, 2020,  the two paragraph explanation is:

“The directors of the participating credit unions have concluded that the proposed merger is desirable for the following reasons: In today’s landscape of digital transformation coupled with evolving technology, regulatory compliance, and increasing cybercriminal threats, our Board of Directors evaluated strategic possibilities to assure that you, our member, will continue to receive the full range of products and services you deserve.

“To ensure continuity of operations while seeking to expand product offerings and improve services, we have been diligently searching to find alternatives. We have explored a range of options, including collaborating with like institutions to consolidate key support functions, maintaining the current course alone, or merging with a strong and proven performer. While there are some benefits with each option, only one meets the full range of our objectives: growth of membership, expansion of product offerings, infusion of investment in IT cybersecurity, improved training and enhanced community service. After considering alternatives, we determined that a merger with PenFed is in the best interest of our members.”

This is the only reason in the required special meeting notice signed by Chairman, Gary Barrello. There are no facts supporting the reasons—no comparison of savings rates, loan programs/rates, service fees and delivery system options that any member would need to consider in making an informed choice to give up Sperry’s charter.

Along with these short, generalized assertions, the letter provides the required disclosures of merger related financial arrangements for the top five management employees. These payments potentially total $2.2 million. There is an “agreement” to donate $100,000 per year to local causes on the recommendation of Sperry’s board acting as advisors. All donations are, however, subject to PenFed approval.

A Special Member Bonus Dividend If Members Vote to Approve

Most relevant to the members’ voting decision is the proposal to pay each “eligible” Sperry member a one time “bonus share dividend” of $350, estimated to total $5.7 million. This amount is 25% of the credit union’s reserves. The remaining 75%, over $15 million, goes directly to PenFed’s pocket, as described below.

With this rhetorical logic and member incentive, is it any wonder that following the member meeting, held in the credit union’s parking lot, a 63% approval tally was announced? No information was provided about how many of the 16,000 members voted or attended the meeting; just the final approval rate.

This was undoubtedly the only time members had been asked to vote on any issue or election at the credit union. If they trust the credit union to properly manager their money, how could they be skeptical of this recommendation to merge and end the charter?

The Ending of an 84-year Community Charter

One might ask what’s untoward or possibly worse with this transaction? The members voted. They approved the recommendation of their elected leaders and long serving management. This happens every day in credit union land!

Furthermore, NCUA, the regulator, has approved all this, including the member notice wording that “a merger with PenFed is in the best interest of our members.” NCUA’s routine is for the Office of National Examination and Supervision (ONES) and the Regional Director to automatically sign off when the final documents are submitted.

This regulatory approval will occur even though the credit union’s web capabilities and the CEO’s public statements, as described in Part I, completely contradict the minimal logic in the merger letter.

But more important, the circumstances outlined below suggest the members have been duped by their leaders entrusted with the fiduciary responsibility to protect their interests.

PenFed and Sperry’s management team jointly designed this deception. They are the recipients with big paydays. The members and rest of the employees are being hung out to dry when this local operation is closed permanently.

What the Members Were Not Told

I believe the facts surrounding this transaction show the members were misled and that management-board merger communications intentionally hoodwinked them. The reality is that Sperry’s members are being sold to an organization that has no interest in their individual or community well-being.

The five managers will receive “optional” severance payments of up to $2.2 million; members get $350 each. PenFed will book a $15.1 million windfall as other income (negative good will). Sperry’s members are paying PenFed a bounty in addition to receiving all the future income from the relationships transferred.

In a normal arm’s length “free market” transaction, the buyer would pay a premium for this future income and the owners would receive their equity surplus in full and more. Instead, management negotiated for its own benefit, not the members.

This transaction, as described, will close Sperry’s only office. That means there is no location for the 39 employees to work or for members to go for what is now 6-day in person service. PenFed’s head office in McLean, VA is 257 miles away and 4-hour drive from Sperry’s headquarters. The nearest branch is a nearly 1-hour drive to Manhattan.

The entire membership is being forced to use remote access for all transactions. Sperry’s 16,000 Nassau County members will now be competing for service with 2,049,700 current PenFed members. That number is 125 times larger than Sperry’s current operations. These remote service employees will have none of the member relationship experiences of the current Sperry staff.

