We are all Melmottes now
Hot/cold on the heels of Iceland’s quasi-default, the Roger Lowenstein in the NY Times urges underwater/negative equity homeowners to “Walk Away From Your Mortgage!”. . Lowenstein’s key point is that businesses (including those owned or controlled by the banks themselves) treat default as a straightforward business decision, to be adopted whenever it is profitable to do so. Lowenstein gives a number of examples where leading banks like (inevitably) Goldman Sachs have engaged in strategic default and urges his readers to do likewise. The piece is in a section headed “The Way We Live Now” and it’s striking that it’s taken more than 100 years for the business ethics of Augustus Melmotte to percolate through to the American middle class
To be fair, it’s only in the last thirty years or so that such ethics have become dominant in the corporate sector, to the point where a board that rejected profitable opportunities to stiff their creditors would now be regarded as having violated its fiduciary obligations to shareholders (particularly if the creditors are workers). And despite all the talk about shareholder value, a CEO who passed up opportunities for personal enrichment at the expense of shareholders would be regarded by his or her fellows as a mug.
Millions have defaulted already – (one in eight mortgages is currently in arrears). Bankruptcy is once again as common as divorce. When defaulting on debt is this common, it is hard to sustain any sort of social stigma or internalised notion that this is anything other than a financial option, like refinancing an existing loan. And, as with divorce, we must soon be reaching the point where most people who take out loans will do so in the knowledge that default is an option.
The question is – can the consumer credit system survive this? Probably it can, but the system will need some radical changes. It’s worked for several decades on the basis of creditworthiness criteria that work on the assumption that (nearly) everyone will repay their debts if they can. Until recently, the checks could also rely on the assumption that people would be more-or-less honest in the information they provided in their applications. The financial system, by promoting ‘liar loans’ colluded in the destruction of the second assumption, and by leading the way in strategic default, helped to destroy the first.
The problem for lenders now is that they will increasingly have to act on the assumption that their borrowers (including those who appear creditworthy on the old standards) are planning, at a minimum, to use default as an insurance option. The only good way to protect against this is to demand lots of secure collateral. That means less liberal credit (and, given higher default rates, higher interest rates) for everyone and no credit at all for lots of us.