CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney came to head up the largest national credit union trade association during a period of great tumult. The economy is still limping along. Uncertainty and precariousness surround the corporate credit union sector-not to mention his having been named a defendant in two related lawsuits. Credit unions' legislative efforts on member business lending have missed the mark so far this session. Still Cheney is looking to the future of CUNA and the credit union industry. He sat down with Credit Union Times Editor-in-Chief Sarah Snell Cooke to discuss his first 100 days in office.
Sarah Snell Cooke: So now you're 100 days in. What changes have you begun to make at CUNA, and what's your top priority internally?
Bill Cheney: Well, the first 100 days have really been focused primarily on a smooth transition...making sure that I meet all the right people here, and they understand that we're not going to miss a beat, and we're going to continue to focus on creating the best possible environment for credit unions.
SSC: Can you provide some details as to how you might increase effectiveness at CUNA?
BC: I think there's more we can do on the grass roots side. I've had a lot of discussions with our staff internally with the CUNA Board and with leagues from all over the country through the American Association of Credit Union Leagues.
We've had some success this year, legislatively, in blocking things that could have been harmful to credit unions. But looking forward, if we really want to be effective, we've got to have a better and more consistent response from throughout the country and from credit union members when we need help here in Washington. So what I've talked to the leagues about is really taking a fresh look at what we can do, grass roots-wise. Not just with credit union employees and volunteers-they're crucial-but also reaching out to credit union members.
During the interchange fight we found that we were able to generate quite a bit of support, somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 contacts with Congress. That response came very well from some parts of the country and not quite as well from others. Part of that is because different leagues approach things differently in terms of how they communicate with their legislators, but we need to know when we have a call to action what we can expect in response. We had some states that had close to 200,000 contacts, and we had states that had 50 contacts. We need to understand that, and how we can improve on that in the future to win these battles.
SSC: It sounds like you want to involve credit union members more-something similar to an H.R. 1151. Do you think that sort of effort is going to be needed?
BC: I think long-term we're going to have to involve credit union members. In order for us to really be effective, we need to harness the strength of 92 million credit union members. Consistently when you ask credit union members if they're willing to get involved and help their credit union, the last numbers I saw: 65% of credit union members. That's an astonishing number.
SSC: There were many candidates for the CUNA CEO. Why do you think you were the best?
BC: Well, that's probably a better question for Harriet May [CUNA chair] than it is for me, but from what I've heard in their discussions and deliberations, they felt like, at this time, having someone who has worked in various capacities for 25 years in the credit union movement, but also has, for the last four-and-a-half years, experience in a trade association, in California and Nevada representing those institutions, that that mix was important.
SSC: I realize you can't address the corporate lawsuits, but now that NCUA has taken over the WesCorp suit, some credit unions are asking, 'How can that affect your efforts with the agency?'
BC: It hasn't been an issue. We have addressed a number of things, as you know. It's been extremely busy from a regulatory perspective, and it promises to be even more so, more challenging going forward in terms of new regulations, not only from NCUA, but from Treasury and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We're working very hard with the Federal Reserve on interchange and making some headway there to protect credit unions' interest, but it has not been an issue with NCUA, and I don't anticipate that it will be going forward.
SSC: You talked about being over at the CFPB meeting with Elizabeth Warren. What's the effect of that agency going to be on credit unions?
BC: The impact will be huge. The question is: positive, negative, neutral? From our perspective, we think it's essential that we work closely with Elizabeth Warren. I've actually had four in-person meetings with her and one meeting on the phone in the very short period of time since she was appointed to that position. She's a credit union member. She's a member of the Harvard [University] Employees Credit Union. She's had a long-term working relationship with Gene Foley, who's not only the president of that credit union but is also a member of the CUNA Board. So that gives her a working understanding of credit unions and gives us an ability to talk to her about the very specific issues that are of concern to credit unions.