Contrary to the meager merger rationale, the CEO lauded Sperry’s responsiveness in the current environment versus those in “a larger firm who would have had to schedule meetings, create committees and navigate the rough waves of corporate politics…”

This is a merger only on paper, not of operations. It merely combines the financial statements and adds new accounts to PenFed’s books. Local services are shut down. The familiar faces, loyalty, knowledge and community spirit Sperry is built upon will be gone.

Apart from the two paragraphs in the merger notice, every Sperry communication demonstrates that it is serving members and the community in an exemplary manner. It is a classic example of what a member-owned coop can do for its community. The effort to justify the merger as better for members is a farce.

The Timeline Reveals the Charade

The Member Meeting Notice, dated July 28, 2020, opens with the statement “On January 15, 2020, the Board of Directors of your credit union approved a proposition to merge Sperry FCU with Pentagon.”

This means discussions occurred sometime before then. Yet the first that members or the public knew of this secret plan was in the Chair’s member notice dated July 28, just 60 days before the voting deadline and member meeting.

The summer member newsletter, The Sperry Herald, makes no mention of this decision. There is also no reference to the board’s intent to close the credit union in the notice of the annual meeting in the same newsletter. Instead, the board nominated two current directors to fill two expired terms, with members left completely in the dark about the decision nine months earlier to close operations.

Such a disclosure might have initiated member questions or even a revolt.

In the first Newsday article on September 3, after the merger intent becomes public, CEO Kevin Healy is quoted: “The financial landscape across Long Island is rapidly changing. As large institutions continue to grow. . .it is tougher for midsized institutions like Sperry to aggressively gain market share.” This statement from the July 28 member notice completely contradicts the editorial published eleven days before extolling Sherry’s distinct advantages and COVID performance in the July 17 CU Times.

Healy’s quote defending the merger is also refuted by his own words in his March 29, 2019 CU Times “expert opinion:”

 . . .credit unions of all sizes still can thrive and grow with the right mix of strategic forethought. In the end, a thriving credit union always serves the needs of its membership.

When Healy published his July 17, 2020 article praising Sperry’s response, he knew and approved of the intent to merge, a decision made at least seven months earlier. He proclaims Sperry’s business prowess at the same time he is secretly planning to end the charter.

We know this is the case because CEO Healy is a member of the five-person Sperry board. But the problem is more serious than corporate hypocrisy.

In Part III tomorrow: Sperry’s conflicts of interest, self-dealing, PenFed’s complicity, and NCUA’s abdication.

Is This Who We Are? Part I: The Proposed Merger of PenFed and Sperry Associates FCU

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Woody Guthrie “Pretty Boy Floyd”

On October 1, a Newsday business story described the member approval of Sperry Associations FCU’s ($278.4 million) merger with Pentagon FCU ($25.9 billion). Unlike most mergers there was no press release by either credit union. Even the Oct. 6 CUToday.info report was sourced from the Newsday story. Why is the ending of this sound 84-year-old, almost $300 million charter not announced by either party? Why the silence?

Is this just a routine merger of a sound, well-positioned, successful credit union? Or is it another instance of leadership and regulatory failures hollowing out credit unions from the inside? Does this acquisition serve Sperry’s 16,345 members’ best interests? Or, is it a self-serving exodus by senior management?

Another critical issue: is this merger a continuation of PenFed’s acquisitions spree shoring up its flailing financial and business model?

Who Is Sperry Associates FCU? The Right-Sized Credit Union & Its Proven Member Value

Sperry’s June 30, 2020 call report shows a single head office employing 39 persons serving 16,341 members. The credit union opened in 1936. Its FOM is anyone who lives, works, worships, attends school, volunteers, or conducts business in Nassau County, New York. Its estimated market is 1,357,700 potential members.

The June 30 financials show a well-capitalized net worth of 7.9%, delinquency of 1.15%, YTD loan originations up 69%, and twelve-month share growth of 4.5%. The website states the credit union is “financially healthy and well capitalized.”

The website further describes numerous examples of local community involvement and member support programs:

1. Mineola Athletic Association As a local member-owned financial institution, Sperry has partnered with local sports leagues and athletic venues in your community. From sponsorship of the sluggers who play at Mineola Athletic Association to being the official financial partner of Iceland in New Hyde Park, Sperry believes in taking stewardship of the next generation.

