postings by Alan White

Student Loan Fixes

posted by Alan White

While presidential candidates propose sweeping new policy initiatives, a few simple legislative fixes could go a long way to alleviate the student loan crisis. Three numbers set by Congress have a huge impact on the burden borne by millions of borrowers: the Stafford loan interest rate, the income-driven repayment plan income share, and the number of years to balance forgiveness. These three numbers (currently 5%/6.6%, 10%/15% and 20/25 years, respectively) essentially allocate the burden of funding postsecondary education between students and taxpayers. The interest rate, for example, has produced a net profit for the Treasury for many years, meaning that former students pay more than the cost of loan administration and loss recoveries, essentially paying a surtax. Some income-driven repayment plans require borrowers to pay 10% of disposable income, while others call for 15%, and of course several numbers go into defining disposable income. Finally, income-driven repayment plans call for debt balance cancellation at the end of 20 or 25 years. Reducing the interest rate, the income percentage and the repayment period are all means to shift the funding of an educated workforce from graduates (and noncompleters) to the broader taxpaying public. Student loan costs can be reduced incrementally; the choices are not limited to the status quo or free college for all.

While some Democrats propose to "refinance" student loans, Congress can reduce interest rates on existing loans at any time, saving borrowers and federal contractors lots of transaction costs. Loan defaults could be virtually eliminated by making income-driven repayment the default, automatically enrolling borrowers, and authorizing IRS income reporting. In lieu of creating new national service programs, the existing public service loan forgiveness program could be fixed to allow enrollment on graduation and automatic employer certification and payment progress reporting. The current 10-year PSLF repayment period could also be shortened. Finally, the Pell grant amount could be set to cover the full cost of attendance for low-income students at public 2-year or 4-year colleges in each state.

Deleveraging Is Over

posted by Alan White

An unsustainable run-up in consumer housing debt and other debt was a fundamental structural cause of the 2008 global financial cScreen Shot 2019-02-26 at 11.59.42 AMrisis. Following four years of painfully slow decline, total U.S. consumer debt has now risen back above its 2008 peak, with the growth led by student loan and auto loan debt. Mortgages outstanding are not quite at their 2008 levels, but student loan and auto loan growth more than makes up for the modest home loan deleveraging. Americans are back up to their eyeballs in debt, but now some of the debt burden has shifted from baby boomers to millennials. While the cost of health care may be a key electoral issue for the over-50 crowd, under-40s will be listening for policymakers to offer solutions on student loans.

Student Loan Servicing Fail (continued)

posted by Alan White

The U.S. Education Department is doing a lousy job of overseeing the private companies servicing $1.1 TRILLION of federal student loans. That is the gist of the Inspector General's findings in a new report. Among other problems, the IG found that servicers were not telling borrowers about available repayment options, and were miscalculating income-based repayment amounts. When USED found these problems, they did not use contractual remedies to force servicers to improve their performance. To quote the report: "by not holding servicers accountable, [USED] could give its servicers the impression that it is not concerned with servicer noncompliance with Federal loan servicing requirements, including protecting borrowers' rights."

Meanwhile, borrowers with 49,669 loans have applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness as of 9/30/2018. 206 borrowers with 423 loans have been approved. So, 99% denial rate.

Reflections on the foreclosure crisis 10th anniversary

posted by Alan White

Before it was the global financial crisis, we called it the subprime crisis. The slow, painful recovery, and the ever-widening income and wealth inequality, are the results of policy choices made before and after the crisis. Before 2007, legislators and regulators cheered on risky subprime mortgage lending as the "democratization of credit." High-rate, high-fee mortgages transferred income massively from working- and middle-class buyers and owners of homes to securities investors.

After the crisis, policymakers had a choice, to allocate the trillions in wealth losses to investors, borrowers or taxpayers. U.S. policy was for taxpayers to lend to banks until the borrowers had finished absorbing all the losses. The roughly $400 billion taxpayers lent out to banks via the TARP bailout was mostly repaid, apart from about $30 billion in incentives paid to the mortgage industry to support about 2 million home loan modifications, and $12 billion spent to rescue the US auto industry. The $190 billion Fannie/Freddie bailout has also returned a profit to the US Treasury.  Banks recovered quickly and are now earning $200 billion in annual profits. Of course, equity investors, particularly those wiped out by Lehman and many other bankruptcies, or by the global downturn generally, lost trillions as well. The long-term impact, however, was to shift corporate debt to government balance sheets, while leaving households overleveraged.

