The nation’s top credit union regulator has questioned HarborOne Credit Union’s decision to become a bank.
Debbie Matz, chairwoman of the National Credit Union Administration, the federal agency that oversees credit unions, said she did not see how converting the Brockton credit union into a mutually owned cooperative bank would help its approximately 140,000 customers.
“I am concerned when they say they are doing it for the benefit of the members,’’ Matz said. “There is no reason to think that members will be better served by a bank than a credit union.’’
HarborOne, which with 15 branches and $1.8 billion in assets is the second-largest credit union in the state, revealed plans in February to begin the conversion process. Its board has approved the plan but is waiting for permission from state and federal regulators, including Matz’s agency, before asking members to vote on the proposal.
The move has attracted attention in industry circles because HarborOne would be one of the largest credit unions ever to convert to a bank.
HarborOne’s chief executive, James W. Blake, said there are several reasons to make the conversion, including the ability to reach a broader group of potential customers, make more commercial loans, and raise more capital.
Both credit unions and cooperative mutual banks are operated for the benefit of their members, rather than for shareholders. Both typically offer basic financial services like checking accounts, savings accounts, and loans. But the institutions are bound by somewhat different financial regulations.
For instance, Blake noted that HarborOne is restricted to serving customers in four counties in Southeastern Massachusetts, barring it from opening a branch in Boston, where many of its members work, and forcing it to turn away many borrowers. Blake said the institution declined to make $70 million in loans last year.
In addition, credit unions are not permitted to lend more than 12.25 percent of their assets to businesses, which could further impede growth. It is also difficult for credit unions to raise outside capital, since they cannot sell stock, unlike some types of banks.
“This is a strategic, long-term decision to sustain us in the future,’’ Blake said. “I expect that people who look into it will think this make sense.’’
But Matz pointed out that HarborOne is not near its cap on small-business lending, and could petition the state to expand its geographical boundaries.
Additionally, Matz’s agency found that credit unions generally offer lower rates on consumer loans than banks. Credit unions that have converted to banks have also historically offered even higher rates than most other banks.
Even so, Matz said she expects HarborOne members to approve the conversion, because no organized opposition has emerged.
“I’m assuming it will go through,’’ Matz said. “I just think it’s not going to be in the best interests of their members.’’
‘I just think it’s not going to be in the best interests of their members.’Debbie Matz Chairwoman of the National Credit Union Administration
Matz added that she suspects HarborOne will ultimately become public if it becomes a bank. Like credit unions, mutual banks do not have stock to sell to investors, so HarborOne would have to later convert from a mutual to a stock-owned bank to raise outside capital from investors.
Blake said the credit union’s board has not discussed becoming a publicly traded bank, but could explore that option if it ever needed to raise more capital.
According to the National Credit Union Administration, 20 of 28 credit unions that converted to a mutual bank since 1995 subsequently became stock-owned banks. Such conversions are often controversial, industry executives said, because they sometimes create a windfall for bank executives and leave the bank vulnerable to a takeover.
Some bankers dispute the argument that customers are better off at credit unions, saying that by virtue of their nonprofit status, credit unions are exempt from some state and local taxes, so they can often offer better interest rates than for-profit banks. But credit unions also face tighter restrictions on lending and their field of membership, which can make it more difficult for them to offer all the services customers want.
“There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to each,’’ said Jon Skarin, of the Massachusetts Bankers Association.Todd Wallack can be reached at email@example.com.