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Tilting at Windmills

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July 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE USUAL CYCLE....The New York Times reports that the volume of short-term commercial loans has dropped 3% this year, the largest annual decline since 2001:

Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring.

....Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel Wire Products, figured it would be easy to get a $300,000 bank loan to finance a new robot for his factory in Baltimore....But when Mr. Greenblatt called the local branch of Wachovia — the same bank that had been aggressively marketing loans to him for years — he was distressed by the response. "The exact words were, 'We're saying no to almost everybody,' " Mr. Greenblatt recalled.

....Some suggest that the banks, spooked by enormous losses, have replaced a disastrously indiscriminate willingness to hand out money with an equally arbitrary aversion to lend — even on industries that continue to grow.

"There's been a lot of disruption in the credit market, and a lot of traditional lenders have really tightened up," said Gregory Goldstein, president of Macquarie Equipment Finance, which leases computer gear and other technology to companies. "Before, some of the standards they lent on were weak, but we think they have overshot and gone too far on the other end."

Gotta laugh at that one. Of course banks overshot on the way up and are overshooting on the way down too. That's what always happens. It happened with savings and loans, it happened with South American loans, it happened with dotcoms, it happened with housing, it always happens. Bankers, as near as I can tell, have about as much common sense as the average lemming. The Fed can help, but it can't turn them into a different species. Buckle up.

Kevin Drum 2:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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If a business wants to get money, all it has to do is retool for the war economy and then give campaign contributions to the RNC. You have to spend money to make money.

Get those flabby middle executives buff, armed and rarin' to go to Iraq. No bid contracts will fly your way.

Posted by: Everyman on July 28, 2008 at 3:00 AM | PERMALINK

"The Fed can help, but . . ." The Fed is the primary reason the banks are in the current credit crunch, and why they were too lax in the first place.

The Fed's easy-money policies not only created a flood of liquidity, Chairman Greenspan actively encouraged exotic lending instruments, like sub-prime and interest only mortgages. Couple that with almost no regulation and there's your recipe for disaster.

I take that back. In the case of securitized mortgages (CDOs,SIVs, etc.), there was no regulation whatsoever. In the case of credit default swaps, they were enabled by Phil Gramm's 1999 deregulation bill, which among other things begat Enron.

And Gramm's repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act by means of new legislation (the Gramm-Leach-Blilely Act) allowed investment and commercial banks to consolidate, which also was a factor in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco.

But did the Fed say or do anything to reign in the irresponsible, and often fraudulent, behavior in the banking industry? Quite the contrary, Greenspan in testimony before Congress repeatedly condoned and even promoted it as desirable.

The Fed is the friend of Wall Street and the banking industry. The care not how much pain they inflict on the average American through their policies, as long as their friends pull through.

Their program to accept CDOs and other junk as collateral for loans, along with all the other money-creating activities has destroyed the value of the dollar and contributed to the high oil and commodity prices that are killing us.

Sorry about the rant, but pretending the Fed is some kind of sober regulator or industry cop that will make the banks walk the line is laughable.

Posted by: DevilDog on July 28, 2008 at 3:08 AM | PERMALINK

The bipolar response to all crisis' is what defines the American character. We never look for stability or consistency in our government, but rather over the top panic mode or complete indifference. As a nation, we need meds.

Posted by: Darsan54 on July 28, 2008 at 3:37 AM | PERMALINK

A screaming panic mode to whatever the emergency is part of the American character. Gawd forbid we ever take a measured, thoughtful response to an important situation for the long term good and stability of the country and citizens.

Posted by: Darsan54 on July 28, 2008 at 3:39 AM | PERMALINK

Curious why US ppl are not up in arms after they have been fleeced by Wall Street's securitization madness.

And such blatant cases of socialising the losses, privatise the profits too. The average US citizen is being robbed blind and yet no one seems to care.

Why is everyone so resigned? Why is there not more anger ? Why are not ppl questioning the direction the country is heading in ?

