Showing posts with label bankruptcy reform. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bankruptcy reform. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

U.S.. should run a "blue light special" on bankruptcies for consumers and student-loan debtors

As a young man, I practiced law in a three-man law firm in Anchorage, Alaska. In the winter months, the firm occasionally experienced lean times when clients couldn't pay their bills.

But we three were young, optimistic, and confident. I remember one day during an especially lean winter month when our senior partner jokingly announced: "Gentlemen, it's time to introduce our Blue Light Special: Bankruptcy, name change, and a divorce for only $500!"

I have always been a firm believer in bankruptcy--a process that allows "poor but honest debtors" to get a "fresh start." Although few people know it, bankruptcy is enshrined in our Constitution, and the bankruptcy courts are the main reason why America doesn't have debtors prisons.

I never had to file for bankruptcy myself, but several of my law firm's clients did in the mid-1980s when Alaska experienced a real-life depression due to a steep downturn in oil prices.  These people wiped the slate clean of all their financial misfortunes and started over.

Today, millions of once-middle-class Americans are experiencing severe financial stress. As Steve Rhode recently reported in Get Out of Debt Guy, the economy is running on borrowed time.  Mortgage delinquencies are up, with Miami and New York City leading the way.  People are fleeing the big cities. According to the New York Times, five percent of NYC's population left the town over two months this spring--frightened by the coronavirus, soaring crime rates, and a deteriorating economy.

So far, our government has kept the wolves at bay by pumping trillions of dollars into the economy through Payroll Protection loans and enhanced unemployment compensation. Millions of student debtors have stopped making monthly payments on their loans, but the Department of Education granted a temporary forbearance that allows distressed college-loan borrowers to skip payments for a few months.

But significant sectors of our economy are going to come crashing down within the next twelve months. For middle-class families who are being swept up in this tidal wave of economic isolation, bankruptcy is their only hope of regrouping.

Unfortunately, Congress revised the Bankruptcy Code in 2005 at the behest of the banks. The nation's large financial institutions were worried about people shedding their credit-card debt in the bankruptcy courts.  The banks wanted to make consumer debt more difficult to discharge in bankruptcy, and Congress obliged.

The revised Code also made it almost impossible for debtors to discharge their private student loans. Under the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act, private student loans are nondischargeable unless the debtor can show "undue hardship," a term the federal courts have interpreted harshly. And, as we all know, that brutal standard also applies to federal student loans.

The corporate world has ready access to bankruptcy, and the federal bankruptcy courts have become a playground for big business.  But the little guys are not treated so kindly.

As the 2020 election season rolls along, we should all think about what it is we want our elected politicians to do.  Number one, in my opinion, is a revision of the Bankruptcy Code. We will never recover as a nation from the financial calamity that is bearing down on us unless working people and student debtors can get a fresh start--the fresh start that the bankruptcy courts were created to provide.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Bankruptcy Relief Bill H.R. 2366, "Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act of 2017": Does it have a prayer of becoming law?

Earlier this month, Congressmen John Delaney (D-Maryland) and John Katko (R-New York) filed a bill in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the "undue hardship" rule contained in 11 U.S.C sec. 523(a)(8). H.R. 2366, if adopted into law, would put student loans on par with credit card debt and other consumer debt, making student loans more easily dischargeable in bankruptcy. As Congressman Delaney put it, "It doesn’t make sense for students with heavy debt burdens to be worse off than someone with credit card debt or mortgage debt."

How many student borrowers would qualify for bankruptcy relief if the Delaney-Katko bill becomes law?

This could be a very big deal. If "the undue hardship" rule is struck from the Bankruptcy Code, millions of student borrowers could seek relief from their student loans.  How many millions?

We know from looking at a 2015 Brookings Institution report that nearly half the people from a recent cohort of borrowers who took out student loans to attend for-profit colleges defaulted within five years.  Clearly, a great many of these people would qualify for bankruptcy relief.

And the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported recently that a third of student borrowers who owed $5,000 or less defaulted in five years, while 18 percent of the people who borrowed $100,000 or more defaulted.  Assuming these defaulters are insolvent, nearly all them would be eligible for bankruptcy relief if the Delaney-Katko bill becomes law.

