But in a recent white paper, Alex Edmans, an assistant professor of finance The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that many homeowners are ignoring these consequences to do what they believe is in their best financial interest. "Defaulting on their loan is a rational decision: While they forfeit their home, they rid themselves of a mortgage liability of even greater value," Edmans writes. "The source of the problem is the homeowner's balance sheet: since he has negative equity in his home, it is not worth keeping it by paying the mortgage."
The issue of negative equity triggering strategic defaults represents a nasty headache for the Obama administration. The $75 billion mortgage housing rescue the administration unveiled last February is designed to keep people in their homes by reducing their monthly mortgage payments down to more manageable levels. The plan does not, however, require lenders or servicers to reduce borrowers' mortgage principal—meaning underwater borrowers still have this incentive to walk away from their home loan.
Laurie Goodman, a senior managing director at Amherst Securities Group, considers negative equity to be the housing market's greatest challenge and believes current housing rescue efforts are insufficient. "The current modification program does not address negative equity, and is therefore destined to fail," Goodman said in written testimony before a Congressional committee in December. "It must be amended to explicitly address this problem."
Although Uncle Sam has reduced mortgage payments for more than 850,000 borrowers so far—for a median savings of more than $500—the government will remain under pressure to take more aggressive action as long as the foreclosure epidemic keeps churning. Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, believes the government may take steps to tackle the issue of negative equity head-on this year by incorporating principal write downs—which reduce a borrower's negative equity position—into the housing rescue program.