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Originally published Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM


Sunday Buzz

Credit unions are gaining on banks

Washington's credit unions gained about 140,000 members in 2008, while expanding their deposits and loans — all without federal takeovers or taxpayer-funded bailouts.

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times Business staff

As the overextended edifices of big-time banking crack and crumble during this long-rattling economic temblor, some simpler financial structures are holding up well.

Washington's credit unions added about 140,000 members in 2008, while their deposits grew 8.8 percent to more than $27 billion.

They loaned 9.6 percent more money last year than in 2007, figures just released by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) show.

Meanwhile, lending at Washington's banks and thrifts grew about 5.8 percent, according to a Seattle Times analysis of 31 representative institutions that filed year-end data. And credit unions have required no federal takeovers, no taxpayer-funded bailouts.

"I feel a little bit bad about crowing about having a good year, with the national financial crisis," says John Annaloro, CEO of the Washington Credit Union League. But he can't help it: "Many consumers are rethinking their banking relationships right now, especially in the aftermath of the WaMu failure and the media coverage of the financial crisis."

He adds, "We were built during the worst of economic times, and it may be why we weather these economic storms so well."

There is no escaping the current economic meltdown completely, though. Losses on loans have increased at Washington's credit unions, and nearly a quarter of them — mostly smaller ones — had negative returns for 2008, according to CUNA data.

The state's biggest, Tukwila-based BECU, saw its charge-offs on bad loans nearly triple to $79 million, though that was just 1.1 percent of its total lending.

"We didn't participate in some of the ill-advised loans, but we certainly felt an impact," says Gary Oakland, president and CEO of the 589,000-member credit union, the nation's fourth largest.

For instance, if a borrower also had an adjustable-rate bank mortgage with interest payments that suddenly ballooned, "that would impact their ability to pay on their (BECU) car loan, on their credit card," says Oakland. Likewise, the credit union's home-equity loans can take a hit when homeowners default on their primary mortgage.

He says BECU, which started 75 years ago as Boeing Employees Credit Union, last year had "a small handful" of mortgage foreclosures, and "somewhere north of 50 reworks" — modifying mortgages to help homeowners avoid defaulting. Oakland is "modestly hopeful that we've reached the plateau" and loan losses will begin declining this year.

BECU saw "a couple weeks in September when there was quite a bit of activity," with former WaMu account holders moving money to the credit union, but otherwise the credit union's 11 percent increase in depositors was a steady yearlong phenomenon, he says.


Meanwhile, BECU is seeing a boom in home-loan applications. "We originated a billion (dollars) in mortgage loans through November last year" for only the second time, Oakland says. But in December alone, new-mortgage applications to BECU totaled more than $900 million, and "we are in a position to fund every one of them if they came to closure."

Credit unions mostly have kept to the straight and narrow since movement gained federal approval in the midst of the Great Depression. Savings and loans also were depositor-owned institutions originally, but those largely morphed into investor-owned money machines prone to overheating and flaming out (see WaMu).

"Very few if any credit unions have got caught up in all this subprime-mortgage business — it just isn't their thing," says Lewis Mandell, a visiting professor at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business whose research focuses on financial literacy and consumer behavior. "They are old-fashioned entities ... They really don't aspire to be more than they are."

He says credit unions tend to pay "significantly higher" interest rates on deposits, and to offer members better rates on loans.

Credit unions have also expanded their appeal with online banking and ATM networks that make up for a limited number of branches, and their traditional limitations on membership have been discarded. Their deposits, like those at banks, are federally insured up to $250,000.

There's no danger of banks disappearing — they held 83 percent of deposits in the state at year-end 2007, according to the credit union's national trade association. But the member-owned institutions are looking for more.

Seizing this moment of economic uncertainty, the state's credit unions this month are rolling out a new advertising campaign that takes a soft-sell approach. Created by Seattle's Big Bang Electrical ad shop, the TV campaign's short versions simply show a happy moment — kids horsing around with Dad, for instance — and deliver the tagline, "This financial-chaos-free moment is brought to you by the credit unions of Washington."

These days, that may be a compelling message.

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@- or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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