I find this most baffling - major decisions are being made now behind closed doors (e.g. housing bail out bill) that will shape your country for the next decade. Yet there is no debate or discussion on this (700 pages of the bailout bill was sent to reps and voted on like, the a day or 2 after ?).

Instead, you get coverage/discussion on issues like Obama's speech in Germany, which honestly does matter sh1t in the long term.

Posted by: lolcat on July 28, 2008 at 3:50 AM | PERMALINK

lolcat: "Why is everyone so resigned? Why is there not more anger ? Why are not ppl questioning the direction the country is heading in?"

Short answer: An embarrassing number of Americans are uneducated and proudly ignorant thereby easily misled. More than half of them couldn't find their nation's capitol on a map if you held a gun to their head.

Bright shiny objects are simple distractions and Republicans know how to dangle them.

Posted by: Everyman on July 28, 2008 at 5:11 AM | PERMALINK

Let me amend that: The Corporatocracy is adept at dangling bright shiny objects. As much as I loathe what has become of the Republican Party, they don't bear all the blame. There was a sufficient number of Democrats voting with them.

Corporations run the United States. Politicians are just middle management.

Posted by: Everyman on July 28, 2008 at 5:44 AM | PERMALINK

Now, dont go dissing lemmings. No, they do not dive off cliffs en masse. Just say that many banker are foolish and greedy humans.

Posted by: keith g on July 28, 2008 at 7:14 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah. Walt Disney is responsible for the leming rumor. But bankers do suck.

Posted by: Pat on July 28, 2008 at 7:23 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin: That's what always happens.

It happened after the stock market crash of 1929. The lack of credit was much worse for the economy than the loss of equity. It's what drove us into depression.

Posted by: anandine on July 28, 2008 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK

The market works! Starve the government!

Posted by: John McCain: More of the Same on July 28, 2008 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

Even in the best of times checks from even the best customers don't always come in before payday, but employees still have to be paid. Credit is absolutely essential for the smooth running of main street.

I wonder how many Americans working for productive and profitable middle sized companies are going to receive pink slips because some over extended bank reduces or cancels their company's credit line.

The biggest danger in this crisis is the tightening of credit to solid but small or middle sized companies. The cascade could be horrible.

Posted by: Ron Byers on July 28, 2008 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

...well goooolly....can't we just build more banks?..

Posted by: RED STATE DOOFUS on July 28, 2008 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

It is interesting to me that it's REPUGS who are all about the deregulation and consolidation...but whenever something comes up about RICH FOLKS paying more taxes (one of the only things I agree with Ben Stein about) they hit the old meme that it will hurt the "small business" owner...as if they give a rat's ass about SMO!!! I'm nearing 70 and wondering if I'll ever see improvement in the intellect of the average voter??? Not with the media we now have (thanks to deregulation and consolidation)...

Posted by: Dancer on July 28, 2008 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

The banks are skittish about making loans right now because they don't know how many of their existing loans may still go bad and the entire American banking system faces an unknown level of risk already.

Every existing loan that goes bad removes that much capital from their bank on a dollar for dollar basis. With a 10% reserve requirement, they have to have capital on hand of 10% to support each loan, new and existing, so each additional loan they find that is bad removes their capital support for 9 times more loans, and every major American bank is finding that it already is sharply undercapitalized. Washington Mutual, for example, is on bankruptcy watch according to some analysts. Bank of America thought it got a good deal on merging with CountryWide Mortgage company, but that move lowered BoA's creditworthiness at the same time.

Since the banks are still finding bad loans in the existing portfolios and don't know where the next bad loan will appear, they simply don't know if they have the capital to support new loans. Just one currently unknown risk is that a lot of Adjustable Rate Loans have not yet reset upwards, and when they do it is going to ripple through the entire credit market.

The problem banks have making new loans right now isn't a question of loan officers getting over-cautious. It's recognition that every loan they make now makes their bank more likely to go belly up and they have no possible way of measuring how much new risk the new loans will add to the currently unknown level of risk already faced by their institution. There will be more banks fail besides the latest three as is.