Thomas Herndon has calculated that 2008-2014 subprime mortgage modifications added $20 billion to homeowner debt (eroding wealth by $20 billion). In other words, all the modification and workout programs of the Bush and Obama administrations did not reduce homeowner debt by a penny. In fact, mortgage lenders added $20 billion (net) fees and interest onto the backs of distressed homeowners. During the same period, $600 billion in foreclosure losses were written off by private mortgage-backed securities investors, implying a similar or greater loss in wealth for foreclosed homeowners. These data include only the private-label side of the housing finance market; adding the debt increase and wealth losses for Fannie and Freddie homeowners could conceivably double the totals.

Nearly 9 million homes were foreclosed from 2007 to 2016. While some were investor-owned, even those often resulted in the eviction of tenant families. Four and one-half million homeowners still remain underwater, i.e. owe more mortgage debt than the value of their home.

 While baby boomers' housing wealth was decimated by foreclosures and increasing mortgage debt, millennials piled on student loan debt, closing the door to home buying and asset building. A recovery built on incomplete deleveraging, and new waves of consumer debt buildup, contains the seeds of the next crisis. While various pundits bemoan the resurgent federal fiscal debt, we would do well to address policies that continue to stoke unsustainable household debt.

American Bar Association: exempt lawyers from FDCPA

posted by Alan White

The American Bar Association, at the urging of its debt collection lawyer members, is supporting HR 5082, which would partly exempt lawyers from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Misrepresenting the bill as a technical clarification, the ABA is throwing its support, despite the consumer bar's opposition, behind legislation that would insulate collection lawyers from federal civil liability for venue abuse, sewer service, suits to collect time-barred or bankrupted debts, and garnishment of exempt wages and savings. Under an Administration undermining consumer protection and the rule of law at every turn, the ABA could deploy its lobbying clout in service of far more worthy causes.

 

For-profit college chain files (for receivership)

posted by Alan White

Education Corporation of America filed a legal action in federal district court last week claiming financial distress, seeing to enjoin its creditors and restructure its debt. Sounds like Chapter 11, right? But no. ECA can't file a bankruptcy petition, because that would immediately cut off its main funding source, federal student grants and loans. ECA and its subsidiary Virginia College LLC were already facing disaster under the Obama administration's gainful employment rule, but Secretary DeVos suspended that rule giving poorly performing trade schools a new lease on life. At the same time ECA was facing loss of federal student aid because their accreditor, ACICS, was derecognized by the Education Department under the prior administration for its weak oversight of deeply flawed for-profit schools, like Corinthian College. Unsurprisingly, Secretary DeVos is reconsidering the ACICS decision as well. In a story that seems to be repeating for many for-profit colleges, and even law schools, enrollments are plummeting due to a combination of consumer information about poor student outcomes and reluctant but inevitable enforcement by accreditors and regulators. ECA's proposed plan is to close some of its schools and continue operating others. Its very creaVirginiaCollegeYPtive complaint asks the court for a nationwide injunction against its landlords and creditors and appointment of a receiver, among other things. Here is the court's temporary restraining order enjoining all landlords and creditors nationwide for 10 days.

While I am generally not in favor of bankruptcy discrimination, the ineligibilty of bankrupt colleges for taxpayer funding is eminently sensible. Given the weakness of institutional gatekeeping and the political challenges to shutting down predatory schools, and the for-profit college business model in which taxpayer grants and loans are used to prepay tuitions for students who are frequently misled about career chances, we don't need bankruptcy to give these failing schools a new lease on life.

UPDATE: After hearing and briefing, the District Court on November 5 dismissed ECA's action, finding there is no justiciable case or controversy. On December 5 ECA announced it will close all 75 campuses, leaving as many as 20,000 students with potential student loan discharge or school defense claims.

Trump socialism and housing finance

posted by Alan White

Various tax law scholars have commented on the tax fraud allegations in the recent New York Times story. Equally important is the story's reminder that our housing finance system, and the real estate fortunes it has spawned, have depended for nearly a century on the largess of government.

