Wednesday, July 26, 2017

26/7/17: Panic... Not... Yet: U.S. Student Debt is Cancerous


Reuters came up with a series of data visualisations and brief analytics pieces on the issue of student loans in the U.S. These are ‘must read’ materials for anyone concerned with both the issues of debt overhang (impact of real economic debt, defined as household, non-financial corporate and government debts, on economic activity), demographic and socio-political trends (e.g. see my analysis linking - in part - debt overhang to current de-democratization trends in the Western electorates https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2993535), as well as issues of social equity.

The first piece presents a set student loans debt crisis charts and data summaries: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-STUDENTLOANS-MORTGAGES/0100504C09N/index.html. Key takeaway here is that although the size of the student loans debt market is about 1/10th of the pre-GFC mortgages debt overhang, the default rates on student loans are currently well above the GFC peak default rates for mortgages:


The impact - from economic point of view includes decline in home ownership amongst the younger demographic.


But, less noted, the impact of student debt overhang also includes behavioural and longer-term cross-generational implications:

  1. Younger cohorts of workers are saddled with higher starting debt positions that cannot be resolved via insolvency/bankruptcy, which makes student loans more disruptive to the future life cycle incomes, savings and investments of the households;
  2. Behaviourally, early-stage debt overhang is likely to alter substantially life cycle investment and consumption patterns, just as early age unemployment and longer-term unemployment do with future career outcomes and choices;
  3. Generational transmission of wealth is also likely to suffer from the student debt overhang: as older generations trade down in the property markets, the values of their properties are likely to be lower than expected due to younger generation of buyers having lower borrowing and funding capacity to purchase retiring generations' homes;
  4. The direct nature of student loans collections (capture of wages and social security benefits for borrowers and co-signers on the loans) implies unprecedented degree of contagion from debt overhang to household financial positions, with politically and socially unknown impact; and
  5. The nature of interest rate penalties, combined with severe lack of regulation of the market and a direct tie in between Federally-guaranteed student loans and the fiscal authorities implies higher degree of uncertainty about the cost of future debt service for households.


On the two latter matters, another posting by Reuters worth reading: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-studentloans/.  Student loans debt is now turning the U.S. into an expropriating state, with the Government-sanctioned coercive, and socially and economically disruptive capture of household incomes.

One thing neither article mentions is that student loans are a form of investment - investment in human capital. And as all forms of investment, these loans are set against the expected future returns. These returns, in the case of student loans, are generated by increases in life cycle labor income - wages and other associated forms of income - which is, currently, on a downward trend. In other words, just as cost of student loans rises and uncertainty about the future costs of legacy loans is rising too, returns on student loans are falling, and the coercive power of lenders to claim recovery of the loans is beyond any other form of debt.

We are in a crisis territory, even if from traditional systemic risk metrics point of view, the market for student loans might be smaller.

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