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OpenMarket: Banking and Finance

  • Federal Income-Based Repayment Plan Encourages Skyrocketing Law School Tuition

    August 13, 2013 10:17 AM

    A recent item in The Washington Post explains "how Georgetown Law gets Uncle Sam to pay its students’ bills," averaging $158,888 over three years, taking advantage of perverse incentives in a federal student-loan program. A federal income-based repayment plan forgives the student loan debt of law students who go to work for the government or a "public interest" law firm 10 years after they graduate, as long as they pay a small percentage of their income in the first ten years after graduation towards paying off part of their student loans. Typically, much of those law students' loans are not paid off by the end of 10 years, and thus are forgiven at taxpayer expense. But Georgetown has figured out a way to take things even further and make taxpayers pick up the entire tab through creative accounting. Under its Loan Repayment Assistance Program, a student can get his law degree "absolutely free of charge," and entirely on the taxpayer's tab. As the Post notes,

    Georgetown has found a very clever way to exploit recent reforms to federal student loan programs so as to greatly reduce the price of law school for students without costing the school anything either. Georgetown Law students who use LRAP use loans from Grad PLUS — the federal government’s student loan program for grad students — to fund the entire cost of going to law school. That includes not only tuition and fees but living expenses like housing and food. Grad PLUS has no upper limit on the amount you can borrow, so there isn’t any constraint on how much you take out.

    Once out of school, the students enroll in an income-based repayment program, in which, if they’re working for a nonprofit, the federal government forgives all loans after 10 years. For that 10-year period, however, the borrower has to pay a share of their income. But under LRAP, Georgetown commits to covering all of those payments.

    Upon first glance, it looks like what’s happening is that Georgetown is paying for part of the cost of law school and the federal government is forgiving the rest. But as Jason Delisle and Alex Holt at the New America Foundation discovered, Georgetown’s cleverer than that. The tuition paid by new students — tuition they’re often paying with federal loans — includes the cost of covering the previous students’ loan payments.

    So Georgetown is ultimately paying its share with money its students borrow from the federal government. The feds are paying back themselves. At no step in the process does Georgetown actually have to pay anything. The feds are picking up the entire bill.

  • Not With Banks, Not With Retailers, But With Freedom

    August 9, 2013 2:55 PM

    In explaining my policy positions, I often find myself pointing out I am neither pro-business nor pro-bank, but pro-market. My Competitive Enterprise Institute colleagues and I might have a position that lines up with a particular industry group on one issue but opposes it on another. The only guide we have is which policies further consumer choice and the free market, and which restrict it.

    Two events that have arisen over the past couple weeks illustrate this principle. Banks and retailers often are at opposite ends of a policy fight, and this is reflected in some high-profile provisions of the 2,500-page Dodd-Frank financial "reform" legislation. I find myself siding with bankers against retailers in one instance and with retailers against bankers in another.

    In one instance, the Durbin Amendment controls prices on debit card processing fees for retailers. On this, I line up with the banks – and credit unions and community banks for that matter.

    Retailers like the increased sales debit and credit cards provide as well as the lessened risk of fraud and theft when compared to cash and checks. But they want the government to put caps on what the banks and credit unions that issue the cards can charge them. The Durbin price controls within Dodd-Frank already have shifted the costs of debit-card processing from big retailers, such as Wal-Mart, to consumers, who have seen free checking virtually disappear from low-balance accounts.

  • Detroit Bankruptcy Focuses Attention on Public Pensions

    July 31, 2013 4:05 PM

    For people watching it from afar, the bankruptcy of Detroit -- the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history -- may have brought a sense of relief in the fact that they live somewhere else. But it's also brought needed public attention to the state of city finances around the nation. While Detroit is an egregious case of municipal incompetence, corruption, and mismanagement, its problems are not unique.

    In fact, one of the drivers of debt that brought the Motor City to its knees is common among states and cities: defined benefit pension plans, which guarantee payments independently of the level of the plan's funding. This week's cover story in The Economist brings some needed attention to the problem:

    Most public-sector workers can expect a pension linked to their final salary. Only 20% of private-sector workers benefit from such a promise. Companies have almost entirely stopped offering such benefits, because they have proved too expensive. In the public sector, however, the full cost of final-salary pensions has been disguised by iffy accounting.

    Pension accounting is complicated. What is the cost today of a promise to pay a benefit in 2020 or 2030? The states have been allowed to discount that future liability at an annual rate of 7.5%-8% on the assumption that they can earn such returns on their investment portfolios. The higher the discount rate, the lower the liability appears to be and the less the states have to contribute upfront.

