postings by Alan White

Debt Relief on Day One

posted by Alan White

In a comprehensive review of existing student loan cancellation laws, Demos, the Student Borrower Protection Center, and the UCI Student Loan Law Initiative have compiled an impressive report and road map for the incoming Administration. The roadmap authors review the closed school, false certification, and disability discharges, public service loan forgiveness, income-driven repayment loan cancellation, borrower defenses to repayment, and protections for servicemembers and veterans, all of which have been sabotaged by Secretary Devos, and all of which could be marshaled to cancel millions of student loan debts. 

To be clear, these are existing debt cancellation programs enacted by past Congresses, and signed by past Presidents Republican and Democrat. Their full implementation would result in billions of dollars in debt relief to disproportionately low-income and minority workers and their families. While I remain skeptical of the ability of any Education Secretary to deliver on these programs given the contracting-out model under which federal loans are administered, and sympathetic to proposals for across-the-board loan cancellation, this detailed road map helps us imagine a new way forward.

Student Loan Relief Update

posted by Alan White

Student loan relief provisions required by the CARES Act expire on September 30. Those protections included 1) for all federal direct loans: zero interest and automatic payment forbearance, 2) credit towards IDR and PSLF forgiveness for the 6 months covered by the Act, and importantly, 3) suspension of wage garnishments and other collections on defaulted loans. The Act called for student loan borrowers to receive notice in August that payments will restart October 1 and that borrowers not already in income-driven repayment plans can switch, so that borrowers with no or little income can remain on zero payments (but not if they were in default.)

The President’s Executive Memorandum calls on the Secretary of Education to take action to extend economic hardship deferments under 20 U.S.C. 1087e(f)(2)(D) to provide “cessation of payments and the waiver of all interest” through December 31 2020.  These deferments are to be provided to “borrowers.” The Memorandum does not specify which loan categories (Direct, FFEL, Perkins, private) should be included, nor whether relief to borrowers in default should continue. Advocates also note that the Memorandum is vague as to whether borrower relief will continue automatically, or instead whether students will have to request extended relief, as under the Education Department’s administrative action just prior to passage of the CARES ACT. As of this writing the Education Department has posted no guidance for borrowers or servicers on its web site. Servicers will need guidance soon, and borrowers meanwhile will be receiving a confusing series of CARES Act termination letters and conflicting information about the latest executive action. UPDATE - USED has apparently issued guidance to collection agencies saying that borrowers in default are included in the Executive action so that garnishments and other collection should remain suspended through December 31, 2020.

The HEROES Act passed by the House would extend all borrower relief until at least September 30 2021, would bring in all federal direct, guaranteed and Perkins loans, and would grant a $10,000 principal balance reduction to “distressed” borrowers. The House also included an interesting fix to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program so that borrowers will not have to restart their ten-year clock towards loan forgiveness when they consolidate federal loans. In lieu of any extended student loan relief, Senate Republicans have proposed that borrowers just be shifted to existing income-dependent repayment plans. Existing IDR plans already allow zero payments for borrowers with zero or very low income, but do not stop the accrual of interest. They are not available to borrowers in default, so wage garnishments and collections for borrowers who were in default before March would resume October 1 under the Republican proposals.

David Graeber’s Debt, The First 5000 Years

posted by Alan White

I’m just getting around to reading a 2014 book some Creditslips readers may be familiar with, Debt: The First 5000 Years. In this utterly fascinating work, Anthropologist David Graeber exhaustively recounts the history of debt and money. He begins by debunking the myth of barter, the story told in introductory economics textbooks that money was spontaneously invented to permit merchants to exchange goods and services in imaginary markets, as an improvement over primitive market economies based on barter. In fact, early human societies all relied on central planning (by kings and high priests), communism, gift-giving, redistribution, and various forms of debt, notably in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, the earliest western civilizations, and probably in India and China as well. Debts and their units of account (i.e. money) arose to compensate for injuries, to seal marriages and other relationships, and to tabulate taxes paid and owed to sovereigns. Kings invented coinage both to relieve the poverty of their subjects and to provision their armies by spending coins, and as a convenient means to collect taxes. Modern monetary theorists like to cite this research to make the essential point that money and markets are created by sovereigns and states, and rarely if ever arose spontaneously. The idealized construct of a free market based solely on exchange first arose much later in economic history, in mercantilist societies and then with the liberal philosophers (Bentham, Owen, Smith, Ricardo) of the Industrial Revolution. 

Bankruptcy has always been with us. From the earliest times debt-based money led to  Screen Shot 2020-06-18 at 5.11.12 PMperiodic crises and debtor revolts, and wise rulers from the dawn of written history periodically decreed the cancellation of all debts, sometimes memorialized by the physical destruction of debt tokens. The biblical inscription on the Liberty Bell from Leviticus, “proclaim liberty throughout the land”, was the announcement of a debt jubilee including the liberation of debt slaves. The Rosetta Stone was a similar Ptolemaic royal decree announcing a tax and debt jubilee.

Capitalism had its origins not in the exchange of goods and services between free traders and workers but in slavery and debt peonage, not only in the United States but in every colonial empire.  After reminding us of Martin Luther King’s description of the founding documents as an unpaid debt to Black Americans, Graeber concludes by reminding us that the validity and morality of various debts can and should be determined democratically. Thought provoking in a moment when we hear calls for both payment of reparations and cancellation of student loan and housing debts.  

California sues Devos over PSLF

posted by Alan White

California's Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against Betsy Devos challenging the failure to discharge student loans under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The suit asserts that US Ed's failure to create a simple and effective application process injures the state of California by discouraging qualified workers from seeking or staying in state jobs. California joins New York and Massachusetts AGs who have filed similar lawsuits. Secretary DeVos has had a poor record of compliance with court orders compelling student debt relief, but hope springs eternal.

We Can Cancel Student Loans for Essential Workers Now

posted by Alan White

While the House HEROES bill's scaled-down student loan forgiveness is unlikely to become law, many essential workers are eligible for student loan cancellation now under existing law. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program covers all police, firefighters, public school teachers, nurses, soldiers, prison guards, and contact tracers, among others. Once public servants complete 10 years of payments, the law says they get their remaining federal student debt cancelled. So far nearly 1.3 million public servants are working towards their PSLF discharges, but the US Education Department has granted only 3,141 discharges out of 146,000 applicants.

