Washington Delivers a Mixed Bag to CUs: Executive Editor's Column
First the good news: The NCUA took some steps in the right direction this week when it announced reforms to its exam process. Chairman Debbie Matz’s letter to credit unions about the changes addressed complaints I’ve been hearing for quite a while.
For example, the NCUA revised its supervision policy manual to clarify that credit union management should determine how they will correct DOR issues. Matz softened the decision a bit by saying reasonable solutions will become the corrective plan—I’m assuming the NCUA will determine what is reasonable, which means ultimately they still have the last word.
The agency also added more structure to its exam findings and DOR process, including the release of standardized forms for both. The supervision policy manual makes it pretty clear what problems fit the DOR definition and which don’t, and it seems like these changes and others should help both examiners and credit unions clarify what has been a subjective DOR process.
Other good news came in the form of a report from SNL Financial that said as of June 30, credit union lending reached a new record of $621 billion. Banks, in comparison, are still $200 billion below their 2008 peaks.
Credit unions have certainly put enough effort into attracting new loans, but I can’t help but wonder whenever banks choose to pass on a particular book of business. If there’s a industry that can spot a profit, it’s banking. When banks turn up their noses at business lending or private student loans, it makes me wonder if they know something credit unions don’t.
Here’s a topic both banks and credit unions agree upon: nobody wants to be listed in the CFPB’s online complaint database. Complaints that could be undeserved are nonetheless are posted online for public and press scrutiny, and institutions aren’t given the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
The National Community Reinvestment Coalition released a report Oct. 8 that recommended all banks and credit unions be included in the complaint database. Calling upon the CFPB, NCUA and other regulators to act on the recommendation, the NCRC said data it reviewed from the CFPB indicated that low-income communities and those with large minority populations reported more complaints, which could mean violations of Fair Lending and other laws.
Now, the NCRC is just another trade association. Granted, the group’s executives are frequently called before congressional committees to share their research and recommendations, but this doesn’t necessarily mean a database expansion is imminent.
However, the CFPB doesn’t need any encouragement when it comes to expanding its regulatory presence. With only about one-half of Dodd-Frank mandates finalized, the CFPB is already sticking its nose into areas beyond the consumer protection bill. Fair lending, in particular, has a lot of momentum in Washington as a justification for new rules, exams and scrutiny.
Is anyone surprised low-income communities tend to have more complaints about their banking services? Most consumers don’t understand risk-based pricing principles, assuming instead an institution is just taking advantage of their low credit score to make an extra buck. So it makes sense those on the higher end of the rate scale would find more to complain about. Low-income households also have trouble making ends meet, which increases odds they’ll be charged behavior modification fees.
But then again, I’ve experienced some pretty lousy service at credit unions. I’ve spent a lot of time calling credit unions for comment when writing news stories, and have encountered some really awful phone systems and call center service. Credit union staffers are usually spread pretty thin, and problems that require follow up tend to slip through the cracks in favor of fighting the fire du jour.
Serving low-income members requires more work than serving those with large incomes, financial savvy and advanced degrees. While the NCRC’s findings aren’t that surprising to me, it’s worth noting that the group specifically called out credit unions along with banks, so I’m assuming the data must have supported that.
Congress seems like it might see a bit of blue peeking out behind the shutdown and debt ceiling clouds that have dimmed Washington since Oct. 1. Liberals and conservatives are at least talking about what concessions they could make to kick the budget shortfall can a little further down the road. Maybe their social media analytics have picked up on the “vote out the incumbents” talk I’ve seen among those in my circles. Let’s hope so.
- Heather Anderson