    Even when this dubious approach is used, the Centre for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College reckons that states’ pensions are 27% underfunded. That adds up to a shortfall of $1 trillion. What is more, they are paying only about four-fifths of their required annual contribution.

  • On Dodd-Frank's 3rd Anniversary, "North Star" is Further Out of Reach

    July 22, 2013 12:15 PM

    Over the weekend, President Obama hailed the third anniversary of the enactment of the Dodd-Frank "financial reform." In his weekly radio address, the president also hailed the confirmation of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, which occurred last week after Senate Republicans caved to Majority Leader Harry Reid's "nuclear option" threat to end the filibuster.

    The president began his address, "Three years ago this weekend, we put in place tough new rules of the road for the financial sector so that irresponsible behavior on the part of the few could never again cause a crisis that harms millions of middle-class families." And he concluded, "If we keep moving forward with our eyes fixed on that North Star of a growing middle class, I’m confident we’ll get to where we need to go."

    Sorry, Mr. President, but just the opposite is true. Dodd-Frank has declared certain large financial institutions to be "Systemically Important Financial Institutions," enshrining too-big-to-fail in law. And the volumes of regulations emanating from the law's 2,500-plus pages have harmed community banks, credit unions, small businesses, farms and manufacturers that had nothing to do with the crisis.

    Here are some articles my colleagues and I have written on Dodd-Frank's devastating toll as well as some its just plain silly, but still destructive, provisions:

  • The Government's Wasteful Obsession with Subsidized Homeownership

    July 22, 2013 12:11 PM

    The government has spent vast sums of money promoting homeownership through subsidies, tax exemptions, and bailouts. For example, in prosperous Alexandria, Virginia, certain people who never saved up enough money for a down payment received interest-free loans from the federal government to enable them to make a down payment. They do not have to repay those loans until they sell their home. Thrifty people with savings were not eligible for such a handout, penalizing them for their thrift.

    Supporters of taxpayer subsidies for homeownership falsely claim it promotes political stability and prosperity. But As George Mason University's Michael Greve notes, "there’s actually very little support that home ownership correlates with—let alone promotes—democratic stability. If anything, the data suggest that ownership rates are inversely correlated with political stability and the rule of law." Bankrupt, unstable Greece has a much higher homeownership rate than does the United States. Stable, prosperous Germany and Switzerland have much lower homeownership rates than the U.S. does. European countries facing fiscal crises, like Italy, Spain, and Portugal, have higher homeownership rates.

    Similarly, The Washington Post reports that a recent study found that "higher levels of homeownership can kill jobs":

    Andrew Oswald and Dartmouth’s David G. Blanchflower have a brand new working paper (pdf) suggesting that homeownership has an even bigger and wider effect on unemployment than anyone has realized. Here are the key points:

    "We find that rises in the home-ownership rate in a US state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state. …A doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a US state is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate."

    . . .the authors argue that homeownership has a much broader — and negative — impact on the labor market as a whole.

    Why is that? The authors find that higher levels of homeownership in a state appear to be associated with lower levels of labor mobility, higher commute times, and fewer new businesses created. Taken together, those three factors tend to increase the unemployment rate.

  • Anti-Business and Anti-Freedom: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

    May 23, 2013 12:38 PM

    In the American Spectator, CEI Vice President for Strategy Iain Murray and Geoffrey McLatchey explain why the Senate should be skeptical of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which fell six votes short of the 67 needed for ratification last December.  As they note, "the treaty would enable an enormous increase in the potential power of UN bureaucrats over the American people and undermine national sovereignty."  Moreover, although "CRPD proponents argue that it merely reiterates existing U.S. disability law," this is simply false, based on the treaty's plain language.

    It also delegates authority to a UN committee, they note, resulting in a "loss of U.S. sovereignty." UN committees like to define free speech as discrimination against minority groups in violation of international treaties, making it dangerous to ratify such treaties.  For example, the  U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has ruled Germany violated international law by not prosecuting a former legislator for remarks to a scholarly journal about Turkish-immigrant welfare recipients that were deemed racially offensive. The UN committee ruled Germany's failure to prosecute the speaker violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

  • The Economist on "the muddle-headed world of American public pension accounting"

    May 9, 2013 2:46 PM

    As state governments across the nation struggle to address a public pension underfunding crisis they can no longer deny, The Economist is the latest major news outlet to turn its gaze on the ongoing debacle. In the current issue, the magazine's "Buttonwood" column draws a sketch of U.S. public pension accounting that is not only dysfunctional, but that runs against plain common sense.

    American public-sector schemes discount their liabilities by the expected return on their assets. The riskier the asset mix, the higher the assumed return—and the lower the bill appears to be.

