One Forecasting Tool Sees a Few Signs for Optimism

Call it a not-so-subtle indicator of the nation's mood-when you land at Washington's Reagan National Airport you are greeted by souvenir stands at which the most prominent t-shirt on display reads, "I love my country, it's the government I'm afraid of."

Setting aside the basic misunderstanding of that "We The People" thing, the shirt's message seemed fitting for the thousands of credit union visitors streaming through the airport for CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference last week, because if you're looking to roll out a line of t-shirts to sell at a CU conference right now, might I suggest something like "I love my credit union, it's the (Regulations/Corporates/Margins/Future Assessments, et al) I'm afraid of."

It was a tale of two realities at 2010's GAC. Inside the general session presentations by trade group execs and members of Congress and the administration, it was cautiously pessimistic. Inside the trade show just one (big) room away, it was cautiously optimistic. Behind both perceptions it was human nature at work.

For the of the inside-the-Beltway crowd, pessimism (i.e., fear) always sells best. We're not going to get expanded MBL limits unless we... We need secondary capital, and our backs are against the wall if we don't... If we don't raise additional PAC money our voices won't be heard... If you don't give me more PAC money I won't be able to hear you, so....

For the inside-the-trade-show crowd, optimism (sometimes bordering on delusion) always sells best. Perhaps this is why markets are sometimes called bazaars - it can be bizarre alright. And yet for all the forecasting tools available to CU leaders and economists, the trade show remains the best predictor of where a market is headed. CUNA's 2009 GAC trade show was like an episode of Law & Order: someone died at the beginning and it went downhill from there. Nobody was buying anything. "Not this year," exhibitor after exhibitor was told by passers-by, who then added a little more indignity for every vendor by still asking, "Whaddaya givin' away?"

At the 2010 meeting "Not this year" turned into "We're looking to do something with that this year," according to my officially unofficial poll of exhibitors. If vendors are the iceberg, the tip is the design/build/facilities firms, which last year saw business collapse faster than Bernie Madoff could be unfriended on Facebook. This year, the design/build firms are still brown-bagging it, but they may get to eat out later in 2010 after reporting more credit unions have been inquiring about new site analysis and about purchasing former bank branches.

Similarly, decisions about new core systems aren't made lightly, either, yet both Fiserv and Open Solutions told me they had seen considerable increases in new business, especially in Q4. Louis Hernandez, Jr., chairman and CEO of Open Solutions, shared, "There is no financial reason to feel better, but there are psychological reasons. We do see an uptick in activity. From a vendor perspective people might be feeling better because the things talked about last year aren't being talked about this year."

• Speaking of the trade show, the people manning the various booths are the modern incarnation of the carnival barker, deploying a variety of statements all aimed at catching anyone walking by. I overheard one such exhibitor offer up a well-practiced "Need any additional income at your credit union?" to a CEO. "No," replied the CEO without stopping, "We're just rolling in it."

• At the aforementioned Reagan National Airport, I sat opposite a man reading a book titled, "Bind. Torture. Kill." That was comforting. Learned later the book is about the BTK serial killer. Not really comforting, either.

In remarks offered while accepting a Herb Wegner Award recognizing the achievements of the Biz Kid$ program, John Annaloro, president of the Washington league, observed that banks have "gorged themselves on the swill of their own bad loans."

• At the same awards ceremony, the long tenure in credit unions by Texas League President Dick Ensweiler, who was presented with a Herb Wegner Award for Individual Achievement, did not go unnoticed by several people in a tribute video. World Council President Pete Crear, referring to his own similarly long career, joked, "Dick and I met while mowing the grass at Roy Bergengren's house." Later CUNA President Dan Mica added, "It's amazing to work with someone who was there at Estes Park."

• From the Little Known Facts That Deserve To Be Better Known Dept.: one of the great victories in international CU development is the rapid rise of Poland's vibrant movement, which emerged quickly out of the dust after the fall of communism. But it needed help in its infancy, and it received a much-needed assist from former CUNA Mutual CEO Richard "Doc" Heins, who reached into his own pocket to donate $40,000 to help get things started. Heins also received a Herb Wegner Award for Lifetime Achievement. And for good reason.

• I had lunch with a group of "seasoned" board members talking about the challenges of reaching younger members. Later that night I saw them heartily enjoying themselves at Late Night at GAC, where the entertainment was a foursome resurrecting the Rat Pack of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. Hmmm, wonder why those board members aren't connecting with the 18-29 crowd?

Frank J. Diekmann is publisher of Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.