Just how safe are credit unions?
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Listener Tom Dudzinski of Colorado asks:
As I listen to the many reports about bank failures, I can’t help but feel smugly secure that I do all my personal banking with credit unions (including mortgages, credit cards, car loans and certificates of deposit). Do, in fact, credit unions fail, and we just don’t hear about them because they’re too small? Or is there something inherently different about the way credit unions are structured and operate that make them much less likely to fail? Is my smug security misplaced?
Rest assured, Tom. Credit unions are generally safe.
These financial institutions are not-for-profit cooperatives owned by their members and focused on their communities’ needs, while banks are for-profit enterprises.
Experts told us that credit unions do fail, like banks (which are also generally safe), but rarely. And deposits up to $250,000 at federally insured credit unions are guaranteed, just as they are at banks.
Angela Vossmeyer, an associate professor of economics at Claremont McKenna College, said that data from the National Credit Union Administration shows that six to seven credit unions, on average, have entered conservatorship or liquidation annually since 2017. Conservatorship means that the NCUA has placed a credit union under its control due to operational issues, while a liquidation means the credit union has been shut down.
In total, there are about 4,800 federally insured credit unions in the U.S.
So banks are also secure, generally speaking, but as we’ve seen in recent history, there are periods of instability that expose their vulnerabilities. Bank failures soared during and after the mortgage-driven financial crisis. In 2007, there were just three failures, which jumped to 25 in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, a total of about 300 banks imploded.
This year, Silicon Valley Bank shut down after a run on deposits, followed by Signature Bank and First Republic. While the crisis has subsided, Wall Street investors have expressed concern about the state of the country’s regional banking system.
The differences between credit unions and banks
Put into context, the rate of failure at both types of institution is low. But one upside with credit unions is that they’re less likely to make risky investments.
“Credit unions still manage complex balance sheets like banks do. So if a certain asset class loses value, it can affect both banks and credit unions,” Vossmeyer explained. “But in general, credit unions are more risk averse.”
Before the 2007-08 crash, more than 23% of mortgages at commercial banks were subprime, which are risky because they’re offered to those with bad credit and come with higher interest rates. In comparison, only about 4% of mortgages at credit unions were subprime.
“So you can see very different risk profiles in terms of the asset side,” Vossmeyer said.
Banks are trying to maximize their return on equity, and that can lead them to take bigger chances with their lending or investments, said Luigi Zingales, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“Now, at a credit union, you tend to be paid much less, so you don’t have a lot of incentive to take that much risk because you don’t profit a lot,” Zingales said.
He noted that if a credit union does fail, it might be due to incompetent management or theft — there are cases in which employees have absconded with the institution’s cash.
Could a Silicon Valley Bank-style meltdown happen at a credit union?
Bank failures dominated the news earlier this year after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which suffered a run that forced it to sell its long-term securities at a loss. Signature in New York soon followed.
Here’s what happened: As the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, older bonds lost value because newer bonds paid out higher rates, pummeling the investments these banks had made. Fearing for SVB’s viability as investment losses mounted, depositors panicked and withdrew their funds. To let people cash out, SVB needed to sell its long-term bonds. But why would potential buyers pay for these low-yielding bonds when newer bonds offer more attractive rates? That’s why SVB had to unload those assets at a discount.
SVB was vulnerable to depositor flight because companies and well-heeled savers kept millions of dollars in their accounts with the bank, exceeding the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s coverage limit of $250,000. Because of this cap, 94% of SVB deposits were uninsured. Fear spread quickly.
“If you’re a depositor at Silicon Valley Bank, and you start to see this trouble and you know most of your deposits are uninsured, you have an incentive to run, which begins that liquidation,” Vossmeyer said. “Whereas if you’re a customer of a credit union, there’s really no incentive to run.”
Deposits at federally insured credit unions are also guaranteed up to $250,000, but the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund provides the coverage. Because these institutions cater to individuals and households with smaller accounts, Vossmeyer said, 90% of deposits at credit unions end up being insured.
Shortly after the collapse of SVB, the National Credit Union Administration tried to reassure people about the stability of its institutions.
“The credit union system remains well-capitalized and on a solid footing,” NCUA Chairman Todd Harper wrote in a press release. “The National Credit Union Administration continues to monitor credit union performance through both the examination process and offsite monitoring, and it will continue to do so into the future.”
If you’re shopping around for a financial institution, Vossmeyer said, verifying that the bank or credit union is insured should be one of your top priorities.
And if you’re considering taking on a mortgage or a new credit card, Zingales said, credit unions tend to offer more generous terms than banks. Mortgages might come with better rates, credit card fees might be lower and many offer free checking accounts without a minimum balance.
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