2. Proud to Be #MineolaMade

Sperry is proud to offer local products made by students at Mineola High School on display at our Garden City Park branch! . . .

3. Sperry Lends A Hand in Glen Cove, N.Y.

Recently, team members from Sperry Associates FCU were happy to lend a helping hand at the Island Harvest Senior Mobile Food Pantry in Glen Cove, N.Y. . . .

We Are Always Collecting to Benefit Long Island Cares with our Sperry Harry Chapin Food Bank Donation Bin!

4. Sperry Supports the Garden City Park Fire Department at Member Appreciation Day

5. Sperry Volunteers Prepare Meal for Families at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island

Members Come First: Extensive Member Service and Delivery Choices

Member value is portrayed on the website as follows:

Convenient Banking, Lending and More – All with Local Connections. From our quick and easy online loan applications to giving you 24/7 account access, Sperry makes sure your accounts are never out of reach. Need to bank-on-the-go? Our award-winning mobile app, available for Apple and Android devices, makes it easy. Even better, Sperry members have access to over 5,600 shared service centers and 30,000 surcharge-free ATMs across the country

Our Members Come First. As a Sperry member, you are actually an owner, rather than a customer, of our financial institution. We don’t pay stockholders; instead we invest our earnings back to our membership – That means lower fees, better rates on loans, and higher rates on deposits! 

So, don’t miss out on experiencing the credit union difference of Better Rates…Better Service…Better Banking at Sperry! Branch hours are six days per week including Saturdays.”

In addition to these multiple service channels, the credit union provides a complete product line of consumer and mortgage loans (with rate locks), multiple savings options, and posts its full fee schedule.

One example of its multi-generational approach is a 5% Youth Savings and Youth Checking account with free Visa debit card. A financial counseling partnership with Greenspace is offered.

Sperry’s comprehensive locally focused member value is shown in this video that describes Sperry as a “right-sized credit union.”

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOHRHV4xsHM)

CEO Healy Affirmed Sperry’s Unique Value and Resilience in Two Op-eds

Sperry’s CEO has published several articles about the credit union’s unique positioning. In a Credit Union Times opinion article on July 17, 2020, CEO Healy asserted the credit union’s effectiveness responding to the COVID crisis [emphasis added]:

“At Sperry Associates Federal Credit Union ($273 million in assets), we’ve found a happy balance in maintaining the services and products our core members love such as free checking and competitive loan rates, while at the same time offering niche and specialized lending products that match emerging needs. These past few months, we’ve offered specialty loan products to those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and we’ve been diligently working with our small business partners to secure for them Paycheck Protection Program funding. As community-centric institutions, our responsibility is to ensure that the friends and neighbors we serve are able to weather this storm.

“These products were the direct result of Sperry taking advantage of its market positioning. We’re a mid-sized credit union, member-owned and proudly serving the Long Island market for over 80 years. While we like to think bigger, we also act on the local neighborhood level.

“For the mid-sized institution looking to grow and better understand the pulse of the markets, it’s critical to put your organization’s best foot forward in the community. With a strong business development team at their disposal, executive management at a mid-sized firm can accurately assess these emerging needs and adapt their scope of services to meet them, all thanks to a boots-on-the-ground approach that is often not used by larger entities.

“Throughout the pandemic, which hit New York hard and is now spreading elsewhere, our team heard from friends, business owners and members that these larger events had local impacts, and using our community-rooted approached, we took action.

“A larger firm would have had to schedule meetings, create committees and navigate the rough waters of corporate politics, while a smaller firm would be working to enter the market. For us in the middle, we were the right size to react appropriately, all while using our internal talents to ensure that due diligence was conducted, and our solutions were beneficial to those we serve.

“In the end, it comes down to approach. By seeing the unique market challenges faced by a mid-sized organization as an opportunity, one can yield larger-than-life results.”

I quote this in full, because this appeared just eleven days before the credit union sent its Special Meeting Notice to members recommending merger with PenFed.

This was not the first time CEO Healy promoted the advantages of Sperry’s mid-size, strong local positioning. On March 29, 2019, CUTimes published his “expert opinion” extolling Sperry’s agility in a time of changing technology. Selected excerpts follow.

“. . .Despite the challenges these new approaches from unorthodox financial services competitors like Apple present, credit unions of all sizes still can thrive and grow with the right mix of strategic forethought.