Fred Trump, the president's father, built the fortune that Donald Trump inherited after avoiding or evading millions in estate and gift taxes.  Fred's fortune was almost entirely due to his savvy exploitation of federal government housing subsidies. When Roosevelt's New Dealers struggled to put the economy back on its feet, they invented the FHA mortgage insurance program, and Fred Trump was one of FHA's first profiteers. As recounted in Gwenda Blair's wonderful book, Fred went from building one house at a time to building Huge middle-class apartment complexes when he was first able to tap into government-backed FHA loans.  Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 10.40.49 AM

 In his fascinating 1954 testimony before the Senate Banking Committee (begins at p. 395), Fred Trump explains how he purchased the land for the Beach Haven apartments for roughly $200,000, put the land in trust for his children and paid gift taxes on a $260,000 land valuation, and then obtained a a $16 million FHA mortgage to build the apartments.  Fred's corporation owning the buildings netted $4 million from the loan proceeds above and beyond the construction costs, and the land belonging to the Trump childrens' trust was valued by the City tax assessors at $1.3 million as a result of the FHA mortgage transaction and apartment construction. In other words, Fred Trump parlayed his $200,000 investment into a $4 million cash profit for his business and a $1.3 million ground lease producing $60,000 annual income for his children. In his testimony he conceded that this would have been impossible without the FHA government loan guarantee.

Peter Dreier and Alex Schwartz have written a nice exposé of the irony in President Trump's proposals to slash the very government housing finance subsidies to which he owes his personal fortune.

More on PSLF fail

posted by Alan White

The US Education Department is assigning the complex task of monitoring the employment and the on-time payments of Public Service Loan Forgiveness aspirants to its worst-performing servicer. USED has contracted with servicing company FedLoan, affiliate of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), to administer the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. PHEAA/FedLoan has performed its contract obligations poorly. At the end of 2017 the Department ranked FedLoan 9th out of 9 servicers based on a combination of delinquency rates and customer satisfaction survey results.  Based on this poor performance, US Ed will allocate only 3% of new loan servicing to FedLoan. However, all public servants who are applying for Pubic Service Loan Forgiveness are assigned to FedLoan for loan servicing.

FedLoan's application of the Department's "every month by day 15" payment rule has led to truly absurd impediments to public servants qualifying for PSLF. Borrowers who make an extra monthly payment, and therefore cause all subsequent payments to be posted to the month BEFORE the payment was made, are told those payments don't count, because they are not made in the month they are due. Other borrowers find that while they continue making on-time payments and are trying to correct FedLoan's recordkeeping errors, FedLoan will place their account in administrative forbearance. Administrative forbearance means that no payments are due, so that even if the borrower continues making a payment called for by their income-based repayment plan, the payment will not count towards the 120 needed to qualify for forgiveness.

The servicers are paid for each month they continue to service a loan (more for a performing loan, less for a delinquent loan.) While this makes some sense as a contract design, it does create a disincentive for servicers to approve public service loan forgiveness and other discharges (like permanent disability.)  Servicing contracts also create incentives for servicers to put borrowers into forbearance rather than income-based repayment. The PSLF fail comprises a combination of regulatory failure, contract design failure and contract supervision failure.

Million public servants counting on broken PSLF program

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 7.16.15 AMThis week we learn from the GAO that more than 1 million public servants have applied to certify their work and their student loan payments as qualifying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The number seems to be growing by about 300,000 annually. These teachers, child care workers, firefighters, soldiers, police officers, nurses, prosecutors, and public defenders, are facing a gauntlet of needlessly complex and exacting rules to receive the debt relief Congress promised them.

According to the GAO report, 40% of the tens of thousands of rejected applicants were found not to have made the required 120 monthly payments. The Department of Education's regulations for the program, 34 CFR 685.219, require that there be 120 "separate" monthly payments, that every payment be made within fifteen days of the due date, in the required amount, and under a qualifying repayment plan. This creates all sorts of problems, for example, when a servicer delays posting a timely payment until day 16, or a borrower has an emergency and makes 2 payments in a lump sum, or especially for borrowers who receive employer or law school assistance in making their payments. The "every month by day 15" rule was not written by Congress. The statute, Section 455(m) of the Higher Education Act, requires only that public servants have made 120 monthly payments under a qualifying plan. A less procrustean payment rule would be an easy regulatory fix.

Only Federal Direct loans qualify, not private or guaranteed loans. However, borrowers can use a Direct Consolidation loan in many cases to convert ineligible student loans into eligible loans.

