Fair Game
A Credit Union That Played With Fire


WHEN Wall Street is accused — as it has been so often these days — of selling risky products to unwitting customers, it usually argues that investors in such exotic stuff are sophisticated adults capable of assessing any hidden dangers.

So it goes with collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s, which are bonds, loans and other assets that the Street pools together and sells as packages of securities. Purveyors of C.D.O.’s maintain that buyers who lost billions in these mortgage-related instruments were, of course, sophisticated.

But as a recent report from the inspector general of the National Credit Union Administration shows, it is neither credible nor factual that only savvy investors bought C.D.O.’s.

The report analyzes the April 2009 collapse of the Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union. Based in Miramar, Fla., this state-chartered institution was created in 1937 to serve the Miami employees of what later became Eastern Airlines. The institution added other Florida employee groups and was serving 208,000 members when it failed last year.

Eastern Financial had $1.6 billion in assets at the end of 2008. The company was placed in conservatorship on April 24, 2009. It was taken over by the Space Coast Credit Union of Melbourne, Fla. The failure will cost the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, the federal agency that guarantees credit union deposits, an estimated $40 million.

Because it was based in Florida, the doomed credit union had its share of bad real estate loans on its books. But the inspector general’s autopsy report said that the major cause of the Eastern Financial collapse was its decision to dive head-first into toxic C.D.O.’s just as the mortgage mania was faltering.

Between March 2007 and June 22, 2007, the credit union committed nearly $100 million to buy 16 of these instruments; most contained dicey home equity loans.

The timing of these purchases is intriguing. The spring of 2007 was when Wall Street’s mortgage machinery was sputtering; New Century Financial, a big subprime lender, filed for bankruptcy that April. Brokerage firms that had provided funding to lenders like New Century and Countrywide began pulling in their credit lines. At the same time, it became a matter of some urgency for these firms to jettison mortgage-related securities in their pipelines.

Who sold Eastern Financial its toxic securities? Alas, the inspector general identifies neither the C.D.O.’s the credit union bought nor the firms that peddled them.

But the report did note that the instruments Eastern Financial bought were private placements, “which provided less readily available market data to perform analysis and provide better understanding of underlying assets and grading system, tranches, etc.” In other words, the most obscure C.D.O.’s imaginable.

“This situation illustrates yet again why over-the-counter securities and derivatives are not suitable for federally insured banks and other ‘soft’ institutional clients,” said Christopher Whalen, editor of The Institutional Risk Analyst. “Wall Street securities dealers who knowingly cause losses to federally insured depositories should go to jail.”

Credit unions are nonprofit entities and typically do not engage in the risky investing that bank executives did during the credit bubble. Federal credit unions are also limited in the types of securities they can buy. While they can purchase mortgage-backed securities, they are barred from buying C.D.O.’s.

State-chartered credit unions have more leeway to invest in exotic instruments if their home states allow it. Florida, California and Michigan are three such states. But according to the National Credit Union Administration, less than 1 percent of all credit union investments fall into the exotic category.

THOSE state-chartered institutions that can buy C.D.O.’s and other riskier investments must set aside reserves of 100 percent of mark-to-market losses in such securities when they decline in value. This is intended to deter credit union executives from venturing down the risk spectrum.

The Florida credit union met that requirement, but clearly the deterrence didn’t work. Eastern Financial’s failure may be an outlier, but it makes for a terrific case study.

Indeed, the inspector general’s analysis is depressingly familiar. Eastern Financial’s management and board “relied too heavily on rating agencies’ grading of C.D.O. investments,” it concluded, and failed to evaluate and understand their complexity.

Almost immediately after the credit union bought the C.D.O.’s, they fell in value. By September 2007, the credit union had recorded $63.4 million in losses on the products, almost two-thirds of the original investment. By the time of its failure, the credit union had charged off all 18 C.D.O. investments, resulting in total losses of nearly $150 million.

Richard Field, managing director of TYI, which develops transparency, trading and risk management information systems, says the Eastern Financial collapse is yet another example of why investors in complex mortgage securities need to be able to consult complete loan-level data on what is in these pools.

“A sizable percentage of the problems in the credit markets and bank solvency are directly related to this lack of information,” Mr. Field said.

But the Eastern Financial insolvency also illustrates why regulators should make Wall Street adhere to concepts of suitability for institutions as well as individuals, Mr. Whalen said.

“The dealers who sold the C.D.O.’s to this credit union should be sanctioned,” he said. “It might even be possible to pursue the dealer who sold the C.D.O.’s under current law. At a minimum, the Securities and Exchange Commission should impose retail investor suitability standards onto banks and public sector agencies to end the predation by large Wall Street derivatives dealers.”

Will the National Credit Union Administration pursue any of the credit union’s executives or the firms that sold it the toxic securities? “We always consider potential claims of third-party liability in cases of this magnitude,” said John J. McKechnie III, director of public and congressional affairs at the administration.