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Competitive advantage: a study of the federal tax exemption for credit unions

Tatom, John (2005): Competitive advantage: a study of the federal tax exemption for credit unions. Published in: Tax Foundation Special Academic Paper (28 February 2005): pp. 1-28.


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This study evaluates the federal tax exemption for credit unions. It reviews the industry’s history, its unique exemption, the motivation behind this tax treatment, the eroding case for special treatment, the size of the tax break and its effects on credit unions, their competitors, and their members.

The nation’s credit unions always have been exempt from federal income taxation. Federally chartered credit unions are even exempt from state and local income taxation. Saving and loan associations, also originally largely exempt from taxation, lost their exemption on 1951 and calls for tax reform, including those of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, included provisions to end the special exemptions of credit unions. But the credit union tax exemptions have survived. At least in part, these exemptions arose from the cooperative nature of credit union ownership and limits on their ability to compete because of their legal “field of membership” restrictions, which limited who could be a depositor and borrower from a credit union. Nonetheless, credit unions have competed with other financial institutions, especially banks, with a major cost advantage, the tax exemption. Tax exemption has allowed credit unions to grow much more rapidly than banks. Unusual growth was also fostered by steady erosion of limits on credit union membership over the past two decades. In 1998, the US Supreme Court struck down the liberalization of membership rules, but the US Congress promptly passed new legislation overriding the court. As a result the processes of consolidation, merger and broadening of geographic markets accelerated while credit unions were allowed to keep their tax exemptions. Thus, Congress created new tensions by weakening the case for tax exemption without addressing its continuing legitimacy.

Today credit unions continue to grow faster than banks, have little practical limitations on membership, make business loans that increasingly have no limits on who can borrow, how much or for what purpose. Even the limits that Congress imposed, as they otherwise removed limits on credit union markets and competition, have broad loopholes and remain under serious challenge by the credit union industry.

The tax loss to the federal Treasury is estimated here to be $2 billion and to be growing rapidly. Indeed, the tax loss over the five years, 2004-2008 is estimated to be $12.6 billion and reaches $31.3 billion over the ten-year window 2005-2014. The size of the tax loss is substantially higher than estimates prepared by official arbiters including the Office of Management and Budget or the Congressional Budget Office.

The annual loss in tax revenue could accrue to several different credit union constituencies: members, as depositors (higher “dividends,” or interest rates, on their “shares,” or deposits), borrowers (lower interest rates on loans), or shareholders (through greater retained earnings). The benefits of the tax break could also accrue to management, workers or other suppliers through inflated costs or inefficient operations.

Based on other studies of differences between credit unions and banks and on direct and indirect evidence gathered for this study, it is found that the principal effect of the tax break is to enlarge the retained earnings or equity of the credit union industry. A higher ratio of equity to assets has made possible a larger and faster growing industry than would otherwise have been possible. There is some evidence that certain type loans have lower rates at credit unions. These are for loans that have become less profitable and less available at banks, such as auto loans. There is also some evidence that part of the tax advantage is absorbed by higher costs than they would have in a taxed, or more competitive, environment. Overall the dominant effect is to boost the equity ratio. Over the past ten years, credit unions have had an equity ratio, the ratio of equity to total assets that is more than 25 percent larger than that of banks. This is about the size of effect predicted by economic theory if the dominant effect of the tax break is to raise this measure.

The equity ratio is a cushion against losses in asset value that could threaten the solvency of a financial institution. It is also a constraint on growth because a relatively safe institution cannot allow its assets to grow faster than its equity if it is holding its desired equity ratio. Despite the fact that the risk of credit union assets, largely shorter term consumer loans and consumer mortgages, is much smaller than the risks of bank assets, which are largely business loans and securities, credit unions hold a higher cushion against risk. These unusually large holding of equity cannot be realized through stock sales by the owners/members of credit unions and they do not yield competitive risk-adjusted yields on assets that they would have to earn if credit unions were subject to the same taxes as banks. Removing the tax exemption would level the playing field, reducing the excessive growth and relative size of credit union assets. It would also raise about $2 billion in tax revenue, either directly from credit unions or from more profitable and more highly taxed banks, where credit union deposits and assets would migrate if the tax exemption were ended. Finally it would raise the rate of return on some $65 billion of capital that is squirreled away in credit unions, earning lower rates of return than would be the case at taxed banks.

Some analysts have argued that small institutions (under $10 million in assets) should continue to be tax exempt because of their special character and, perhaps, innate inefficiencies. But the corporate income tax already takes smallness into effect by taxing low-income firms at lower tax rates (15%, instead of up to 35% for large firms, or up to 39 percent for mid-sized corporations).

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