Is “Creative Destruction” the Future of Credit Unions?

One of Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter’s descriptions of capitalism was called “creative destruction.”

This refers to a competitive economy’s relentless efforts to innovate for advantage and market dominance.   He described the process as: “the old way of doing things is constantly getting destroyed or supplanted as it is replaced by a newer, better.”

Some would suggest that business failures in a competitive economy are an inevitable and necessary event, even when they cause local hardship or dislocations.

The cooperative system is supposed to be immune from some of these economic forces. Credit unions are owned by their users, they have no traded stock, cannot be bought and sold as private firms, and reflect the values necessary for a communal, versus for-profit, enterprise.  Their founding, focused on a ”local” constituency with a common bond, is intended to improve the welfare of a community, not just individuals.

Local Destruction Where Dreams Become Reality

One example of this “creative” process is in neighborhood across the street where I live.   There is no home sold for less than $1.5 million and when offered, most list for at least twice that amount.

Even with this going-in price tag, Edgemoor is not a place for old homes.  No matter the asking price,  every purchase becomes a tear down.   Here is an example from across the street this past week.

The builder, entrepreneur, risk taker and innovator.

The destruction phase.

The front view.

This home built during  the depression was sold as is for $2.0 million.  About five or more large white oaks were cut down before the demolition started.  The land and location are so valuable that the builder will put up a mac-mansion of enough square feet to justify a new sales price at least double his cost.

Obviously, whoever buys this new home will believe this is progress, just what they were looking for. This is the free market at work.

Credit Union Destructions

We can debate the social and political implications of tear downs to build back bigger and more expensive homes, office buildings or condos.   But the example is not limited to real estate.  It happens in credit unions.  It is called mergers.

The key question is whether mergers are helping or hurting the credit union system–to be more precise, the mergers of sound, well capitalized long standing credit unions which have served their markets for generations.

Everyone undertaking a merger believes their new creation will be bigger and better.  Any downsides will be temporary.   Mergers are just a way of getting to the future faster especially when asset size is believed to be THE essential for competitive competence.

No Creativity, Just Destruction

Now to be fair, the house across the street had not been well maintained.  The owners had lived there for four or five decades.  The yard and landscaping were totally neglected.   The 80 foot tall oak trees made the property look like an unkempt urban jungle.

So whatever goes up after this tear down, will certainly be a visual and living enhancement-except for the missing trees.

Similarly, some sound credit unions have not been well maintained.  Leadership is just holding on until retirement; the board has given up leadership responsibility.   Selling out looks like an easy way to take care of members when the motivation has gone.

It becomes time for a new generation of leaders to take over the credit union’s legacy and continue serving members in the future.

An Existential Vortex

These easy-exit examples are becoming more numerous.  Personal advantage, not member value, appears to be the motive.

The systemic risk is creating an “existential vortex”  where all credit unions, not just the small, the poorly led or even the ambitious, are caught up in a system that is  increasingly circling the drain.

There are no new charters.  Industry assets are more concentrated. The leadership purpose  is more and more institutional growth and success.  The members, are not owners in any sense of the term, but merely customers used as the means to greater financial glory.

Credit unions competitive advantage has been collaboration and interdependence.  This is how the cooperative system was created, their regulatory institutions were differentiated, and why purpose justified a tax exemption.

Creative destruction destroys legacies, whether buildings, companies or credit unions.   New brands emerge.  Old locations closed.  New markets and business models tried.

Credit unions are not rebuilding on their old foundations.  Instead large mergers are just the age-old, typical financial market strategy of buying up competitors to become more dominate and survive.

I don’t think the merging of well run credit unions is sustainable.    It will take over two years before the new home is ready on the now demolished site and the new owners move in.   This  is also about the operational transition timeline of a large merger when members start to look for other options.

Unfortunately the creative destruction in credit unions is not putting new homes in place of the old; it is just moving all the occupants into the existing one.

Schumpeter believed that capitalism would gradually weaken itself and eventually collapse. Specifically, the success of capitalism would lead to corporatism and to values hostile to capitalism, especially among intellectuals.

In an historical irony, cooperatives intended as an antidote to the excesses of capitalism, are instead succumbing to the allure of free market takeovers.

Everyone wants to own a bigger house.

Respecting Cooperative Owners: The One Thing Essential

This past week’s financial runs show how fragile consumer confidence can be.

A critical distinction in credit union design is democratic ownership-one member one vote.

One of the challenges however is that it is easy to treat owners only as customers.  The fact is that many “owners” today are ordinary consumers attracted by a competitive rate or other marketing message.  In some cases, the customer is just an indirect loan borrower who had minimal voice in the selection of where the loan was made.

There is a difference between customers and owners in a financial institution.

Customers do not vote for directors at the annual meeting;

Customers do not vote on merger proposals for their institution;

Customers do not have a residual interest in the reserves of their firm.

Ownership is traditionally honored in other communications such as members’  founding stories or recognizing those who have played special roles in the credit union or cooperative system.

The One Thing Essential

Transparency is one critical leadership characteristic that acknowledges the owner’s role.

Without full, continuous and open communications, the default is to treat owners as customers.  That unfortunately is the attitude of many in positions of leadership today.

Most importantly lack of transparency on specific credit union commitments means the owners have little or no basis for their responsibility of electing directors.

A Regulatory Shortcoming

An example is from last week’s subordinated debt rule approved by NCUA.  Every party to the transaction is provided full information:  Senior management/boards, the brokers, the consultant, NCUA, and most importantly the individuals and entities (including other credit unions) that buy the debt.

