Student Debt Accounts For Nearly Half Of US Government "Assets"

On Friday we asked if the student debt bubble was about to witness its 2007 moment. In July of that year, all three ratings agencies turned aggressively negative on subprime-related MBS and their collective actions triggered a pre-crisis crisis in Canada where billions of asset-backed commercial paper stopped rolling in August, offering those who were inclined to take notice a window into what the financial would look like just one year later. Earlier this month, Moody’s put some $3 billion in student loan-backed ABS on review for downgrade citing a risk of default in some tranches. As a reminder, here’s the rationale:

The reviews for downgrade are a result of the increased risk that the tranches will not fully pay down by their respective final maturity dates. Failure to repay a note on the final maturity date represents an event of default under the trust documents. 


Voluntary prepayment rates in FFELP loan pools remain historically low as a result of sluggish economic growth and high unemployment rates among recent graduates. Although prepayments rose to 2%-3% of the loans in repayment in 2014, partly as a result of borrowers refinancing their FFELP loans through private student loans and Federal Direct consolidation loans, prepayments remain low relative to historical levels. Deferment and forbearance levels remain high throughout the life of the collateral pools.

The collateral backing the paper is FFELP student loans — that is, it’s guaranteed for 97% of principal by the US government. With nearly one in three loans in repayment delinquent by 30 days or more, and with $1.3 trillion in student debt outstanding, we’ve suggested the situation could deteriorate materially going forward and we’ve also noted that it won’t be long before this trillion-dollar mountain of liabilities ends up being socialized because as Bill Ackman says “there’s no way students are going to pay it back.” 

Having set the stage, we bring you the following three charts from Bloomberg which show the extent of the problem and the extent to which that problem will become a public, rather than a private issue.

More from Bloomberg:

Student debt now comprises 45 percent of federally owned financial assets. Of course, that doesn’t include assets owned by the Federal Reserve, and it doesn’t include real assets like land. Still, it’s a startling figure.


This trend worries me. Why? Because when the government owns student loans, it has every incentive not to fix the country’s student-debt problem.  

Consider the sheer size of the revenue that the government earns from student-loan interest payments. In 2013, it was $51 billion -- almost 2 percent of total federal revenue for that year. That’s more than two-thirds of the lifetime cost of the entire F-22 fighter jet program!


With that kind of money on the table, it’s going to be hard to get the government to take strong action for debt relief. A whole generation of millennials has been economically scarred by the financial crisis -- they borrowed to pay for school just like their older siblings did, but the capricious power of the business cycle left them with fewer jobs and lower wages even as they were saddled with record amounts of debt. It’s no wonder that delinquency rates on student loans havesoared.


One way to bring that unlucky generation some relief would be to permit student debt to be expunged in bankruptcy. Democrats in the Senate are trying to allow that. But with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, this probably won't happen.


Instead, what we’ve gotten is President Barack Obama’s “Student Aid Bill of Rights.” The list of “rights” emphasizes students’ right to go to college, to take out loans and to pay those loans back quickly and easily. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a government interested in maximizing the revenue it collects from indebted college graduates.


If you think this sounds unencouraging, you’re not alone.


So what would happen if the Senate Democrats’ plan were to become law? Well, a lot of young people would file for bankruptcy. The federal government would lose some of its revenue, but not so much that it would appreciably change the long-term ratio of debt to gross domestic product. The gap would be made up with future tax hikes and/or cuts in spending. Those future taxes would be paid by successful millennials and their descendants, letting unsuccessful millennials off the hook. So it would have a redistributive effect, part of which would go toward canceling out bad macroeconomic luck.