[Checking It Twice] IRS Form 4506-T For Good Reason

October 12, 2009 | 11:48 pm | |

As a testament to the overcorrection in mortgage underwriting mentality, Kenneth Harney in his The Nation’s Housing column writes about the IRS Form 4506-T that

authorizes a loan officer or mortgage investor to get electronic transcripts from the Internal Revenue Service covering multiple years of your federal income tax filings.

A transcript is pulled at mortgage application and at closing as an attempt by Fannie Mae to reduce mortgage fraud.

One has to ask themselves, why should this be a new process? I remember during the credit boom, no one seemed to care whether someone had the income they claimed they did, after all, real estate always went up and defaults would not be a problem.

Of course with other issues, like toxic mortgage titles, a petty thing like actually proving borrower income [sarcasm] now seems kind of important.

At issue is proof of ownership at the time of a foreclosure sale. During the housing boom, millions of mortgages were bundled into bonds and sold to investors, a process that resulted in lengthy and twisted paper trails that can obscure ownership. Many lenders believed they could complete foreclosure transactions and later produce formal proof they held the mortgage.

Its a lesson learned – problems at the end of the mortgage process (foreclosure) make it imperative and obvious to reduce the probability of later default at the beginning of the mortgage process. Hence a credit crunch.


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Weening Off Quantitative Easing, But Who Buys GSE Debt?

October 7, 2009 | 11:31 pm | |

Council on Foreign Relations has a very interesting chart on who financed the massive amounts of debt that the U.S. government issued in the first half of 2009.– it is divided by “official buyers” who generally are government entities have have motivations other than profit and “economic buyers” who are looking for a return.

The Federal Reserve plans to slow and then stop its purchases by the end of the first quarter of 2010. This raises the question of who will replace this source of demand, and at what price.

This would likely result in higher mortgage costs next year if the Fed stops buying GSE paper because of reduced liquidity (The article has several other charts which serve to emphasis the Fed’s role in stabilizing the banking system and keeping mortgage rates low).

The point of the Fed’s purchases was to lower mortgage rates during the worst of the housing slump and lower funding costs at the GSEs, which were struggling with skittish investors in the private market. That plan has largely worked; rates for a 30-year fixed-rate loan have fallen to 5.11%, according to Bankrate.com, and GSE debt with five-year maturities traded at 30.5 basis points above Treasuries this week.

But most analysts are predicting those rates will rise by at least 50 basis points before the Fed stops buying and could rise even further afterward. That might not hurt as much on the MBS side, as long as investors have an appetite for mortgages, but could pose problems on the debt side if investors are worried about funding an institution that might not be around a few years down the road.

At the same time, there is discussion of dismantling the GSE’s in favor of a new agency or restructure into smaller agencies.

My sense is that we can’t revert to the old Fannie and Freddie because they answered to 2 masters: Taxpayers and Shareholders.

I don’t see how mortgage rates don’t edge up next year. That offsets any hope that housing prices will begin to rise and suggests there are a number of years to go before they do.


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[Turning The Corner] 3Q 2009 Manhattan Market Overview Available For Download

October 2, 2009 | 8:17 am | | Reports |

The 3Q 2009 Manhattan Market Overview , part of a report series that we have authored for Prudential Douglas Elliman since 1994, was released today.

Other reports we prepare can be found here.

The 3Q 2009 data and a series of charts are also available for viewing.

Press coverage can be found here.

An excerpt

…The number of sales tend to peak in the second quarter of each year. This is reflective of the spring selling season including demand generated from the early year Wall Street bonus season. However, the peak level of activity year to date occurred during the third quarter suggesting the seasonal housing cycle was pushed forward by three months. The unusually low level of sales activity in the first quarter of 2009 appeared to set the stage for a release of pentup demand later in the year. The summer surge in the number of sales was caused by a myriad of factors including mortgage rates at historic lows, the $8,000 first time buyer tax credit, increased affordability after the sharp correction in price levels, and continued evidence that the financial system was continuing to stabilize. In addition, a 24% jump in the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the past 6 months resulted in an improvement in consumer confidence. Still, unemployment remains elevated, employment in the financial services sector continues to decline and unusually restrictive mortgage underwriting remains in place. Therefore, this surge in the number of sales does not appear to indicate a housing market “bottom”, but rather provides some evidence that the housing market has “turned the corner”…

