Student Loans: The Other Killer of Our Economy

DEBT SERVITUDE

Standing ovation to Yves Smith from Naked capitalism and Moe Tkacik for his article on the 40 year war on students. It is like eating our young. We want a country that is vibrant, that offers hope for advancement, and that provides superior services and products. But we alone make it impossible for most students to justify the cost of higher education.
As Graeber points out in his wonderful book DEBT: The first 5,000 Years, debt is a moral and political issue and has no precise meaning because it refers to money which has no precise meaning. Those dots on a screen are not money. They are representations about comparative wealth. The bullying atmosphere of this country has turned morality on its head. Those that commit the most atrocious acts in dealing with the unsophisticated consumer are allowed to roam free while the lives of their victims are turned into chaos and despair.

We have transformed morality into something that only applies to ordinary folks and not to people who achieve unspeakable wealth. A businessman walks away from building a home because he sees no possibility of profit or even breaking even and there is no stigma against him, he is not prevented from doing so and the bank is stuck with the result. Then along comes the myth of securitization and the bank is not stuck with that result or any other result. And the ordinary person who wants to walk from the the home because there is no hope for profit or breakeven is said to violating some code of morality — even some say a sin against humanity and God.

We want the quality and productivity but we are not willing to pay for it. We did very well when the cost of education was affordable and easily financed and paid for with reasonable assumptions about employment. We are doing terribly now because we got away from that and made education a profit seeking venture for the finance sector.

The banks had a field day when they were allowed to act as intermediaries in the government backed student loan market. All the same things that happened with mortgages were happening with student loans, including the non-dischargeability of a debt.

In my opinion, the government backing should be construed as a non-transferable guarantee to the loan originator. Government backing (i.e, our tax dollars) should not be the vehicle for making money multiple times on the same loans. Nor should the government backing be tacked on as an inducement for investment where diversification addresses the risk of loss. In this case, like the mortgage market, people were encouraged, even pushed into loans they either could not afford or didn’t need.

Just like the mortgage market, with the originator not exposed to any risk, the goal was to move as much money as possible to justify the fees and “trading profits” the investment banks were taking. And just like the mortgage market the only proper remedy is to reduce rates and principal to correctly reflect the value of the loan at origination instead of enforcing the false and fraudulent value of the loan as represented by the originator and its agents.

This may turn out to be a parallel source of litigation and legislation as the country struggles with over $1 trillion in student debt, much of which cannot be paid because the students are unemployed resulting from a recession that was and remains so deep that it rivals the great depression.

Reality check: you can keep those loans and mortgage bonds on the books as long as your accountants and regulators are willing to play the game, but eventually they must be written down to real value. The same holds true for government backed loans. The government must take the hit here because they are the pocket of last resort.

And anyone arguing for “unchaining” restraints on Wall Street is speaking in code to those in the 1%. He is saying “we don’t have to settle for most of the country’s wealth, we can have it all.” But such people ignore history when income and wealth disparity becomes so severe that people cannot keep a roof over their heads or food on the table, things change. My message to those anti-regulators is be careful what you wish for — if you get it, the people might turn around and get you.

Moe Tkacik: Student Debt – The Unconstitutional 40 Year War on Students

Yves here. I’m featuring this post not simply because the student debt issue is coming to serve as a form of debt servitude, but also because the backstory is so ugly. Student debt is the only form of consumer lending where the obligation cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. This story chronicles how persistent bank lobbying, including disinformation portraying student borrowers as likely deadbeats, led to increasingly draconian treatment of student loans. A second reason for posting it is that due to technical difficulties at Reuters, the original ran without the hyperlinks, which are of interest to serious readers.

By Moe Tkacik, a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes at Das Krapital. First published at Reuters.

Lobbyists’ trillion dollar revenge on nerds  

You have probably mentally catalogued the student loan crisis alongside all the other looming trillion dollar crises busy imperiling civilization for the purpose of enriching the already rich. But it is different from those crises in a few significant ways, starting with the fact that the entire student loan business is arguably unconstitutional.

You don’t have to take it from me: a preeminent bankruptcy scholar made precisely this argument under oath before Congress. In December 1975, when Congress was debating the first law that made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, University of Connecticut law professor Philip Shuchman testified that students “should not be singled out for special and discriminatory treatment,” adding that the idea gave him “the further very literal feeling that this is almost a denial of their right to equal protection of the laws.”