In the month of March, 5,656 borrowers applied for PSLF. 114 received a discharge.  Meanwhile another 15,000 entered the pipeline by having their first employment certification approved, bringing the total to almost 1.3 million public servants. 

I have written elsewhere about how Congress and the Education Department could fix this program, even without new legislation.

The average total student loan debt discharged for PSLF borrowers is more than $80,000. For a median income earner, monthly payments range from $250 to $900 depending on the payment plan. PSLF discharges can yield an immediate and significant savings for these workers. 

PPP Loan Fees for Banks

posted by Alan White

$10 billion of CARES Act funds are going to the banks, especially megabanks, in fees for making “small” business PPP loans. The fees established by Congress, to be paid by the Small Business Administration, i.e. Treasury, range from 1% for loans above $2 million to 5% for loans below $350,000.

The maximum loan amount is $10 million, so those loans generate a nifty $100,000 fee each. At least 40 large public companies received loans from $1 to $10 million.

Given the highly streamlined application process, these fees likely far exceed the costs of originating these loans. The 1% interest rate, while low, still exceeds bank cost of funds. Do the banks need a bailout? First quarter earnings reports for the largest banks show steep drops in earnings, but earnings are still positive. The earnings drop is entirely due to provisioning for expected loan losses; obviously predicting loan performance over the next year is a very tricky business. Nevertheless, the PPP fee structure is designed to subsidize financial institutions not especially in need of a bailout, especially compared to restaurants, main street stores, and other small businesses. In fact, given that SBA is waiving the guarantee fee, why don’t the banks just waive the fees and interest on these loans? And given the robust public subsidies to megabanks, why should SBA pay these fees in the first place? If banks have inadequate capital to weather the coming storm, surely there is a better way to support them than having SBA pay these arbitrary PPP loan fees.

PSLF update

posted by Alan White

The success rate for Public Service Loan Forgiveness applicants has doubled. From 1% to 2%.

Thinking they have completed their 10 years of payments, 140,000 student loan borrowers had applied for cancellation through February 29, and about 3,000 had received a discharge, including 1,300 under the “temporary expanded” PSLF who were put in the wrong repayment plan by their servicers.

1.3 million public servants have had their employment approved for eventual cancellation of their student loans after 10 years of repayment. Two-thirds are in public sector jobs and one-third work in the nonprofit sector. Their average debt is $89,000, although a median would be a more useful number (graduate school borrowers extend the long right-hand tail.)

The pace of approvals is undoubtedly affected by quarantines of servicer employees. Pennsylvania and the federal Education Department should consider making student loan cancellation workers at FedLoan/PHEAA essential, and staffing up this program.

USED now releases monthly rather than quarterly #PSLF data.

11th Circuit: Student Borrower Consumer Claims not Preempted by HEA

posted by Alan White

An 11th Circuit panel ruled last week that student loan borrowers may assert state law misrepresentation claims against a student loan servicer that falsely told them their FFEL loans qualified for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The servicer, joined by USED, argued that the Higher Education Act preempted the borrowers' state law claims, because the HEA mandates certain disclosures and expressly preempts state laws that would require additional or different disclosures. Attorneys general and consumer lawyers around the country have been battling various versions of these preemption and related sovereign immunity arguments. 

Kate Elengold and Jonathan Glater have posted an excellent article, the Sovereign Shield, summarizing the state of play.

CARES Act Mortgage Foreclosure and Tenant Eviction Relief

posted by Alan White

The final text of the act is now available here. The foreclosure relief is in Section 4022 and the eviction moratorium is in Section 4024. Mortgage borrowers with federally related loans (FHA, VA, Farmer's Home, Fannie or Freddie) may request 6 months of forbearance, i.e. no payments required, renewable for another 6 months, during which no late fees or penalties may be imposed, but interest continues to run (unlike student loans.) Homeowners need not provide documentation; a certification that they are affected by the COVID-19 crisis is enough. There is no statutory provision for loan modification after the forbearance period ends, so unpaid payments will still be due, but the agencies will likely be requiring or encouraging servicers to offer workouts when the forbearance ends. Section 4023 provides relief for landlords of multifamily buildings with federally related mortgages, conditioned on no evictions. 

The eviction relief is limited to tenants in properties on which there is a federally related mortgage loan, and is only for 4 months. In brief, landlords may not send notices to quit or go forward with evictions. Tenant certifications of hardship are not required. An excellent summary of the eviction moratorium is available at the National Housing Law Project site here. Some states are also imposing eviction moratoria covering more tenants.

CARES ACT Student Loan Relief

posted by Alan White

The CARES Act signed into law last week suspends payments and eliminates interest accrual for all federally-held student loans for six months, through September 30. These measures exclude private loans, privately-held FFEL loans and Perkins loans. The other five subsections of section 3513 mandate important additional relief. Under subsection (c) the six suspended payments (April to September) are treated as paid for purposes of “any loan forgiveness program or loan rehabilitation program” under HEA title IV. In addition to PSLF, this would include loan cancellation at the end of the 20- or 25- year periods for income-dependent repayment. Loan rehabilitation is a vital tool for borrowers to get out of default status (with accompanying collection fees, wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts, and ineligibility for Pell grants) by making nine affordable monthly payments. This subsection seems to offer a path for six of those nine payments to be zero payments during the crisis suspension period.

Subsection (d) protects credit records by having suspended payments reported to credit bureaus as having been made. Subsection (e) suspends all collection on defaulted loans, including wage garnishments, federal tax refund offsets and federal benefit offsets.

Finally, and importantly, subsection (g) requires USED to notify all borrowers by April 11 that payments, interest and collections are suspended temporarily, and then beginning in August, to notify borrowers when payments will restart, and that borrowers can switch to income-driven repayment. This last provision attempts to avert the wave of default experienced after prior crises (hurricanes, etc.) when, after borrowers in affected areas had been automatically put into administrative forbearance, the forbearance period ended and borrowers continued missing payments. Whether the “not less than 6 notices by postal mail, telephone or electronic communication” will actually solve the payment restart problem will depend a great deal not only on the notices but also the capacity of USED servicers to handle the surge of borrower calls and emails. At present servicers are struggling with handling borrower requests because many employees are in lockdown or quarantine.

