Federal and state credit union regulators are moving quickly to obtain federal deposit insurance for the nation's last big group of savers not under the protective federal umbrella -- the members of 1,462 credit unions in 20 states that depend on private deposit insurance.
As many as one-third of the remaining privately insured credit unions could switch to federal insurance in the next few weeks under an expedited insurance program set up by regulators at the National Credit Union Administration.
The credit unions hope to get federal protection for their accounts before their private insurance plans run into problems like those that wiped out Rhode Island's credit union deposit insurance system earlier this month, leaving thousands of savers unable to get their money.
Ever since the Rhode Island fund failed on New Year's Day, credit unions in three other states have moved to convert from private to federal insurance. Credit union industry officials said most of the rest of the privately insured credit unions are likely to make the switch in the next few months.
"It would be my guess that by the end of the year, the majority of the private insurance cooperatives are going to be gone. They all recognize they're history," said Sheralyn Odom, executive director of the National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors.
That organization of state regulators is to meet in Washington next week to decide whether to officially endorse requiring all credit unions to be insured by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, the credit union equivalent of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Thirty states now require all credit unions to have federal deposit insurance, but the other 20 states allow some state-chartered credit unions to use private insurance. About $20 billion -- roughly 10 percent of all credit union deposits -- are covered by private nonprofit insurance pools, including 18 small Maryland credit unions. No Virginia or District credit unions are covered by private insurance. About one-third of all Americans are members of credit unions, which are depositor-owned nonprofit cooperative institutions.
A vocal minority of credit union leaders has long opposed federal deposit insurance, contending that credit unions could take care of their own problems without any government help.
But support for private deposit insurance has been eroded by the failure of the Rhode Island fund, which forced newly elected Gov. Bruce Sundlun to close dozens of credit unions and promise state help for depositors.
"No governor wants to find himself in that position," said Sandra K. Branson, director of the Missouri Division of Credit Unions. Sundlun's political future could be decided by how he handles irate credit union members.
Branson said the Missouri legislature is scheduled to start hearings next week on a proposal to require the state's 57 privately insured credit unions to apply for federal insurance within 90 days.
In Texas, Ann Richards tackled the credit union issue even before she was sworn in as governor last week, creating a group to draft regulations requiring the state's 287 privately insured credit unions to apply for federal coverage by the end of next month.
At the urging of Florida state regulators, the 121 privately insured credit unions there voluntarily agreed to apply for federal deposit insurance starting this week.
A handful of individual credit unions in other states have applied for federal insurance since the Rhode Island collapse, and industry officials predict that several other states will propose statewide plans to bring their credit unions under the federal umbrella. Federal deposit insurance is not expected to cost the credit unions any more than they now pay for private coverage. Bringing in hundreds of new members is not expected to add to the costs of the Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, which has $2.1 billion in reserves and is financed by member credit unions.
National Credit Union Administration spokesman Robert Loftus said the agency called regional regulators to Washington last week and developed a plan to dispatch special teams of examiners to states to expedite applications for federal deposit insurance.
"We've resolved to take care of this as quickly as possible," Loftus said. "What we're going to do is go about this in an orderly, planned manner rather than a crisis situation as we had in Rhode Island."
In Rhode Island, the National Credit Union Administration examined every credit union and within a week agreed to provide insurance for most of them. But many Rhode Island institutions were rejected because they had made risky investments that are banned by federal regulations.
The vast majority of the privately insured credit unions will be able to qualify for federal insurance, said William Hampel, chief economist for the Credit Union National Association, the industry's largest trade association. "I don't see any more situations like Rhode Island," Hampel said. "As long as they are given time for an orderly transition, most of them can qualify."
Credit unions that do not immediately qualify for federal insurance are expected to get help from their private insurance funds or could merge with healthy institutions.