An article last week by Wall Street Journal personal finance columnist Brett Arends advised homeowners that are deeply underwater on their mortgages to “do the math” and walk away, pooh-poohing any “morality” argument thusly:
Your instincts, while honorable, are leading you astray.
The economy is fundamentally amoral.
Sometimes I think middle-class Americans are the only people who haven’t worked this out yet. They’re operating with a gallant but completely out-of-date plan of attack—like an old-fashioned cavalry with plumed hats and shining swords charging against machine guns.
Do you think your lenders would be shy about squeezing you for an extra nickel if they thought they could get away with it?
They knew what they were doing when they wrote your loan. Many were guilty of malpractice, but they pocketed good money and they’ve gotten away with it. And if they thought your loan was “risk free,” how come they were charging you so much more than the interest on Treasury bonds?
If you’re only a small amount underwater on your mortgage, it’s probably the case that you’re going to be better off staying put. But if you are deeply underwater, it’s a different matter.
Whether we like it or not, walking away from debts is as American as apple pie. Companies file for bankruptcy all the time, and their lenders eat the losses. Executives and investors pocketed millions from the likes of Washington Mutual, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns when the going was good. They didn’t have to give back one cent of that money when the companies went into bankruptcy.
Limited liability, after all, is one of the main reasons every business from your local dry-cleaner to a major multinational gets incorporated in the first place. They’re not shy about protecting themselves if things go wrong. You shouldn’t be either.
Couldn’t have said it any better.