How widespread are strategic defaults? Laurie Goodman and her team at Amherst Mortgage Insight yesterday released a report that shows they are indeed on the rise and for reasons we might suspect: negative equity and a more borrower-friendly environment.
The second reason should be kept in mind as we consider President Obama’s soon-to-be-announced plan to encourage principal reduction. If the plan is structured so that it gives incentives to default in order to secure principal forgiveness, well, expect defaults to spike.
Strategic default isn’t necessarily synonymous with mailing your keys to the bank and walking away. It may simply mean a borrower choosing to stop payments to the bank when economic incentives would have him do so. Amherst has come up with a novel metric to measure strategic default — the “default transition rate.” DTR looks at the percentage of borrowers who’ve never been more than one payment behind on their mortgage suddenly missing two payments in a row.
Lo and behold, negative equity leads more folks to strategically default, regardless of their credit score and whether they took out a liar loan:
The x-axis measures combined loan to value ratios (CLTV). In other words, combine the balance of all mortgages attached to a property (e.g.: a first mortgage + a home equity loan) and compare that to the property’s value. CLTV over 100% means more is owed on the house than it is worth. Yes, there’s a higher default rate for more poorly written mortgages (lower FICOs, low/no documentation), but even those that are well-underwritten (high FICOs and verified income) show spiking strategic defaults as equity goes negative. In other words, more folks who could pay their mortgage are choosing not to.
Even more interesting are other charts that demonstrate borrowers…
…are intentionally defaulting to take advantage of the [HAMP] modification program. Or at least to take advantage of extra time living in the house rent free, courtesy of the modification program.
(Click here to enlarge in new window)
This is one of many charts they have showing that, for all types of mortgages, the strategic default rate is actually higher for owner-occupied homes than non-owner occupied because, they argue, owner-occupieds are eligible for modification under HAMP whereas non-owner occupieds are not. And the difference appears to be more pronounced above a debt to income ratio of 31%.
Why 31%? Because that’s the ratio at which owner-occupiers qualify for a HAMP modification.
Borrowers respond to their economic incentives. This has always been the case, be it for refinancing or for defaulting on mortgages that are deeply underwater. Over the past year, however, property values have been largely steady, but the environment has become much more kind to borrowers. There have been foreclosure moratoriums, the emergence of the HAMP modification effort, and the attendant increases of time spent in the delinquency/foreclosure pipeline, as well as a stretching out of the liquidation process in judicial states. As a result, borrowers can stay in their home rent free for a much longer period than was previously the case. However, few of these benefits apply to investor properties. Thus, when we look at the difference pre- and post-HAMP in the behavior of owner-occupied borrowers versus that of non-owner occupants—we find a dramatic difference in performance. Owner-occupied borrowers behave far worse than their non-owner occupied counterparts.