Why millions of Americans are now tapping credit unions for loans

When the state-mandated shutdowns started last March, Skyler Fort, a painting contractor in northern Michigan, turned to his local credit union, 4Front Credit Union, for a PPP loan. 

Many Americans sought out loans in the past year, and Fort said he chose the credit union over a bank “based on the more personal feeling relationship.” Though he previously had bank relationships, he moved his accounts to the credit union, and in the end, the $55,000 PPP loan helped his business, Fortified Coatings, retain its five full-time employees and keep 14 additional contract workers as business revved up in the summer.  

It’s not surprising that many Americans have received loans in the past year given record low interest rates, but research shows that credit unions tend to lend more than commercial banks during times of crisis. That’s because their mission is to support Main Street, unions and the local communities they serve. According to industry trade group Credit Union National Association, or CUNA, credit unions continued to lend and even increased lending during the Great Recession and current pandemic crisis. By comparison, banks have tended to pull back or even reduce lending during crises. 

Between year-end 2019 and Sept. 2020, credit union memberships increased by 3.37 million, or 2.8%, to 125.11 million. Loan portfolios at credit unions rose 6.6% in the 12 months ending Sept. 2020, slightly above last year’s annual rate of 6.5%. By comparison, banks saw 4.9% growth in loans. 

Because credit unions are not-for-profit entities, they return earnings to members through lower loan rates than commercial banks, higher deposit rates, and lower and fewer fees. But that doesn’t mean that credit unions regularly do more business than banks. During “normal” times, banks tend to lend more.  

“Compared to for-profit institutions, [credit unions] tend to not sort of be as caught up in the boom-bust cycle of ups and downs,” said Jordan van Rijn, senior economist for the Credit Union National Association. 

Some similarities from last recession 

Before the recession in 2008, 24% of all mortgages from banks were subprime compared to about 3% at credit unions. When the crisis hit, banks pulled back a lot more. Van Rijn said he’s seeing a similar pattern playing out now. 

Credit unions and banks are similar in that both offer financial services and are insured. While the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures banks, credit unions are insured by the National Credit Union Administration. The key difference is that banks are for-profit institutions owned by shareholders, whereas credit unions are not-for-profit cooperatives controlled by their members. These differences create different priorities and incentives.  

“During periods of risk and uncertainty, banks tend to pull back a lot more on lending and just get a lot more conservative. But credit unions as part of their mission is just to continue to serve the members,” said van Rijn. 

As an example, consider a small credit union with teachers and firefighters among its members. “These folks need you even now more than ever. Credit unions are gonna be more likely to still do those loans, even if they’re a little bit riskier,” he said. By contrast, a bank is less likely to lend to the same people because it needs to maximize profits and minimize risk for its shareholders, he said.  

“We saw growth on the lending side and on the deposits side, which is counterintuitive amid the crisis and hardship,” said Jacquelyn Kearns, chief brand officer at Affinity, a New Jersey-based credit union with 20 branches. Affinity saw strong growth in the mortgage business with record-high originations in the last year, Kearns said. That was due in part to real estate trends in the tri-state area with people moving out of urban rentals to buy homes in the suburbs. Low interest rates also drove many to refinance mortgages. 

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