March 26, 2012
Back in late 2006 and early 2007 a few (soon to be very rich) people were warning anyone who cared to listen, about what cracks in the subprime facade meant for the housing sector and the credit bubble in general. They were largely ignored as none other than the Fed chairman promised that all is fine (see here). A few months later New Century collapsed and the rest is history: tens of trillions later we are still picking up the pieces and housing continues to collapse. Yet one bubble which the Federal Government managed to blow in the meantime to staggering proportions in virtually no time, for no other reason than to give the impression of consumer releveraging, was the student debt bubble, which at last check just surpassed $1 trillion, and is growing at $40-50 billion each month. However, just like subprime, the first cracks have now appeared. In a report set to convince borrowers that Student Loan ABS are still safe – of course they are – they are backed by all taxpayers after all in the form of the Family Federal Education Program – Fitch disclosessomething rather troubling, namely that of the $1 trillion + in student debt outstanding, “as many as 27% of all student loan borrowers are more than 30 days past due.” In other words at least $270 billion in student loans are no longer current (extrapolating the delinquency rate into the total loans outstanding). That this is happening with interest rates at record lows is quite stunning and a loud wake up call that it is not rates that determine affordability and sustainability: it is general economic conditions, deplorable as they may be, which have made the popping of the student loan bubble inevitable. It also means that if the rise in interest rate continues, then the student loan bubble will pop that much faster, and bring another $1 trillion in unintended consequences on the shoulders of the US taxpayer who once again will be left footing the bill.
Fitch believes most student loan asset-backed securities (ABS) transactions remain well protected due to the government guarantee on Family Federal Education Program (FFELP) loans. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently reported that as many as 27% of all student loan borrowers are more than 30 days past due. Recent estimates mark outstanding student loans at $900 billion- $1 trillion. Fitch believes that the recent increase in past-due and defaulted student loans presents a risk to investors in private student loan ABS, but not those in ABS trusts backed by FFELP loans.
Why is the bubble starting to pop now?
Several macroeconomic factors are putting pressure on student loan borrowers. The main ones are unemployment and underemployment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the current unemployment rate for people 20 to 24 years old at nearly 14% and for those 25 to 34 years old, 8.7%. Underemployment is difficult to measure for these demographics, but it is likely having a negative impact.
Actually, no: the unemployment for 18-24 year olds is 46%. Yup: 46%.
A month ago, Zero Hedge readers were stunned to learn that unemployment among Europe’s young adults has exploded as a result of the European financial crisis, and peaking anywhere between 46% in the case of Greece all they way to 51% for Spain. Which makes us wonder what the reaction will be to the discovery that when it comes to young adults 18-24) in the US, the employment rate is just barely above half, or 54%, which just happens to be the lowest in 64 years, and 7% worse than when Obama took office promising a whole lot of change 3 years ago.
And while technically this means 46% are unemployed, or the same percentage as in Greece, the US ratio, which comes from Pew, shows the ratio as a % of the total population: a very sensitive topic now that every month we see another 250,000 drop off mysteriously from the total labor force. However, unlike those on the trailing age end, young adults by definition are the labor force in their age group demographic, so it would be difficult to explain away this horrendous number by claiming that ever more 24 year olds are retiring. Although, yes, we agree that some may be dropping out of the labor force in order to go to college, incidentally the locus of the latest credit bubble, where they meet a fate worse even than secular unemployment: they become debt slaves of the Federal System, with non-dischargable debt at that, which even assuming they can get a job would take ages to pay back!
But wait: there’s more – of all age groups, this is the one that has actually seen its wages drop the most under the Obama administration.
So not only are they unemployed, young adults are at least poor.
Net result: double the change, zero the hope.
But fear not dear banks: taxpayers got your back, as usual.
However, we believe that ABS trusts backed by FFELP loans are unlikely to be affected by employment trends, as they are at least 97% backed by the federal government. In addition, recent securitizations have been structured more robustly and many have backup servicing agreements.
Even so, Fich is covering its bases nonetheless:
While FFELP loans are largely protected from these trends, private student loan ABS trusts, especially those that were structured aggressively and with less stringent credit standards before the recession, are expected to continue experiencing high defaults and ratings pressure. Fitch will continue to monitor these political and macroeconomic factors as they evolve and will determine any impact they may have on ABS trusts.