Read more at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/08/moe-tkacik-student-debt-the-unconstitutional-40-year-war-on-students.html#kqzkfT8tjDj05GZ6.99

Student Loans Are The Next Major Crack in Our Finance

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Disclosure to Student Borrowers: www.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/opinion/sunday/disclosure-to-student-borrowers.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

Editor’s Comment: 

“We have created a world of finance in which it is more lucrative to lose money and get paid by the government, than to make money and contribute to society.  In the Soviet Union the government ostensibly owned everything; in America the government is a vehicle for the banks to own everything.”—Neil F Garfield LivingLies.me

While the story below is far too kind to both Dimon and JPMorgan, it hits the bulls-eye on the current trends. And if we think that it will stop at student loans we are kidding ourselves or worse. The entire student loan mess, totaling more than $1 trillion now, was again caused by the false use of Securitzation, the abuse of government guaranteed loans, and the misinterpretation of the rules governing discharge ability of debt in bankruptcy.

First we had student loans in which the government provided financing so that our population would maintain its superior position of education, innovation and the brains of the world in getting technological and mechanical things to work right, work well and create new opportunities.

Then the banks moved in and said we will provide the loans. But there was a catch. Instead of the “private student” loan being low interest, it became a vehicle for raising rates to credit card levels — meaning the chance of anyone being able to repay the loan principal was correspondingly diminished by the increase in the payments of interest.

So the banks made sure that they couldn’t lose money by (a) selling off the debt in securitization packages and (b) passing along the government guarantee of the debt.  This was combined with the nondischargability of the debt in bankruptcy to the investors who purchased these seemingly high value high yielding bonds from noncapitalized entities that had absolutely no capacity to pay off the bonds.  The only way these issuers of student debt bonds could even hope to pay the interest or the principal was by using the investors’ own money, or by receiving the money from one of several sources — only one of which was the student borrower.

The fact that the banks managed to buy congressional support to insert themselves into the student loan process is stupid enough. But things got worse than that for the students, their families and the taxpayers. It’s as though the courts got stupid when these exotic forms of finance hit the market.

Here is the bottom line: students who took private loans were encouraged and sold on an aggressive basis to borrow money not only for tuition and books, but for housing and living expenses that could have been covered in part by part-time work. So, like the housing mess, Wall Street was aggressively selling money based upon eventual taxpayer bailouts.

Next, the banks, disregarding the reason for government guaranteed loans or exemption from discharge ability of student loan debt, elected to change the risk through securitization. Not only were the banks not on the hook, but they were once again betting on what they already knew — there was no way these loans were going to get repaid because the amount of the loans far exceeded the value of the potential jobs. In short, the same story as appraisal fraud of the homes, where the prices of homes and loans were artificially inflated while the values were declining at precipitous rate.

Like the housing fraud, the securitization was merely trick accounting without any real documentation or justification.  There are two final results that should happen but can’t because Congress is virtually owned by the banks. First, the guarantee should not apply if the risk intended to be protected is no longer present or has significantly changed. And second, with the guarantee gone, there is no reason to maintain the exemption by which student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Based on current law and cases, these are obvious conclusions that will be probably never happen. Instead, the banks will claim losses that are not their own, collect taxpayer guarantees or bailouts, and receive proceeds of insurance, credit default swaps and other credit enhancements.

Congratulations. We have created a world of finance in which it is more lucrative to lose money and get paid by the government, than to make money and contribute to the society for which these banks are allowed to exist ostensibly for the purpose of providing capital to a growing economy. So the economy is in the toilet and the government keeps paying the banks to slap us.

Did JPMorgan Pop The Student Loan Bubble?

Back in 2006, contrary to conventional wisdom, many financial professionals were well aware of the subprime bubble, and that the trajectory of home prices was unsustainable. However, because there was no way to know just when it would pop, few if any dared to bet against the herd (those who did, and did so early despite all odds, made greater than 100-1 returns). Fast forward to today, when the most comparable to subprime, cheap credit-induced bubble, is that of student loans (for extended literature on why the non-dischargeable student loan bubble will “create a generation of wage slavery” read this and much of the easily accessible literature on the topic elsewhere) which have now surpassed $1 trillion in notional. Yet oddly enough, just like in the case of the subprime bubble, so in the ongoing expansion of the credit bubble manifested in this case by student loans, we have an early warning that the party is almost over, coming from the most unexpected of sources: JPMorgan.

