Opinion

Edward Hadas

The stupidity of student debt

Edward Hadas
Jul 2, 2014 14:31 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The fast increase in loans to pay for higher education is a trend that is moving in the wrong direction. The idea that borrowing should play an important role in financing higher education, now standard thinking in the United States and the United Kingdom, is financially dangerous and economically wrongheaded.

Overall, American households are deleveraging. Most notably, U.S. mortgage debt outstanding has fallen to 51 percent from 71 percent of GDP since the end of 2008, according to survey data from the New York Federal Reserve. However, over the same period the ratio of student loans to GDP increased to 5.7 percent from 4.3 percent. The $1 trillion now outstanding is economically significant. In England, the ratio of student loans to GDP is only about half as high as in the United States, but the 80 percent increase over the last five years has been even faster.

For the financial system, the growth is simply bad news. The last thing highly leveraged economies need is an expanding category of debt. Worse, student debt makes the financial system less secure and more complicated, thanks to high default rates and complex repayment terms. Also, student debt, like all debt, distorts behaviour. Heavily burdened new graduates are likely to delay such adult activities as buying houses and having children.

Few people would argue with these negative effects. But after decades of increased borrowing to pay for almost everything – housing, cars, holidays, government spending – it seems natural to use the credit system to put off paying for just one more desirable thing until some fine day when more money is available.

Three Ms for economics re-education

Edward Hadas
May 21, 2014 15:10 UTC

Many economics students are unhappy with what they are being taught. A network of 62 groups from around the world has drawn up a petition calling for more “pluralism” in instruction. The malcontents find the dominant neoclassical model too narrow and want to know why so few experts predicted the 2008 financial crisis. They also want less abstract theory and more study of actual economies. The reproaches are just, but the students’ reform agenda is insufficiently radical.

They underestimate the scale of the intellectual scandal. The profession’s ignoble tradition started in the 19th century, when most political economists, as they were then known, failed to notice that industry was leading to massive improvements in the standard of living. Today’s practitioners know much more, but they still struggle to explain the most basic phenomena – prices, wages, money, credit, unemployment and development.

Pluralism, the study of alternative schools of economic thought, would help, but not much. With the partial exception of the still underdeveloped study of institutional economics, the available alternatives to the neoclassical synthesis largely rely on the same erroneous assumptions that humans are rational and that market forces almost exclusively shape economies.

Mega sovereign writeoff could work

Edward Hadas
Feb 12, 2014 15:48 UTC

A massive sovereign debt reduction is the right way to reduce the ridiculously high indebtedness of governments. The idea might sound crazy, but it makes economic sense, and could be done, albeit after some serious preparatory work.

Many rich country governments have been borrowing excessively in recent years. In 1991, when the calculations from the International Monetary Fund started, gross government debt of advanced economies was 60 percent of GDP. This year it is expected to be 108 percent of GDP, or about $51 trillion.

The current level is much too high for the overall economic good. Heavily indebted governments spend too much of their tax revenue on interest payments and spend too much time trying to placate bond buyers, who rarely support useful long-term investments. Rumours of possible default can spark a financial crisis. And the excessive supply of sovereign obligations encourages parasitic speculation. The economically pointless trades of supposedly risk-free government debt pay much of the high salaries at investment banks.

Apple, hypocrisy and stakeholder tax

Edward Hadas
May 22, 2013 14:00 UTC

Apple is the latest multinational to feel the heat on cross-border tax management. The news that the tech giant used Irish law to lower U.S. tax payments should not have been surprising. After all, “Do no evil” Google had no second thoughts about recording what were essentially British sales as Irish, for the sake of a lower tax rate. It’s hardly likely that Apple, which has cultivated a certain anti-establishment air, would have hesitated.

Indeed, until a few months ago, I don’t think there was a corporate treasurer anywhere who would have taken justice into account when deciding on tax strategy. At most, there might be worries about bad publicity, but the well-established corporate practice of tax dodging had generated little attention.

And who would complain? Lower taxes on profit bring benefits to most people connected with companies; the money that doesn’t go to the government goes to workers, customers and shareholders. Besides, most experts who understand the arcane rules of international taxation are paid to use them to keep payments down.

Banker-think in welcome retreat

Edward Hadas
Mar 27, 2013 09:45 UTC

For once, investors have got it right. In 2008, their panic turned a financial crisis into a long multinational recession, but they have mostly yawned right through the drama in Nicosia. They hardly twitched at a stream of warnings from investment banks and pundits: bank deposits are no longer sacrosanct; the European Union has been exposed as despotic and incompetent; the Russians are coming; the Russians are going; capital controls will destroy everything; “bail in” (taking losses on loans that cannot be repaid) is the end of the world as we once knew it.

Such talk was out of proportion. Cyprus is a small country – its GDP would put it at 116 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest quoted U.S. companies – with a financial sector that had expanded excessively for two decades, almost entirely by attracting flight capital from Russia. A national financial collapse was both insignificant and merited. Besides, the EU and the International Monetary Fund had a plan to deal with the collapse: a combination of financial help from other countries and managed pain for depositors in Cypriot banks.

Alarmists could not deny all this, but they invoked the great demons of financial crises: precedent and contagion. That was silly. Cyprus was obviously a special case, and the European Central Bank was clearly determined, and able, to keep its problems from spreading. Even if Cyprus had left the euro zone, there would have been no dangerous precedents or grim effects, just a demonstration of a bizarre desire for economic self-harm. For everyone else, Cyprus would still be like a flea-bite – scratch for a minute and forget about it.