PSLF in the Time of Coronavirus

posted by Alan White

The rules for student loan borrowers hoping for Public Service Loan Forgiveness are changing rapidly, and information even on Education Department and CFPB web sites is confusing and rapidly outdated. The CARES Act, section 3513, signed into law on March 27, requires the Secretary of Education to “suspend all payments due” for federally-held student loans until September 30. The same section provides that interest shall not accrue on any loan for which payments are suspended. The law supersedes the prior Education Department administrative action suspending interest for 60 days. Of special relevance to PSLF, the third subsection provides that “The Secretary shall deem each month for which a loan payment was suspended under this section as if the borrower of the loan had made a payment for the purpose of any loan forgiveness program or loan rehabilitation program.”

The most important advice for borrowers is still to 1) be sure you are in a federal direct loan, using a direct consolidation loan if necessary to get out of FFEL, 2) get on an income-dependent repayment plan and 3) apply to have your IDR monthly payment recalculated now, not next year, if you have any job loss or drop in income.

“Suspending” payments is unfortunate language because it is not an existing repayment status. USED will probably interpret this to mean “forbearance,” rather than “deferment” but no announcement has yet been made. The third possibility is to treat all borrowers as if they were in income-dependent repayment (IDR) with a zero payment. The law also mandates zero interest for the next 6 months, and borrowers report that they are already seeing their interest rate changed to 0% on line. As a practical matter, forbearance with zero interest is similar to deferment or IDR with zero payment. However, months in forbearance would normally not count towards the 120 months required to get PSLF forgiveness, nor for that matter for the 20 or 25 years of payments required for forgiveness at for borrowers in income-dependent payment plans. Because the CARES act mandates that months in “suspension” count, the effect should be more like IDR with zero payment.

The good news is that 3513(c) effectively supersedes the 15-day rule, so early and late payments won't matter for the next 6 months.

The bad news is that a monthly payment does not count towards the 120 required unless the borrower is employed full-time during that month. The CARES Act language could be read to supersede that requirement. Unfortunately my guess is that USED will read 3513(c) to suspend the payment requirement but not the full-time employment requirement. As a practical matter, borrowers just need their employer to certify that they were a full-time employee during the relevant time period, which should include at least paid sick leave. Public servants on unpaid leave may be left out in the cold, as far as PSLF payment counting. USED does have the power under the prior pandemic legislation to waive statutory and regulatory requirements, and we’ll see how generously they choose to interpret this provision.

Borrowers in IDR payment plans are entitled to have their servicer recalculate their monthly payment based on current income if they lose a job or have reduced income. Payment “suspension” for those borrowers could create additional problems. If all federal loans are placed into administrative forbearance, borrowers whose IDR payment is based on job income may not act promptly to have their IDR payment recalculated based on current income.

If this advice is wrong or you have better information or ideas for PSLF borrowers, please comment.

Student Loan Relief for Public Service Workers: Repeal the 15-day Rule

posted by Alan White

More than one million public servants – nurses, soldiers, first responders, teachers—should be eligible now or soon for student loan cancellation under existing law – the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Congress and the Administration can accelerate this process now.

The Education Department and its servicer FedLoan have notoriously rejected 98% of PSLF loan cancellation requests. One of the reasons is a pointless and unhelpful regulation that was not part of the Congressional legislation, but was added by the Education Department – the 15-day rule. The PSLF law calls for public servants to have their loans cancelled after 10 years of repayment. The Department’s regulation defined 10 years of repayment as 120 payments, each made within 15 days of the due date. In real life borrowers make payments early and they make payment late. During the present crisis they cannot be expected to meet this rule.

Congress is already considering a bill that would give the Education Secretary broad authority to waive regulations. The 15-day rule should be the first to go. The Department and servicer FedLoan should work together to clear away ALL regulatory obstacles to full PSLF implementation.

600,000 student loan borrowers getting nowhere

posted by Alan White
Student loan borrowers who plan to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)  after ten years of income-based payments are simply not getting their
Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 11.15.17 AM
https://fsaconferences.ed.gov/conferences/library/2019/2019FSAConfSession18.pdf
payments counted. Between January 2012 and August 2018 nearly one million borrowers submitted an approved public service employer certification. As of August 2019 there are 600,000 of these approved borrowers with ZERO "qualifying" payments towards the required 120.  
 
In the same presentation USED asserts that most (80%) of borrowers who already applied for forgiveness believing they had completed the required ten years of payments had actually entered repayment less than ten years before applying. This explanation suggests that all is well except that borrowers simply need to wait a few more months to apply. The zero qualifying payments problem proves that the PSLF failure goes much deeper, for the reasons I described in a prior post.

What's Wrong with PSLF and How to Fix It

posted by Alan White

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has so far rejected roughly 99,000 out of 100,000 student loan borrower applicants. Poor Education Department oversight, poor contract design and implementation, and widespread servicing contractor failures are as much to blame as problems in the legislative and regulatory program design. Making this program work to provide loan relief for potentially millions of public servants requires a comprehensive set of fixes. US Ed. could start by enforcing its contracts and compensating its contractors properly, and by relaxing its needlessly strict 15-day on-time payment rule, while Congress could give borrowers credit for all payments made under any repayment plan. In our new white paper summarizing federal agency reports, attorney general and borrower lawsuits, consumer complaints, and contract documents, my research assistant and I survey the various reasons nearly all applications have been denied, and we propose contractual, regulatory and legislative reforms needed to fix PSLF.

USED could have seen PSLF Fail coming

posted by Alan White

The Department of Education (USED) knew by 2016 that hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers planning to apply for public loan service forgiveness (PSLF) were headed for rejection as they started applying in late 2017. The Department conducted a review of servicing contractor PHEAA’s administration of PSLF on October 25, 2016, about a year before the first cohort of borrowers would become eligible for loan cancellation. At the time of the review, 449,860 borrowers were designated as PSLF participants, presumably because they had at least one approved public service employer certification form (ECF). The reviewers audited a sample of 34 borrower loan files, and found that 53% had ZERO qualifying payments. Of those, about 40% were in a non-qualifying payment plan and 60% had ECFs with employment periods ending more than one year prior to the review date, in other words, no current evidence of qualifying employment. Given that all of these borrowers submitted at least one ECF, it is reasonable to assume that most if not all of them were unaware that they were making no progress towards the required 10 years of repayment.

