Figure 1: New credit unions and credit union exits, 1950 to 2018. Source: Filene Research Institute

Consolidation in the credit union system is no longer simply a trend – it’s a truism. The numbers are so familiar as to risk cliché: From a peak of more than 23,000 in 1969, the number of credit unions dropped to around 5,600 in 2018 – a decrease of 76% – even as the number of members continued to grow alongside system assets. Most of this consolidation was the result of voluntarily mergers, but the vast majority of credit unions that were “merged away” were small, totaling less than 10% of the total credit union system assets. There were over 10,000 credit unions with less than $1 million in assets in 1979 and about 250 in 2018.

The result is fewer but larger institutions. There were only three credit unions with over $1 billion in assets in 1979; there are over 300 today. Larger institutions generally benefit from economies of scale and scope, and they are often better positioned to shoulder the increasing service, technology and compliance costs of doing business in a heterogeneous, deeply competitive and rapidly evolving consumer financial services sector. Indeed, while a desire to expand services is the top reason credit unions merge (selected for three-quarters of all NCUA-assessed credit union mergers), a range of interconnected reasons drive most merger decisions, including succession concerns, risk management and difficult growth prospects.

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