“At Sperry Associates Federal Credit Union, we serve our membership within the highly competitive New York metropolitan region. As such, we’ve taken to embracing the philosophy that both member service and compelling products can offset some of the advantages that larger competitors such as Apple have at their disposal.

“The concept of member service still means something when it comes to banking, but the notion is further strengthened when paired with convenient, consumer-friendly products that make the lives of our members easier.

“For credit unions, which collectively are traditionally conservative and cautious institutions, a bit of private-sector risk-taking can pay off in the long run. In order to expand our horizons, Sperry closely monitors both market dynamics and changing trends – as such, we have have been seeing more and more shifts to the digital realm, as well as the need for more niche lending products. . . 

“In the end, a thriving credit union always serves the needs of its membership.”

Sperry’s members’ loss is most consequentially illustrated by the COVID environment. Comparing the two credit unions’ PPP loans as of June 30, Sperry reported 6 loans totaling $439,751; Pentagon, 100 times larger, reported $0. Given Sperry’s extraordinary capabilities and member focus, and the CEO’s public expressions of confidence, why did the Board and management decide to end Sperry’s independent charter?

In Part II tomorrow: Sperry’s brief explanation for merging.

Should a CEO’s Last Act be Merger?

One pattern in the 150-200 credit union mergers occurring each year is CEOs nearing retirement, using merger as a “succession plan.” After decades of leadership, their final act is to dissolve the organization that gave them the top job of their professional career.

A CEO’s Responsibility and Fiduciary Duty

Every CEO contributes in multiple ways to the “ongoing concern” of the organization they are chosen to lead. These responsibilities include developing strategy, ensuring the trains run on time (performance), defining a culture, and acting as chief spokesperson for external contacts. All for the purpose of serving members better and ensuring the continuity of the enterprise.

Succession planning is integral to this purpose. This can be a process of nurturing internal candidates and/or using external consultants.

I am disappointed for members when I read that a CEO’s final act is recommending the merger of their independent institution. The credit union has been the platform for the CEO’s leadership opportunity, industry status and professional reputation for many years.

Instead of their role as a “relay” runner passing on the baton, their tenure becomes a “sprint” to the finish and no one else gets to run.

This appears to be the situation at Xceed Financial Credit Union ($942 million) where the CEO who took over in September 2006, sent an email recommendation to members this July. The letter announced (after 14 years as the leader), the best future course of the credit union was to merge with Kinecta FCU ($5.1 billion) “to better serve you.”

The Reasons Given Members

The email listed six reasons including “a broader product lineup, higher dividends, lower fees, more robust digital banking, full Saturday banking, and expanded branch network including 22 locations in Southern California.”

No comparative facts were provided other than citing the 22 additional Kinecta branches. Of Xceed’s current nine branches, only one is in Southern California. It would seem unlikely that members using Xceed’s locations in San Jose and Menlo Park , CA (several hundred miles to the north) or the six locations in Rochester, NY, Parsippany, NJ, and Leesburg, VA, would see this “expanded” network as “better service.”

The key logic justifying this step is “joining forces will give us economies of scale” and “the combined credit union will be the 35th largest in the country with approximately $6 billion in assets.”

So, after 14 years at the helm, the CEO and board determined the credit union was no longer capable “to effectively compete in the future or deliver the products and services that you need and want.” The only solution is to merge.

The CEO assures the members the loss of their independent charter will be OK: “I fully support this merger. . . I will also be staying on as president of the combined credit union and fully intend to ensure your needs and interests remain a top priority. . .”

This assurance seems questionable after telling members the credit union is no longer viable after the CEO’s 14-year reign.

Kinecta’s East Coast Base?

The July 16 joint press release reported the CEO of the combined operations would be Kinecta’s CEO. He is quoted: “This will be great news for members of both credit unions. . .and will enhance access for Kinecta’s east coast members.”

How important is this “east coast” member base? According to Kinecta’s HMDA filings, the credit union originated no mortgages in New York in 2019 and only 17 (1.1% of their total) on the entire east coast. In 2018, the numbers were 27 east coast mortgages (2.7%); in 2017 the total was 19, 1.4% of all mortgages. Again, the purported “east coast member base” rationale seems dubious.

