Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SO CAL BLUES....I don't want to start harping on every new front-page story about how sucky the economy is — you guys can all read the news as well as I can — but I do live in California and I can hardly avoid getting pretty nervous at stuff like this:

A record 31,676 Californians lost their homes to foreclosure in the three months ended Dec. 31, the third-straight quarter of record-breaking foreclosures, records released today show.

Foreclosures were more than double the level of the worst quarter of the last real estate downturn.

My house lost a quarter of its value in the last real estate downturn here (I bought it for $170K in 1990 and sold it five years later for $130K), so I guess I'm more sensitive than most to this stuff. Still, if this downturn is twice as bad as that one, we're in big trouble here in Southern California. I hope the rest of you guys are doing a little better.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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There's some fun going on here, with a large helping of schadenfreude. I'm a homeowner myself, so it's a bit of whistling past the graveyard...

http://www.irvinehousingblog.com/

Posted by: anonymous on January 23, 2008 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

Foreclosures are a good indicator of economic weakness, and even here in Hawaii, where we had (until this month) the lowest unemployment rate in the country, foreclosures doubled from Q4 2006 and Q4 2007.

Given the excesses in the mortgage lending business, it looks like we're just at the beginning of this crisis. Hopefully, Congress will spend some time in the coming months establishing accountability for the policies followed by the Fed, the Treasury Dept. and the behavior of private sector players.

Posted by: DevilDog on January 23, 2008 at 12:58 AM | PERMALINK

Hopefully, Congress will spend some time in the coming months establishing accountability for the policies followed by the Fed, the Treasury Dept. and the behavior of private sector players.
------
Sure, and while we're hoping, that lottery jackpot will come in handy too.

Posted by: Ghost of Joe Liebling's Dog on January 23, 2008 at 1:04 AM | PERMALINK

"I hope the rest of you guys are doing a little better."

Things ain't exactly peachy here in Michigan either. The recession that the rest of the country is now waking up to has been comfortably in place here for a while.

Posted by: bluestatedon on January 23, 2008 at 1:04 AM | PERMALINK

I look at house costs as being a different kind of money than the green stuff we use to buy groceries. If my house goes from $900K to $500K, that means I can sell it and buy another $500K house, which will be just as nice as the current one. It's only when you think you can convert from one kind of money to the other, for instance by taking out a home equity loan and using it to buy a big-screen tv or go on vacation (or retire), that you get into trouble. Apparently there are a lot of people in trouble.

Posted by: Bob Munck on January 23, 2008 at 1:05 AM | PERMALINK

Bob Munck - If your $900k home is fully paid off (or at least paid down to $500k), sure. But if you bought a home recently, you are likely to owe a lot more than the home is worth, and you're in a world of hurt even if you never got the cash-out HELOC for vacations or comsumer electronics... Anyone who struggles to buy a first home is extremely vulnerable in the first few years if they get laid off, hurt or have some other crisis.

Posted by: anonymous on January 23, 2008 at 1:10 AM | PERMALINK

There's a house around the corner from mine. It's a foreclosure sale, and I've had a look. They want $800K for a 2 bedroom characterless box on no land.

I'd say we are quite a ways from the bottom yet...

Posted by: craigie on January 23, 2008 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

Anonymous, you're quite right. I'm retired, and the house is almost entirely paid off -- it would be entirely, but a 4.25% fixed mortgage isn't something you pay off when you can invest the money instead. Even in today's market.

I don't recall feeling vulnerable when I bought my first house, many decades ago. On the other hand, my mortgage was at 17%, so I had other worries. It's always something.

Posted by: Bob Munck on January 23, 2008 at 1:19 AM | PERMALINK

Bob Munck - congratulations! Hope I can stay here long enough to retire.

