What Can Credit Unions Learn from Bethesda’s Tastee Diner

In 1982 I moved to Bethesda, Md. It is a zip code address with a post office, but there is no city. The local government is the Montgomery County council. There is no local representation. As a result the Bethesda area’s fate is not controlled locally. A dominant objective of the County Council has been to stress development and the growing tax revenue that results.

Since the metro line opened in 1984, Bethesda has gone through waves of building booms and increasing construction. All local gas stations have been replaced by 12 story or greater condominiums. Local shops such as a fresh fish store, barbershops, nail salons and second hand consignment outlets survive only until the next rent increase.

The development boom has accelerated this past year with the construction of a new metro purple line connecting with the original red line stop. On top of this juncture of the two lines are three 30-40 story glass and steel office centers. No historical site such as the farmers market, no single or double story retail space is safe from this development driven construction frenzy. All the familiar, locally-owned businesses are being replaced by high end retailers, national chains and the latest trendy eateries.

The Tastee Diner

One business has avoided this construction destruction: the Tastee Diner. First opened in 1935, it is the only restaurant that has survived economic crisis and successive waves of ever dense building. The life span of any restaurant in Bethesda is measured by the years left on the lease as landlords seek increasing returns from their valuable holdings.

Tastee Diner is literally a throwback to the dining car layout of train travel. It has not changed its seating format of wooden booths or sitting at the counter and watching the cook work at the grill. It even has a jukebox at each table. For a quarter you can hear Johnny Cash Walk the Line or other 1960s rock and roll hits.

The sign on the door says: “Welcome, Open 24 hours.” The diner closes only 42 hours per year from noon on Christmas eve to opening at 6:00 am the day after Christmas.

The menu is classic American “comfort food.” Fried chicken, meat loaf, burgers, creamed chip beef on toast, etc. There are specials of the day and a senior menu for over 55. Kids eat free in the evening, one per each paying adult. Prices are the best food value in town. All drinks have free refills. The diner doesn’t have a liquor license, a key source of restaurant income.

Three years ago the local DC cultural magazine listed the diner as one of the top five restaurants to go in the greater Washington area for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

At the Foot of Marriott’s New Head Office

Today, the 85-year-old diner literally rests at the foot of the construction of the new international headquarters of the Marriott hotel chain. It will be dwarfed by this 27-story office building that will tower over it in every possible way.

How Do You Survive?

As we left the diner this past week, I asked the manager how they’ve avoided the fate of all the other local businesses. How can you possibly stay here in this increasingly upscale, luxury retail environment that constantly turns over renters every three to five years?

The answer was simple: “We own the land.”

The message for credit unions worried about fintechs, new entrants, big bank competitors or the constant refrain that you have to be big to survive is to remember the Tastee Diner model.

Your members won’t go away. Local loyalty can trump all the newcomers in the world as long as we remember that our members “own the land.”

The Cooperative Advantage in Mutual Funds

The fastest growing mutual fund family over the past decade has been the Vanguard funds. Their products feature no load, low cost index funds. The underlying philosophy is that investors cannot beat the market. Paying fees to investment managers that claim superior returns not only locks in higher costs, but also the claim to beat market averages is rarely achieved.

But there is one other critical advantage that allows Vanguard to offer this approach to investing contrary to the market positioning of virtually all other major mutual fund advisors. The funds are owned by their investors.

As described in a recent LA Times article“the investment group is swelling at a dramatic pace, thanks to one crucial advantage over its rivals: It is owned by its own funds, allowing it to use profits after covering costs and business investments to lower its fees, rather than reward outside shareholders with dividends and buybacks.

In other words, the more it grows, the cheaper its funds can become, in turn generating more growth — a virtuous cycle that has helped Vanguard more than triple in size since 2011. It is particularly dominant in the U.S., where last year it took in more money than its two biggest rivals, BlackRock and Fidelity, combined, according to Morningstar.

