Credit Unions Buying Banks: Good, Bad, or Plain Ugly

By Robert McGarvey

Ten times so far this year a credit union has bought a bank, according to Credit Union Times’ count.  Some deals are small – Verve for instance paid $43 million to buy South Central Bank in Chicago.

Some are bigger such as Arizona Federal Credit Union’s buy of Pinnacle Bank in Scottsdale with its $236 million in assets. No details on the purchase price have been released.

In Florida – where the recent credit union buying a bank trend kicked off in 2015 when Achieva Credit Union bought Calusa Bank for $23.2 million — there have been three buy outs of banks by credit unions so far this year.

In the Chicago area, there also have been three purchases of banks by credit union so far this year.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. The first deal dates to July 2011 when United FCU bought Griffith Savings Bank in Indiana.

And the deals keep coming.  

Understand this: some credit union thought leaders are adamantly opposed to this trend.  To them, banks and credit unions are different and never the twain should meet.

Still others worry that as credit unions incorporate more elements from banks – including hiring bank trained staff – they may become more bank like and lose the credit union difference.

Consider this maybe the very most contentious issue in the credit union universe.

Banks incidentally are vocally opposed to the trend – or put more accurately they see this as a proof that credit unions should lose their tax exemption.

The other reality is that community banks are struggling. Their numbers are dwindling as the big banks get bigger and smaller, community banks find it harder to compete. For them, in some cases, the exit strategy is to sell the assets – primarily branches, loans, customers – to another financial institution and if it happens to be a credit union, so be it.  (Here’s a list of many CU – bank deals. Go to page 8.)

Big banks also seem largely uninterested in buying struggling community banks.  For many of the latter, a possible acquisition by a credit union looms as an attractive exit strategy.

But, first, what specifically is in this for a credit union? The St. Louis Fed tackled exactly that question.  Here’s what it said: “So what would entice a credit union to pursue a bank instead of another credit union? For one thing, it may be the fastest way to expand into new business lines that are more closely associated with banks (for example, business lending). The average ratio of business loans to total loans for the acquiring credit unions in the quarter before the transaction was 8.6 percent, whereas the average for the acquired banks was 33.8 percent. The acquisitions of the commercial banks raised the business-loans-to-total-loans ratio in the credit unions to 10.9 percent.”

Moreover, like credit unions, small community banks tend to have strong community ties and know their customers on a more personal level than their large-bank counterparts do. This strong community relationship can be an asset to the acquirer.” 

Other experts suggest that the number of sizable, viable credit unions that are available for merger into another credit union is dwindling. The attractive candidates have already merged, at least most of them have.

Very probably, we will see a continuing stream of credit union purchases of banks or at least parts of banks.  But probably not that many. The St. Louis Fed believes this kind of deal will never become commonplace: “Because of all the regulatory and business-model barriers involved, it will likely never be a dominant transaction type.”

Which brings us to the big issue: are bank purchases in fact good for credit unions?

For starters, know that the bank charter is not transferred in the deal.  A credit union cannot own a bank charter, said Wendell “Bucky” Sebastian, a co-founder of Callahan, longtime CEO of GTE Federal Credit Union in Tampa, general counsel of NCUA, and, at the start of his career in banking, a senior official in an Illinois regulatory agency.  Hear Bucky’s candid podcast for a lot more opinions including Bucky’s optimism about the credit union future. Listen here.

As for foes of bank acquisitions, there’s Jim Blaine, retired CEO of SECU, the giant North Carolina credit union, who has strong opinions on this topic. He ventilates his ideas with gusto in the CU2,0 podcast.  

Blaine opposes credit union – bank mergers. He sees them as a manifestation of an increase in what he calls the commercialization of credit unions.  At their founding, credit unions were created to serve members. Not to sell them products they don’t need which of course is a bank business plan.

Blaine also said that in negotiations between a banker and a credit union executive, he’d bet on the banker to win.

Credit unions just aren’t banks and shouldn’t be, Blaine believes. So keep them apart.

Bucky Sebastian – who supports credit union mergers, definitely ones with other credit unions, in his podcast – also comments that “banks exist for one purpose – to take as much from their customers and to give it to their shareholders as they can.”  That’s true. So ask yourself how that culture blends with a credit union’s.