    This is an odd way of thinking. Suppose a car company borrowed $10 billion in the form of a 20-year bond to build a manufacturing plant and planned to pay off the debt with the profits from running the plant. The car company will assume a higher return on capital than its financing cost (otherwise it should not build the plant). But it still has to recognise the $10 billion bond liability on its balance-sheet. It cannot say it owes only $2 billion because it expects a very high return.

    The reason is clear. If the plant fails to earn a high return, the firm will still be liable to repay the bond. Similarly, if pension schemes fail to earn a high return on their assets, they still have to pay benefits. Final-salary pensions are a debt-like liability.

    The Buttonwood columnist (currently Philip Coggan) notes recent changes to the nation's largest public pension plan, the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS), that would require greater employer contributions. But such changes will be ineffective in the long run unless they were to be accompanied by major reforms that address some of the structural factors that have made public pension shortfalls severe and chronic: payouts based on final-year pay, negotiation of benefits through collective bargaining, benefit increases through binding arbitration, politicized pension fund boards, and flawed accounting standards.

  • Historian: Housing Nominee Mel Watt Helped Spawn the Subprime Crisis

    May 6, 2013 1:20 PM

    In the Daily Caller, historian and presidential biographer Charles C. Johnson writes that "Housing nominee Mel Watt helped create the subcrime crisis.”  Watt has been nominated by President Obama to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  As John Berlau discussed earlier, Watt's record also flunks privacy, transparency and government-accountability tests.

  • Obama: A Sweet Pension for Himself, But Not For America's Savers or Investors

    May 6, 2013 10:35 AM

    In The Washington Post, Allan Sloan points out that while President Obama wants to cap American citizens' IRAs at $3 million or substantially less—discouraging saving and investment in the process—Obama's own-taxpayer-subsidized retirement benefits are worth more than twice as much, a generous $6.6 million. A sweet pension for me, but not for thee, seems to be Obama's thinking.  Discussing the president's "proposal to limit the value of 401(k)s, pensions and other tax-favored retirement accounts to about $3.4 million" (or much less, as interest rates rise), Sloan notes that Obama want "to limit savers’ tax-favored accounts to only about half the value of what he stands to get from his post-presidential package. Based on numbers from Vanguard Annuity Access, I value his package at more than $6.6 million. . . .And that doesn’t include [his] IRA  . . . Or the $18,000 (plus cost of living) a year he will get at age 62 for his service in the Illinois Senate."

    He also notes that "the point at which Obama wants to eliminate the ability of you and your employer to deduct contributions to your retirement account isn’t actually the $3.4 million in his budget proposal—that’s just an estimate. The real number is how much a couple age 62 would have to pay for an annuity that yields $205,000 a year. That $3.4 million—which applies to the combined values of your pension and retirement accounts—is subject to a sharp downward change in the future because annuity issuers charge significantly less for an annuity when interest rates are higher than they do today, with rates at rock-bottom levels."

    Obama has discouraged saving in other ways, such as raising taxes on capital gains and dividends, imposing a new Obamacare tax on investment income, and by giving costly bailouts to irresponsible people who, despite ample incomes, saved so little money that they could not "afford" more than a tiny downpayment, and thus ended up with negative equity on their home later on due to declines in the value of their home, qualifying them for the bailouts that certain favored underwater mortgage borrowers have received.

  • New York Times: Obama Administration Discrimination Settlement Was "Magnet For Fraud" That Enriched Trial Lawyers

    April 26, 2013 4:51 PM

    Obama RacineA page 1 New York Times story today describes how the Obama administration, despite opposition from civil servants, radically expanded a legal settlement that had already become a "magnet for fraud," paying out vast sums of money over baseless claims of discrimination at the Agriculture Department in the Pigford case. As the Cato Institute's Walter Olson notes, its story "today breaks vital new details about how career government lawyers opposed Obama appointees’ insistence on reaching a gigantic settlement for claims of bias against female and Hispanic farmers in the operation of federal agriculture programs" over the objections of "career government lawyers." As the Times reports,

    On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling [adverse to claimants and favorable toward USDA], interviews and records show, the Obama administration’s political appointees at the Justice and Agriculture Departments engineered a stunning turnabout: they committed $1.33 billion to compensate not just the 91 plaintiffs but thousands of Hispanic and female farmers who had never claimed bias in court.

    The deal, several current and former government officials said, was fashioned in White House meetings despite the vehement objections — until now undisclosed — of career lawyers and agency officials who had argued that there was no credible evidence of widespread discrimination. What is more, some protested, the template for the deal — the $50,000 payouts to black farmers — had proved a magnet for fraud.

    The ever-growing settlement became “a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees.”

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