Credit unions enter the payday loan business

Credit union sign

Many credit unions are now offering payday loans. Image: informatique/Flickr/CC BY-SA

Credit Unions, which are generally considered more trustworthy than traditional banks, are more and more frequently offering short term loans that rival payday loans in many aspects. This change comes in response to new federal guidelines. Many analysts find this trend disturbing, while others see it as offering credit union members more options.

Many find credit unions appealing

Credit unions are cooperative financial institutions that are owned and controlled by members. By dispensing prudent loans without the profit motive of traditional banks, they are becoming more and more attractive to jaded consumers. Many say they are fed up with the hidden charges and impersonal customer service they receive from regular banks. However, when it comes to immediate short-term financial needs, credit union members have often had to to look elsewhere.

That is changing rapidly as more and more credit unions are offering low-cost, short-term same day personal loans with higher interest rates.

Federal rate cap increase

The National Credit Union Administration, in a voluntary program called Better Solutions, offers a package of services and products for participating credit unions. In September 2010, the NCUA changed its rules for short-term loans, raising the annual interest rate cap from 18 to 28 percent. Under these new guidelines, a credit union must allow borrowers at least 30 days to repay a short-term loan and not to allow more than three per customer in a six-month period.

A less predatory option?

More than 500 federally insured credit unions are offering these kinds of loans. Industry advocates say they are offering their customers alternatives to more predatory lenders on the market. “We spent a long time trying to do this in a way that would work for members and for the credit unions and not be predatory,” said Debbie Matz, chairman of the NCUA.

Detractors ascribe profit motives

Detractors, however, ascribe much less altruistic motives to the loans. Some say it is just a way to generate more revenue for an industry that suffered greatly in the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Credit unions, which operate as nonprofit groups, aren’t allowed to raise investor capital like traditional banks can in times of trouble. According to the NCUA, about 4,600 credit unions — or about 7 percent of the industry — are at a high risk to fail.

Linda Hamilton, a consumer activist in Salt Lake City, says “they are promoting these loans as payday alternatives, but they are not really alternatives.” Hamilton, who is opposed to payday loans, sees these credit union sponsored loans as little more than the same thing.

Guidelines are voluntary

Because the new NCUA guidelines are strictly voluntary, many credit unions sell loans at higher rates than the federal program suggests. The Mountain America Federal Credit Union in Utah, for example, offers a five-day $100 loan it calls “MyInstaCash.” The loan costs $12, a 876 percent annual interest rate.

Be informed

Karen Datko of MSN Money says that these credit union payday loans aren’t necessarily good or bad. “It really pays to be an informed consumer before you request one,” she advises.

Washington Post