Members Vote After NCUA’s “Approval”

The first sentence of Xceed’s member letter states that the credit union is “seeking approval from the National Credit Union Administration,” implying that this is an action that will be duly vetted by the regulator. Only much later is it stated that “you will have the final say when a member vote takes place early next year.”

NCUA’s role is administrative, not substantive. The most important function is to approve the required member disclosures of any financial benefits gained by Xceed’s CEO and/or other employees from the merger. Until then, these personal interests are secret.

How Can Members Assess This Recommendation?

Both the press release and member letter are filled with glowing promises that everything is going to be better. There are no factual product comparisons. How can members determine if this really is a bona fide action?

Is there a way to go beyond the marketing rhetoric and vacuous assertion that size makes us better?

Or is this just a convenient exit for a CEO and board unwilling to work through succession?

The CEO and Board’s Track Record

One way to assess these promises is to look at the track record of the leadership proposing this action. How has the stewardship of Xceed’s board and CEO in the last 14 years built the credit union and served members?

In December 2006, shortly after the current CEO was chosen, the credit union reported $734 million in assets; 70,588 members, 14 branches and a net worth ratio of 11.65%.

In the June 2020 call report the same numbers are $943 million in assets; 49,280 members, 9 branches and 9.91% net worth. Three of these four measures of institutional performance are in steep decline.

The credit union’s compounded annual (CAGR) asset growth for the past five years is a negative (-0.67%) per year. The CAGR for the 14-years is 1.39% or less than a quarter of the industry’s 5.77% annual growth in the same time period. The 1.39% annual growth also includes five mergers that added $200 million in external assets and over 30% additional members during this time.

The latest financial results are equally unsettling. In the June 30, 2020 call report, the credit union shows a year-to-date loss of $1.8 million. This compares to a positive $1.7 million for the first six months of 2019, a $3.5 million downturn.

Five Prior Mergers

During this 14 years of just over 1% annual growth, the CEO completed five mergers starting with two small ones in 2008.

On December 31, 2012, the merger of the $55 million Safeway Los Angeles FCU increased Xceed Financials’ membership by nearly 20% and added a branch in Norwalk, CA, according to Xceed’s press release.

Two other combinations were in 2016 with the $102 million Reach Credit Union, Menlo Park, CA, and the $29 million Postmark Credit Union in Harrisburg, PA.

The reasons provided in these mergers are the same Xceed now uses for combing with Kinecta: greater efficiency, larger lineup of products and services, and tremendous opportunities for growth.

After five mergers, the result is the credit union has lost over 20,000 members, recorded negative annual asset growth in the five most recent years, and reduced the number of branches from 14 to 9 since 2006.

As this member and branch downsizing occurred, the credit union’s total investment in buildings and fixed assets went from $6.5 million in 2006, to $23.5 million (350%) 14 years later.

Merging in a Time of Crisis

Xceed’s board and long-serving CEO are telling members they will be better off by turning their future over to a new board and senior management team to which they have no connection. Nearly six decades (since 1964) of member, corporate and community relationships are being jettisoned with no documented benefits or plan. Only marketing generalities.

This relationship history is especially vital during a once-a-century health pandemic and in the quarter the US economy recorded it largest GDP decline ever. From coast to coast, credit unions are stepping up efforts to respond to special member needs.

Members need their credit union now more than ever. A reliable financial partner with years of familiarity of their employer and personal circumstances, is an asset. Members impacted by today’s economy are counting on institutions they supported in better days.

They want to know their years of loyalty will be honored and their individual circumstances served when facing financial uncertainties beyond their control.

It is not size but relationships that matter. Whether the credit union is the largest, the 35th or has fewer than $10 million in assets, the key is being closer to the member than any other financial option.

Members’ confidence is based on the mutual understanding, “We are in this together.” When that value is lost, members vote with their feet. To believe a merger can reverse this shortcoming will just accelerate the steps out the door.

Neither the CEO’s letter nor the joint press release mentions anything of these immediate circumstances. That signals members’ interests are not the priority.

What’s at Stake? (“Far more than what meets the eye”)

The reasons for this merger are suspect. If the members’ best interests are not the case, what could it be?

The CEO’s words suggest the motivation. The first sentence starts, “I’m excited.” This emotion is cited twice more: “We couldn’t be more excited,” and finally, “I hope you share my excitement.”

