DeVos proposes another rollback on for-profit college rules, hurting consumers

From today’s Washington Post:

The Trump administration plans to roll back another major Obama-era rule that was created to police the for-profit college industry, according to a proposal issued by the Education Department on Friday.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the gainful employment regulation should be scrapped entirely, arguing that it wasn’t backed up by research and created burdensome reporting requirements for schools. The rule sought to punish for-profit college programs that left graduates with heavy debt compared to their incomes

DeVos’ proposal represents the Education Department’s second planned rollback of a major Obama-era rule in a matter of weeks.

On July 25, DeVos proposed changes to the so-called borrower defense rule to toughen the process by which defrauded students can get their loans erased, saying it had become too easy for students to skip out on their debt.

The rules were part of the Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit colleges, which was fueled by widespread complaints of fraud against chains including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. Both chains collapsed under pressure from Obama officials.

Under the 2014 gainful employment rule, college programs could be cut off from federal funding if the average debt ratio of their graduates stayed above a certain limit for two out of three straight years.

The rule also required schools to publicize debt and earnings data for their programs, which aimed to help students avoid programs with poor outcomes.

Read the complete article here.

‘Too Little Too Late’: Bankruptcy Booms Among Older Americans

From today’s New York Times:

For a rapidly growing share of older Americans, traditional ideas about life in retirement are being upended by a dismal reality: bankruptcy.

The signs of potential trouble — vanishing pensions, soaring medical expenses, inadequate savings — have been building for years. Now, new research sheds light on the scope of the problem: The rate of people 65 and older filing for bankruptcy is three times what it was in 1991, the study found, and the same group accounts for a far greater share of all filers.

Driving the surge, the study suggests, is a three-decade shift of financial risk from government and employers to individuals, who are bearing an ever-greater responsibility for their own financial well-being as the social safety net shrinks.

The transfer has come in the form of, among other things, longer waits for full Social Security benefits, the replacement of employer-provided pensions with 401(k) savings plans and more out-of-pocket spending on health care. Declining incomes, whether in retirement or leading up to it, compound the challenge.

Cheryl Mcleod of Las Vegas filed for bankruptcy in January after struggling to keep up with her mortgage payments and other expenses. “I am 70, and I am working for less money than I ever did in my life,” she said. “This life stuff happens.”

As the study, from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, explains, older people whose finances are precarious have few places to turn. “When the costs of aging are off-loaded onto a population that simply does not have access to adequate resources, something has to give,” the study says, “and older Americans turn to what little is left of the social safety net — bankruptcy court.”

Read the complete article here.

Dept. of Education Proposes to Curtail Debt Relief for Defrauded Students

From today’s New York Times:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed on Wednesday to curtail Obama administration loan forgiveness rules for students defrauded by for-profit colleges, requiring that student borrowers show they have fallen into hopeless financial straits or prove that their colleges knowingly deceived them.

The DeVos proposal, set to go in force a year from now, would replace Obama-era policies that sought to ease access to loan forgiveness for students who were left saddled with debt after two for-profit college chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, imploded in 2015 and 2016. The schools were found to have misled their students with false advertisements and misleading claims for years.

Afterward, the Obama administration forgave hundreds of millions of dollars in student loans and began rewriting regulations to crack down on predatory institutions and bolster borrowers’ ability to seek debt relief from the federal government. But higher education institutions, including historically black colleges and universities and for-profit educators, maintained the new rules were far too broad and subjected them to frivolous claims that carried significant financial risks.

In June 2017, just one month before the Obama rules were to take effect, Ms. DeVos announced that she would block and rewrite them.

Read the complete article here.

What Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s SCOTUS nominee means for consumer rights

From today’s NPR MarketWatch:

When President Donald Trump announced Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee for the Supreme Court to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy when he retires at the end of July, liberal commentators sounded the alarm about what his service could mean for controversial topics including abortion and health care. Add one more topic to the list: consumer rights.

There’s a lot to dislike about Brett Kavanaugh’s record — including his hostility to consumers,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts who largely created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of Dodd-Frank reforms in 2010, wrote on Twitter TWTR, -4.27%   on July 10.

“Judge Kavanaugh has been a reckless and partisan jurist who has always seemed more interested in pleasing Wall Street and the conservative political establishment than he has in defending the Constitution,” wrote Karl Frisch, the executive director of the left-leaning consumer advocacy organization Allied Progress, in a statement. “He would be a disaster for consumers and the CFPB if confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

Critics fear Kavanaugh will weaken the country’s most prominent consumer watchdog. In 2017, a three-judge panel for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a case called PHH Corp. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Kavanaugh was the lead author of that decision, which said the current structure of the CFPB, with just one director, violates the Constitution.