Posted by: anonymous on January 23, 2008 at 1:22 AM | PERMALINK

my guess is that there is still a great deal of denial in seller-land, which is the historic norm of behavior, and that therefore more of the "fall" in house prices will be sluggish markets and a slow grinding away of values due to inflation rather than a dramatic fall in a short time span.

however, we should always be alert to what's different this time, and the really important difference is the large number of under-water homeowners with no skin in the game thanks to zero-percent down mortgages: since they may indeed simply "walk away," the market may clear faster than the norm as desperate "owners" look to get some cash for the now unoccupied home.

on the other hand, craigie's entirely non-scientific example suggests that it's possible that even if that is true there's still a ways to go before the clearing price is reached....

Posted by: howard on January 23, 2008 at 1:24 AM | PERMALINK

A huge factor in moving to KC in 2001 was the fact that home prices were affordable and not overvalued. There are people who are facing financial catastrophe because of the sub-prime mess, but we are better off than most because at least our market wasn't a bubble.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 23, 2008 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

Many in the chattering classes kept pointing to Seattle as proof that there was no such thing as a housing bubble. "Sure", they'd say "prices in every single large market across the country have declined year over year. But it's not a real bubble because Seattle is still seeing appreciation.

In December 2007, prices declined -1.5% YOY.

http://seattlebubble.com/blog/2008/01/07/nwmls-seattle-off-15-yoy-king-county-off-11/

Posted by: afferent input on January 23, 2008 at 1:47 AM | PERMALINK

OFF TOPIC:

Since you're already so wrapped up in and amused by everything I have to say about the hilarious British miniseries "Private Schulz" vis-a-vis the world today, I'm on Episode 4, and the supremely delightful Michael Elphick as Schulz has returned from a failed English mission, escorted by a highly avuncular Gestapo man whose team found him in a bombed-out chateau in France.

Ian Richardson, as Major Neuheim, freezes the blood as he intones, "How dare you come back alive!"

The avuncular, amused Gestapo man Kruger (played by Clive Merrison, the headmaster in "The History Boys") describes how they kept Schulz in cold storage for around a month before they got to him, then: "Finally, we questioned him. And, when he'd recovered, we questioned him again. You see, we thought he might be an English spy, but he kept telling us [laughs], he kept telling us he worked for SS Counterespionage, but we didn't believe you, did we? Hm? No, we didn't."

Anyway, fun torture humor seems to be the mood of the day in modern America.

Kristallnacht changed everything!!! It is the international confederation of the Muslims that is working its ways into all of our institutions!!! Enriching themselves on our banking system!!! Fucking our women!!! Enjoying depraved subtitled versions of Hollywood adventure films!!! Sitting around drinking tiny, tiny cups of coffee and smoking hookahs!!!

They must be destroyed, and when they are destroyed, they must be destroyed again!!!

Posted by: Anon on January 23, 2008 at 1:56 AM | PERMALINK

I followed Paul Krugman's advice in 2005. Refinanced into a fixed-rate 30-year at 5.6%, and paid off all my other loans. All of them. Even after property values in SFO taking a 10% haircut recently, I still have over half the equity in the house. I also liquidated all my stocks and mutual funds into cash about three weeks ago.

I'm doing fine. Thanks for asking.

Posted by: s9 on January 23, 2008 at 1:57 AM | PERMALINK

I'll be doing better when all the jackasses who bought houses they couldn't afford "because real estate always goes up and you can always refinance" are living behind the 7-11 dumpsters and I get a condo for a reasonable price.

Posted by: Jimmy Jazz on January 23, 2008 at 2:17 AM | PERMALINK

My house in Silicon Valley is allegedly still holding its value.

Posted by: ex-liberal on January 23, 2008 at 3:11 AM | PERMALINK

Echoing bluestatedon, welcome to Michigan's economy, folks. My wife & I are lucky that our only debt is our house. In a county population of roughly 30K, the newspaper's been running an average of 5 foreclosure notices a day. Not just trailers, but resort & second homes as well. Plenty of homes have been on the market for a year or two, sometimes more. Overpriced? True, strictly speaking, in that their market price is determined by what people will pay, but this isn't an area where people flipped houses. 5 years ago a house in my neighborhood would go for $200 - 250K. Today you can't sell for $150K.
OTOH, if you've got the cash, great time to buy.