These are the sentiments of personal ambition. This is hype hiding a $1.8 million six-month loss and the long-term decline of members and market presence. This is in fact a case study of “organizational entropy.”

A change is needed, but not that proposed in the “happy talk” letter. The merger reasons are not factually grounded. It hardly enhances “convenience” for members, the vast majority of whom are across the country and far distant from the new Southern California headquarters.

Proposal Contradicts CEO’s Own Criteria

Xceed’s CEO wrote a 2010 op-ed on mergers in the Credit Union Times with the following assertions:

“At the end of the day, credit union mergers must be based on what’s best for the member (of both credit unions). At Xceed FCU, although we operate across the country, we wouldn’t merge a credit union just for the sake of expanded asset size. There’s far more at stake than what first meets the eye. . . Mergers call for serious consideration and although I appreciate the unprecedented difficult operating environment we find ourselves in today-let’s continue asking the question “What’s in it for the member?””

That’s the question members should be asking. The CEO has disowned her own criteria: “We wouldn’t merge a credit union just for the sake of expanded asset size.” That statement alone should raise doubts not just for members, but across the cooperative system.

A Test of Cooperative Democracy

This is about common good versus private interest. Credit unions have shown they cannot be beaten from the outside, but they can be undermined from the inside. The essential bonds of trust, transparency and integrity which every credit union requires are hanging by a thread.

When something appears illogical, devoid of member consideration and not right, it is time to speak up.

NCUA has proven incapable of protecting members’ best interests in mergers. That responsibility will fall on concerned members, volunteers and employees. This is a test whether democratic governance can prevail. A cooperative system is sustained only if people are willing to stand up and fight for it.

When leaders seek to end the 50-year legacy from which they personally prospered, member-owners must confront this leadership abdication. The cooperative does not belong to any one CEO or board, but to all the members.

Call To Action

Cooperatives conquer challenges based on the will of their owners to do the same. They connect with persons who see more in their cooperatives than simply a banking channel, a kiosk, a website, a phone center, etc. These owners see an organization, a community, and personal solutions worth building.

COVID has accelerated our digital persona skills. Sound the virtual alarms via Twitter, Facebook, and all networked connections. The collective’s future is at stake. The proof of the cooperative difference will be democratic action to halt this sell out of Xceed Financial Credit Union.

For further analysis read: Thoughts on Mergers: The Tallest Candlestick Ain’t Much Good Without a Wick

Print This Post Print This Post

The Choice of Words

The headline seemed newsworthy: Bank Credit Union Merger News

The problem: it was not accurate. Credit unions and banks cannot and do not merge. The brief story did state that a credit union had completed its acquisition of a bank. But then the story continued the fiction by stating “this is the seventh merger of a bank into a credit union this year.”

Why the Misstatement?

Writers have a point of view. In this case the post was to promote the idea that banks and credit unions are much alike. So much so that bank/credit union mergers are not that different from the several hundred merger transactions occurring between credit unions annually.

However, these transactions are purchases in which credit unions pay cash to the owners of the bank in order to acquire the selling bank’s assets and liabilities. They are whole bank acquisitions. These sales are negotiated, often with the help of brokers, accountants, lawyers and other third-party experts to navigate both the business details and the regulatory approvals.

The documentation is very distinct from credit union mergers. The agreements will include representations, warranties, covenants and possibly non-compete and/or employment clauses on top of the detailed financial commitments. By contrast, the NCUA approves real mergers with a template, two paragraph, half-page general statement about transference of assets and liabilities to the surviving credit union.

Normalizing the Abnormal

The effort to portray credit union acquisitions of banks as just another kind of “merger” is supported by a host of intermediaries who benefit financially from the transaction It also provides a thin veneer of “normality” to those credit union leaders who use the accumulated reserves of members to buy out competitors or to enhance institutional size.

These are not, as one NCUA board member characterized them, just market-based transactions. For there is no market accountability before or after the event as there would be in a publicly traded stock. The deals are negotiated in secret, not in an open process. The members have no say; rarely would the transaction provide them any direct benefit. And if the deal does not work out, the owners of the credit union, unlike a bank’s shareholders, have no course of action.

Avoiding the Real Issues

An event may not be illegal, but that does not mean it is wise. Credit unions’ whole bank purchases raise important questions about the role of tax-exempt cooperatives. Should their tax-free accumulation of reserves enable them to buy tax paying banks? How do such transactions promote the unique role of cooperatives in financial services? What are the benefits to existing members? How transparent should the transactions be to members and the public to ensure accountability?

