This article reviews a newly-developed Fair Isaac Company (FICO) analytics model which predicts a borrower’s likelihood to exercise a strategic default and revisits the financial advantages of a strategic default for a negative equity homeowner.
Fair Isaac Company (FICO) researchers have developed new analytics to predict a borrower’s likelihood of walking away from a mortgage – a strategic default – whether or not he is delinquent on his payments. The rise in strategic defaults over the past year is of concern to mortgage lenders. Thus, FICO consulted with them (not underwater homeowners) to develop the analytics with the purpose of preventing strategic defaults and their costly impact on lenders, investors, homeowners and the housing market.
35% of mortgage defaults in September 2010 were strategic, an increase from the 26% more than a year earlier in March 2009 according to a University of Chicago Booth School of Business study. 22.5% of residential mortgage defaults nationwide were strategic in the third quarter of 2010. This number increased to 23.1% in the fourth quarter of the same year.
In negative-equity-laden California, strategic defaults are also widespread (more so than the nation as a whole since California is a nonrecourse state and lenders cannot viably threaten to sue for their losses). There were 45,380 strategic defaults in 2009 – 80 times the number in 2005. [For more information on the strategic default trend, see the August 2010 first tuesday article, Fannie Mae, our government and strategic defaults.]
FICO researchers found borrowers who walked away from their mortgages had common traits including:
- higher FICO scores;
- better credit management (understood financial statements);
- less retail balance (did not need credit to buy);
- shorter length of residence on the property and thus greater likelihood of a negative equity; and
- more open credit in the past six months with which to purchase items. [For more information on FICO’s findings on strategic defaulters, see the FICO article Predicting Strategic Default.]
The study concluded the degree of difference in the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio between the current market price for a home and the mortgage owed on the home (home price depreciation) is not as strong of an indicator for predicting a homeowner’s ability or willingness to strategically default. However, the study did conclude a borrower with a stronger history of good money management and a higher credit score tended to strategically default at a higher rate than other borrowers.
FICO and mortgage servicers are alarmed of the increasing frequency of strategic defaulters and warn homeowners of the consequences of walking away from their mortgage payments. Not only will homeowners suffer a 150+ point hit to their credit scores, but they may also face higher rates, tighter terms for other types of credit and a bump in insurance premiums. FICO goes on to implicitly threaten the homeowner who reverts to renting after walking away by saying landlords will be more unwilling to accept them as a tenant when they see a strategic default on the tenant’s credit record. [For more information about the fallacy of FICO’s argument, see the June 2010 first tuesday article, The FICO score delusion.]
This is a fabrication of the worst type. FICO and the lenders they consulted with (who incidentally are the ones who pay FICO for the use of their algorithms) have an economic interest in keeping California’s population of negative equity homeowners imprisoned in their underwater homes. The truth is, any landlord fully understands that a strategic defaulter is going to make a very fine, long-term tenant if they have a job and otherwise pay their bills – and most all do since they made the sound decision to strategically default.
Walking away is for smart people, and lenders know it
Several studies over the past years have already observed strategic defaulters tend to hail from a more financially savvy crop of people. The recent FICO study repeats this conclusion of which many of us are familiar.
What it also advertises — to the endorsement of lenders — are the detrimental effects of walking away from a mortgage. Agents and brokers must construct the bigger picture, especially in California where underwater homeowners collectively hold over 2,000,000 negative equity mortgages. [For more information on the relationship between higher credit scores and strategic defaults, see the October 2009 first tuesday article, Financially savvy homeowners turn to mortgage defaulting as a strategy.]
California negative equity homeowners have the short end of the stick with black-hole assets on their hands, so the question they should be answering is not whether a strategic default would be a in the best interest of their lenders. Rather, they should be considering whether a strategic default would be a prudent choice for their personal financial situation.
It’s true, homeowners will see a hit to their credit scores from a strategic default — and of course FICO will highlight this since the media often overstates this figure — but homeowners must not be inveigled into staying in negative equity properties by the vague economic threat of a lower FICO score. It’s not about the FICO score alone, but the costs versus benefits analysis of the homeowner’s individual situation.
Either a homeowner can continue to siphon his money into a dead-end loan, or he can save that money and invest it into a much more lively investment — improving his family’s standard of living.
A strategic default when the LTV is above 125% is not a dishonest financial bailout – it is prudent business decision. It may temporarily hurt the pride and credit scores of California homeowners, but these things are soon remedied. [For more information on when to strategically default, see the May 2011 first tuesday article, Short sale or foreclosure? The naked truth for underwater homeowners.]
Paying lenders the full amount on an underwater home is not what is going to fuel the recovery of a family or the California economy — what we need is to put cash in the hands of negative equity Californians. If they aren’t going to get any cramdowns in bankruptcy courts, they need to exercise their legal right to strategically default — that “put option” in every trust deed. Besides, it’s what all the smart people are doing anyway, right?