Marc Lichtenfeld: Glad you’re with us. We’ve got a tremendous show for you this week. In a little bit, we’ll be talking with student loan expert Bruce Mesnekoff, co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Student Loans. Even if you, your kids or grandkids don’t have student loans, this is still a very important topic. There are a lot of people out there that say the student loan debt bubble could be the next big crisis in the U.S. So you need to hear about what’s going on and why this could have such a devastating impact on the economy. We’ll also talk about healthcare mergers. On Thursday, there were a ton of them: big ones, too – worth about $40 billion all told. And then there’s Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) and Facebook’s (Nasdaq: FB) earnings.
If you have questions, comments or feedback, go to www.oxfordclubradio.com, click on “Contact” and shoot me an email. We often go into the mailbag on the show so I can try to answer your questions. I can’t give personal advice, so don’t say, “What should I do with Yahoo? I own 100 shares.” But I could answer if you asked me, “Hey, what do you think of Yahoo?” Whatever’s on your mind about the markets, the economy or anything else like that, I’m happy to help.
So Twitter and Facebook had earnings releases recently, which were very different. Facebook absolutely crushed it, and the stock gapped about 10% higher. Yet Twitter got crushed because of bad earnings. It can’t seem to figure out how to turn its platform into a lucrative business, whereas Facebook clearly has. Personally, I like Facebook. I use it to post pictures of family and trips, find out what’s happening with friends, stalk exes and the like. (By the way, you can follow me at Facebook.com/oxfordmarc.) It’s not something I use every day, but I am on it. I like to see what my friends are up to. But I find Twitter, which can’t seem to find a real business model, to be an invaluable tool for investing, news and figuring out what’s going on in the economy.
I follow 850 people on Twitter. Some of them are celebrities, but most of them are business, economy, finance and investing people. There are a few boxing people in there, too. If you don’t know, I have a side job as a ring announcer, hence the reason why my Twitter handle is StocksNBoxing. But mostly, I follow investing people. When I’m done with a task and have a moment to breathe, I’ll take a look at Twitter and see what people are talking about. Very often, I find they’ll link to articles I wouldn’t find on my own. Yes, there are certainly people who link to the mainstream media: CNN, NBC, MSNBC, Fox, etc. But many will link to other things that you wouldn’t have found otherwise: niche media. It’s really helpful, and you get a wide variety of opinions. I think Twitter is fantastic for that, especially for investors.
If you’ve never signed up for Twitter and want to get on now, pick a handle. It starts with the @ sign. Then you pick your name. Let’s say your actual name is Mike Jones. In that case, your handle could be @mikejones. Of course, there might be other Mike Jones out there, so you might have to be mikejones23 or mikejoneschicago or denvermikejones. Again, mine is @stocksnboxing. If you follow me, you can see who I pay attention to by clicking on “Following.” Right now, it says 851, which you’d click on. That might give you a head start on who else to follow. For example, my list includes Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones, but also Morgan Wright, who was on the show last week. He’s an online security expert. Then there’s Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Fed and part of the team that helped devise the economic crisis strategy.
There’s so many people: a dividend guy; Alex Korb, a neuroscientist we’ve had on the show before; a CFA; Ninja Economics; Brad Thomas, who does real estate investment trusts; Jason Hartmann, one of our sponsors here; Mark Dow, a hedge fund manager… Those are just the ones at the very front of my list right now. You can also click on some of them to see who they follow and really build up a nice little information network that way. Again, it’s at your leisure: Whenever you feel like scrolling, you can go and see what’s happening. The other nice thing is you can put in search terms – like the Fed – and ticker symbols. Let’s say you’re interested in Yahoo. You’d put in “$YHOO” and see what people are saying about it.
I find it to be an invaluable tool. So it’s just amazing to me that, from a business standpoint, the company can’t seem to make it work. Yet Facebook, which is much more frivolous, is managing it. If Facebook went away today, I’d be bummed. But I find Twitter to be absolutely invaluable. When a stock is moving during the day and I can’t find a reason why, I’ll go there. If there’s breaking news, I’ll often find out about it on Twitter first, both for stocks and general news. If there’s some international incident somewhere, Twitter usually has that stuff first. So I really love it. If you’re not on Twitter, I strongly recommend it. It’s absolutely free. It doesn’t cost you a penny. Again, you can follow me @stocksnboxing.
OK, my guest today is Bruce Mesnekoff, one of the foremost experts on student loan debt and the co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Student Loans. Bruce, thanks so much for joining us today. I was talking about the perception of a student loan debt bubble that could pop at any moment and significantly impact the economy. Is that accurate?
Bruce Mesnekoff: Hi, Marc. Glad to be here. You hit the nail on the head. There’s over $1 trillion in student loan debt now. It’s bigger than credit card debt, believe it or not. The only debt larger in this country is mortgages. And there’s definitely a bubble brewing. At least 10% of people with student loans are already in default, and millions more are struggling. With the power the government has to collect on these loans, which are trickling down to effect people in other areas of life, it’s already making an impact.
