Posts filed under ‘Economy’

Are You Ready for Some March Madness?

Two things happened yesterday that will impact your credit union. What remains to be seen is how great an impact they will have.

Most importantly, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee gathered yesterday for its first meeting since January. Reports indicated that the Fed is losing patience. To be more accurate, meetings of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee are accompanied by a statement providing clues as to where the Fed thinks the economy is headed. In its January statement, it explained that “[b]ased on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.” If, as expected, the Fed removes this line from today’s statement, it is a sure sign that it will be raising interest rates for the first time since 2008, probably no later than June.

For almost a decade now, regulators have been warning against the dangers posed to financial institutions over-exposed to a sudden spike in interest rates. I have always thought these fears were exaggerated, but the Fed’s policy statement will signal the start of what could be the most volatile period of rate gyrations you have had to deal with in quite some time. Remember that in June of 2013, a statement by then Chairman Ben Bernanke indicating that the Fed would soon be moving to raise interest rates resulted in the average rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage to surge more than 100 basis points between June and September. Ironically, the Fed ultimately did not raise rates at that point, and mortgage rates tumbled yet again. The question is: will the Fed’s statement today touch off another analogous period or has the market already baked in an anticipated rate increase?

The second thing that happened yesterday you should keep your eye on is the CFPB’s announcement that it is beginning a “public inquiry” into credit card industry practices. Since the inception of the CFPB, your faithful blogger has always thought that it would take steps to fundamentally amend Regulation Z, not only for mortgage lending, as it was charged to do under the Dodd-Frank Act, but for all open-ended lending.

The CFPB is charged with conducting a biennial review of the CARD Act. As part of this review, the Bureau is seeking public comment on credit card practices for purposes of presenting a report to Congress. Pure speculation on my part, but if I were a consumer advocacy organization, and I wanted to change the way consumer lending is done in this country, I would sure want to lay out my blueprint while a Democratic President is still in office. Stay tuned.

March 18, 2015 at 8:26 am Leave a comment

Can we have too little inflation?

Yes we can and it’s the most important metric that the Fed will look at as it moves closer to a likely decision  to start raising short-term interest rates by the middle of the year. That is my main takeaway from the recently released minutes of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, the group that decides what short-term interest rates should be.

Falling energy prices are pushing inflation further below its 2% objective. Falling pump prices keep more money in people’s wallets but they also make a wide range of products cheaper to make and sell.  Normally this is good news but a downward spiral of prices-of the type Europe is seeking to avoid-can have just as pernicious an impact on economic growth as inflation can. Margins get so squeezed that companies can’t cost effectively grow. So you can bet that the Fed won’t raise rates until it knows that inflation is on the way. As the minutes explained:

“A number of participants emphasized that they would need to see either an increase in market-based measures of inflation compensation or evidence that continued low readings on these measures did not constitute grounds for concern”.

Here is a link to the minutes for those of you having trouble sleeping,

Compensation for mortgage “victims?”

Does this bother you as much as it bothers me? Or am I just still in a bad mood because the good people of Albany this morning drove as if they lived in Miami and have never seen snow falling?

When it comes to assigning blame in the mortgage meltdown I’ve never been  a big fan of the “Consumer as victim” line of argument. I’ve always considered the American home buyer more of a willing co-conspirator than a victim of the of the mortgage mess.   Like Buffalo Springfield says “Nobody is right if every body’s wrong.”

The latest example of how the Government’s flailing inconsistent and at times incoherent response to the Mortgage Meltdown missed the mark comes from the OCC.  In a   January 2013 settlement  between federal bank regulatory agencies and 13 mortgage servicers servicers  provided $3.6 billion in cash payments to borrowers whose homes were in any stage of the foreclosure process in 2009 or 2010.  The payments ranged from several hundred dollars to $125,000 plus lost equity. The shoddy practices of these servicers such as robo-signings- allegedly exacerbated the huge nationwide increase in foreclosures.

