Colleges are biggest beneficiary of low student loan rates

The political crisis dujour is U.S. student loan debt which, at more than $1 trillion, is now greater than American credit card debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This is the latest of the hardy fiscal perennials we have been dealing with since the 2008 financial crisis. These matters are like food and drink to politicians, the media and the special interests that can be counted on to describe the issue as anywhere from alarming to frightening.

We are told that student loan debt is the next calamity, comparable to the mortgages that created the disastrous housing bubble. Those in the know are “gravely concerned” about this latest “threat to our economic future.” Needless to say, our leaders must “act swiftly and decisively” to stem the tide.

The issue is front and center in Washington, D.C., because the Senate failed to agree on a plan to keep the current federal student loan interest rate of 3.4 percent from doubling to 6.8 percent on July 1. More than seven million loans could be affected by the hike. Both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney support keeping the interest rate at 3.4 percent. The change is estimated to cost the average loan holder between $7 and $25 a month.

In 2007, while we were swimming in a sea of red ink, the folks in Washington- including then-President Bush- cut the statutory 6.8 percent interest rate in half on these federal loans. This provision was to expire in five years. Time is up July 1.

A largely unasked root question is what does keeping federal student loan interest rates do? Does it lead to more student borrowing? What about its impact on costs? Since the 1980s, the cost of college has increased by more than 400 percent while the median income has only increased by 150 percent. Continuing to make federal funds freely available to students makes it easier for colleges and universities to raise their prices year in and year out.

Colleges and universities are arguably the biggest beneficiaries of student loans. In addition to making it easier for them to raise prices, they also increase revenues with no credit risk. Meanwhile, many students graduate with a toxic combination of mountains of debt and dismal job prospects.

Loan default rates are even more dismal. Nearly three of 10 student loans have past-due balances of 30 days or more.

The Senate voted twice last Thursday to keep the student interest rates low, but got nowhere. They rejected competing Democratic and Republican plans to stop rates from doubling because of – you guessed it- partisan bickering over how to pay for it. The “world’s greatest deliberative body” argues about how to pay for $6 billion in annual costs even as it is borrowing $1 trillion this year.

Is this another example of temporary largesse becoming a permanent entitlement, thanks to election-year pandering to a special voting bloc? Do we really need more of this bush league stuff when we should be raising taxes and cutting spending to deal with a $1 trillion deficit and nearly $16 trillion in public debt? The faintly good news is that given the political incentives in this general election year, senators will likely arrive at an 11th-hour bipartisan compromise to increase the federal student loan interest rate subsidies. Both parties will then do an elaborate and extended touchdown dance.

Thank goodness the Senate doesn’t have the pandering equivalent of the NFL’s penalty for excessive celebration. If they did, there might not be any senators left.

originally published: May 31, 2012

JPMorgan Chase shows how little we have learned

Just when you thought America’s megabanks were safe and sound, JPMorgan Chase disclosed that it had lost at least $2 billion in just six weeks. The loss was suffered on high-risk investments in a portfolio of complex financial instruments known as derivatives. Ironically , it was incurred by a trading group within the bank that was supposed to manage the risks the bank takes with its own money.

So goes life in the fast lane. We have been led to believe that speculating in credit derivatives was a thing of the past. Not to worry; it’s all under control.

This shocking loss at one of the better-managed financial institutions has revived the debate about whether megabanks can be trusted to handle risk in the era of “too big to fail.” It shows that megabanks like JPMorgan Chase with so many moving parts, too much leverage and too much risk taking may have become too big to be effectively managed. Put differently, megabanks may be too big to succeed.

The loss also shows the market for the complex financial instruments known as derivatives remains opaque. So much for the financial industry’s argument about the dangers of too much regulation.

This loss is a major embarrassment to a firm that came through the 2008 financial crisis in much better financial shape than its peers by steering clear of risky investments that hurt many other megabanks.

While the loss did not cause anything close to the panic that followed the September 2008 failure of Lehman Brothers, it did shake the financial industry’s confidence. Stock in the bank, which is the  nation’s largest, lost 8 percent of its value in minutes. Fitch Rating Agency downgraded the bank’s credit rating by one notch. Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook on the firm to “negative,” suggesting a credit rating downgrade could follow. Other American financial institutions have also suffered losses.

You all remember the fall of 2008, when the roof fell in because too many financial institutions discovered that their investment portfolios were stuffed full of monopoly money derivative securities that were impossible to value for balance-sheet purposes. The derivative boom spread to the nation’s housing markets, where the subsequent meltdown brought Wall Street’s troubles to Main Street – with a vengeance.

These derivative securities were designed by the bright young Ph.D.’s in math or physics who found that it was a lot harder to earn a decent living in academia than earning a fabulous living on Wall Street. Their technical backgrounds let them quickly master the intricacies of quantitative finance theory and engineer all kinds of wild new derivative securities that were too complicated for most people to understand but very profitable for their employers.

So are derivatives tools of the devil? Or as Warren Buffett says, “weapons of mass destruction”? Not inherently.

Rather, they are extremely useful tools for transferring risk between willing buyers and sellers at mutually agreeable prices. And since the world is full of people with very different risk tolerances, derivatives can serve a highly valuable economic purpose.

The catch is that buyers and sellers of derivatives must be more than merely willing. They must also understand what the risk is really all about and how transferring risk doesn’t make it go away, no matter how many times it’s transferred, or to whom.

It is astonishing how few so-called financial executives and regulators understand what risk is really all about. They get carried away by the excitement of trading, let themselves believe they are participating in a no-lose game of boosting profits with no downside.

Until they wake up one morning to find themselves drowning in huge losses, while the rest us are left holding the bag amid a shattered economy. Let’s hope that isn’t what happens again this time.

We need to implement the Volcker Rule immediately to eliminate proprietary trading at commercial banks, and federally backed banks should be forbidden to engage risky trading practices. Of course, it may not be a bad idea to consider making the financial system less dependent on regulators and make banks small enough to fail.

originally published: May 15, 2012