Marc Lichtenfeld: Let’s talk a bit about that impact. What power does the government have to collect on these loans, and do we have to be worried about a massive default rippling through the economy?
Bruce Mesnekoff: The defaults are already coming in staggering numbers. And our government’s power to collect on them is unbelievable. If you don’t pay your credit card debt, for instance, you go to collection. If you decide to ignore it, you can declare bankruptcy and wipe some of it out. Other people just ignore it until the collectors stop calling. With student loans, however, what happens is you go into default, which is the government’s term for “collection.” The government immediately raises the interest rate from 3% to 7%, to over 18%. Then it takes your tax refund checks as payment. And that return usually isn’t extra free money for people; they’re counting on it to pay their bills. Yet it’s gone. It’s called a tax offset. The government will also start to garnish your wages. If you’re working, it will take at least 15% of each paycheck to apply to your loans. Yet with your rate now at over 18%, that’s often barely enough to cover the interest. It’s a process that’s very difficult to get out of. It can be utterly devastating.
Marc Lichtenfeld: It’s amazing that they’ll more than double your rate when you’re already struggling to pay the loan.
Bruce Mesnekoff: Yeah, it is. And here’s the double-edged sword. These loans are given out indiscriminately upfront. There’s no credit check. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had a job or if you have horrible credit. It doesn’t matter what your major is or if you’ll have a chance to pay this back in your chosen career path. Yet the powers-that-be have incredible control over getting their money back. It’s not like other debts, where the collector has to go to court and get a judge’s approval and so on. They can do it with a letter and a 30-day notice. Just like that, the garnishing begins. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to go to college without these loans, but the power they have to give up to get that money is incredible. So it’s a tough issue.
Marc Lichtenfeld: What options do people have for paying these loans if they haven’t yet gotten a job, or if they’re in a job that isn’t paying particularly well?
Bruce Mesnekoff: Fortunately, there are great programs out there. The government has a fantastic consolidation program that offers what it calls income-driven repayment options. That’s been a buzz-phrase this political season. What it means is you can get a plan that’s based on what you can afford, not on what your loan value is. Each year, it reevaluates how much money you make, how many kids you have and so on, adjusting your payment accordingly. You can have extraordinarily high balances, but if you’re in a job where you’re not making much, you might just have a $50 or $100 monthly payment because it’s based on what you can afford. There are also forgiveness programs. If you work in public service or for nonprofit companies, you can get your loans forgiven – tens of thousands of dollars off your loans after paying for a reduced amount of time.
But the government has done a horrible job publicizing these awesome programs. Nobody knows about them. That’s why everyone’s going into default and staying there. They don’t know what to do. My biggest piece of advice is: Do not ignore these loans like you might do with other debts. Don’t ignore them. They just get worse. They destroy your credit. Once your loans are in default, you can’t go back to school again until you get them out. With these programs I’m talking about though, not only will they help you avoid going into default, they can also get you out if you’re already there. We call it a “get-out-of-jail free card.” Now, you can use it just one time. It’ll reset everything and give you a second chance. It’ll start you off fresh, but you have to be proactive. You have to go out and find it and do it.
Marc Lichtenfeld: It’s funny you mentioned that the government hasn’t done a good job publicizing this. Because, just yesterday, I saw President Obama address college newspaper reporters. He mentioned this program, which was the first I’d heard of it. How do people get in touch with the organizations consolidating these loans to get out of default?
Bruce Mesnekoff: You can do a basic online search for federal student loan consolidations, where you’ll find the government’s program. I encourage people to call companies like ours. We’re the Student Loan Help Center. We look at your situation and get you pointed in the right direction. Because even if you know about the government’s programs, they’re not so easy to navigate if you’re not familiar with how the system works. Some people get involved and it doesn’t go so well for them. So I encourage you to reach out to someone with experience. Call us anytime at 855.280.0850, or we have a website: www.quickconsolidation.org. I can’t stress enough that the wrong thing to do is ignore your loans. There is help. Many people qualify for zero payments, where they don’t have to pay anything because they can’t afford anything. Yet they’ll stay out of default and their loans will still stay current. That’s a real option through these programs, but you have to be proactive.
Marc Lichtenfeld: Wow. Sounds like you’re doing great work. I’m so glad there are solutions because it’s a very scary-sounding thing. So thank you very much for joining us. Again, this was Bruce Mesnekoff, and the website is www.quickconsolidation.org.
Well, as I mentioned before, my Twitter handle is stocksnboxing, since those are the two big things in my life – other than my family, of course. Increasingly, my worlds are colliding. I just got a text from an analyst who works with me at The Oxford Club. His fiancé is involved with a company that’s going to be broadcasting boxing, and she said, “Hey, you might be able to get some announcing gigs this way.” So just a weird, worlds-colliding type of moment there.
My thanks to Bruce Mesnekoff, and all of you for listening. We’ll be back the same time next week. Until then, I hope your longs go up and your shorts go down. I’m Marc Lichtenfeld.