The two things we've been emphasizing recently are, No. 1, if you want to simplify regulation, you can't just put new regulation on top of all of the old stuff. You need to peel away years and years of old regulation as you're bringing in the new, hopefully simpler-to both the institutions and the consumers-regulation. And she understands that.
The other thing we've been emphasizing is: don't forget about the state regulators. They're an important part of this process.
SSC: Credit unions are working hard on member business lending. What's the progress, or lack thereof, this year and into the future?
BC: Things are fairly quiet right now because people are back home campaigning. We are encouraging our credit unions and our leagues to stay in touch with their lawmakers when they're back home. There's times we've been on life support, but we're still hanging in there. We have a strategy in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hotlined the bill in order to raise any objections that people have had. There's been some people who've expressed some concerns about the bill and we're addressing those concerns, but we're still hopeful even in a lame duck session that the majority leader will be able to find an appropriate vehicle to advance this legislation and try and get it done before the end of the year.
SSC: Capital's a big issue for credit unions. Discuss the future of risk-based and supplementary, or alternative, capital.
BC: Capital reform is our top priority for next year from a legislative perspective. We've been very encouraged by Chairman Matz and her comments recently in saying that she sees capital as a safety and soundness issue. We agree with her 100%. We think we have a consensus now in the industry to support NCUA's efforts to get alternative capital as well as risk-based capital as well as additional tools for the regulator to use to help credit unions in this type of crisis. So even with a Congress that promises to be somewhat different next year than it is this year, we know that they're going to be talking about capital reform, and that is at the top of our list, and we want to make sure that we're at the top of Congress's list when they're considering that in the 112th Congress.
SSC: Why are the bankers able to hold such sway and block credit unions' lobbying efforts?
BC: Banks have more money than we do. We've known that forever, and we've been able to say in the past, "They have more money, but we have more votes." And I still firmly believe that. Ninety-two million credit union members-65% of them are willing to help their credit unions. I can guarantee you that 65% of bank customers aren't willing to help their bank.
Community bankers typically are very involved in their community and have close relationships with lawmakers. We need to do a better job of strengthening our grassroots.
They've lost some credibility in this crisis, and credit unions have enhanced our standing in Washington because of the great work credit unions have done in their communities-reaching out to members, serving them, continuing to meet their credit needs.
SSC: The NCUA has come up with its corporate credit union regulation, come up with its legacy asset plan introduced on Sept. 24, as well as conserving three corporate credit unions. What do you see as the future of the corporate system?
BC: We're very involved in working with a number of groups at looking at a path forward. First of all, I do think that NCUA's legacy asset plan does a good job of containing the cost of the crisis, allowing credit unions to recognize that the credit losses on the legacy assets as opposed to any market losses.
I also think that the ability to allow-if things work out better than expected, which we won't know until we have the benefit of hindsight-that the credit unions who took the capital losses and the conserved corporates will have an ability to recover some of those losses if things improve. I don't think anyone necessarily expects that to occur but a structure is in place to allow that.
Now the question is: Where do we go from here? I see CUNA's role as really coordinating as much as possible and facilitating communications [to] ensure that we have a credit union-owned system going forward. Exactly what form that's going to take, as Chairman Matz said, credit unions are going to have to decide that.
SSC: Given the economy, what are your lingering concerns for natural person credit unions?
BC: Well, in order for any real improvement in the economy to occur, the job situation has to improve. We can sort of limp along, like we have been, at 9.6% unemployment. We need improvement in the jobs market. Until that happens, there's still going to be strain on natural person credit unions.
But even at some of the natural person credit unions who've been the hardest hit, credit unions that are currently within the bounds of prompt corrective action, whose capital has fallen below 6%, some of those credit unions are showing real progress. They are seeing their delinquencies decline, they're seeing their charge-offs decline. They're actually seeing their charge-offs make a dent in their allowance for loan losses. At one time, as fast as credit unions were charging off loans, new loans were coming through the pipeline. And that seems to have stopped at some of the hardest hit credit unions, so we're encouraged. We're not out of the woods yet, but there are definite signs of improvement.