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Germany's Surprising Economy

by TGeraghty Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 02:36:56 AM EST

Excellent piece from this morning's diaries ~ whataboutbob

Well, look who's bullish (sub req'd) on the German economy!

(via Der Spiegel):

Maybe they've been reading the European Tribune?


Why is the Economist suddenly so enthusiastic about the near-term prospects for the German economy?

(1) Unemployment is beginning to fall:

  • In July unemployment fell for the fourth month in a row

  • There are 50% more job vacancies than there were a year ago

  • Surveys suggest that employers are becoming more bullish, expecting to hire more workers in the coming months. Manpower, a recruitment consultant that tracks employers' intentions across the world's big economies, notes that the rise in Germany's indicator has been stronger than movements anywhere else.

  • The number of self-employed has risen from 4m four years ago to 4.4m at the end of June.

  • So-called "one-euro" jobs, which dignify unemployed people by paying them one euro an hour plus their benefits, have proved popular, with over 200,000 being created, as have "mini-jobs" paying €400 a month.

(2) German companies have shown a remarkable improvement in their competitiveness:

  • Falling unit labour costs, partly a result of "social partnership" bargaining between business and labor unions giving business wage and benefit moderation and longer working hours in return for employment guarantees -- "unions have been pragmatic behind the scenes in order to save jobs."

  • Also, more flexibility: more than 30% of Germany's workforce are now employed in part-time or temporary jobs, meaning that firms can deploy their labour much more flexibly than in the past.

  • As a result, strong performance by big companies, which have reported healthy profits, driven largely from exports to countries where demand is thriving:

Disturbingly, the Economist reports, "the profits and activities of leading German companies have become somewhat dislocated from the economic fortunes of Germany as a whole."

[B]usiness leaders are beginning to feel more confident. Last month a much-watched index of business confidence rose by more than analysts had expected, perhaps because of the strong profits performance that was evident when the latest set of quarterly results were announced. Two-thirds of Germany's top 30 listed companies produced improved results for the second quarter of the year. That includes jumps of more than 20% over the same period last year by chemicals firms Altana, BASF and Bayer and respectable earnings from energy producers, insurance companies and banks.

(3) The improved position of the banks:

All the biggest banks now have their costs and their balance sheets under control. Much of the banks' real-estate portfolios and their non-performing loans secured against property have been sold off at distressed prices. The challenge now is for the banks to take more risk in their lending to medium-size companies. Good performance from them will be needed to underpin a sustained recovery.

(4) Increased attention to long-term investments in education and innovation:

A perceived "innovation gap", which is closely linked to failings in education and research, has attracted much more attention in recent years. . . . In 2004 Chancellor Gerhard Schröder formally launched an initiative with leading companies, dubbed "partners for innovation". Various working groups have been set up, including ones for stimulating new approaches to information technology, specialist materials, education, energy conservation, computerising health services and harnessing venture capital and state aid. Some of these groups have begun long-term projects that will survive any change of government that results from next month's election. And there is money available to publicise the long-term importance of innovation for the economy.

Nevertheless, problems remain that threaten to short-circuit any potential recovery.

Foremost is the problem of inadequate domestic demand.

In recent years low consumer confidence has held back domestic demand--Germans have been saving more and holding off spending. That has become the single biggest drag on growth. . . . Unless consumer confidence rises, some analysts argue, there remains a risk that Germany might fall back into a deflationary spiral.

Why are German consumers nervous, despite the improving labor market? Some ideas:

  • Structural reforms: "Hartz IV, a restructuring of unemployment benefit and social security. . . . failed to create many new jobs. It has, however, made employees more fearful of the consequences of losing their jobs."

  • Looming pension gaps: "Warnings that state-sponsored pensions will fall short are beginning to force people to buy, reluctantly, private pension schemes. But that extra saving does little to help prospects for a consumer-led recovery."

  • Stagnating wages: "Some think higher wages offer a solution. On August 8th Mr Schröder urged German businesses that were doing rather better to give their workers a "decent swig from the bottle". Peter Bofinger, a member of the Sachverständigenrat, the government's independent economic council, believes that wages should be allowed to rise by 2% to 3%. Dirk Schumacher, an economist at Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, argues that size and economies of scale should allow large efficient companies to charge more, pay better and still remain globally competitive."

  • Underdeveloped consumer borrowing markets: "A good half of German households are already sitting on abundant wealth if their house ownership is taken into account, which it is not by the German Institute for Retirement Provision, notes a recent article in the weekly Die Zeit. If Germans just felt richer, like Americans, they would surely borrow and spend more. Some economists have been urging changes that would make it much easier for Germans to borrow."

