Strategic Mortgage Defaults and the Rich

It is rare that I read something I wished I had written, and even rarer that it come from a source belonging to the old media. When that happens I get one  of my infrequent opportunities to write something positive.Mansion - William Helsen

So today I write nice things about a post at The Atlantic by Megan McArdle. (Okay, so a blog post is not exactly old media, but it’s from the The Atlantic, a magazine older than most rocks.) Of course, in saying nice things about that post I will be saying un-nice things about its subject, the New York Times. There is only so charming I can be.

Last week the Times, a publication I really need to learn not to take seriously, ran an article on its front page that was moronic even by its own rapidly decaying standards. Biggest Defaulters on Mortgages Are the Rich told us that rich folks are more likely to strategically default on their mortgage than ordinary wholesome middle class folks.

As McArdle points out, the NYT article is just a little flawed in that it fails to provide evidence of this counter-intuitive finding. What is does have is the discovery that mortgages over a million dollars are more likely to be in default than mortgages under a million dollars.

But does a higher rate of default mean a higher rate of strategic default? Evidence for this might be called anecdotal by those more generous than I. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suppose the opposite, that larger mortgages are more likely to be defaulted on for the simple reason that the borrower cannot make the payments, rather than because they realize that sticking the bank with the house is a shrewd move. From McArdle:

In some ways, people with those jumbo mortgages are less able to adjust in crisis.  If your mortgage payment is $1000 a month, shaving $200 off a $700 monthly grocery bill and quitting smoking probably gets you close to halfway towards keeping the mortgage current.  If your mortgage is $10,000 a month, and one spouse loses their job, no manipulation of other basic expenses will help much.

I am not in perfect agreement with McArdle. She claims to be “sympathetic to the thesis” of the Times article and casts her criticism of it in terms of poor journalism and shoddy logic, rather than that it is flat-out wrong.

It is flat-out wrong. Not only do I believe that rich people are no more likely to strategically default, I would be willing to bet money that they are no more likely to default for any reason.

I am no expert on consumer credit, but I will go out on a limb and speculate that the odds of a particular mortgage defaulting have a lot to do with the borrower’s ratio of debt to income. More debt and/or less income means a higher default rate. Less debt and/or more income means a lower one.

With me so far?

So would we expect a higher or lower default rate for larger mortgages, for example those over a million dollars? Higher, of course. More debt means more default.

The Times manages to infer income from the size of the debt, because people who owe a lot must therefore be rich, and draw from that the conclusion that the richer you are the more likely you are to default, while neatly ignoring the fairly obvious direct effects of a higher debt level. Then it makes the leap from more defaults to more strategic defaults without further ado.

An open-minded seeker of the truth would not go through logical gymnastics such as these. The Times piece is a product of an effort to fit a very modest collection of facts into a pre-determined narrative about what is going on. (A narrative which, I am sure, the folks at the Times earnestly believe to be true without malice or intent to deceive. That doesn’t mean it is true.)

This particular narrative is that naive little people have been fooled into not strategically defaulting on the big evil banks. Rich people, being more sophisticated and less moral, are not so easily fooled.

I first came across this imaginative story in December, when The Consumerist ran a post about a paper written by an Arizona Law Professor. Back then I said that the professor, who is quoted in the Times article, was left-wing by academic standards, and that is pretty far out there. His world view includes a conspiracy of “social control agents” to get homeowners to squander their rights not to pay what they owe.

Speculative story telling disguised as news does not belong in the front page of any major newspaper, even the Times. It would be a little more forgivable if the topic were more subjective by its nature, or involved only government policy rather than personal finance. But this is an area that ordinary folks need to know about for simple and important practical reasons.

Home mortgages are a major financial issue to many, if not most, American consumers. Many of those consumers do not understand the issues as well as they should, and this sort of nonsense only makes things worse. Strategic default is an option to only a small slice of homeowners and a good idea for tiny sliver of them. Spreading the idea that it is an opportunity that the smart money is pouncing on is irresponsible and muddies waters that are already rather brackish.

[Photo – William Helsen]


  • By Ivy, July 14, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Mortgage defaults are economic and actuarial problems. Strategic defaults are morality plays. So it’s no wonder the latter gets so much air time in the media.

    Frankly, I’d like to hear when you think a strategic default is appropriate and for whom.

  • By Rich, July 14, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    I have always assumed that jumbo mortgages default more often than regular mortgages. This would explain the difference in interest rates – jumbo mortgage buyers are paying a risk premium. I

  • By BrianF, July 14, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you… for posting regularly again. This blog is, hands down, my favorite money blog.

  • By The Head Hunter, July 14, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    You are the King!

  • By Investor Junkie, July 15, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    Thomas Stanley (of the “Millionaire Next Door” Fame) also comments on this with some stats.

  • By Investor Junkie, July 15, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    Let me add the original NY times article, in my opinion, was just another way to vilify the “rich”. When the rich mentioned more than likely are not.

  • By jim, July 15, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    Good analysis. I’d be curious to see more data on the actual nature of high value mortgages. I mean how many people with high net worth have high value mortgages and what % of mortgages of >$1M are from people with high net worth, etc. It seems what they’re seeing is high end homes probably bought by people who had upper-middle class people incomes.

    But on the other hand if someone actually has a high net worth and they do default on their mortgage then I’d think thats a strategic default by definition. They have the money to pay but are deciding not to. But I have no idea how frequently that actually happens and if it happens more or less often for high net worth people.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 16, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Ivy: I wrote about how unlikely it was that strategic default was a good idea for any given homeowner last December in Why You Haven’t Strategically Defaulted Yet.

    Rich: Jumbo mortgages are more expensive because they are not (de facto) subsidized by the government. They also default more, but I think when we compare rates we are really looking at what people with healthy debt-to-income ratios would pay in either case.

    Investor Junkie: You can imagine my embarassment at agreeing with Stanley. But he falls into the trap of considering a $1M mortgage to be exotically large. Although nationally pretty rare, in some parts of the country, e.g. where I live, they are fairly mundane. A good but not great house in a good but not great area just costs a million bucks around here. That doesn’t mean that the whole population is rich. On the contrary, it means they are spending a lot to live where they do and have little wiggle room if things go bad.

    Jim: As McArdle points out, by definition you can’t strategically default if you are broke. In that narrow sense, it must be true that richer, i.e. non-broke, people strategically default more often. The open question, for which we would both like data, is whether or not the level of net worth above zero has any relation to the likelihood of strategic default. I’m speculating that it doesn’t. Moreover, I think that the portion of defaults that are strategic is tiny. I think the whole thing is closer to urban legend than actual social trend.

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