Download 3Q 2009 Manhattan Market Overview

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[Case Shiller 20 City Index] July 2009 Down 13.3% Y-O-Y, Up 1.2% M-O-M

September 29, 2009 | 12:03 pm | |


[click to expand]

Here’s the summary:

The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city home-price index, a closely watched gauge of U.S. home prices, rose 1.6% in July from June in the third straight monthly increase, but prices remain below year-earlier levels.

For the sixteenth straight month, no area in the 20-city index posted a year-over-year price gain. That put nationwide prices at levels seen in 2003.

“These figures continue to support an indication of stabilization in national real estate values,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at Standard & Poor’s. “But we do need to be cautious in coming months to assess whether the housing market will weather the expiration of the Federal First-Time Buyer’s Tax Credit in November, anticipated higher unemployment rates and a possible increase in foreclosures.”

Whether or not we see a renewal in tax credits, its hard to imagine a housing market recovery with another year of increasing foreclosures. Perhaps the worst is over, but I would think the best we can hope for in the near term is stability.


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[FHFA] July 2009 Monthly House Price Index

September 22, 2009 | 4:38 pm | | Radio |

FHFA released its

July 2009 monthly housing price index report today which showed more of the same – month over month price increases (up 0.3% from June) and year over year decreases (down 4.2%).

Since OFHEO (pronounced O-Fay-O), I’ve been wondering how to pronounce FHFA and not be kicked out of Acronym Heaven (aka Washington, DC).

Kathleen Hays of Bloomberg Radio interviewed me today on her new show “The Hays Advantage” M-F 1-3pm EST and dubbed FHFA (Foo-FA). That works for me.

While it is encouraging news that the bottom isn’t falling out of the housing market, this index basically reflects the low to mid layers of the housing market since it is based on data from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who only handle conforming mortgage products. Currently this means mortgages of $417,000 or less in most of the country and $729,750 in the handful of “high priced” housing markets. That is the market that is recovering first since it has a secondary investor market for bamnks to sell their paper too and ifree up their capital.

I find it a bit troublesome that, as we hang on the edge of our seats each month, the revisions for prior releases are all over the map. Last month, the month over month was 0.5% (6% annual) which was revised downward to 0.1% (1.2% annual). Still, the news is better than its been.

If you are a believer in trend lines, the following chart suggests we have about 10% more to go until the market reaches the trend broken circa 2001. That means that the sideways motion we are experiencing would have to change for the worse over the next several years. Factors could include more foreclosures, rising mortgage rates, elimination of first time home buyers tax credit, etc. While I am concerned, thats more bad karma than I can process.

Read the report.


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The Housing Market Is Working…For The Government

September 17, 2009 | 1:39 pm | |

In a WSJ piece called No Easy Exit for Government as Housing Market’s Savior

…the article notes that

After a year of extraordinary interventions in the economy, the federal government is starting to pare its support for the private sector.

except for housing…

  • 80% of new mortgages benefit from government support
  • The $8,000 first time home buyers tax credit
  • The Federal Reserve has worked hard to keep interest rates at or near historic lows

“At least for the next two years, and possibly longer, it is not possible that the government would say: ‘The U.S. mortgage market no longer needs our support,'” says Dwight Jaffee, an economics professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “Were they to say that, the mortgage market and the housing market would almost surely crash.”

The article does seem to suggest that the government should rethink its stance on housing.

Promoting homeownership has been a stated goal of Republican and Democratic presidencies for decades. The Obama administration recognizes it will need — at some point — to rethink broadly the government’s role in housing and mortgages. Administration officials also acknowledge that moment won’t come soon.

Good grief – it’s not housing that is the problem – it’s credit. That’s where the focus should be. Both parties and government regulators help foster the environment the ultimately imploded. The housing boom was merely a byproduct.