That deep philosophical concern is aired by Gary Oakland, the retired, longtime CEO of BECU who saw that institution grow from a couple hundred million in assets to over $10 billion during his tenure. (He offers his perspectives on range of issues facing the industry in his CU2.0 podcast – find it here, it posts in late July – and he specifically addresses why BECU grew so big, so fast when many other credit unions did not.)

“You are seeing a change in leadership of credit unions,” says Oakland.  “A lot of new leaders are coming in from the banking industry. There’s not as much development of homegrown leaders.”

Which leaves us with a troubling question: at what point does a credit union assimilate so much bank characteristics that it ceases to be a real credit union and instead becomes a bank? Sure, the charter may say credit union.  But is the institution truly a member focused institution?

Is that case closed, credit union purchases of banks are bad? Not so fast. Some bank branch buys win broad applause. In the Deep South, Hope Federal Credit Union has bought a number of bank branches, mainly from institutions that had announced plans to close those locations.  Hope CEO Bill Bynum talks at length about that strategy in his CU2.0 podcast.

These acquisitions have been widely praised.

Even the cynic Blaine applauds what Hope is doing and he indicated that in negotiations he’d bet on Bynum to beat the bankers.  In some cases Hope may well have gotten the branches at no cost.

That’s a hard deal to turn down especially when a credit union can do tremendous good for the community by using the facilities to offer financial services to a community that might otherwise become a “banking desert.”

That does not mean however that it’s full steam ahead for bank mergers, either. 

Eyes will be on growing numbers of credit unions that have consumed banks, or hired senior bank executives.  The verdict has not been written.

But it will be.

CU2.0 Podcast Episode 41 Sherri Davidoff on Cyber Insecurities and You

Put phishing emails in front of credit union employees and how many will fall for them and cough up sensitive info? 20 to 60% will get conned.

And that can be costly to a credit union, both in terms of money and reputation.

Enter BrightWise, a Des Moines Iowa cyber training company created by Sherri Davidoff, CEO of LMG Security, and the Iowa Credit Union League’s holding company Affiliates Management Company (AMC).

After training, said Davidoff, the number of employees who fall for the phishing con tumbles below 10%.

What BrightWise will focus on, said Davidoff, are fun, short videos – think maybe five minutes – than an employee can absorb at his/her leisure.

Smarter employees are critical because how hackers work has changed, said Davidoff. “It’s no longer 13-year-olds in their moms’ basements that are hacking us; it’s organized crime groups all over the world,” Davidoff shared with NBC’s Today Show.

“People tend to think cybersecurity happens in the IT department,” added Davidoff. “Front-line staff are under constant assault from crooks and their automated robots, look-alike communications and other crafty tricks. We have to arm employees with knowledge, but also give them the tactics they need to sidestep cyber sneak attacks.”

Want more details on the Paul Allen scam? Read this.

Listen up to this podcast for a fast overview of the cyber threats credit unions face – and what they can, indeed must, do to protect themselves and their members.

Listen here

Like what you are hearing? Find out how you can help sponsor this podcast here. Very affordable sponsorship packages are available.

Find out more about CU2.0 and the digital transformation of credit unions here. It’s a journey every credit union needs to take. Pronto

Show Us Your Tweets Before Entering the US

By Robert McGarvey

The US government now has announced a policy where applicants for US visas are asked to disclose their social media handles. Apparently about 15 million foreign visitors will be impacted annually.

Would you disclose your Twitter, Facebook, and other accounts to a foreign government?

My Twitter account is @rjmcgarvey, ditto on Facebook, and I have never posted on Instagram, Snapchat, et. al. I have nothing to hide. But I do have questions about this new US information grab.

Is the US overreaching in its paranoia? Should what you post on social media figure into your ability to travel the world? And remember that others will follow the US policy – that is, many nations will start asking for social media handles on visa applications.

So US citizens too will be impacted.

Which brings us to the question: why did the US make this change?

According to TIME, the US explained this thusly: “National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

The free speech advocate inside me recoils at yet another government act that may stifle speech.

Even so, I have assumed for some years that the big governments – especially the US, China, possibly Russia – routinely sift through all social media postings.  I would also assume that many who post inflammatory stuff do so under pseudonyms. So a visa applicant might have a humdrum account on Twitter in his/her real name – and another account full of hideous nonsense under a fake name.  Which account would you guess he’d disclose on his visa application?

Is there any point to this new government intrusion?  Will demanding social media handles deliver anything of value?