Instead of faulting PHEAA for a situation in which half of borrowers were in danger of not getting PSLF credit for their payments, USED delved into the minutiae of PSLF payment counting, and found two instances of payment-counting errors resulting from servicing transfers. In their recommendations, the USED reviewers stress “it is imperative that Fedloan Servicing and FSA partner to ensure only those truly eligible for forgiveness receive this benefit.” No mention is made of any need to get in touch with the 53% of borrowers who are in the wrong payment plan or do not have up-to-date employer certifications.

The authors of the October 25, 2016 review (Debbe Johnson, Larry Porter, and Christian Lee Odom of SFA) note on the first page that it is for internal USED use only and is a policy deliberation document, presumably to shield it from FOIA release. It became public when the House Education and Labor Committee released the review as an exhibit to the committee’s October 2019 report on the PSLF fiasco.

$5 to forgive public servant student loans

posted by Alan White

Five dollars is the contract payment the US Education Department makes to its servicer FedLoan for a borrower's first approved Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) employment certification. FedLoan is supposed to review employer certifications, track PSLF borrower payments for ten years, and then process a loan forgiveness application, all for five dollars (plus the servicing fee paid for all loan accounts.) FedLoan must verify that the borrower made each payment on time, in the right payment plan, for the right loan(s), while working for the right employer full time. US Ed. has made FedLoan's task far more difficult than the statute requires, with its 15-day on-time payment regulation and various employer exclusions. The Department needs to seriously rethink its contract design before renewing its 10-year servicing contracts early next year.

The process of matching each payment with a qualifying employment period appears to account for more than half of the astounding 99% denial rate. The Congressional proposals to fix PSLF have largely missed this point, although the House bill calls for one obvious fix by requiring US Ed. to give FedLoan a list or database of qualifying employers. FedLoan's task would be far easier if the on-time payment rule were scrapped, and replaced with a rule that any borrower who made a total of 120 payments in any payment plan without going into default qualifies, so long as they can submit employment verification for the relevant 10 years. Because borrowers submit IRS information to the servicer each year to set an income-based payment amount, another tech fix would have the servicer store the IRS employer identification number (EIN) and match it with a list of approved public service employers, rather than having the student and employer fill out a 10-page employment certification form every year.

US Ed.'s public stance (apart from Secretary DeVos' desire to kill PSLF) is to blame Congress for bad program design, while Congressional overseers can't seem to recognize that PSLF can only work with a comprehensive set of legislative, regulatory, and contractual fixes. Meanwhile the count of student loan borrowers with at least one approved ECF, i.e. future PSLF applicants, is 1.1 million.

 

Student Loan Crisis Driving Racial Wealth Gap

posted by Alan White

Twenty years after taking out student loans, white borrowers have paid 94% of their debt (at the median.)  Black borrowers, on the other hand, have paid 5%. While a disturbing 20% of white borrowers defaulted on student loans at some point during twenty years, a catastrophic 50% of Black borrowers defaulted.

Screen Shot 2019-09-26 at 2.23.21 PM
Inst. on Assets & Soc. Policy

 A new report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis collates NCES and other data on student borrowers beginning college in 1995-96 to paint a grim picture of student debt burden as a key contributor to the racial wealth gap. As today's students take on far greater debt than the 1990s cohorts, this pernicious effect can only magnify. Cancelling student loan debt could play an important role in closing the gap. Debt cancellation should be judged not by the dollar amounts of debt forgiven for various borrowers, but by the degree of debt burden relieved for borrowers at various income and asset levels, as explained by progressive economist Marshall Steinbaum.

Home Contract Financing and Black Wealth

posted by Alan White

A remarkable new quantitative study finds that over two decades, African American home buyers in Chicago lost between $3 and $4 billion in wealth because of credit apartheid. The study authors from research centers at Duke, UIC and Loyola-Chicago reviewed property records for more than 3,000 Chicago homes. During the 1950s and 1960s, up to 95% of homes sold to black buyers were financed with land installment sale contracts rather than mortgages. Mortgage loans were largely unavailable due to continued redlining by banks and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Instead, a limited group of speculators bought homes for cash and resold them with large price markups to newcomers in the Great Migration. The interest rates for  land installment contracts were several points higher than comparable mortgage loans offered to whites. Thus, black home buyers were overcharged for the home price and the interest rate they paid compared with similar white home buyers. The authors quantify this as a 141% race tax on housing.

Buyers financing homes with installment land contracts also face greater risks of losing their homes and accumulated equity than buyers with a deed and mortgage purchase, for reasons we teach, or ought to teach, in any Property Law or Real Estate class in law school. A missed payment on a land contract can mean quick eviction, while a homeowner behind on a mortgage is protected in many states by foreclosure procedures and redemption rights. More importantly, when a bank, FHA or other lender finances a home, the lender has strong incentives to protect the buyer and itself from defective home conditions or title problems. Those protections are missing from the installment land contract financing structure. The Duke study did not include the cost of premature evictions, home repairs, and title problems experienced by black contract buyers, all of which would further magnify the wealth gap between white and black home buyers. 

The Student Loan Tax

posted by Alan White

Democrats’ policy proposals have sparked a vital and overdue debate on our system to pay for post-secondary education, and how that system burdens and redistributes income. The existing system combines a small share of taxpayer funding (via the Pell Grant) with a large share from the student loan tax. The student loan tax requires the students themselves to pay a percentage of their income for 20 to 25 years, collected not by the IRS but by private contractors for the US Education Department. The Clinton and Obama administrations converted a clunky loan system involving banks and state guarantee agencies into a direct federal “loan” program. The federal government issues funds to colleges and universities, and then outsources to collection contractors to tax the earnings of college grads and noncompleters. Although not all students participate in income-dependent repayment, greater numbers are expected to do so if nothing changes. Not only are student loans different, they are looking less and less like loans at all.

The current system is a tax on future earnings, rather than a true loan program, for several reasons. First, the income-dependent payment programs tie “borrower” payments to their disposable income, and cancel debt at the end of 20 or 25 years. Second, borrowers who are declared in default end up having wages garnished at a fixed percentage of income, as well as tax refunds intercepted, both of which are essentially taxes on earned income (or cancellation of earned income tax credits.) Third, a few (and so far badly administered) loan forgiveness programs allow students to stop repayment after 10 years if they remain in low-paying and socially valued jobs.

