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? ›

Causes of credit union failures

During and immediately following the Great Recession, credit union failures were more common than they are now, as were bank failures. One Arizona institution that failed in 2010, AEA Federal Credit Union, was able to recover after working five years with federal regulators.

Is my money safe in a credit union if the economy crashes? ›

Money deposited into bank accounts will be safe as long as your financial institution is federally insured. The FDIC and National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) oversee banks and credit unions, respectively. These federal agencies also provide deposit insurance.

What is the downfall of a credit union? ›

Credit union disadvantages

Membership may require meeting certain work, residential or occupational requirements. Many typically offer branches only in a limited area or region.

Are credit unions more likely to fail than banks? ›

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. Both credit unions and banks have deposit insurance and are generally safe places for your money.

Are credit unions at risk of collapse? ›

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.

Are credit unions safe if banks collapse? ›

If the bank fails, you'll get your money back. Nearly all banks are FDIC insured. You can look for the FDIC logo at bank teller windows or on the entrance to your bank branch. Credit unions are insured by the National Credit Union Administration.

How safe is a money market account at a credit union? ›

A money market account is a type of account offered by banks and credit unions. Like other deposit accounts, money market accounts are insured by the FDIC or NCUA, up to $250,000 held by the same owner or owners. Money market accounts tend to pay you higher interest rates than other types of savings accounts.

Are credit unions safer from collapse than banks? ›

Just like banks, credit unions are federally insured; however, credit unions are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Instead, the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) is the federal insurer of credit unions, making them just as safe as traditional banks.

Can banks seize your money if the economy fails? ›

The short answer is no. Banks cannot take your money without your permission, at least not legally. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures deposits up to $250,000 per account holder, per bank. If the bank fails, you will return your money to the insured limit.

Why avoid credit unions? ›

Credit unions tend to have fewer branches than traditional banks. A credit union may not be close to where you live or work, which could be a problem unless your credit union is part of a shared branch network and/or a large ATM network such as Allpoint or MoneyPass. May offer fewer products and services.

Why do banks hate 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.

What is the biggest drawback of a credit union? ›

5 Drawbacks of Banking With a Credit Union
  • Mobile Banking Might Be Limited or Unavailable. Credit unions are more technologically savvy than they used to be. ...
  • Fees Might Not Be as Low as You Think. ...
  • Credit Card Rewards Might Be Limited. ...
  • ATMs and Branches Might Not Be Convenient. ...
  • There Might Be Fewer Services.
Mar 21, 2023

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.

Should I be worried about credit unions? ›

Money held in credit union accounts is insured through the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Many types of accounts are covered by insurance such as checking, savings, certificates of deposit, money market accounts, and others.

Who are the top 5 credit unions? ›

  • No. 1 — Navy Federal Credit Union.
  • No. 2 — State Employees' Credit Union.
  • No. 3 — Pentagon Federal Credit Union.
  • No. 4 — Boeing Employees' Credit Union.
  • No. 5 — SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union.
  • No. 6 — Golden 1 Credit Union.
  • No. 7 — America First Credit Union.
  • No. 8 — Alliant Credit Union.
Apr 25, 2024

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.

How many credit unions failed in 2008? ›

Dec. 31, 2008 – Nineteen consumer-owned credit unions fail in 2008, resulting in a loss of $232 million to the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund.

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.

Why are credit unions struggling? ›

Credit unions facing challenges in managing risks, such as credit risk or cybersecurity threats, may find themselves in difficult situations. Demographic Shifts: Changes in demographics, including aging populations and shifting consumer behaviors, can impact the demand for certain financial products and services.


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