Credit unions continue to buy banks despite bank lobby, regulator pushback

Regulators in a half dozen states have now thrown at least temporary roadblocks in front of credit unions’ efforts to buy community banks, but the deals continue on.

The latest: The American Bankers Association and other outlets reported April 4 that Minnesota’s Department of Commerce had blocked Royal Credit Union’s plans to buy Lake Area Bank in Lindstrom, Minnesota.

The $3.8 billion asset Royal in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in August announced its plans to buy the $441 million-asset Lake Area Bank.

Lake Area would be the second bank buy for Royal, which expanded in Minnesota through the acquisition of Capital Bank in St. Paul in 2016.

Michael Bell, an attorney with Honigman who advised Royal on the Lake Area Bank transaction, said this week that the deal was restructured and is moving forward.

Litigation over the transaction is still possible, said Michael Bell, an attorney for Royal Credit Union.

Neither the bank nor the credit union wanted to comment, and Bell said litigation over the transaction is still possible.

The deal was one of 13 announced last year in which a credit union plans to buy a community bank.

But Minnesota’s action brings to six the number of states that have tried to prohibit credit unions from buying banks. The bank lobby has long argued that those deals result in a loss of revenue to taxpayers.

Bell said the pushback from states is not causing credit unions to think twice about buying banks, but potential sellers in some states are unsure if they are free to deal with a credit union, he said.

“There is no slowing effect on credit unions, however, there is confusion and questions being created for community banks,” he said. “[Credit unions have] full power and rights to do this, and they are pursuing it.”

Bell said he believes the bank lobbies are ultimately trying to find a way to tax credit unions.

But the net result, he said, is that state bank associations are being forced to pick winners and losers among their own rank and file. That’s because excluding credit unions as buyers leaves only other banks to fill the void.

“The net effect of this is that it would help community bank buyers and hurt community bank sellers,” he said. “And it’s going to lower the value of the banks.”

Six banks in Wisconsin have sold to credit unions, including Commerce State Bank in West Bend, which agreed to a deal with Summit Credit Union in Madison in March.

Rose Oswald Poels, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, agreed that it is a tricky issue for the association.

“Trade associations exist to serve our members, and obviously there are individual banks that have decided it is in their best interest to sell to a credit union,” she said. “But a primary focus of bank trade associations is to advocate for policies that are in the best interest of the industry as a whole at the state and federal level, which may not, in the end, benefit individual banks.”

Oswald Poels said the growing trend of credit unions buying banks is “troublesome” from a public policy standpoint as well as a threat to the long-term viability of community banks.

And that is why states including Mississippi are taking a stand.

A new law in Mississippi states that only FDIC-insured banks can acquire or merge with Mississippi-chartered state banks. “And shame on Mississippi,” Bell said.

There are also questions about the legality of the deals in Colorado, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Carolina and now Minnesota.

Will more states choose to ban the deals? Bell said a lot of that depends on what happens in Nebraska and Tennessee. Courts will decide cases in those states this year.

The deal involving Financial Federal Bank in Tennessee selling to Orion Federal Credit Union could be resolved within a month, Bell said. A state judge in December issued a temporary injunction blocking the deal.

The only credit union-bank deal that was announced and ultimately nixed was Elevations Credit Union’s bid to buy Cache Bank & Trust in Colorado.

There have been five instances of a credit union agreeing to buy a bank so far in 2022. Most recently, Arizona Federal Credit Union in Phoenix last month agreed to buy Horizon Community Bank in Lake Havasu City.

Bell said a handful of more deals should be announced in the next four to six weeks. “We’re going to see another glut of them,” he said.

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