When bankers can't accurately measure risk, they don't lend more money. Instead they work out the existing loans and determine how much risk they already face first. That's an iron rule of banking.

Posted by: Rick B on July 28, 2008 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

OOPSIE...trying to be just too clever...that should have been SBO (small business owners)...DUH Need to do with my fingers what I'm constantly shouting to the overpaid pundits on TV (SLOW DOWN)...

Posted by: Dancer on July 28, 2008 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

Old piece of wisdom from a con man: "If you can't fool a banker, you should find a different line of work".

Posted by: MattF on July 28, 2008 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

Of course they are tightening lending to even good customers- they have no idea just how much bad debt they have created that will have to be written down.

The blame for all of this lies at the doorstep of the government. Central bank policies have created a debt pyramid that is going to collapse- a collapse that the taxpayers are going to get reamed really well for as we bail out all of the imprudent idiots, but, of course, it really isn't imprudent borrowing or lending when the government is standing there telling you that it has your back. Welcome to the world of moral hazard.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 28, 2008 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

Several people upthread have already nailed it, but to put a finer point on it - capitalism without regulation always swings from one end of the pendulum to the other. Socialism is much more stable and sustainable. You don't read about shit like this going on in Swedish or Norwegian banks, do you?

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 28, 2008 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

lolcat said "Curious why US ppl are not up in arms after they have been fleeced by Wall Street's securitization madness."

It's because the TV coverage is all about anything but the securitization madness. I haven't heard 10 words about it this month. And most voters still get their news from TV. Even economic news.

There is no desire to talk about the real cause of the problem.

Posted by: zak822 on July 28, 2008 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

Boneheaded bankers keep about 30% of all lawyers busy cleaning up their messes.

Posted by: jimbo on July 28, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

yea but seriously, aside from finance/trader blogs, how many places even talk about what happened?

i mean, guys, the biggest robbery in known history has just been carried out on the US middle class - the entire economy is swaying in the wind....

.... which is very odd, because US ppl are supposed to have guns in case they need them to throw off the yoke of oppression

but i guess the trick there is to make the yoke look like a set of ipod ear phones

Posted by: lolat on July 28, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

You know, I was going to write a parody of the loony libertarian faith in free market capitalism, but then I see Yancey Ward wrote [banks] have no idea just how much bad debt they have created that will have to be written down. The blame for all of this lies at the doorstep of the government. , rendering all parody superfluous (but in a ruggedly individualistic way, of course!).

Yeah, Yancey. It's the government's fault that banks have no idea how much bad debt they've created. I couldn't ask for a better example of a loony libertarian asserting blind and unfounded faith in the markets and knee-jerk hatred of govenment in the face of an obvious epic failure on the part of your beloved free-market captialism.

Jackass.

Posted by: Gregory on July 28, 2008 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

The example from the article is Wachovia, probably the shakiest large bank out there right now.

Their corporate headquarters were raided by securities investigators recently and they posted an 8bln dollar loss in their last quarter and a 4bln loss in their previous quarter. If only banks were like about to whacked mobsters, I'd be taking out big loans. I'd just get my money out, if i were a wachovia customer.

Posted by: mark r. on July 28, 2008 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Gregory,

I know you won't understand this, but when the money was borrowed, the debt didn't look bad because the assets against which it was borrowed were rising in price, but assets were inflating because the central bank was inflating. Once the bubble stops growing and collapses, which all bubbles inevitably do, the assets deflate in value, but the nominal debt does not- thus the debt becomes a loss, and no one knows just how far the assets will fall in price.

My point, which you will not understand, is that the central bank is responsible for the credit bubble- it was further enabled by government institutions like the GSEs (and the lie that they were "privatized" has now been revealed for all to see), and so-called regulators that co-opted by the regulated.