Debt issuance of $100 and $200 million have been completed in the past 12 months. The only persons not provided the details of these events are the owners.  It is their loyalty that is the basis for issuing these borrowings that can now extend as far as 30 years.

Without transparency, there is no possibility of accountability.  The owners are removed from any role in governance.  NCUA presumes its in loco parentis role if something doesn’t go according to plan-a distinct prospect with terms of 10, 20 and now 30 years.

Senior Management and Board Compensation

Only state-chartered credit unions are required to file IRS form 990 which discloses senior management and board compensation, political donations and other activities such as grants for all non profits.

These disclosures are essential for owners to know the incentives and circumstances board and management have agreed to in leading the credit union.

Compensation consultants today are plentiful  with four part plans and multiple ways to structure payments now or later.  There are increasing references to a “change of control” clause which would trigger executive payouts no matter other merger bonus and benefits negotiated by the CEO.

Without compensation transparency there can be no accountability.  State charters have disclosed this for decades.  The same logic applies to federal charters.  This information is an important step in owner oversight, even consumer protection.

The Place and Time to Start Showing Trust in Owners

In the months ahead, most credit unions will hold their annual meetings-in person and virtual.  In preparation the annual audit will be available, a Chairman’s report prepared and other required business conducted including election of directors.

Some meetings will include updates on projects such as a new building or branch expansion, a report by a foundation or community activity.  Others will include an educational presentation, an outside speaker and even a meal.

The annual meeting is a primary opportunity for leadership to engage with owners in open and full conversations.

It is especially important in light of recent examples about the resilience of regional and smaller banks.   Confidence in an institution is based on trust.   Trust is not created in a day or by a special press release about a firm’s financial standing.  It is a relationship founded on open communication as both customers and owners over years.

Nothing could be more important this year than showing coop owners that the CEO and board  deserve their trust by being fully transparent with facts and open to the members’ questions and points of view.

That is how free markets are supposed to function in a competitive economy. That is how democracy is supposed to work.







THE Credit Union Lesson from SVB and Regulation

In a news conference following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, President Kennedy remarked:  “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.

The SVB’s failure proves this adage untrue.  The press and numerous pundits have already assigned multiple parentage: the CEO and management, the Fed’s rapid rate increases, regulatory and examination shortcomings, the external auditor’s clean opinion, the Silicon Valley customers $40 billion twitter run, Trump’s deregulation in 2018 and the Biden administration DEI policy objectives.

When everyone and everything is to blame, then no one is accountable.  Just another “black swan” event. With more investigations/hearings to come, each new revelation will just add to the piles of condemnations.  No lessons taken away.  More regulations of course, for this is the default response whenever the barn door is left open.

A Spotlight on One Factor

From all these commentaries, I want to highlight one aspect that contributed to overlooking this risky situation. This factor has just become a part of the credit union regulatory eco-system.

In responding to my analysis earlier this week, Doug Fecher, the retired CEO of Wright-Patt Credit Union in Ohio, commented:

This situation makes me wonder if NCUA’s new “RBC” standards would have flagged the risks to SVB’s balance sheet. From what I can tell, much (most) of SVB’s investments were in “risk-free” treasury bonds and high quality agency securities, which in NCUA’s RBC formula would have earned some of the lowest risk multipliers.

To me it is another example of the folly of RBC-style risk management regimes … and why NCUA was wrongheaded in its pursuit of RBC.

This point of view is not limited to Doug’s observation.

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

He wrote about the SVB failure in this commentary:

The regulator apparently relied on the bank’s risk-weighted capital standard for judging SVB’s balance sheet strength. Under the risk weighted system government and government guaranteed securities are not counted as part of the balance sheet for calculating capital to “risk-weighted” assets.

This allowed the bank to report a ratio of around 16%, giving the appearance of strongly capitalized bank. However, this calculation failed to account for interest rate risk in its securities portfolio or the risk of having a highly concentrated balance sheet. It misled the public, and apparently the regulators.

In contrast, if the regulator had focused on SVB’s ratio of equity capital-to-total assets, including government securities, the ratio falls to near 8 percent; and if they had calculated the ratio as tangible capital-to-assets (removing intangibles and certain unbooked loses from capital) the ratio would have fallen to near 5%.

What this would have disclosed to the world is that the bank’s assets could not lose 16% of their value before insolvency but only 5%, a stark contrast.

Had the regulator not relied on the misleading risk-weighted capital measure, it might have take actions sooner. A simple capital-to-asset ratio, tells the regulator and public in simple, realistic terms how much a money a bank can lose before becoming insolvent. The regulatory authorities need to stop pretending that their complex and confusing capital models work; they don’t.

RBC and Credit Unions: A First Birthday

RBC became the surrogate capital ratio for all credit unions with assets greater than $500 million one year ago on January 1, 2022.

Before this in a September of 2021 analysis, Why Risk Based Capital is Far Too Risky. Hoenig is quoted:

“A risk-based system  inflates the role of regulators and denigrates the role of bank managers. 

We may have inadvertently created a system that discourages the very loan growth we seek, and instead turned our financial system into one that rewards itself more than it supports economic activity.”

RBC and Asset Bubbles

Shortly after the critique of regulatory incentives induced by risk weighted assets, in Asset Bubbles and Credit Unions (JANUARY 10, 2022) the consequences from potential Fed tightening were noted:

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

The short answer is that the Fed’s inflation response will disrupt all asset valuations and their expected returns.

