Washington area credit unions worried that members will make drastic withdrawals when the new quarter begins in January, are offering a wealth of new programs to keep their deposits and attract new ones.
Additional free life insurance, daily interest computation and a larger selection of savings certificates are among the incentives adopted by the credit unions, which experienced such massive withdrawals at the start of the last quarter that many stopped making loans temporarily.
Members withdrew their money as interest rates paid by other savings institutions for money market funds and certificates soared to record levels of 10 percent of more. Credit unions cannot pay more than 7 percent on regular savings accounts, and even after federal regulations were changed a year ago to allow them to issue certificates, few of them saw any need to do so.
Now competition has forced credit unions to scramble for dollars as depositors placed their funds in other financial institutions.
"We had a rough October and God knows what January will bring," said Charles A. Purdy, manager of the U.S. Census Bureau Federal Credit Union. Officials had anticipated that $400,000 would be withdrawn by census members in October; instead, they took out $1.6 million.
Credit union withdrawals typically occur during the first few days of each quarter, because money taken out before the end of the quarter normally loses the interest earned during that quarter. But recent withdrawals from credit unions have vastly exceeded normal outflows, as members sought to put their money into higher-paying investments.
Now credit unions are fighting back, courting members and their money with offers of high-interest savings certificates that pay as much as the certificates available elsewhere.
One survey of District of Columbia credit unions found that 60 percent now have implemented money market certificates or some other special savings plan that pays the higher interest rates.
"We are trying to encourage savings at this time with our money market certificates," said an official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Credit Union.
To sweeten the bait, the Agriculture Credit Union has initiated a system that periodically routes interest earned by long-term certificates into accounts that pay daily interest. "That way, the interest earns interest," explained Sheryl Bevins, a credit union computer specialist who helped set up the system.
On Jan. 1, the U.S. postmasters will move from the traditional quarterly method of interest computation to a daily system. The change will enable members to earn interest from the day of deposit to the day of withdrawal.
Officials think that will achieve two purposes: Eliminate the dramatic once-a-quarter withdrawal that has plagued them in the past and attract new money from financial institutions whose interest systems still discourage withdrawals during a quarter.
"We think some of our members will take their money out of savings at banks and savings and loan associations and deposit it with us," said Lawrence Duncan, manager of the 9,800-member credit union for the U.S. National Association of Postmasters of the U.S.
Although most of the new savings programs are tailored for large investors with thousands of dollars available for certificates, some credit unions also are launching plans to attract small savers.
"We are introducing one for contract savings that starts with $20," said Richard Dennis, manager of the Federal Credit Union for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving. Members who sign up for the certificates agree to save a certain amount of money every payday until the certificate matures, usually in four to six years, Dennis said. The first certificates issued will pay 7.25 percent interest.
Other credit unions are offering additional free insurance to their members, much like banks offer free dishes to entice more business.
At the Census Bureau, credit union officials are doubling free life insurance for qualifying members from the present $2,000 coverage to $4,000. At The Washington Post, additional free insurance will become available Jan. 1, which will be tied to the amount of money members have in a particular kind of savings account.
Credit union officials are not sure how much money will be withdrawn during January. "A lot of the hunt money [large chunks of investment money] could already have gone," said Ray Dowling, general manager of the League Central Federal Credit Union.
If that is the case, and if most of the money in credit unions is now in small accounts, credit unions may not be hit as hard by withdrawals in January as they were in October, officials said.
The D.C. League of Credit Unions has been meeting with members, however, and urging them to be prepared.
"We are pointing out that even if it didn't happen to them before, it could happen this time," said Steve Joiner, a league representative.