Who will opposed this legislation?

Obviously, most of the 44 million people weighed down by student-loan debt will support this bill. Who will opposed it?

The bill would give bankruptcy relief for people who took out both federal student loans and private student loans. Private lenders who are heavily invested in the student-loan business--Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, etc.--will oppose this bill fiercely; and their lobbyists are probably already at work.

The nation's colleges and universities will also oppose this bill, but they won't be vocal about it. It is hard for universities to insist on getting billions of dollars in federal student-aid money every year while publicly opposing relief to people who went broke because they borrowed too much money to attend college.

But make no mistake: the colleges and universities understand that the Delaney-Katko bill, if it becomes law, will unleash a floodgate of bankruptcy filings; and this deluge will force Congress to clean up the student-loan scandal.  The colleges want the party to last a little while longer; and this legislation will help bring the party to an end if it ever gets enacted.

In the past, beneficiaries of the student-loan boondoggle  have used lobbyists and campaign contributions very effectively  to protect their interests, while student debtors suffered in silence. But the tables may be about to turn. More than 40 million people are burdened by student-loan debt, and these people vote.

Will the Delaney-Katko bill become law?

What are the chances that the Delaney-Katko bill will become law? It is hard to say. A bill was introduced several years ago to stop the government from garnishing Social Security checks of student-loan defaulters and that bill never made it out of committee.

So it is possible, that this bill will go nowhere.  Nevertheless, I am impressed by the fact that the Delaney-Katko bill has been framed as a bipartisan initiative. So far, it has at least ten co-sponsors:

Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan)

Paul Tonko (D-New York)
Kyrsten Lea Sinema (D-Arizona)
Zoe Lofgren (D-California)
*John Delaney (D-Maryland)
*John Katko (R-New York)
Edwin Perlmutter (D-Colorado)
Alan Lowenthal (D-California)
Catherine Castor (D-Florida)
Marc Veasy (D-Texas)

Let's all write our elected representatives and express our support for the Delaney-Katko bill.

The Delaney-Katko bill, if it becomes law, will afford relief to millions of people who have been pushed out of the economy by student loans. Let's watch this bill closely and give it all the support we can.

Every student-loan debtor should write his or her Senator and Congressperson to express support for the Delaney-Katko bill. They should stress that this proposed legislation is not radical. In fact, scholars and policy makers have advocated for years that distressed student-loan debtors should have easier access to the bankruptcy courts.

And let's take a moment to salute the political courage of Representative John Katko of New York--the first Republican to support this legislation.

Rep. John Katko (R-New York): Profile in Courage


Representative John Delaney press releaseDelaney and Katko File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt, May 5, 2017.

Representative John Katko press release. Reps. Katko and Delaney File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt. May 8, 2017.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Senator Elizabeth Warren grills Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. But hey, Liz: What have you done to help solve the student-loan crisis?

Senator Elizabeth Warren made headlines this week when she grilled Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf at a Senate Banking Committee hearing. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know Wells Fargo employees were caught scamming customers by creating 2 million fake bank accounts without their customers' knowledge or approval.

In the wake of this scandal, Wells Fargo fired 5,000 low-level employees and refunded some money, but the company did not terminate the senior executive who supervised the unit where the fraud occurred. Wells Fargo's CEO John Stumpf made millions of dollars from these misdeeds because the scheme caused his stock to go up. But Stumpf isn't giving back any of his ill-gained profits.

So Stumpf was a sitting duck when Senator Warren began questioning him at the Senate Banking Committee hearing. "You should resign," Warren told Stumpf. "You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission."

Stumpf, of course, is lawyered up. He went into his flak-catcher crouch, continually repeating his talking points and saying he was sorry for Wells Fargo's misdeeds.

All great theater. Who doesn't enjoy seeing a transnational financial executive publicly humiliated? But what will come of all this drama? Nothing. Stumpf won't face criminal charges, and the Wells Fargo senior executives who profited from the fake-account scheme won't give back a penny of their loot.

Elizabeth Warren enjoys a great reputation as the champion of consumer rights and the friend of the little guy. But what tangible thing has she done to help working-class Americans? And more particularly, what has she done to ease the suffering of millions of student-loan debtors?

