A Credit to the Los Angeles Times for excellent reporting that shows conventional wisdom—that a significant number of homeowners are choosing to default on their home loans—to be an urban myth

Bankers and housing market analysts are warning of a chilling new trend in the mortgage world: Homeowners voluntarily defaulting on their loans even though they can actually afford to make the payments.

It’s known colloquially as ‘walking away,’ or more jocularly as ‘jingle mail,’ from the sound your house keys supposedly make when you mail them back to your bank.

The rumor isn’t just echoing around the money chambers, but across the media as well. The catch? No proof:

But there’s a major problem with all this talk about the phenomenon of solvent homeowners ‘walking away’: There doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence that it’s actually happening.

When pressed for the number of borrowers who could afford their mortgage payments, major banks and lender groups could not produce numbers figures.

Who would start such a meme?

Bruce Marks, CEO of Neighborhood Assistance Corp., a Boston-based nonprofit agency that helps strapped homeowners, says flat out that the notion that legions of borrowers are simply deciding not to pay is an ‘urban myth’ that largely reflects the mortgage industry’s desire to blame homeowners, rather than their lenders, for the surge in problem loans.

Marks and others assert that mortgage bankers have an incentive to blame the rise in delinquencies and foreclosures on borrowers skipping out on obligations they’re financially able to meet, because that diverts attention from the lenders’ own role in the mortgage crisis.

This is sharp reporting by the LAT, which refused to let stand an industry-fueled rumor.

The New York Times also took on the “jingle mail” myth, in an article the same day, but the piece did not go so far as to take the lending industry to task. It does have a damning hard number, though. Freddie Mac, the mortgage firm, says 0.14 percent of its mortgages in default were abandoned.

Both papers report that to the extent it can be proved there’s any “jingle mail” at all, it’s due to speculators, who don’t live in the house to begin with.

The man. The dream. The baloney.

A Debit to The New York Times for a cringe-worthy piece, the likes of which we had hoped never to see again: a fluff profile of ground zero developer Larry Silverstein.

Really, NYT, you’re making our job at Debits & Credits too easy.

We’ve said our piece on Silverstein: on how he got the best of the ground zero negotiations despite the fact that he was a major hindrance to progress, and how the press fell for the gutsy underdog spin. So we won’t repeat the details.

We’ll just give a few choice lines from Wednesday’s Times article. First, the headline: “The Optimistic (and Long) View of Larry A. Silverstein.”

Now, if we didn’t do this for a living, we would have stopped right there. But, for your sake, Dear Reader, we forged on. The lede:

Larry A. Silverstein, the New York developer, is used to being second-guessed.

And later:

The energetic Mr. Silverstein has other reasons to smile these days. At a time when many developers around the country are being forced to pull in their reins because of the credit squeeze, Mr. Silverstein has only to look out his floor-to-ceiling windows to see a new real estate empire in the making.


…Mr. Silverstein is a famously tough negotiator. But he is also known for his unusually optimistic personality.

Last fall, a fawning profile in the FT set us on a two-day examination of World Trade Center redevelopment coverage (which in turn led to a spirited exchange with our friends at Esquire). Despite a few bright spots, we found the press had largely abdicated its responsibility to hold Silverstein accountable for his central role in the rebuilding mess.

Again, we find ourselves amazed at Silverstein’s PR acumen.

As we stared disconsolately at the Times piece, we couldn’t help but notice how similar the lead photo is to the FT’s last year. In both, we see Silverstein in his 7 World Trade Center, overlooking the ground zero site.

Here’s the old FT photo

Here’s the new Times one.

Notice that the site itself looks pretty much as it did last fall, as it did the fall before, and so on. Which is to say, it looks like a big construction pit nearly seven years after 9/11. There is a difference, however: Silverstein is now smiling broadly into the camera.

He has reason to.

Glasnost on WSJ’s edit page

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.