Fired Up By Cuba Policy Change

A version of this post appeared in the San Antonio Express News.

I'm fired up by the new US policy
I’m fired up by the new US policy

I’m totally fired up that the Obama administration relaxed travel, trade, and diplomatic restrictions on Cuba last week.

Removing the US embargo will not raise up Cuban people’s lives as much as we hope without the Cuban regime, for its part, embracing more of a market system.

For over 50 years, the Castros took every public speaking opportunity to point their fingers North and blame all of their country’s ills on the US.

By lifting the US embargo, we at least remove the Cuban regime’s primary excuse for the past fifty years of horrific economic conditions of the Cuban people under the Castros.

It’s not the embargo, it’s their suppression of a market economy.


Markets vs. Cuban Socialism

I’ll be the first to declare that our markets-based system has tremendous failures.

Markets are unjust.

Markets – without a safety net – heartlessly leave children, the unemployed, and the elderly in poverty.

Unregulated markets commonly lead to the terrible treatment of consumers and the environment.

But to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quip about Democracy, I would say free markets are the worst form of economy, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Churchill had something pithy and brilliant to say about everything

One thing that made me a card-carrying Adam Smithian Wealth of Nations-thumping pro-markets guy was visiting Cuba under the Castros.

My wife and I visited twice in the 2000s. We’ve visited many resource-limited countries. But nothing compares to Cuba.

In Cuba, everything is illegal

In the absence of any legitimate way for ordinary Cubans to earn enough to get food to eat, corruption envelops every day life.

Everyday. corruption.

Not for anything special, or anything nice. Just to get enough calories in the body.

For us as tourists, simply securing a room in a private home for a few nights in Havana involved a cat-and-mouse game to fool the local police.

“Ok, I’ll arrange it all for you,” the man offered at our café, his eyes scanning for signs of government authorities.

“Follow me down this road. About two minutes after I go, walk to the end of the block, turn right, and I will meet you inside the third doorway. Make sure you do not follow me too closely, as the police are watching.“

One day in Cuba and you will become a card-carrying Capitalist
Just spend one day in Cuba and you will become a card-carrying Capitalist

This was all standard procedure for renting a room. The homeowners – like thousands in Havana – desperately needed to earn dollars to buy bare necessities. The room cost us about $5 per night.

To further support that family we bought a home-cooked meal from them for another $2. I knew it was the best our host could do, and her eyes asked for a kind of understanding of their difficult situation as she laid the pigs-knuckles plate plaintively in front of us, murmuring “No es mucho pero esta hecho con mucho cariño” – “It’s not much but it is made with a lot of love.”

We wanted to cry.

Later, we slipped into an illegal restaurant –known as a paladar – run out of another private home that was desperate to earn dollars, despite them running the risk of breaking the law and being arrested.

Incidentally, you do not want to be arrested and go to a Cuban prison, as described in Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir Before Night Falls.

The Cuban health care system

On our second visit, my wife lived for six weeks working and researching in a Cuban hospital.

She arrived in Cuba ready to admire their health care system – free, universal, and reportedly successful. Long story, short: You do not want to get sick in Cuba.

The doctors are excellently trained, they have outstanding vaccination rates and access to prenatal care, but the facilities and access to medicines are awful.

When a woman who worked for her hospital needed specific antibiotics for a persistent infection, could she access the vaunted Cuban health care system?

Absolutely not! Appropriate antibiotics were unavailable to her, except through corruption. She ended up paying precious (and illegally obtained) dollars to the limousine driver of a Communist Party member, who had access to scarce antibiotics that ordinary Cubans do not.

With markets for nearly everything outlawed, everybody must cheat merely to gather life necessities.

Spying on everyone because everything is outlawed

Cubans are not allowed to move within the island to seek employment, without permission from authorities – which permission cannot be obtained without corrupt connections.

But hunger is a powerful motivator. People stay at friends’ houses illegally in Havana, for example, hopeful to earn dollars. They have to sneak in and out house, however, fearful all along that neighbors would report them.

The official Cuban Party propaganda since the 1960s has maintained that US sanctions primarily caused the degradation of the Cuban economy.

With US sanctions lifted, that lie at least will be exposed.





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More on Subprime Lending Policies from the Feds

Editor’s Note: A (shorter and less conversational) version of this post appeared earlier today in the San Antonio Express News.

hud sealAn official from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) responded last week to disagree with my article two weeks ago in which I claimed that Secretary Julian Castro supported subprime lending, in his speech about HUD priorities September 16th.

We had a lovely chat.

What Castro said

What Castro actually said in his speech is the following:

“According to the Urban Institute, the average credit score for loans sold to GSEs [*which stands for ‘government sponsored entities,’ shorthand for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Federal home loan banks] this year is roughly 750. Currently, there are 13 million people with credit scores ranging from 580 to 680. Many of them are ready to own, but are being left out in the cold. The truth is that the dream of homeownership is out of reach for too many Americans. This has to change.”