Then, too, many millions of foreigners enter the US under a visa waiver program that allows passport holders from countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom to enter without a visa.  

In FY 2015, about 22 million came in under the visa waiver program (Japan was the leader with 3.7 million).  That’s half again more than will come in with a visa but that makes sense because most developed countries are in the waiver program (and in most cases US citizens do not need visas to enter these countries).

As for the new US demands, civil liberties folks are up in arms.  Per the New York Times, “This seems to be part and parcel of the same effort to have an extraordinary broad surveillance of citizens and noncitizens,” Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said of the latest development. “Given the scope of the surveillance efforts, it is hard to find a rational basis for the broad surveillance the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing for almost two years.”

Probably, too, this search won’t actually prevent any terrorism. A Washington Post story from a few years ago took up exactly this question and said, naw, it won’t work.  Why? The vast majority of posts are about the same old stuff – “Almost all were about traffic, celebrities or the weather. Discovering whether a visa applicant has ever voiced suspect opinions will require searching through acres of haystacks in the hopes of finding a few needles,” said the Post as it reviewed Ukrainian posts after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Note that timing. Even tho war was breaking out, the overwhelming majority of social posts were about the same old trivialities of everyday life.

Then, too, added the Post, the Internet is awash with hate speech – vide Trump’s Twitter account.  There’s a lot of bluster, a lot of ranting, and a lot of plain hate. That means “identifying suspicious social media activity cannot be conclusive without additional labor. Whittling hundreds of thousands of flagged accounts down to a manageable watchlist will be an expensive and time-consuming human effort, not the work of algorithms.”

So probably this is actually just a Washington DC witch hunt not worth the time and effort.

Is Member Ownership a Credit Union “Missed Opportunity”?

By Robert McGarvey

It’s a loud, universal credit union mantra: we are not a bank, we are member owned.

Are they really?

Of course credit unions are not shareholder owned, nor are they owned by a proprietor so – sure – on paper they are are indeed cooperatives owned by their members.

But do they walk the talk?

These dark thoughts flooded my mind in a recent conversation with cooperatives researcher Nathan Schneider that resulted in a wide ranging podcast that, ultimately, to my ears is very optimistic about cooperatives, especially new kinds that are forming to serve new needs (platform co-ops and worker owned co-ops for instance).  

But at roughly the 15 minute mark Schneider said that many cooperatives drop the ball, with a loud thud, by not stressing that they are in fact a democratically run cooperative because that kind of structure will appeal to a new generation.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Schneider who then issued “a challenge to cooperatives to reinvigorate their democratic spirit.”

Credit unions, he’s looking at you.

In fact he said, “that goes for credit unions too.”

“They need to rediscover the power of democratic involvement in these businesses.”

Do you vote in the annual meeting at your credit union? I belong to two and, as I confessed to Schneider in the podcast, I have never voted in a credit union election. Never as in not once.

I am embarrassed by that but I also am sure I am the credit union norm. And that’s very wrong.

I have often voted in annual elections of publicly held companies because they send me a proxy statement.  They make it easy for me to vote. And so I have.

I don’t even know when my credit unions’ annual meetings are.  I know one is 2500 miles from me. The other is within 10 miles. But I don’t know where or when.

Do credit unions care about the dismal member involvement in governance – keeping in mind we are, per the mantra, member owners?


Schneider said that a recent annual meeting of a large Colorado credit union he belongs to, he counted around 30 members in attendance and so he asked the CEO what he was doing to increase member involvement.  The CEO’s answer: “Credit unions aren’t like that any more.”

“That’s a big problem,” said Schneider of the indifference to member involvement.

He stressed that member ownership is a huge differentiator from other financial institutions – and yet credit unions aren’t making the most of this difference.

Schneider concluded: “If your main differentiating factor is no longer important, that’s a problem.”

CUNA of course has its “Open Your Eyes to a Credit Union” campaign – where a central plank is member ownership – but what if that ownership adds up a big zero? What if?  (Listen to Teresa Freeborn on the CUNA campaign, which she chairs, in this podcast.)

This really is the game. Credit unions are local, they usually offer free checking and lower cost loans, and they are member owned – that’s the three part argument.  It’s a great foundation for a marketing campaign. But when member ownership is an unfulfilled promise, the argument crumbles.

Schneider is right.  Credit union boards and management need to get serious about raising member participation.  When members feel they have the same stake in a credit union that they would have in Chase if they banked there – zilch in other words – credit unions have blown it.

