Now the bloom is off the residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) rose. And some borrowers, even those who can theoretically afford to keep their homes, realize they owe much more than what comparable houses in the neighborhood are selling for — and think that prices won’t rebound anytime soon. So they’re walking away, according to anecdotal reports as well as recent statements by top executives of both Wachovia and Bank of America.
In most cases, once a homebuyer splits, the mortgage-securities investors are stuck with the loss. In some states, including California and Arizona, this provision is the letter of the law. In others, the bank forgives the balance of the loan — a common practice that’s unlikely to change now, given the criminal and civil investigations banks are already sweating through.
Essentially, mortgage-bond investors, seemingly unwittingly, sold homebuyers a put option, without properly pricing it, and now homeowners are exercising that option. Moreover, prime borrowers in many markets face the same incentives.
Yes, this behavior is new — but only when it comes to houses. Americans have long been able to cut their losses from bad investments and start over. It stands to reason that when the market made houses into yet another speculative investment, Americans would do the same.
Borrowers acted rationally in response to market forces and incentives during the bubble: Buy a house because prices always go up; you can’t lose. Many are acting rationally now: Mail the keys back and un-borrow the money, because prices are sinking fast while the debt isn’t. When the house was purchased not as a first home but as a rental investment, the decision is even easier.
Imagine: Politicians keep saying that Americans need protection from their big, bad lenders — but that protection is already there.