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Credit unions most vulnerable during the current recession are those that were posting losses and high delinquency rates before this year, according to CUNA economists.

Comparing the 936 credit unions that were acquired or liquidated during the 2007-2009 Great Recession with the approximately 6,000 others that survived, CUNA economists found that net worth ratios were less of a predictor than their health in building net worth through earnings.

The findings were presented in a report, “The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Recession & its Impact on Credit Unions,” released Monday. From 2007 to 2010, 93 credit unions failed and were liquidated, and 841 were acquired by healthier credit unions.

Credit unions lost to mergers or failures had either low returns on average assets, or more typically, net losses as deep as -1.93 for those in the NCUA peer group of $250 million to $499 million in assets. Those that survived had ROAs between 0.64% and 0.73%, and delinquency rates half those of peers lost to mergers or liquidations.

Net worth ratios, however, were a not a reliable predictor.

“Some credit unions with capital ratios well over 15% ended up liquidating or merging, particularly the smaller ones with under $20 million in assets. Therefore, a strong capital cushion by itself is not necessarily sufficient to weather a recession,” CUNA economist and lead author Jordan van Rijn wrote.

Nonetheless, 76% of credit unions with net losses in 2006 survived into 2011.

“The vast majority of credit unions with relatively poor performance indicators prior to the Great Recession did not fail or merge,” he wrote. “Therefore, we expect that most credit unions should also be able to weather the current crisis.”

The CUNA economist said in an interview that it’s difficult to predict how credit unions will fare in this recession.

“The Great Recession is the best example that we have, and most credit unions that were struggling prior to the crisis still ended up doing OK, and certainly did much better than the banks, because the banks took on a lot more risk,” he said.

The CUNA report cited a 2019 study by Filene Research Institute economist Luis Dopico and University of California economist James Wilcox that identified the predictive strength of traits among banks and credit unions that failed from 1980 to 2018.

For one thing, they found credit unions failed less often than similarly sized banks, especially during the Great Recession, primarily because credit unions tend to take on less risk than banks.

Overall, Dopico and Wilcox found financial institutions were more likely to fail when they had the following characteristics:

  • Less capital.
  • More delinquent loans.
  • Lower return on assets.
  • Smaller asset size.
  • More noninterest expenses per assets.
  • Very fast asset growth.
  • More concentrated asset portfolios.
  • Higher state unemployment rates.

However, many credit unions survived downturns even entering them with low capital, small asset size, high delinquency rates and concentrated loan portfolios.

“Thus, in the current recession, credit unions should be aware of these factors and monitor them, but they should not be overly alarmed if they notice some deterioration in these metrics over the coming months, which is only natural in any recession,” van Rijn wrote.

Previous research of NCUA data by CU Times found 612 credit unions had net losses for the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 2019. Among them were 606 with assets under $340 million, and five of them were in the $340 million to under $1 billion range – asset groups that each account for about one-sixth of all credit union assets.

This smallest third of credit unions had ROA of 0.73% last year, compared with 0.93% for “medium” credit unions with $1 billion to $3.9 billion in assets and 1.13% for “large” ones with at least $4 billion in assets.