Set a goal. Double member participation in the next meeting. Double the number of votes.  Get more members posting about the credit union on Facebook. Let’s see the members acting as owners.

Make it a core business goal to dramatically up member participation. Boards can make this a key consideration in grading a CEO’s performance.

Some credit unions get this. Some allow voting by members online. Some even allow Facebook voting. Bravo.

There are ways to introduce 21st century voting into credit unions and thereby to up member participation.

Most credit unions don’t deploy such tools however. Annual meets are still in person only. In the 21st century! There’s the “missed opportunity.”

But every credit union needs to commit to dramatically upping member involvement in the democratic control of the institution.

Upping member involvement won’t come easily. But this is an obligation that can’t be ducked. Never forget: democratic member control is the 2nd of the Rochdale Principles. “Co-operative societies must have democratic member control. According to the ICA’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity, ‘Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions.’”

That’s not hard to understand.

It may not be that easy to do.  But the doing is what will give credit unions a winning proposition.

Talk is cheap.

Democracy isn’t.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 12 David Gill Marquette Brewing, Drink Up

by Robert McGarvey

Mark your calendar. Late June is when Marquette Brewing in Michigan is slated to open, making it one of around 10 cooperative breweries in the US.

That number isn’t big but just about all these co-ops have formed in recent years. It’s a growing sector.

Understand, Marquette is a small town, population maybe 25,000, in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula.  There’s not a lot of population to draw upon in forming a new co-op but over 200 have joined Marquette Brewing, ponying up $99 apiece.

All in the co-op has raised over $200,000.

An important takeaway from this podcast is how much help other co-operatives have given Marquette Brewing. The co-operative principles really work.

Another takeaway: the rich information board president David Gill shares about this co-op’s journey to opening. He gives what amounts to a how to blueprint.

Great stuff.  Drink up.

Listen to this podcast here.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

How Credit Unions Can Win the Fees Fight

By Robert McGarvey

Want to pick a fight you should win? Everytime? Even when battling the biggest banks?

That’s a real probability for credit unions that pounce on an opportunity that could bring them notice of their generally lower fees by consumers hunting for a financial institution that clicks exactly that box.

Surf over to TrueFees and ponder the possibilities. Founder Ben Premo is building out a consumer facing search site where consumers in many cases would find their better deal will be a credit union and that is because Premo lets the consumer search for a financial institution by any of 10 different fees, from monthly service fees to overdraft fees, even foreign wire transfers.

Premo said that when he’s looked for that info on financial institution websites, maybe half of the banks he’s investigated did not post that info or if they did, it wasn’t readily visible.

Credit unions – most of which still offer free checking – are much more transparent about their fees or lack thereof.  But even credit unions may be less than forthcoming about fees for wire transfers, cashier’s checks, and similar.

So he set about building TrueFees where a consumer can input a zipcode and be shown the institutions with the best deals.

He also said he is looking for credit unions that want to partner with him, paying a fee only when a consumer actually opens an account.  There’s no charge to get entered into the database. “Truefees will bring exposure to financial institutions with low charges,” says Premo.

Right now, digital only banks are the primary players at TrueFees but Premo is insistent he wants to change that by adding info about more credit unions.

That is a possible way to change today’s playing field which is one where the big institutions generally win.

Most new checking accounts open at the predictable, mammoth institutions, the ones with big marketing budgets and lots of TV advertising.  Are they the best deal for an average consumer?

Absolutely not, certainly not for the 98% of us.  

At Chase, Total Checking costs $12 monthly. It can be free if the consumer maintains a checking balance that never dips below $1500, or $5000 in linked accounts (such as savings).  That sounds good until you remember that four in five of us say they live paycheck to paycheck.  You might as well tell them the minimum balance for free checking is $1 million.  They can’t manage $1500 any better than that million.

The consumer’s best chance at free checking with Chase is to arrange a recurring automatic deposit of at least $500 monthly. That will do it. But not everybody has an employer or similar willing to play along.  

So get ready to pony up $12 monthly.

At Affinity Federal Credit Union in New Jersey – where I do most of my checking – a checking account is free. No minimum balance required.  

At Chase the overdraft fee is $34.  Affinity charges $33.

But a growing number of digital banks and some credit unions, said Premo, charge nothing or a nominal fee for overdrafts.  If overdrafts are a personal problem, look for a provider with small or no fees and that’s where the TrueFees search tool will prove valuable.

