If billionaires don't feel guilty about walking away from their debts, should homeowners?
Strategic defaults—the phenomenon of people who could continue to make payments on the mortgages on their homes deciding to walk away from their obligations—are rising. According to the Wall Street Journal, strategic defaults are likely to exceed 1 million in 2009. This is making some worry about the very future of capitalism. Georgetown University business ethics professor George Brenkert told the Journal that borrowers who can afford to stay current are morally required to do so, and that were Americans to conclude they could just walk away from obligations, it would be disastrous. Mortgage Bankers Association CEO John Courson wondered about "the message they will send to their family and their kids and their friends?" Blogger Megan McArdle expressed disdain for people who chose to indulge themselves on consumer goods and services while not keeping current with their mortgages.
Um, do any of these people read the Wall Street Journal? Strategic defaults are the American way, and I'm not talking about strapped middle-class borrowers who prefer spending money on vacations to staying current on their payments. Deep-pocketed companies, billionaires, and institutions that can afford to stay current on payments strategically default all the time.
Morgan Stanley, for example, is a gigantic corporation. As of the second quarter, it boasted total capital of $213.2 billion. It certainly has the ability to make good on obligations incurred by its many operating units. But earlier this month Morgan Stanley said it would turn over five San Francisco office buildings to lenders rather than pay the debt on them. Why? Morgan Stanley foolishly paid top dollar for the buildings in 2007, when prices were really high. The values have plummeted, and tenants are hard to come by. "This isn't a default or foreclosure situation," spokeswoman Alyson Barnes told Bloomberg News. "We are going to give them the properties to get out of the loan obligation." Smells like a strategic default to me.