That was the overriding message at the Risk Mitigation Summit hosted by NCUA Vice Chairman Rodney Hood at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago earlier this month.
"If credit unions are going to grow and be vibrant, they have to do so by taking risks and implementing sound risk management,'' Hood said in an interview after the event.
He said only 10% of all credit unions take advantage of the mortgage products from the Federal Home Loan Bank and doing so could enable them to offer lower rates on certain products. He added that not enough credit unions take advantage of Small Business Administration-backed loans or Department of Agriculture mortgages and small-business loans in rural areas.
Nate Wuerffel, the vice president of operational risk management and business continuity at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, gave attendees a primer on how to assess risk within their organizations. He said credit unions need to look at both the big picture and at individual programs and suggested they regularly evaluate the effectiveness of their risk structure.
Credit unions can take more risks if they tap into certain government programs grant programs, such as the Treasury Department's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
Donna Gambrell, the fund's director of explained how her organization makes money available to credit unions serving underserved areas. The fund provides money for a range of community development projects and programs that teach financial literacy to individuals who have not had much exposure to financial services.
In addition to financial risk, credit unions must also look at taking steps to avoid risks to their reputation, said John Bryant, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation Hope. He said credit unions should have plans for dealing with disasters in place and communicate them to employees and members before an event takes place. The public will think less of a credit union if it is apparent that executives are devising a plan on the fly.
CUNA Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Mary Mitchell Dunn, who attended the event, said she was pleased to see Hood and other regulators encourage risk but said there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality.
"NCUA may want credit unions to consider additional products and services, but credit union examiners are risk adverse so credit unions haven't been given a big green light to take on risk,'' she said.
John Kutchey, director of the division of risk management in NCUA's Office of Risk Management, said some of the caution stems from the fact that credit unions already face "risks to their balance sheet due to external factors.''
He said credit unions have for the most part been property cautious about minimizing their risk. But he cautioned that a possible problem down the road could be that credit unions could have excessive costs from some of their mortgages.
"They are booking and holding a higher percentage of real estate loans and funding them through short-form certificates and money market accounts," he said in an interview after the conference. "And when rates rise that could put a strain on credit unions' ability to build or retain their net worth,''