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]

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