Saturday, February 23, 2008

How do the Federal Interest Rate Cuts Affect My Student Loans?

Yesterday we discussed whether the recent action by the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates represents an opportunity for homebuyers to save money by refinancing their homes. Today, we will discuss what the rate cuts mean to your student loans. Unfortunately, after doing some research, we have found that how banks determine the rate as to which they will lend you money for school varies from financial institutions and different lending products. In addition, many other factors are used to help banks set your rates like co-signers, credit history, variable and fixed products, and percentage of origination fee (a percentage of the total amount of the loan). So, stay with us as we plow through the nontransparent world of student loan lending.

What Number do Banks Use to Set Their Rates?
Unlike home loans – where you have a sense of what your interest rate will be by easily checking what the national average is for products like a 30-year fixed loan – student loans use different benchmarks to base their lending. We will discuss three of the main benchmarks used that will hopefully help you get a sense as to whether refinancing your student loans is the right thing for you or not.

1) Cost of Funds Index (COFI)
Currently, my private variable student loan rates are based off the COFI. The COFI is a regional average of interest expenses incurred by financial institutions that is used to calculate variable rate loans. To our knowledge, the COFI rate is a private calculation between banks and is not available to the public. Most lenders readjust your rate quarterly (every three months) based off this average. Most importantly, the COFI is not directly linked to the federal funds rate, which means the index does not move in the same direction as the recent rate cuts. In fact, since January 1, my student loan rates have actually increased. You can easily find out how your student loan rates are set by calling your lender and asking, it worked for me.

2) London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR)
Many lenders will use this rate if you decide to consolidate your private student loans with a variable rate product. The LIBOR rate is the interest rate the most credit-worthy banks around the world charge each other for loans. The rate fluctuates throughout the day based on the market, similar to stocks. Most Student loan lenders that set their rates using LIBOR will readjust their rates quarterly, based on the LIBOR rate + an additional percentage depending on factors like if you have a co-signer, how big of a origination fee you choose etc. For example, if I were to consolidate my student loans now my rate would be based of the LIBOR Rate from the start of the new quarter (January 1) which was at 5.12% + 3.14%(call your lender to ask what this additional amount will be) for an interest rate of 8.26%. It is important to remember that the LIBOR rate moves independently of the federal funds rate.

3) Prime Rate
The prime rate is usually about 300 basis points (or 3 percentage points) above the federal funds rate, which again is the rate that has recently been cut. Some student loan lenders and most credit card companies will use this rate + an additional percentage (based on the same factors listed above) to determine the rate as to which they will lend to you. Currently the Prime rate is around 6% and because this rate runs in sync with the federal funds rate, it is very easy to track. A consolidation that uses the Prime rate will likely be your cheapest current option, given the recent cuts.

What Does All of This Mean, Should I Consolidate My Private Student Loans?

We feel that if your rate is around 7-8% for you current private student loans, you will have a hard time finding a better rate. For those of you with decent credit histories and student loan rates well above 8%, it will not hurt to shop around a little. Keep in mind the different ways banks set your rates as described above, to help give you a sense of how your rates will fluctuate given the economy in the future.

Remember, the lowest rates generally will come with requirements of a co-signer, in addition to an origination fee. Most lenders will only allow you to consolidate your private loans with them once, but you can always use a different lender to consolidate in the future. Also, keep in mind when you consolidate, your loan term with some products will reset you to an additional 20 years. Therefore, if you have been paying your loans for 5 years and you consolidate, you will take the balance you currently have and stretch it out for another 20 years, meaning more interest payments. Just like home loans, don’t be afraid to ask about a fixed rate, generally you will be able to get a fixed rate of about 8.4% with a 1% origination fee and a peace of mind knowing your monthly payments will never change.

Lastly, before you say yes to a consolidation, do the math to determine the origination fee you will have to pay is less than the savings you will acquire with the lower rate. To figure this, take the origination fee minus the yearly amount you will save in monthly payments (
click here for a loan repayment calculator) to ensure you will be saving more with the lower rate than you will be paying in fees to obtain the loan. $

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