It could have been gemstones or pet rocks. Let’s not confuse stupid credit policy with housing.

That’s why it is bitterly disappointing to see the momentum gone for real regulatory reform for financial services. The same regulators and executives remain at the helm.

It’s amazing how the passage of time makes the current credit environment somehow not seem broken. Not much has changed in the mortgage lending process to enhance the safety of the financial system.

Of course there are always gemstones.



[HuffPost] Current Wave of Housing Euphoria May Extend Downturn

July 30, 2009 | 3:02 pm | | Columns |

Here is my latest handiwork for the Huffington Post.

Current Wave of Housing Euphoria May Extend Downturn

The article is below in full if you don’t want to click on the link:

Current Wave of Housing Euphoria May Extend Downturn
Jonathan Miller 7-30-09


The spring housing market is behind us and we are now fully ensconced in summer, able to sit at the beach, sip our drink and watch the waves roll in.

Waves of housing statistics that is.

Seemingly everyone from the consumer to the POTUS has been waiting for a rogue wave that will finally bring some good news on housing. In fact most of us are aching from bad news overload and desperately want good news or at least a temporary reprieve from the bad.

Like the closing scene from the 1973 movie Papillion where Steve McQueen’s character–when trying to escape from the island–determined that every seventh wave was big enough to enable him to float past the rip currents that surrounded the island.

The monthly gauntlet of key housing market reports from the past week show a rising tide of better-than-we-have-heard-in-three-years-news on the state of US housing market.

Here’s a recap:

July 22, 2009 Federal Housing Finance Agency news release headline: “U.S. Monthly House Price Index Estimates 0.9 Percent Price Increase from April to May.” This report reflects sales with conforming mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at or below $417,000 plus the high priced housing markets such as the New York City area that have a $729,750 mortgage cap. Housing markets that rely on conforming mortgages are expected to recover first because the that mortgage market has been the target of recent federal stimulus and bailouts. However the month over month price increase of 0.9% touted in the report headline is the first such increase since February. Although 5 of the 9 regions show a month over month increase in prices only 1 of those 5 regions had an increase in the prior month. In other words, this trend is not very compelling.

July 23, 2009 National Association of Realtors Existing Home Sales report headline: “Existing-Home Sales Up Again” The number of re-sale increased 3.6% in June from May, the third month over month increase in activity. The number of sales was only 0.2% below the level of last year’s activity in the same month. This was largely due the 31% market share of foreclosures, assumed to be purchased by speculators plus the impact of the federal tax credit for first time buyers which expires at the end of November. However, this seasonally adjusted sales 3-peat was also seen at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 before sales activity fell sharply. In other words, this trend is not very compelling.

July 27, 2009 Commerce Department New Home Sale Index headline: “New Residential Sales in June 2009.” This is the report that got everyone excited because of the 11% increase in new home sales month over month and the largest such increase in 8 years. Floyd Norris of the New York Times points out that if you look at the actual number of sales in June, it was the second lowest month of sales on record since the metric was tracked in 1963. In other words, this trend is not very compelling.

July 28, 2009 S&P/Case-Shiller Index “Home Price Declines Continue to Abate.” The 20-City Composite has shown a lower annual rate of decline for 4 consecutive months and 13 of the 20 metro areas posted month over month increases but this is before seasonality is adjusted for. In other words, we expect prices to rise in the spring if they are going to rise at any point during the year. If seasonality is factored in, month over month gains evaporate. In the New York City region, the 20-city composite index doesn’t cover co-ops, condos, foreclosures and new development, more than half the sales activity. In other words, this trend is not very compelling especially after considering that along with the most recent month in the report, the index has declined year over year for 29 straight months.

In a stroke of irony, big media, which was on the receiving end of the real estate industry’s “blaming the media” ire for the past three years–as responsible for making the downturn worse–has taken the positive outlook and run with it. Nearly every major news outlet has begun to report each of these reports by cherry-picking and overweighting the positive elements results in a downright giddy tone. Over the past week, the general sentiment in news coverage is clearly moving towards the positive but mainly confined to the headlines.


