MADISON, Wis. -- The fourth quarter will be the "real test" on whether there tends to be a slowdown in membership numbers at the end of the year.
Last year, fourth quarter data showed a loss of members, according to the just-released September issue of Credit Union Trends Report from CUNA Mutual Group. At 88.6 million, membership is up 1.6 million year-to-date and 1.4 million since September 2005. But there continues to be a slowdown in new member growth gained through indirect lending channels as new and used car sales soften, said CUNA Mutual Chief Economist Dave Colby. "Do current results reflect 'dividends' from past field of membership expansions, or is this a data anomaly," Colby asked. "[Credit union] membership will be a significant focus in 2007 with issues ranging from 'modest means' to quality of mutually beneficial relationships." Meanwhile, September proved to be the lightest month for credit union consolidation this year with a net loss of 15. At the end of September, the CU count was estimated at 8,777. Over the past 12 months, the industry has lost 349 CUs. The October decline is expected to be above trend due to the large State Farm Federal Credit Union merger that drew 136,000 members under one credit union, Colby said. In other areas, deposit flows helped credit unions add $4.8 billion to surplus funds in September, according to the report. At $190.4 billion, surplus funds, which are cash plus investments, were down $9.6 billion (4.8%) year-to-date and are off $16.6 billion (8.0%) since September 2005.
"With loan demand outpacing savings inflows, the reduction in surplus funded 41% of the change in loans over the past year," Colby said. "Given that the average loan yield was 247 basis points above the average investment yield, deploying more funds into loans improves the bottom-line." Surplus funds as a percent of assets came in at 26.2%. While this is down 3.4 percentage points over the past year, overall credit union system liquidity "is more than adequate." Additionally, credit unions have borrowing capacity well above the $21.9 billion currently on the books, the report noted. CUNA estimates show 57% of surplus funds have a maturity of one year or less. Looking at the entire economic landscape, mixed signals have been rampant in the third quarter. Robust employment gains plus core inflation above the Federal Reserve Board's comfort zone indicate rate increases as retrenchment in the housing and manufacturing sectors indicates the need for easing, the report read. "Now throw in a power shift in Washington to enhance uncertainty," Colby said. "My view is that the consumer sector will surprise us on the upside and the Fed will hold rates at current levels well into 2007." Colby said credit unions can expect some challenges going forward, but all is not lost.
"While credit unions will be challenged in 2007 and 2008 both economically and politically, the need to clearly define our long-term role in the rapidly evolving consumer financial services arena, should take center stage."