Why Credit Unions? (#OWS) (part 1)
This is a guest post by FogOfWar. See also the “Credit Unions in NYC flyer“.
Moving your money from a megabank to a credit union or community development bank makes for a good sound bite, but is it really an action that can have an impact in the right direction? I think so (although the matter is not free from doubt), and thought it would be worthwhile to lay out thoughts on the subject as a follow-up to the “What is a Credit Union?” post.
I’ll focus this discussion on credit unions, rather than community development banks or smaller locally owned banks as that’s where my knowledge lies.
Credit Unions are not Too Big To Fail
A quick google search indicates the largest credit union in America is Navy FCU with $34Bn in assets. (Internationally, it may be the Dutch Rabobank, although I’ve never gotten a good handle on whether Rabo is still a cooperative or not.) Individual credit unions fail regularly, just like individual banks, but there isn’t one CU that’s in danger of crashing the entire financial system in the same manner as BAC, C, JPM or WF.
During the 2008 crisis and aftermath the only credit unions that got a federal bailout were the corporate credit unions. There’s a good article about that here. The corporate credit unions definitely got into trouble buying structured products and I don’t want to gloss this fact over. There’s a split between the retail credit unions, who are going to have to pay for these mistakes, and the corporate credit unions which made the bad investments as well as the NCUA, who was asleep at the switch when the corporate CUs were making that investment. Also worth noting that the NCUA has filed suit against the banks for selling crap product to the corporate CUs.
The corporate credit union bailout was small proportionate to the overall credit union size. $30 bn of gov’t backed bonds equates to $270 bn proportionate for banks—less than ½ of the official state of TARP and a small fraction of the overall size of the taxpayer support given to the large (non-CU) banks indirectly through TAF, TSLF, PDFC, TARP, TALF, etc.,… (see this for an explanation of term).
All in all, I’d say CUs come out somewhat ahead by this measure.
Volker Rule/Glass Steagall
Unlike commercial banks, credit unions never revoked the Glass Steagall act and remained segmented as “pure” traditional banking entities. This means that CUs don’t mingle traditional banking (deposits, checking accounts, loans to customers), with investment banking activities (IPOs, M&A advisory) or derivatives trading or sales desks, let alone prop desk frontrunning of client information.
There’s a lot of ink out there on Volker and Glass Steagall. In short, it seems like a good idea, if not sufficient as a complete solution, to keep traditional banking segmented from investment banking and proprietary trading. The core point is that trading risk should not infect the core banking business putting it (and the taxpayer standing behind the federal deposit insurance) at risk. Very good recent example of this here.
CUs come out dramatically ahead on this measure.
Lobbying—just as bad?
There was a time I can remember when CUNA and NAFCU just went up to the hill to remind Congress that they existed and defend against the ABA’s occasional attempts to change the tax status of CUs. It seems times have, rather unfortunately, changed.
Regrettably, no advantage to Credit Unions here.
Part 2 will talk about investments in local communities, democratic control (the good, the bad and the ugly) and securitization/mortgage transfers.