Thursday, December 12, 2013
BY EDWARD D. MURPHY
The aggregate deposits for the state's 61 credit unions topped $6 billion for the first time and loans reached $4 billion by June 30, the Maine Credit Union League said.
The organization said the numbers reflect the credit unions' strong performance through the financial meltdown, which left credit unions largely unscathed while national banks had to be bailed out because of risky subprime mortgage loans that collapsed when the housing bubble burst in 2008.
John Murphy, president of the Maine Credit Union League, said that performance reflected the strong relationship between the nonprofit credit unions and its members.
"We did everything we could to assist our members" during the meltdown, he said, and credit unions often had greater flexibility that large banks did to help when members lost jobs or income during the recession.
Joel Gold, a professor of finance and finance department chairman at the University of Southern Maine, said he isn't surprised that credit unions continued to grow during the financial crisis and recession.
"Credit unions are a different breed," he said, adding that they have a stronger relationship with customers than banks do.
Customers "love their credit union, but if you speak to people about other banking institutions, they don't like them," Gold said.
Credit unions, he said, thrive on the consistency offered by small depositors who, in turn, rely on their credit unions for small car and personal loans.
Because the loans tend to be for smaller amounts, credit unions avoided the larger, riskier investments that turned sour five years ago and led to a near-catastrophe in the banking industry.
"They typically don't get involved in the aggressive investments of other institutions, so they don't lose as much," he said. That left credit unions in better shape and still able to lend at a time when commercial banks turned away almost everyone without a solid credit rating.
While most commercial banks are beholden to shareholders on Wall Street, he said, a credit union's customers are its shareholders -- in fact, deposits are usually referred to as shares. That changes the nature of the relationship and builds two-way loyalty, Gold said.
Gold said banks do have a built-in advantage with some customers, particularly those who travel a lot and need to be able to find an ATM or branch in an unfamiliar city. Credit unions can't come close to a national bank's network of locations.
However, Murphy said credit unions in Maine have tried to counteract that with "shared branching," which allows customers of one credit union to use another union's branches to make deposits and transact other business. Many Maine credit unions also belong to the "SURF" -- meaning surcharge-free -- network of ATM machines, giving members of even small credit unions access to hundreds of automatic teller machines around the state.
Jon Paradise, a spokesman for the MCUL, said Maine is a particularly strong state for credit unions. Nationally, about 42 percent of adults are members of credit unions, but the number is Maine is closer to 50 percent.
He also said it's common for consumers to have accounts in more than one financial institution -- a customer might have a car loan from a credit union, a mortgage with a national bank and a credit card from another bank.
Murphy said Maine's credit unions also are making a push to increase business with a stronger marketing effort, targeting in particular younger consumers who might be coming out of college and need to open checking and savings accounts. Those customers might not be as familiar with credit unions as earlier generations who joined credit unions at work or through unions, he said.
"We're not their grandparents' credit union anymore," he said,
The MCUL sends a representative to college campuses to sign up students for its Young and Free program, Murphy said, which offers financial tips, such as budgeting tools and guides to financial services. Most credit unions offer free checking for young members, he said, and often will forgive a set number of "mistakes," such as overdrafts, without fees, he said.
"It's a great way for credit unions to reach out to that age group." he said.