Before covering the credit union community, I worked as a Capitol Hill reporter covering the deregulation of the electric power industry, interviewing the likes of Ken Lay and Jeffery Skilling of Enron after they testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, attending Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) meetings and such.
One of the things that was such a breath of fresh air when I started covering credit unions was the almost-surreal experience of having credit union CEOs answer their own phones.
I can assure you that never happened when I called Commonwealth Edison or any of the other investor-owned utilities, and they sure as heck weren't about to offer up any proprietary data or any "lessons learned" to be shared with their colleagues.
But I also remember being very surprised when I attended my first NCUA Board meeting. After covering FERC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both of which have five board members, I was surprised to see NCUA Chairman Norman D'Amours take his seat, flanked only by Yolanda Wheat and Dennis Dollar. I was looking around trying to figure out where the other two board members were.
It wasn't just the number of board members that surprised me—it was also their backgrounds. When I covered FERC, four of the five commissioners were former House or Senate staffers who had specialized in energy-related legislation. The fifth was a former state energy regulator. Every single one of them had years of experience that was very directly related to regulating the energy industry. They were, of course, political appointments, but no one would ever have questioned whether they knew enough about the industry they were regulating.
I was there when Dennis Dollar first took his seat on the NCUA Board, and there was much rejoicing within the community because Dollar was a former credit union CEO. While most members of the NCUA Board in recent history have had at least some connection—albeit sometimes more tangential than others—to financial services, in general, and even credit unions, in particular, there has occasionally been an appointee where it was open to question whether he or she had even heard of credit unions before scoring this political appointment.
I remember when Gigi Hyland was appointed to Board and the critics who suggested she was too much of a cheerleader for the industry that she was supposed to be regulating—a criticism I don't ever recall being hurled at any of the FERC commissioners. And, it was before my time, but I remember reading about NCUA being referred to as a "rogue federal agency" during the banker lawsuit against the regulator for having allowed multiple common bond fields of membership.
So, NCUA has often been seen as something of an outlier when it comes to federal regulators. Even so, CUs would be wise to keep an eye on the ongoing sparring between Chairman Debbie Matz and lone Republican on the board, J. Mark McWatters.
It's not that it's all that unusual. Just have a look at our story on page 1, in which former NCUA Board Member Geoff Bacino harkens back to some of the fiery exchanges between former Chairman Norman D'Amours and Vice Chairman Yolanda Wheat—a much more surprising situation given that the two were both members of the same party.
It's just that it's been such a long time since we've seen this level of dispute and rhetoric among NCUA Board members.
I frequently hear CU executives talk about McWatters being "a breath of fresh air"—his staunch opposition to the much-hated risk-based capital rule has made him the darling of the industry. But as the "lone wolf" on the board, his ability to push through change is hampered.
But the real breath of fresh air is the impassioned debate itself, particularly if it helps bring about key changes that could strengthen the positions of both the regulator and the regulated.
Editor in Chief Lisa Freeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.