And as a courtesy reminder to our young up and coming “thinkers”, this is $270 billion in debt thatcan not be discharged. Go ahead – file for bankruptcy – see what happens.
The question then is – what is the student loan version of the ABX trade. After all if Bernanke is willing to blow another bubble, someone has to be able to profit when this latest soon to be failed attempt at central planning.
Finally, here are some more perspectives on the student loan bubble direct from the New York Fed’s blog.
The average outstanding student loan balance per borrower is $23,300. Again, there is substantial heterogeneity in balances of individual borrowers. The median balance of $12,800 is roughly half the average level, which indicates that a small fraction of people have balances significantly higher than the median. About one-quarter of borrowers owe more than $28,000; about 10 percent of borrowers owe more than $54,000. The proportion of borrowers who owe more than $100,000 is 3.1 percent, and 0.45 percent of borrowers, or 167,000 people, owe more than $200,000. The distribution also varies by age group: for example, borrowers between the ages of thirty and thirty-nine have the highest average outstanding student loan balance, at $28,500, followed by borrowers between the ages of forty and forty-nine, whose average outstanding balance is $26,000 (see chart below).
How much difficulty are borrowers having paying back their debts? Of the 37 million borrowers who have outstanding student loan balances as of third-quarter 2011, 14.4 percent, or about 5.4 million borrowers, have at least one past due student loan account. Together, these past due balances sum to $85 billion, or roughly 10 percent of the total outstanding student loan balance. To put this in perspective, the same 10 percent rate applies on average to other types of household delinquent debt, including mortgages, credit cards, and auto loans. Does this mean that the prospects for student loan delinquencies are similar to those for the household debt in general, and thus no special attention is warranted? (See chart below.)
Unfortunately, this is not the case—some special accounting used for student loans, not applicable to other types of consumer debt, makes it likely that the delinquency rates for student loans are understated. In the case of federally backed loans, which represent a majority of total lending, repayment is deferred until the student graduates from school and can then be pushed back by another six-month grace period. How do these student loans in deferment or grace periods show up on credit reports and contribute to the delinquency statistics? Given that no payment is necessary until graduation, these deferred student loans are not included in the past due balance but they are included in the total balance from which the delinquency rate is derived. This may help explain the low proportion (12.6 percent) of borrowers with past due student loans among those under thirty years old, compared with 16.9 percent among those between the ages of thirty and thirty-nine, since many of the younger borrowers are still in school and don’t yet have to make any payments.
To address this potential bias in calculating delinquency statistics, we exclude individuals who appear to be temporarily exempt from making payments because they are in school or newly graduated from school. These are students who, as of third-quarter 2011, owed as much as or more than they did in the previous quarter while maintaining a zero past due balance. We will be able to make our inference more precise when loan-level panel data are available, but this is our first-cut analysis given the available data. We warn that there is room for misclassification in this analysis. For example, there could be borrowers who are subject to the income-based repayment plan whose payment fell short of the accrued interest, resulting in a balance that increased. Recall that this exercise looks at the student loan borrowers who have a balance as of third-quarter 2011; therefore, those who had taken out a loan at one point but paid it off before third-quarter 2011 are not accounted for.
From this exercise, we find that as many as 47 percent of student loan borrowers appear to be in deferral or forbearance periods, and thus did not have to make payments as of third-quarter 2011. Specifically, 17.6 percent of borrowers had exactly the same balance in the third quarter as in the second quarter of this year, and 29.1 percent increased their overall student loan balance by taking on new originations or accruing interest to the balance.
We then recalculate the proportion of borrowers with a past due balance excluding this group of borrowers. We find that 27 percent of the borrowers have past due balances, while the adjusted proportion of outstanding student loan balances that is delinquent is 21 percent—much higher than the unadjusted rates of 14.4 percent and 10 percent, respectively (see charts below).
In sum, student loan debt is not just a concern for the young. Parents and the federal government shoulder a substantial part of the postsecondary education bill. Moreover, the student loan delinquency picture is not fully captured in the broad statistics since a significant proportion of borrowers and balances are not yet in the repayment cycle. The implications of this last fact for future changes in the student loan delinquency rate are a very important area of research.
Given that student loans are an indispensable tool for educational advancement, this form of debt will remain a critical policy focus for generations to come. Going forward, we will continue to monitor the student loan market with new data each quarter, and we will try to provide useful information on the landscape of student debt.