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Saturday 10 December 2016

Charlie Weston: Too many are in denial about worsening credit union crisis

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Does the Central Bank have enough time for credit unions? Its recent decision to regulate them all to the same standard, irrespective of size, was irresponsible (Stock image)
Does the Central Bank have enough time for credit unions? Its recent decision to regulate them all to the same standard, irrespective of size, was irresponsible (Stock image)

Credit unions are going nowhere. In fact, it would not be unfair to go further and state that the movement is in big trouble.

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Lending at the institutions - their main source of income - is down 45pc in the last eight years.

This raises serious questions about the movement's future.

The situation is so bad that credit unions collectively in this country have only around a quarter of their assets out in loans. Less than a decade ago, loans represented around half of the assets.

And the tumbling loan-to-asset ratio shows no major signs of reversing.

The bad news about the state of the sector comes from the Credit Union Advisory Committee, which was set up to advise the Finance Minister. It is headed up by professor of financial services at Queen's University Belfast, Donal McKillop, who previously chaired the Credit Union Commission, set up by the State to recommend a strategy for the movement.

Professor McKillop has expertise in the area, and is regarded as someone with a keen interest in seeing the movement develop.

In a State-encouraged attempt to bolster their chances of growing, credit unions are currently engaged in a rush to amalgamate.

This has seen the number of credit unions fall from more than 400 to just over 300.

A move by 11 credit unions to create a debit card for members was questioned by the Central Bank, prompting claims that the regulator was restricting the growth of the sector. After all, it's hard to imagine the Central Bank issuing such a public rebuke to banks.

Does the Central Bank have enough time for credit unions? Its recent decision to regulate them all to the same standard, irrespective of size, was irresponsible.

But credit unions are not helping themselves. Delegates at an Irish League of Credit Unions meeting recently voted down funding for a plan put together by management consultant Dr Eddie Molloy to modernise the movement.

This reflects the fact there is huge resistance to change from a large section of the league, the largest representative body for credit unions. These people could be categorised as the FAC - forces against change. They argue at length at league meetings, and continue to hark back to the days when the movement regulated itself.

They are grey-haired, angry with the Central Bank, unwilling to embrace new ideas, and in denial.

All this means it is time for a radical change of tack from the movement and from the Central Bank.

Sunday Indo Business

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