Posted by: sal on January 23, 2008 at 3:45 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps there are merely twice as many mortgages?

Home ownership in California has skyrocketed. Even duplexes are turned into condominium sales now. Rentals are less of a source of housing than before.

And I can't seem to get my spouse to care about this - she sees it as those greedy home buyers getting what they deserve for over committing.

*sigh*

Still, when will we see prices do anything but stagnate?

Posted by: Crissa on January 23, 2008 at 4:20 AM | PERMALINK

I live in Central Wisconsin. The housing market never got out of hand here, so I feel pretty good about the house I'm in now. My mortgage is guaranteed by a state agency called WHEDA. I got a fixed rate mortgage at 6% in the fall of '03 with 10% down.

One thing that held prices in check here was the buyout of the local paper manufacturer and subsequent job cuts.

Posted by: mazareth on January 23, 2008 at 4:30 AM | PERMALINK

I'm so glad we own our home outright, and have no intention of moving.

I was recently very sorely tempted by a proposed transfer to San Francisco, but the logisitics were such that when we added up the costs, we couldn't really afford to buy there, and the company wasn't all that willing to fork over the difference as an incentive. So we're staying put in Kuli'ou'ou Valley.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 23, 2008 at 6:13 AM | PERMALINK

A huge factor in moving to KC in 2001 was the fact that home prices were affordable and not overvalued. There are people who are facing financial catastrophe because of the sub-prime mess, but we are better off than most because at least our market wasn't a bubble.

I am in population-losing upstate NY. Everywhere was a bubble. What happened in these places is that the bubble (manifest in the form of out-of-state investors) kept your homes from losing value like they should have due to demographic and commercial changes. There is a reason that Merrill lynch is now predicting a 30% national decline in prices.


5 years ago a house in my neighborhood would go for $200 - 250K. Today you can't sell for $150K. OTOH, if you've got the cash, great time to buy.

No it isn't. That time will come 2010 in the earliest. The option ARMs have to reset so we can see what banks are still standing.

Posted by: Walker on January 23, 2008 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

Here in the part of the Old Dominion the rest of the Commonwealth wishes were part of Maryland, real estate values seem to have declined roughly 20 percent from their peak 12-18 months ago (my WAG based on watching estimates on zillow.com). Pockets of severe foreclosure nearby but if you got in before the bubble you're probably OK.

I'm just past halfway on a fixed rate, 15-year 5.75% mortgage. Our modest house ramains valued at almost double its purchase price in 2000. Most of the nearby houses have held their value as well, although there appears to be significant downward price pressure on the McMansions. We anticipate smooth sailing.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on January 23, 2008 at 8:41 AM | PERMALINK

And the dollars you'll get for your house, now, are vastly devalued relative to the world, and oil, markets. Better give the rich another tax cut.

Enough. No more American trains off the cliff.

Posted by: stan on January 23, 2008 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

9/11 changed everything.
Who needs a home so long as gays can't marry?
I can always live in my car. It's been pretty stationary since gas went up to $3 a gal. It's still cheaper than milk or Coke.
Soon Baby Jesus will come back to Earth and kill us all.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on January 23, 2008 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

In real dollars, you sold it for only 130 * .85 = 110,000 so you lost over 35% on your house.

The .85 is effect of 3% inflation for 5 years, roughly.

Posted by: mickslam on January 23, 2008 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

Ahem. As regards the economy...can ya'll hear me now?

"In reality, the crisis is both a credit crunch and the bursting of the housing bubble. Wall Street is in terrible shape and Main Street is about to be in terrible shape. And there's not a whole lot that can be done about either of these problems -- because they are the results of years of lax credit standards, get-rich-quick schemes, wild speculation on Wall Street and in the housing market, and gross irresponsibility by the Fed, the Treasury and the Comptroller of the Currency." -
'The politics of an economic nightmare'
By Robert B. Reich
http://www.salon.com/opinion/
feature/2008/01/23/reich_economy/

Oh, and 'happy birthday to me'...I was really hoping for something other than a global financial meltdown though...

