When Default Is a Strategy

By Kenneth R. Harney
Saturday, July 11, 2009

Would you, under any circumstances, default on your home mortgage, even if you could afford to make the monthly payments?

That's a trickier question than you might assume, according to new research from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

The study found that 26 percent 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 because of declining property values.

Nationwide, according to data from Zillow.com, 22 percent of all homeowners were in negative-equity positions -- "underwater" -- during the first quarter, with mortgage debts that exceed their home values.

In some parts of California and Nevada, more than half of all households have negative equity. In a few localities, the size of the equity deficit is staggering: In the Salinas, Calif., metropolitan area, for example, the median equity for people who bought their homes in 2006, near the peak of the boom, is now a negative $214,305, according to the study.

When researchers questioned two nationally representative statistical samples of households about strategic defaults, they found that moral and social beliefs play a constraining role. But negative equity and the frequency of defaults in local Zip codes diminish those constraints.

Co-authors Paola Sapienza, Luigi Zingales and Luigi Guiso used interviews with 2,000 American households in December and March to explore the moral and social dynamics of strategic defaults. The two 1,000-person samples came from the two schools' Financial Trust Index, which monitors the level of trust that households have in the financial system.

Their research not only represents the first attitudinal study of widespread strategic walkaways from home loans, but also has implications for federal policies seeking to limit the numbers of foreclosures, which are on pace for a record 3.1 million filings this year, according to RealtyTrac.

Among the study's sobering findings:

Moral precepts keep large numbers of financially struggling homeowners out of default, but only to a point. Fully 81 percent of household heads said they believe intentional defaults on mortgages to be "morally wrong." But that high percentage begins to crumble as negative equity grows.

If negative equity were to reach $50,000, 7 percent of those who consider strategic defaults to be immoral said they would walk away. At $100,000 negative equity, 22 percent would do so. At $200,000 negative equity, 37 percent of those with moral objections would nonetheless default, and at $300,000, 38 percent said they would.

Among those who had no moral reservations about defaulting, the percentages were much higher. At $50,000 negative equity, 20 percent said they'd walk. At negative $100,000, 41 percent would do so, as would 59 percent at negative $200,000 and 63 percent at $300,000.

The researchers found that age, tenure of homeownership, the frequency of foreclosures in a person's Zip code and even politics influence an owner's willingness to bail out of a mortgage. Owners under the age of 35 are less likely to have moral problems with strategic defaults, as are self-described political "independents," compared with Republicans and Democrats.

An important factor in walkaways, according to the researchers, is the level of foreclosures that owners observe in their community and their personal acquaintance with owners who have defaulted. In the latter case, owners who know someone who defaulted strategically are 82 percent more likely to default themselves, compared with owners who do not know anyone in that situation.

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." High numbers of foreclosures also appear to create a "vicious circle" that increases neighboring owners' negative equity and greatly raises the probability of additional defaults, foreclosures and equity destruction in the area.

Though the authors offer no specific remedies -- they are behavioral researchers, not policy advisers -- they argue that the traditional assumption that borrowers default because they can't afford their monthly payments needs to be re-examined in light of accelerating foreclosures in some markets combined with plummeting equity.

The Obama administration appeared to take a step in that direction on July 1 when it allowed refinancings of Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-owned mortgages where owners have up to 25 percent negative equity. Previously the limit was 5 percent.

Kenneth R. Harney's e-mail address is kenharney@earthlink.net.

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