New Report Finds Credit Unions Operate with ‘Scant Regard’ for Statutory Mission

On the eve of the 85th anniversary of the Federal Credit Union Act’s enactment, new research released today found that credit unions are falling short of their mission to serve households of “small means.” In fact, according to the research by respected analyst Karen Shaw Petrou, credit union members are disproportionately from middle- and upper-income households, and credit unions’ lack of “mission compliance” deepens U.S. economic inequality.

The report from Petrou’s firm, Federal Financial Analytics, found that the National Credit Union Administration maintains no data on credit unions’ effectiveness at providing financial services to people of “small means,” and that its definition of “low-income” is far more expansive than that used by other federal agencies. As a result, she found, designated low-income credit unions simply replace community bank credit instead of providing new credit.

The report also found that credit unions evade the FCU Act’s mandate to provide credit for “provident or productive purposes” by making risky and even “predatory” loans—including subprime auto loans and, notoriously, taxi medallion loans that resulted in several CU failures and saddled vulnerable borrowers with massive debts. The report recommends renewed policymaker and public attention to the credit union mission and effective enforcement to ensure that it is meaningfully and materially achieved.

“The in-depth analysis conducted by Federal Financial Analytics reveals troubling details about today’s credit unions. The report should serve as a wake-up call to regulators and lawmakers that this $1.5 trillion dollar industry no longer meets its statutory mission to serve low- and moderate-income households,” said ABA President and CEO Rob Nichols. “Instead, credit unions are increasingly using their tax advantage to expand membership with higher-income customers, make high-risk loans without adequate capital, and even buy up tax-paying community banks. As the report makes clear, a lax regulatory framework is allowing this to happen, and the biggest losers are taxpayers and people of modest means whom credit unions were created to serve.” (ABA commissioned the report, but had no editorial control over Federal Financial Analytics’ research and conclusions.)

“We strongly encourage policymakers to read this report, so they can judge for themselves if today’s credit union industry is meeting the mission Congress intended, and whether the NCUA is providing the regulatory oversight consumers deserve,” Nichols added. “Any fair reading will conclude that major reforms are needed.”

The report was picked up in a Politico story this morning that highlighted key findings and was also featured in Politico’s widely read Morning Money newsletter.

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Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and vice president for publications at the American Bankers Association.