Walking away from an underwater mortgage is one way in which normal homeowners may be able to both help themselves and the economy.Although I still disagree about the ethics, I'm starting to warm up to this type of argument.
The logic is straightforward. As many as 20 million people owe more than the current value of their homes. In most cases they have little hope of ever accruing equity in their home. There continues to be an enormous glut of housing. Nationwide, vacancy rates are at record highs. Rents are actually falling for the first time since we have reliable data.
Also, temporary government supports in the form of extraordinarily low interest rates and the first time buyers' tax credit are about to end. It is virtually certain that house prices will soon resume their decline and will remain low for many years to come. This means that people who are underwater today are likely to be even further underwater five or 10 years from now when they plan to sell their homes.
Not only will people end up losing money when they sell their home, but many underwater homeowners are likely to pay far more on their mortgage and other ownership costs than they would to rent the same unit. We did calculations recently that showed that homeowners who bought near the peak in many bubble markets could easily save themselves more than $1,000 a month by renting equivalent units. This means that these underwater homeowners could be throwing out more than $12,000 a year in a desperate effort to keep up on their mortgages. Since most of these homeowners will never have any equity in their home, the mortgage check they send to the bank is money thrown in the garbage. ...
Not only would it benefit millions of homeowners to send the keys back to the bank, it would also benefit the economy. The money that homeowners save by not paying their mortgage is money that could instead be used to support consumption and boost the economy. ...
Unfortunately, the current policy from the Obama administration goes in the opposite direction. Rather than realistically assessing what is best for homeowners, the policy seems intended to do everything possible to persuade people to keep sending checks to the banks, even using taxpayer dollars as an inducement. ...
Walking away from a home may well be the best economic choice, and in such cases, it is also likely to be the best choice from the standpoint of the economy as a whole. This may not be advancing God's work, but if millions of people walked away it might educate Goldman Sachs and the rest of Wall Street bankers about what happens when everyone plays by their rules.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Dean Baker's take on walking away
Economist Dean Baker, one of the first people to publicly warn of the housing bubble, disagrees with me on ethics: