The Bank of Cattaraugus’s numbers

By Felix Salmon
December 24, 2011
Alan Feuer has the story of the Bank of Cattaraugus, a tiny community bank in the eponymous town an hour south of Buffalo. It's a heartwarming tale of community banking:

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Alan Feuer has the story of the Bank of Cattaraugus, a tiny community bank in the eponymous town an hour south of Buffalo. It’s a heartwarming tale of community banking:

A few years ago, when Ms. Bonner fell behind on her property taxes and was forced to sell her home, the bank’s president, Patrick J. Cullen, who held the mortgage on the house, had his son Thomas buy it. Thomas Cullen, who lives in Chicago, never intended to live there.  Ms. Bonner and her sister were able to stay as renters.

“The whole thing was incredible,” Ms. Bonner said the other day, a single pine branch hanging in her living room in lieu of a full Christmas tree, which she could not afford. “I just didn’t realize there were people like that in the world, people who would help you.

“Especially,” she said, “a banker.”

Feuer doesn’t get much into the financial details, but the ones he does have are intriguing:

With $12 million in total assets, the Bank of Cattaraugus is a microbank, well below the $10 billion ceiling that defines small banks…

In its 130-year history, the bank has rarely booked a profit for itself in excess of $50,000. Last year, Mr. Cullen said, it made $5,000…

The largest employer in the village is the school district, and many village residents survive, like Ms. Bonner, on pensions or government subsidies, in homes that have an average mortgage of $30,000..

Even in Cattaraugus — population 950 — Mr. Cullen says he receives at least two offers a week from larger institutions that want to buy him out. He claims to be unsurprised by these overtures, though his business is exceptionally simple: 80 percent of the loans in his portfolio are mortgages.

The bank’s official FDIC reports add a bit more detail — and show income of $8,000 on total assets of $16.2 million as of September, along with $1.1 million in equity capital. Last year, net income was $47,000, which even then was a return on assets of just 0.3%.

Total salaries and employee benefits are $276,000, split between eight employees, plus $34,000 in directors’ fees. (Both the CEO and his daughter, the CFO, are directors; his son Thomas is “Director Emeritus”.) Feuer describes Mr Cullen as “a well-to-do man”; but he’s clearly not extracting a huge salary from his bank. Instead, Cullen uses the bank as a vehicle for his civic ambitions: he holds a position of great importance in this town. It’s easy to see why he has no interest in selling the bank and getting replaced by some ambitious banker working his way up the corporate ladder. Instead, this bank is a family affair: a Cullen has been president since 1957, and Cullen’s daughter will surely replace him when he retires.

Understandably, Bank of Cattaraugus doesn’t have online banking, although it does have something it calls “bank-by-mail”. And there are signs of significant political clout, too: the bank is home to state and municipal deposits totaling $5.42 million, more than 37% of its total deposit base. Without those deposits, its hard to see how the Bank of Cattaraugus could run any kind of profit at all.

What the bank does have, of course, is much more liquidity than any individual in town. And although it doesn’t engage in complex trading strategies, it does do its own kind of risky proprietary trading: the bank took took over one abandoned house, for instance, fixed it up, and sold it for an eventual loss of $500.

Most interestingly, it also has a local monopoly. As a result, it faces little competition when it comes to things like deposit interest rates, and extremely little competition even when it comes to lending rates. No other bank understands local property values like the Bank of Cattaraugus does, which almost certainly means it’s often the first and last stop for locals looking for a mortgage. Cullen also tells the story of a local Amish man who got an $85,000 consolidation loan from the bank: no one else would loan him anything like that, given his declared income of just $2,300 a year. But the result is that if you get a loan from the Bank of Cattaraugus, you’ll pay whatever Patrick Cullen says you’ll pay.

Now there’s no evidence that Cullen is abusing his monopoly at all. The bank has earning assets of $13.7 million, on which it earned net interest income of $544,000: that’s an average interest rate of less than 4%. And service charges are running at $58,000 per year, which works out to just under $3 per month, on average, for each of the bank’s 1,625 deposit accounts. That’s an entirely reasonable sum to pay for the utility service of having a bank account at your local community bank.

The Bank of Cattaraugus, then, really does look as though it’s everything Feuer says it is. It’s run by a pillar of the local community, to really help local businesses — and the town itself — thrive. I’m sure that if you wanted to buy up the old hotel in the center of town and spruce it up a bit, Cullen would give you all the help and support you needed. The Cullen family gets to live well in, and provide some financial plumbing for, a town they clearly love and feel partially responsible for. And the bank looks perfectly healthy, even without much in the way of profits.

Of course, this kind of model doesn’t scale: that’s kinda the point. And neither could some enormous franchise with hundreds or thousands of branches ever provide the same kind of service that the Bank of Cattaraugus does now. But without what you might call the Cullen family’s noblesse oblige, they would surely have sold the bank for a seven-figure sum by now, and gone off to more lucrative careers elsewhere.

How can one institutionalize that kind of citizenship? The answer is simple: credit unions. While the Bank of Cattaraugus is a prime example of a small community bank which really is doing God’s work (on a total asset base rather lower than Lloyd Blankfein’s annual salary), everything it does could also be done by a credit union, without the associated risks of the owners selling out at some point.

Everything, that is, except one important thing: banks are allowed to accept state and municipal deposits, while credit unions are not. If the Bank of Cattaraugus became a credit union tomorrow, it would have to return $5.42 million in deposits, and it would become insolvent overnight. So while I don’t for a minute begrudge the bank those deposits, I do wonder why credit unions don’t have the opportunity to do the same kind of thing with them. The world would be a better place if they could.

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