Posted by: MsNThrope on January 23, 2008 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

Bob Munck,

If my house goes from $900K to $500K, that means I can sell it and buy another $500K house, which will be just as nice as the current one.

If I was you I'd be worried about three things. First, inflation. Second - health problems that force you and your spouse out of the house. Third, whether your neighbors get foreclosed upon, their vacant houses become eyesores, and the gangs move in. Even if you don't see foreclosures next door your community can lose its tax base and slide downhill fast.

But, yeah, assuming your neighborhood and everything else stays as they are you've got no worries.

Posted by: Tripp on January 23, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Another more subtle but also powerful negative effect on the economy is that people that have the skills/experience to take new jobs and help grow our economy in an optimal fashion are not looking or 'trapped' because they are unwilling to sell their homes at a big loss.

This hinders the efficiency of the labor markets and will be BAD for our economy :-(

Yes. Trickle-down is kicking in full force. My theory is that the huge tax cuts for the rich helped create this crisis; because they were looking for places to put their tax savings windfall that were 'highly rated' when the Fed had set interest rates so low. So they turned to MBS, and CDOs that paid a higher rate but were still classified as AA+ rated, which in turn fed the lousy sub-prime lending practices and inflated the housing market...

Now we have a huge mess on our hands and the middle class will get killed again.

Posted by: Brian on January 23, 2008 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

We should sell the "M" states to pay for social security and medicare for the boomers. Mexifornia, Mexas, Mexinois, Mexizona. They're nothing but dumps of illegal aliens anyway. Maybe we could sell them to Russia. Putin, unlike the corrupt garbage we have in Washington, is patriotic enough to defend the sovereignty of his territory, so we could benefit from a buffer zone.

Posted by: Luther on January 23, 2008 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

Luther,

That's funny, but it looks like the first to 'attack' us while we are down are the Lakota Sioux. They want independence from the US government and their land back.

Posted by: Tripp on January 23, 2008 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

I bought a house in San Diego in 2001 for $460,000 and sold it in 2005 for $795,000 and moved to British Columbia where I bought a house for Canadian $260,000 cash that is now worth $420,000. The Loonie was at $0.80 at the time so taking $500,000 to Canada turned it into C$600,000. I used the rest to buy a business and put another $100,000 into upgrading the house. I think the window of opportunity may be closed now, however.

Posted by: redacted on January 23, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'm feeling rather smug. There are 6 houses out of 30 for sale on my block - 20%. 3 of those are abandoned and bank owned - 10%.

I bought my house in 2002 for $170k, put 20% down and refinanced once to take some cash for improvements. The few sales in this neighborhood for houses of similar size and amenities are still going around $400k. My loan balance is approx $145k on a 30yr 6%. Credit cards are paid off, car is paid off.

This is why I have a FICO score of 810 - it is called living within your means and making good long-term financial decisions.

Posted by: arteclectic on January 23, 2008 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Here in the part of the Old Dominion the rest of the Commonwealth wishes were part of Maryland, real estate values seem to have declined roughly 20 percent from their peak 12-18 months ago (my WAG based on watching estimates on zillow.com).

Hiya, neighbor. We're down about 15% or so from the peak in our neighborhood. Not a lot of sales for a real good comp, but not many people are selling. Our neighbors who did buy at the top are really good people; I feel for them.

Hey, if the rest of VA wants to kick Northern VA out, fine. They do realize we'll take our tax base with us, don't they? Maybe not, actually, considering what the boneheads in Richmond have been saying.

Posted by: ericblair on January 23, 2008 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

If I was you I'd be worried about three things. First, inflation. Second - health problems that force you and your spouse out of the house. Third, whether your neighbors get foreclosed upon, their vacant houses become eyesores, and the gangs move in.

For the first and second, we're fortunate to have ten+ times as much in savings as we have in home equity. We'd have no problem with selling for what we paid in 1989 or just walking away. For the third, yeah. Not our immediate neighborhood, which is a 1960's country club with just 75 houses, but nearby.

