Higher Ed Watch reports on Sallie Mae:
Last week, we wrote that Sallie Mae and its promoters on Wall Street claim the company was “blind-sided” by the rising default and delinquency rates on subprime private loans it made to low-income and working class students at poor performing higher education trade schools. It’s a convenient argument considering that the loan giant is facing at least one, and possibly several, class action lawsuits by angry shareholders who accuse the company of deliberately misleading them about the amount of risk it was assuming. But the argument is disingenuous at best.
Financial analysts have long raised red flags about Sallie Mae’s private lending practices. During earnings calls and at shareholder meetings and investment conferences, analysts regularly peppered Sallie Mae officials with questions about whether the company, which is used to having government backing on its loans, had the expertise needed to assess the risks associated with lending unsecured, private loan debt to financially-needy students.
In 2005, Fortune Magazine brought attention to the analysts’ worries in an article entitled, “When Sallie Met Wall Street.” That piece specifically raised concerns about the loan company’s dealings with schools owned by Career Education Corporation, which it noted had had been accused “in multiple lawsuits in several states of using hard-sell tactics to recruit students, promising them high-paying jobs that don’t materialize and leaving them with mountains of debt that they can’t pay off.”
The article’s author — Bethany McLean (who, by the way, helped break the Enron scandal) — proved prescient in predicting the predicament in which Sallie Mae now finds itself. McLean wrote:
[A] big question looms in Sallie Mae’s private credit business: How many students who take out these high-interest loans will end up defaulting? After all, private credits are basically unsecured loans to people without jobs. Sallie argues that there won’t be a problem. Each quarter it books a reserve for potential losses; at this time its loss on private credit loans in repayment are running at only 2.4%. Plus, Sallie says, almost half its private credit loans are guaranteed by a parent.
But because private credit is a new business and because students are taking on unprecedented levels of debt, there are no historical measurements by which to gauge potential defaults. As Sallie’s financials note, “the provision for loan losses is inherently subjective as it requires material estimates that may be susceptible to significant changes.” And the current low delinquency rate may be misleading, because as of the end of 2004 nearly half the students to whom Sallie has lent private money hadn’t left school yet.
Lots of financials are changing.
Update: PGL posted on Student loans and default risk in January, 2007.