Student Loan Bubble & Moral Hazard

The insurance industry is unique in that its product tends to incentivize the very behavior people seek to protect themselves from. This is called “moral hazard.” For example, all things being equal, someone with collision insurance will tend to drive more recklessly than someone with no coverage. Someone with flood insurance will deliberately build their home in a flood zone. In other words, people do things they would never otherwise do absent the assumption of protection.

There are ways to tame moral hazard. Large first-dollar deductibles ensure that the insured will feel some pain with a loss – negative feedback affects one’s behavior and results in more cautious behavior. Likewise, some events are not insured if the moral hazard cannot be mitigated. For example, homeowner’s policies do not cover loss from damage attributable to failure to maintain the upkeep of one’s home. Although moral hazard is a foundational flaw in human behavior, the market (that is, people) has figured out how to tame it.

The state is an insurer (it purports to protect its citizens). It is however the worst kind of insurer because it actively encourages moral hazard. From the crony-capitalism of “too big too fail”, loan guarantees for favored industries, to student loan bailouts, the state has a sordid record of incentivizing moral hazard by encouraging behavior its minions witlessly seek to avoid. For example, the student loan program was implemented to encourage more tuition lending by banks so that more people would go to college. This created the moral hazard of banks lending to people they otherwise would never lend to, thereby vastly increasing the demand for higher education. This massive explosion in demand (quite predictably) encouraged schools to ratchet tuition upwards. Why? Supply and demand. Loan guarantees ensured ever increasing demand that was insensitive to price increases. In a normal market, increasing tuition would have decreased the pool of available funds for such lending or raised the cost of such lending, but in either case these would have both resulted in inhibition of tuition increases and a subsequent restoration of equilibrium between supply and demand. But in a market suffering state intervention, equilibrium can never be achieved, as rising prices present no inhibitory effect on the level of demand. This resulted in tuition increasing over the last 40 years at 3-times the rate of inflation.

This willful blindness of moral hazard by Obama and his ilk is not merely sad, it is downright destructive. His recent actions only serve to deepen the crisis, not ameliorate it. By executive order (royal decree) he recently extended a cap on student loan payments to cover loans made before 2007. This cap allows borrowers to limit their loan repayments to 10% of their income for 20 years and after that the loan is “forgiven” – that is, it simply vanishes like a fart into the wind, courtesy of the US taxpayer.

This executive order is symptomatic of all state interventions: heaping fixes upon fixes to fix previous fixes. To encourage lenders to make student loans to anyone with a pulse, the state removed bankruptcy protection for student loans in 1976 and then promised the lenders to act as their enforcement agent. Step 1: All risk shifts from lender to borrower. So with Uncle Sam acting as Guido the Enforcer the floodgate of loans opened. Then loan repayment became problematic for a growing number of students (due to a dismal job market resulting from state intervention in the economy) and this inability to discharge loan debt likewise became a political liability for our wise overlords. The quick fix? Step 2: Shift all risk from the borrower to the taxpayer. For now, concentrated benefits (to students) and diffuse costs (from taxpayer) ensure little mass objection. But soon enough these loan write-offs will be priced back into tuition rates. The only solution to this quagmire is the most politically painful one: end all loan guarantees, permit bankruptcy protection, and allow lenders, not the state, to determine who is a worthy credit risk and who is not.