Vanguard today accounts for over a quarter of the entire U.S. mutual-fund market — a market share almost as big as Fidelity, BlackRock and Capital Group put together — and it is one of the biggest shareholders in virtually every major listed U.S. company.”

A Harbinger for Credit Unions?

NCUA Chairman Ed Callahan (1981-1985) frequently described credit unions as America’s best kept secret or a “sleeping giant.”

Vanguard is a powerful example for cooperative design where the user-owners are the sole focus of management’s priorities. Could Vanguard’s success become an example for credit union’s future contribution to the American economy?

What’s in a Name?

”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The question that Romeo poses to Juliet suggests that it is not a name but the person, or substance of a thing, that matters.

Credit Union Names Evolve

Upon chartering most credit unions adopted names that identified their common bond. Starting a credit union generally required one of three fields of membership: affiliation by employer, by association or by community.

Credit union names reflected this core legal identity for example: IBM Southeast Employees, International Harvester, GTE, St Paul’s Parrish, or 717 Credit Union.

But as companies merged or laid off staff and the membership broadened, names became more generic: Community First, Workers, Family First, Together or MY Credit union.

And today many new names reflect the impact of branding consultants with aspirational titles such as: Aspire, Ascend, People’s Choice, NuVision or Credit Human

The Name: CommonBond

So I was intrigued that a fintech startup from the 2011 chose the name CommonBond to describe its firm.

Since 2012, it has made over $4 billion in new or refinanced student loans. But why call the firm Common Bond? Is a tangible connection being referred to? Is there an insight possibly drawn from credit unions, but now forgotten, as names evolve into branding events?

The firm’s business model is to target student loan refinancing and new borrowings. The market is millennials. So how are they trying to connect with this demographic beyond a virtual platform with competitive products and pricing?

The first declaration from their website is a statement of their business philosophy:

OUR SOCIAL PROMISE: A better way to do business

The way we see it, businesses have a responsibility to do more than just business. We’re passionate about giving people the opportunity to live their dreams, and we know improving student loans is just one way we can make a world of difference.
Our partnership with Pencils of Promise has provided schools, teachers, and technology to thousands of young students in the developing world and our yearly trip to Ghana gives customers and team members a chance to visit the amazing classrooms we’ve built together.

As described in a TIME magazine note: “The firm offers services to anyone with a degree from a not-for-profit American university regardless of citizenship, so long as he or she meets the other criteria. The company is also the first and only finance firm to offer what it calls a “one-for-one” social mission: for every degree fully funded on the company’s platform, it also pays for a year of education for a child in a developing nation.”

It also partners with employers as noted in a Fast Company article: “CommonBond has skirted the fates of other online lending companies in recent years by partnering with employers to turn student loan repayment into something like the 401(k)s of the millennial and gen-Z workforces. The goal was to tackle two financial problems in tandem: the costly turnover facing employers and the debt weighing down their youngest employees. CommonBond has racked up more than 250 business partners to deliver its debt-refinancing program as a work perk…”

Empowering

In CommonBond’s 2018 annual review, a video describes its core purpose as empowering the community, the workforce and the world.

The company relies on venture capital and wholesale funding sources including sales of bonds backed by student loans to the secondary market. This would lead one to believe that their funding costs must be higher than credit unions which rely on share deposits. Various student loan website comparisons say their rates are competitive, but there is no way to know the details unless one submits an application.

Therefore the initial positioning strategy of CommonBond is critical to attract prospective borrowers via the Internet. There is no prior relationship and no physical branches to serve borrowers.

The company is private and publishes no financials, so we do not know how financially sustainable its model is at this point in time. But what is clear is that the business design is focused on a set of values and actions that they believe will appeal to students who borrow for college. These concepts include social purpose, a global perspective, supporting educational projects, providing advice on college/work choices, partnering with employers, and empowering individuals through loans.

The company’s transactions are based on the belief that there is a need for a better student loan options, but that is not the starting point for their appeal. It is instead a description of values and commitments to attract prospects by making them feel comfortable when providing their personal information to evaluate a loan option.