When we talk about canceling student loan debt, we are really just talking about how much of college students’ future earnings we will tax. As I have noted previously, some, especially graduate degree holders, repay far more than the cost of their own education, because of above-cost interest rates. Others benefiting from various “forgiveness” programs repay less, at least on a present-value basis.

The problem with costing out a one-time loan cancelation program is that each year a new cohort of students is assigned nearly $100 billion in new federal loans to repay. The combined federal payments under the major loan and grant programs (DL, Perkins and Pell) total about $125 billion annually. The issue going forward is whether to tax individuals and corporations in the present year, or the students in future years, and in what combination. There is also the problem of the disappearing role of states in funding public higher education, a topic I will write about separately.

This is why the policy choices are not binary (full debt cancellation and free college, i.e. 100% taxpayer financing, versus the status quo.) A notable benefit of our expanded policy debate is some real attention to the distributive consequences of major changes in higher education funding. We could, for example, offer new and less onerous income-dependent repayment, taxing a lower percentage of earnings, setting a higher exemption than the poverty level, or shortening the 20-year repayment period. We could, as some have proposed, reduce student repayment even further for borrowers engaged in public service or national service, although as we have seen, defining eligibility categories creates big process costs. We can, and should, abolish “default” and re-evaluate payment obligations for borrowers who did not complete their college education. We could examine the pros and cons of IRS or private contractor collection. The value of elements of our existing system is the ability to apply income progressivity as measured both by students’ pre-college family income as well as their post-graduation income to allocate the burden of their college costs.

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. 

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© 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.

The underutilized student loan bankruptcy discharge

posted by Alan White

A common misconception is that student loans are never dischargeable in bankruptcy. There is a bankruptcy discharge exception for some qualified student loans and educational benefit repayment obligations. The discharge exception does not, however, apply to all loans made to students. Jason Iuliano argues in a new paper that bankruptcy courts have interpreted the discharge exception too broadly, applying it to loans for unaccredited schools, loans for tutoring services, and loans beyond the cost of attendance for college. His paper presents a compelling argument based on the plain language of the statute, the legislative history and policy in support of a narrow reading of 11 USC §523(a)(8).

The Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas recently adopted the narrow reading of §523(a)(8)(A)(ii) in Crocker v. Navient Solutions, LLC , Adv. 16-3175 (Bankr. S.D. Tx Mar. 26, 2018). The court denied Navient's motion for summary judgment, finding that the bar exam study loan from SLMA at issue was not within the discharge exception for qualified student loans or educational benefit repayments.

In another class action complaint filed last year against Sallie Mae and Navient, plaintiffs claim that servicers are systematically defrauding student loan debtors about their bankruptcy discharge rights. According to the complaint in Homaidan v. Sallie Mae, Inc. (17-ap-01085 Bankr. EDNY), servicers illegally continued collecting private student loans that were fully discharged in debtor bankruptcies because they were not qualified educational loans. The servicers exploited the common misconception that "student loans" writ large are excluded from bankruptcy discharge. The defendants' motion to dismiss or compel arbitration is pending.

Professor Iuliano has also demonstrated in a prior paper that even student loans covered by the bankruptcy discharge exception can still be discharged based on showing "undue hardship," and that courts are far more likely to approve undue hardship discharges than many debtors (and lawyers) may realize.

Fed chair Powell to Congress - make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 12.39.45 PMCoverage of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's Congressional testimony highlighted his optimism about economic growth and its implications for future interest rate hikes. Less widely covered were his brief remarks on the student loan debt crisis. Citing the macroeconomic drag of a trillion-and-a-half dollar student loan debt, chairman Powell testified that  he "would be at a loss to explain" why student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. According to Fed research, Powell noted, nondischargeable student loan debt  has long-term negative effects on the path of borrowers' economic life.

Preempting the states: US Ed to shield debt collectors from consumer protection

posted by Alan White

As if the power to garnish wages without going to court, seize federal income tax refunds and charge 25% collection fees weren't enough, debt collectors have now persuaded the Education Department to free them from state consumer protection laws when they collect defaulted student loans. Bloomberg News reports that a draft US Ed federal register notice announces the Department's new view that federal law preempts state debt collection laws and state enforcement against student loan collectors. This move is a  reversal of prior US Ed policy promoting student loan borrower's rights and pledging to "work with federal and state law enforcement agencies and regulators" to that end, as reflected in the 2016 Mitchell memo and the Department's collaboration with the CFPB.

Customer service and consumer protection will now take a back seat to crony profiteering by US Ed contractors. This news item has prompted a twitter moment.

The Student Loan Sweatbox

posted by Alan White

Studentloandebtballchain Student loan debt is growing more rapidly than borrower income.  The similarity to the trend in home loan debt leading to the subprime mortgage bubble has been widely noted. Student loan debt in 1990 represented about 30% of a college graduate’s annual earnings; student debt will surpass 100% of a graduate’s annual earnings by 2023.  Total student loan debt also reflects more students going to college, which is a good thing, but the per-borrower debt is on an unsustainable path. Unlike the subprime mortgage bubble, the student loan bubble will not explode and drag down the bond market, banks and other financial institutions. This is because 1) a 100% taxpayer bailout is built into the student loan funding system and 2) defaults do not lead to massive losses. Instead, this generation of students will pay a steadily increasing tax on their incomes, putting a permanent drag on home and car buying and economic growth generally. Student loan defaults do not result in home foreclosures and distressed asset sales. They result in wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts and refinancing via consolidation loans, and mounting federal budget outlays. In many cases, borrowers in default repay the original debt, interest at above-market rates, and 25% collection fees. In other words, defaulting student loan borrowers will remain in a sweatbox for most of their working lives. Proposals to cut back on income-driven repayment options will only aggravate the burden, further shifting responsibility for funding education from taxpayers to a generation of students.

