Monday 20 January 2020

Charlie Weston: Another fine fudge as credit unions work lobbying magic to prevent forced mergers

HOW do you make fudge? One way involves mixing together milk, sugar and butter.

The other way you can produce a fudge is to take a politically powerful credit union movement, add in a government scared of the famed lobbying ability of credit union members, and sprinkle in a dash of regulator for good measure.

Mix well, bring it to the boil and allow it to stand.

What you get is a credit union commission report that has dissolved into a soft and gooey mix.

Less than a year ago, the Government called on the considerable expertise of Queen's University professor of financial services Donal McKillop to head up a commission to map out the future for the co-operative savings and loans sector.

The commission was stuffed with representatives from various credit union bodies, which is as it should be. The registrar of credit unions, James O'Brien of the Central Bank, some civil servants and a number of independent voices were also among the 13-strong committee.

Appointed in May last year, the commission has now produced its final report.

Credit unions are to be encouraged to merge, with a new body called the Credit Union Restructuring Body (ReBo, for short) to be set up by the summer to fund, advise and prompt tie-ups.

There will be no forced takeovers or mergers.

This is despite the fact that the Central Bank, as the regulator of the sector, has extensive powers to force the closure of failing credit unions, press for a merger or have a special manager appointed. A manager was imposed on Newbridge Credit Union three months ago.

But the heavy-handed approach the Central Bank displayed in Newbridge seems to have been stymied.

All future mergers will be voluntary. The sector has flexed its considerable political muscle and the results are to be seen in the make-up the proposed new restructuring body.

ReBo will be made up of members of the League of Credit Unions and the Credit Union Development Association, along with representatives from the Central Bank.

Forced mergers of weak and badly run credit unions are off the agenda. Instead, a softly-softly approach will be taken to encouraging failing credit unions to merge.

This is despite the fact that many of the State's credit unions are under severe financial pressure.

The commission pointed out that 51 credit unions out of a total of 404 in the State have insufficient capital to withstand loan losses, while 25 could be considered "seriously under capitalised".

Loan arrears across the movement, where each credit union is owned and operated independently, collectively stand at €1bn. The lending co-ops have had to put aside €801m to provide for bad debts.

A volunteer organisation that is to be protected. But maybe, just maybe, credit unions should be protected from themselves.

With ReBo in the steering seat, the Central Bank has been muzzled. One should never under estimate the power of the credit union movement.

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