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Time again for a potpourri look around the world of credit unions: For those looking for still another way to keep current credit union volunteers around longer, NCUA’s legal opinion letter 03-0382 has provided it. According to the letter, federal credit unions may provide health insurance to volunteers while they are actively and officially serving their credit union, “that is reasonable in coverage and amount.” However, it further stipulates that such coverage must be terminated immediately upon the insured person leaving his or her credit union position. Even long term care insurance may be provided to credit union directors, but only as long as they are performing their volunteer duties. NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar has finally said from his lame duck lectern what most of us knew he had long been thinking all along. Credit union conversions to thrift charters may not always be done with members at the converting CU completely aware of what they voted to approve. Said Dollar: “demutualization of many credit unions could occur unwittingly by members who are not fully informed that they could be losing their member-ownership status in just two years if the thrift were to become a stockholder-owned bank.” NCUA is working on strengthening member disclosure requirements. Predictably, the pro thrift converters howled. “Does he think our members are stupid?” asked one de novo bank CEO. No, just maybe not as informed as they should be. Another question that should be asked is did the former credit unions experience the predicted, accelerated growth rate that they claimed wasn’t possible with a CU charter? Not really! In fact, credit unions that decided that they had plenty of opportunity to grow as credit unions are leaving the 25 or so converted CUs in the dust. There are already 84 credit unions with at least $1 billion in assets of which 23 are over $2 billion or more. It now takes almost $900 million to be ranked in the top 100 listing. Back in January of this year, ABA credit union basher and chief economist Keith Leggett said in an e-mail to me: “I read your predictions. If the (credit union) industry doesn’t reach $600 billion in assets (one of my 2003 predictions), that would be a story. I don’t think you went very far out on a limb with that one.” He’s absolutely right. Shame on me for not being nearly as optimistic about credit union growth as a bank trade group staffer. According to the latest official statistics from NCUA, credit unions reached $599 billion in assets by the end of June. By now CU assets are well over $600 billion! (See related story page 1.) Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong. The CEO of a former CU, now a thrift, speaking at a very large director’s conference held recently in Las Vegas, made the comment that one of the many advantages of converting to a thrift is that they can now pay their directors. The audience of over 1,000 directors burst into applause. Which means what? A recent move by the National Geographic Society makes me wonder why their competitors don’t attack its tax-exempt status with the same zeal that the banking lobbyists use against credit unions. Not only is the group’s monthly membership publication now sold on news stands along side its tax-paying competitors, but the not-for-profit group is now entering what appears to be a completely unrelated area, the home furnishings business. Name manufacturers across the country will produce approximately 500 National Geographic brand items, including sofas, ottomans, baskets, lamps, sheets, mirrors, etc. Why? Here’s the official explanation: “Our mission is celebrating and preserving world cultures. This gives us a whole new way to reach and educate people about global understanding.” Huh? By relaxing in a National Geographic Lazy Boy? The animosity between NWA Federal Credit Union and Northwest Airlines continues to heat up. The financially strapped airline wants the credit union to pony up big chunks of members money in exchange for its continued sponsorship, use of its graphics, and space set aside for the CU, or else. As I said about single-sponsor credit unions a few columns back they begin to think they rather than the members own the credit union? Lest anyone think Utah bankers are about to quietly disappear with their tail between their legs, think again. They very cleverly have maneuvered themselves into a position to host the 2004 annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL). This is the group that seriously considered adopting a banker-backed amendment that would promote states being able to tax FCUs. Although defeated 15 to 4, Utah anti-credit union forces have a full year to try and bring more votes into their camp. As if that weren’t enough, guess who is in line to become vice chairman of the American Bankers Association (ABA) next year and undoubtedly chairman the year after? Harris H. Simmons, the CEO of Utah’s banking giant, Zion’s Bancorp, a nearly 30 billion dollar Salt Lake City based financial institution. Simmons, who reportedly bristles at the mere mention of the words credit union, can be expected to make the elimination of the CU tax-exemption an even higher priority (if that’s possible) for the banking industry’s largest trade group. One reason the banking industry has some success in spreading misleading information about credit unions is the shameful ignorance about CUs among mainstream media. The Credit Union Association of Oregon (CUAO) has decided to beef up its Web site by including a “For the Media” section. It provides timely questions and answers as well as debunks popular myths about credit unions. Take a look at www.cuao.org/Communications/media.aspx. Why don’t all leagues and all credit union groups do something similar? Finally, think twice before faxing anything to anyone without their permission. Unless the proposed legislation gets changed, you’ll be breaking the law. (See related story page 4.) Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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