Continue reading "The Student Loan Sweatbox" »

Letting the Money Changers Back in the Temple

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.36.55 PMGolden Valley Lending, Inc. is a payday lender that charges 900% interest on consumer loans sold over the internet. Golden Valley relies on the dubious legal dodge of setting up shop on an Indian reservation and electing tribal law in its contracts to evade state usury laws. In April 2017 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed an enforcement action asserting that Golden Valley and three other lenders were engaged in unfair debt collection practices because they violated state usury laws, and also failed to disclose the effective interest rates, violating the federal Truth in Lending law (enacted in 1969).  Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.35.39 PM

 Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s interim appointee to direct the CFPB, has now undone years of enforcement staff work by ordering that the enforcement action be dropped.  The advocacy group Allied Progress offers a summary of Mulvaney’s special interest in protecting payday lenders, in South Carolina and in Congress, and the campaign contributions with which the payday lenders have rewarded him.

 

 

Student loans - the debt collector contracts

posted by Alan White

Twelve senators have just written EWKHto Education Secretary Betsy DeVos questioning why the Education Department continues to award lucrative contracts to debt collection firms, and criticizing the seriously misaligned incentives embedded in those contracts.

While most federal student loan borrowers deal with loan servicing companies like PHEAA, Navient and Nelnet, defaulting borrowers in an unlucky but sizeable minority (roughly 6.5 million) have their loans assigned to debt collectors like Collecto, Inc., Pioneer Credit Recovery, and Immediate Credit Recovery Inc. Borrowers assigned to collection firms immediately face collection fees of 25% added on to their outstanding debt. The collection firms harvest hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, mostly from federal wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts, and new consolidation loans borrowers take out to pay off old defaulted loans. Wage garnishments and tax refund intercepts are simply involuntary forms of income-based repayment, programs that could be administered by servicers without adding massive collection fees to student debt. Similarly, guiding defaulted borrowers to consolidation loans, and putting them into income-driven repayment plans, are services that servicing contractors can and do provide, at much lower cost. In short, the debt collector contracts are bad deals for student loan borrowers and bad deals for taxpayers.

 According to a Washington Post story, one of the collection firms to be awarded a contract this year had financial ties to Secretary DeVos, although she has since divested those ties. In other news, the current administration apparently reinstated two collection firms fired under the prior administration for misinforming borrowers about their rights. More in-depth analysis of the collection agency contract issue by Center for American Progress here.

Student loans - the other debt crisis

posted by Alan White
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Brookings Institute 2018

In a low unemployment economy, an entire generation is struggling, and millions are failing, to repay student loan debt. As many as 40% of ALL borrowers recently graduating are likely to default over the life of their student loans, according to a recent Brookings Institute analysis. Total outstanding student loan debt is approaching 1.5 trillion dollars, exceeding credit card debt, exceeding auto loan debt. Two other key points from the Brookings analysis: 1) for-profit schools remain the primary driver of high student loan defaults, and 2) black college graduates default at five times the rate of white college graduates, due to persistent unemployment, higher use of for-profit colleges and lower parental income and assets.

The rising delinquency (11% currently) and lifetime default rates are all the more disturbing given that federal student loan rules, in theory, permit all borrowers to repay based on a percentage of their income. Most student loans are funded by the U.S. Treasury, but administered by private contractors: student loan servicers. Study after study has found that student loan borrowers are systematically assigned to inappropriate payment plans,  yet the U.S. Education Department continues renewing contracts with these failing servicers. The weird public-private partnership Congress has created and tinkered with since the 1965 Higher Education Act is broken.

Unmanageable student loan debt will saddle a generation of students with burdens that will slow or halt them on the path to prosperity. Student loan collectors have supercreditor powers, to garnish wages and seize tax refunds without going to court, to charge collection fees up to 40%, to deny graduates access to transcripts and job licenses, and to keep pursuing debts, zombie-like, even after borrowers go through bankruptcy and discharge other debts. Recent graduates cannot get mortgages to buy homes, even if they are not in default, because their student loan payments are taking such a bite out of their monthly incomes. State legislatures have piled on educational requirements for a variety of entry-level jobs (nurse's aides, child care workers, teachers, etc.) while cutting state funding for public colleges and increasing tuition: unfunded job mandates. Finally, the combination of high debt and the harsh consequences of default are widening the racial wealth and income gaps.

Current reform proposals would make a bad situation worse. For example, it is difficult to see how increasing the percentage of income required for income-based repayment plans will help student borrowers, nor how extending the repayment period before loan retirement would reduce defaults. What is needed instead is to 1) deal with the for-profit school problem, 2) restore the state-level commitment to funding public colleges, 3) fix the broken federal student loan servicer contracting, 4) rethink the collection and bankruptcy regime for student loans and 5) repeal the student loan tax, i.e. the above-cost interest rates college graduates pay to the Treasury. Among other things. More on these themes in later posts.

Trump's Bank Regulators: More Swamp Creatures

posted by Alan White

Following his appointment of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the President has nominated Joseph Otting, former CEO of OneWest Bank, to be the chief federal bank regulator as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is theMnuchinprotest bank cop for the nation's largest banks. The OCC determines whether banks are taking too many risks with depositor and taxpayer money, and is charged with preventing failures of banks that are too big too fail, in other words, with preventing the next financial crisis.

OneWest Bank was founded by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in 2009  primarily to acquire, and foreclose, thousands of troubled mortgage loans made by the failed subprime lender IndyMac. Otting served as CEO of OneWest from 2010 until 2015. The President's two leading bank regulators made considerable fortunes by running this very unusual bank, relying on some big-time government funding.

IndyMac had specialized in "nonprime" mortgages, including no-doc interest-only loans and other toxic products, that failed massively in the foreclosure crisis. IndyMac was the first large federally-regulated bank to fail and be bailed out by the FDIC in 2008.

The California Reinvestment Coalition determined from several Freedom of Information Act requests that the FDIC will pay OneWest $2.4 billion for foreclosure losses on the IndyMac loans. Housing counselors in California identified OneWest as one of the most ruthless and difficult banks to deal with in trying to negotiate foreclosure alternatives on behalf of homeowners. In 2011 OneWest signed a consent decree with the federal banking agencies, neither admitting nor denying the agency's findings that OneWest had routinely falsified court documents in foreclosure cases, the practice known as robosigning. In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Otting insisted that the regulators' findings of OneWest misconduct were a "false narrative." False or not, OneWest foreclosures, and its deal with the FDIC, do seem to have proven very profitable. Bloomberg estimates that Mnuchin made $200 million from the sale of OneWest in 2015, and Otting earned about $25 million in compensation and severance in his final year at OneWest.