The distorted results  caused by RBC was presented in Credit Unions & Risk Based Capital (RBC): A Preliminary Analysis in February of this year.  Among the findings:

The 304 credit unions who adopted RBC, manage $822.7 billion in assets.  But the risk weighted assets total only $479 billion.  That 58% ratio is the NCUA’s discounting of total assets total by assigning relative risk weights. and,

One credit union with assets between five and ten billion dollars, reports standard net worth of 12.5% and an RBC ratio of 48.3%.  

This February analysis using June 2022 data of RBC credit unions showed that:

250 of these 308 credit unions reported unrealized declines in the market value of investments that exceeded 25% of net worth.   Four credit unions reported a decline greater than 50% of capital.  This was before the five additional Federal Reserve’s  rate increases through the end of the year. 

RBC’s primary focus is credit risk, the loss of value from principal losses from loans or other assets.  Balance sheet duration mismatch is not captured as are other common management errors:  concentration in either product or market focus, limited or no diversification of product or market, or  just simple operational mismanagement.

These common challenges become amplified by insufficiently considered non-organic growth forays such as third party loan purchases or originations. Whole bank acquisitions are an example of such risks often accompanied (disguised?} by growing amounts of the balance sheet’s intangible asset, goodwill.

The RBC proxy indicator for safety and soundness creates a distorted impression of real institutional risks.   Managers learn to game the system so that boards, members, and regulators fail to understand the institution’s total financial situation.

And when along comes a change in underlying assumptions, like the Fed’s rate increases, the previously unrecognized vulnerabilities quickly appear.

RBC creates for some institutions a theoretical capital ratio that is nothing more than a “regulatory  house of cards.”  SVB will not be the last example.

As Doug Fecher recommended in his 2016 comment letter on the proposed rule, “RBC should be a tool, not a rule.”

To his credit,  Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs misjudgments when the Cuban missile crisis occurred in 1962.



An “Important Message From Our President and CEO”

Immediately following Silicon Valley Bank’s (SVB) failure, credit unions and banks sent messages to their members or customers.  They affirmed that  their institutions were safe. It was also common to point out that that they did not have SVB’s business model or its exposures.

Effective communication is an art, especially in a crisis.  The audience is used to receiving marketing promotions.  This situation is very different from those routine messages.

This special contact should be authentic (even personal), drafted for the event, and include relevant facts for the specific circumstances.

The following are examples from two CEO’s, one from a bank and the other a credit union.  Following each is a response from the audience.

March 13, 2023

Dear Customers and Friends of VeraBank, (posted on the bank’s web site’s landing page)

I want to take this opportunity to address what is going on in the financial markets, regarding the orderly liquidation of Silvergate Capital Bank, the closures of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and how it relates to VeraBank.

It understandably creates worry any time there is a failure in our industry. Let me reassure you, these banks are nothing like VeraBank, and we have no exposure to the issues leading to those niche banks’ downfall.

Both Silvergate and Signature Bank focused heavily on volatile crypto industry, and Silicon Valley Bank was the largest bank serving start-up technology businesses and venture capital firms involved in that industry. These banks did not practice the prudent diversification of revenue and risk, unlike VeraBank and the great majority of community banks in this country. For instance, at the close of 2022, 97% of Silicon Valley Bank’s $175 billion in deposits were uninsured, and they only had $12.5 billion in cash on hand to cover those deposits. As of closing this past Friday, only 30% of VeraBank’s deposits are uninsured, and we have over $928 million in cash on hand or 87% of our uninsured deposits in cash on hand to cover any customer liquidity needs. I can assure you that is a very high level for our industry.

In other words, where Silicon Valley had only 7.1% of their uninsured deposits covered by cash on hand, VeraBank has 87% covered. We also have liquidity sources that could fairly easily increase our liquidity by close to twice the amount we have now. At VeraBank, we have always understood the importance of good liquidity and risk management. VeraBank is funded with stable local deposits from the communities in which we do business and not the kind of “hot” and unreliable money that funded the three institutions that are now failing.

VeraBank has been through many good and bad economic times, and we continue to operate with the same conservative philosophies that have served us well for over 93 years

Most recently we went through the Great Recession of 2008-09, the ups and downs of the oil and gas markets of the last 15 years, and a global pandemic, and we have not missed a beat.

Actually, it has been just the opposite at VeraBank: we have thrived because we understood the importance of risk management. We understand that we serve each of you and do not dare put your money at undue risk.

Please do not confuse VeraBank with these other banks and others you may hear about in the weeks to come. I am very confident in our bank and how we protect our customers. Please reach out and talk with any of my 500+ colleagues if you have any concerns at all. Let me provide you with my cell number, 903-649-8790, so you can feel free to text or call me directly if you would like to talk about these issues.

Thanks for your continued support,
Brad Tidwell

The response:  according to an evening business news report, Tidwell received over 700 calls spending most of his day on the phone.

VeraBank was established in 1930 at the height of the Great Depression, is a privately-owned community bank that serves East and Central Texas with its network of 38 conveniently located branches in East and Central Texas and has $3.5 billion in assets.

A CredIt Union CEO’s Email to Members



I’m pleased to report that Golden 1 Credit Union continued to thrive in 2022 and finished the year in a strong financial position. Throughout the year, our 1.1 million members were able to rely on Golden 1 to deliver financial solutions with value, convenience, and exceptional service. Please view our 2022 Annual Report for more details.

For 90 years, Golden 1 Credit Union has been a safe haven for our members’ money and a trusted partner for the financial products and services they need. Golden 1 exists to serve our members and we take our responsibility to you and your trust in us very seriously. That’s why we employ prudent risk management practices in our decision-making, including diversification of our portfolios, protecting Golden 1 and its members in volatile economic periods.

