Introducing the Financial Trust Index Working Paper Series

Information about the Financial Trust Index’s core topics is issued quarterly, and is supplemented by a working paper series featuring additional topics (e.g. real estate investment, opinion on current events, etc.).

June 25, 2009—“Moral and Social Restraints 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

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*This paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Finance, titled The Determinants of Attitudes towards Strategic Default on Mortgages (Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales. June 2011).