With no legacy business reputation to rely upon, CommonBond instead must present a corporate profile that students, who are strangers to the company, will trust. Is that an example that credit unions can learn from as naming exercises continue? Or to paraphrase an expression : That which we would call a credit union by any other name should still be as trusted as before.

What is the Value of a Member Account?

This week my wife received a mail promotion from BB&T bank inviting her to open a checking account.

If she chose their Elite Gold product with either a $35,000 deposit or direct deposits totaling at least $3,000 per month, than they will pay a bonus of $600 into the account.

The only time limit is she must leave the deposit for 75 days or have the direct deposit(s) established in the same time frame.

Acquisition Cost and Future Value

Paying cash to incentivize new account relationships is not a new strategy. USAA regularly solicits my credit card business with a $200 cash offer.

But the amount of $600 seemed to be unusually high. Why?

I don’t know the answer. Is there a new awareness of the value of a consumer’s payment account in a low interest environment? Or is this an effort to preempt Fintech deposit acquisitions? Does the amount reflect a targeted marketing strategy for a specific demographic, such as retirees? Or is it just paying the present value of a long term customer relationship for the bank? Is the $600 based on documented acquisition costs from other marketing efforts, which it will now amortize over the estimated life of the relationship?

The Value of Members

What the offer should remind credit unions is the value of their checking account relationships, especially those with direct deposit. There is unrecorded but real value, from those members whose loyalty often goes back decades. These core deposit relationships underwrite much of the rest of the credit union’s activity.

If you have a 10,000 member credit union half of whom have checking accounts with direct deposit, according to BB&T that is $300,000 of real value to the market. Or to be more analytical, what is the prospect of BB&T’s ability to earn more than 1.7% ($600/$35,000) if the average relationship from this marketing remains with the bank for at least one year?

Even more fundamental, should credit unions still require a membership fee?

Scale and the Law of Diminishing Returns

The most common rationale for credit union growth is to achieve new scale. Larger size is meant to bring more efficiency, productivity and market clout. And hopefully member value.

In a situation where everything or everyone else stays constant, growing larger might produce this outcome. But even in the most hospitable circumstances, the law of diminishing returns sets in.

Learning From Another Industry Serving Consumers

In a recent plane flight I sat next to a mining engineer from Houston, Texas. We talked about the largest and deepest mines in the world including a mile-deep open pit copper mine run by Kennecott in Utah.

Productivity is measured by the ounces of ore (1-3 oz) per ton of rock extracted. The constant challenge for geological engineers is to try to find veins so mining is still economically feasible. But, sooner or later, ore recovery is not worth the additional cost.

Our discussion then turned to Houston’s recent floods in part exacerbated by the city’s paving over much of its surface area by concrete. As an example he mentioned that Houston had the widest highway system anywhere in the world.

I returned home and found this was no Texas exaggeration. The Katy Freeway covers 26 lanes of freeways, toll lanes, frontage and emergency roads. At Beltway 8 it is in fact the largest according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Result of Becoming the Biggest Highway

So did this investment from 2008 help traffic flow faster? At first, for a short time, it did. But now, traffic engineers call it a Monument to Futility.

For as capacity is increased, so does “induced demand.” In fact, the same journey now takes longer on this highway mammoth than before the expansion.

My flight companion told me one result of this new congestion is that companies the highway has meant to serve are now moving to less crowded areas of the Houston metroplex. Not just the head office, but also tens of thousands of employees jobs are relocating for more open spaces.

The moral is that scale changes things, some unanticipated or even unintended. Consumers’ loyalty to is rarely based on size or scale-“the biggest”. Rather satisfaction comes from service and personal responsiveness.

Many factors cause each credit union to be the size it is today. Understanding that legacy may be more valuable than yearning for bigger scale wherein existing comparative and competitive advantages are significantly lessened in exchange for unproven future benefits.

 Consumer Trust and Financial Services

In a February 2019 article in The Review of Financial Studies a research report by professors at the Columbia Business School was published.

The professors’ objective was to ask why US homeowners were slow to consider refinancing options even when it could provide significant savings.