As the nation’s seventh largest credit union with assets nearing $19 billion, Golden 1 Credit Union is a well-capitalized financial institution with more than $1.3 billion in net capital. Golden 1 Credit Union also has access to more than $10 billion in available liquidity to absorb any potential impacts of shocks within the financial markets.

Safe and secure since 1933, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring our members can thrive financially.

Thank you for being a valued member and putting your trust in us.


Donna Bland
President and CEO
Proud member and employee since 1994


A Member Responds:

Ms. Bland,

Suggestion: If you are going to send out an email blast starting with “I’m” as in “I’m pleased to report…” make sure that your Member/Owners (?) can contact you personally (and not have to guess at an email address because you may be too busy to respond to us plebeians…).

As a credit union that is supposedly member owned, WE (your members) should have an open line of communication with transparent abilities to see how our credit union is run on a daily basis.  

Again, this includes open lines of communication to ANYONE in our credit union, including a directory of staff.  As a member that is hearing impaired, a telephone is not a particularly viable option but email certainly is. . .

This is the first email that I have received concerning the operations of G1 since becoming a member over a year ago.  There should be email blasts to indicate G1 annual reports as well as opportunities for election to the board of directors…

This email is meant to be a frank/direct/open suggestion for improvement of member communications with the actual member/owners of G1.

Thank you,

A Comment

Each reader or CEO can choose which approach best fits their style.

As the credit union member suggests, this kind of member contact should be more frequent.  It would include other items that the owners (not customers) would find useful or relevant, not just when a special event occurs.  For most art generally improves with practice.

Credit Unions and the Evolution of “Buy Now Pay Later” Lending

In 1961 Hillel Black published a book Buy Now, Pay Later to expose the misleading interest rate disclosures of lending firms fueling the “explosion of consumer debt.”

As a reporter her purpose was to “investigate in human terms the breadth of meaning of debt living; what it is doing to all of us in concert and how it affects out individual lives and the lives of our children.”

The Introduction by Senator Paul Douglas, Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee sets the scene: “Today personal debt is edging close to $200 billion; mortgage debt is approximately $140 billion, and consumer debt is about $25 billion. Various devices are used to conceal from the consumer what he is required to pay.” 

Senator Douglas was a fan of credit unions:  “As a borrower from most credit unions, the consumer does receive the true interest rate.”

The chapter titles of Black’s book, set the tone:  Enter the Debt Merchants, The Rub in Aladdin’s Lamp, The Shark Has Pearly Teeth, The Car You Buy Is Not Your Own.

She closes with an endorsement of credit unions with their 12% maximum annual interest, 20,000 institutions and eleven million members covering roughly 6% of the population.   Her ending plea: “Let it not be said that America, in the midst of plenty, suffered its citizens to become a nation of indentured debtors.”

Six Decades Later

I was drawn to the book by its title and the endorsement of credit unions.  CUNA reprinted Black’s article, Buying Credit Wisely, in the NEA Journal of May 1966 promoting credit unions as the preferred consumer borrowing option.

Last week the CFPB presented a 25 page report which profiles the users of today’s Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL), a newly defined consumer financing practice.

It is a study which profiles the borrowing patterns, demographics and credit scores of BNPL users versus a group of non-BNBL customers from survey responses and credit reports.

The study describes the product: BNPL refers exclusively to the zero-interest, pay-in-four (or fewer) installment loan that facilitates purchases at the point of sale.

These credit products differ from traditional installment loans in important ways: the average loan amount is $135 over six weeks compared to $800 for traditional installment loans over a period of 8-9 months; and BNPL is offered at zero percent interest, while traditional installment loans often carry a positive interest rate.

And its growing usage: In the period 2019 and 2021, the number of BNPL loans issued to consumers increased by almost tenfold. Between the first quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, seventeen percent of consumers borrowed using BNPL.

One finding: Some groups were much more likely than others to borrow using BNPL. In particular, Black, Hispanic and female consumers had a much higher probability of use compared to the average, as did consumers with annual household income between $20,001-$50,000 and consumers under the age of 35.

CFPB Study’s Conclusions

While many BNPL borrowers who we observed used the product without any noticeable indications of financial stress, BNPL borrowers were, on average, much more likely to be highly indebted, revolve on their credit cards, have delinquencies in traditional credit products, and use high-interest financial services such as payday, pawn, and overdraft compared to non-BNPL borrowers. . .

Further, contrary to the widespread misconception, BNPL borrowers generally have access to traditional forms of credit. In fact, they were more likely to borrow using credit and retail cards, personal loans, student debt, and auto loans compared to non-BNPL borrowers.

Finally, the report estimates that a majority of BNPL borrowers would face credit card interest rates between 19 and 23 percent annually if they had chosen to make their purchase using a credit card. . .

Sixty Years Later

Consumer borrowing is an even larger part of America’s financial structure than in 1961.  Consumer spending accounts for 75-80% of the country’s GDP.

The problem of disguised interest rates was resolved with Congress’ Truth in Lending legislation passed in the late 1970’s.

Borrowing options proliferate today.  Many new lending offerings are tied into consumer product sales such as Macy’s or Apple’s credit card promotions.

Credit unions rode this consumer borrowing boom into the present.  They have been seen as the trusted source of fair loan value.

However, the playing field for lending is now level in regards to loan pricing disclosures.  Competition is increasingly focused on other forms of value creation.

The surprise for me in the CFPB update, is that for some (many?) consumers the BNPL was for a majority a much better choice for borrowing than traditional credit cards or other forms of debt.

Will the allure of so-called free borrowing promote greater spending?  It is too soon to know all of the consequences.

