Some credit union leaders breathed a sigh of relief when long-time nemesis Harris Simmons’ term as chairman of the American Bankers Association expired last week.

I don’t think it will have a material effect on the bitter bank/credit union battle. In some ways Simmons was good for credit unions. His language was often over the top and too reflective of his own personal situation, that is being the CEO of a Utah bank that has been the single catalyst of a number of major field of membership battles with credit unions.

But there is a lot more to America than Utah and I can’t help but hope that the new ABA chairman will bring a more realistic view to the job. Credit Union Times was on site at the recent ABA annual convention to, among other things, get a feel for the new chairman, Earl McVicker, a Kansas banker.

As chairman, Simmons was great at talking out of both sides of his mouth. In his farewell speech he had this to say of credit unions: “The tax and regulatory advantages enjoyed by these institutions have unfairly led to a serious erosion of many banks’ consumer franchises.”

A serious erosion? Really? That doesn’t seem to jibe with this statement from the same speech: “The banking industry is in remarkably healthy condition. Earnings, capital and loss reserves are at record levels. Non-current loans are at the lowest levels in recorded history, and we haven’t seen a single bank fail in over two years.”

So what do you believe, his “erosion” comments or his comments about “record” bank earnings? I’ll take the “earnings” comment given they are proven statistics. Less of Simmons’ rhetoric is good for everybody.

McVicker doesn’t appear to have the zeal of Simmons, that’s good. He has yet to bring up any new anti-CU legislation for next year that Simmons is saying is a possibility. McVicker seems to be more of a businessman than Simmons. He’s acknowledged that the CU issue varies from bank to bank based on where they’re located and also that there are other issues the ABA has to deal with.

But McVicker has stated that he is as equally determined as Simmons on the credit union issue. If so, he’s not representing the ABA correctly and is avoiding real banker problems. Simmons was way over the top on credit unions and if McVicker mimics him, which I don’t think he will, the ABA will quickly lose credibility on the issue.

So what should banks be worrying about? It’s not credit unions. That was a fine pet-project five years ago, but not today. Just look around. There is the industrial loan corporation issue. Are banks more scared of credit unions, only a $700 million industry, than the likes of Wal-Mart becoming a competitor? It seemed that way under Simmons. ABA members should demand that change.

And then there’s real estate. Bankers should be worried about realtors stealing their lunch on mortgage lending, and about changes to FDIC commercial real estate guidelines.

Speaking of the FDIC, the ABA needs to focus on representing its member banks on the FDIC’s new risk-based premium plan for the insurance fund. This is an issue that has the biggest of banks fired up. They should call on ABA to worry more about this than credit unions.

The good news is everyday bankers are indeed worried about these things. On-site at the ABA there was much more talk about Basel II, real estate regulations and other regulations, than there was about credit unions. The credit union battle makes headlines and wastes millions of dollars on both sides, but it’s not the real in-the-trenches issue and bankers know it.

Moving over to America’s Community Bankers and new chairman Mark Macomber, a Connecticut banker, the credit union issue will remain front and center. Why? He’s a small town banker, $190 million to be exact. He’s already stated that the credit union tax issue will take years of persistence to achieve. Also, ACB President Diane Casey-Landry takes every opportunity to keep the taxation issue alive. That won’t change and the ACB will continue to push to remove the credit union tax-exemption.

The ACB should be more focused on reducing the regulatory burden on small and mid-sized banks than worrying about credit unions. It should be focused on Basel changes and getting the most from reg relief. In fact, the ACB and the credit union trades, in a perfect world, would be on the same team with reg relief.

But the ACB has a dog in the fight. It wants to help credit unions convert and boost its own membership ranks.

We’re also starting to hear bankers talk about legislation that would force “expansive” credit unions that branch across state lines to convert to mutual savings banks. This may sound far-fetched, but I believe it could be the tip of the iceberg for a much bigger problem that is brewing behind the scenes. Stay tuned. –Comments? E-mail pgentile@cutimes.com