Did servicers act sloppily? Absolutely. Were there large numbers of homeowners who wouldn’t have faced foreclosure but for these practices? Absolutely not.  People lost their homes because they couldn’t afford them.

So I’m not all that surprised by this News Release issued yesterday afternoon by the OCC. It appears that Nearly 600,000 checks mailed to borrowers of these 13 servicers remain outstanding, and have now expired.  The checks have been reissued.   “As part of the agencies’ ongoing efforts to reach these borrowers, the paying agent was directed to conduct additional searches of updated addresses.  The current mailing represents the third attempt directed by the agencies to provide checks to in-scope borrowers.”




February 19, 2015 at 9:56 am Leave a comment

3 Things to Ponder As You Start Your Credit Union Week

As someone who subscribes to the glass half-empty view of the U.S. economy, even I have to admit that Friday’s jobs report is a good indication that we will probably be seeing the Fed raise short term interest rates by the middle of this year.

The most important number to look at in terms of the employment numbers are those that assess wage and workforce participation growth. On both of these fronts, the news was moderately encouraging. Average hourly earnings rose by $0.12 to $24.75 in January. This is encouraging if only because average hourly wages actually dropped by $0.12 in December. Over the last twelve months, wages have grown a tepid 2.2%, but at least it is headed in the right direction.

As for my favorite statistic, the workforce participation rate, this increased to 62.9% in January, following a slight decline last month. Similarly, it’s actually a good sign that the unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 5.7%. This means that more people are actually looking for work. Remember the unemployment rate just represents the number of adults actively looking for work. The more long term unemployed you have, the less reliable it becomes as an indicator of economic growth.

Hanging together, or Hanging Separately

What to do as the big get bigger and the small stay small? As I’ve talked about in a previous blog, the Great Recession accentuated the divide between big and small credit unions. It’s an understatement to say that a disproportionate amount of the industry’s growth is coming from credit unions with $500 million or more in assets.

As a result, now more than ever before, credit unions have to combine resources. A great example of how this can be done comes from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal reporting that a group of small banks are joining together with Lending Club to expand their ability to offer consumer loans.

Participations are clearly a key element in any strategy to combine resources. In addition, websites like Lending Club are radically changing underwriting models. Increasingly, if banks and credit unions aren’t willing to provide uncollateralized loans, there is someone on the Internet who will. Of course, these raise huge compliance issues, most notably indirect lending doesn’t absolve a bank or a credit union from assessing the quality of a loan in which it participates. In addition, with credit unions, such loans can raise membership issues as well.

Still something needs to be done quickly. The WSJ points out that in 1994, banks and thrifts with less than $10 billion in assets held about 69% of U.S. consumer loans; that number has dropped to 9% as of 2014.

Last, But Not Least

I have advocated in this blog space for NCUA to provide live broadcasts of its board meetings. After all, for those of us who track regulations for a living, real time information about where the board members stand is a helpful indicator of what to expect in the future. Therefore, I want to give a belated thumbs up to the agency for announcing last week that starting with its February 19th board meeting, it will begin broadcasting these get-togethers live. Watch out C-SPAN.

Now that the blog’s done, I am going to have to tackle all that snow in my driveway. Amazingly, the snow didn’t magically disappear between the time I went to bed and got up. . .it’s days like this that I wonder why I live in the Northeast.

February 9, 2015 at 8:55 am Leave a comment

Pressure mounts on ChexSystems Users

NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman yesterday  announced an agreement with Citibank under which it has agreed to change its policies for prescreening account applicants so that   “applicants are not rejected for accounts based on  isolated or minor banking errors, such as paid debts or a small overcharge.”  Specifically newspaper reports indicate that Citibank will only decline applicants if they have two or more reported incidents of account abuse in recent years.  A similar agreement was reached with CapitalOne earlier this year.

