WASHINGTON-The credit union glass is half full.
That was the general assessment of participants at a symposium that the NCUA organized last week to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Federal Credit Union Act and discuss the future of the credit union movement.
"Given their reputation and strengths, credit unions could be seen as unbiased providers of consumer information," said consultant Scott Sommer, during a discussion of the relevance of the cooperative financial system. "That's important during difficult times. Also, there is an increased demand for debit cards, and there are opportunities for credit unions to help small businesses being ignored by other providers in the marketplace."
Matt Davis, director of public relations of North Carolina-based Members Credit Union, said credit unions have the potential to thrive but will only do so if they make their passion contagious and expose new groups of people to the advantages of credit unions.
"We have a choice of being relevant or going away. And relevance is only possible if we innovate and attract more young people and develop credit unions around people with common interests, whether that's gays and lesbians or motorcycle riders," he said.
Much of the discussion centered on two of the biggest problems facing the credit union movement?corporate credit unions and capital.
NCUA Board Member Gigi Hyland, who organized the conference, said the board would most likely issue proposed regulations in the fall for restructured corporate credit unions but that could change depending on the wishes of NCUA Chairman-designate Deborah Matz.
Hyland said the problems of the corporates could cause some Treasury Department officials to push for changes in the structure of the NCUSIF.
"They think the current set up is pro cyclical and compounds the problem if there are difficult times,'' she noted.
Some credit unions and regulators have argued that credit unions would be more competitive if they were allowed to raise supplemental capital. But during a discussion on the subject, there was disagreement on its merits between NASCUS Chairman George Reynolds and NCUA Deputy Executive Director Larry Fazio.
"We see [allowing additional capital] as a fundamental safety and soundness issue. It's not for everyone but should be a tool in the tool box,'' Reynolds said. "All other depository institutions have it, and it is an extra layer of protection for the insurance fund."
But Fazio said that while his agency was still discussing the idea and meeting with NASCUS and other outside groups, he has serious reservations.
"The idealist in me says we need supplemental capital, but the pragmatist in me worries," Fazio said.
Among his concerns are that the "real-world image of credit unions will be hurt if widows and orphans lose their money on investments through credit unions," he said.
The conference was held in the Hyatt Hotel on Capitol Hill. And agency officials placed photographs of key moments in the history of federal credit union movement in the conference room. Several speakers noted that the Federal Credit Union Act was signed by President Roosevelt at the height of the Great Depression in 1934 because many existing financial institutions weren't serving low-income populations. Credit unions began in the United States in 1907 but were only chartered on a state-by-state basis until the 1934 law took effect.