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financial

Credit unions grow membership, revenue

Like many other industries, credit unions in Arizona are bouncing back from the economic downturn.

Credit unions, which are similar to banks in the products and services that they offer except at a slightly lower cost, are taking advantage of consumer disenchantment with big banks to attract new members. According to a recent National Credit Union Administration report, through the first quarter of 2012, credit unions around the country combined for a record 92.5 million members.

“As local, member-owned financial institutions, credit unions are simply doing what they have always been good at,” said Scott Earl, CEO of Mountain West Credit Union Association, a trade organization of credit unions across Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. “They have a long history and reputation for providing excellent member service, financial education and a wide variety of financial services to fit their members needs. The recent increased recognition of these qualities and the progress credit unions have made is establishing their success as an industry.”

Nationally, credit unions generated $2.1 billion in profits and added 667,000 new members in the first quarter of 2012, a 25 percent spike in profits compared with a year earlier. Most large Arizona credit unions — including Desert Schools, TruWest, Arizona State, Credit Union West and Arizona Federal — saw profits roughly double in the first quarter of 2012, compared with earnings from a year earlier.

“The word ‘profit’ is a bit of a misnomer,” said Paul Stull, senior vice president of strategy and brand for Arizona State Credit Union. “Credit unions do have net income. However, all credit unions are not-for-profit cooperatives. The net income or funds available after expenses are paid become part of a credit union’s capital or are used to build new branches, purchase new technology or offer additional services.”

Something that Arizona State Credit Union added recently were construction loans to its home loan portfolio in anticipation of an improving economy, as evidenced by the 27 percent growth of new home sales in the first quarter, compared to the prior year.

The construction loan program allows members the opportunity to lock in their mortgage rate early and avoid the possibility of fluctuating rates during the construction phase. Additional perks to this all-in-one loan include needing to only qualify once, signing one set of loan documents and paying one set of loan fees for both the construction-phase financing and permanent mortgage.

“As a local financial cooperative, the Credit Union is proud to offer low rates and flexible terms on a product that few financial institutions are offering,” said David E. Doss, president and CEO of Arizona State Credit Union. “We are excited to add construction loans to our home loan options as it is one more way we can assist members residing in the Arizona communities we serve.”

A J.D. Power and Associates study this year showed that consumer backlash against fees and the perception of poor customer service from some of the bigger banks have caused some consumers to switch to credit unions, whichunlike banks, which are run as private businesses seeking profits, operate as nonprofit entities and are technically owned by their members.

“Generally credit unions offer lower fees and better interest rates than banks,” Stull said. “This is one reason consumers may come to a credit union. We also see many people that switch because they want to do business with a local financial institution that is based in Arizona. Our deposits are returned to the community in the form of loans than in turn grow jobs and economic development in the communities we serve. Many consumers have made a choice to support local businesses, and credit unions are a great example of that.”

While credit unions never issue subprime mortgages, which many experts blame for helping lead the nation into the recession, credit unions did get hit with the impact of the failing economy. One lesson Earl said they learned: Innovation.

“Learning to manage resources while providing increased quality of services through the recession has challenged the way credit unions approach problems,” he said. “Increased creativity and credit union technology are some of more positive lessons for the long term.”
In addition to lower fees and increasing efficiency that is resulting from lessons learned in the wake of the recession, Stull said credit unions offer free financial counseling, will help members create a budget to manage their funds, and Arizona State Credit Union’s Home Affordable Refinance Program has allowed homeowners who owe more than the house is worth to refinance and reduce their payments.

“Choosing a credit union is a win-win situation for consumers,” Stull said. “They can get a better rate or lower fees to help them stretch their budgets, and they can benefit their community by doing business with a local financial cooperative that helps create jobs and grow the local economy. You get a good deal and you can feel good about helping your community, too.”

credit unions reaching out to small business

Arizona’s Credit Unions Are Reaching Out To Small Businesses

Relative newcomers to the field of making business loans, credit unions nonetheless have become key players in today’s tight-money economy. Barely 10 years ago, credit unions concentrated mainly on savings and checking accounts, and made personal, auto and home loans. But the Credit Union National Association says credit unions nationally originated $6.5 billion in business loans in the first six months of 2008, up 36 percent from the $4.8 billion in the corresponding period of 2007.

Credit union business loans in Arizona average about $240,000. Because the loans are relatively small, credit unions focus on small businesses.

For the past six years, Arizona credit unions have been working closely with the Small Business Administration and have emerged as strong SBA lenders. But because of the expertise involved in making such loans, only the larger credit unions are active in that segment of lending.

Steve Dunham, president and CEO of Canyon State Credit Union and board chairman of the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates, suggests that credit unions with assets of at least $400 million generally have the ability and staff support, so they are most likely to make business loans.

Then there is the issue of the federal cap, which the credit union industry has been trying to get Congress to increase or eliminate. Under the cap, credit unions may make business loans totaling no more than 12.25 percent of their assets.
The business lending cap comes into play at Arizona State Credit Union, one of the state’s largest.

“We’re getting very close to the cap, so we are being selective about what we do,” says Paul Stull, senior vice president of marketing at Arizona State Credit Union. “We keep bumping into it, and we have to find a way to make room. It’s quite a challenge to manage that.”

Despite the regulatory limits placed on credit unions, opportunities for businesses to borrow are available. Businesses face a combination of challenges, such as finding a money source and finding the right rate, Stull says.

“For many of the people we deal with, the rate is important, but many times they don’t have too many alternatives to look at for financing,” Stull says. “That usually means their needs are somewhat smaller than the targeted range of other providers. It takes just as much work to originate a small loan as it does a large one. Some would prefer to do only larger loans. A small business person might fall outside of that window. When they do, it’s tough for them to get the attention they want and deserve. Certainly small enterprises are not coming up on the radar of some of the larger lenders. That doesn’t mean rate isn’t important. It still is. But clearly you need to talk to somebody before you can get a rate.”

In all phases of lending, credit unions traditionally follow very conservative underwriting principles and only make loans to members. It’s not uncommon for an individual member to approach a credit union with a business loan request.

“The strong suit for credit unions is what it has always been — credit unions take the time to know their members,” Stull says. “That certainly puts us in a better position to meet the needs of a business. Many of our business customers have a personal relationship with us. They like the way we treat them personally, and they realize they can do their business banking with us as well. And that leads to a deeper relationship. The wider use of our business services is a more recent phenomenon. It’s a natural progression, and is indicative of the way we like to know our customers.”

Most experts see the economy beginning a slow turnaround toward the end of this year or early 2010. Consumers for the most part are still on the sidelines. Credit unions and the business community are keeping an eye on the nation’s savings rate.

For the past 20 to 30 years, Americans saved 7 percent of the income. But in recent years, before the recession hit, people were spending and borrowing more and saving considerably less. The U.S. Department of Commerce notes that the U.S. savings rate has been on the rise after almost five years in which consumers barely saved a penny.

Stull calls the rise in savings a good sign-bad sign situation.

“It’s good because people are being more cautious, developing more security,” he says. “The money they save goes to financial institutions and becomes available for lending. But, it’s a bad sign because people are not buying cars, motor homes, washers and dryers, and they’re not dining out as much as they used to. So it’s really kind of a double-edged sword.”