Cyprus and the danger of promises

Edward Hadas
Mar 19, 2013 14:42 UTC

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Wise parents tell small children that, and wary lovers use that command as a taunt. But in the world of finance, unrealistic promises are the norm, and they are too often broken. Depositors in the banks of Cyprus may be learning that lesson.

True, the government of the Mediterranean island may retreat from its first plan, and in any case the accounts are to be taxed, not written down, so the terms of the deposit insurance will be technically kept. And strictly speaking, deposit guarantees are not being breached in the United States and other countries with an inflation rate higher than the interest rate paid on savings accounts, even though that inflation-tax steadily erodes the accounts’ real value. But in fact, governments – both small and suspect like Cyprus, and large and respectable like the United States – have failed the lovers’ test. They have made promises to savers which they either cannot or will not keep.

These trust-breaking governments can resort to the errant lover’s usual excuse: we could not have known what the future would bring. Just as bitter experience somehow invalidates a promise of undying love, an impossible-to-predict avalanche of bad loans might erase the obligations of Cypriot banks and the equally unpredictable financial crisis could exculpate monetary authorities in the United States and elsewhere. Such events, they can say, are like the acts of God which invalidate insurance policies.

Taxes and human nature

Edward Hadas
Jan 30, 2013 14:54 UTC

The tax system could well be the most idiotic, hypocritical and unnecessarily complicated part of modern industrial economies. The system needs to be rebuilt.

In developed economies, as governments have expanded, taxes have increasingly been used as a tool of economic and social policy. The rich are taxed more than the poor for the sake of a vision of social justice: from each according his ability. Depending on the jurisdiction, some good cause or another is favoured: house ownership, marriage, children, charitable contributions, savings. For companies, an almost endless series of exemptions, deductions and definitions are supposed to encourage investment, employment or some other desirable end.

Each tax wrinkle produces its own complex set of rules. Taxpayers’ continuous efforts to minimise payments lead to yet more rules. Each tax jurisdiction has its own system, a diversity which both increases the intricacies of international business and creates opportunities for individuals and companies to place income where it is less highly taxed.

The then and now of pensions

Edward Hadas
Jan 16, 2013 14:50 UTC

What is the right size for pensions? That question can be approached in two ways: “then” and “now”. Pensions, and other economic arrangements to support elderly people, may be considered repayments for what they did back then, when they were young. Alternatively, these payments may be considered as a share of output right now. In rich countries, the two approaches are in conflict. The “then” logic, which is based on promises made long ago, supports higher pension payments than the “now” logic, which is mindful of rapidly ageing populations. Politicians struggle to find acceptable compromises between the two approaches.

Until 60 or 70 years ago, politicians did not have to worry much because governments played a minimal role in supporting the few people who lived long enough to be unable to earn their keep. The elderly mostly relied on their own families for support. Moralists provided a “then” justification for this obligation: children had a duty to the parents who gave life, the young owed the old more than could ever be repaid for the provision of nurture and wisdom.

Philosophers and religious teachers often claimed that the duty of children to parents was as natural as that of parents to their children. However, many people must have remained unpersuaded. Otherwise, the injunction would not have been repeated so often in such solemn tones.

Candidates as consumer products

Edward Hadas
Nov 21, 2012 15:06 UTC

Barack Obama did not win the election because more Americans thought he would be a better president than Mitt Romney. More Americans voted for the incumbent than for the challenger, but it is Obama’s superior campaign organisation, and not his personal appeal, that deserves most of the credit. In particular, his product managers were better than Romney’s at using the technique of “data mining”.

The technique, pioneered by supermarkets, is conceptually simple: measure everything and tweak as necessary. In practice, it is a delicate affair. Suppose a popular soft drink has 4 percent higher sales when it is stocked next to a salty snack than when healthier raisins are its shelf-neighbour. Should shelf locations be swapped? There are many variables: the effect on sales of salty snacks and raisins, the profit margins of the different products, and customers’ sensitivity to any price changes. Most of the effects are tiny, but the study of millions of data, including a large number of computer simulations, can increase a retailer’s revenue and profit by a few percent.

In elections, data mining can bring votes to candidates and can increase the supply of contributions which pay for vote-gaining advertising. The work is detailed. Time magazine reports that the Obama campaign carefully tested how much more likely undecided voters in each close state were to yield to the blandishments of local rather than to out-of-state volunteers. The superiority in detailed computer work – “We ran the election 66,000 times every night”, as one expert explained to Time – probably gave Obama a few more percentage points of votes than Romney. It was the margin of victory.

The EAST cure for unemployment

Edward Hadas
Oct 3, 2012 13:52 UTC

The winner of the presidential election should do something about U.S. unemployment. The current rate of 8 percent is high by America’s historical standards, and that measure does not capture the gravity of the problem – too many people have spent too long out of work or have decided to leave the workforce because jobs are too hard to find. European leaders face an even greater challenge. The EU unemployment rate is 10.4 percent, and during the last decade it has been below 7 percent for only half a year.

What is to be done? Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama has a clear plan. The Federal Reserve has an idea, but it is hard to see how $40 billion a month of newly printed money will actually help create jobs. I have an alternative approach: EAST. It is both an analysis of the problem and a solution.

E is for Efficiency. The industrial economy continually makes more stuff out of less labour. More efficient workers, machines and systems constantly add to consumption, and constantly subtract jobs. The lost labour has mostly been dangerous or tedious, so there is little to regret.

  •