Credit Unions – The Member-Owned Alternative

By August 8, 2022News

As I look out the window, I see a spider working diligently weaving a web – busily performing its modus operandi for subsistence. I can’t help drawing the analogy to the headlines dominating the business pages of the media in recent weeks, which highlight how domestic banks will see significant increases in their profits as Central Banks increase interest rates. The source of these profits will be the unwitting consumer, a bit like the unsuspecting prey of the spider. And banks, like the spider, do what’s inherent in their DNA and in the case of banks it’s to maximise profit.

Ireland faces multiple complex and overlapping pressures including economic shock, climate change, housing, wealth inequality and the growing pension challenge. We can add facing into a winter of increased inflation where the cost of living, energy in particular, is soaring. This is a consequence of sanctions having to be imposed following atrocities committed by the Russian army and their inhuman siege of parts of Ukraine.

There is no doubt that people here in Ireland have changing financial requirements arising from trying to cope with the impact of these events. As two banks exit our national market, some consumers are even required to find a new provider. Reducing the level of competition is likely to lead to even less ‘positive’ product and service innovation as witnessed with the intent of a remaining bank to withdraw cash services, and the reversal of that decision is now likely to see increased charges to keep the promise of maintain branches and related services.

One provider that can help people is the credit union. Credit unions are member-owned, not- for-profit financial intermediaries. Their members have the dual role of owners of the credit union and consumers of the products and services it provides. Membership has grown consistently and the credit union brand remains the most trusted in Ireland as they continue to deliver the best consumer experience in Ireland.

Credit Unions have significantly modernised in the past decade – their structure, legal and regulatory status, product offerings, and service delivery methods have advanced considerably. Members can still access the traditional set of personal loans and savings, and now they have current accounts, ‘one stop shop’ retrofit loans, mortgages, revolving credit, debit cards, community loans, agri loans and loans for small businesses. These are accessible face to face, over the phone or via online facilities.

Staff in credit unions are highly trained as well as being renowned for their helpful approach to all members. They live the guiding principle of “Not for profit, not for charity, but for service” which has remained constant since the founding of credit unions.

What does that mean for people, small businesses and communities in Ireland?

  1. First and foremost is ownership. A credit union is owned by its members. In addition to being a non-profit, credit union operations are set up to benefit you as a member.
  2. Second is the focus on the financial well-being of their Credit Unions are not built to sell you products. They are built to help you succeed financially.
  3. Thirdly, is the availability of credit union Credit Unions were built to help you in good times and difficult times. Whether you have the opportunity to improve your lifestyle or unfortunately face an unexpected downturn in circumstances, such as impact of rapid inflation, you can visit, call or deal on-line with your credit union to discuss ways to find the right solution for you.

At CUDA we do believe credit unions present an underexploited opportunity and could play an even more supportive and leading role in addressing many of the challenges faced by Irish people. There is a genuine desire to support local communities by providing access to products, services, guidance, and advice. In turn there needs to be legislation and regulation that is supportive of such development.

As part of the Programme for Government, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Sean Fleming TD, and his department have worked with the sector to identify enhancements to the Credit Union Act 1997 [as amended] that will contribute to enabling credit unions tap into this opportunity. It’s a great start, as the promised new legislation will help credit unions further develop by allowing them to work more closely together, in a manner that they can’t legally do today. Under the new proposed legislation, credit unions will be able to introduce business to each other and co-lend to allow them pool expertise and capital. This in turn will enable them to support an even greater number of members through good times and tough times.

The Central Bank, through the Registrar of Credit Unions, is equally crucial for this needed reform, by ensuring that the regulations required to enable the legislative changes are put in place immediately. Last month the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision published their ‘High-level considerations on proportionality’. It is this type of action we need for credit unions in Ireland to guarantee a level playing field exists, in particular that appropriate and proportionate levels are set for liquidity, for capital requirements, and greater flexibility permitted to lend in the various categories – including fostering the ability to lend more to local businesses, farmers, local clubs and community projects.

Such enhancements will increase credit unions confidence and encourage even greater collaboration as they strive to act nationally and deliver locally.

If Ireland is serious about having a competitive banking landscape, one that is underpinned by Government policy that ensures financial services are for everyone in our society and operated in a manner that fosters public and social interests, then it is essential that these changes urgently are implemented.

Critically, credit unions have a much broader remit than banks – credit unions deliver key banking and financial services to people for a social as well an economic purpose. Unlike the spider and the bank who seek to maximise their returns, credit unions exist to optimise benefits for their members.

Contact your local credit union to experience how your needs and expectations can be met.

 

Kevin Johnson

CEO, CUDA