Banks are chartered to make money for their owners. The owners sell when they see it in their personal interests to cash out and reinvest elsewhere or spend their funds for individual purpose. Credit unions are founded on the principle of paying forward the wealth created by generations of members to be used for future members. It is common wealth, not private.

By blurring the lines by using terms like “bank credit union mergers,” the interests of a host of vendors is enhanced and the public perception of credit unions as no different from banks is promoted.

It also enables lazy strategy on the part of credit union CEOs. Organic growth requires innovation, constant focus on enhancing member value and an understanding of the competitive advantages of cooperative design. Buying out competitors may work in the open markets; that is not why cooperatives were formed.

Credit Unions Purchasing Banks: One Step to Improve the Process

It is hard to know if credit union bank purchases are working out or not. Are they in members’ best interests? Are the terms reasonable? How will the financial benefits be realized?

One difficulty in these deals is that only one side is required to disclose the terms: the selling bank. That disclosure can be further limited if the bank is privately held.

The Importance of Transparency

Because credit unions do not have stock and the resulting marketplace pressures that this reality places on boards and managers, it is difficult to track whether a credit union bank buy is working or not.

From 2015-2019 consulting firms estimate that the average premium to book value on bank mergers has ranged from a low of 136% (2016) to a high of 175% (2018).

This is just one element of disclosure for public companies. The bigger the transaction, the more details provided. For a stock company being merged, the details matter in that competitors might offer a competing bid if selling shareholders feel the price is too low.

For an acquirer, the impact of a transaction on future performance is an important factor to justify paying premiums over book value.

An Absence of Public Information

In credit unions, there is limited disclosure on the front end of a purchase. There are rarely any projections of future performance. There are undoubtedly reams of financial information required to gain both board and regulatory approval. But this data is not shared.

When deals are secret, no one can learn from the experience. Secrecy can lead to a lack of accountability. The process can be manipulated by interested parties to the transaction or those directly responsible to ensure member assets are not wasted.

Public relations messages dominate the information presented. This or that purchase will increase “service to the community, enhance customer relationships, provide greater expertise and expand growth opportunities” in a new market. But rarely are facts offered to support these generalizations.

Market-Based Transactions?

NCUA Chairman Hood defended credit union purchases of banks describing them as market-based transactions. He is only half right. For credit union members receive neither the financial data that bank shareholders receive when selling, nor the subsequent performance monitoring provided by a daily stock price.

Today credit union bank purchases are unknown events. They may indeed be win-win for all parties. Only one group of “shareholders” receives the information to make that judgment. Shouldn’t credit union shareholders have the same “level playing field?”

Examples of Financial Datapoints in Press Releases of Bank Purchases

Under the terms of the transaction, shareholders of Edon Bancorp will receive $103.50 in cash in exchange for each share of Edon Bancorp common stock for a transaction valued in aggregate at approximately $15.5 million. The consideration represents approximately 135% of Edon Bancorp’s tangible book value per share as of December 31, 2019.

On a pro forma basis, the transaction is expected to be accretive to SB One Bancorp’s 2019 earnings per share by approximately 8% and approximately 1% dilutive to tangible book value per share at closing assuming a transaction close in the fourth quarter of 2018 and 30% in annual cost savings. The earn back of the tangible book value dilution is projected to be less than one year.

CAMBRIDGE BANCORP AND WELLESLEY BANCORP, INC. TO MERGE

The transaction is presently valued at $45.54 per Wellesley common share, or approximately $122 million in the aggregate, based upon Cambridge Bancorp’s 10-day average closing price of $78.53 as of December 4, 2019. On a pro forma basis the transaction is expected to be approximately 4.4% accretive to Cambridge’s 2021 earnings per share and approximately 1.6% dilutive to tangible book value per share with an expected earnback period of approximately 2.2 years.

A MUTUAL BUYS A STOCK BANK

Under the terms of the transaction, shareholders of Damariscotta will receive $27.00 in cash in exchange for each share of Damariscotta common stock for a transaction valued in aggregate at approximately $35 million. The consideration represents approximately 185% of Damariscotta’s tangible book value per share as of September 30, 2019.

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.