“Strategic Default” on the Rise
According to a recent headline-grabbing study, “26% of the record numbers of home mortgage defaults across the country are ‘strategic‘ — that is, calculated economic decisions to bail out of loans by owners who actually have the money to make the payments but can’t handle the negative equity they’re carrying caused by local property value declines.” In most of the coverage to-date surrounding the foreclosure crisis, this class of defaulters has been largely ignored.
The study found that there were a few variable which correlate closely with borrowers’ respective willingness to intentionally default. First, and most obviously, is the value of the mortgage compared to the current value of the home. Specifically, those whose mortgages are most “underwater” are also most willing to default: “Researchers found that almost no homeowners would default if their equity shortfall was less than 10% of their home’s value, but one-in-six homeowners would default if their equity shortfall reached 50% of their home’s value.”
In controlling for age, location, and education level, the study determined that “Well-educated borrowers, homeowners in the Northeast and West, and people under 35 or over 65 were less likely to have moral reservations about choosing to walk away from making mortgage payments.” One’s sense of morality evidently plays a strong role in this calculation, with those who regarded strategic default is immoral 2-3 times less likely to default than their amoral counterparts. This relationship, however, is also proportionate to the size of one’s negative equity position: “While four out of five homeowners said they believed it was morally wrong to intentionally default, as negative equity rises, more borrowers—including those who said strategic defaults were immoral—would consider walking away.”
However, morality (in the case of strategic default at least) is apparently received from social cues. In other words, borrowers surrounded by default were themselves more likely to accept default as an amoral possibility. “The higher the number of foreclosures in a given ZIP Code, the higher owners’ willingness to walk away, the researchers found, suggesting what they call a ‘contagion effect that reduces the social stigma associated with default as defaults become more common.’ ”
This has some important implications for the recent federal legislation, which has aimed to prevent foreclosure by simply helping borrowers to modify their monthly payments, thereby making their mortgages more affordable. However, this legislation is built implicitly on the ideas that underwater borrowers will still repay their mortgages, and that affordability should be measured/enhanced on a monthly – rather than an aggregate – basis. If this report is to be believed, both of these assumptions are questionable. Perhaps this means that we will soon seen a corollary to this legislation passed, in which borrower equity (i.e. mortgage value) is also adjusted. Or maybe not.
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