As a reporter once told me (and I am paraphrasing) “Negative news only sells for so long – consumers eventually stop reading it as they become become numb to it.”
Perhaps this is best exemplified by yesterday’s kind of thin New York Times page 1 story on housing:

“3-Year Descent in Home Prices Appears At End.”

This was the headline that put me off a bit since the article itself wasn’t very committal to the notion that the housing market has bottomed. Perhaps this is why the web version of the article was titled with a more sedate headline that was more in sync with my view:

“Recovery Signs in Housing Market Stir Some Hope.”

Step back for a second and ask why would the housing market start to improve now to lead the economy?

If more people are losing their jobs and credit remains tight, how can we expect the number of sales and housing prices to over come this. Unemployment is still rising and is expected to continue rising through next year even though the recession could be over right now or close to it. Housing inventory is still high and the number of sales, exclusive of distressed asset sales is still low. Speculators may be on their way to becoming a force again in the market. Mortgage rates are expected to trend higher over the next few years with all the new debt taken on by the federal government. Credit is still very tight, and while there has been some discussion of loosening in mortgage underwriting, banks still aren’t enthusiastic about lending. There appears to be some easing on conforming mortgage underwriting but a chokehold remains on jumbo and new development financing.

Here’s the problem.

Sellers tend to “chase” the market when it is falling, unable to respond to the decline in values as quickly as the market does. If sellers take this positive news too seriously and don’t focus on the realities of their local markets, they may end up being over confident when negotiating a sale, losing the buyer and falling even further behind the market than they would have otherwise, eventually selling for less.

Luxury condo developers and especially the lenders behind them, many of whom are facing stalled projects, could experience a sense of renewed optimism from the recent depiction of the housing market, causing them to miss the market, eventually realizing a larger loss.

So let’s be clear. While I am hopeful that we will see a housing recovery at some point in the future, I’d rather it be real.

In the meantime, I’ll sit at the beach and count the waves.


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[Beige Book] Less Bad = Begun To Stabilize, Moderated

July 30, 2009 | 12:57 am | |

The Federal Reserve just released the Beige Book which provides anecdotal commentary on the economy nationally and across the regions of its member banks.

Here’s real estate and mortgage excerpts from the overall report. The macro take away is the pace of economic decline has “begun to stabilize” or “moderated.”

Residential real estate markets stayed soft in most Districts, although many noted some signs of improvement.

Real Estate and Construction

Residential real estate markets in most Districts remained weak, but many reported signs of improvement. The Minneapolis and San Francisco Districts cited large increases in home sales compared with 2008 levels, and other Districts reported rising sales in some submarkets. Of the areas that continued to experience year–over–year sales declines, all except St Louis–where sales were down steeply– also reported that the pace of decline was moderating. In general, the low end of the market, especially entry-level homes, continued to perform relatively well; contacts in the New York, Kansas City, and Dallas Districts attributed this relative strength, at least in part, to the first–time homebuyer tax credit. Condo sales were still far below year–before levels according to the Boston and New York reports. In general, home prices continued to decline in most markets, although a number of Districts saw possible signs of stabilization. The Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago Districts mentioned that the increasing number of foreclosure sales was exerting downward pressure on home prices. Residential construction reportedly remains quite slow, with the Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City Districts noting that financing is difficult.

Banking and Finance

In most reporting Districts, overall lending activity was stable or weakened further for most loan categories. In contrast, Philadelphia reported a slight increase in business, consumer, and residential real estate lending. As businesses remained pessimistic and reluctant to borrow, demand for commercial and industrial loans continued to fall or stay weak in the New York, Richmond, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts. Consumer loan demand decreased in New York, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco, stabilized at a low level in Chicago and Dallas, and was steady to up in Cleveland.

Residential real estate lending decreased in New York, Richmond, and St. Louis. Dallas reported steady but low outstanding mortgage volumes, while Kansas City noted that the rise in mortgage loans slowed. Refinancing activity fell dramatically in Richmond, decreased in New York and Cleveland, and maintained its pace in Dallas. Bankers in the New York District indicated no change in delinquency rates in all loan categories except residential mortgages, while Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco reported rising delinquencies on loans linked to real estate.

