Thursday, April 28, 2011

Is Strategic Default Moral Turpitude?

Strategic default is in the news because it is gaining popularity, and possibly may account for as much as 35% of all mortgage defaults. Strategic default happens when someone who can afford to pay the mortgage decides that it’s not worthwhile to keep doing so, and walks away. This is happening all over the country in situations where the value of homes has dropped substantially below the mortgage amount owed. It’s a daring strategy, not one usually employed by the meek middle classes. Financial writers tut-tut about this practice when individuals do it but strategic defaulters are simply taking a page from the behavior of large corporations. Corporations in our country are beyond feeling shame, but individuals until recently have not been.

Is strategic default an act of moral turpitude? Issues of right and wrong about money are very slippery. Historically, most of our ideas about money have been simple:

Pay cash.
Don’t incur debts, but if you do, pay them back.

That approach to money is now nearly obsolete. It’s in direct contradiction to the way we all have recently been trained to use money. Instead of waiting and saving up for something, we are pressed to buy now and pay later. We have been using capital leverage, i.e., credit, to do this. Just as the concept of paper money only works if everybody agrees that paper money actually is worth goods or services, so also the moral rules of money only work if everybody plays by them. Recently, we have seen egregious examples of companies that arrogantly refuse to be bound by even the most elemental moral rules, or even by regulatory laws. This creates an atmosphere of moral hazard. If the banking system is crooked and yet the banks don't have to pay and no one goes to jail, then why should individuals keep paying? Some people believe the only way to beat a rigged game is to stop playing the sucker. Walk away from a mortgage and the bank gets the house; that's what a secured loan is all about. End of obligation, both financial and moral. Yes, there’s a back-end income tax issue, and in some states the bank can come after you for what’s called the deficiency, but it’s still less hassle than the futile efforts people have been making to pay or modify mortgages they can’t afford.

The real hazard with strategic default is not moral, and it's not that the banks will go broke owning all these houses. It’s that if individuals feel free to act the way corporate crooks do, the entire financial system could grind to a halt. This system does not just depend on the Federal Reserve. It depends on every individual who accepts a paper dollar or a contract as worth something. Most people don’t believe that what they do has such potential for a far-reaching effect. We don’t know at what level strategic or other individual defaults will destroy the U.S. housing market entirely, but maybe we’re on the road to finding out. Meanwhile, the banks are not hurting, not when they seize homes worth $75,000 and sell them to investors for $30,000, while sticking the foreclosed owner with a tax liability for the “forgiven” $94,000 difference still owed on the mortgage. If it’s all a game, say the strategic defaulters, why shouldn’t they play to win?

It is not illegal to default on a mortgage. Right now is probably the best time to use the strategy, when so many others are doing it that one more default won't stand out from the crowd. Sure, your credit score takes a hit, but who says high credit scores are a moral imperative? Only FICO, which is in the business of collecting and selling credit scores, and therefore has a strong interest in making us all care terribly about scores. We have been brainwashed into believing we must behave in a certain way, or we will be punished by the Great God FICO. If substantial numbers of people have lowered scores, then the curve is lower, and who cares? A landlord will rent to someone with a low FICO score rather than let an apartment be vacant. A car dealer will make a deal with someone who has a low FICO score, because the dealer wants to make the sale. And so on.

Would I default on a mortgage? Probably I should have 20 years ago, when the country had a real estate crisis and housing values dropped precipitously. They stayed low for some years, but then they recovered big time. Will this current miserable part of the cycle ever end? I think so, but I hope you enjoy the house you’re living in right now, because rather than strategic default, there’s an even better plan: Just live in your house.

1 comment:

Refinancing said...

The motivation for a strategic default may depend on how far a borrower is underwater. Having a mortgage that’s twice as much as the value of a home could be somewhat discouraging. The prospect of being stuck with a losing investment that may not reach a break-even point for 10 years or more may be enough motivation to take a walk