The National Credit Union Administration had a busy year in 2015, and it has the comment letters to prove it.

Often, those letters were from irate bankers.

A sweeping proposal to change member-business-lending rules prompted 3,088 letters this summer, mostly from bankers upset about its impact on the competitive balance in  commercial lending.

The volume of letters shattered a short-lived record of 2,167 missives that the NCUA received after unveiling a revised risk-based capital plan in January. Most of those letters came from credit union executives who were critical of the plan.

By and large, it is clear NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz meant what she said at the Credit Union National Administration's governmental affairs conference in March, when she pledged that 2015 would be "the year of regulatory relief."

Indeed, Lucy Ito, president and chief executive of the National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors, called this year "a whopper … in terms of activity coming out of NCUA."

The NCUA's board in April streamlined rules governing common bond credit unions, granting automatic approval to applications involving 12 types of groups, including electric cooperatives, labor unions, scouting groups, parent-teacher organizations and booster clubs. Two months later, the governing body eliminated a cap on the amount of fixed assets a credit union can hold.

The board in September doubled the asset threshold for defining a "small credit union" to $100 million.

Much of the year, however, was spent working on rewrites to a series of big-ticket regulations, some of which are still awaiting final votes.

The year's biggest event came in October when — after months of contentious debate — a divided board approved a major regulatory effort establishing a risk-based capital structure to go alongside the statutory net worth-based capital requirement.

The rule, which takes effect in 2019, would require "risky outliers" with higher-than-average risk profiles to hold more capital. At the time of the vote, the NCUA estimated that just 16 credit unions would need to add capital if the rules had gone into effect immediately. But Larry Fazio, director of the agency's office of examination and insurance, noted that those institutions have a combined $10 billion in assets.

Critics of the plan, including the Credit Union National Association and the National Association of Federal Credit Unions argued that the NCUA lacks the authority necessary to implement a risk-based capital regime.

For bankers, the risk-based-capital debate was interesting to watch, but not especially relevant. But three other reform efforts were hot buttons.

The NCUA began working on sweeping changes to regulations governing member business lending, field of membership and secondary capital — setting the stage for a number of high-profile votes in 2016.

Among other things, the member business lending proposal includes language that would scale back the limit on loan-to-value ratios for business loans, eliminate a provision requiring borrowers to personally guarantee their loans and increase the amount a credit union can lend to one borrower. It also eliminates a stipulation that loan officers have at least two years of business lending experience.

The field-of-membership proposal, which took an in-house task force 11 months to formulate, offers credit unions several new options. For the first time, it lets credit unions use combined statistical areas with populations of up to 2.5 million people, or entire congressional districts, to delineate a community.

The proposal also lets credit unions designate a portion of a core-based statistical area with a population of up to 2.5 million as a community for field-of-membership purposes. Under current rules, credit unions can only serve an entire core-based statistical area if the area as a whole is home to less than 2.5 million people.

Ito said in a recent interview that an overhaul of field-of-membership regulations was "long overdue," adding that her group has "been encouraging them [to act] for a long time." She characterized the proposed member business loans changes as "rather progressive."

Former NCUA Chairman Michael Fryzel said the "flurry of activity" undertaken by the agency this year would have a lasting impact. "It has paved the way for an even more exciting 2016 as the issues of field of membership, member business lending and supplemental capital will be addressed," he wrote in an email.

Another former chairman, Dennis Dollar, expressed reservations about the risk-based capital rule, though he said the NCUA's board had done yeoman's work for the most part.

"The announced year of regulatory relief has had some steps forward, like the fixed-asset rule, and some steps backward, like risk-based capital, but overall I think the trajectory … has been quite positive from a credit union perspective in 2015," Dollar said in an email. "If they can come forward with truly meaningful reforms in the member business lending rules and progressive modernization of the field-of-membership rules … I think history will be kind to its look at 2015."

Matz even received grudging praise from an unlikely source.

Matz "said she was going to [provide relief], and she delivered," Keith Leggett, a retired American Bankers Association economist and author of a blog frequently critical of the credit union industry, said.

Leggett was less complementary about the details of the various NCUA projects, stating that bankers believe the proposed changes to field-of-membership rules go far beyond the agency's authority.

"When you talk about combined statistical areas, how does that comport with a field of membership being well-defined and local, which is what the law requires?" he asked. "A combined statistical area is a region."

Leggett also expressed concern that changes to the member business loan regulation would make credit unions even fiercer competitors for small business loans, community banking's bread-and-butter business.

Camden Fine, president and chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America, had nothing good to say about the credit union regulator. The ICBA has been considering filing a lawsuit over the proposed field-of membership-rules.

"NCUA is the textbook definition of a regulator that has been captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate" Fine said in an interview last month. "It is trying to make credit unions the functional equivalent of banks — except banks pay taxes."

Opposition to the member business lending proposal was just as intense. The American Bankers Association estimated that nearly 2,800 of the 3,088 letters NCUA received on the issue were critical of the plan.

Ito said she could understand why bankers are upset.

"I know there are other interest groups out there," Ito said. "But NCUA and state regulators need to focus on what benefits consumers."

For her part, Matz said the course the NCUA set this year reflected a need to move away from the hands-on regulatory approach it employed during the financial crisis.

"As credit unions' performance metrics returned to levels we saw before the financial crisis, NCUA's has provided relief or proposed changes to certain regulations to give credit union executives and boards more discretion," she said in an email Thursday. "As a result, credit unions and NCUA can focus resources on achieving our respective missions."

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