The statute also requires that the public servant have been in a qualifying full-time job "during the period in which the borrower makes each of the 120 payments. . . ."  This requirement has also been interpreted strictly by the Department, and may create problems for public servants changing jobs or job assignments, teaching for only part of the year, and so forth. It also appears that some simple technology fixes could go a long way towards fixing the problems. For example, a public servant's monthly loan statement could show a running total of months earned towards the 120 total required, perhaps with two check boxes for timely payment, and qualifying work.

Another obvious fix is to provide assistance for public servants whose applications were rejected, to calculate exactly what they need to do to finish making 120 qualifying payments and receive their discharge. The problems with this program are being widely reported.  What is needed now are solutions from Congress, the Education Department, and the servicer (PHEAA/FedLoan.)  

 

 

 

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Fail

posted by Alan White

20,521 applications rejected as ineligible. 96 borrowers approved.  Those are the early results for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. PSLF promised student borrowers with federal Direct Loans who worked in qualifying public service jobs that they would have their loan balances discharged after 10 years of income-based repayment. The first cohort of PSLF borrowers applied beginning in the Fall of 2017, so these results reflect the first year of borrower attempts to receive the benefits they were promised. The three eligibility requirements were to work in a qualifying public service job, make all income-based payments for 10 years, and have a federal Direct loan. The Education Department's report does not break down the rejections by failed eligiblity criteria. It has been widely reported that what U.S. Ed. considers a "public service" job has been a moving target, and servicers have misled borrowers about the program, but that surely cannot explain these dismal results. Perhaps some Congressional oversight is in order.

Trump Administration's Student Loan Policy

posted by Alan White
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Student loan debt has jumped from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in the last 5 years. The Education Department's official default rates seriously understate the share of young borrowers who default, or are not able to repay their loans. In the face of the growing student loan debt crisis, the Administration's corrupt policy is to undo the Obama administration's gainful employment rule for colleges, grease the wheels for fraudulent for-profit schools, curb loan relief to victims of school fraud, and sabotage consumer protection enforcement by the CFPB and state regulators (by asserting preemption) against student loan servicers who mislead and abuse borrowers. This article sums it up nicely.  

Westlaw: A Digital Deportation Machine?

posted by Alan White

Lawyers and legal academics may be surprised to learn that Thomson Reuters, owners of the Westlaw electronic law library, sells its data to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and reserves the right in its privacy policy to share browsing history and search terms with law enforcement agencies. My colleague Sarah Lamdan explores the ethical issues for lawyers and the legal publishers in a recent paper, "When Westlaw Fuels ICE Surveillance: Ethics in the Big Data Policing Era." 

Trump’s Bank Regulators

posted by Alan White

ProPublica’s new web site “Trump Town” tracks political appointees across federal agencies. In light of the president’s promises to “drain the swamp”, it is interesting to peruse some of the Treasury Department appointees responsible for bank regulation. I previously wrote about Secretary Mnuchin and Comptroller Joseph Otting and their connections to subprime mortgage foreclosure profiteers. Lower-level political appointees at Treasury seem to come mostly from one of three backgrounds – lawyers and lobbyists for banks, real estate investors (and sometimes Trump campaign officials), or former staffers for Republican members of Congress. Here are some examples:

Continue reading "Trump’s Bank Regulators" »

Counting the millions of evictions

posted by Alan White

The Eviction Lab, a project led by sociologist Matthew Desmond (author of Evicted), have performed the invaluable and impressive task of gathering landlord-tenant eviction records from every county in the nation for the past 16 years. The sobering results, released today (NY Times story) paint a picture of widespread housing insecurity in the wealthiest nation in the world. Each year nearly a million renter households are evicted by court order, and more than twice that number are summoned to court to face eviction. 

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 8.47.01 AM
© evictionlab.org

The project's web page offers a variety of data reports at the state level, and the promise of many more critical analyses to come. Among the questions that researchers may explore using these data include the rate of housing loss for African-American and Latino families, the impact of the 2008 mortgage foreclosure crisis, and foreclosures generally, on renter households, the efficacy of state and local rental housing subsidy programs, whether gentrification results in displacement, and the location of neighborhoods facing high concentrations of evictions and housing abandonment.

 Security of housing tenure is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary condition for the protection of other political and socio-economic rights. Millions of evictions are the sad and now visible legacy of decades of cuts to public and subsidized housing and basic income support for the poor.

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