What this BNPL history suggests is that market forces can, when the rules of the road are uniform, correct some of the original predatory practices chronicled in the first Buy Now Pay Later report.

That is one outcome  deregulation was intended to accomplish.


Staying In One’s Lane

The new year has opened with a number of reassessments of business priorities decided prior to the rise in rates.  The era of free money is over.  Also  TINA, the belief that there is no alternative  kinds of novel investment decisions.

An example of a foray into a new lane is told in an article, Paradise Lost, Why Goldman’s Consumer Ambitions Failed.

The story in brief.  In 2014 as a means to further its long term growth objectives and participate in the emerging fintech sector Goldman’s leaders decided to transform the Wall street investment bank into  a main street player.  Despite its success in corporate finance, advising heads of state and serving the uber-wealthy, it had no consumer finance presence.

In 2016 it launched Marcus (the first name of Goldman’s founder), and quickly attracted $50 billion in online deposits and an emerging consumer lending business.  The distinct brand separated the firm from any lingering reputation fallout from the 2008-2010 financial crisis.  It also positioned the effort, if successful, to be spun off as a separate fintech business, like Chime.

The effort morphed from a side project to become a selling point to Goldman stockholders looking for a growth story. However, even early on the initiative was questioned by some of “the company’s old guard who believed that consumer finance simply wasn’t in Goldman’s DNA.”

The initiative was placed in the same division that housed Goldman’s businesses catering to individuals. Most Marcus customers had only a few thousand dollars in loans or savings, while the average private wealth client had $50 million in investments.

In addition to increasing low cost deposits to over $100 billion, a major success was winning the competition to partner with Apple’s new credit card for its iPhone users.

Only later did it realize it “won the Apple account in part because it agreed to terms that other, established card issuers wouldn’t. The customer servicing aspects of the deal ultimately added to Goldman’s unexpectedly high costs for the Apple partnership.”

Then reality hit.   Internally there was an ongoing debate about how the initiative should be led. There was turnover of senior staff leading the effort.   The ramp up of hiring and expenses promoting the new business turned into a cumulative loss reported to exceed $2 billion.

The coup d’grace was the dramatic increase in the cost of funds.  The Fed began its upward rate hikes in March 2022. The era of low cost financing was over.

The company pulled back from its strategy, even though its adventure in consumer banking  managed to collect $110 billion in deposits, extend $19 billion in loans and find more than 15 million customers. The future of its GreenSky fintech lending business which it purchased in 2022 for $2.24 billion is unclear.

The bank turned away from its ambition to build a full scale digital bank.  Disrupting the consumer banking market was harder and much less profitable than it had forecast.

Last week Goldman’s CEO Solomon told an CNBC analyst:  “The real story of opportunity for growth for us in the coming years is around asset management and wealth management,”

What Is a Lane?

Staying is one’s lane is not an easy concept to apply.  Most organizations want to expand and grow into new areas.  Making prudent future investments to sustain a credit union is an important management responsibility.

If Goldman with all its all professional talent could not launch a successful fintech bank, is this a case study credit unions might learn from?

The following are credit union initiatives that can have consequences far different from the initial expectations.  Especially as low-cost funding assumptions are rethought and the environment for lending enters a state of uncertainty.

  • Purchases of whole banks at premiums that have created tens of millions of “goodwill” (an intangible asset) on credit union balance sheets;
  • Out of area credit union mergers, even cross country, where there is no market overlap, sponsor relation or advantage to the members of either organization;
  • Direct commercial real estate loans and participations in office buildings to “members” who are professional developers located in cities far removed from funding credit unions;
  • Loan participations purchased in asset classes where repayment becomes more challenging when the economy slows or enters a recession;
  • Investments in the tens of millions in fintech startups to build technology solutions for the digital era but which have a limited customer base and no operating profits. Will OTTI write-downs be required?
  • Expanding FOM’s to geographic areas with no economic or market overlap to the credit union’s core market;
  • Extending member lending programs to serve all consumer market segments from the traditional blue collar borrower to the millionaire retiree;
  • Embracing high profile social issues, disconnected from the credit union’s market or business priorities.

Goldman’s consumer banking entry was the subject of much internal and external scrutiny.   The firm used its internal talent, hired outside proven expertise, bought external companies, partnered with esteemed brands and still could not make the expansion work profitably.

Credit unions often lack the internal process or external pressures to look hard at new lanes.  They rely on third party brokers and consultants who only get paid if the deal closes.  One credit union CEO discussing  a recent whole bank purchase in a far part of the state away  from their historical market said, “It just fell into our lap.”

Unlike Goldman whose results are subject to constant investor scrutiny and market comparisons, credit unions lack the transparency and accountability that mark public institutions.

Staying in one’s lane may appear as lacking ambition or in some instances defeatist.   Given the recent changes in interest rates and uncertainty in economic direction, it could be the most important strategic consideration a credit union makes.



Spring & Annual Meetings-A Time for Renewal

Have you been born again?  As a PK (preacher’s kid) I would occasionally get that question.  If affirmative, the follow up query, is when did it happen?

This view of spiritual life requires an awakening experience.  Preferably with a specific time and place.   A new starting point; a before and after  event.

Renewal, Not Replanting

My understanding is that awareness of the sacred in life is an every day possibility.  A parallel example for this reawakening is spring.

Plants are coming to life almost a month early this year.  Each flower has its own timetable with daffodils and crocus first- followed by tulips, camellias, alliums and many varieties of lilies and iris.

This reemergent beauty occurs in a sequence depending on the sun, how much rain falls, and of course the temperature.   All the conditions in February were favorable for an early spring flower show. The impact of nature’s role on timing will vary; but the  flowers  seem to adapt naturally to whatever conditions occur.

