Culture consultant and blogger Denise Wymore is a self-described "credit union evangelist." She can be reached at 503-805-4424 or firstname.lastname@example.org
I am not an economist, nor do I play one on TV. My only exposure to economic theory was at Western CUNA Management School with the great Jim Likens. I still remember the bathtub with the faucets and drains image. So I kind of understand how the economy works.
The job of an economist is very similar to a meteorologist or astrologer. It's a guessing game and you're allowed to be wrong-frequently. Why is this? Because it's the study of human behavior, the atmosphere and the celestial bodies. All of which are random, ever changing, mysterious and fickle.
That said, I will offer this opinion on our current economic condition: The economy sucks because our society's values suck. There, I said it.
Everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. We are all somewhat complicit, in my opinion. I recall a certain corporate credit union CEO addressing an angry mob implying that the investment risk that was taken was in direct response to their demand for higher rates from their corporate. He was implying that the angry mob created the problem and, therefore, should suck it up. I kind of get that.
If economics is the study of human behavior, there's no better illustration of that than the cost-benefit principle and courtesy pay. Our original mission of promoting thrift and making loans for provident and productive purposes only vanished with courtesy pay. It was widely adopted on the premise that the benefit of not being humiliated by a bounced check was outweighed by the cost of a 300% loan. Whatever happened to the overdraft line of credit? Too costly, for us. The typical failure of a cost-benefit analysis is not including all costs. In the case of courtesy pay, the cost of eroding reputation.
According to famous economist Milton Friedman, market economies are inherently stable if left to themselves and depressions result only from government intervention. The government recently intervened on certain courtesy pay practices. This benefit apparently was having an impact on our economy.
And so, credit unions have become fast followers, very seldom pioneers.
It reminds me of one of my favorite economist jokes.
Two economists are walking down a busy street and come upon a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk. One bends down to pick it up, and the other said "Wait, if that were a real $100 bill, someone would've picked it up already."
When credit unions consider a new product, rather than relying on the relevancy of the product to their target market, they tend to give more weight to the idea if enough big credit unions are already doing it with some success. And therein lies the problem. We are following, rather than differentiating from, our competitors.
Thirty years ago very few credit unions memberships overlapped. In fact, if there ever was an overlap it was addressed, protected and the offender was often beaten into submission.
HR 1151 changed all that. It scared many credit unions into abandoning a single sponsor-a very defined target audience-for the unknown community that was already being served by the banks.
The lemming was born. Name changes were rampant, ad agencies were raking in huge dollars to rebrand a 50-year-old moniker to something as generic as possible. Credit unions began to compete with each other. The club was killed. And membership growth flat lines for the first time in history.
The supply was great, the demand was not there. Once people have had a chance to react in the marketplace, the easy opportunities are used up. We entered a saturated banking market with me- too products and fewer branches. We seldom offered a compelling reason to switch and often resorted to an embarrassing cry of "Now, anyone in the city can join!"
The majority of our marketing dollars were spent on luring in complete strangers rather than rewarding long-term, loyal, profitable owners, who will market for us. The cost to switch banks today is too great-even with membership bribes that promise iPods and cash.
Differentiation is critical to your individual credit union. Not to the general public. We've been focusing too much on trying to explain the difference between banks and credit unions. No one cares. What should keep us up at night is how do I differentiate myself from the half dozen community chartered credit unions in my marketplace.
We have found the real enemy-and it lies within.