Banks continued to tighten credit standards in the New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco Districts; and some have stepped up the requirements for the commercial real estate category, in particular, due to concern over declining loan quality. Meanwhile, Cleveland and Atlanta reported that higher credit standards remained in place, with no change expected in the near term. Credit quality deteriorated in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco, while loan quality exceeded expectations in Chicago and remained steady in Richmond.


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Appraiser: Senator Dodd’s Cottage Cold, Windy, Draughty And Worth Double

June 14, 2009 | 11:58 pm | |

The Irish economy has ground to a halt, yet:

A new appraisal more than doubles the value of U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd’s Irish cottage, a vacation home that is the subject of an ethics complaint by a conservative group that questions if it was really a gift.

An AP wire story lays out the situation concerning Senator Dodd’s property and the circumstances that put him in this position.

It’s not been a good year for Senator Dodd as Senate Banking Committee Chairman with a number of lapses of judgment, yet he is one of key Senators in the repair of the banking/credit system. I’ve never met him and I am sure he means well…but one of the issues in the current crisis is the lack of trust by consumers/taxpayers in our institutions and the lack of effective regulation.

If the financial crisis has proven one thing, it is that protecting the financial well-being of American consumers should be our first priority as we work to bring our financial regulatory structure into the 21st Century,” Dodd said. “I am committed to making this agency the centerpiece of my efforts as I work with President Obama and my colleagues to rebuild our financial architecture from the bottom up.



[New Urbanism Watch] A Streetcar Named De-Leverage

May 7, 2009 | 12:52 am | |

One of my favorite visuals when I visit San Francisco are the trolleys and street cars. When I rode a street car for the first time a few years ago, I didn’t realize that they were largely retired cars purchased from eastern cities like Newark and Philadelphia.

Here’s a cool map from The Infrastructurist (hat tip to The Architect’s Newspaper Blog) outlining where some of the activity is. There’s a version on the infrastructurist site

There seems to be a bit of a renaissance toward light rail service in many cities given their reasonable economics and limited pollution among other advantages (such as fun). This has likely been a result of the swing towards urban residential development, especially in former commercial districts and class b and c office markets. The credit boom fueled demand for residential housing in downtown markets and more need for public transportation.

With the recession, credit crunch and falling tax collections being experienced in many urban municipalities, I wonder if the opportunity for light rail expansion is already past. Transportation is always a key consideration in urban residential housing market.

Man, I love trains.



Good Memories of Kemp, Cram-down Fall-down

May 3, 2009 | 10:16 pm | |

Ok, so I’m not a Buffalo Bills fan (go Jets!) and I didn’t vote for Jack Kemp when he ran for president in ’88, but I did admire him, especially his stint as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bush I.

He was on the cutting edge on the topic of home-ownership and tenant-own thinking even though his stint as HUD secretary didn’t accomplish what he set out to do:

As a bleeding-heart conservative, Kemp was a logical choice for Bush as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, whose job would be to foster public sector and private sector methods to meet the demands of public housing. However, the scandals of Reagan’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce and the neglect of the president were obstacles from the start, and Kemp was unsuccessful at either of his major initiatives: enacting enterprise zones and promoting public housing tenant ownership. The goal of these two plans was to change public housing into tenant-owned residences and to lure industry and business into inner cities with federal incentives. Although Kemp did not affect much policy as HUD’s director, he cleaned up HUD’s reputation

In addition to opposition in Congress, Kemp fought White House Budget Director Richard Darman, who opposed Kemp’s pet project HOPE (Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere). The project involved selling public housing to its tenants. Darman also opposed Kemp’s proposed welfare adjustment of government offsets. HOPE was first proposed to White House chief of staff John Sununu in June 1989 to create enterprise zones, increase subsidies for low-income renters, expand social services for the homeless and elderly, and enact tax changes to help first-time home buyers.

