Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Yes, Aid Fuels Tuition Inflation

At this point, I think I’ve said all I need to about the doubling of interest rates on subsidized federal student loans. Basically, the doubling won’t have a big impact one way or another, but putting a little more payment burden on the students consuming higher education is probably a good thing. Why? Because cheap aid encourages students to demand stuff they otherwise wouldn’t, and enables colleges to raise their prices at excessive rates.

That said, since the nation will likely be talking about student aid for a while longer, now is probably a good time to reprint – and expand – the list of empirical studies that have, in one way or another, found that schools in large part capture aid money rather than becoming more affordable. The list probably isn’t exhaustive, and there are many limitations that make it impossible to prove that aid fuels inflation, but combined with the logic that you’ll willingly pay more if you have someone else’s money, these studies show that there is very good reason to conclude that aid is counterproductive:

John D. Singell, Jr., and Joe A. Stone, “For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid,” Economics of Education Review 26, no. 3 (2006): 285-95.

Bridget Terry Long, “How Do Financial Aid Policies Affect Colleges? The Institutional Impact of Georgia Hope Scholarships,” Journal of Human Resources 30, no. 4 (2004): 1045-66.

Bradley A. Curs and Luciana Dar, “Do Institutions Respond Assymetrically to Changes in State Need- and Merit-Based Aid? ” Working Paper, November 1, 2010.

Rebecca J. Acosta, “How Do Colleges Respond to Changes in Federal Student Aid,” Working Paper, October 2001.

Michael Rizzo and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “Resident and Nonresident Tuition and Enrollment at Flagship State Universities,” in College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline M. Hoxby, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Nicholas Turner, “Who Benefits from Student Aid? The Economic Incidence of Tax-Based Federal Student Aid,Economics of Education Review 31, no. 4 (2012): 463-81.

Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Claudia Goldin, “Does Federal Student Aid Raise Tuition? New Evidence on For-Profit Colleges,” NBER Working Paper No. 17827, February 2012.

Lesley J. Turner, “The Incidence of Student Financial Aid: Evidence from the Pell Grant Program,” Columbia University, April 2012.

 

 

Syria’s Annual Inflation Hits 200%

In an attempt to beat Western sanctions and halt the fall in the Syrian pound, the Assad regime – with the help of Iran, Russia, and China – has begun conducting all of its business in rials, roubles, and renminbi. This decision supplements other existing arrangements between Syria and its allies that are keeping the Syrian economy on life-support. These include transfers of $500 million per month in oil and an unlimited credit line with Tehran for food and oil-product imports.

According to Kadri Jamil, Syria’s prime minister for the economy, this life support is necessary because Syria’s devastated economy is the target of an elaborate plot, hatched by the U.S. and Britain, to “sink the Syrian pound.”

So, what about the sinking pound? As the accompanying chart shows, the Syrian pound has lost 66.2% of its value in the last twelve months.

The rout of the Syrian pound has been widely reported in the press.  But, Syria’s inflation problems that have accompanied the collapse of the pound have gone largely unreported.  That’s because, beyond the occasional bits of anecdotal evidence, there has been nothing to report by way of reliable economic data.

To fill that void, I employ standard techniques to estimate Syrian’s current inflation. Currently, Syria is experiencing an annual inflation rate of 200% (see the accompanying chart).

Indeed, Syria is experiencing a monthly inflation rate of 34%. To facilitate the monitoring of the quickly deteriorating situation in Syria, I am creating a resource which will allow readers to view up-to-date data on the Syrian pound and the country’s inflation problems. Soon, black-market exchange-rate data and ­inflation estimates for countries with troubled currencies like Syria will be made available via the “Troubled Currencies Project” – a joint Cato Institute-Johns Hopkins collaboration under my direction. In consequence, the days of Syria’s plunging pound and raging inflation being covered in a shroud of secrecy are soon coming to an end.

6.8 Day Is Here!

Washington hasn’t passed a new law to avert it, so today’s the day that all of higher education has, it seems, been dreading: The day that interest rates on subsidized federal student loans double, going from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Hooray?

In the long term, it might actually be good if these rates – which will only affect some federal borrowers – go up. (Congress could still lower them retroactively.) Why? Because federal aid has fueled decades of rampant price inflation, giving basically anyone whom a college would accept – and many colleges will accept anyone – the money necessary to pay sky-high prices. Perhaps the rates rising will dissuade some people from going to college who should be doing something else, or some people going to college who should be there from choosing a more expensive school that offers no better academics but lots of superfluous frills.

