In the wake of a slowly recovering global economy, credit unions have much to celebrate. But that has less to do with the better days ahead and more to do with the successes we’ve realized during the recent recession. No one escaped the recession unscathed. But if there have been any victors emerging from the economic storm, it may be global consumers and the credit unions that serve them.
That may seem a strange idea to U.S. credit unions given the number of institutions that have closed branches, laid off employees, or been merged out of existence. It may seem an odd thing to say, given the near collapse of the corporate credit union network and the high cost to credit unions of its bailout. Industry veterans might argue that these are the worst of times when it comes to U.S. credit union growth and sustainability. I certainly empathize with their concerns.
But I also believe that, in many ways, these may also have been the best of times for global financial cooperatives. The past few years can be seen as a triumph for credit unions’ people-helping-people philosophy and recognition of the value our institutions provide in the face of our competitors.
Banks’ careless, self-serving behavior during the past few years and the subsequent bailout by U.S. taxpayers have soured many consumers toward for-profit financial entities, waking them up to the benefits and strengths of credit unions. The media has trumpeted these advantages and legislators in many countries are taking notice.
We’ve won significant victories, but not without cost. Whether that cost is an investment in the future of the U.S. movement remains to be seen, but for World Council of Credit Unions’ (WOCCU) member countries, credit unions’ gains have been significant and new opportunities abound.
Downturns in the U.S. housing and automotive businesses affected Canada’s economy in 2009 because the country supplies both materials and services to those industries. But lack of exposure to subprime loans minimized the economic impact on its credit unions. Canadian credit unions saw significant increases in deposits and new initiatives to increase credit unions’ role in serving small businesses last year. New legislation this year will enable credit unions to reach beyond provincial borders to serves members elsewhere in Canada, a historic moment that indicates the health and well-being of the Canadian movement.
Meanwhile, Australia’s credit unions have become a very competitive force in serving their members. The movement’s reliance on its strong cooperative fundamentals resulted in loan and deposit growth of more than 10% during a period in which corresponding economic indicators lagged for many countries.
Australia is not without its challenges, especially from the banking industry. But its continued vigilance and focus on member service has led to a member satisfaction rate of more than 90%—a full 15% higher than that of banks.
Banks in the United Kingdom (U.K.) are held in far less esteem and have been considered major contributors to the country’s economic woes. In response, parliament has enacted legislation strengthening the country’s cooperative sectors and providing new powers to credit unions.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron’s newly elected administration has pledged its support to credit unions and is considering an earlier proposal that would allow credit union services to be distributed through the country’s 11,500 post offices. The proposal’s most controversial aspect is the recommendation that the expansion program be funded by new taxes levied on the U.K.’s banks.
Despite what credit unions worldwide have been through—or perhaps because of it—the global movement has never been better positioned for new growth in terms of members, services, and influence. We have our cooperative values to thank for that, and we must continue to celebrate the credit union difference that will lead us all to a prosperous future.
PETE CREARis president/CEO of World Council of Credit Unions.