Explaining Southern California's economy

Strategic mortgage defaults: Nothing wrong with that!

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MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 10: Renzo Salazar, from Real Signs of Ace Post Holding Inc., places a bank owned sign on top of a for sale sign in front of a foreclosed home on November 10, 2011 in Miami, Florida.

The L.A. Times' Michael Hiltzik is appalled at the moralizing going on around "strategic defaults" — a default on a mortgage undertaken from a position of cold, hard financial calculation, rather than from some sentimental notion that a borrower should always, always pay, no matter what cards life deals him:

What often gets overlooked in the debate over walkaways is why it should matter. A default is a default, isn't it? [Old Dominion University's Michael J.] Seiler, for one, disagrees — he argues that defaults for noneconomic reasons have a uniquely corrosive effect on social behavior.

That's based on the notion that borrowers have a moral obligation to pay their debts. Yet a mortgage contract is a legal document, not moral catechism. It doesn't require you to make your payment regardless of your financial state; only that you recognize that if you don't, you might lose your house.

Mortgage lenders customarily try to price the likelihood of delinquency or default into the loan; that's why borrowers with the best credit scores typically pay the lowest interest rates. Nor is the credit score a gauge of moral purity — it's an empirical reflection of the borrower's debt load and bill-paying record.

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