Don’t be shy, either.  In 2017, overdraft fees paid by Americans hit $34.3 billion – that’s billions. It’s money that does not need to be spent.  (Grain Technology, by the way, has a tool that could absolutely end overdrafts. Hear the podcast here.)

Fee specificity, by the way, is an obvious hook for TrueFees: the consumer can drill down to exactly what fees interest him/her. Personally I have never wired money abroad so fees for that are inconsequential to me but for those who regularly wire money abroad – and I know people who do that to India, the Philippines, Mexico, and in years past, Ireland – it’s potentially easy to hunt for nearby institutions with attractive charges for foreign wires.

A plus for the consumer who uses TrueFees to find and open a new account is that TrueFees will put a $25 bonus in the consumer’s pocket.

Check out TrueFees. It just may be a smart way to find a game where credit unions are destined to win because most truly offer the better deal.

A CU2.0 podcast with Ben Premo where he talks at length about TrueFees posts in mid May 2019. Find it here.

Travel Companies Are Hacker Targets Because You Are

By Robert McGarvey

Probably your principal travel providers – airlines, hotels, online travel agencies, and the like – know a lot of information about you, very sensitive information, perhaps including passport number, driver’s license details, credit card information, and loyalty program details.

The bad news is that, increasingly, travel companies are hacker favorites, ranking second or third among the chief targets.

You already know that hotel restaurants, bars, and gift shops are under relentless assault – so much so that my loud advice is to never use a debit card in them, really try hard not to use a credit card, and pay cash to maintain safety.

And then there have been the many attacks on hotel loyalty programs.  

But what IBM is talking about is something different.  Sophisticated nation state players are suspected of hacking into travel company databases in a  search for information about travelers.

“I don’t see that slowing down any time soon. If you’re a nation state, you’re building large scale databases of people because the more you understand about people, the more you can manipulate and extort,” said Caleb Barlow, an IBM vice president, at a recent Amadeus event in Madrid.  

He added, according to Phocuswire reporting on the event,  “Not all attacks want to leverage the information straight away. Nation states might want to use it in 20 years.”

That has to scare you.  

Do you want a nation such as Saudi Arabia or Hungary or Russia to have your travel history and preferences at their disposal?

Do you want the US to have it?

A morsel of good news is that, recently, per IBM’s Barlow, many hackers have shifted from data exfiltration to cryptojacking, which is putting victim computers to use mining cryptocurrencies for money.  

Travel sites too appear to be victims of this. What impact might that have on travelers? Hard to say, since currency mining as such shouldn’t impact a consumer’s data. But when a hacker has control of the computers it stands to reason he/she would also pull out useful data to keep or to sell, simply to optimize the financial return of the hack.  So I don’t see cryptojacking as mutually exclusive with data exfiltration. Not hardly.

Exactly what can you do to protect yourself in an age where travel sites are getting hacked?

I play with the idea of registering under a false identity, using, say, a good quality but fake Irish driver’s license and a fake passport.  The problem of course is that fakes won’t pass scrutiny by government employees such as TSA.  At a hotel, sure, I believe fakes generally will work fine.  Note: I am not advocating scamming hotels, just creating false data trails that when stolen by a hacker will deadend.

But then there’s the problem of my data that already is in the system at multiple hotel groups, airlines, and assorted other travel vendors.  A new, fake identity won’t erase the past, accurate data.

So here’s what I am doing in response to the epidemic hacking at travel providers: going online, stripping out all data that isn’t needed and filling in false data where possible — challenge questions for instance. There is no need whatsoever to use your father’s real middle name in a challenge.  The only requirement is knowing what fake name you used.

My sense is that it is easier and safer to use substantial fake data with hotels.  Not so much with airlines.

And keep remembering that ever more travel company data is in the hands of hackers.  

Remember too that the hackers often appear to be highly skilled and that means the worse news is that very possibly there are plenty of hacks that so far have gone undetected. But our data may be leaking out.

That puts the burden on you.  Keep monitoring financial accounts and regularly – at least yearly – look at a credit report.  I also check my credit score monthly (free via various banks, credit unions, and credit card issuers).

But the sticky issue is if the thefts are by nation states with no intent to monetize the data via fraud it just may be impossible to divine what data has been copied.

That’s maddening.

But it also is reality.