Credit union card portfolios continued the improved performance they have demonstrated in the last several years in 2009, and the card portfolio sales continued their slow pace as the volumes of card assets that changed hands rose a bit.
But the numbers of credit unions said to be reviewing their card portfolios for possible sales are reported to be higher than last year, and it's unclear whether the slower sales can be attributed to credit unions' reluctance to sell or a reluctance on the part of purchasers, mostly banks, to buy.
Asset Exchange, a CU card consultancy and card portfolio broker, reported that its analysis of NCUA data showed that card assets among the roughly 2,100 credit unions with card portfolios of more than $1 million grew at 6.5% over 2009, reaching a total of $35 billion by the end of the year. By comparison, total assets at these credit unions grew at an annual rate of 9.7% over the same period, the brokerage reported.
Further, the analytical firm reported that the percentage of portfolios that grew more than the rate of inflation during the previous 12 months increased to 70% in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with 66% in the fourth quarter of 2008. In addition, in nominal terms, the fourth quarter of 2009 saw 84% of CU card portfolios increase in value while only 67% of them did in the fourth quarter of 2008.
But as the increase in overall credit union assets suggests, card assets as a percentage of those assets decreased slightly to 4.8% in the fourth quarter of 2009, down from 4.9% in the fourth quarter of 2008. The firm also reported that the number of card accounts grew by 2.9%, while the overall penetration rate for credit cards into CU membership remained at roughly the 18% level where it has been for some time.
When it comes to card portfolio sales, Asset Exchange reported that 24 credit union portfolios changed hands in 2009, with seven sold in the final quarter. The portfolios' total outstanding balances were worth about $325 million.
This was an increase from the $98 million in CU card outstanding balances that found buyers in 2008, according to TRK Advisers, a CU card consultant and brokerage headquartered in Peterborough, N.H.
TRK reported that its analysis of NCUA data found only 22 credit unions sold their portfolios in 2009 for a total of $328 million in outstanding balances, with five portfolios moving in the last quarter. The firm attributed the low portfolio sales to an increasingly cautious stance on the part of portfolio buyers.
"The decline in sales activity appears to have been driven mostly by uncertainty and conservatism in the portfolio buying community," wrote Tim Kolk, president of TRK Advisors. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that as many credit unions as ever actively examined their sale options in 2009, but many were unable to find interested buyers."
Willie Koo, president of Asset Exchange, agreed that card portfolio sales were slumping but blamed the current slow period on both credit unions and buyers.
Koo said that while it was true that a number of credit unions had been evaluating their portfolios for possible sales, the firm was seeing few that were doing so for strategic reasons or because of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which took full effect last month. Rather, he said, Asset Exchange was helping credit unions evaluate their portfolios for possible sale because of pressures on their balance sheets.
But the challenge the credit unions faced was that their financial conditions actually made them less attractive to purchasers as card portfolio sellers and partners.
"Previously, card portfolio buyers focused more on the quality of the card portfolios, but now they are also focused on the ongoing relationship with the credit unions," Koo said. "If a credit union doesn't look like it may be around for a while, the buyers aren't as interested," he added.
That lack of interest has translated into generally lower premiums for CU card portfolios, he explained. A few years ago, when CU card portfolio sales were much more active, it was not unusual for credit unions to see purchase offers with 20% premiums, but sometimes the offers now carry no premium or even come at a discount, he said.
This change also tends to favor credit union based or backed portfolio purchasers, Koo noted. CU card portfolio buyers which are CUSOs or which are backed by credit unions have always enjoyed an advantage in the market with sellers who felt more comfortable selling their card assets to credit union firms, Koo explained. But such purchasers often could not compete as readily on price, and now they can.