Kemp wrote a position piece on bankruptcy in early 2008 that covers the issue as it relates to home ownership and low and middle income families called Bringing bankruptcy home

Bankruptcy law is wildly off-kilter in how it treats homeownership. Under current law, courts can lower unreasonably high interest rates on secured loans, reschedule secured loan payments to make them more affordable and adjust the secured portion of loans down to the fair market value of the underlying property — all secured loans, that is, except those secured by the debtor’s home. This gaping loophole threatens the most vulnerable with the loss of their most valuable assets — their homes — and leaves untouched their largest liabilities — their mortgages.

Sometimes good ideas never see the light of day because of political disconnect.

The housing rescue plan was dealt a blow last week when the Senate killed the cram-down legislation that was a centerpiece of Obama’s housing recovery plan because investors and banks were worried they would be wiped out.

A cram-down is:

a term used in bankruptcy law to refer to the Chapter 13 provision that allows debtors to retain collateral as long as they offer repayment of the “secured portion” or fair market value of the collateral in their repayment plan.

The Senate was likely afraid that the bill would give bankruptcy judges to much sway over modifying outstanding mortgages and would indemnify servicers. Here’s a summary of the version the House passed.

On a merely a practical level, I was never sure how the services would handle the cram-downs since the mortgages were sliced up into many tranches.

According to DataPoints, a Moodys.com blog:

Without the incentives provided by the reform bill, we now estimate that 475,000 fewer voluntary modifications will occur, and with judicial modifications we project an additional 1.725 million foreclosures this year. This will significantly increase the inventory of unsold homes and place additional downward pressure on already-weak house prices. Equity values will erode further, leading to more defaults and placing greater pressure on prices, thereby prolonging both the depth and duration of the housing market correction.

In other words, when the commercial banks still hold sway over Washington, despite their financial condition and debt and the net result of this failed legislation may very well be worse.

Business as usual.


The Black Swan and Really, Really Dumb Smart People

March 31, 2009 | 12:22 am | | Milestones |

Sorry but I am in Manhattan Market Overview high gear prep mode – the report will be published later this week – so I am pretty lame on the content side for Matrix at the moment.

One of my semi-regular podcast downloads is Russ Robert’s EconTalk. This week he interviews Nassim Taleb , the author of Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan of a few years ago. I own the latter, but I think the former is over my head. I’ve never heard him speak before. I have now listened to this podcast 3 times already and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also make sure you read the slew of comments posted to their site.

Nassim Taleb talks about the financial crisis, how we misunderstand rare events, the fragility of the banking system, the moral hazard of government bailouts, the unprecedented nature of really, really bad events, the contribution of human psychology to misinterpreting probability and the dangers of hubris. The conversation closes with a discussion of religion and probability.

On one hand I am very leery of people who suggest they have all the answers to a problem but not the solutions – Nouriel Roubini is another example – but Taleb’s arguments are compelling. After all, I think we all want to understand how so many smart people could be so utterly stupid for so long. If it wasn’t mortgages as a vehicle, it would have been something else.

I loved the ten year flood example given in the notes of the interview:

A ten year flood has a higher probability than a 100 year flood, but the 100 year flood will be massively more consequential. You care about the probability times the size of the impact, the expectation of these events. Small-probability events can have in some domains, fat-tailed domains, a big impact and we don’t know how to estimate them.

Here’s the compensation scenario and moral hazard – notes from the interview:

Were heads of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers not aware of how much they were gambling or did they not care how much they were gambling? Combination. Three things: 1. fooling themselves, psychological dimension. 2. Had an interest in building huge risks and tail because if you blow up every 10 years, you will make 9 bonuses and the 10th year someone will pay the cost, not you. Vicious: taxpayers are paying retrospectively for the bonuses of the first 9 years. Banks are insolvent, have lost more than their capital base, but managers have kept their bonuses. Some of them have been wiped out because they went a little further than normal blow-up cycle. What about the ones who didn’t do it? Lower returns year after year; now should be doing extremely well, but now unable to buy up some of the firms that have made the mistakes because the government is propping them up.

Aside: Speaking of dumb, how about the new space station named “Colbert” and video. To see the vote page and the number one suggested name – go here.


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