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Main Street America angry over credit crisis

CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Auto salesman Ryan Thomas is watching the credit crisis hit Main Street America. On Monday, as Congress rejected a bailout plan and stock markets plummeted, Thomas had to turn away a customer with $3,000 in his hand who wanted to buy a new vehicle.

Customers drink coffee at Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida February 23, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

“He wanted to get into a bigger truck for his job, he was a union worker,” Thomas said. But the man still owed money on the vehicle he was trading in, so his loan request was denied.

“He didn’t have enough money down. He would have needed about $5,500 down and he had $3,000. A year ago that was a piece of cake,” Thomas said.

The customer left without his American-made vehicle, Thomas lost another sale -- and somewhere an autoworker made one less truck, a tiny ripple in the growing U.S. financial crisis.

As Wall Street collapses and politicians in Washington struggle to agree on a rescue package, credit markets across America are grinding to a halt, leaving many business owners and would-be borrowers alike without money to get by.

Anger and blame are everywhere. While outraged voters besieged members of Congress with calls and e-mails demanding lawmakers reject a White House plan to bail out a sinking Wall Street, some experts believe the resulting stock crash and credit panic may spur a new rescue campaign.

The House of Representatives voted the plan down on Monday, but top lawmakers said they hoped a revised bailout bill could clear in the near future.

“Some of the folks in Congress ... will start to hear it from the other side now,” said Al Kugel, chief investment strategist at Atlantic Trust in Chicago.

Without a new plan, Kugel worries the credit shortage will get worse: “It will be like a boa constrictor has got the economy and just keeps squeezing.”

Dallas-area roofing contractor Bill Good has already felt the squeeze. Before times were tough, his bank offered him a $100,000 credit line that he didn’t need. Now, with high oil prices doubling the cost of roofing material, he’s strapped.

“Now I can’t access this kind of money to facilitate my cash flow. The lines of credit ... have dried up,” said Good.

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Kansas City cabinet maker Anthony Gallo is in a similar bind. Eighteen months ago Gallo had no debt. Now he’s being forced to borrow just to make payroll -- just as his chief lender has cut his credit line from $400,000 to $175,000.

“My line of credit has been cut to nothing,” said Gallo. “We’re all hurting... and wondering what is going to happen.”


Retailers are also braced for a slowdown as consumers feel the pinch of reluctant lenders.

Jon Levin, owner of Orchard Street Associates, a retail sales group based in Burns Harbor, Indiana, said many independent retailers, including among his 4,000 customers, have postponed orders for the holiday season and are waiting to gauge customer demand because financing is just not like it used to be.

“It’s not a question of the high cost of credit, there’s nothing available out there,” said Levin, noting that he hears of sales agencies going out of business almost every week.

“The party’s over and people don’t want to admit it ... I don’t want to admit it, but you had to see it coming.”

David Zugheri, co-founder of Envoy Mortgage Ltd, which has 475 employees in 20 states, has also seen a big slowdown. He said 30 percent to 40 percent of prospective buyers who could have qualified for mortgages two or three years ago are being shut out.

“There has been a mad rush back to the basics and if you don’t have the necessary documentation you cannot get a loan,” Zugheri said. But he noted that not all credit is dead.

“If you have decent credit, a verifiable income and want a loan for under $400,000 it’s business as usual.”

Ohio businessman Duane Hickerson, a partner at Columbus-based Relay Gear, which makes promotional products, said he has not yet had to struggle to get credit from his regular lender. But he said standards have definitely changed.

“The bank has gotten more stringent over the last 3, 4, 5 months,” said Hickerson. “They’ve forced us to make some changes in what we do as a business and what kind of debt load we’re carrying. They’ve changed our covenants in terms of what kind of pace we have to pay down loans.”

Hickerson said the company laid off four people two months ago to try to tighten up its bottom line to please the bank.

But even as Main Street feels the pain of the credit crisis, business owners are divided over the proposed Wall Street bailout. Some oppose it, some feel it is necessary -- illustrating the difficulty facing members of Congress, most of whom are trying to win re-election in November.

Thomas may be losing car sales, but he’s glad the bailout failed: “They don’t need to bail out CEOs of these high-powered banks. Why should they? They’re already millionaires.”

Cabinet-maker Gallo said he was angry taxpayers would end up footing the bill to bail out troubled Wall Street banks -- but he also thought it was necessary.

“They’ve got to do something to save the banks,” Gallo said. “They can’t kill our economy.”

Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Chicago, Ed Stoddard in Dallas, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Kristina Cooke in New York