Recall that in October 2006, 5 months before New Century started the March 2007 collapsing dominoes that ultimately translated to the bursting of both the housing and credit bubbles several short months later, culminating with the failure of Bear, Lehman, AIG, The Reserve Fund, and the near end of capitalism ‘we know it’, it was JPMorgan who sounded a red alert, and proceeded to pull entirely out of the Subprime space. From Fortune, two weeks before the Lehman failure: “It was the second week of October 2006. William King, then J.P. Morgan’s chief of securitized products, was vacationing in Rwanda. One evening CEO Jamie Dimon tracked him down to fire a red alert. “Billy, I really want you to watch out for subprime!” Dimon’s voice crackled over King’s hotel phone. “We need to sell a lot of our positions. I’ve seen it before. This stuff could go up in smoke!” Dimon was right (as was Goldman, but that’s another story), while most of his competitors piled on into this latest ponzi scheme of epic greed, whose only resolution would be a wholesale taxpayer bailout. We all know how that chapter ended (or hasn’t – after all everyone is still demanding another $1 trillion from the Fed at least to get their S&P limit up fix, and then another, and another). And now, over 5 years later, history repeats itself: JPM is officially getting out of student loans. If history serves, what happens next will not be pretty.

American Banker brings us the full story:

U.S. Bancorp (USB) is pulling out of the private student loans market and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) is sharply reducing its lending, as banking regulators step up their scrutiny of the products.

JPMorgan Chase will limit student lending to existing customers starting in July, a bank spokesman told American Banker on Friday. The bank laid off 24 employees who make sales calls to colleges as part of its decision.

The official reason:

“The private student loan market is continuing to decline, so we decided to focus on Chase customers,” spokesman Thomas Kelly says.

Ah yes, focusing on customers, and providing liquidity no doubt, courtesy of Blythe Masters. Joking aside, what JPMorgan is explicitly telling us is that it can’t make money lending out to the one group of the population where demand for credit money is virtually infinite (after all 46% of America’s 16-24 year olds are out of a job: what else are they going to?), and furthermore, with debt being non-dischargable, this is about as safe a carry trade as any, even when faced with the prospect of bankruptcy. What JPM is implicitly saying, is that the party is over, and all private sector originators are hunkering down, in anticipation of the hammer falling. Or if they aren’t, they should be.

JPM is not alone:

Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank sent a letter to participating colleges and universities saying that it would no longer be accepting student loan applications as of March 29, a spokesman told American Banker on Friday.

“We are in fact exiting the private student lending business,” U.S. Bank spokesman Thomas Joyce said, adding that the bank’s business was too small to be worthwhile.

“The reasoning is we’re a very small player, less than 1.5% of market share,” Joyce adds. “It’s a very small business for the bank, and we’ve decided to make a strategic shift and move resources.”

Which, however, is not to say that there will be no source of student loans. On Friday alone we found out that in February the US government added another $11 billion in student debt to the Federal tally, a run-rate which is now well over $10 billion a month an accelerating: a rate of change which is almost as great as the increase in Apple market cap. So who will be left picking up the pieces? Why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, funded by none other than Ben Bernanke, and headed by the same Richard Cordray that Obama shoved into his spot over Republican protests, when taking advantage of a recessed Congress.

“What we are likely to see over the next few months is a lot of private education lenders rethinking the product, particularly if it appears that the CFPB is going to become more activist,” says Kevin Petrasic, a partner with law firm Paul Hastings.

“Historically there’s been a patchwork of regulation towards private student lenders,” he adds. “The CFPB allows for a more uniform and consistent approach and identification of the issues. It also provides a network, effectively a data-gathering base that is going to enable the agency to get all the stories that are out there.”

The CFPB recently began accepting student loan complaints on its website.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of emphasis and focus … in terms of what is deemed to be fair and what is over the line with collections and marketing,” Petrasic says, warning that “the challenge for the CFPB in this area is going to be trying to figure out how to set consumer protection standards without essentially eviscerating availability of the product.”

And with all private players stepping out very actively, it only leaves the government, with its extensive system of ‘checks and balances’, to hand out loans to America’s ever more destitute students, with the reckless abandon of a Wells Fargo NINJA-specialized loan officer in 2005. What will be hilarious in 2014, when taxpayers are fuming at the latest multi-trillion bailout, now that we know that $270 billion in student loans are at least 30 days delinquent which can only have one very sad ending, is that the government will have no evil banker scapegoats to blame loose lending standards on. And why would they: after all it is this administration’s sworn Keynesian duty to make every student a debt slave in perpetuity, but only after they buy a lifetime supply of iPads. Then again by 2014 we will have far greater problems (and for most in the administration, it will be “someone else’s problem”).

For now, our advice – just do what Jamie Dimon is doing: duck and hide for cover.

Oh, and if there is a cheap student loan synthetic short out there, which has the same upside potential as the ABX did in late 2006, please advise.