Half a mile south of us is the tract that Disney assembled for a theme park (this is Haymarket, VA). When it fell through, Toll Brothers bought it and put up 5,000 McMansions. Yes, five thousand. Gates, guard houses, two full golf courses, the whole deal. I have no idea what will happen if a substantial fraction of them go into foreclosure.

Posted by: Bob Munck on January 23, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

Here in LA, Silverlake to be precise, values have more or less held. Local Realtors are telling people that prices can't possibly come down because Silverlake is where everyone wants to live! In Manhattan Beach, a local developer took out an ad guaranteeing that prices would not fall 10% this year. Much hilarity ensued.

My economist Ph.D student buddy thinks that places like Sliverlake and Manhattan Beach have help up due to foreign money. If the events of the past few days are any indication, not for long.

Posted by: Shine on January 23, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

but it looks like the first to 'attack' us while we are down are the Lakota Sioux.

I actually have some sympathy with that. I was born in Hot Springs SD (in the Black Hills) (of solid Norwegian stock) and still own some land in the area. Part of our old property is now a Mammoth paleontological dig site. "Mammoth" in both senses.

Posted by: Bob Munck on January 23, 2008 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

We bought our home in 1999 for $128,400, 30 year 6% and 3% down (using an FHA loan). For the first 2 years we lived there, I paid down an additional mortgage payment on the princpal every month. Then my job was moved out of state, and I had to find another job locally, which I did, after looking for a year - at a $15,000 plus pay cut.

We did make some smart choices with our house - it's a very desirable neighborhood, even before the housing prices started rising, homes in the neighborhood were selling for $170-$200K. We just had really good timing. For once in our lives! But we are strapped, because I still haven't recouped my income loss at my new job, and I have a kid in college and gas and food cost a lot more than they did 1999.

Posted by: maurinsky on January 23, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Solution:
Give WORKERS the kinds of salary increases CEO's have seen over the past 10-20 years - proportional to performance/productivity increases.

(ie. scale the increases proportionally to the productivity increase of the worker - which rose dramatically over the past 10-20 years, versus the performance increase of the CEO, which declined dramatically in the past 10-20 years, as apparently, the only way they know how to succeed is to commit fraud until they loot their company until it crashes and burns.)

When workers have more money to spend - we'll have an economy that works.

2/3 of the economy is consumer spending.

You can either LEND us the money.
Or you can pay us a fair wage.

If you LEND us the money - the increase in the volume of the monetary supply will eat the savings of the rich anyway - worse than taxation; because VALUE simply evaporates.

If you pay fair wages - consumers will feel more secure about spending their money, and the economy will be healthy. That money will retain VALUE, because there's real labor and productivity backing up its creation.

You can't borrow your way to prosperity. You can play with numbers on a piece of paper and make them as big or as small as you want. But it's people's perception of VALUE that makes that currency have any worth.

Workers need to know that they're being fairly compensated for their effort, that they're working for a future, and that they have a real stake in it. Debt-slavery does not accomplish that, no matter how many times you re-write the bankruptcy laws.

A $600 "rebate" check, which is financed by deficit spending, is not going to do jack sh1t for consumer confidence.

Posted by: osama_been_forgotten on January 23, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Here in the inner ring suburbs/cities of Boston, at least in my area, I haven't seen any foreclosure signs nor are there a lot of "For Sale" signs. Quite a few houses were taken off the market around 18 months ago in this area. I checked the Boston Globe's Sunday Real Estate section for the first time in over a year and the section was extremely thin. A house was recently sold on my street in November/December 2007 for just over $500K. Asking price was $549K. Suprising, because I thought the average house could get that price 3 years ago, but certainly not now. My neighborhood is within a 7 minute walk to a Commuter Rail Station which is a strength in the long run if gas and oil gets particularly dicey (Peak Oil). The bulk of the foreclosures and abandoned properties thus far in Massachusetts, are in cities/towns that have a lot of poor/working class racially mixed populations like Lawrence, Brockton, and Holyoke.
But Massachusetts like a lot of places is experiencing record levels of foreclosures.
David Gergen (the Former Reagan speech writer?)on a local NPR talk show called "On Point" - 90.9 WBUR, last Friday stated that he felt that the US was going to be in a "rough patch" for the next 5 to 7 years. He also said he thought the leading Presidential candidates in both parties would be ok to good Presidents if we were in average times, but he thought the US was not going to be in average times for the forseeable future.

