We’re from the Government and Here to Help You – Translation: RUN!

The Obama administration is planning on easing repayment terms for student loans:

The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill.

The proposal, included in President Barack Obama’s budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.

Borrowers in the program make monthly payments equivalent to 10% of their income after taxes and basic living expenses, regardless of how much they owe. After 20 years of on-time payments—10 years for those who work in public or nonprofit jobs—the balance is forgiven.

This is a statement against interest, and the proposal is hardly surprising, considering the source but I must say: This is a horrible idea.

We are constantly lectured how higher education is an “investment.”  Sometimes it is.  That investment has a rate of return.  What’s important that capital-financial, human, the opportunity cost of student time-earn a return that covers the opportunity cost of capital.  We want individuals whose ROR exceeds the relevant interest rate to make the investment, and those whose ROR doesn’t not to make it.  This isn’t rocket science.

Tying repayments to income totally undermines those incentives.  Hey, go get a low earning degree, one that has a poor rate of return-and likely, a negative rate of return-and you will make lower payments!  What could go wrong?

This reduces the cost of pursuing low-return majors, so we will have more graduates with psych or anthro degrees who will work in retail and fast food and other low-wage occupations.   That is horrible.  The exact opposite of what we want.

Try doing this at your local bank, by the way.  Not too many I know of advertise their wonderful Loser Loan Programs: “The worse your financial performance, the lower your payment!”

Yes, I know the idea is to provide insurance against income losses due to illness, or job loss, etc., but that insurance will be rife with moral hazard.

Another example of the problems when the government intervenes in the capital allocation process.  That worked out so well in the housing market, didn’t it?  This will work out no better.  It will raise expectations and saddle people with heavy burdens, thereby contributing to disillusionment and anger.

It is also highly cynical and manipulative.  Those most likely to get hurt are those who are least able to evaluate the costs and benefits of getting a college education.  Moreover, Obama administration policy is already screwing the young in ways that could teach the Kama Sutra some things, and this will add to that, all in the name of helping those who get screwed.

It is perhaps another example of what Raghuram Rajan identified as a feature of US polices ostensibly intended to reduce inequality.  He specifically focuses on subsidizing homeownership, but this is exactly the same thing that goes on with student loans.

Education can be a great thing, if you make wise choices.  One thing I’ve been on about for years is that learning programming is an important skill.  You don’t have to be a programmer, but you should know some programming.  It is a functional skill, and also helps you learn to think logically and precisely.  So I agree with this WSJ piece.

Unfortunately, easing student loan terms along the lines proposed by the administration will not provide incentives to do that.  It will provide incentives to do the opposite, and hurt most those it is intended to help.  Like the title says, run when the government-and especially this administration-says they’re doing something to help you.

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About Craig Pirrong 238 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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