Moral and Social Constraints to Strategic Default on Mortgages
We use survey data to study American households' propensity to default when the value of their mortgage exceeds the value of their house even if they can afford to pay their mortgage (strategic default). We find that 26% of the existing defaults are strategic. We also find that no household would default if the equity shortfall is less than 10% of the value of the house. Yet, 17% of households would default, even if they can afford to pay their mortgage, when the equity shortfall reaches 50% of the value of their house. Besides relocation costs, the most important variables in predicting strategic default are moral and social considerations. Ceteris paribus, people who consider it immoral to default are 77% less likely to declare their intention to do so, while people who know someone who defaulted are 82% more likely to declare their intention to do so. The willingness to default increases nonlinearly with the proportion of foreclosures in the same ZIP code. That moral attitudes toward default do not change with the percentage of foreclosures in the area suggests that the correlation between willingness to default and percentage of foreclosures is likely to derive from a contagion effect that reduces the social stigma associated with default as defaults become more common.
We would like to thank the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Kellogg School of Management for financial support in establishing and maintaining the Chicago Booth / Kellogg School Financial Trust Index. Luigi Guiso is grateful to PEGGED for financial support. We also thank Amir Sufi for very useful suggestions. Peggy Eppink provided excellent editorial help. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.