It took me a while to figure this out, so bear with me. Megan McArdle tries to pooh-pooh a very good question asked by Bernie Sanders:
The day after Christmas, Bernie Sanders asked a question on Twitter: “You have families out there paying 6, 8, 10 percent on student debt but you can refinance your homes at 3 percent. What sense is that?”
Finance types may snicker. But I’ve seen this question asked fairly often, and it seems worth answering, respectfully, for people whose expertise and interest lie outside the realm of economics.
The short answer is: “Loans are not priced in real life the way they are in Sunday School stories.” In a Sunday School story, the cheapest loans would go to the nicest people with the noblest use for the money: single mothers who need money to buy their kids a Christmas present, say.
That’s splendid for the recipient. But what about the lender? Let’s say you had $150 that you really needed to have at the end of the month, say to pay your rent. Would you want to lend it to the single mother whose income is stretched so tight that she needs to borrow money for Christmas presents, or would you want to lend it to some heartless leech of a securities litigator with an 800 credit rating who happens to have left his wallet at home? C’mon. You know the answer; you just don’t want to say it. If you really need the money -- if you cannot afford to turn your loan into a gift -- then you lend it to the better credit risk with the higher income, not the person who may find themselves too short to pay you when the loan comes due.
In aggregate, most of the money in your savings account is loaned out using this cold calculus, and unless you could afford to have that contents of that account suddenly vanish, you want it to be. That’s why poor people, on top of all the other unfairness heaped upon them, pay higher interest rates. And that is why secured loans, like mortgages, get lower interest rates than unsecured loans, like credit card balances and student loans.
Student loans are two-for-one in terms of risk: They are frequently made to people with no income, no credit history, and somewhat imperfect prospects; and they carry no guarantee of payment other than the borrower’s signature. If someone fails to pay their auto loan, you can take their car away. This ensures repayment in two ways: first, you can auction the car and recover some of the money that you lent out; and second, people need their car, and will scrimp on other things in order to keep it from losing it. The immediate personal costs of failing to pay your student loans, on the other hand, are pretty minimal, and people are going to take that into account when they decide whether to pay you or the auto finance company. That’s why the government has to guarantee these loans; the low-fixed-rate, take-any-course-of-study-you-want-at-any-accredited-institution, interest-deferred-in-school is probably not a financial product that would exist in the wild.
Secured loans have thus always carried lower interest rates than unsecured loans, and will do so until the heat death of the universe renders moot such questions.
And so on, and so forth. McArdle tries to demonstrate competence and knowledge here, but let's go back to the question that kicked off this discussion:
Bernie Sanders asked a question on Twitter: “You have families out there paying 6, 8, 10 percent on student debt but you can refinance your homes at 3 percent. What sense is that?”
Let's ignore McArdle and really answer the question. Let's say a family, who refinances their home, takes a look at their student debt and makes an honest effort to refinance that debt. They can't! And that's why the question needs to be answered from the viewpoint of a family with student loan debt as opposed to a recently graduated student with student loan debt.
McArdle is basically right about why a student who just gets out of college is charged a higher interest rate--they're a riskier proposition. But the family, with their home as an asset, is a much lower risk. Why wouldn't you allow them to use their home as collateral so that they could refinance their existing student loan debt?
That's the part that makes no sense. You have two people who are married and, if they're at a point where they own a home and refinance it, let's say they're also ten years into the thirty year process of paying back their student loans. They've been making ten years of payments on that debt at 7 or 8 percent while their home is financed at 3 percent. You could say that the only reason why they own their own home is because of the degrees they earned.
As a condition of refinancing their student loan debt, you could minimize the risk and reduce the interest rate on their student loan debt by using the equity in their home as collateral. You're telling me that someone who has paid off a third of their mortgage is the same risk as a kid just out of college? Hell, no. They're a damned good risk and they deserve an interest rate cut. That would mean huge savings for the family and bring them greater financial stability in the long run, making it more likely that not only would they pay back their mortgage but that they would pay back their student loan debt.
And wouldn't that help bring down interest rates? Or am I being an idiot on purpose?
These are the kinds of scenarios that Sanders is really pushing--common sense changes to how we do things so that Americans can get out from under crushing levels of debt. And no one currently self-identifying as a Republican would even dream of such a thing--it runs against the economic self-interest of their primary voters as well as their donors.