Being intimately involved with credit unions as closely as I have been for many years, it is not difficult to make a few candid observations from the Catbird Seat from time to time. Like these: After being touted as a slam dunk for appointment to the three-person NCUA Board spot currently occupied by its chairman, Dennis Dollar, the unexpected announcement by Gilbert Gonzalez that he was withdrawing his name from consideration came as a big surprise to most observers. His stated reason was that he got tired of waiting for the official nomination. Besides, he said he had a number of important projects in his current position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he wanted to stay focused on. But I can’t help wonder if the real reason was that insiders tipped him off that he wasn’t going to get the nod after all and to save the embarrassment, he pulled his own plug. The bad news is that despite his lack of hands-on credit union experience (so what’s new?), those supposedly in the know felt that he would have made a good board member. The further bad news is that all the political monkey business to fill that slot has begun anew. With an election year just around the corner, getting confirmation could become a major stumbling block for any candidate no matter how qualified and politically correct. Credit union trade groups continue to react rather than act. Recently the Florida Bankers Association got the Florida Tax Watch people to do a study that makes a case against the state’s long-standing tax exemption for credit unions. More recently than that, the Virginia Bankers Association turns up behind a couple of anti-credit union studies, one written by a banking economist in the state. The Florida Credit Union League gets the director of research of the Consumer Federation of America to do a study that completely debunks the banker’s effort. The Virginia League expects to do its own study that will “tear the other study apart by showing it has serious flaws” as they did in a similar scenario in 1997. Isn’t it about time that credit union groups initiate studies showing how bank mega mergers, escalating fees, mutual fund irregularities, executive compensation packages, attempts to expand into insurance and real estate activities, etc. are harmful to consumers and the economy? Isn’t it time for the banking groups to react to credit union studies that expose their growing hypocrisy? One good one-sided study deserves another. The best defense is still a good offense! It is widely assumed that one thing all banking interests agree on is that expanded powers granted to credit unions represent a major competitive threat to banks. Or do they? As widely reported, the Michigan Bankers Association and the Michigan Credit Union League found ways to agree on the league’s legislative initiative to expand credit union powers in that state. In short, the two traditional opponents worked out a compromise that both felt they could live with. Along comes the all-knowing, all-powerful American Bankers Association to weigh in with its unasked-for-negative-opinion on the deal worked out. Washington, D.C. based ABA apparently feels it knows more about credit unions and banks in Michigan than the two state groups that live and work there. First NCUA Board Member Debbie (as she now prefers to be called) Matz said in one of her frequent speeches to credit union groups that “small credit unions are the backbone of the credit union movement.” Predictably, that statement brought howls of protest from many quarters including me. Eventually that firestorm died down. Now she has ignited another one by recently stating that “volunteers are the future of credit unions.” No they aren’t. Nor are credit union CEOs or their management staffs. Nor are CU trade groups or federal and state regulators. No one entity can or should be singled out as the future of credit unions, or the backbone for that matter. The reason credit unions continue to be so successful is because all the pieces fit together so well. I like to think of the credit union industry as a giant wheel moving forward. Volunteers, small credit unions, large credit unions, paid staff, CU organizations, regulators, vendors, etc. all represent one or more spokes. But in the very center, where they all come together you will find the members who are in fact the future of credit unions. It’s hard to get too excited about the passage of the new Check 21 legislation. After all, credit unions pioneered the truncation concept and have used it successfully for years. Of course there is more to the new law than simply the ability to truncate checks, but that is its heart and soul. With credit unions so in the forefront, it was doubly disappointing that one of the top credit union antagonists in the country, Harris Simmons, head honcho of Utah’s Zions bank, was on hand when President Bush penned the act into law. Where were the credit union representatives? It’s not just your imagination that the big banks are overwhelming smaller banks. The recently announced coupling of Bank of America with FleetBoston would result in a single banking entity with a presence in 29 states and an asset base of $930 billion. That’s more than 10% of all banking assets in the country concentrated in one institution. Of course by law no one bank is allowed to have more than 10% so some sell-off would have to happen before the combined bank could become a reality. Two questions for all banking industry lobbyists to consider: First, do you think the newest bank behemoth has even the slightest concern about big, bad credit unions? No! Secondly, do you think the country’s community banks are worried what the merger will mean to them? Yes! One final observation: this is probably the greatest time in the history of credit unions to be involved and part of the credit union scene! 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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