Do credit unions ever fail? - Marketplace (2024)

Both credit unions and banks are generally safe, but credit unions may take less risk with the money you've deposited. sshepard/Getty Images

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Listener Tom Dudzinski of Colorado asks:

As I listen to the many reports about bank failures, I can’t help but feel smugly secure that I do all my personal banking with credit unions (including mortgages, credit cards, car loans and certificates of deposit). Do, in fact, credit unions fail, and we just don’t hear about them because they’re too small? Or is there something inherently different about the way credit unions are structured and operate that make them much less likely to fail? Is my smug security misplaced?

Rest assured, Tom. Credit unions are generally safe.

These financial institutions are not-for-profit cooperatives owned by their members and focused on their communities’ needs, while banks are for-profit enterprises.

Experts told us that credit unions do fail, like banks (which are also generally safe), but rarely. And deposits up to $250,000 at federally insured credit unions are guaranteed, just as they are at banks.

Angela Vossmeyer, an associate professor of economics at Claremont McKenna College, said that data from the National Credit Union Administration shows that six to seven credit unions, on average, have entered conservatorship or liquidation annually since 2017. Conservatorship means that the NCUA has placed a credit union under its control due to operational issues, while a liquidation means the credit union has been shut down.

In total, there are about 4,800 federally insured credit unions in the U.S.

Vossmeyer pointed out that two to three banks, on average, have failed per year since 2017 of the more than 4,100 operating.

So banks are also secure, generally speaking, but as we’ve seen in recent history, there are periods of instability that expose their vulnerabilities. Bank failures soared during and after the mortgage-driven financial crisis. In 2007, there were just three failures, which jumped to 25 in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, a total of about 300 banks imploded.

This year, Silicon Valley Bank shut down after a run on deposits, followed by Signature Bank and First Republic. While the crisis has subsided, Wall Street investors have expressed concern about the state of the country’s regional banking system.

The differences between credit unions and banks

Put into context, the rate of failure at both types of institution is low. But one upside with credit unions is that they’re less likely to make risky investments.

“Credit unions still manage complex balance sheets like banks do. So if a certain asset class loses value, it can affect both banks and credit unions,” Vossmeyer explained. “But in general, credit unions are more risk averse.”

Before the 2007-08 crash, more than 23% of mortgages at commercial banks were subprime, which are risky because they’re offered to those with bad credit and come with higher interest rates. In comparison, only about 4% of mortgages at credit unions were subprime.

“So you can see very different risk profiles in terms of the asset side,” Vossmeyer said.

Banks are trying to maximize their return on equity, and that can lead them to take bigger chances with their lending or investments, said Luigi Zingales, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“Now, at a credit union, you tend to be paid much less, so you don’t have a lot of incentive to take that much risk because you don’t profit a lot,” Zingales said.

He noted that if a credit union does fail, it might be due to incompetent management or theft — there are cases in which employees have absconded with the institution’s cash.

Could a Silicon Valley Bank-style meltdown happen at a credit union?

Bank failures dominated the news earlier this year after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which suffered a run that forced it to sell its long-term securities at a loss. Signature in New York soon followed.

Here’s what happened: As the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, older bonds lost value because newer bonds paid out higher rates, pummeling the investments these banks had made. Fearing for SVB’s viability as investment losses mounted, depositors panicked and withdrew their funds. To let people cash out, SVB needed to sell its long-term bonds. But why would potential buyers pay for these low-yielding bonds when newer bonds offer more attractive rates? That’s why SVB had to unload those assets at a discount.

SVB was vulnerable to depositor flight because companies and well-heeled savers kept millions of dollars in their accounts with the bank, exceeding the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s coverage limit of $250,000. Because of this cap, 94% of SVB deposits were uninsured. Fear spread quickly.

“If you’re a depositor at Silicon Valley Bank, and you start to see this trouble and you know most of your deposits are uninsured, you have an incentive to run, which begins that liquidation,” Vossmeyer said. “Whereas if you’re a customer of a credit union, there’s really no incentive to run.”

Deposits at federally insured credit unions are also guaranteed up to $250,000, but the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund provides the coverage. Because these institutions cater to individuals and households with smaller accounts, Vossmeyer said, 90% of deposits at credit unions end up being insured.

Shortly after the collapse of SVB, the National Credit Union Administration tried to reassure people about the stability of its institutions.

“The credit union system remains well-capitalized and on a solid footing,” NCUA Chairman Todd Harper wrote in a press release. “The National Credit Union Administration continues to monitor credit union performance through both the examination process and offsite monitoring, and it will continue to do so into the future.”

If you’re shopping around for a financial institution, Vossmeyer said, verifying that the bank or credit union is insured should be one of your top priorities.

