Corporate America Fears the Student Loan Payments Restart

(Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash)

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The golden coach consumers have been riding is turning back into a pumpkin. After a three-year hiatus, student loan repayments are set to restart in October, and nobody is more worried about it than corporate CFOs.

OK, maybe some people — like the 43.5 million Americans carrying student loan debt — are more worried. But with the end of a hot spend-spend-spend summer fast approaching, finance chiefs fret about the looming fiscal straitjacket for tens of millions of Americans, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Bad Education

There was a financial silver lining of the pandemic for the roughly 17% of the adult US population with student debt: The COVID-induced payment and interest pause on student loans saved most borrowers between roughly $200 and $300 a month, according to a Wells Fargo analysis (the average student loan debt is around $37,000, according to the Education Data Initiative). Amid the freeze, borrowers opted to spend their extra cash rather than stashing it away, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.

But with loan payments returning — the equivalent of a roughly 5% pay cut for borrowers with median household income, according to Wells Fargo — the high-spending times may be over. Suddenly, there’s a shift from “stop buying avocado toast, young people” to “please, please, keep buying our avocado toast”:

  • During the most recent earnings season, US-listed company executives noted the return of student loan repayments on 70 different earnings calls, according to data from financial research firm AlphaSense. That amounts to a 268% increase from the year prior and an 800% increase if excluding loan-sensitive financial services companies.
  • CFOs at companies like Gap, Chipotle, Smuckers, and Macy’s — those that tend to sop up consumers’ discretionary income — have all tabbed the returning repayments as a point of interest, according to the WSJ. Gap and Foot Locker both forecasted sales declines in part due to student loans.

“[T]he consumer has already taken a couple of body blows and is on its heels. It doesn’t take much of a punch to knock them over at this point,” Wells Fargo senior economist Tim Quinlan told WSJ.

Cutting Class: CFOs can find their own silver lining in the college-cost crisis: Gen Z is increasingly skipping the experience — freeing them for a life of unimpeded consumption. Last year, 4 million fewer teens enrolled in college than in 2012, according to a recent analysis by Insider. In that time, the cost of college has increased at an average rate of 12% a year, far outpacing inflation, while wages for recent grads have barely budged in 50 years, according to the Pew Research Center. Actually, this is the thinnest of silver linings.