Could Biden’s student loan freeze argue for bigger debt relief?

The US government doesn’t expect to collect hundreds of billions of dollars from people who took out student loans, leading some to ask ‘Why not try to erase those debts now?’

The United States Department of Education, which has a $1.4 trillion portfolio of student debt, is ever more pessimistic about how much borrowers will repay [File: Michael B Thomas/Getty Images]

Thanks to vagaries of the accounting world, Donald Trump’s administration had a chance in the final weeks of the presidential race to cancel more than $200 billion of student loans with no immediate hit to the Department of Education’s massive portfolio. Yet it didn’t do it.

Now, perhaps Joe Biden will.

For years, bean counters at the department have been writing down the value of its $1.4 trillion portfolio of student debt as they adopted ever-more-pessimistic views of how much borrowers will repay. In September, the analysts made their biggest adjustment yet, valuing loans at just 82 cents on every dollar owed, down from 104 cents in 2015, records show. The debt is now worth $258 billion less than the amount outstanding.

Had officials under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos decided to identify some of the borrowers least likely to repay, and then forgiven those debts, it wouldn’t have put a major dent in the remaining portfolio’s value. Such losses were, theoretically, already reflected anyway.

By Wall Street standards, the government’s loan writedowns are gigantic, amounting to $98 billion in September alone. While they have gone virtually unnoticed in the political realm so far, they are almost sure to attract attention now, as consumer advocates urge Biden’s new administration to ease the burden on young professionals and jump-start the pandemic-stricken economy.

Some are starting to ask: If the government doesn’t expect to collect hundreds of billions of dollars from borrowers, why not try to erase it now?

“Betsy DeVos has already decided that a bunch of this debt is not going to be paid back,” said Mike Pierce, director of policy at the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center and a former official at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “That makes it much easier for the Biden administration to justify canceling.”

The Education Department didn’t respond to messages seeking comment both before and after the change in administration.

Loans or Rent

Shortly after his inauguration as U.S. president on Wednesday, Biden asked the department to extend his predecessor’s pandemic policy of waiving interest and to continue letting borrowers skip monthly payments on government-owned student loans until at least the end of September. About 24 million borrowers have stopped payments, department data show.

Biden has expressed sympathy for borrowers but suggested he’s reluctant to wipe away debt without an act of Congress. In November, he said student-loan burdens are “holding people up. They’re in real trouble. They’re having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying their rent.”

While Wall Street often values its debt holdings based on the prices they would fetch in the market, the government’s markdowns mainly reflect “amounts not expected to be recovered.” From a valuation perspective, that means there wouldn’t be much immediate difference between forgiving doomed loans and waiting for borrowers to turn out their empty pockets.

Still, there’s the issue of moral hazard: If authorities offer relief to struggling borrowers, it could create an incentive for others to stop repaying too, causing more of the portfolio to sour.

Rush for Relief

Much of the gap between what is owed and what the government reckons will be repaid stems from loan programs that cap monthly payments relative to borrowers’ incomes. Income-based repayment plans promise the possibility of loan forgiveness after two decades of steady payment, or one decade for public-service workers. As annual borrower defaults climbed past 1 million, Barack Obama’s administration made the repayment plans increasingly generous. Enrollment has tripled since 2014.

The anticipated cost of income-based plans has risen, too. The Education Department recently realized borrowers in the plans were earning “substantially” less than it had forecast. So the government cut its projections of borrowers’ future income by 35%, boosting the estimated tab to be forgiven in later years.

“There already is significant loan forgiveness,” said Constantine Yannelis, who researches student debt and teaches finance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “We’re just talking about moving it up or giving it to borrowers who wouldn’t qualify for it under current rules.”

Yannelis said he recently found that debt owed by lower-income borrowers had a lower present value to the federal government than debt owed by high-income borrowers.

Rising Odds

Across-the-board loan cancellations make little sense, but the government has all the information it needs to target forgiveness, said Adam Looney, a finance professor at the University of Utah whose research on student loans dates to his time as a tax official at the U.S. Treasury Department. In fact, he said, the Education Department’s own valuation reflects a belief the government will eventually cancel large amounts owed by people earning little or at least too little relative to their debts.

Forgiving loans could encourage future students to over-borrow on the hope that their debts will be wiped away, advisers to the federal consumer bureau warned in a report this month. And that could, in turn, remove some of the pressure on colleges to lower their costs.

But there is a growing expectation in the public anyway that relief is coming. In a December survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, respondents estimated there is a 39% chance – more than ever in five years of polling – that the federal government will cancel some amount of student loans over the next year.

Source: Bloomberg