Credit Unions and the Family Farm – common bonds

June 8, 2010 by Kelly Kent

I recently attended a conference where Credit Union managers spoke of the many changes facing their industry in the wake of the real estate crisis and economic decline that has impacted the US economy over the past couple of years.  As these managers weighed in on the issues facing their businesses today, several themes began to emerge – tighter lending standards & risk management practices, increased regulatory scrutiny, and increased competition resulting in tighter margins for their portfolios. Across these issues, another major development was discussed – increased Credit Union mergers and acquisitions.

As I considered the challenges facing these lenders, and the increase in M&A activity, it occurred to me that these lenders might have a common bond with an unexpected group –American family farms.  Overall, Credit Unions are facing the challenge of adding significant fixed costs (more sophisticated lending platforms & risk management processes) all the while dealing with increased competition from lenders like large banks and captive automotive lenders.  This challenge is not unlike the challenges faced by the family farm over the past few decades – small volume operators having to absorb significant fixed costs from innovation & increased corporate competition, without the benefit of scale to spread these costs over to maintain healthy lending margins.

Without the benefit of scale, the family farm basically disappeared as large commercial operators acquired less-efficient (and less profitable) operators. Are Credit Unions entering into a similar period of competitive disadvantage?

It appears that the Credit Union model will have to adjust in the very near future to remain viable. With high infrastructure expectations, many credit unions will have to develop improved decisioning strategies, become more proficient in assessing credit risk –implementing risk-based pricing models, and executing more efficient operational processes in order to sustain themselves when the challenges of regulation and infrastructure favor economies of scale. Otherwise, they are facing an uphill challenge, just as the family farm did (and does); to compete and survive in a market that favors the high-volume lender.