ARLINGTON, Va. -- Credit unions will need to turn to their cooperative and networking roots in order to better compete with an array of bigger bank competitors, credit union network executives have suggested.
Reacting to the wave of bank mergers and failures over the past week, the executives noted that they will leave a significantly changed financial services marketplace in their wake.
Prior to the mergers, the financial services marketplace credit unions faced was dominated by Bank of America, followed by large regional banks, followed in turn by local or community banks, the executives said. Now, in terms of things like numbers of available ATMs and branches, there is effectively Bank of America and a number of competitors close in size.
According to bankofamerica.com, the mega-bank has 6,100 retail branches and more than 18,000 branded ATMs, a number that dwarfs most other bank competitors.
But now, in the wake of forced mergers, the marketplace includes players like the much larger JPMorgan Chase, which has grown from its absorption of the troubled Washington Mutual to 5,400 branches and 14,000 ATMs. Each figure is still smaller than Bank of America but Chase is closing the gap.
Wells Fargo is another big player on the scene, made larger from its acquisition of Wachovia. The new Wells Fargo has announced it will have 6,675 branches and almost 13,000 ATMs.
Financial industry experts have said they are expecting at least one and maybe more similar mergers to come as the market begins to feel the impact of the government's bailout plan.
All this, credit union network executives said, should send credit unions back to their roots, which have made them collectively strong and effective.
"I want to reiterate that in the overall picture, these bank mergers are good for credit unions," commented Jim Gowan, an executive vice president with Credit Union 24, the credit union-owned ATM and EFT CUSO headquartered in Florida. "Whenever there is upheaval in the banking marketplace, there is opportunity for credit unions to pick up members." He also pointed out that large bank ATM and branch networks will not help when consumers are expressing a strong preference for the smaller, local and familiar over the unstable and unreliable, no matter how large it is.
Credit Union 24 claims 100,000-plus available ATMs around the world through its networks, with 50,000 of those surcharge-free through its CU Here premium network.
But Gowan acknowledged that, going forward, credit unions may find it increasingly important that they can offer their members the same sort of ATM and branch availability as the new, larger banks.
"I don't expect any of those big bank networks are going to give up surcharging noncustomers any time soon and that could provide a big obstacle for credit union members interested in surcharge-free, convenient ATM access," Gowan said. He noted surveys demonstrating that surcharge-free access to their money has consistently rated very high among consumer desires from their financial institutions.
Jim Hanisch, executive vice president with CO-OP Financial Services, agreed. He noted that credit unions have a long cooperative and networking history that should help them put as many of their members in front of surcharge-free ATMs as the big banks.
CO-OP Financial Services claims more than 28,000 surcharge-free ATMs nationwide through its CO-OP Network. A full 9,000 of those have deposit-taking capability from any member of a participating CO-OP credit union, far exceeding deposit-taking ATMs at any competing bank and one of CO-OP's most frequently cited strengths.
In addition CO-OP offers credit unions a shared branching option as well, which allows participating credit unions to provide their members access over 3,400 branches nationwide.
"I expect there will likely be a stronger push among even the larger credit unions to participate in shared branching," CO-OP Financial Services CEO Stan Hollen said, pointing out that credit unions will need to cooperate more in order to compete with the new, larger bank networks.
But Hollen also noted that merely having access to shared branches and shared ATMs alone is not enough. There are real education issues regarding credit union members and shared branching and branding of CO-OP Network ATMs, Hollen said.
"We have one of the most recognizable brands in the credit union industry," Hollen said, "and in some ways it would be ideal to be able to very clearly identify an ATM as a CO-OP ATM. But of course, and rightly so, our member credit unions deploying the ATM want to make sure they are clearly identified as well, so there is a real dual branding challenge."
Hollen reported that roughly 500 of CO-OP's members so far have taken the CUSO up on its offer to subsidize the cost of putting larger, easily identifiable signs carrying logos of the credit union and CO-OP.
One concern that executives mentioned was the possibility that the newly enlarged bank networks could exercise a lot more influence over the processing of EFT transactions at the point of sale. These are transactions where cardholders use their personal identification numbers to validate transactions at point of sale terminals; they are also when cardholders can use to receive cash back with their purchases.
The executives worry that the increased size of the bank players will give them undue influence over the networks processing the transactions, but Hanisch countered these fears with the observation that the number of different networks should act to keep prices down.
Hollen agreed, noting that merchants are still free to "head down the street" to another processor if they don't like the deal they are being offered.