I know there are credit unions that use ChexSystems and similar services .  Their  use is not illegal and the AG’s announcement is certainly not binding on other financial institutions;  however the writing is on the wall and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to examine the criteria your CU uses to disqualify applicants from membership.  To their critics ChexSystems and other similar companies disproportionately impact  the poor  unbanked since these applicants are at greater risk of having  bounced  a check,  for example.  My personal advice would be that you disqualify applicants  based on a clear pattern of account abuse.

I have also  argued in a previous blog that credit unions have a unique obligation to the unbanked and underserved.  Disqualifying  potential members based on past misconduct could undermine that goal at institutions where membership is too restrictive.

Here is a copy of the press release

The limits of Operation Choke Point

In recent years regulators and the DOJ have become increasingly aggressive about pressuring the banking system not to facilitate legal banking activities that may ultimately aid  down stream illegal conduct. .  For example, New York’s  DFS criticized the NACHA system for facilitating electronic payments of Pay Day Loans and some banks stopped opening accounts for gun dealers.

Yesterday the FDIC pushed back against these overly aggressive tactics.  In a letter to FDIC insured institutions it encouraged them to     ” take a risk-based approach in assessing individual customer relationships rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers, without regard to the risks presented by an individual customer or the financial institution’s ability to manage the risk.  Financial institutions that can properly manage customer relationships and effectively mitigate risks are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing services to any category of customer accounts or individual customer operating in compliance with applicable state and federal law.”

It further assured them that “Isolated or technical” BSA violations “do not prompt serious regulatory concern or reflect negatively on management’s supervision or commitment to BSA compliance.”

I wonder if NCUA will be issuing similar Guidance? Here is a link

The state  of Monetary Policy

The FOMC  issued a statement following its two day powwow in  the nation’s capital. Even though it gave itself the typically abundant supply of qualifiers and caveats the best reading of the statement  is that the Fed remains likely to raise short term interest rates in the middle of the year.

To me the most telling line in the statement is that “on balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that under utilization of labor resources continues to diminish.” Why is this important?  Because Chairman Yellen has consistently expressed the view that the most commonly used measures of unemployment haven’t  provided an accurate snapshot of employment conditions facing American job seekers and the under employed.  The generally upbeat assessment of  the broader economy  tells me that the Fed currently is inclined to believe that the economy is now strong enough to withstand slightly higher interest rates as a hedge against the inflation bogey man.

Here is a link to the statement.

And their off…

With Assembly Democrats moving ahead with plans to officially remove  Sheldon Silver as Speaker as early as Monday jockeying for the position has begun in earnest.  The Capitol Tonight Morning Memo is reporting that, Manhattan Assemblyman Keith Wright, who was considered a possible candidate for the Speakership, endorsed Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie.  Also Rochester area Democrat Joe Morelle, who will likely be Acting Speaker pending a vote on a permanent replacement for Silver, announced Wednesday that he wants the job permanently.  Another candidate is veteran J Assemblyman Joe  Lentol.



January 29, 2015 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

The need for payment speed

The financial industry’s push for a faster more efficient payment system in this country is finally gaining some traction.  The question is: are the changes coming fast enough to satisfy consumer demand now that Apple has inserted itself into the payments system?

Yesterday the Federal Reserve issued a report on updating the payments system.  It concludes that:

“the U.S. payment system is at a critical juncture in its evolution. Technology is rapidly changing many elements that support the payment process. High-speed data networks are becoming ubiquitous, computing devices are becoming more sophisticated and mobile, and information is increasingly processed in real-time. These capabilities are changing the nature of commerce and end-user expectations for payment services. Meanwhile, payment security and the protection of sensitive data, which are foundational to public confidence in any payment system, are challenged by dynamic, persistent and rapidly escalating threats. Finally, an increasing number of U.S. citizens and businesses routinely transfer value across borders and demand better payment options to swiftly and efficiently do so.”

The Fed’s next step is to use the report as a framework for further discussion within the financial industry about what steps can be taken to quickly implement  needed  changes.  If all this sounds a bit too slow it’s because events are quickly outpacing the Fed’s ambitions.