Importance of New Beginnings

Both organizations and plants operate on cycles.  In credit unions it is usually the annual plan with the yearend results showing the “flowering” of an organization’s purpose.  These outcomes could be  making money, growing a key metric, expanding service or products, or in rare instances, just coming through a difficult economic or leadership transition intact.

Following the annual report is a new forecast, a renewal or a focused extension, not starting from scratch all over.  Similarly one can add plants to a garden but most will come back naturally.

In credit unions, the  required Annual Meeting can both celebrate past results and promote new directions.  It is an opportunity  to gain members’ support,  both  in board elections and with thoughtful presentations about the credit union’s direction.

For cooperatives, the annual meeting should be a special occasion to report and honor the  owners.

Woodstock of Capitalism

Berkshire’s annual gathering in Omaha is an example of an Annual Meeting event in the private sector. The press calls the event attended by tens of thousand Berkshire stockholders, the “Woodstock of Capitalism.”

As a prelude, the firm releases its Annual Report.  The most talked about aspect is not the company’s yearend financials, but CEO  Warren Buffet’s introductory letter about the firm’s direction  and his bits of elderly  wisdom.

The Report for 2022 was released last week.  It contains discussions that credit unions might consider emulating.  The following excerpts reflect company  updates and principles Buffet follows. (I added some emphasis)

The openingCharlie Munger, my long-time partner, and I have the job of managing the savings of a great number of individuals. We are grateful for their enduring trust, a relationship that often spans much of their adult lifetime. It is those dedicated savers that are forefront in my mind as I write this letter. . .

The disposition of money unmasks humans. Charlie and I watch with pleasure the vast flow of Berkshire-generated funds to public needs and, alongside, the infrequency with which our shareholders opt for look-at-me assets and dynasty-building.

What We Do

Charlie and I allocate your savings at Berkshire between two related forms of ownership. . .

When large enterprises are being managed, both trust and rules are essential. Berkshire emphasizes the former to an unusual – some would say extreme – degree. Disappointments are inevitable. We are understanding about business mistakes; our tolerance for personal misconduct is zero. . .

Over the years, I have made many mistakes. . . Along the way, other businesses in which I have invested have died, their products unwanted by the public. Capitalism has two sides: The system creates an ever-growing pile of losers while concurrently delivering a gusher of improved goods and services. Schumpeter called this phenomenon “creative destruction.”

Our satisfactory results have been the product of about a dozen truly good decisions – that would be about one every five years – and a sometimes-forgotten advantage that favors long-term investors such as Berkshire. . .

The lesson for investors: The weeds wither away in significance as the flowers bloom. Over time, it takes just a few winners to work wonders.

The Past Year in Brief

Berkshire had a good year in 2022. The company’s operating earnings – our term for income calculated using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”), exclusive of capital gains or losses from equity holdings – set a record at $30.8 billion. Charlie and I focus on this operational figure and urge you to do so as well. The GAAP figure, absent our adjustment, fluctuates wildly and capriciously at every reporting date. . . The GAAP earnings are 100% misleading when viewed quarterly or even annually.

On Repurchases of Berkshire Shares

Every small bit helps if repurchases are made at value-accretive prices. Just as surely, when a company overpays for repurchases, the continuing shareholders lose. At such times, gains flow only to the selling shareholders and to the friendly, but expensive, investment banker who recommended the foolish purchases.

Almost endless details of Berkshire’s 2022 operations are laid out on pages K-33 – K-66. . . . These pages are not, however, required reading. There are many Berkshire centimillionaires and, yes, billionaires who have never studied our financial figures. They simply know that Charlie and I – along with our families and close friends – continue to have very significant investments in Berkshire, and they trust us to treat their money as we do our own. And that is a promise we can make.

Finally, an important warning: Even the operating earnings figure that we favor can easily be manipulated by managers who wish to do so. Such tampering is often thought of as sophisticated by CEOs, directors and their advisors.

That activity is disgusting. It requires no talent to manipulate numbers: Only a deep desire to deceive is required. “Bold imaginative accounting,” as a CEO once described his deception to me, has become one of the shames of capitalism.

The Last  50  Years

Thus began our journey to 2023, a bumpy road . . . America would have done fine without Berkshire. The reverse is not true. . .

We will also avoid behavior that could result in any uncomfortable cash needs at inconvenient times, including financial panics and unprecedented insurance losses. Our CEO will always be the Chief Risk Officer – a task it is irresponsible to delegate.

Some Surprising Facts About Federal Taxes

During the decade ending in 2021, the United States Treasury received about $32.3 trillion in taxes while it spent $43.9 trillion. Though economists, politicians and many of the public have opinions about the consequences of that huge imbalance, Charlie and I plead ignorance and firmly believe that near-term economic and market forecasts are worse than useless.

Our job is to manage Berkshire’s operations and finances in a manner that will achieve an acceptable result over time and that will preserve the company’s unmatched staying power when financial panics or severe worldwide recessions occur.

I have been investing for 80 years – more than one-third of our country’s lifetime. Despite our citizens’ penchant – almost enthusiasm – for self-criticism and self-doubt, I have yet to see a time when it made sense to make a long-term bet against America.

Buffett’s Rule 

I will add to Charlie’s list a rule of my own: Find a very smart high-grade partner – preferably slightly older than you – and then listen very carefully to what he says.

A Family Gathering in Omaha 

Charlie and I are shameless. Last year, at our first shareholder get-together in three years, we greeted you with our usual commercial hustle. . .

