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Auto loans have been the credit union industry’s bread and butter business since their origins, and financing a new car or truck has long been a part of the American lifestyle. Yet, even though credit unions have always had the best non-subvented auto loan rates, only 15% of all outstanding CU loans are new-vehicle loans.And now, as the Big 3 struggle for survival in part due to a credit crunch and a lack of funding for their captive finance companies, credit unions are rediscovering their roots as the lenders with money to lend, the best rates and the ones who truly keep auto companies selling cars and trucks in tough times. With a thin financial margin of error for GM, Chrysler and Ford, credit unions are in a unique position to help the Big 3 survive and return to prosperity.The Michigan Credit Union League and its subsidiary, CUcorp, have been working for months on a concept called “Invest in America” that launched on Dec. 9 with a huge, positive response from the national and local media. The concept is simple: exclusive credit union member discounts on new cars and trucks in return for credit unions promoting the discounts and their own, low-rate auto loans in order to boost domestic auto sales and help their members afford a new purchase. Contracts are in place with both GM and Chrysler and talks continue with Ford.CUcorp has created a similar national contract with Sprint/Nextel whereby exclusive credit union member discounts create membership enhancement for credit unions, members get the discounts and Sprint gets more sales. We hope to create a similar win-win opportunity for credit unions and the automakers as we have done with the Sprint/Nextel partnership. But for the Invest America program, the stakes are higher. This isn’t just about auto loans and new members. It’s also about position the credit union industry to make a huge difference for domestic automakers and the national economy.In the Midwest region alone, credit unions have over $20 billion in available liquidity, and these credit unions serve 11 million consumers. Of course, new members will also be able to take advantage of the promotion. If even 20% of the targeted $10 billion could be used for GM and Chrysler vehicle loans, this would finance the purchase of approximately 100,000 units. Extending those volumes nationally would generate 10 times the result or 1 million units sold. GM and Chrysler’s combined U.S. sales are only in the range of 3 million per year, so these kinds of results would arguably be worth far more to GM and Chrysler than the much publicized federal bridge loans.So, by tapping into $20 billion of the U.S. credit union industry’s available $160 billion in liquidity nationwide, GM and Chrysler’s survival would be not only assisted but made certain, assuming they execute on the other things that bring success: product quality, price, promotion and service.Credit unions helping to save the auto industry-what would that mean in terms of the true credit union difference, not to mention the positive political capital gained for credit unions in Washington and the positive public relations benefits in communities all across the nation? The campaign already captured headlines in USA Today, the The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes and hundreds of newspapers across the U.S. The CUcorp consumer Web site, www.lovemycreditunion.org, saw traffic surge from 3,000 hits per week to over 300,000 hits the week GM program launched and over 400,000 hits the following week when Chrysler announced its participation. That’s a lot of eyes on credit unions!This is an opportunity for credit union leaders to really make a huge difference for their members, their communities, their state and for the U.S. economy, all by doing what they do best: make auto loans. This also creates a huge catalyst for credit union membership growth.As the MCUL and other trade associations follow up with members of Congress and state lawmakers, credit unions’ well-deserved image of being committed to the economy and to people can only be strengthened at a time when we seek help with our political agenda and protection from an anticipated restructuring of our federal regulatory framework.While the GM and Chrysler discount were only available in a 12-state pilot region in December, both programs expanded to a national market in January, making the exclusive credit union member discounts available to all credit union members nationwide.Will credit unions help save the domestic auto industry? Now is the time to answer that question, so let’s show the rest of the world what we already know: credit unions do invest in America.

Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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