The study was based on one financial institution’s offer to 550,000 eligible borrowers under the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP).

What were the behavioral factors that caused the homeowners not to take the refinancing offers? All current borrowers were sent pre-approved applications; there were no fees. Yet 51% passed on the opportunity which would provide an average savings of $9,000.

The Primary Reason for Not Acting

“Survey data indicate that among all the behavioral factors examined, only suspicion of banks’ motives is consistently related to the probability of accepting a refinancing offer,” concluded the authors.

The study also looked at the impact of incentives including use of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase credibility, a $500 cashback if the process took more than 30 days, and a gift card for an immediate acceptance.

The result: “We report the results of three field experiments showing that enticing offers made by banks fail to increase participation and may even deepen suspicion.”

The paper’s bottom line: “Our findings highlight the important role of trust in financial decisions.”

Can Trust be Marketed?

Most credit union teams know trust matters. It is common sense. The challenge is how to communicate this fundamental characteristic of cooperative design. Is it by emulating the marketing strategies of the banking industry? Or honoring the loyalty and relationships that build a cooperative?

What Credit Unions Can Learn from Bank Purchases

I am uncertain on the issue of credit unions’ whole bank purchases. Are they an aberration, an opportunity, or events for just a moment in time, even though the practice dates back to 2012? While consequential for some individual credit unions, the 30 or so total purchases are not yet a significant factor in the industry’s $1.6 trillion assets. And it is mostly a side show in comparison with the 200-250 voluntary mergers occurring per year.

Largest Bank Purchase Announced

In early December, the largest bank purchase to date was announced. Suncoast Schools CU will buy Apollo Bank to extend the credit union’s reach into the greater Miami market.

No financial terms were announced. Apollo Bank reported $747 million in assets and $74 million in bank capital as of September 30, 2019. Its $545 million loans are primarily in real estate and commercial, not consumer credit. It has five Miami area offices.

Suncoast sees the acquisition as a way to jump into the 6 million greater Miami market area, expand its consumer loan portfolio, and enhance its commercial lending capability.

The Financial Impact on Suncoast

Even though both boards have approved the purchase, the value of the transaction was not released. Therefore, it is not possible to analyze the transaction’s risk, if any, to the credit union. From call reports, we learn that Apollo Bank has been profitable. The stock is not publicly traded so we cannot use a market valuation to compare with the purchase price.

In traditional bank sales, a price in excess of book for a steadily performing firm is commonplace. Because this cannot be a stock transaction, Suncoast will pay the total negotiated value in cash to shareholders. Its board’s approval suggests they anticipate no major change in Suncoast’s financial or risk profile that might delay the purchase.

How a Bank-Credit Union Purchase Works

Should Apollo Bank’s negotiated share price be approximately 125% of book value, this purchase would cost Suncoast $100 million. To simplify myriads of accounting details, assume the bank’s assets and liabilities are valued near book. This would result in Suncoast recording a net equity acquired in merger of approximately $77 million and a goodwill entry for the amount in excess of the net book figure, or approximately $25 million.

The bank’s shareholders receive cash. They can do whatever they choose with their $100 million. They can deposit it in the credit union, buy stock in another company, pay off loans or spend it. The purchase agreement will ordinarily contain other conditions such as terms for retained employees with possible performance goals, representations, non-compete agreements, and other understandings. Purchase documents for shareholders can run into hundreds of pages. Teams of outside accountants, consultants and advisors are normally engaged by each party to complete the transaction.

Comparing Bank Purchases with Credit Union Mergers

If Apollo Bank were instead Apollo Credit Union whose board and CEO had agreed to the merger, the credit union’s member-owners would not be treated the same as its bank shareholders. In fact, no merger of two sound credit unions has never resulted in a meaningful payout of the accumulated reserves created by generations of member loyalty.

