In the United States, credit unions have 86 million members, which is 43.47% of the economically active population. U.S. credit unions are not-for-profit, tax-exempt organizations.
U.S. credit unions can be chartered by either the federal government ("federal credit unions")or by a state. All federal credit unions and the vast majority of state-chartered credit unions have federal deposit insurance (called "share insurance") through the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund of at least $100,000 per member. This federal deposit insurance is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government and is administered by the National Credit Union Administration.As of December 2006, the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund had a higher insurance fund capital ratio than the FDIC Bank Insurance Fund. U.S. credit unions also typically have higher equity capital ratios than U.S. banks.
As of the end of 2007, the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund insured more than $560 billion in deposits at 8,101 not-for-profit cooperative US credit unions. For comparison, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insured more than $4,000 billion in deposits at 8,560 banks and thrift institutions. The NCUA and the FDIC are both independent federal agencies backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.
United States credit unions typically pay higher dividend (interest) rates on shares (deposits) and charge lower interest on loans than banks. Credit unions therefore often have a higher cost of assets (i.e. interest expense as a percentage of average assets) than commercial banks, with aggregate U.S. credit union cost of assets being higher than the aggregate U.S. bank cost of assets in eight of the thirteen years between 1995 and 2007. Credit union revenues (from loans and investments) do, however, need to exceed operating expenses and dividends (interest paid on deposits) in order to maintain capital and solvency.
Federal credit unions may apply to the National Credit Union Administration for Low-Income Credit Union or LICU status. To qualify for LICU status, the majority of the credit union's membership meet specific requirements in order to be considered "low-income". This LICU status allows the credit unions to benefit from certain NCUA programs to enhance its capacity to serve underserved populations who may otherwise lack access to credit or other financial services. In addition, some state regulators also provide for similar low-income designations.
Unlike banks, which were caught redlining underserved areas in the 1970s, credit unions are not subject to federal "community reinvestment" requirements—essentially because credit unions, by their nature and mission of "people helping people," already meet the financial needs of a broad spectrum of people that fall within their fields of membership, and play an active role in community development and growth. Because of that, credit unions have successfully lobbied to exempt themselves from the (U.S. federal) Community Reinvestment Act, the law that forces banks to provide services in low-income areas.
2006 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data shows that U.S. credit unions approved 69% of low- and moderate-income borrowers' mortgage applications that they received, versus a 47% low/mod-income borrower approval rate for other U.S. mortgage lenders, and also that U.S. credit unions approved 62% of minority members' mortgage applications, versus a 51% minority approval rate for other U.S. mortgage lenders. The 2006 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data also shows that 25.2% of all U.S. credit union mortgage originations were mortgages for low- or moderate-income borrowers, versus a 20.6% low- or moderate-income borrower mortgage origination percentage for other U.S. mortgage lenders. The National Credit Union Administration, however, has long discouraged U.S. credit unions from giving members loans that they may not be able to afford to repay and has forbidden other types of predatory lending and abusive credit practices. Federal credit unions are also forbidden from charging prepayment penalties on loans.
U.S. governmental regulatory agencies require that credit unions restrict their membership to defined segments of the population, such as people who live, work, worship, or attend school in a well-defined geographic area; employees of specific companies or trades; members of specific non-profit groups (alumni associations, conservation or other advocacy organizations, lodges, churches, or the like); or a particular occupational group (teachers, doctors, etc.). In the U.S., this is referred to as a credit union's "field of membership." Internationally it is referred to as the 'common bond' or 'bond of association'.
Mergers of smaller credit unions with disparate membership bases often result in a credit union with a wide variety of ways to qualify to join; thus, a credit union may have a much broader "field of membership" than that credit union's name would imply.
Credit unions generally follow the principle of "once a member, always a member," which allows current credit union membership to continue even if the individual would no longer qualify to be a member (such as having changed professions or moved outside the area). However, many credit unions reserve the right of expulsion against a member who causes a financial loss. Some credit unions also have expelled members, including elected Board and Supervisory Committee volunteers, for making "whistleblower" complaints against credit union management.
