The United States has three branches of government to prevent any one from having too much power. The tax-exempt credit union industry apparently skipped this civics lesson because it obviously doesn’t believe it should have to listen to Congress.
The National Credit Union Administration has proposed dramatically revising business-lending rules for these tax-subsidized institutions. Current law allows any credit union to make business loans worth up to 12.25 percent of its total assets. While lawmakers have repeatedly declined to advance controversial legislation to raise this cap, the NCUA has unilaterally done so on behalf of the industry it is supposed to regulate.
It is up to community bankers to call out the NCUA for sidestepping the cap established by Congress and attempting to extend the industry’s government-funded competitive advantage. ICBA offers community bankers a customizable letter to Congress and the NCUA to express opposition to this misguided plan.
The NCUA’s proposal blatantly skirts the statutory cap by exempting more loans from it, removing explicit loan-to-value limits and increasing the population cap for community charters by 400 percent. By piling on additional exemptions, the plan increases risks to the financial system. According to the Capital Policy Analytics Group, credit unions with the highest levels of business loans represent a disproportionate share of credit union failures, showing the risks of blanketing these institutions with new business-lending authorities.
The NCUA wants to assuage public concerns over these risks by requiring credit unions to create credit policies and risk-rate their loans. Rather than offering reassurance, this suggestion is an alarming admission of the weak oversight and regulatory standards now in place for credit unions. Credit policies and risk-rating systems have been standard community bank practices for decades—where have the credit unions been?
The truth is that aggressive and fast-growing credit unions are seeking to leverage their tax-exempt status to siphon top-performing small-business loans away from community banks, which actually pay taxes to their federal, state and local governments. Nearly 99 percent of credit unions below the federally mandated cap can already expand their lending if they choose to do so, with no change to federal law or regulation. And there are already plenty of ways to circumvent the limit because loans under $50,000 and Small Business Administration loans as large as $5.5 million don’t count toward it. Continuing to relax these congressionally mandated restrictions will only serve the interests of the riskiest, growth-oriented credit unions, while putting the broader financial sector at greater peril.
Credit union business-lending caps were established by Congress because these tax-subsidized institutions are designed to serve people of modest means with a common bond. These days, multi-billion-dollar credit unions are allowed to have virtually no common bond among members, yet they continue to operate tax-free. Meanwhile, they remain unique among lenders due to their exemption from regulations such as the Community Reinvestment Act.
Community bankers, tell Congress and the NCUA that the regulator should focus on implementing and enforcing credit union laws as they are written. If credit unions want to operate like banks, they should be taxed and required to meet the same set of regulatory standards. They can’t have it both ways.