Charlie, I, and the entire Berkshire bunch look forward to seeing you in Omaha on May 5-6. We will have a good time and so will you.

An Example for Credit Unions?

Buffet’s approach to his owners has multiple insights as credit unions prepare for their Annual Meeting.  Can it be a time for renewal?

His comments are honest, open and written to inform owners and reassure their trust.

His leadership principles are clear.  His business priorities are stated with conviction and promise.

His benchmark performance standard is the Report’s first page.  It shows Berkshire’s stock return vs the S&P 500 for every year since 1965. For 2022, Berkshire gained 4.0% and the S&P had an 18.1% decline.

Member-owners will reciprocate management’s respect with loyalty. Virtually every credit union today, like Berkshire, has positive stories to tell members, both financially and enabling self-help. The message is not a marketing campaign or commercial.  Rather the meeting is an opportunity to reaffirm who the credit is and renew the principles guiding leaders-as demonstrated in their own words.

This required process should be a moment of fresh hope, like spring flowers.  It should be a time to present the best of what the credit union does; and to reaffirm the ongoing opportunities to serve one’s community.

Also imitate Buffet.  Make it a fun, family gathering.


Two Messages from Clayton Christensen

How would the author of “disruptive strategy” counsel credit unions in this time of rising rates and tightening liquidity?

I met Clayton Christensen  following his participation on an expert panel debating the future of higher education and its ever increasing costs.

His message was that college and post graduate institutions were subject to the same disruptive challenges that he had described in multiple businesses.  His theory explained why successful companies often fail even though they appear to have a dominate competitive position.

Further he announced, during the panel, that he would inaugurate such a disruptive effort at Harvard Business School with an Internet course based on his strategic  theory.   I asked if Callahans might talk with him to see if  this course might be a resource adaptable for credit unions.  He gave me his card, his administrative assistant’s name was on the back, and said to call and make an appointment.

Several months later a team from Callahans went to Cambridge.MA to meet his colleagues filming the course modules  for Internet delivery.  After taking the course and adapting concepts to the cooperative context, Callahans launched a course on disruptive strategy for the credit union market.

Even though Christensen died in 2020, today his course on disruption lives on as part of the Business school’s online offerings.

From the Bottom Up

The central theme of successful disruption is challenging market leaders from the “bottom up.” Credit unions might say from the “grass roots”up.

Successful firms generally grow beyond their initial markets and increasingly focus on more profitable segments.   They neglect early and familiar targets to go after more lucrative ones by expanding with more sophisticated and complex solutions.

Then their lower end markets  become vulnerable if new entrants better define the “job to be done”  and add value where the larger firm is no longer investing.  A new entrant gains a foothold at the lower end and can then relentlessly innovate to move up market.

His theory is a framework that asks questions and introduces concepts to sharpen leaders’ strategic intent.  It is not a model dependent on technology driven advantage, but one of business model disruption.

The cooperative design based on local, defined markets (members),  the values of service and collaboration, and self-funded financing is very compatible with Christensen’s theory. For many decades credit unions have been an example of his strategy playing out in consumer financial services.   Their success is measurable and market gains real.

However as credit unions became more financially self-sufficient and the focus on original groups lessens, market ambitions expand.  Today a number of credit unions seem to embrace the “top down” pursuit of more affluent consumers served by regional and national financial institutions.

Some credit unions openly proclaim multi-state, national,  and even global market ambitions.  Others purchase entry into new markets by buying banks or pursing mergers far distant from their proven success.

In doing so credit unions are sacrificing their  competitive advantage of alignment with members or groups.  These credit unions have become “market players” going wherever an opportunity appears, versus serving a distinct area or need.

The Liquidity Challenge

A current example.  Many credit unions today are facing liquidity pressures.  Slowing share growth, continuing loan demand, underwater investments and rising rate competition for shares pose new challenges versus the decade of easy money.  Some respond the way the big players do by bidding for money with CD rates currently in the 4.25-4.75% range and advertising openly for anyone’s cash.

Others have taken a look at their core strengths including local relationships, community presence, branch networks and the fact that many employers are looking for a special benefit to attract and retain employees.   Their back-to-future share growth with new members’s savings rely on credit unions’ core local advantages and reputations within communities that took years to establish.

A Second Message

The public reputation of credit unions rests partly on their values and democratic origins.  One CEO’s mission statement simply reads:  Do the Right Thing.  In the for-profit competitive consumer finance markets, this appeal is distinctive.  Value is about more than price or even great service.

The New York Times columnist  David Brooks  distinguishes between what he calls “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

Résumé virtues are what people bring to the marketplace: Are they clever, devoted, and ambitious employees? Eulogy virtues are what they bring to relationships not governed by the market: Are they kind, honest, and faithful partners and friends?

In a YouTube video Christensen summarizes his understanding from his own life and work in a 2012 Ted talk How Will You Measure Your Life?  This 19 minute video opens with his discussion of why successful companies fail.  Then he extends the analysis to his own HBS classmates lives and the personal disappointments they have encountered while achieving material success.


The source of both corporate and personal disappointments is the same.  We live in a system that rewards short term achievements, investments that will pay off now, not in the years to come.  Creating successful relationships whether in family or businesses, does not result from short-term thinking.

He closes  with how to “measure” your life’s success at minute 17.  If you have only two minutes, listen as he presents what David Brooks calls the eulogy virtues.

Christensen’s Two Messages

Christensen’s  theory of disruption is a classic way of understanding credit union advantages from a strategic standpoint.  The framework focuses on long-term competencies combined with “job-to-be-done” tactics.