That said, the uptick in rates is likely to have little major effect on what people are willing to pay. And to some extent that is as it should be. The average college graduate will earn enough additional money as a result of having a degree that the additional debt is worth taking on. However, roughly half of people who enter college won’t complete their studies, and half of those will earn below the average for whatever piece of paper – some sort of certification or degree – they complete.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of all this isn’t the financial impact of the doubling, but that Congress couldn’t get a deal done. If you are going to have federal student loans, it makes sense to peg them to interest rates such as those of the 10-year Treasury Bond rather than having Congress fix a number for several years. At least then they will fluctuate with the overall time value of money. Indeed, that concept was sufficiently agreeable that President Obama proposed such an idea, and the Republican-controlled House passed roughly similar legislation. But, in a surprise move, President Obama threatened to veto the legislation without, it seems, any effort to negotiate with House leaders first, and Democratic Senate leaders called mainly for freezing rates at 3.4 percent until they could reauthorize the Higher Education Act. There was even a bipartisan effort in the Senate to push through a bill similar to the House measure and the president’s, but it went nowhere. 

Why the breakdown? It’s hard to know exactly, but easy to see a suspect: politicians, especially Senate Democrats and to a lesser extent the president, didn’t want to do anything that didn’t appear to give students the cheapest loans possible. That’s bad news for any future compromise, but much more importantly, a clear and troubling sign of why, barring loud public outcry, we won’t get the long-term solution we need: phasing out federal student aid to force students and colleges to demand and furnish efficient, effective higher education.

Service to the American People or to the American State?

One of the most persistent utopian visions over the last century and more is national service. By “national service” proponents never mean service to Americans. The United States long has been famous for the willingness of its people to organize to help one another and respond to social problems. Alexis de Tocqueville cited this activism as one of the hallmarks of the early American republic.

Rather, advocates of “national service” mean service to the state. To be sure, they believe the American people would benefit. But informal, decentralized, private service doesn’t count.

The latest proponent is columnist Michael Gerson, one-time speechwriter for “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush. Wrote Gerson:

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.

To Gerson’s credit, he does not advocate a mandatory program, where people would go to jail if they didn’t desire to share the national purpose exalted by their betters. But many people, from Margaret Mead to Senator Ted Kennedy, did want a civilian draft. Indeed, a number of noted liberals who campaigned against military conscription were only too happy to force the young into civilian “service.” 

Committee Issues Excuse to Keep Doing Wrong Thing

Today, the Democratic staff of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee released a report which seems mainly to be an excuse to keep doing the wrong things.

The basic tenets of the report certainly feel sensible: People with more education tend to have greater skills and earn more, but the ever-inflating price of college saddles people pursuing education with bigger and bigger debts. The solutions? Keep subsidized federal loan rates frozen at 3.4 percent, greatly expand loan forgiveness, and convert private loans into federal loans. Basically, more cheap aid—exactly the wrong thing.

The fundamental problem with the report is the fundamental problem with federal aid in microcosm: It ignores the crippling, self-defeating, unintended consequences of aid. You know: The downsides of federal “help.”

First and foremost, federal aid furnishes jet fuel for tuition inflation, both by allowing people to demand more than they otherwise would, and by enabling schools to raise prices knowing students will be able to pay them. It also encourages millions of people to enroll in college who, for many reasons, have little prospect of finishing. That’s why roughly one out of every two people who enter a postsecondary program don’t finish. Finally, it powers over-credentialing, with about a third of people with bachelor’s degrees in jobs not requiring them, and many jobs that require the degree likely doing so for basic signaling reasons—e.g., the person has some basic stick-to-it-iveness—rather than indicating that they possess useful skills or abilities they obtained in college.

A reasonable reading of the data forces one to conclude that Washington should markedly reduce its presence in college—indeed, get out altogether—rather than perpetuate bad policy. Which is likely why policymakers seem to assiduously avoid reasonable readings—or any readings at all—of important data.

Cross-posted at seethruedu.com

We Need Real Change at the G8 Meeting

The G8 is meeting in Northern Ireland’s Belfast. The group of important industrial states is chaired this year by British Prime Minister David Cameron.  London’s three top objectives are trade, taxation, and transparency. 

No doubt, there will be a flurry of ponderous public statements and breathless press analyses. But as I argue on National Interest online, the meeting likely will be a waste. 

Trade liberalization is a worthy goal, but the U.S. and European commitment to agricultural subsidies has essentially killed the Doha round under the World Trade Organization. America wants to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but including Japan, which wants to protect its farmers, while excluding China, which is the largest economy in Asia, makes the process more than a little complicated. As for a U.S.-European Union agreement, France is standing in the way and other member states are likely to resist liberalization in one area or another.

Only on taxes is more progress likely—unfortunately. As Dan Mitchell long has pointed out, attacks on “tax havens” and such are primarily attempts to mulct more money out of the productive to subsidize the influential. (Influential and greedy. Indeed, higher taxes are used to satisfy perhaps the basest of human emotions, envy.)

Transparency is a better objective, but the greatest offenders are non-G8 members, especially in the Third World. As I point out:

The most important single step in this direction the G8 could take would be to discourage rather than encourage government-to-government transfers, or misnamed “foreign aid.” (G8 gatherings usually include boilerplate promises to up official development assistance.) The wealthy nations should cut the financial windpipe of the most corrupt and wasteful regimes.  Private humanitarian and development assistance from NGOs to private people, and private investment and trade to private companies, are far more likely to deliver positive economic and social results with more limited opportunities for graft and abuse.

