The FICO credit score and strategic default

Syzmbark, Poland, features a truly upside-down house. More typical is homeowners with upside-down mortgages. Many of these owners are walking away from their homes with "strategic foreclosures."
Considered a viable strategy for managing troubled assets in an era of high unemployment, record foreclosures and government bailouts, millions of Americans are considering strategic defaults.

With almost 12 million mortgages underwater, a growing number of homeowners are simply walking away from the places they call home.

Strategic defaults, also known as strategic foreclosures, often take mortgage lenders by surprise because homeowners generally have had excellent credit histories and have previously met all their other financial obligations.

One of the distinguishing factors between a strategic default and other mortgage defaults is that the strategic default is a deliberate business decision. The homeowner has the ability to make payments but simply decides not to because the property value is less than the balance owed on the mortgage.

According to a recent Experian-Oliver Wyman Market Intelligence Report, strategic mortgage defaults rose 53 percent to 355,000 foreclosures in the first half of 2009. Prior studies found that 588,000 strategic defaults occurred in 2008, double the number that took place in 2007.

The number of strategic defaults is predicted to double again by the first quarter of 2013.

With more and more homeowners contemplating strategic default, mortgage lenders have sought out predictive indicators to discourage and prevent them by utilizing advanced credit scoring technologies.

A dynamic three-digit number reflecting an individual’s ability to repay debt, credit scores are assigned by the Fair Isaac Corporation. Credit scores play a crucial role in determining whether a borrower is eligible for a loan, the loan amount, interest rates and repayment terms.

Fair Isaac — the creator of the widely-used FICO credit score — recently introduced an enhanced version of its popular scoring model, the FICO 8 Mortgage Score. This enhanced model has made it more difficult for most consumers to secure mortgage loans.

Enhanced to better anticipate consumer behavior amid the foreclosure crisis, the FICO 8 Mortgage Score has been fine-tuned with predictive powers to assist lenders in determining which borrowers are most likely to strategically default.

Predicted to save over $1 billion by preventing 115,000 foreclosures, FICO officials claim their new model is 15- to 25-percent more accurate in predicting strategic defaults than its predecessor.

“The FICO 8 Mortgage Score’s broad availability means that all U.S. lenders and servicers can now easily access scores that are fine-tuned for mortgage performance,” said Jordan Graham, executive VP of Scores and president of Consumer Services at FICO. “By combining this superior predictive performance with the FICO Economic Impact Service, lenders are able to adjust policies and strategies quickly based upon forward-looking economic modeling.

“This is what we mean by the FICO analytic advantage: the ability to use the most advanced predictive analytics to compete and win in this highly challenging environment.”

In addition to having drastically reduced home values on an underwater mortgage, researchers have found other distinct character traits that identify potential strategic defaulters making this decision. Strategic defaulters typically have higher FICO scores, lower revolving balances, fewer instances of exceeding limits on credit cards and lower overall retail credit card usage.

In fact, their behavior is almost opposite to those of distressed defaulters. Strategic defaulters default “because they believe it is in their best financial interest, and because they believe the consequences will be minimal,” said FICO labs head and FICO chief analytics officer Dr. Andrew Jennings. Homeowners plan ahead for the credit hit they will take upon default by purchasing a car, new house and opening new credit cards before they “do the math and walk.”

“Many homeowners are being told to stop paying their mortgages,” said Carlos Reyes, a foreclosure defense attorney with the Reyes Law Group in Fort Lauderdale. “Homeowners should consider their rights and contemplate the long-ranging consequences of such an action. Making the decision to simply walk away may not be in their best interest.”

Strategic default may make “walking away” from a bad debt seem like a good thing, but it can have long-ranging consequences. Absent a deficiency judgment, homeowners will certainly suffer with lower credit scores and a drastically reduced ability to secure future credit. Higher interest rates and unfavorable terms could end up costing more in the long run than continuing to pay on an upside-down mortgage.

“Homeowners should explore all their options before strategically defaulting,” said Reyes.

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