Quebec's powerful credit unions grow into new banking fields

In most of Canada, nearly all the personal banking is done by one of the big nationwide banks. But in Quebec, the largest share belongs to the credit unions. In this province, credit unions do more banking than any one of Canada's big banks. Quebec's credit unions, called Caisses Populaires, and known popularly as the caisse, started as small banks in rural Quebec, and now offer electronic banking, discount brokerage, and insurance.

``The Caisse Populaire is identified with Quebec nationalism,'' says Roy Palmer, a banking analyst with Alfred Bunting and Company in Montreal.

In recent years, the Caisse Populaires have been experiencing rapid growth.

``It took us 63 years to get our first billion in assets,'' says Claude Beland, president of the central caisse, the Desjardins Movement. ``But in just the last 20 years, we have grown to $35 billion.''

The $35 billion (Canadian; US$28.7 billion) in assets held by the caisse ``movement,'' as it's often called, would make it the sixth-largest bank in Canada, if it were a bank.

The Montreal-based National Bank of Canada, which does the most business of any chartered bank in Quebec, has assets of $31.8 billion.

In addition to growing, the Caisse Populaires have been expanding the range of services they offer. Last fall, they began selling insurance, something the federally chartered banks have not been allowed to do. But a group of Quebec insurance brokers recently won a lawsuit against the caisse in which it was decided that the branches cannot sell insurance.

``We will appeal that to the Supreme Court of Canada,'' Mr. Beland says.

The Caisse Populaires handle 38 percent of all personal savings in Quebec, 45 percent of all mortgages, 50 percent of farm credit, and 33 percent of consumer credit, according to caisse figures. They also have 23 percent of commercial credit, an area once dominated by the large banks.

Quebec's credit unions are cooperatives and range from big city branches in Montreal to tiny outlets where they are the only financial institution in town. Each caisse is owned by its depositors; to open an account you buy a share in a branch, usually for a nominal amount of $5. The branches are locally run, but each reports to a regional group and all report to headquarters in Montreal.

And the credit unions can do things banks cannot. Two years ago, for example, the caisse bought out Brinks in Quebec and runs it as Secur Inc., the largest armored car business in the province.

And the caisse bought one-third of a discount broker called Disnat. ``We have the service available in five of our branches and hope to have them throughout the system starting this fall,'' Beland says.

One of the biggest assets of the caisse is Place Desjardin (named after the founder of the movement) the $250 million office building where Beland works.

There are 1,345 Caisse Populaires throughout Quebec. In many towns, the caisse is the only financial institution; some are in small offices in remote towns. Others, in Montreal for example, are full blown banks complete with Visa cards, traveler's checks, and teller machines.

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