We must stop socializing business losses, and we must stop inflating our currency to stave off every little economic crisis that erupts. Unless we let the losers take the losses, the risks that will be taken will grow even more in the future. Instead, what do we get? We get bailouts of the GSEs, we get multibillion dollar mortgage bills to bail out banks and homebuyers that borrowed more than they can pay, we get the central bank destroying it's balance sheet trying to prop up insolvent institutions.

Government is not the solution here- it caused the problem by it's implicit (now explicit) insurance against imprudent lending and borrowing. And guess what- if our system survives this crisis, the next one will be even larger because the government will have further proven it's willingness and ability to cover one's losses. Get ready to fork over more of your paycheck to pay to prop up Wall Street. For myself, I am putting my assets beyond the harmful reach of these asinine policies. I would suggest you do the same, otherwise they will be worthless in 20 years.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 28, 2008 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Or, you could just do the increasingly common thing, borrow just as much money as they will lend you and walk away- someone from the government will come by to cover your lender's loss with a check, so it isn't like you stole from them.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on July 28, 2008 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

Yancey, I take it you are divorced from the economy. Moral hazard talk is great in the abstract, but it hurts like hell when you are laying off employees.

Your premise that bubbles are created by government or central bank action is false. No government action is necessary to create an economic bubble. There have been bubbles for thousands of years. Remember the south sea bubble? How about the bubble in beaver pelts? No, bubbles are part of the magical market you keep raving about.

Posted by: Ron Byers on July 28, 2008 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

...depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring.
My idea of a healthy company is one that can use its own investors and profits for expansion and hiring.

Posted by: Luther on July 28, 2008 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

YW: "For myself, I am putting my assets beyond the harmful reach of these asinine policies. I would suggest you do the same, otherwise they will be worthless in 20 years."

What are you doing btw? Now THAT would interest me.

Posted by: tripoley on July 28, 2008 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

Yancy, I think the point Gregory was making (and I completely agree with) is that any government intervention into the markets is pretty much always bought and paid for by the business enterprise(s) who stands to make a profit from the intervention. This is why there will never, ever exist a "free market" because the market players with the fattest wallets will buy off government officials to interfere with the functioning of the free market. As long as politicians can be bought, a free market will never exist -- and human greed ensures that there will always be politicians who can be bought.

Posted by: Art Eclectic on July 28, 2008 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: "Government is not the solution here- it caused the problem"

That statement is, of course, not a conclusion arrived at through study and analysis of the actual facts in this case. Rather, it is an a priori ideological principle (interestingly, expressed in almost identical words to those famously used by Ronald Reagan), from which all of your analysis proceeds, no matter what the facts in any particular case.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 28, 2008 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Banks curtailing lending is exactly why this bullshit housing bill will fail. The bill is intended to put a floor on housing prices because the continued falling of prices is a large part of where the instability is coming from right now. The more housing prices fall, the more underwater homeowners are falling and the less incentive they have to keep paying and not walk away. The more that walk away, the more loans that fall into foreclosure.

The more housing prices fall, the larger the losses the banks are going to take. What nobody seems to want to factor into the equation is that housing prices are still too high for the average borrower using tradition loan financing. Until pricing on "starter" homes falls within the range of first-time buyers, those properties won't sell and inventory continues to rise. Until "starter" homes start to sell, those current owners can't move up and start buying their 2nd homes. It is a chain reaction all the way up the housing scale.

Since banks aren't writing many new loans, that leaves those who CAN buy at existing prices without a funding source for the loan. So, the inventory just sits unsold, the losses continue to mount and the problem worsens while our fine elected officials attempt to put a floor on prices that no one can buy at. Stupidity only a politician in an election year can make up. The only way out of this mess is to let housing prices fall to where people can afford to buy again without exotic and dangerous financing schemes.

Posted by: Art Eclectic on July 28, 2008 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: I know you won't understand this, but when the money was borrowed, the debt didn't look bad because the assets against which it was borrowed were rising in price, but assets were inflating because the central bank was inflating.

