The Vanishing Credit Union Gets Bigger

By Robert McGarvey 

For Credit Union 2.0  

The April CUNA Mutual Trends Report drops a paradoxical bomb that leaves us confused: are credit unions getting bigger? Or are they vanishing? 

First the good news: more of us belong to credit unions, reported CUNA Mutual.  “Credit union membership growth was on a tear during the first two months of 2018, adding 850,000 new memberships versus the 650,000 reported in the first two months of 2017.” 

CUNA Mutual went on: “Credit unions should expect membership growth to exceed 3.5% in 2018. This will push the total number of credit union memberships to 117.6 million by year end, which is equal to 33% of the total U.S. population.” 

Roll back to 1960 and, per NCUA data, just 6 million of us belonged to federal credit unions.  A similar number belonged to state chartered institutions. That’s 12 million total, out of a US population of 180 million.  That’s about 6.7% of us, far below today’s one in three. 

Plainly, a lot more of us belong to credit unions now, probably because of expanding FOMs and also because many credit unions offer tempting deals – for used car loans, for instance, and in some markets home mortgages – that bring in members at least for those specific products. 

More credit unions also are working smarter and better at communicating that their membership is pretty much open to all. There remain some of us who believe they can’t join a credit union because they don’t belong to a union – but those numbers are shrinking. 

Member growth is good.  But do the CUNA Mutual data mean the credit union movement should pop open champagne and toast the good times? 

Maybe not. 

At least not just yet.  There’s more to digest in the CUNA Mutual data dump. 

Toward the end of the report, CUNA Mutual serves up these disturbing numbers: “As of February 2018, CUNA estimates 5,757 credit unions are in operation, down 240 from February 2017. The pace of consolidation in the credit union system is accelerating due to the following factors: retiring baby boomer CEOs, rising regulatory/compliance burdens, low net interest margins, rising concerns over scale and operating efficiency, rising competitive pressures, and members’ demand for ever more products, services and access channels. NCUA’s Insurance Report of Activity showed 9 mergers – 7 mergers were due to ‘expanded services,’ 1 for ‘poor[Text Wrapping Break]financial conditions,’ and one for ‘lack of growth’ – were approved in February with a merging credit union average asset size of $13 million. This is a fewer than the number of mergers reported in February 2016 with a merging credit union average asset size of $10 million. We are forecasting the number of credit unions will decline 250 in 2018.” 

Do the math. If the current rate of consolidation continues, by 2028 there will be a bit over 3000 credit unions. 

In 1960 there were about 10,000 federally chartered credit unions, per NCUA.   

As for the membership growth, CUNA Mutual sees it continuing, sort of.  “The membership gain was partly driven by the 502,000 new jobs created during January and February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and by the tremendous growth in credit union indirect auto lending. During the last few years credit union membership growth has been highly correlated with job creation with the seasonally adjusted annualized growth rate exceeding 4% over the last year. With job growth expected to slow slightly in 2018 to 2.2 million, we forecast credit unions to pick-up an additional 4.0 million members.”  (Emphasis added.) 

Many credit union executives, at least privately, of course grumble about indirect car loans because the “members” they bring in often limit their memberships to the car loan and they aren’t especially profitable. 

Add this up and what’s the meaning? Credit unions need to do a much better job of expanding their relationships with members.  It is great to have an expanding number of members, it is not so great not to be creating more solvent credit unions. 

The truly good news is that if one in three Americans belong to a credit union that is plenty of bulk to use to seek to grow the institutions organically.  For instance: get that indirect car loan borrower using a sharedraft account and a credit card and the credit union is onto something wonderful. 

The alternative is to join the thundering herd of dying credit unions, many of which are like wildebeest in the Tanzanian Great Migration, there essentially to be picked off by predators. 

Parse the CUNA Mutual data and just maybe the message is a double edged sword: grow membership, especially the right membership, and success may lie ahead. Or shrink into extinction. 

That is the stark choice in front of today’s credit union executives. 

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