Unprecedented levels of US subprime mortgage defaults precipitated a severe global financial crisis in late 2008, plunging much of the industrialized world into a deep recession. However, the fundamental reasons for why US mortgages defaulted at such spectacular rates remain largely unknown. This paper presents empirical evidence showing that the ability to perform basic mathematical calculations is negatively associated with the propensity to default on one's mortgage. We measure several aspects of financial literacy and cognitive ability in a survey of subprime mortgage borrowers who took out loans in 2006 and 2007, and match them to objective, detailed administrative data on mortgage characteristics and payment histories. The relationship between numerical ability and mortgage default is robust to controlling for a broad set of sociodemographic variables, and is not driven by other aspects of cognitive ability. We find no support for the hypothesis that numerical ability impacts mortgage outcomes through the choice of the mortgage contract. Rather, our results suggest that individuals with limited numerical ability default on their mortgage due to behavior unrelated to the initial choice of their mortgage.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesvol.
110, (June 24, 2013):