OneWest was acquired by CIT group, one of the few banks that did not repay the taxpayers for their 2008 TARP bailout--the bank filed bankruptcy in 2009, stiffing the taxpayers for $2.3 billion. The bankruptcy reorganization and the shedding of CIT's debt allowed CIT to return to profitability and eventually fund its purchase of OneWest from Mnuchin and his partners.

photo credit Walt Mancin Pasadena Star-News

Foreclosure Crisis Update

posted by Alan White

As the subprime foreclosure crisis grinds down slowly (there are still roughly 3 million pre-crisis subprime mortgages outstanding, many of them delinquent), and the HAMP program sunsets, the time has come to appraise the total damage done. In the ten years from 2007 through the end of 2016, about 6.7 million foreclosure sales were completed, and another 2 million or so short sales and deeds-in-lieu of foreclosure brought the total home losses to about 8.7 million, according to HOPE NOW.

Subprime mortgages accounted for 2 million of those foreclosure sales and perhaps another 500,000 of the stressed sales. The 2.5 million total home losses roughly matches predictions made at the onset of the crisis, and exceed by a considerable number the total number of subprime mortgages made to first-time home buyers from 2000 to 2007. In other words, subprime mortgages subtracted more than they added to home ownership.

The pre-crisis loans are by no means all resolved. About one million active mortgage loans were modified under the HAMP program, meaning that interest rates and payments were reduced for up to five years. Many of those mortgages will face steep rate and payment increases in the coming years, and many are also in negative equity, making sale or refinancing difficult or impossible. A total of around 8 million mortgages were modified under various programs at some point, although a significant portion of those later ended up among the 8 million home losses. The good news is that the number of homes whose mortgage exceeds the market value (underwater or negative equity) has declined from 30% of homes to fewer than 8%. The bad news is that just under 8% of homes are still underwater, a precarious situation that remains historically unprecedented.

These stats and many others can be found in an excellent new monthly housing finance data compendium from the Urban Institute.

$45 Million for Stay Violations

posted by Alan White

How much in punitive damages is enough to punish unlawful conduct and deter its repetition? $45 million was one bankruptcy court's opinion, in the case of a wrongful home foreclosure and eviction in knowing violation of the automatic stay.

The court described the plaintiff-debtors’ treatment by defendant Bank of America as Kafkaesque, and found their deeply emotional testimony (one of them attempted suicide during the ordeal) completely credible, awarding more than $1 million in actual damages for the loss of housing and emotional distress. The court also noted that Bank of America had repeatedly settled cases with federal and state regulators for hundreds of millions, and even billions, of dollars, in recognition of serious and repeated compliance failures, including some related directly to servicing home mortgages.  

The fascinating 107-page opinion grapples at length with the dilemma of awarding enough punitive damages to effectively deter the defendant while avoiding an unseemly windfall to the plaintiffs. The solution: the decision awards $40 of the $45 million punitive award to consumer advocacy organizations and the five public California law schools. Citing an Ohio case, state statutes and several law review articles, the court proposes this split award technique as an appropriate step forward in the federal common law of §362(k) punitive damages. An interesting appeal is sure to follow.

How to think about banks

posted by Alan White

Banking is not an industry; banking is not the real economy. The big banks especially are economic and political behemoths that remain unpopular and poorly understood in the popular imagination. Opinion polls show voters favor breaking them up, and some shareholders do too. While Wall Streeters may bemoan the fact that banks are no longer hot growth stocks, I suspect most voters who chose either candidate would not be saddened to see banks become public utilities. The Republican agenda to roll back Dodd-Frank, if this means unshackling the megabanks from speculating with public and taxpayer funds, will be the first betrayal by the incoming administration of its voter base.

Banks are now basically franchisees of the government's, i.e. the taxpayers', full faith and credit, as recently and eloquently explained by Professors Saule Omarova and Robert Hockett  Banks create and allocate capital because the government recognizes bank loans as money and puts taxpayers' full faith and credit behind bank IOUs. The conventional story that banks convert privately-accumulated savings into loans to borrowers is a myth. Because banks are public-private partnerships to create and allocate capital, the public can and should play a central role in insuring that the financial system serves the needs of the real economy, not just the financial economy.

So here is the first test for our new federal leaders. Are you tools of Wall Street, doing its bidding by undoing financial reform, or will you turn banks into the public utilities they ought to be?  

The Color of Credit: Cities vs. Banks

posted by Alan White

Appendix 4 Foreclosures Miami Reduced

On Election Day, the Supreme Court will hear argument in the cases of  Wells Fargo v. City of Miami and Bank of America v. City of Miami. At issue is the standing of cities to sue banks for mortgage redlining and reverse redlining.

The history of redlining is well known. Banks, in concert with the housing agencies of the New Deal, drew lines around minority neighborhoods where no home mortgage loans would be made (or backed by federal agencies). Starting in the 1990s and until the 2008 crisis, subprime mortgage lenders, some of them affiliates of major banks, targeted the same minority neighborhoods for high-cost, high-risk loans. Inevitably, the same minority neighborhoods have been devastated by the recent wave of foreclosures.

Less well known is that since 2008, the overcorrection and severe tightening of mortgage loan approvals has had a hugely disparate impact on communities of color, especially in cities. Redlining is back. 

 

Continue reading "The Color of Credit: Cities vs. Banks" »

Still Not Deleveraging American Homeowners

posted by Alan White

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has finally announced a program to reduce principal balances of distressed home mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, eight years into the foreclosure crisis. Too little, too late would be an understatement to describe this initiative. According to the agency’s announcement, they expect about 33,000 homeowners to be eligible to have their mortgage debt reduced to the value of their homes. According to the Zillow negative equity report, more than 6 million homeowners have mortgage debt exceeding their home value, and almost a third of all homeowners are effectively underwater, meaning that their equity is less than 20% of the home value, making it difficult to sell or refinance.

Aggregate value of homes in the US rose from $10.9 trillion in 1998 to $28.3 trillion in 2006, then declined to $19.5 by the beginning of 2012, recovering somewhat in the past three years. This one-third decline in home values was not accompanied by a one-third decline in mortgage debt. Residential mortgage debt peaked at 10.6 trillion in 2006, and then declined to 9.5 trillion by the end of 2012, just a 10% easing. The overhang of home mortgage debt remains a huge impediment to consumer spending, wealth accumulation and the closing of the racial wealth gap in the United States. It is regrettable that the FHFA continues to take such a narrow view of its role as the regulator of our secondary mortgage market utilities and fails to pursue the social values that our taxpayer-backed housing finance system ought to advance.

