ARLINGTON, Va. – Credit unions selling their card portfolios to card issuing banks and frequently establishing agent relationships with those institutions continued strong in 2003, even as more credit union firms became active in the market and more credit unions began to take a stronger interest in managing portfolios they retain. According to the most common industry estimates, somewhere between 40 and 50 credit unions sold their card portfolios this year. Hard numbers are difficult to come by since neither credit unions, brokers nor buyers are required to reveal portfolio transactions and transactions sometimes only come to light in subsequent months. The portfolios continued to derive their value from both the very competitive credit market overall and the portfolios' generally high credit quality. Small credit union portfolios particularly, if attached to larger institutions with relatively low card penetration, began to attract very large premiums, as high as 26% in one reported sale. Small portfolio buyers purchased not just the current card accounts, but also the chance to market more credit cards to other credit union members or residents in a credit union's community if the institution is community chartered. The pace of the sales drew the attention of credit union owned buyers as well, as both the ICUL Service Corporation, a subsidiary of the Illinois Credit Union League and TNB Card Services, which is a subsidiary of the credit union-owned Town North Bank, began to get involved in purchasing credit union card portfolios. The ICULSC's approach is particularly novel since the corporation solicited credit unions seeking to invest in the burgeoning card industry for the capital needed to buy its portfolios. This approach allows some credit unions to participate in the card market without having to start their own portfolios. Having the ICULSC buy the portfolios also keeps the portfolio receipts in the credit union industry. Banks' steadily increasing attention to credit union card portfolios also led more credit unions to reevaluate the worth of an asset that many of them had been undervaluing and mismanaging. Both PSCU Financial Services, the card processing firm for over 500 credit unions that use First Data Corporation's card platform and Card Services for Credit Unions, the association of credit unions that process their cards with Certegy, inaugurated different face-to-face and Web based efforts to help educate their members about card profitability and management strategies. Significantly, buying a credit union's card portfolio wasn't the only way a portfolio purchasing firm could get one. At least five credit unions around the country began issuing cards for the first time through agent relationships they had established with card portfolio purchasing firms. -

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