Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The New York Post reported yesterday that in a commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith promised to pay off the student loans of the graduating class. Wow.

The article reports:

Billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith stunned college graduates on Sunday as he gave their commencement speech — offering to pay their student debts despite it costing an estimated $40 million.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith told the 400 graduating seniors at the all-male Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

The announcement was initially met with stunned looks — before the graduates broke into cheers and tears at the largest gift ever given to the historically black college.

This is brilliant. The students were graduating–they had completed their studies–they had not dropped out. Now the students were faced with serious debt that they had accumulated in order to pay for their college education. Now they are free to pursue whatever career they choose without having that debt hanging over their heads. Paying off these debts not only helps the students, it helps America by making sure those student loans were quickly paid off. Wow.

The Latest Economic Numbers

On Friday, Market Watch reported that the U.S. economy did better than expected during the first three months of 2019.

The article reports:

Reports of the demise of the U.S. economy proved unfounded as first-quarter activity showed surprising strength. The U.S. economy expanded at a 3.2% annual pace in the first three months of 2019, the government said Friday.

The gain was well above forecasts. Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast a 2.3% increase in gross domestic product. The economy grew at a 2.2% rate in the final three months of 2018.

Inflation moderated a bit in the first quarter.

The article includes other good economic news:

Final sales to domestic purchasers, which excludes trade and inventory behavior, rose 2.3% in the first quarter, the smallest gain in three years, but still well above what economists were expecting.

The value of inventories increased to $128.4 billion from $96.8 billion, adding to GDP.

The trade sector added a little more than 1% to growth in the first quarter. Exports rose 3.7%, while imports dropped by the same amount, leading to a smaller trade deficit.

Offsetting these gains, consumer spending decelerated to a 1.2% gain, the slowest increase in a year.

Business fixed investment decelerated to a relatively slow 2.7% gain, down from a 5.4% gain in the prior quarter. Investment in structures fell 0.8%, the third straight decline.

Investment in new housing was another weak spot. Residential investment dropped 2.8%, the fifth straight quarterly decline.

I believe that the weakness in the housing market is being caused by a number of things. The millennials, the generation that would currently be entering the housing market, are weighed down by student debt. There is also a different attitude among young Americans about owning a house that there was a few generations ago. In the past, many Americans looked at their home as an investment–something that would grow in value over the years. Many older people began with a ‘starter house’–a small house that allowed them to enter into the housing market. Today, couples are having children later than previous generations. Their first house is paid for by two incomes, and they are not dealing with the expense of having children. The concept of a ‘starter house’ is no longer with us. Those facts, along with the price of the home most young people want to own are working to slow down the housing market. I am not convinced any of those factors are going to change.

Bad Policies Have Consequences

On Friday, Investor’s Business Daily posted an article about the results of the government’s takeover of the student loan program. The results of that takeover have not been good.

The article reports:

A report from the Department of Education notes that the net cost of the federal government‘s direct loan program is quickly heading into the red. This program, mind you, was supposed to be a moneymaker for the government, as students paid back federal loans with interest.

But as it turns out, borrowers have been flocking toward various loan forgiveness programs, by which the government will lose money, erasing gains from other loans. The report shows that the direct loan program went from a $25 billion surplus in 2012 to less than $5 billion by 2015.

A separate report says that this program ran a $36 billion deficit last year, up from $8.4 billion in 2016.

One of the problems with the government’s takeover of the student loan program is that the government did not have any interest in limiting the loans to people who might be willing and able to pay them back. When the program was privately granted, banks had an incentive to use good business practices in granting student loans–in order to stay in business, the banks needed the people borrowing the money to pay it back. This is another example of the private sector being able to do something better than the government.

The article concludes:

One program, called “income-driven repayment,” lets borrowers avoid payments if their income falls below a certain threshold, and then caps payments as a percentage of total family income. Any debt left over at the end of 25 years is forgiven.

Not surprisingly, students flocked to these and other programs that let them avoid paying back all their loans, even though the interest rates they had to pay were already subsidized.

Between 2011 and 2015, the portion of loans being repaid through these IDR plans shot up 625%, according to the report.

The direct lending program even earned the nickname “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness,” and surveys of student borrowers by LendEDU found that half of them don’t expect to have to pay back all their debts because the federal government would forgive them.

The rising expectation that loans wouldn’t have to be paid back in full also had the perverse effect of making students increasingly indifferent to college costs, thereby fueling tuition inflation.

As the Education report says, “Decision makers and others may not be aware of the growth in the participation in these IDR plans and loan forgiveness programs and the resulting additional costs.”

Given the $1 trillion in loan debt on the federal books, one hopes that awareness comes soon. Otherwise, the student loan program will quickly turn into one of the most regressive taxes on the books.

This is one example of the need to shrink the government. Taking over a program that has been run successfully in the private sector and moving it to government control is simply not wise. Free market capitalism is always the best way to run anything.