If a member voluntarily terminates their membership, they may or may not be eligible to rejoin, depending on the credit union's policies and government regulations.
Credit unions may typically be chartered to serve a specific employee or associational group or groups (often called a Select Employee Group or "SEG Charter"), all members of a trade, industry, or profession (a "TIP Charter"), or have a "Community Charter" (typically a field of membership of anyone who lives, works, goes to school, or attends religious services in a particular city, county, or counties). In the United States, when a credit union converts to a Community Charter from a SEG Charter or TIP Charter, it can continue to serve its existing members as well as anyone who lives, works, worships, or attends school within its new geographical field of membership, but cannot admit new members from its former SEG(s) or TIP. Similarly, a credit union that converts to a TIP or SEG charter from a different charter type can no longer admit new members from its old field of membership.
Typically, members' families -such as immediate family or household members -- can also join the credit union. In the United States, the National Credit Union Administration or a state regulator -- depending upon whether or not the credit union is chartered by the federal government or by a state -- decides whether or not to approve or deny proposed field of membership expansions or charter conversions to other credit union charters, and similar procedures are typically used in other countries.
Credit unions and banks in the United States
Tension has always existed between member-owned cooperative credit unions and for-profit banks in the US. When credit unions were first organizing in the United States in the early twentieth century, the banking industry was opposed, remaining so ever since. Despite the fact that credit unions continue to hold a very small share of the financial services market, banks and bank trade associations consistently put anti-credit union legislation at the top of their agendas.
Due to their status as not-for-profit, member-owned financial institutions with no source of secondary investment capital, credit unions in the United States are exempt from federal and state income taxes (but, not from employment or property taxes). Additionally, credit union members pay income tax on dividends earned through financial participation in the credit union; this is similar to the taxation structure enjoyed by many banks incorporated under Subchapter S of Chapter 1 of the Internal Revenue Code.
Bank holding companies and their affiliates aggressively compete to provide services to credit unions through their ATM networks, corporate checking accounts, and certificate of deposit programs. In 2007, the American Bankers Association barred credit union employees from attending ABA sponsored educational seminars. This includes online classes that require registration. Based upon the pretext that the ABA only wants to serve its members, the American Bankers Association continues to attempt to weaken credit unions and take back the 6% market share that credit unions currently hold.
Credit unions maintain that no matter their size or field of membership, the fact that they are owned by their members and not shareholders makes them fundamentally different from banks.
Credit Union-to-Bank Conversions
Since 1995, over thirty U.S. credit unions have converted from credit union charters to bank charters. These conversions are generally initiated by a credit union's leadership team, rather than from the rank-and-file membership, and have created sharp controversy within the credit union industry.Some have questioned whether these conversions are in the best interests of the credit union members, and have compared them to the mutual savings bank conversion raids of the 1980s.
Like the mutual savings raids, credit union conversions have been very lucrative for executives and directors of converting credit unions. CU Financial, a consulting firm that helps credit union management execute these conversions, has explained in marketing materials that if a credit union with $50 million in capital converts to a stock bank, under certain conditions a payoff in the “$1.2 million range for each director is not out of the question," while executives might also expect additional stock compensation that "could lead to a $10 million plus ownership stake for a capable CEO".
Members of at least six credit unions have organized to oppose their management's conversion proposals, objecting that this insider enrichment comes at the detriment of credit union members. They point out that while insiders have made windfall profits, most members have lost their ownership stake without compensation, and face worse rates and fees after the conversion. Comparisons of interest rates show that credit unions that have converted to banks now charge their members more for loans, and pay less for savings Member groups have included Save Columbia Credit Union, Save First Basin Credit Union, and DFCU Owners United.
The National Center for Member Trust is a consumer protection non-profit "formed to support the member-owners of credit unions that are attempting to convert to banks." The Coalition for Credit Union Charter Options is an advocacy group for converting credit unions. UC Berkeley Professor of Financial Institutions James Wilcox is an expert who has released a number of studies on the issue. His findings are summarized in Credit Union Conversions: Ripe for Abuse … and Reforms, published in the Credit Union Times July of 2006.