Housing prices are set by the central bank? Who knew?

Once the bubble stops growing and collapses, which all bubbles inevitably do, the assets deflate in value, but the nominal debt does not- thus the debt becomes a loss, and no one knows just how far the assets will fall in price.

Well, duh, Yancey. The private sector made investments in a rising market; once the market collapsed, their assets decreased in value.

You're welcome to point out that government policy influenced the market's behavior, but how does that make it the government's fault that these Titans of Capitalism don't know the value of the assets they hold?

For that matter, how is the governmnet's role in the market in any way an excuse for the market indulging in the kind of boom-and-bust behavior it has, as others have pointed out, been doing for time immemorial?

It's the market's job to rationally value the goods and services it produces. The government's involvement is the banking and housings sectors in no way excuses the irrational behavior of the market. In fact, the very scenario you outline -- and I quote, when the money was borrowed, the debt didn't look bad because the assets against which it was borrowed were rising in price ... once the bubble stops growing and collapses, which all bubbles inevitably do, the assets deflate in value, but the nominal debt does not- thus the debt becomes a loss, and no one knows just how far the assets will fall in price -- is an indictment of faith you place in the free market.

(Incidentally, let's not forget how Bush's insane cut-taxes-borrow-and-spend policies, which you enthusiastically support, at least as far as those sweet, sweet tax cuts go, is repsonsible for the bubble's eventual collapse. I don't know about the government in general, but Republican policies are clearly bad for the eoconmy.)

For myself, I am putting my assets beyond the harmful reach of these asinine policies.

You're stuffing your money in a mattress?

Thanks for proving my point about your loony libertarian knee-jerk hatred of governemnt and your transparent, knee-jerk efforts to blame the government and absolve the markets for the current mess. As I said, I couldn't parody the loony libertarian chatechism any better than you do with your pronouncements of faith.

Jackass.

Posted by: Gregory on July 28, 2008 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

That first line,

Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring

really hit me. I live in Japan, where we are still unraveling the results of a collapsed real estate bubble whose consequences were what is not referred to as "the lost decade." One major factor was banks with bleeding bottom lines unwillingness to loan to small and medium-sized companies where new employment and innovation are both concentrated.

At almost age 64, I do not like the prospect of seeing my American investments mired in a lost decade on the U.S. side of the Pacific.

Posted by: John McCreery on July 28, 2008 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

That first line,

Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring

really hit me. I live in Japan, where we are still unraveling the results of a collapsed real estate bubble whose consequences were what is not referred to as "the lost decade." One major factor was banks with bleeding bottom lines unwillingness to loan to small and medium-sized companies where new employment and innovation are both concentrated.

At almost age 64, I do not like the prospect of seeing my American investments mired in a lost decade on the U.S. side of the Pacific.

Posted by: John McCreery on July 28, 2008 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK
I know you won't understand this, but when the money was borrowed, the debt didn't look bad because the assets against which it was borrowed were rising in price, but assets were inflating because the central bank was inflating.

A fact which the banks making loans were well aware and able to consider in their decision-making. The Fed may be a creature of government, but it is partially subordinate to its private member banks, in that the member banks own and sit on the boards of the "independent, privately owned and locally controlled" (as described in Lewis v. United States) Federal Reserve Banks, and the Federal Reserve Banks participate in (among other functions) the Open Market Committee of the Fed, and thus drive monetary policy.

Claiming that the banks collectively are innocent, ignorant victims of the independent actions of the Fed ignores the facts of how the Fed is structured.

Government is not the solution here- it caused the problem by it's implicit (now explicit) insurance against imprudent lending and borrowing.

Even granting, arguendo, that the particular policies practiced leading up the present situation caused it, that doesn't mean that "government is not the solution" (or, more properly, "government cannot offer a solution") to the problem here: certainly similar problems of bank collapses (often with greater direct impacts proportional to the size of the collapsed institution) have not been less frequent with looser regulatory schemes, or even nearly regulation at all (which is why bank regulations exist). The solution for bad policy is often good policy, not government withdrawal. (That isn't to say that government withdrawal from an area is always the wrong policy, merely that the argument that because a particular government policy contributed to a problem the solution must be withdrawal is complete garbage.)