Finally, the G8 involves a curious anomaly for the U.S. While Washington pursues greater economic integration in the name of encouraging prosperity and growth, the U.S. could achieve the same result by reducing subsidies to the same countries. The Cold War has been over for 24 years. World War II ended 68 years ago. It really is time for Washington to stop defending Europe and Japan, as well as a number of other, non-G8 defense dependents, such as South Korea.

The Obama administration could make this G8 meeting more useful than normal by adding real substance to the agenda.

The Old Infrastructure Excuse for Bigger Deficits

Washington Post columnist/blogger Ezra Klein recently echoed the latest White House rationale for additional “stimulus” spending for 2013-15 and postponing spending restraint (including sequestration) until after the 2014 elections. Klein argues for “a 10- or 12-year deficit reduction plan that includes a substantial infrastructure investment in the next two or three years.” In other words, a “deficit-reduction plan” that increases deficits until the next presidential election year.

Citing Larry Summers (who similarly promoted Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan while head of the National Economic Council) Klein says, “There’s a far better case right now for being an infrastructure hawk than a deficit hawk.”

“Deficit hawks tend to [worry that] … too much government borrowing can, in a healthy economy, begin to “crowd out” private borrowing. That means interest rates rise and the economy slows… That’s not happening right now. In real terms — which means after accounting for inflation — the U.S. government can borrow for five, seven or 10 years at less than nothing… . That’s extraordinary. It means markets are so nervous that they will literally pay us to keep their money safe for them.”

If low yields on Treasury and agency bonds simply reflected investor anxiety (unlike stock prices),  rather than quantitative easing, then why has the Federal Reserve been spending $85 billion a month buying Treasury and agency bonds? Despite those Fed efforts, Treasury bond yields have lately been moving up rather smartly – even on TIPS (inflation-protected securities). The yield on 10-year bonds rose by a half percentage point since early May. It is not credible to assume, as Summers does in a paper with Brad DeLong, that today’s yields would remain as low as they have been even in the face of substantially more federal borrowing for infrastructure. Even the Fed’s appetite for Treasury IOUs has limits. 

A second worry of deficit hawks, according to Klein and Summers, “is a moral concern about forcing our children to pay the bill for the things we bought… .These are real, worthwhile concerns. But in this economy, both make a stronger case for investing in infrastructure than paying down debt.”  Paying down debt?!  Nobody is talking about paying debt. That would require a budget surplus.  The debate is only about borrowing slightly less (sequestration) or substantially more (Obama).

The Summers-Klein argument for larger deficits is that interest rates are very low, so why not borrow billions more for a “substantial investment” in highways, bridges and airports?  Summers says, “just as you burden future generations when you accumulate debt, you also burden future generations when you defer maintenance.”  This might make sense if there was any link between government tangible assets and federal liabilities.  In reality, though, this smells like a red herring. Politicians always say they want to borrow more to build or rebuild highways and bridges.  But this is not how borrowed money is spent, particularly when it’s federal borrowing.

Accumulation of federal debt since 2008 − including the 2009 stimulus plan − had virtually nothing to do with investment. Nearly 90 percent of the  2009 “stimulus” was devoted to consumption – $430.7 billion in transfer payments to individuals, more than $300 billion in refundable tax credits, $18.4 billion in subsidies (e.g., solar and electric car lobbies), more pay and perks for government workers, etc. Stanford’s John Taylor shows that even the capital grants to states − ostensibly intended for infrastructure projects − were used to reduce state borrowing and increase transfer payments such as Medicaid.

In the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), the closest thing we have to a measure of “infrastructure” is government investment in structures.  Federal borrowing in the NIPA accounts rose from $493.5 billion in 2008 to $1,177.8  in 2010, yet total federal, state and local investment in structures was unchanged − $310.1 billion in 2008 and $309.3 billion in 2010. Such investment was lower by 2012, but not because federal borrowing was “only” $932.8 billion that year.  

NIPA accounts show only a $12.9 billion federal investment in nondefense structures in 2012 and $8.5 billion for defense structures. By contrast, transfer payments accounted for 61.7 percent of federal spending in 2012, consumption for 28.2 percent, interest 8.5 percent and subsidies 1.6 percent.   Consumption is mostly salaries and benefits. Transfer payments did include more than $607 billion in grants to states and localities in 2011, according to a new CBO study, but 81.7 percent of such grants were for health, income security and education, leaving only 10 percent for transportation. Transportation accounted only 3.2 percent of total federal spending in 2012 and nine percent of “discretionary” spending.

In short, direct federal infrastructure investment plus grants to states add up to only a little over $80 billion out of a budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion. If federal borrowing had anything to do with $80 billion a year in federal infrastructure spending, then we wouldn’t have been borrowing about a trillion a year for the past four years. 

Klein’s rephrasing of Summers’ rerun of the 2009 “infrastructure” excuse is not a plausible argument for increased federal debt. It is, at best, an argument for ending the chronic misuse of borrowed money to pay for transfer payments and government consumption so that we could prudently reallocate a greater share to transportation infrastructure.