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When It Comes to Asking Those Tough Questions, Well ...

They came. They saw. They...shrugged.

You have to give CUNA credit. Credit unions are still smarting over having to pay the corporate assessment and some are aware and others are going to learn that future assessments almost certainly lie ahead.

Credit unions have posted record red numbers, are increasingly considering a merger (sometimes in the absence of any other plan), and few have even gone so far as to somehow conclude the grass is greener on the bank side of the fence-this being based, apparently, on the banner year banks are having.

So the trade group rushed to adjust its agenda and add a special Q&A session at its America's Credit Union Conference in Boston on "Corporate Credit Unions & Other Critical Issues." And the first audience question about a burning issue of the day was about...um, a national branding campaign.

The second about capital. The third about student lending. And so on (sort of).

The microphones CUNA had placed in the audience for the Qs from its member CUs got little work soliciting As from the experts, standing like lonely Stop signs on a rural road for much of the time. Moderator Eric Richard of CUNA even had to pose a question for the panel himself, until someone approached a mike.

Why pay attention to this particular hour-long exchange inside a Hynes Convention Center ballroom on a rainy day in Boston? Because there are significant issues worth paying attention to, over which questions need to be asked by credit union leaders, and even if there aren't definitive answers to be had, discourse amidst disagreement and discord is indispensable.

There was, of course, the usual parade of positives cited during the CUNA meeting, about credit unions' overall health and growth in membership and mortgage lending and the like. And at a meeting marking the 100th birthday of credit unions in the U.S., it was good and fitting to reflect on that century of accomplishments, especially when you're just blocks away from the office Ed Filene first set up at 5 Park Square for what was then the Credit Union National Extension Bureau.

What does the century ahead hold? We know the basic premise of the "people-helping-people" model is timeless. That part is simple. But it won't be easy. The first step to getting there is ensuring credit union leaders are actively involved-beginning by asking questions.

Other notes from ACUC:

  • In welcoming attendees to the meeting, Dan Egan, president of the Massachusetts league, noted that a photo of Pierre Jay, the banking commissioner of Massachusetts in 1909 when the state became the first to enact a state credit union act, hangs inside the statehouse. Egan then added that it's probably the "only photo of an individual in the statehouse who was not indicted by a federal grand jury." Later, pointing to a photo from the 1934 meeting in Colorado that formed CUNA, Egan noted that if you look carefully you can see Dick Ensweiler, president of the Texas league.
  • Speaking for the statehouse, it was just minutes from this year's ACUC meeting site. No matter how often you see it, it's hard not to chuckle at the fact the Mass statehouse has a sign marking the "General Hooker Entrance." Most state legislatures are a bit more subtle than this.
  • For years at credit union meetings, CUNA CEO Dan Mica would cite a total national credit union membership figure in the mid-80-million range. During ACUC Mica was citing a figure of more than 90-million, and he said CUNA is projecting U.S. credit unions will serve more than 100 million Americans within the next five years.
Mica also stated, "I hear some people say this is a tough year for credit unions. Our capital nationally is down to 10%. Ten percent! Every other financial institution would love to be there. We rank in the top 1% in trust. We have something to be proud of, and something to grab hold of and move forward. The young folks are the most optimistic group in America, even though 35% are having trouble right now with rent or mortgage, and 36% have lost their jobs or have a family member who has. Thirty-three percent have changed cell phone plans to save money. These young people are seeing these problems and still are the most optimistic, and credit union can be a part of that."

As an aside, Mica noted there have been ongoing tensions between the trade group and NCUA, saying, "We know a lot of good people and then they go to NCUA, and there's something in the water over there. We're going to send them bottled water."

  • CUNA brought in Boston comedian Jimmy Tingle to moderate the meeting. Seeking to illustrate the absurdity of CEOs at banks that lost billions of dollars getting (or seeking) bonuses, Tingle observed, "If you order a steak dinner from a waitress, and she loses it-do you tip her? We need the responsibility you bring to the table."
  • CUNA and the World Council of CUs plan to combine their two meetings (the ACUC and WOCCU's World CU Conference) in 2010. The meeting will be held in Las Vegas-in July. This will be one meeting for which "hot topics" will be redundant.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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