Currently NACHA, which implements the ACH electronic payment system,  is seeking comment on a proposal to implement Same Day Settlement for ACH transactions. Although the CFPB has already sounded the consumer alarm, NACHA’s proposal is, in part, a recognition that banks could lose  control of the payments system if they don’t start innovating at the speed of Apple.

For example,  a day after the Fed’s report we may get our First glimpse of how well Apple is doing  getting people to use IPhones to make point-of- sale transactions.  Apple may very well be on the verge of doing to banking what it did to the music industry: Making the system used to deliver financial goods and services more important to consumers than the actual service provider-i.e. a stodgy bank or credit union.   People are going to expect quicker more efficient payment systems and migrate to those  financial institutions that are ready to provide them.  Here  are some links for additional information.

Are we ready for a Grexit?

In his State Of the Union address President Obama correctly proclaimed the U.S. economy is  the strongest in the world.  The problem is that says more about the weakness of the world economy  than it does about the strength of  ours.

Those of you looking for signs that the economy isn’t out of the woods yet need look no further than Greece.  The first piece of a worst case scenario  has fallen into place with the election of the left-wing  Syriza  party in a decisive  victory on Sunday.  Greece’s economy  is way too small to impact the world but the party has a clear mandate to renegotiate the austerity measures it has been labouring under in return for financial aid from the European union.

The election sets up a game of chicken in which Greece could implicitly threaten to walk away from the EuroZone and the Euro currency if the austerity measures aren’t scaled back and Germany threatens to call Greece’s bluff.  If this does happen no one knows what impact this would have on the Euro or the world economy and no one wants to find out.  In the meantime expect even more downward pressure on bond yields.

This  article link offers an interesting perspective on what lays ahead

January 27, 2015 at 9:26 am Leave a comment

The Truth Hurts: NCUA Gun-Shy When It Comes To FOM Reform

NCUA Board member Rick Metsger wrote an article in the CU Times in which he lays out an impressive list of reforms to enhance the flexibility of the federal charter. He also criticizes NAFCU’s Carrie Hunt for suggesting in an article earlier this week that meaningful regulatory reforms are stymied “because of an assertion that we need a change in the Federal Credit Union Act. “

Now I’ve never had the good fortune of meeting Carrie and she certainly doesn’t need a New York based blogger whose caffeine hasn’t completely kicked in yet to come to her defense. But the exchange underscores an important point: NCUA is gun shy when it comes to using its existing regulatory powers to provide expanded fields of membership, particularly when it comes to community charters. Don’t take my word for it; take NCUA’s. NCUA proposed doing away with regulations permitting credit unions to explain in narrative form how an area should be treated as a Well Defined Local Community, notwithstanding the fact that the proposed service area might combine two distinct towns or counties. Instead NCUA adopted changes that limit WDLCs to: “a single political jurisdiction less than an entire State, or a defined portion of that single political jurisdiction; a statistical area limited to 2.5 million or less people, so designated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB),”

If you can’t fit your community into areas predefined by the OMB you are out of luck.

At the time it proposed the change, NCUA explained in the preamble that:

Another problem related to NCUA determining that a multiple, contiguous political jurisdiction is a WDLC based on a narrative application is the risk of litigation. Because the narrative approach is inherently a subjective one, it is vulnerable to legal challenges. NCUA believes it would benefit all involved to eliminate the great expense, effort, and uncertainty associated with the narrative approach in favor of a simpler, more objective method.” (Chartering and Field of Membership for Federal Credit Unions, 74 FR 68722-01, 68723),

At the time the Bankers  were ferociously fighting a proposed expansion of a state charter’s field of membership. NCUA no doubt realized that it was in store for similar litigation if it relied on the narrative approach, so it took the easy way out. It limited its own discretion and now deprives federal charters of the ability to serve areas which don’t neatly conform to census data.