This approach asserts that it is not the demographic characteristics of the member that motivate market choices; rather it is what the member wants to accomplish that determines which financial firm the member will chose.

The second point is equally consequential.  Your “success” (personal and professional) will depend on “how well you help other people to become better.” Even if this just entails giving your business card to a stranger in the audience.

Both observations seem to me an endorsement of  a credit union “calling.”




Early Learnings from Bank Yearend Earnings

Everyone looks like a business genius when interest rates are at historic lows and money is incredibly cheap. But when the tide goes out, you see who isn’t wearing any swimming trunks.

(Warren Buffett, among others)

This week all major banks will report their 4th quarter earnings.  Yesterday the money center banks released their results.  Today the large regionals report.

Credit union 5300 call reports for the same period will not be available for 60 days or more from NCUA, unless individual firms post their financials independently.

There are three observations from these commercial investment and consumer banking leaders so far.

  1. 4th quarter earnings compared with the same period of 2021 are at best mixed. JP Morgan’s net is up 6%; Bank of America, 2% up; Wells down 50%; Citigroup a negative 21%. Goldman Sachs down 69% and Black Rock’s profit fell 23%.
  2. Goldman’s decline was due in part to a cumulative $3 billion loss since 2020 in its efforts to develop a consumer lending market under the Marcus brand.  The firm has since reorganized these products.
  3. The stock prices of most money center and regional banks have fallen precipitously over the past 12 months.

Some examples:

JP Morgan  -10%

Bank of America -27%

Citigroup -24%

KRE Regional banking ETF  -25%

Each institution singled out different factors affecting their results:  increase in loan loss reserves, falling revenue in certain business lines such as investment banking and trading,  operating expenses too high, rising interest rates, recession worries and economic uncertainty.

The common refrain in the earnings announcements: “These are not the results we expect to deliver to shareholders.

There were a number of negative events called out:  Goldman’s loss in the consumer market, Wells Fargo’s $3.7 billion additional government fine, and  JP Morgan’s $175 million write off of a fintech acquisition.  Results were mixed but not troublesome from a systemic view.

Potential Questions for Credit Unions

ROA for credit unions through September 30 fell about 21% to  88 basis points versus 2021.   The largest single factor was 15 basis points in loss provision expense.

What the 12 months decline in bank stock prices suggests is that the market analysts see a more challenging year for financial performance in 2023 in all banking sectors.  Uncertainty from the  inflation-recession outlook is the major concern.

This overall decline in bank stock values raises questions for credit unions.  For the 20-30 who completed or announced upcoming bank purchase, did they overpay?   Will the purchase goodwill premiums need to be reassessed?   Will purchase offers going forward reflect the market’s valuation declines?

Goldman introduced its Marcus consumer initiative in 2016.   It announced a partnership with Apple for a new credit card.  Since 2020 these “platform” based initiatives for consumers have lost $3.8 billion.  This is one factor in the bank’s announced 3,500 immediate employee layoffs.

The question for credit unions is, if a an expert firm such as Goldman can lose this much entering a new business line, consumer banking, could credit unions face the reverse challenge?

For example, Jim Duplessis in Credit Union Times observed that total credit union commercial real estate loan production has risen 41% in the first nine months to $36.7 billion. For some credit unions these participations are a new lending effort.

Many banking CEO’s are cautious about the future.  It is not just the recession prospect, but declines in mortgage activity, drawdown of consumer savings, and economic impacts  from higher rates not yet fully played out.­

A Proven Track

To the extent credit unions follow their consumer members closely, the future should be sound.

Where the difficulties may occur is forays in areas where experience is limited.  Among these are commercial loan participations, whole bank acquisitions, and investments in “side” business such as technology startups or crypto offshoots.

One of the advantages in this economic and rate transition is that credit unions don’t have to worry about their stock price.   However the market’s negative outlook for bank stocks  should be an alert that prior assumptions in underwriting and investing may need to be reassessed.

What credit union wants to be found swimming without trunks?


NEXT CITY-A Site Worth a Visit

One of the traditional advantages of credit unions is their local knowledge.   This includes members’ circumstances, critical business trends in the area and continuing reinvestment to improve collective and individual opportunity.

As credit unions expand their market aspirations and growth ambitions, knowledge of and commitments to local communities can wane.  The local knowledge and the resulting advantage of  loyalty and member trust can be forfeited.

Next City  is a nonprofit news organization that believes journalists have the power to amplify solutions and spread workable ideas from one city locale to the next.

It features actual projects.   Case studies are the core of its reporting.   It publishes an almost daily blog.

Here is a portion of the October 19 email update  featuring mutual financial firms.  It asks a critical strategic question about credit unions.

While reporting a few years ago, I came across this startling fact: In 1986, the number of community banks across the country peaked at 15,717, but today there are fewer than 4,500.

Now I can’t remember the last time I went a whole day without thinking about it. I vaguely recall, as I’m sure many others do, the wave of bank mergers that really took the country by storm in the 1990s.

Maybe some of those mergers made sense, given changes in technology and the world. But the rising tide of mergers went along with a drought in the formation of new banks and credit unions.

I still don’t think we’ve fully processed what this shift in the banking system has meant for our cities and communities.

Even today I don’t think we have a full picture of what was once possible, why it’s no longer possible, and maybe why we should make it possible again. I hope today’s story helps make that picture more complete, if not more clear.

Banks With No Shareholders? The Curious Case Of Mutual Banks

Ponce Bank, founded in 1960 in the Bronx and currently New York’s only Latino community bank, shows the possibilities of lending as a mutual bank.


Shouldn’t credit unions be in this reporting?