Nobody Told Us

posted by Alan White

Yesterday Senator Warren rightly excoriated former Fed consumer regulator, now industry lawyer Leonard Chanin after he claimed that, prior to the 2008 crisis, the Federal ReservScreen Shot 2016-04-06 at 9.31.46 AMe Board had only anecdotal evidence that subprime mortgages were a problem. Mr. Chanin served for many years as counsel for the Fed's Consumer and Community Affairs division. In fact, three times a year, from 1996 until 2007, members of the Fed's consumer advisory council called for regulation of subprime mortgages.  The Fed held regular hearings where witnesses told Mr. Chanin and his colleagues that 1) subprime foreclosures were a serious and growing problem and 2) Congress gave the Fed legal authority to do something about it. Here are a couple of instances in which I can recall having personally warned them. 

Student Loan and Mortgage Debt and the Racial Wealth Gap

posted by Alan White

Forgiving student loan debt for low-income Americans could reduce the racial wealth gap among those households by as much as 50%, according to a new report from Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. Abbye Jo Atkinson has just posted an interesting paper arguing that mortgage debt reduction could likewise significantly reduce the racial wealth gap. Even reducing interest rates on distressed mortgages systematically (rather than randomly under HAMP and similar programs) would disproportionately aid minority borrowers, who disproportionately were assigned to the subprime market.

The 2008 foreclosure crisis devastated household wealth for black and hispanic families in the U.S. While the median net worth for white families declined from $193,000 to $142,000 between the 2007 and 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, the median net worth for black families eroded from $19,2000 to $11,000.  Much of this story is about homeownership rates and home value declines, but another big piece of the net worth story is about debt, especially mortgage and student loan debt.

The Demos/IACL report notes that while young black adults are significantly less likely to attend college and to have a college degree, and have lower incomes than their white counterparts, they are nevertheless more likely to have significant student loan debt.

The racial wealth gap is fundamental to racial inequality in our nation. It means that the starting line for each generation is unequal. The initial distribution, of housing, education, and capital for each new generation is grossly skewed. The federal government owns most of the nation's student loan debt and mortgage debt (via the effectively nationalized and nominally independent GSEs), and could therefore legislate a variety of tailored debt reduction programs, that might begin to repay the nation's huge debt to the descendants of its former slaves.

The Supreme Court, the Fair Housing Act and the Racism Debate

posted by Alan White

The Supreme Court made a noteworthy contribution to the crescendo in our national conversation about race in its recent Texas v. ICP Fair Housing Act decision.

The Court affirmed that the Fair Housing Act prohibits not only explicit racial discrimination, but also policies and practices that have the effect of excluding or harming racial minorities.

In marked contrast to its Voting Rights Act and other decisions, the Supreme Court (5-vote majority) in this case did not declare that racism has nearly ended, nor that the time for corrective laws is coming to an end. Justice Kennedy, the perennial swing voter, grounded the continuing vitality of disparate impact analysis in the sad legacy of various policies, including redlining, steering, and restrictive covenants, a legacy that insures the persistence of geographic segregation of races in the United States, and perpetuates our vast opportunity and wealth gaps. In his opinion, he harkens back to the Kerner Commission's conclusion that the uprisings of the 1960s arose in no small measure from the ghettoization and racial apartheid of American cities. 

As a matter of legal doctrine the issue was straightforward. The Fair Housing Act has been interpreted consistently for more than forty years by all lower federal courts to prohibit housing and housing finance practices that exclude or discriminate against racial minorities in their effects. For example, a town's zoning plan that completely prohibits multifamily housing construction violates the Fair Housing Act when the result is to perpetuate the virtual exclusion of black families from the town. In the housing finance sphere, a bank's refusal to make mortgage loans in certain zip codes, or below a certain dollar amount, will violate the FHA if it has an unjustified disparate impact on minority homebuyers. Congress has re-enacted and amended the FHA without ever disapproving the application of disparate impact analysis.

Often, the difference between disparate impact and disparate treatment is a matter of proof, not of underlying facts. For example, in the exclusionary zoning cases, there is often evidence of racial animus at least among some members of the excluding suburb's governing bodies, but perhaps not enough to link a particular zoning vote to that racism. Some disparate impact cases are about racism by subterfuge. Others are about implicit bias, or even thoughtless discrimination. Disparate impact analysis, per Justice Kennedy, "permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment."

One undoubted consequence of disparate impact analysis is that banks are under an affirmative obligation not to perpetuate the legacy of racism and the racial wealth divide with home lending practices and policies that have no business justification. No doubt, in the aftermath of the decision banks will protest that they must now enact racial quotas or make risky mortgage loans to unqualified borrowers. Housing lenders depend on an vast array of explicit and implicit state subsidies. The Fair Housing Act does not require making loans that won't be repaid. It does impose an affirmative public duty to make home loans in a way that closes rather than widens our nation's racial divide.

Fast Foreclosures, Slow Foreclosures

posted by Alan White

At the onset of the current foreclosure crisis, banks bemoaned their inability to get homeowners in default to respond to their generous offers of loan modifications and other foreclosure alternatives. Homeowners, it seemed, were like ostriches with their heads in the sand. Outreach efforts were launched to bring the homeowners in from the cold. Foreclosure sales, banks told us, were the worst possible outcome, and everything should be done to avoid them.

Fast forward a few years, and we no longer hear about those unresponsive homeowners. In fact, the mortgage servicing industry, starting around 2009, was rapidly overwhelmed with homeowners seeking loan modifications and other workouts. Soon homeowners were the ones complaining about getting no responses from servicers. Diligent homeowner attorneys uncovered the robosigning scandal, courts and regulators demanded that servicers clean up their act, and foreclosure cases languished while servicers gave homeowners applying for loan modifications and short sales the runaround. Today the banking industry complains of spending too much time talking to homeowners, claiming that long foreclosure delays resulting from homeowners massively coming in from the cold are just wasting everyone’s time and money.

Continue reading "Fast Foreclosures, Slow Foreclosures" »

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