Joseph Stiglitz writes in this morning's New York Times
that, just as America is beginning to recover from the crisis which rocked the world financial system, another storm is about to hit:
The crisis that is about to break out involves student debt and how we finance higher education. Like the housing crisis that preceded it, this crisis is intimately connected to America’s soaring inequality, and how, as Americans on the bottom rungs of the ladder strive to climb up, they are inevitably pulled down — some to a point even lower than where they began.
Just as home owners found themselves with mortgages they couldn't repay, American students now find themselves with debt they can't repay: According
to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost 13 percent of student-loan borrowers of all ages owe more than $50,000, and nearly 4 percent owe more than $100,000. These debts are beyond students’ ability to repay, (especially in our nearly jobless recovery); this is demonstrated by the fact that delinquency and default rates are soaring. Some 17 percent of student-loan borrowers were 90 days or more behind in payments at the end of 2012. When only those in repayment were counted — in other words, not including borrowers who were in loan deferment or forbearance — more than 30 percent
were 90 days or more behind. For federal loans taken out in the 2009 fiscal year, three-year default rates
exceeded 13 percent.
And the aftermath of the Great Recession has made things worse:
Like much else, the problem of student debt worsened during the Great Recession: tuition costs at public universities increased by 27 percent in the past five years — partly because of cutbacks — while median income shrank. In California, inflation-adjusted tuition more than doubled in public two-year community colleges (which for poorer Americans are often the key to upward mobility), and by more than 70 percent in four-year public schools, from 2007-8 to 2012-13.
With costs soaring, incomes stagnating and little help from government, it was not surprising that total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed
total credit-card debt last year.
It's a depressingly familiar story. Caught in the jaws of a financial system which piles up profit for the few, the economy stagnates -- because, faced with a mountain of debt, students neither form families nor buy homes:
Those with huge debts are likely to be cautious before undertaking the additional burdens of a family. But even when they do, they will find it more difficult to get a mortgage. And if they do, it will be smaller, and the real estate recovery will consequently be weaker. (One study of recent Rutgers University graduates showed that 40 percent had delayed making a major home purchase, and for a quarter, the high level of debt had an effect on household formation or getting further education. Another recent study showed that homeownership among 30-year-olds with a history of student debt fell by more than 10 percentage points during the Great Recession and in its aftermath.)
It’s a vicious cycle: lack of demand for housing contributes to a lack of jobs, which contributes to weak household formation, which contributes to a lack of demand for housing.
The Masters of the Financial Universe have given birth to a vicious, not a virtuous, cycle. They really aren't the sharpest tools in the shed.