Credit unions are stuck in an antiquated regulatory and statutory framework. With the Internet, it is ridiculous to define communities purely in physical terms. Plus, with the demise of manufacturing jobs and this cutting edge technology called an ATM, there isn’t the same need for employee based credit unions. New York State took an important step for the state charter when Governor Cuomo signed legislation permitting state charters greater flexibility in designing fields of membership that reflect the needs of local communities. For example, a SEG based credit union comprised of a City’s library employees can now apply to serve the larger community. In his article, Board Member Metsger lists a bunch of ideas to enhance the flexibility of the federal charter. It’s likely that the better the idea, the more likely it is that NCUA will face the threat of litigation. So what?


The economy  continues to pick up steam. The Labor Department reports this morning that employers added 252,000 jobs in December. The WSJ is reporting that this was the strongest year of job growth in 15 years.  In addition, judging by these numbers on consumer spending released yesterday it appears that more and more consumers are feeling safe enough to climb out of the bunker and start spending money they don’t have again.  What would we do without consumer debt?


January 9, 2015 at 9:10 am Leave a comment

When Employees Go Too Far

One of my favorite HR issues that I discuss in this blog is the extent to which employers can reprimand employees for comments they make about the workplace on their own Facebook or other social media accounts.  The basic point to keep in mind is that whether you are a unionized or non-unionized workplace, employees have a right to engage in concerted activity in which they come together to discuss issues of concern about their workplace.  They also have the right, of course, to discuss the pros and cons of unionizing.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been extremely aggressive in applying concerted activity protections to the social media comments of employees.  The result is that you should move with extra caution, including consulting with your HR attorney, before disciplining an employee for derogatory social media comments about his workplace.

So I was pleasantly surprised on Friday to learn that the NLRB recently issued a decision upholding the right of employers to terminate two employees for insubordination based solely on a Facebook conversation. The case involved two employees who worked at a not-for-profit in the San Francisco area that provided after-school services for kids.  During the incriminating conversation, they asked each other if they were going to be rehired for another school year.  Both got their jobs back, but one of them was going to be demoted.  One of the employees explained how he would organize “crazy events and not seek permission.”  He also stated that he would play loud music, get artists to place graffiti on the walls, and let his not-for-profit employer “figure it out.”  Not to be outdone, the other disgruntled employee stated that when the organization started losing control of kids in their care, she wasn’t going to help.

First, the NLRB agreed that this colorful discussion was concerted activity.   But it also agreed with an earlier ruling that the conduct of the employees was so egregious that they lost the protections of federal law.  The decisive factor was that the insubordinate behavior went beyond hyperbole.  Instead, the Facebook post could reasonably be interpreted as two employees planning acts of insubordination that put the employer’s business at risk.  The not-for-profit center was not required to wait and see if the employees followed through on their plans before taking steps to terminate them.

While the decision is a welcome relief for any employer who wants to use common sense in the workplace, it also underscores just how narrow an employer’s flexibility is when it comes to disciplining employees based on their social media conduct.  The outcome of this case would have been different had the NLRB determined that the employees were just joking.  We may also have seen a different outcome had the employer not been responsible for children.  Still, this decision is a good one to put in your file.

Here is some additional information about the case from Bond, Schoeneck and King’s labor and employment blog, which alerted me to the decision.  In addition, here are some of the previous blogs I’ve done on this subject:

Stronger Than Expected Jobs Report

On Friday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that 322,000 people were hired in November.  In addition, there is some evidence indicating that the economy may be experiencing modest wage growth.  Even if you are not an economist  or an economist want-to-be like your faithful blogger, the jobs report is particularly important to credit unions in the coming months.  The stronger the jobs report, the more likely it is that the Federal Reserve will start raising short term interest rates no later than the middle of next year.  Whether or not this is a good idea is an idea to ponder in a future blog.

December 8, 2014 at 8:47 am Leave a comment

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Authored By:

Henry Meier, Esq., Associate General Counsel, New York Credit Union Association

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