A year ago, unemployment was 14% around the Inland Empire in California, much higher than the national average.
The $674.5 million Altura Credit Union felt the enduring sting as its members, like most across the nation, struggled with job losses, rising debts and foreclosures.
Fast forward to 2012, the Riverside, Calif.-based credit union is much more optimistic after its third-quarter financials revealed that a recovery, while still slow, is making its way through the Inland Empire, a region about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
“Although conditions are still rough, our members have done a great job digging out from under the area’s challenges,” said Mark Hawkins, CEO of Altura. “They’ve reduced debt levels and restrained new acquisitions. The market is slowly improving, but the hunker-down mentality lingers.”
For the quarter ending Sept. 30, Altura reported an increase in its net worth ratio to 9.42%, the highest in its history, according to the credit union. This is above the 6.89% reported for third- quarter 2011, and above the 8.69% reported in second-quarter 2012, Altura said.
The record net worth ratio is the result of a lot hard work by a lot of people, Hawkins pointed out. The key contributors were much the same as Altura has seen over the past six quarters: reduced operating costs and strong noninterest income coupled with declining loan delinquency and charge-offs, he added.
Hawkins acknowledged there hasn’t been any kind of magic bullet to Altura’s recovery, saying it’s been about paying attention to each of these key factors that have contributed to the grudgingly slow recovery that’s taking shape.
“I attribute our recovery to the efforts of those people and to the tough decisions we had to make to get through the toughest economy in 80 years. In short, I would attribute our success to hard work and good fortune,” Hawkins said.
Year to date, Altura said it is ahead of the same period last year, reporting net income of $13.2 million for 2012 compared to $4.9 million for 2011.
Despite a positive turn in its financials, Altura took a hit to its net income due to a $1.8 million impairment charge related to an investment in Business Partners LLC, a business lending CUSO founded by Telesis Community Credit Union.
Net income dropped to $2.1 million for the quarter ending Sept. 30, according to the credit union. This was down from the $3.4 million Altura reported last year at this time on total assets of $679.4 million.
The Chatsworth, Calif.-based Telesis was conserved by the NCUA in March and was subsequently acquired by the $1.3 billion Premier America Credit Union, also located in Chatsworth.
Founded in the 1995 by Telesis, Business Partners said it is owned by 17 financial institutions and has more than $1.1 billion in business loans under management.
“It’s really just a sad story,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s fair to describe the Business Partners venture as a great idea that was poorly executed. Such a script just doesn’t end well.”
Hawkins said at Altura, it became evident the credit union’s investment was impaired, and as 2012 advanced, the cooperative concluded it was time to act.
“We wanted to put the impairment behind us and the timing seemed appropriate. We could absorb the hit in the third quarter, and we really wanted to get this particular saga behind us,” Hawkins explained.
Still, Altura continues to believe that member business lending needs to be an important component of any credit union’s future lending strategies and it certainly is for Altura, Hawkins noted.
“We remain a 5% owner of BP–our 5% is just worth less. We look forward to resuming our member business lending, and we look forward to a renewed, reconfigured Business Partners.”
Meanwhile, the Inland Empire still has a way to go in terms of its recovery from the Great Recession.
“People in our area are very anxious about the upcoming elections, both at the national and state levels. Educators and city and county workers comprise much of our field of membership. Each of these key groups remains under the gun so to speak of local government budgets, which are full of uncertainty,” Hawkins said. “It remains a troubling time, but our members and Altura are each making great progress.”
Indeed, the region continues to be hampered by high unemployment, currently at 12% as of September. This is a noticeable improvement compared to 2011’s 14%. Compare that to 2006 when the rate was 4.5%, according to Hawkins.
The double digit unemployment figures demonstrates not only the depth of the hole that Altura is still climbing from, but also how hard this region was hit by the recession, Hawkins said.
“We’re coming back and that we’re not alone. There are many credit unions here in the Inland Empire and up through the central valley of our state that have really been hit hard,” Hawkins said. “We’re all getting better, just at different speeds. It may take some of us a little bit longer but we’re going to get there. You can count on it.”