A hypothetical Apollo Credit Union merger, under current practice, would transfer all its accumulated equity to Suncoast. The total wealth transfer is double the equity amount under current credit union merger practices. Suncoast books the excess of assets over liabilities as “equity acquired in a merger,” similar to the bank transaction. But then, as no cash is paid from equity to member-owners, the credit union recognizes the amount of equity transferred over and above the net assets, as “negative good will”. This is income for the credit union to use however it chooses to spend its revenue.

Needless to say, there would never be a bank purchase under these terms. A bank CEO and board that would even suggest doing so, using a rationale of expanded services and capabilities available from the much larger credit union ($10 billion Suncoast), would be subject to potential legal liability by shareholders for failing to represent their best interests. Shareholders would undoubtedly turn such an offer down, and start looking for another CEO and board.

The Critical Issue from Credit Unions Buying Banks

In a credit union bank purchase, the owners are given much greater respect, due diligence information, and ultimately money, than the member-owners receive in a credit union merger. The underlying economics of the situations are virtually identical. Moreover, the 30 bank purchases demonstrate the financial strength of credit unions to indeed pay owners their full equity interest ,and possibly more, and yet still have a mutually agreeable and sound transaction approved by regulators.

Should the boards and CEOs of well-run credit unions considering mergers be more assertive representing their member-owners’ interests? The bank transactions show that it is not only financially feasible, but also a fiduciary responsibility.

NCUA’s Role

When Chairman Hood was asked about bank purchases in Congress recently, he responded that these were voluntary market transactions, but that NCUA would be looking into them. He did not explain what that meant. However, the critical issue these transactions raise is whether member-owners in the economically equivalent situation of a bank purchase, are being given proper consideration in mergers.

Clearly these “voluntary, market-based” bank purchase transactions would never happen if the terms were similar to current credit union mergers. So why are NCUA and state regulators routinely approving the same economic events that transfer member-owners double equity value with no compensation? These may be “voluntary” but are hardly market-based transactions.

Merger Terms Now Available

Moreover, credit union mergers are not documented in any way similar to bank purchases as to why the transactions are in the members’ best interests. When reviewing the information now publicly available on all mergers, the descriptions of member benefits are rarely more than assertions of a brighter future or marketing “happy talk.” The most explicit details are the increased compensation CEOs and senior managers will receive from the transaction. Even when there is a token “special dividend” to encourage members to vote for the merger, the amount is minuscule compared to the double equity being transferred to the surviving credit union.

Reviewing the published letters boards of directors sent to members encouraging their approval of merger proposals, it is clear that the most immediate benefits go to the CEO and managers giving up their leadership responsibilities to another credit union. In a number of cases the members who are supposedly gaining something, could have joined the surviving credit union anyway, if it indeed offered a better value.

What Is Being Lost in Mergers

In most mergers routinely approved by NCUA, there are no safety and soundness issues. So, what is the regulator’s responsibility? Should it not be to ensure that the members who are being urged to give up control of their credit union are indeed treated equitably? For the members and their communities are losing not just their collective resources, but also any meaningful say over the direction, priorities, leadership and institutional role in their home markets. The credit union system loses another leadership cadre. Employees find future leadership opportunities diminished.

All credit unions start small. Some emerge to become large and some even evolve into national leaders. With every cooperative charter cancelled, a potential source for breakout growth and entrepreneurial innovation is extinguished. The community or market being served loses a critical component of its financial and economic ecosystem. Choices become fewer. For in some instances, the merger intentionally removes a cooperative competitor that the surviving credit union could not otherwise successfully dislodge.

Rethinking Current Credit Union Merger Process and Practice

If Chairman Hood believes market-based transactions are good, shouldn’t credit union merger practices be more substantive with real market disciplines? Why should a cooperative’s wealth be transferred in negotiations where members are now excluded from the process in any meaningful way? There has never been a merger turned down in a member vote. This is not democratic control, rather it suggests that incumbents take advantage of their position oblivious to the legacy they inherited as well as their responsibility to future generations.

As cooperatives, credit unions are a blend of financial and market concepts. Credit unions buy banks; however current merger practice is little more than legally sanctioned theft of the member-owners’ collective contribution to their credit union’s success.

