Strategic default is the banker’s stigma of convenience

Bankers foster the idea that strategic default on a primary residence is immoral. Bankers want borrowers to continue to repay loans even when it is not in the borrower’s best financial interest to do so. I and many others have argued borrowers have a greater moral duty to do what’s in the best financial interest of their family. Obviously, bankers disagree.bank_urges_sacrifice

In reality, this isn’t a moral issue at all. It’s all about money. Bankers want to make money, and making moral arguments is a stigma of convenience. If they were on the other side of the transaction, they would make the opposite point. I know this because they were on the opposite side recently, and they did make the opposite choice. The mortgage banker’s association defaulted on the loan on their own headquarters! So much for the greater moral duty to keep their word and their written agreements.

Living By Default

by December 19, 2011

We normally say that a company “went bankrupt,” implying that it had no choice. But when, recently, American Airlines filed for bankruptcy, it did so deliberately. The airline had four billion dollars in the bank and could have kept paying its bills. But it has been losing money for a while, and its board decided that it was foolish to keep throwing good money after bad. Declaring bankruptcy will trim American’s debt load and allow it to break its union contracts, so that it can slim down and cut costs.

American wasn’t stigmatized for the move. Instead, analysts hailed it as “very smart.” It is now generally accepted that when it’s economically irrational for a company to keep paying its debts it will try to renegotiate them or, failing that, default. For creditors, that’s just the price of business. But when it comes to another set of borrowers the norms are very different. The bursting of the housing bubble has left millions of homeowners across the country owing more than their homes are worth. In some areas, well over half of mortgages are underwater, many so deeply that people owe forty or fifty per cent more than the value of their homes. In other words, a good percentage of Americans are in much the same position as American Airlines: they can still pay their debts, but doing so is like setting a pile of money on fire every month.

It is exactly the same as lighting money on fire. It’s gone. It isn’t coming back. For underwater borrowers who are paying more each month than a comparable rental, they are losing the difference each month from the family’s economic vitality. And for what?

These people have no hope of ever making a return on their investment in their homes. So for many of them the rational solution would be a “strategic default”—walking away from the mortgage and letting the bank take the house. Yet the vast majority of underwater borrowers keep faithfully paying their mortgages; studies suggest that perhaps only a quarter of all foreclosures are strategic. Given how much housing prices have fallen, the question is why more people aren’t just walking away.

Part of the answer is practical. Defaulting (even in so-called non-recourse states) is still a lot of trouble, and to most people it’s scary.

Most borrowers believe this, but the truth is Strategic default consequences are minor and likely to decrease.

In addition, homeowners are slow to recognize how much the value of their homes has dropped, and have inflated expectations of how much it will rise in the future.

Hope springs eternal. I suspect this is most people, particularly here in California. Houses have fallen in value much more than most homeowners realize or are willing to admit, and of the few who realize it, many of them also believe prices will come back quickly once the market bottoms. The market bottom is proving elusive, and appreciation will be much more tepid than loan owners expect once the bottom is in place.

The biggest hurdle, though, is social: while companies get called “very smart” for restructuring their contracts, there’s a real stigma attached to defaulting on your mortgage. According to one study, eighty-one per cent of Americans think it’s immoral not to pay your mortgage when you can, and the idea of default is shaped by what Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, calls a discourse of “shame, guilt, and fear.” When the housing bubble burst, the banking industry was terrified by the possibility that homeowners might walk away en masse, since that would have stuck lenders with large losses and a huge number of marked-down homes. So strategic default was portrayed as the act of dishonorable deadbeats. David Walker, of the Peterson Foundation, waxed nostalgic about debtors’ prisons, and John Courson, the head of the Mortgage Bankers Association, argued that defaulters were sending the wrong message “to their family and their kids and their friends.”

Paying your debts is, as a rule, a good thing. But the double standard here is obvious and offensive. Homeowners are getting lambasted for doing what companies do on a regular basis. Walking away from real-estate obligations in particular is common in the corporate world, and real-estate developers are notorious for abandoning properties that no longer make economic sense. Sometimes the hypocrisy is staggering: last winter, the Mortgage Bankers Association—the very body whose president attacked defaulters for betraying their families and their communities—got its creditors to let it do a short sale of its headquarters, dumping it for thirty-four million dollars less than the value of the building’s mortgage.

This is more than just a public relations problem for bankers. This strikes to the heart of the lie they are perpetrating on the American people. When bankers say it is immoral to default, they don’t really believe it. Their actions speak much louder than their words ever will.

When it comes to debt, then, the corporate attitude is do as I say, not as I do. And, while homeowners are cautioned to think of more than the bottom line, banks, naturally, have done business in coldly rational terms. They could have helped keep people in their homes by writing down mortgages (the equivalent of the restructuring that American Airlines’ debt holders will now be confronting). And there are plenty of useful ideas out there for how banks could do this without taxpayer subsidies and without rewarding the irresponsible. For instance, Eric Posner and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, suggest that, in exchange for writing down mortgages in hard-hit areas, lenders would take an ownership stake in a house, getting a percentage of the capital gain when it was eventually sold. Lenders, though, have avoided such schemes and haven’t done mortgage modifications on any meaningful scale. It’s their right to act in their own interest, but it makes it awfully hard to take seriously complaints about homeowners’ lack of social responsibility.

Of course, many borrowers made bad decisions and acted irresponsibly. But so did lenders—by handing out too much money and not requiring sensible down payments. So far, banks have been partially insulated from the consequences of those bad decisions, because Americans have been so obliging about paying off overinflated mortgages. Strategic defaults would help distribute the pain more evenly and, if they became more common, would force lenders to be more responsible in the future. It’s also possible that a wave of strategic defaults—a De-Occupy Your House movement—would get banks to take mortgage modification more seriously, which would be all for the better. The truth is that banks have been relying on homeowners to do the right thing. It might be time for homeowners to do the smart thing instead.

Underwater borrowers who are paying more each month than a comparable rental have a choice to make. Either accept the arguments of bankers, keep paying the mortgage, and flush the money down the toilet; or they can do what’s best for their family and tell the bankers to shove that mortgage up their a$$.