Will short-sellers and strategic defaulters race to the exits before the debt-relief tax exclusion expires on 1/1/13? They would be crazy to assume that the benefit will extend, though it may. Here is the last third of this article from the New Yorker comparing AA’s bankruptcy to housing. More articles like this might encourage additional defaults!
When it comes to debt, then, the corporate attitude is do as I say, not as I do. And, while homeowners are cautioned to think of more than the bottom line, banks, naturally, have done business in coldly rational terms.
They could have helped keep people in their homes by writing down mortgages (the equivalent of the restructuring that American Airlines’ debt holders will now be confronting). And there are plenty of useful ideas out there for how banks could do this without taxpayer subsidies and without rewarding the irresponsible.
For instance, Eric Posner and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, suggest that, in exchange for writing down mortgages in hard-hit areas, lenders would take an ownership stake in a house, getting a percentage of the capital gain when it was eventually sold. Lenders, though, have avoided such schemes and haven’t done mortgage modifications on any meaningful scale. It’s their right to act in their own interest, but it makes it awfully hard to take seriously complaints about homeowners’ lack of social responsibility.
Of course, many borrowers made bad decisions and acted irresponsibly. But so did lenders—by handing out too much money and not requiring sensible down payments. So far, banks have been partially insulated from the consequences of those bad decisions, because Americans have been so obliging about paying off overinflated mortgages.
Strategic defaults would help distribute the pain more evenly and, if they became more common, would force lenders to be more responsible in the future. It’s also possible that a wave of strategic defaults—a De-Occupy Your House movement—would get banks to take mortgage modification more seriously, which would be all for the better.
The truth is that banks have been relying on homeowners to do the right thing. It might be time for homeowners to do the smart thing instead.