I'll tell you what Warren has done--she's done nothing.  She's all blather. In fact, I don't think Warren even understands the student-loan crisis. She charged awhile back that the government is making "obscene" profits from the student-loan program, but that's not true. The government would be making a profit on the loan program if borrowers were paying back their loans, but they are not. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, 40 percent of student-loan borrowers aren't making payments on their loans.

Here are some things Senator Warren could propose that would help relieve the suffering of distressed student-loan debtors.

Legislation banning the government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan debtors who defaulted on their loans. Around 155,000 Americans are having their Social Security checks dunned right now, causing real hardship for these people.

And how much money does our government collect from this disreputable practice? Probably less than the Secret Service spends guarding President Obama on just one of his Hawaiian vacations. Why doesn't Senator Warren use her bully pulpit to stop the government from going after elderly student-loan debtors who are living off their Social Security checks?

Wholesale relief for student-loan borrowers who were ripped off by the for-profit college industry. Senator Warren joined 22 other Democratic Senators in a letter to Secretary of Education John King asking the Department of Education to grant broader relief to the 35,000 students who were enrolled at one of ITT Tech campuses when ITT closed and filed for bankruptcy. But that letter is almost completely incoherent and doesn't  propose real relief.

DOE should forgive the loans of all the people who took out student loans to pay for ITT programs. Giving former students longer to file for loan forgiveness under DOE's "closed school" regulations (as the Democratic Senators proposed) does not go nearly far enough.

Amending the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their federal student loans in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured debt. Senator Warren co-sponsored a bill to make private student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy, but private loans are only a small part of the overall student-debt crisis--only about 10 percent of total outstanding student-loan debt. The bill does nothing about reforming the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their federal student loans in bankruptcy.

Conclusion; Senator Elizabeth Warren is a phony

Senator Elizabeth Warren is a phony. She hasn't accomplished anything significant to help solve the student-loan crisis. It is true she supports a bill to make private student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy, but such a law--if passed--is small potatoes.

Let's face it. Although Warren portrays herself as a progressive fighting for overburdened student-loan debtors, she will never do anything that would threaten the core interests of the higher education industry. After all, there are 114 colleges and universities in Warren's state of Massachusetts; and most of the professors and administrators who work at those colleges voted for her.

Those colleges and universities have to have federal student-aid money to survive. They are like crack addicts waiting for their next federal fix. Warren can talk all she wants about helping student-loan debtors, but she won't do anything that upsets the status quo. And real reform of the Bankruptcy Code to allow people to discharge their federal loans in bankruptcy would definitely upset the status quo.

Image result for elizabeth warren wells fargo


Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loansWashington Post, July 5, 2016. Accessible at

Ashlee Kieler, Senators Introduce Legislation to Make Private Student Loans Dischargeable in Bankruptcy. Consumerist, March 12, 2015.   Accessible at

Jena McGregor. 'You should resign': Elizabeth Warren excoriates Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. Washington Post, September 20, 2016. Accessible at

Josh Mitchell. More than 40% of Student Borrowers Aren't Making PaymentsWall Street Journal, April 7, 2016. Accessible at

Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. A Message from the Secretary of Education to ITT Students. Accessible at

Sen. Warren Questions lack of Private Student Loan Relief Options. Senator Warren Website, July 31, 2014. Accessible at

Letter to the Honorable John King, Secretary of Education, from 23 Democratic Senators, September 15, 2016. Accessible at

Dawn McCarty and Shahien Nasirpour. ITT Educational Services Files for Bankruptcy After ShutdownBloomberg, September 16, 2016. Accessible at

Jena McGregor. 'You should resign': Elizabeth Warren excoriates Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, Washington Post, September 20, 2016. Accessible at

Reuters. ITT Educational Services Files for Bankruptcy After Aid CrackdownInternational New York Times, September 17, 2016. Accessible at

Marian Wang. Q & A: Elizabeth Warren on Spiraling Student Debt  and What Should Be Done About ItPro Publica, May 20, 2014. Accessible at

Alia Wong. When Loan Forgiveness Isn't EnoughAtlantic Monthly, June 15, 2015. Accessible at