History in the making is often difficult to see. There is too much clutter around to detect that the course of a civilization, a country, an industry has veered in a new direction, and made a kind of dogleg to a destiny it otherwise would not have met. In our own country, the Civil War marked such a dogleg; so did the New Deal.
Credit unions may now be at such a dogleg, if we can grasp the opportunity and shift the movement's destiny for the better.
This is a unique time. Not only are we starting a new millennium, and a new presidential administration in Washington, but we are also starting a new era at NCUA and we have a Renaissance Commission examining the fundamentals of the credit union movement.
All this adds up to a remarkable opportunity, and we have the responsibility to take it.
We are not talking about nibbling at the edges or tweaking the mechanisms. We are not talking about a debate over which five sentences of the Federal Credit Union Act to change if given the chance. We are talking about making this a pivotal moment in time, of really significant renewal. Let's recreate ourselves now!
Let's pretend we are starting from scratch and then ask ourselves what a system of financial cooperatives should be able to do for Americans. What would the broad outlines be? What are the broad authorities needed to realize those outlines?
In the 1990s, banks remade themselves in order to keep up with the times. They knew they would have to or fail. We need at least the same sort of reassessment and reauthority if not a far broader reincarnation.
We believe that the following should be among the serious considerations in reassessment and renewal: exercising cooperation on a scale not previously attempted; establishing a national ATM network and a national branch network; owning our own mutual funds; establishing an insurance option to the NCUSIF; owning our own data processing; and being able to provide our members with their insurance needs, including auto, home and title.
We think that credit unions are built on cooperation and should have the ability to cooperate with one another as they see fit rather than having cooperation doled out by regulators and legislators. Cooperation is what we do best and we shouldn't hem it in.
Times have Changed; the Charter Hasn't
We should always bear in mind that we do what we do not for ourselves or for credit unions, but for our members, ordinary Americans who see the benefit of cooperating for the general good, for helping one another. That's a firm base on which to build.
But at the same time we have to develop a keen appreciation for what members want and the good sense to position ourselves to deliver what they want. We have to be empowered to provide the services and products they want or we'll have to fold our tents.
We need to recall that our charter was written early in this century when living conditions and the economy were vastly different than they are today. We cannot change the behavior of members, modern technology, or our material conditions, but we can change our charter so that Americans can still benefit from the blessings cooperation and not-for-profit financial institutions can bring.
We should likewise bear in mind our past successes, and remind ourselves and others of them. A good case in point is the NCUSIF. We made it a tremendous success for our members. We also made it a model for the financial world. But we often are too reticent about pointing this out. Why should we not now ask for the power to create another fund, a competing one under the theory that amiable competition for credit union dollars would keep both funds working hard and well?
We are at a rare point in the credit union movement's history. Opportunities of great potential are presented to us. We have the responsibility to seize and make the most of them, to truly turn this time into a new beginning. Those who began this movement early in the 20th century would heartily approve.