There are exceptions to every rule, and some credit unions may be taking advantage of a big one when it comes to member business loans.
Credit unions in Massachusetts with low-income designations from the National Credit Union Administration are increasingly focusing on member business loans, rather than helping underserved customers, according to a study commissioned by the Massachusetts Bankers Association.
The study, conducted by Brian Gottlob, a principal at Polecon Research in Dover, N.H., noted that the number of Massachusetts credit unions with low-income designations had quintupled from 2012 to 2014. At the same time, only 9% of the credit unions' home loans were made to low-income borrowers during the period, the study found.
"The explosion of low-income credit unions over the past three or four years suggests to me something else is going on," Gottlob said in an interview. "It seems like a very convenient way to avoid the business lending cap, as well as some common-bond issues."
Credit unions with low-income designations are exempt from a federally mandated aggregate loan limit that restricts member business lending to about 12.25% of an institution's total assets.
Daniel Forte, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Bankers Association, said he has little doubt that many of the 57 credit unions that obtained low-income designations from 2012 to 2014 did so primarily to get around the member business loan cap.
While the study applied solely to Massachusetts, the number of credit unions with low-income designations has also ballooned nationwide since the NCUA streamlined the application process in 2012. In the first two years after that change, the number of low-income credit unions nearly doubled, to 2,107.
"We've seen this explosive growth in low-income credit unions as well as commercial lending," Forte said. "We're trying to connect the dots. … What, if anything, have they done to serve low-income people?"
Credit union officials labeled the study's conclusions dubious at best, quickly noting that the study was commissioned by a banking lobby.
"If bankers expended as much energy and effort addressing their questionable practices … perhaps they would not have racked up more than $136 billion in fines, settlements, mortgage buybacks and relief to borrowers" after the financial crisis, Dan Berger, president and CEO of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, said in a statement.
"I have a lot of problems with it," added Mike Schenk, vice president for economics and statistics at the Credit Union National Association. "They cherry picked some statistics … [and] there are a lot of things they glossed over."
Schenk said the study's underlying premise — that credit union growth is damaging banks — is a stretch since credit unions only control 7% of financial institutions' assets in Massachusetts. "It's not like we're taking over the world," he added.
The average member business loan is about $220,000, Schenk said. "These are very small loans to small businesses," he said.
Still, even small loan volumes can add up. The Massachusetts study found that the state's credit unions made had about $1.8 billion of business loans on their books in 2014, representing an 80% increase from five years earlier. Based on the average loan size cited by Schenk, the increase would be equal to roughly 725 individual loans a year.
Other credit union representatives objected to the study's data.
The use of mortgage lending statistics is misleading "since a lot of low-income people aren't buying homes," said Paul Gentile, president and chief executive of the Cooperative Credit Union League, which represents credit unions in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Members at credit unions in Massachusetts received $328 million in direct financial relief last year due to better rates and lower fees, Gentile said. At the same time, a number of business loans are going to low-income entrepreneurs.
"To say a business loan can't be good for low-income people — I don't get it," Gentile said.
Gottlob, for his part, challenged critics to demonstrate where his data was mistaken.
"I'm a data nerd, so I keep looking at the data," Gottlob said. "The data supports our narrative."