Posted by: cmdicely on July 28, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK
For myself, I am putting my assets beyond the harmful reach of these asinine policies.

Whatever you are doing that you think puts your assets beyond the reach of being devalued by unfavorable government policy is a product of self-delusion, unless you are simply converting them into present enjoyment which, as an acheived utility, is at least arguably immune to any future events, including government policy (though, on the other hand, government policy can make you wish you'd retained the asset in some other form, and thus provide a countervailing disutility to the acheived utility, so that immunity is arguably hollow.)

Posted by: cmdicely on July 28, 2008 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

Art Eclectic,

Actually there is another solution besides letting housing prices fall to their market value.

The coming inflation is going to increase the housing prices in nominal dollars quite soon, and since many of the mortgages are on the books of he banks in nominal values rather than real values (Adjustable Rate Mortgages being the exception), The oncoming wave of inflation is going to bail out the banks that survive the current credit crunch that is caused by too many unknown bad mortgages.

That's another reason why banks aren't making many loans right now. They know the inflation is headed our way because the current low interest rates the fed is forcing is causing the drop in the price of the dollar. The drop in the price of the dollar and the related part of the rise of oil prices is a lot of the reason for the inflation. For banks to lend money right now they would have to increase interest rates sharply to account for expected inflation. They can't raise rates because of the slowing economy which is what Ben Bernanke is focusing on.

Almost all of the current economic problems are directly the result of conservative/Libertarian political policies growing out the the Reagan Revolution and the conservative movement. It's incompetent national financial management.

Posted by: Rick B on July 28, 2008 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

Gregory,

how is the government's role in the market in any way an excuse for the market indulging in the kind of boom-and-bust behavior it has, as others have pointed out, been doing for time immemorial?

It's no excuse. But unregulated banking has always led to the boom-and-bust economic cycle, with each boom greater than the one before, followed by an even greater bust. Always! The only question is how long between cycles.

The banking regulations like reserve requirements, SEC, Accounting regulations and FDIC insurance on bank accounts placed into effect during the 30's were a recognition of this well-known fact.

Wall Street Bankers and other conservatives like Grover Norquist, Alan Greenspan, Ron Paul and Phil Gramm have always hated those regulations and in the 1990's they eliminated the biggest of them - the Glass-Steagall Act. Sunbeam, WorldCom and Enron were just warnings of worse to come.

An unregulated financial sector will always lead to a cycle of increasing booms and busts, each larger than the prior one.

Then there is the way the American economy has been financialized over the last 50 years. We have exported our production capabilities as we increased our banking industry. Is it any wonder that GM and Ford are collapsing as housing (financed by easy credit) has become 40% of America's Gross Domestic Product?

Banks are a very useful support function for the economy in real goods and services, but banks directly produce nothing. We need more engineers and fewer MBA's, economists and finance experts.

Posted by: Rick B on July 28, 2008 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

Rick B -

I certainly agree on the incompetent national financial management. What I keep going back to, however, is WHO is going to buy this huge inventory of empty houses? With wage growth stagnant and/or falling since the late 90's the only way the average American has been able to afford a home was through exotic loan financing because the pricing was so far out of their means. Joe six-pack was successfully diverted by the smoke screen of easy credit, HELOC's, and no down payment so he barely noticed that he was making less money than he did when Bush took office.

Every empty house is lost interest that a lender could be earning, lost property taxes to the local district, lost income to the local grocery store, the dry cleaner, the drug store and the gas station on the corner. Lost sales tax revenue on all those goods to the local city. Not to mention a blight on the neighborhood and an invitation for scavengers and squatters. Getting people into homes they can afford is a far better economic policy than propping up prices that were out of line to begin with.

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