The director could only be removed for specific reasons: Inefficiency, neglect of duty or “malfeasance,” or wrongdoing. In contrast, the president has the power to remove the head of most other agencies at will. Kavanaugh proposed giving that power to the U.S. president, making it possible to remove the CFPB’s director. Consumer advocates feared that would hurt the bureau, especially as the Trump administration had already expressed desire to weaken it.

Read the complete article here.

The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook Scandal and the Coming Data Bust

From today’s New York Times:

The queasy truth at the heart of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is so far the company’s defining disgrace of 2018, is that its genesis became scandalous only in retrospect. The series of events that now implicate Facebook began in 2014, in plain view, with a listing on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, where users can complete small tasks for commensurately modest sums of cash. In exchange for installing a Facebook app and completing a survey — in the process granting the app access to parts of your Facebook profile — you would get around a dollar. Maybe two.

This was a great deal, at least by the standards of the time. Facebook users were then accustomed to granting apps permission to see their personal data in exchange for much less. It was the tail end of a Facebook era defined by connected apps: games like FarmVille, Candy Crush and Words With Friends; apps that broadcast your extra-Facebook activities, like Spotify and Pinterest; and apps that were almost explicitly about gathering as much useful data as possible from users, like TripAdvisor’s Cities I’ve Visited app, which let you share a digital pushpin map with your friends.

Most of these apps, when installed, demanded permission to access “your profile info,” which could include things like your activity, birthday, relationship status, interests, religious and political views, likes, education and work history. They could also collect information about users’ friends, multiplying their reach. In providing a marketplace for such apps, Facebook made it easy for users to extend their extraordinarily intimate relationship with the site to thousands of third-party developers. One of them turned out to be connected to Cambridge Analytica, which was using the data for right-wing political campaigns — a fact that was lucidly and widely reported as early as 2015 but promptly lost in the roiling insanity of primary season. (As of Facebook’s most recent admission, data was collected on as many as 87 million users.)

Not that more exposure in the news cycle would have mattered much back then. It was self-evidently absurd to grant a virtual-farming game access to your religious views, but that’s just how the platform worked at the time, and so we got used to it, much in the same way we got used to conducting our private lives on any other corporate platform. (When Gmail first started in 2004, the fact that it placed ads based on the contents of users’ emails was considered invasive. That feeling passed; Google continued scanning consumer email until 2017, and Gmail now has more than a billion users.) Still, these individually trivial decisions never gave us cause to confront just how much we had come to trust Facebook.

Read the complete article here.

Mick Mulvaney says CFPB’s priority is ‘free markets and consumer choice’

From today’s LA Times:

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency’s new priority is “to recognize free markets and consumer choice” and take “a humble approach to enforcing the law,” according to prepared remarks released in advance.

In his first testimony to Congress since his controversial appointment as the bureau’s acting director, Mulvaney acknowledged that many lawmakers have disagreed with his actions in the job, “just as many members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor.”

Mulvaney blamed lawmakers’ frustrations on the structure of the bureau, an independent watchdog created in the wake of the financial crisis. He was an outspoken critic of the bureau as a Republican congressman, and last week he formally asked Congress to reduce the bureau’s authority.

Mulvaney and other Republicans have said the bureau is unaccountable because its funding, like that of other financial regulators, is outside the appropriations process, and the president can fire the bureau’s director only for cause, rather than at will.

Read the complete article here.

Facebook Says Cambridge Analytica Harvested Data of Up to 87 Million Users

From today’s New York Times:

Facebook on Wednesday said that the data of up to 87 million users may have been improperly shared with a political consulting firm connected to President Trump during the 2016 election — a figure far higher than the estimate of 50 million that had been widely cited since the leak was reported last month.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, also announced that Facebook would offer all of its users the same tools and controls required under European privacy rules. The European rules, which go into effect next month, give people more control over how companies use their digital data.

Facebook had not previously disclosed how many accounts had been harvested by Cambridge Analytica, the firm connected to the Trump campaign. It has also been reluctant to disclose how it was used by Russian-backed actors to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Among Facebook’s acknowledgments on Wednesday was the disclosure of a vulnerability in its search and account recovery functions that it said could have exposed “most” of its 2 billion users to having their public profile information harvested.

The new effort to appear more transparent about the data leaks — including a rare question-and-answer session with Mr. Zuckerberg and reporters — came just before Mr. Zuckerberg’s expected testimony next week on Capitol Hill, where he will most likely face criticism over how the company collects and shares the personal data of its users. Sheryl Sandberg, Mr. Zuckerberg’s top deputy, has several national television interviews scheduled for later this week.

The company said that on Monday it would start telling users whether their information may have been shared with Cambridge Analytica.

Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook in Washington, said the 87 million figure was an estimate of the total number of users whose data could have been acquired by Cambridge Analytica. He said that the estimate was calculated by adding up all the friends of the people who had logged into the Facebook app from which Cambridge Analytica collected profile data.

Read the complete article here.

An International Final Four: Which Country Handles Student Debt Best?

From today’s New York Times:

Although an American college degree remains a good investment on average — the higher earnings for most graduates justify the cost— millions of borrowers are in default on their loans.

Policy analysts generally agree on a need for reform, but not on which path policymakers should take. Can America learn anything from other nations? We gathered experts with a range of perspectives, from America and abroad, and asked them to compare the systems in Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States.

We chose this grouping of nations because they highlight important differences both in loan repayment systems and in related policies such as tuition and loan limits, not necessarily because they all belong among the best systems in the world. In the spirit of March Madness, we devised a bracket-style tournament, seeding the countries so that those with more similar systems would meet in the semifinals.

Sweden vs. United States

Sweden and the United States differ in whether the monthly loan payment remains the same over time and in the number of years borrowers can repay their loans.

The average American borrower with a bachelor’s degree leaves college with $28,400 in debt. Students can borrow for both tuition and living expenses, although loan limits make it hard for an undergraduate to borrow more than $45,000 over four years.

In Sweden, average debt levels are similar — the equivalent of around $21,000 — even though students borrow only for living expenses (Swedish universities do not charge tuition). Interest rates are also very low; the rate for 2018 is now 0.13.

In the United States, borrowers are required to begin making payments six months after leaving college. By default, payments are set so the whole principal and interest, which is tied to the market rate at the time the loan is made (currently 4.45 percent), will be paid off in equal monthly installments paid over 10 years.

American borrowers can opt into alternative repayment plans, including plans that tie payments to income or that start lower and increase over time. Income-based plans offer forgiveness of any remaining balance after 10 to 25 years, but enrolling in these plans requires making a request to the servicer and filing paperwork annually. If you miss the paperwork, you are put back into a 10-year repayment schedule, but can ask to re-enroll. There are a large number of plans that are hard for borrowers to navigate, especially in times of financial stress.

Swedish borrowers, on the other hand, pay off their loans over a much longer period. Borrowers can be in repayment for up to 25 years, with the typical borrower paying for 22 years.

Read the complete article here.

Tariffs bad news for American economy, including workers and consumers

From today’s The Hill:

There’s never a good time for tariffs. American workers and consumers will pay dearly for the Trump administration’s short-sighted action to protect an industry that shows no signs of needing any protection—the market values of the five largest steel companies have more than doubled over the past five years. Yet with a major infrastructure spending bill set to come through Congress over the next year, Trump’s tariffs are bad policy with even worse timing.

While a small amount of people will benefit from the proposed tariffs, many more will be harmed. The American steel industry employs roughly 140,000 workers, but industries that rely on steel to create their products—the ones who will suffer directly under the tariffs—employ 6.5 million workers. A recent study by the Trade Partnership found that the direct cost of tariffs on employment would be 18 jobs lost for every one created. On net, 470,000 Americans could lose their jobs.

The Trade Partnership’s study fits with the lessons of recent history. In 2002, President Bush instituted protective tariffs on foreign steel imports. After just a year in which steel prices rose by up to 50 percent, steel production was insufficient to meet demand, 200,000 Americans lost their jobs, and the tariff was dropped. A mere fifteen years later, these lessons have already been forgotten.

Nor will other countries sit idly by as Trump restricts trade. Well over 10 million Americans’ jobs are supported by exports—jobs which would be at risk in the case of a trade war. Already, the European Union has prepared a ten-page hit list of potential targets of retaliatory tariffs should Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs go into effect.

American consumers will be harmed as well. A combination of new steel tariffs and lumber tariffs imposed last year mean that the cost of new homes is likely to continue rising—nearly half of steel imports go towards construction. Other American staples such as cars and canned beer are also set to see price spikes resulting directly from tariffs.

Read the complete article here.

56 years later, JFK’s call for a consumer bill of rights is forgotten under Trump

From the Los Angeles Times:

On this day in 1962, President Kennedy laid out in a speech to Congress the framework for a consumer bill of rights and the crucial role the federal government must play in protecting those rights.

Kennedy’s call to arms is now marked every March 15 as World Consumer Rights Day, which seeks to advance “guidelines for consumer protection”backed by the United Nations.

Yet over half a century later, the current occupant of the Oval Office, President Trump, a wealthy businessman, is aggressively pursuing policies that undermine each of Kennedy’s declared rights.

So it’s worthwhile asking: Is it too late to change course? Have corporate interests prevailed?

Read the complete article here.