As cooperative architects, both regulators and credit unions who believe in this member-owned, one person, one vote model, must address this merger inequity. For it is incentivizing behaviors that undermine the hopes of cooperative owners and contradict the public promises that gave credit unions a unique standing in America’s financial system.

The purchase of banks is showing that credit union member-owners are not receiving comparable consideration and respect for similar economic transactions.

Credit unions should take the lead to reform a system that is becoming corrupt in appearance, if not in practice. If they do not, then external forces in Congress, the media, consumer advocates or even private lawsuits are likely to challenge the entire cooperative system’s structure and oversight. And then all 100 million plus members may lose.

The Versatility of Co-op Designs

On Tuesday November 12th, the largest milk company in the Unites States, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy.

Among the contributing factors were too much corporate debt and changing consumer attitudes toward both branded products as well as the traditional dietary recommendation to drink three glasses of milk per day. In 2017 Americans drank 37% less milk than in 1970 according to the Agriculture Department.

The solution to continue providing distribution of dairy products according to newspaper accounts is “to sell itself to Dairy Farmers of America, a marketing cooperative that sells milk from thousands of farmers.”

This situation illustrates the ability of persons and firms affected by the market conditions can potentially ally via a cooperative to address changing circumstances for mutual benefit.

A Lesson for Credit Unions

What can credit unions learn from this example? When the taxi medallion crisis arose, credit unions were best positioned to help borrowers transition to the new, lower valuations. But these options were stopped as NCUA liquidated the credit unions experienced in these kinds of transition problems. Without a firm that can renegotiate and continue to serve these borrowers, the only option is to force collections even if this causes member bankruptcies.

Meanwhile Uber reported a $1.2 billion loss in the third quarter. 

It is forecasting a profit sometime in 2021 as it runs through investor capital. The taxi industry will adapt, just without credit union participation.

A Great Place to Work: Minimum Wage at $41,000 per Year

Bank of America announced this week that they are accelerating the implementation of a new higher minimum wage to $20 per hour at the end of the first quarter 2020.

This equates to a full time salary of $41,000. In explaining this one year speed up of the increase, CEO Brian Moynihan also explained that the bank had reduced the cost of health insurance by half all with a goal of making Bank of America a great place to work.

The action also speaks to the increasingly competitive labor market at full unemployment described in my blog How Tight is Today’s Labor Market.

What Makes a Great Place to Work?

Starting salaries certainly matter, especially for a first job. But is salary sufficient to retain the people an organization relies upon to build a sustainable future?

Successful credit unions also create cultures in which people feel good about their work carrying out the organization’s purpose, what they do for and with members, and expanding career challenges.

Financial rewards are only one aspect of a dynamic and leading organization. Necessary, but not sufficient.

Who or What is FRED?

Context and perspective is critical in evaluating current performance and planning future goals. Financial data and trends on credit unions and banks for a given market is readily available from multiple providers, including Callahan & Associates.

However finding relevant and comparative local and macroeconomic data is often harder.

One of the most comprehensive databases for the latest information on a national, regional or MSA market is the Economics Research unit of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

One of its services is multiple economic and financial databases compiled under the acronym FRED. The FRED® data service is updated daily and allows 24/7 access to over 500,000 financial and economic data series from more than 85 public and proprietary sources.

The following are three examples of different local economic data downloads that illustrate different perspectives about a market.

Data Examples for Three Cities

The Case-Schiller housing price index for Washington DC shows that the prices have yet to exceed its pre-2008 crisis peak:

A second example shows the unemployment rate in Springfield, Illinois, the state capital:

A third  graph portrays the average hourly earnings of all private sector employees in the Dayton, Ohio MSA.

Connect for Research, Data Monitoring, and Business Analytics

The St Louis Fed’s Research Division is in the top 1% of all economics research departments worldwide. It’s Page One Economics working paper series provides emerging research ideas and analysis for the general public as well as economic and financial professionals. Email sign up is available. Have your business analyst bookmark FRED.