Surviving the Examination During Challenging Times

Follow these five steps toward a productive exam.

December 12, 2011

Balance-sheet pressures caused by reduced loan demand, shrinking margins, and the continued drain of corporate stabilization assessments have many experts predicting almost half of the nation’s credit unions will operate at a loss this year. Add to that the fact that the credit union industry is one of the most highly regulated in the U.S.

So how do you survive your examination? And how can you make it a constructive process?

Proper preparation can be the “transactional lubrication” your credit union needs to reduce the regulatory friction of an exam. Here are five steps your credit union can follow to reduce examination anxiety and make the experience productive:

1. Understand the examination’s scope and logic (yes, there is some).

Half of life’s successes can be attributed to simply understanding the rules. Fortunately, we not only know the rules for credit union examinations, we have the playbook in the form of NCUA’s Examiner’s Guide.

Examiners are focusing on:
  • Real estate lending
  • Business lending
  • Indirect lending
  • Participation loans
  • Investments
  • Loan modifications

In the first chapter, NCUA makes the focus of its examiner corps quite clear: “Examiners allot time to reviewing areas containing the most risk for an individual credit union. Activities posing the highest risk receive the most scrutiny.” Risk has always been the “No. 1 enemy.”

We have access not only to the regulator’s exam manual, but also to the AIRES (Auto-mated Integrated Regulatory Examination Software) questionnaires, which examiners use to evaluate credit union operations.

Together, they reveal that the exam will include a review of the past exam findings, 5300 Call Report data, supervisory committee audit, ALM (asset/liability management) assessment, ALLL (allowance for loan and lease losses) process, payment processing, regulatory compliance, and other risk-based red flags that catch the examiner’s eye.

Examiner scrutiny includes, of course, the traditional balance sheet review of general credit union performance data and key ratios such as income, net worth, return on assets, and delinquency and charge-offs—and Bank Secrecy Act compliance, data security, and due diligence oversight of third-party vendors.

One other potential resource is now in the works. NCUA is developing a “National Supervision Policy Manual” to replace regional policies. This should make examinations more uniform across the country and address a long-time complaint of credit unions about inconsistent exam standards.

The agency expects to implement the manual in the first half of 2012, and CUNA has requested that it be publicly accessible on the agency’s website.

2. Maintain an accurate understanding of your credit union’s current position.

Your credit union’s risk appetite is probably the biggest area of disagreement with the examiner. From granting a loan to making investment decisions, risk is an inevitable part of credit union operations, but you must manage it properly.

Risk assessments are an essential management and regulatory tool. Be prepared to show your examiner how your credit union has mastered what I call the “three R’s”: risk, recognition, and reaction.

Examiners currently are focusing on: real estate lending, business lending, indirect lending, participation loans, investments, and loan modifications. These areas represent the greatest risk right now.

In fact, the NCUA Board currently is reviewing every one of these areas to determine what additional regulations might be needed to address future risks. A new regulation undoubtedly will be in place in 2012 requiring credit unions above a certain asset size to have a formal interest-rate risk program, and the agency will soon consider a similar regulation to address concentration risk.

Next: Involve all areas

3. Involve all areas of operations in preparation for the exam.

Before the exam, create an internal team made up of your operational area experts. Except in the smallest of credit unions, interaction with the examiner shouldn’t be a “one-man show,” although you’ll want to choose one person as the central point of contact with the examiner (or team of examiners).

Experience shows that the examiner is increasingly likely to engage more of your staff during the exam anyway, so organizing a team allows you to have some control over the process. It also showcases your operational leaders to explain to the examiner your business, risk management, and compliance strategies.

For instance, if your real estate lending portfolio might raise questions about quality or concentration, you’ll want to have a document prepared, anticipating these issues and detailing for the examiner what you’re doing to address them. Remember the three Rs!

I know having some employees spend time on the regulatory exam takes them away from their “day jobs,” but in the end it’s worth it. Your “prep” team will identify key areas the examiner is likely to focus on and will make sure your credit union is properly addressing unnecessary risks and operational weaknesses.

Moreover, this process will help you effectively and efficiently manage your credit union well beyond the exam.

4. Engage the examiner before, during, and after the exam.

Consider the exam less of an enemy invasion and more of a guided tour of your treasured home. If the examiner cited a major issue in your previous exam’s “Document of Resolution” (DOR), you’ve undoubtedly had follow-up contact.

But don’t hesitate to initiate communication. If you have an emerging issue that could affect your financials or a new product that might raise risk inquiries, it’s better to give the examiner a heads up before he arrives on your doorstep.

Throughout the exam process, of course, make sure your internal examination team has good communication with the examiner so you can address questions or concerns as they arise. After the examiner has completed his initial review, schedule a briefing.

Examiners are instructed to provide time during the exam for such discussions. This is where you can resolve simpler concerns that shouldn’t be listed in the DOR.

Examiners are encouraged to give your credit union a draft copy of the examination report. It’s your chance to review it before the formal exit interview with the board.

Insist on seeing a draft if your examiner doesn’t volunteer one. The Examiner’s Guide states that “nothing presented at the joint conference, exit interview, or in the examination report should surprise the [credit union’s] officials.”

Stay courteous and professional even if tensions rise, especially in these challenging economic times. You might want to check out CUNA’s “Credit Union Examination Rights”—a list CUNA informally asked NCUA senior staff to review before finalizing this year.

It includes 24 items credit unions should reasonably expect, such as having examination findings prioritized, knowing the specific authority for an examiner’s directive, and being evaluated on progress toward realistic objectives.

In September 2011, NCUA’s inspector general released a report critical of examiners’ failure to follow up on unresolved items listed in the DOR. (Find the “Review of NCUA’s Document of Resolution Follow-up Process” at Credit unions, regardless of their CAMEL rating, should now expect to provide written responses for all DOR items not resolved within the timeframes listed in the exam report and to see stronger supervisory action if DOR items aren’t corrected.

In the “good news” category, I would expect credit unions will see fewer minor items listed under the DOR.

5. Create the internal structure to enjoy repeated success.

View regulators’ exams as a process, not a singular event. They’re simply a checkpoint in the ongoing continuum called credit union operations.

If you manage your operations year-round with your examination in mind—rather than waiting until the last minute before the exam to compile documents and create plans for addressing risky areas—you should have no surprises, and your exam should run smoothly.

Once you make the exam part of your operational processes, you’ll no longer simply survive the exam but thrive as an organization all year long. And you’ll view the time with your examiner less as a visit from an unwanted house guest and more as a visit from an old friend.

DAVID A. REED, Esq., is with Reed & Jolly, PLLC, Fairfax, Va. Contact him at 703-675-9578.