Off Topic - I need some financial advice.

I'm thinking of taking my untaxed retirement money from a former employer (a municipality which is not tied into Social Security) to pay off credit card debt. I will have enough to pay the early withdrawal penalty and taxes. And firmly resolved not run up the credit card. I'm in my mid to late 40's, single, and have 10 years left on a 15 year fixed rate mortgage (I believe my interest rate is around 4.35%). The money's return is probably about 1%. What do you any of you think? Thanks in advance.

Posted by: John on January 23, 2008 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Arte,

This is why I have a FICO score of 810 - it is called living within your means and making good long-term financial decisions.

That won't help you when the neighborhood falls apart - weeds growing, renters moving in, homes stop being maintained.

I saw it happen in the neighborhood I grew up in. Thankfully it was after my parents and I moved out.

But hey, you keep patting yourself on the back, thinking "I've got mine, to hell with everyone else." Then vote Republican - you'll fit right in.

BTW - my credit score is 841. I probably don't have enough credit cards to get a perfect.

Posted by: Tripp on January 23, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Bob,

I actually have some sympathy with that.

Me too. Anyone who has actually been on a reservation does. We don't have the Lokota here in MN but we do have Indian reservations. I was wondering when the Native American civil rights movement would start. I figured all the casino money would finance it.

Posted by: Tripp on January 23, 2008 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

It depends on the type of retirement account. I take it that you have a 401K, as opposed to a Roth IRA, as you did not pay the tax first and then put the money to work. It depends on a few things. How much is the debt compared to your accumulated wealth? I think you should skimp on your budget, save some more money and use that to pay of the debt, not take money out of your retirement account. By the way, I hope it gives you many options as to where to invest the money.

Posted by: Alex on January 23, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Alex -

It was money taken out in lieu of Social Security and in the City's Employees Pension fund. Unfortuantely, I left my former employer at 9 years service - being shy 1 year of vested in the system.

I do have other investments - a 401K with my current employer, and IRA's and a small but slowly growing emergency savings fund.

This Pension fund's performance has not been great and has been averaging about 1% return.

Fortunately, my credit card debt is on one card with a 10% interest rate. I figured the money would be a better return paying off the debt rather than accumulating about $100 to $125 interest rate charges given the volatile market conditions.

Posted by: John on January 23, 2008 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

If houses in CA fall to half their current price, they'll be selling for twice what they're worth.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 23, 2008 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, if you had held onto that house, what would it be worth now, with the subprime debacle and all? And what was it worth at the height of the bubble?

I can't think of a THING you could get (except may in the Inland Empire) for $170 K these days.

Posted by: Cal Gal on January 23, 2008 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

My house in San Diego county lost 20% of its appraised value in the last 2 years. but it rose 60% in the 3 years previous to that. With housing, you really have to be in the "long game".

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on January 23, 2008 at 11:41 PM | PERMALINK

It goes up and down. My wife and I bought our house in San Diego in 1989, at almost the peak of the market. It went down and then up and now down again, but it is still three times higher than our buying price. Part of that may be because our section of town goes up and down less than other parts of San Diego. We went up 6% while Del Mar and La Jolla went up 75%

Posted by: anandine on January 24, 2008 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

we bought 30-year fixed in 2004 -- near the top -- at $700K on coast south of SF. Property here plateau'd, but hasn't dropped. Time to sell has lengthened, and I'm looking at a drop in future, but get the strange feeling here that (15 minutes from downtown SF/valley) we'll just stay at same and let inflation eat it down... but because fixed with good jobs, we'll be ok.

Posted by: ralph on January 24, 2008 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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