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Could Canceling Student Loans Be a Tax Cut 2.0?

Brian Chappatta
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Could Canceling Student Loans Be a Tax Cut 2.0?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump’s top economic aide, said on Friday that he’s working on a plan to cut taxes for the American middle class that would be announced ahead of the 2020 election.

In the eyes of Moody’s Investors Service, several Democratic presidential candidates already have a similar proposal.

In a sweeping report on the potential impact of student-loan forgiveness on the U.S. economy and the government’s finances, analysts led by William Foster made this striking statement: “In the near term, we would expect student loan debt cancellation to yield a tax-cut-like stimulus to economic activity.” The idea is that because more than 90% of the debt has been issued or guaranteed by the federal government, lowering or erasing those interest payments is tantamount to slashing taxes owed to ultimately the same source.

Even for a subject like student loans that has been poked and prodded from every direction, this framing is novel. But it makes sense that Moody’s, which assesses the creditworthiness of sovereign governments like the U.S., would draw such a parallel between tax cuts and student loan relief as forms of fiscal stimulus. As the analysts noted, universally canceling student debt would barely impact America’s national debt because Treasuries have already been issued to finance the loans. Rather, one issue is that the government would lose the revenue from loan repayments, which amounted to about 0.4% of gross domestic product in 2018.

Admittedly, it’s somewhat laughable to call that a concern, given that the nearly $1 trillion U.S. budget deficit is already practically unprecedented for a period outside of recession or wartime. The Trump administration’s 2017 tax cut relied on the assumption that accelerated economic growth would cover lost revenue, yet real GDP growth in the third quarter was 1.9%, Commerce Department data showed last week, the second-slowest annualized pace since Trump was elected. Candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, by contrast, have mostly specified how they plan make up the revenue lost from forgiving student loans (in her case, a wealth tax).

A more pressing question about canceling student loans revolves around whether doing so targets the segment of the population that needs the fiscal boost the most. My fellow Bloomberg Opinion columnists have weighed in on this, with Michael R. Strain arguing Warren’s plan helps the well-off, while Noah Smith thinks her income-based repayment plan is a good start and necessary to alleviate the $1.5 trillion debt’s drag on economic growth.

Other candidates have proposed a more targeted approach. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, for instance, has said he would eliminate the debts of students who attended “low-quality, overwhelmingly for-profit programs” that failed the federal gainful employment rules, which were meant to root out higher-education programs that leave graduates with excessive debt relative to their job prospects. 

Moody’s analysts seem to fall somewhere in between. Here’s the upside of forgiving student loans:

“Increased student debt can explain about 20% of the reduction in homeownership rates among young adults between 2005 and 2014, likely a reflection of a student loan borrower's reduced ability to save for a down payment on a home or qualify for a mortgage. Limited savings can also delay the pace of household formation, as the costs of starting a family can be prohibitive without sufficient savings. Meanwhile, high delinquency among student loan borrowers also impairs credit scores, which can further weigh on an individual's ability to access the credit necessary to start a business or purchase a home.”

That likely resonates with a lot of young adults. But Moody’s analysts give a nod to Strain’s view on who would get most of the benefits:

“The stimulative effect of a total student debt cancellation on the economy will be partially diluted by the relatively high-income levels of the majority of beneficiaries. … Nearly two-thirds of outstanding education debt is held by households in the upper half of the U.S. household income distribution, whose balance sheets are relatively healthy and whose propensity to consume savings from debt relief is lower than for earners on lower rungs of the income distribution.”

And to Buttigieg’s point about for-profit colleges in particular:

“In 2016, 32% of bachelor’s degree recipients from for-profit institutions had debt loads of $50,000 or more, compared to just 7% and 12% of peers at 4-year public and private nonprofit institutions, respectively. Although for-profit institutions educate less than 10% of U.S. undergraduates and graduates, their students represent nearly one-third of delinquent federal loan borrowers and are twice as likely to have delinquent loans than their counterparts at public and private nonprofit peer institutions.”

I’m not in the business of opining on policy proposals. As Moody’s notes, the issues around the “moral hazard” of loan forgiveness are real and deserve to be debated publicly among elected officials.

But from my vantage point within financial markets, the concept of student-loan forgiveness as a sort of tax cut is intriguing. Much of the talk among investors lately has centered on the limits of monetary policy and how governments are going to have to step up and do more to keep the economic expansion alive — or to combat the next downturn. I’ve written before that ultra-low bond yields are a sign that markets are begging for infrastructure spending, an oft-cited way to provide a fiscal jolt.

Giving today’s young adults the chance to buy homes and start businesses sooner — like previous generations, before college costs exploded — might be an equally effective boost. After all, what good are interest rates at near-record lows to people who don’t take out mortgages or small-business loans? Morgan Stanley, for one, is counting on unshackled millennials and Generation Z to carry the U.S. economy and stock market for years to come.

It’s starting to look as if a “tax cut 2.0” will be on the ballot in 2020. While that’s the language of the Republican Party, the Moody’s analysis is a reminder that there’s more than one way to reduce what some Americans owe the government and boost the U.S. economy in the process.

To contact the author of this story: Brian Chappatta at bchappatta1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brian Chappatta is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering debt markets. He previously covered bonds for Bloomberg News. He is also a CFA charterholder.

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