Credit Unions’ History Shows Resilience of Cooperative Banking Model

CUNA_ICU_Logo_Final_WCIn honor of International Credit Union Day, NerdWallet Looks Back at the History of Credit Unions in the U.S.

Credit unions surpassed the 100 million-member mark in June, reaffirming the strength of the federally insured system throughout the years—from the Great Depression to the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Credit unions are gaining popularity among consumers who want financial benefits, fewer fees, lower loan rates and higher interest on savings accounts. In the past year alone, credit unions added 2.85 million members. This growth was the largest reported 12-month increase in more than 25 years, according to Credit Union National Association (CUNA). From the start, these not-for-profit financial co-operatives have greatly benefitted their members.

Rise of credit unions

The first U.S. credit union opened in 1909 in Manchester, New Hampshire, according to the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), which regulates, charters and supervises federal credit unions. However, it was not until the Great Depression that these financial institutions were organized under federal law.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1934 Federal Credit Union Act at a time when Americans had very little faith in banking institutions. The law was intended to make credit available to people at all economic levels and to promote thrift. By the end of 1940, there were 3,756 federal credit unions in the U.S.

 

Mid- to late-20th-century changes

By 1970, Congress had created the NCUA as well as the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund to back share accounts in all federal credit unions, as well as most that hold only state charters. At first, credit union membership was open only to a well-defined community, such as residents of a specific town or county, or the employees of a particular company.

In the 1980s, membership criteria were loosened, allowing more flexibility in who could join. By then, the services credit unions could offer had been expanded to include share certificates and home mortgages. In 1985, credit unions insured by the fund received the backing of the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government.

Banks, which compete with credit unions, challenged looser membership rules, and in 1996 and 1997, the federal courts backed those challenges. But in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Credit Union Membership Access Act to restore membership flexibility.

The Great Recession

During the financial crisis that spawned the most recent recession, Congress took a number of steps to help banks and credit unions handle fiscal stress. One, a temporary increase in share insurance protection to $250,000 from $100,000, matching the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s backing of bank deposits, was made permanent in 2010.

Today, about a third of all Americans belong to credit unions, which hold $1.1 trillion in assets, according to NCUA figures.

How do credit unions offer better deals?

Unlike for-profit banks, credit unions are member-owned organizations operated democratically and overseen by volunteer directors. They are exempt from federal and most state taxes, a status that has drawn challenges from bank groups, who say it provides an unfair competitive advantage. Credit unions say their status is appropriate because they exist to serve members, not make a profit.

“Credit union products and services saved consumers $8.5 billion in 2013,” said Pat Keefe, CUNA’s top spokesman, in an August 2014 statement. “That benefit goes both directly to credit union members, because members—not stockholders—are owners, and to the American consumer overall because credit unions’ better pricing puts competitive heat on banks.”

Credit unions return earnings to members in the form of lower loan rates and high interest on deposits. For example, the national average credit union rate for a 36-month used car loan was about 2.7% in the second quarter compared with the almost 5.3% average bank rate. Meanwhile, a five-year share certificate with a $10,000 minimum carried an annual yield of more than 1.3% compared with the less than 1.2% average bank yield.

Depending on the individual credit union, other financial benefits may include truly free checking accounts for students, seniors and businesses; a larger network of surcharge-free automated teller machines; mobile banking apps; and interest on savings that beats that of most banks. Because credit unions are managed for the benefit of their members, they’re often able to provide more personalized service than banks can.

Credit unions have a long history of providing Americans with a stable source of loans and a secure place for savings. These institutions have proven their ability to weather even the bleakest economic climates, so there are plenty of good reasons to join one. After all, can 100 million people be wrong?

Anna Helhoski, NerdWallet

About BrightStar Credit Union

BrightStar Credit Union is a not-for-profit, member-owned financial cooperative based in South Florida. If you live, work or go to school in Broward or Palm Beach counties, you can join!

Posted on 10/15/2014, in Broward, Broward County, Broward County Public Schools, Car Buying, Community Involvement, Financial literacy, News, Seminars and Events, South Florida, The CU Difference, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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