And if you’re considering taking on a mortgage or a new credit card, Zingales said, credit unions tend to offer more generous terms than banks. Mortgages might come with better rates, credit card fees might be lower and many offer free checking accounts without a minimum balance.

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Do credit unions ever fail? - Marketplace (2024)


Do credit unions ever fail? - Marketplace? ›

Experts told us that credit unions do fail, like banks (which are also generally safe), but rarely.

Has any credit union ever failed? ›

It is important to note that credit unions can fail, and have, even prior to the current banking crisis. However, their depositors are made whole from payouts from the NCUA insurance fund.

Are credit unions safe in a market crash? ›

Credit unions are insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Just like the FDIC insures up to $250,000 for individuals' accounts of a bank, the NCUA insures up to $250,000 for individuals' accounts of a credit union. Beyond that amount, the bank or credit union takes an uninsured risk.

What is the downfall of a credit union? ›

The pros of credit unions include better interest rates than banks, while the cons include fewer branches and ATMs.

Are credit unions safe during a recession? ›

bank in a recession, the credit union is likely to fare a little better. Both can be hit hard by tough economic conditions, but credit unions were statistically less likely to fail during the Great Recession. But no matter which you go with, you shouldn't worry about losing money.

Why do banks not like credit unions? ›

First, bankers believe it is unfair that credit unions are exempt from federal taxation while the taxes that banks pay represent a significant fraction of their earnings—33 percent last year. Second, bankers believe that credit unions have been allowed to expand far beyond their original purpose.

Are any credit unions in financial trouble? ›

National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) credit unions had seven conservatorships/liquidations in 2022 and two so far in 2023. While credit unions have experienced several failures in 2022, there were no Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

What happens to credit unions when banks collapse? ›

If your money is at a credit union, it is similarly protected by the NCUA, with the same limits. This can provide peace of mind, no matter what type of institution you prefer for your money.

What happens if a credit union goes bust? ›

If a credit union is placed into liquidation, the NCUA's Asset Management and Assistance Center (AMAC) will oversee the liquidation and set up an asset management estate (AME) to manage assets, settle members' insurance claims, and attempt to recover value from the closed credit union's assets.

Will credit unions crash like banks? ›

Like banks, which are federally insured by the FDIC, credit unions are insured by the NCUA, making them just as safe as banks. The National Credit Union Administration is a US government agency that regulates and supervises credit unions.

What are three cons of a credit union? ›

The downside of credit unions include: the eligibility requirements for membership and the payment of a member fee, fewer products and services and limited branches and ATM's.

Should I worry about my credit union? ›

Federally insured credit unions and banks are both safe places to keep your money. The National Credit Union Administration protects deposits (within certain limits) at insured credit unions and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

How to tell if a credit union is good? ›

How to Choose a Credit Union: Top Ten Factors to Consider
  1. Rates and Fees. Credit unions (CUs) offer lower rates and fees on most of their products. ...
  2. Outstanding Customer Service. ...
  3. Community Focus of Credit Unions. ...
  4. Apps and Technology. ...
  5. ATMs and Branch Locations. ...
  6. Security and Insurance. ...
  7. Assess Your Needs. ...
  8. Check Eligibility.
Sep 12, 2019

Why aren't credit unions failing? ›

For starters, credit unions have protection from major market changes thanks to a mix of deposits and, perhaps more importantly, no investor capital. NWCU and other credit unions are owned and operated by the membership.

Is NCUA as good as FDIC? ›

One of the only differences between NCUA and FDIC coverage is that the FDIC will also insure cashier's checks and money orders. Otherwise, banks and credit unions are equally protected, and your deposit accounts are safe with either option.

Can the government take your money from a credit union? ›

Through right of offset, the government allows banks and credit unions to access the savings of their account holders under certain circ*mstances. This is allowed when the consumer misses a debt payment owed to that same financial institution.

What happens to my money if a credit union fails? ›

When a credit union fails, the NCUA is responsible for managing and closing the institution. The NCUA's Asset Management and Assistance Center liquidates the credit union and returns funds from accounts to its members. The funds are typically returned within five days of closure.

How many credit unions failed in 2008? ›

Failed banking institutions - the one number that continued to grow all year. After a year in which only three banks closed (and none the two years prior), 2008 saw 25 banks and 15 credit unions shuttered. Following is a list of the 40 banking institutions that failed in 2008. Source: FDIC, NCUA.

How reliable are credit unions? ›

Federally insured credit unions and banks are both safe places to keep your money. The National Credit Union Administration protects deposits (within certain limits) at insured credit unions and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

What is the largest bank failure in US history? ›

The receivership of Washington Mutual Bank by federal regulators on September 26, 2008, was the largest bank failure in U.S. history. Regulators simultaneously brokered the sale of most of the banks's assets to JPMorgan Chase, which planned to write down the value of Washington Mutual's loans at least $31 billion.

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