Student Loans Non-Dischargeable? — NOT SO FAST

If the government guarantee was waived in whole or in part, which I am sure is the case, then the rationale for non-dischargeability disappears. So I am suggesting that the assumption that the student loan is non-dischargeable should be challenged based upon the individual facts of your student loan. If it was securitized and it most likely was, then the party seeking to enforce the debt must prove that the government guarantee still applies. Otherwise it should be treated like any other unsecured debt.

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Editor’s comment: Fact: Nearly all finance was securitized and still is. Ron Lieber talks below about efforts to change the law so student loans could be dischargeable in bankruptcy. Good idea. But I’m not so sure it is necessary to change the law.

The entire student loan structure, as President Obama has pointed out, is just plain wrong. Somehow loans that were provided by government anyway became guaranteed by government and then actually “funded” by banks. The banks could charge whatever interest they wanted, which frequently rose to usurious levels and if the student didn’t pay, then the government did, which is the way it was before they let private banks into the mix.

The effect was to burden students with loans that were impossible to pay off given the economic context of unemployment, underemployment and stagnant median income. So the prospective students frequently put off the education or avoided it entirely because the economics did not make sense. Those that did take the plunge are “underwater” just like U.S. Homeowners all because of financial chicanery.

To top things off they made student loans —- private student loans — non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. The theory was that since the government was doing students the favor of providing a guarantee of the loans, the loans would be more available, thus increasing liquidity in the student loan market. Since the net effect was a gusher of money pouring into private banks from the pockets of students, marketing efforts (including payoffs in student adviser facilities on campus) did in fact  lure students into these ridiculous arrangements.

Enter securitization: Since the private bank was guaranteed against loss, this provided the rationale for this lock-up system enslaving students before their careers even begin. But virtually ALL private banks were simply paid a fee for fronting the marketing of the loan which was funded with investor money because the loans were securitized before they were ever granted and thus the money and the risk was already resolved before the “underwriting” of the loan.

Like the mortgage loans, underwriting standards were dropped completely in favor of parameters set by Wall Street. The appearance of underwriting was preserved, but like mortgages, not very well. Like the mortgages, credit enhancements were added to the mix adding co-obligors right in the pooling and servicing agreements and assignments and assumption agreements, including insurance, credit default swaps etc.

Thus the “lender” that originating the Loan was what? A pretender lender whoa advanced no funds or capital of their own. Since the originating lender made the election of laying off the risk into slices and pieces and credit enhancements, they, in my opinion, waived the government guarantee.

If the government guarantee was waived in whole or in part, which I am sure is the case, then the rationale for non-dischargeability disappears. So I am suggesting that the assumption that the student loan is non-dischargeable should be challenged based upon the individual facts of your student loan. If it was securitized and it most likely was, then the party seeking to enforce the debt must prove that the government guarantee still applies. Otherwise it should be treated like any other unsecured debt.

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June 4, 2010

Student Debt and a Push for Fairness

By RON LIEBER

If you run up big credit card bills buying a new home theater system and can’t pay it off after a few years, bankruptcy judges can get rid of the debt. They may even erase loans from a casino.

But if you borrow money to get an education and can’t afford the loan payments after a few years of underemployment, that’s another matter entirely. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of the debt in bankruptcy court, even if it’s a private loan from for-profit lenders like Citibank or the student loan specialist Sallie Mae.

This part of the bankruptcy law is little known outside education circles, but ever since it went into effect in 2005, it’s inspired shock and often rage among young adults who got in over their heads. Today, they find themselves in the same category as people who can’t discharge child support payments or criminal fines.

Now, even Sallie Mae, tired of being a punching bag for consumer advocates and hoping to avoid changes that would hurt its business too severely, has agreed that the law needs alteration. Bills in the Senate and House of Representatives would make the rules for private loans less strict, now that Congress has finished the job of getting banks out of the business of originating federal student loans.

With this latest initiative, however, lawmakers face a question that’s less about banking than it is about social policy or political calculation. At a time when voters are furious at their neighbors for getting themselves into mortgage trouble, do legislators really want to change the bankruptcy laws so that even more people can walk away from their debts?

There are two main types of student loans. Under the proposed changes, borrowers would remain on the hook for federal loans, like Stafford and Perkins loans, as they have been for many years. To most people, this seems fair because the federal government (and ultimately taxpayers) stand behind these loans. There are also many payment plans and even forgiveness programs for some borrowers.

In 2005, however, Congress made the bankruptcy rules the same for the second kind of debt, private loans underwritten by profit-making banks. These have no government guarantees and come with fewer repayment options. Undergraduates can also borrow much more than they can with federal loans, making trouble more likely.