I interpreted ‘this has to change’ to mean he advocated greater subprime lending. Castro specifically included credit scores that meet the ‘subprime’ definition, even though he did not use the phrase ‘subprime lending,’ probably because after the 2008 crisis ‘subprime‘ became a dirty word.

Definition of subprime

Banks sort mortgage borrowers according to their FICO scores, a personal-credit score based on past borrower behavior.

A 720 score and above is considered “Prime.” A 680 FICO and below is considered “Subprime.” To fill out the middle part of the scale, a 680 to 720 score is generally considered “Alt-A,” an in-between designation of credit worthiness.

Reasonable people can quibble on the exact FICO boundaries between Prime, Alt-A, and Sub-Prime, and banks can make their own determinations of the ranges for their own lending purposes, but 680 and 720 are the traditional boundaries separating the three segments of the mortgage market.

To make the definition completely clear: If you have a 680 FICO or below, to name one FICO score Castro mentioned in his speech, you have a history of not paying some of your debts on time. If you have a FICO score closer to 580, to name the other score Castro mentioned, you have a history of not paying most of your debts on time.

There’s no other way to have a 580 to 680 FICO than to have missed debt payments.

This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Nor does it mean you should never own a home. It just means that your past payment behavior suggests elevated future risks of not being able pay for your debts, such as a mortgage.

Most importantly, with a FICO of 680 or below, you will only qualify for a subprime mortgage from your bank.

So that’s why I think I made the reasonable inference from Castro’s speech that “This has to change” indicated a government preference for more subprime lending.

“Fair Access”

The HUD official did not agree with my description.

When I pointed out to the HUD official that historically 20% of subprime borrowers get into payment trouble on their mortgages, the official said I should focus instead on the 80% of borrowers who do not get into trouble, the ones who pay their mortgages on time.


Shouldn’t those 80%, he argued with me, have ‘fair access’ to the dream of homeownership?

Yes, of course. Nobody could ever disagree that people should have ‘fair access.’

He argued with me that the point of HUD policy is to ‘remove the barriers’ to the 80% of borrowers with bad credit who will pay their mortgages on time.

Removing barriers also seems great to me.

The much more difficult task is to figure out what ‘fair’ means, and what ‘access’ means. And what are the lending barriers that HUD wants to remove when it comes to borrowers with FICO scores below 680?

I would argue, and I did to Castro’s colleague at HUD, that the focus on positive outcomes for the 80 percent of subprime borrowers who pay their mortgage on time kind of finesses the point, by shifting the conversation away from the other 20 percent who will not be able to pay their mortgage.

And, in my opinion, the point is whether federal government policy should put its thumb on the scale to increase access to a market in which 20 percent of borrowers could lose their home due to non-payment on their mortgage.

In the end, however, I should not have worried too much because I don’t think the policies advocated by Castro will do much.

Actual Policy

House in Hand

It turns out, according to both the official and the follow-up materials his office sent me, that what Castro and HUD mean by “this has to change” is something pretty mild.

They mean a three-part program of
1. Encouraging borrower counseling
2. Clarifying lending standards (with an updated FHA Handbook!)
3. Analyzing additional data on mortgage lenders and sample mortgages

That all seems reasonable. In addition, this isn’t going to open the floodgates to increased subprime lending anytime soon.

Which leads to an interesting – albeit convoluted – ‘lets-agree-to-disagree’ point between myself and the HUD official.

Whereas I don’t think HUD should encourage more subprime borrowing and he does, I don’t think the federal government’s policies will have much effect, and he does.

So we’re both happy. I guess?

We all do this

Let me shift away from using the words “Castro” and “HUD” and “Federal Government” now to make this less personal, and frankly so it doesn’t seem like I’m politically attacking San Antonio’s golden child.

I’m going to make the decision-maker in the following sentences simply “We.”

Because I think we all do this.

As a society we are in the habit of wanting two contradictory things at the same time when it comes to banking policy, even though they are somewhat incompatible with each other.

For equality-of-access reasons we want banks to lend to more people, especially the neediest people, despite the fact that such lending is historically quite risky for both the bank and the borrower. The borrower, who we want to help, can wind up without a home, in bankruptcy, and with further wrecked credit. Banks can lose money, which – when this happens systemically – can crater an economy, as happened in 2008. In these indirect ways, therefore, increased subprime lending is quite risky for society.

subprime mortgagesAt the same time – or shortly thereafter, when 20% of these mortgage loans go bad, as expected – we want to punish banks for lending to the neediest people, “when the banks should have known better,” or when a loan to a needy person ends up looking predatory because either the rate is very high, or the collateral (the home) was seized in foreclosure, or both.

So we can all want these contradictory things at the same time, but I think we can also acknowledge that it’s all kind of hypocritical, no?


Please see related posts:

HUD Policy – The Good And Bad So Far

Mortgages Part VIII – The Cause of the 2008 Crisis

Mortgages Part V – Good Debt or Dangerous Drug?

Book Review of Edward Conard’s Unintended Consequences

Audio Interview Podcast – Mortgage Originator Explains the Crisis


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