Hurricane Katrina was the hot topic Wednesday at the opening general session of the 18th Annual New England Mortgage Banking Conference in Providence, R.I.Lawrence K. Fish, president and chief executive officer of Citizens Financial Group Inc., said Congress is expected to appropriate $250 billion toward the disaster in 2006, which would be a huge stimulant for the economy. Regarding the existence of a housing bubble, Mr. Fish said Katrina is "manageable" and that there is no major short-term collapse in sight. "This stimulant will mean higher long-term interest rates -- I'm sorry to tell you that," he told the conference, which is sponsored by the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Association. "I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. I expect there will be a gradual slowing of the real estate market."

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