Opinion

Stand with Rand in liberating credit-union lending

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John Berlau
Senior Fellow, CEI
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      John Berlau

      John Berlau is director of the Center for Investors and Entrepreneurs at <a href="http://cei.org/">CEI</a>. He is also a contributor to OpenMarket.org. Berlau has written about the impact of public policy on entrepreneurship for many publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Investor's Business Daily, and National Review. He has been the guest on many radio and television programs including MSNBC's "The Situation" with Tucker Carlson and CNBC's "Street Signs" with Ron Insana, and the Your World with Neil Cavuto on Fox News.

      Berlau previously was Washington correspondent for Investor's Business Daily and a staff writer for Insight magazine, published by The Washington Times. In 2002, he recevied Sandy Hume Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Journalism from Washington's National Press Club . He was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2003. Berlau graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1994 with degrees in journalism and economics. He is the author of the book Eco-Freaks (Nelson Current, 2006), which has been in Amazon's top 100 best-selling non-fiction books.

Any bill that is sponsored by Sens. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Rand Paul (R-KY), or any similarly odd ideological couple, more than meets the definition of bipartisan. But the Udall-Paul bill, S. 968, should be cheered not just because of its bipartisanship, but because it actually spreads freedom. Those concerned with government eroding options for entrepreneurs should cheer this legislation, which lifts regulatory barriers to an untapped source of capital for start-ups: America’s credit unions.

Small businesses and start-ups pursue many diverse sources of funding. As traditional sources have dried up, credit unions have stepped in to fill the void. As Rohit Arora, CEO of the Biz2Credit small business loan arranging service, recently explained at FoxBusiness.com, “Following the mortgage bust, many big banks essentially turned off the spigot to small business lending. Credit unions decided to take advantage of this hole in the marketplace by increasing their small business loan-making.”

But because of government barriers to credit-union business lending, thousands of entrepreneurial ventures may be unnecessarily deprived of the seed capital credit unions could provide to them. As Arora says, “Credit unions are handcuffed by a lending cap of 12.25 percent of their assets imposed by the Credit Union Membership Access Act of 1998. Thus, many of those who became active in small business lending quickly hit their limit.”

And this regulatory barrier is exactly what Udall-Paul — and its House companion H.R. 688, sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) — would fix. The legislation would raise the cap for business lending to 27.5 percent of a credit union’s assets. The modest hike in the lending cap would pay big dividends for entrepreneurs and the economy. The Credit Union National Association estimates this increase in the cap would create 138,000 jobs in the first year, a figure Pepperdine University economist David M. Smith calls “conservative and well within the bounds of a reasonable projection.”

The bills don’t go far enough; the cap should be eliminated entirely. There’s no “lending cap,” for instance, for credit unions in making car loans and home mortgages — even though, after the financial crisis, it’s hard to say business loans are any more inherently dangerous than mortgages. National Credit Union Administration Chairman Debbie Matz, an Obama appointee, told the House Financial Services Committee last year that business lending “did not have a major impact on the safety and soundness of the vast majority of credit unions” during the downturn, and that an increase in business lending is “another way in which to prudently manage risk.”

The only real opposition to the idea is coming from the powerful bank lobby, both from the big banks and from a trade association that purports to speak for smaller ones — the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

But the ICBA has a history of selling out its member banks. As reported by Robert Kaiser in his new book “Act of Congress” (and in an excerpt that ran recently in the Washington Post), ICBA President Camden Fine entered into a secret-handshake agreement with then-House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) during the financial reform debate in 2010. Fine agreed to “stay silent” on much of Dodd-Frank until it passed. In return, Frank changed the deposit insurance assessment formula in a way that benefits small banks. But by any reasonable estimate, the costs that Dodd-Frank imposed on community banks have swamped any savings from the change to the deposit insurance assessment formula.