With President Obama’s student loan announcement in the news this week, an argument over whether or not taxpayers make a profit from student loans is no doubt close behind. We do make a profit using the government’s accounting tools, but there’s an argument that we should instead use “fair value accounting,” or the rate at which the private market adjusts for risk (here’s Jared Bernstein with a recent piece). By that standard, we see a much smaller profit.
Most people reference the CBO on this, though its numbers are entirely opaque. For instance, it says that it “relied mainly on data about the interest rates charged to borrowers in the private student loan market,” but there are gigantic adverse selection problems right out of the gate. The private student loan market is where the worst credit risks go, so of course they have higher rates. Is the CBO able to control for this? Nobody knows.
But beyond that, there’s a simple finance logic reason for why I don’t buy the argument for fair value accounting. I don’t believe that taxpayers face prepayment risk, and to whatever extent they do, it’s a matter of politics, not economics, that determines this.
The concept of prepayment risk might not make sense for people without some financial background, so let’s walk through it. If you lend money to a person you know, whether it’s a questionable relative or a partner who asks to hold some money until they get their check next week, you just want to get paid back in full. And, here’s the kicker, you are really happy if you get paid back sooner than you had expected. You want the money back.
Is that how private capital markets work? No. Let’s say you manage a large portfolio of private student loans. And let’s say you get a note at the office that they are being paid back more quickly than you had expected. Are you happy? No. You are not, and you might even get fired.
Why wouldn’t you be happy about getting paid back earlier?
1. You have to physically do something with the money you get paid back to get it earning more money again. No matter what you end up doing — reinvesting it in student loans, putting it into a different set of assets, or just stuffing it in the equivalent of a mattress — it takes time, energy, and resources, all of which cost money.
2. Often you want to set a certain time frame for repayment. Say you really want to have a cash flow at a certain date far off into the future because you are funding a pension or insurance liability. Getting paid back earlier doesn’t meet that goal, and it confuses your expectations for cash flows.
3. Crucially, you are likely to get paid back exactly when you don’t want the money. Say you locked in private student loans at a high interest rate, but then interest rates decline dramatically. At this point students will pay back their loans more quickly, which leaves you with more cash on hand at a time when interest rates are low.
This isn’t some partisan ideological point; it’s just basic finance. You can see it described in a CFA study guide under call and prepayment risk and reinvestment risk. (People more baller than I who actually did the CFA can nitpick specifics, but the general layout is correct.)
So private investors in student loans are genuinely worried that they’ll get paid back too quickly, and as a result charge a higher interest rate which leads to a larger discount rate. Because, and follow this, their goal isn’t to “get paid back.” Their goal is to achieve a consistent rate of return given a risk profile, with predictable cash flows given other institutional constraints. Getting paid back quickly is a risk to all this.
So, here’s my question: do taxpayers face this prepayment risk? If you saw a headline that said “student debtors are paying off their public student loans faster than expected,” would you be happy as a citizen, or furious?
I’d say happy. As a citizen, I’m not interested in earning a certain amount of profit consistently and with certainty over time, especially with the money paid back by student debtors, though I am as a private investor. If citizens were paid back more quickly, we could return the money to taxpayers, or use it for different purposes, or whatever. I certainly wouldn’t say “how are we going to continue to make the profit we were making?” as a citizen, though that’s exactly what I’d say if I were an investor in a private student loan portfolio. We could debate this — perhaps you think the goal of the government here is to extract maximum financial profits no matter what. But it would be a political debate, divorced from the logic of financial market valuation.
This is not a trivial concern. Anyone with experience modeling a mortgage-backed security is very conscious of how greater prepayments impose massive risks and uncertainty. Normally the private sector goes to great lengths to imposes penalties and limitations on paying back loans early, though the government doesn’t do this for student loans. And since citizen do not face prepayment risks the way the private sector does, the discount rate for public funds, by definition, must be less than private funds when it come to student loans. Hence private sector discount rates aren’t a valid benchmark.
Note that the Financial Economist Roundtable (cited approvingly by Jason Delisle here) brings up prepayment risk specifically as something that fair value accounting is meant to capture. But the prepayment risk they specify — which is “costly to lenders because prepayments are most likely to occur when market interest rates have decreased and loan values have appreciated,” reflecting the third issue noted above — exists primarily because private capital has to reinvest money in a worse environment. Do taxpayers have to reinvest money they get from student loans? No, unlike private direct lenders, they don’t. The financial logic has broken down. (And don’t even get me started on using the private sector’s liquidity risk as a measure of the state’s.)
I have yet to see an argument addressing this head-on, much less a convincing one, but perhaps this post will change that.