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Published: Wednesday, 2/19/2014

Student loan debt not threat to banks

Experts: Load could affect growth


PITTSBURGH — Total student loan debt — a titanic figure that has quadrupled since 2003 and now exceeds all other forms of U.S. consumer debt, even credit cards — does not pose a significant threat to the nation’s economic stability as far as Federal Reserve policy makers can see.

That’s despite the fact that student debt has the highest delinquency rate of any consumer loan category and could affect the long-term financial future of graduates for decades to come.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that student loans outstanding total around $1.2 trillion, spread among 40 million borrowers, for an average debt of nearly $30,000 per graduate.

“This is an issue that has implications for economic growth and bears watching, but it’s not necessarily a crisis in the making with respect to the nation’s financial stability,” said Ann Marie Wiersch, a senior policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Many people, she said, are trying to draw comparisons to the housing crisis that helped trigger the Great Recession, but banks don’t have the same exposure to the student loan market. Financial institutions providing capital for student loans only accounted for 7 percent of the total market in 2010-11, the most recent year data are available. The other 93 percent was provided by the federal government through its student loan programs.

So, while taxpayers bear risk — even though student loan programs now are operating in the black — an avalanche of defaults would not pose as much risk to bank balance sheets, which is important because it lowers the likelihood of another taxpayer-funded bailout for banks.

Still, the mushrooming student debt load will have implications for the nation’s economic health.

“From the Fed’s perspective, the concerns about economic growth are a bigger issue,” Ms. Wiersch said.

The ripple effect of so many young college graduates struggling with sizable student loan payments is broad: They are less able to contribute to their company 401(k) plans, reducing the value of retirement saving. They are less able to move out of their parents’ homes, creating a drag on household formation and home sales. And they are less able to be approved for other forms of consumer debt, including auto financing.

Ms. Wiersch wrote in a report on rising student loan debt two weeks ago that the burden could prevent recent college graduates with an entrepreneurial spirit from starting a business or expanding one. Student debt can limit small business owners’ ability to qualify for loans, preventing growth and payroll expansion.

“Doctors may avoid low-paying but much needed specialities, such as caring for elderly or for children. Talented teachers may leave their professions in search of higher-paying careers to offset the impact of student loan payments on their personal finances.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tim Grant is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.

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