Destitute borrowers can still discharge student loan debt if they experience “undue hardship.” But that condition is nearly impossible to prove, absent a severe disability.

Meanwhile, the volume of private loans, which are most popular among students attending profit-making schools, has grown rapidly in the last two decades as students have tried to close the gap between the rising price of tuition and what they can afford. In the 2007-8 school year, the latest period for which good data is available, about one third of all recipients of bachelor’s degrees had used a private loan at some point before they graduated, according to College Board research.

Tightening credit caused total private loan volume to fall by about half to roughly $11 billion in the 2008-9 school year, according to the College Board. Tim Ranzetta, founder of Student Lending Analytics, figures it fell an additional 24 percent this last academic year, though his estimate doesn’t include some state-based nonprofit lenders.

There is no strong evidence that young adults would line up at bankruptcy court in the event of a change. That gives Democrats and university groups hope that Congress could succeed in making the laws less strict.

In Congressional hearings on the efforts to change the rule, last year and then in April, no lender was present to make the case for the status quo. Instead, it fell to lawyers and financiers who work for them. They made the following points.

BANKRUPTCIES WOULD RISE At the April hearing, John Hupalo, managing director for student loans at Samuel A. Ramirez and Company, made the most obvious case against any change. “With no assets to lose, an education in hand, why not discharge the loan without ever making a payment to the lender?” he said.

Once you set aside this questionable presumption of mendacity among the young, there are actually plenty of practical reasons why not. “People don’t like to go through bankruptcy,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, who introduced the House bill that would change the rules. “It’s not like going to get a milkshake.”

Andy Winchell, a bankruptcy lawyer in Summit, N.J., likens student loan debt to tattoos: They’re easy to get, people tend to get them when they’re young, and they’re awfully hard to get rid of.

And he would remind clients of a couple of things. First, you generally can’t make another bankruptcy filing and discharge more debt for many years. So if you, in essence, cry wolf with a filing to erase your student loans, you’ll be in a real bind if you then face crushing medical debt two years later.

Then there’s the damage to your credit report. While it doesn’t remain there forever, the blemish can have an enormous impact on young people trying to establish themselves with an employer or buy a home.

Finally, you’re going to have to persuade a lawyer to take your case. And if it seems that you’re simply shirking your obligations, many lawyers will kick you out of their offices. “It’s not easy to find a dishonest bankruptcy attorney who is going to risk their license to practice law on a case they don’t believe in,” Mr. Winchell said.

Sallie Mae can live with a change, so long as there’s a waiting period before anyone can try to discharge the debts. “Sallie Mae continues to support reform that would allow federal and private student loans to be dischargeable in bankruptcy for those who have made a good-faith effort to repay their student loans over a five-to-seven-year period and still experience financial difficulty,” the company said in a prepared statement.

While there is no waiting period in either of the current bills, Mr. Cohen said he could live with one if that’s what it took to get a bill through Congress. “Philosophy and policy can get you on the Rachel Maddow show, but what you want to do is pass legislation and affect people’s lives,” he said, referring to the host of an MSNBC news program.

BANKS WOULDN’T LEND ANYMORE Private student loans are an unusual line of business, given that lenders hand over money to students who might not finish their studies and have uncertain earning prospects even if they do get a degree. “Borrowers are not creditworthy to begin with, almost by definition,” Mr. Hupalo said in an interview this week.

But banks that have stayed in the business (and others, like credit unions, that have entered recently) have made adjustments that will probably protect them far more than any alteration in the bankruptcy laws will hurt. For instance, it’s become much harder to get many private loans without a co-signer. That means lenders have two adults on the hook for repayment instead of just one.

BORROWING COSTS WOULD RISE They probably would rise a bit, at least at first as lenders assume the worst (especially if Congress applies any change to outstanding loans instead of limiting it to future ones). But this might not be such a bad thing.

Private loans exist because the cost of college is often so much higher than what undergraduates can borrow through federal loans, which have annual limits. Some lenders may be predatory and many borrowers are irresponsible, but this debate would be much less loud if tuition were not rising so quickly.

So if loans cost more and lenders underwrite fewer of them, people will have less money to spend on their education. Some fly-by-night profit-making schools might cease to exist, and all but the most popular private nonprofit universities might finally be forced to reckon with their costs and course offerings.

Prices might come down. And young adults just getting started in life might be less likely to face a nasty choice between decades of oppressive debt payments and visiting a bankruptcy judge before starting an entry-level job.

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