  • Macroeconomic policy rigidity: "As the biggest economy in the euro zone, Germany has a double straitjacket that prevents it from stimulating a consumption-led boom: interest rates set by the European Central Bank, whose concern is curbing inflation throughout its region, and a stability and growth pact that inhibits countries from borrowing and spending their way out of trouble."

Thus, some of the same factors producing the German business resurgence are also retarding domestic demand growth, indicating the limits to this kind of recovery strategy.

A second problem is reunification -- what to do about the eastern states, where unemployment rates approach 20% or more.

Finally, there is the demographic problem: only 700,000 births in 2004, compared to 1,300,000 in 1960, puts pressure on pension systems and the welfare state as the German population ages.

Display:
Perhaps the most important reason for the low consumer confidence is lack of trust in the political class. People don't believe that they're being told the truth about the state of the economy and the future viability of the "social net" (social security, healthcare, unemployment benefits); people don't believe that the political class knows what they're doing; people lack confidence in the effectiveness of the reforms promoted by the political establishment.

I expect Schroeder to try and use the good economic news, but I doubt it'll have much of an effect on the election.  

If you can't convince them, confuse them. (Harry S. Truman)

by brainwave on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 12:34:29 AM EST
    I have a bit of a problem with the idea that consumer demand needs to be stimulated. Is it possible that people are not spending money because the are content with what they have? Does saving have to be the result of being discouraged about the economy? I have been in debt (and to some extent remain there), and the experience was not particularly enjoyable. In my opinion keeping a car or clothing until it is worn out is a sign of wisdom, not discouragement. I guess it is the result of the decision that "Greed is good", if we can only get people to want much more than they need the economy will grow. I suppose contentment is only fashionable when it can be accessorized.
by toad on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 02:05:31 AM EST
I agree with you there. What's wrong about living within our means and enjoying what we have? Funny that people are considered "unconfident" because they are not borrowing our spending themselves into debt. What's wrong with that picture?

TGeraghty, thank you for this excellent piece! It's nice to see our front pages of good news about France and Germany! "Confidence" is a psychological thing...if we start to talk more publicly about the good things that exist and are happening in Europe, people will start to feel better and more confident (even if they don't trust the political class...though this gap seemingly must be addressed, at some point),

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 02:50:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with you too. And I am also wondering if this saving is not just ingrained in their mentality. There used to be even songs like: "Schaffe, schaffe Häusle baue und nit noch de Mädle schaue..." sort of like - working, working, building a house and don't look after the girls. I am not up-to-date if they still have that kind of songs, but I do belief it is or at least used to be quite symbolic.
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 02:58:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am also wondering if this saving is not just ingrained in their mentality.

N-n-n-n-o, I don't think so. The current phenomenon is deffinitely a change from the nineties.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 07:06:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am also wondering if this saving is not just ingrained in their mentality.

- N-n-n-n-o, I don't think so. The current phenomenon is deffinitely a change from the nineties.

Fran's comment might be a bit exaggerated, but actually I think it is not too far off the mark. German consume society has some deficiencies which stem from its lacking and multiply fractured historical tradition.

During the last century, whenever economic crisis became severe, one of the first ideas that were thrown overboard, was that of the comsume society. Moreover, the beginning of the consume model was quite late, compared to other western industrial countries (first of all, of course, the US). It began in the 1920s but failed to establish itself before 1929 when the World Economic Crisis, in Germany aggravated by several extraeconomic factors, wiped it out. It tried a new start in the 1930s under the NS regime and was, for a short period, very successful. But the the NS war economy, especially since 1942, again cut it short.

Consume society returned no earlier than mid-1950s and now was, as it seemed, strong enough to survive economic and political crises (as, for example, the oil crisis in the 70s). But, to be honest, I am not so sure if confidence in the consume model has grown sufficient roots in German mass psychology.

Thinking about writing a diary about the issue.

by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 08:33:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Now, you are talking to someone who is not a big fan of consumer society :-)

But thanks for supplying the historical outlook.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 09:49:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually our relationship to consumer society is not so different. I'm not a big fan either. But the more I committed myself to my country's economic-political history, the more I learned to appreciate the "American" model of consumer society. At least to some degree :-)
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 11:24:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My development was the opposite - and mostly based on studying that "American" model :-)

(In the early nineties, I even had the idea that multinational corporations, while problematic on other fronts, might eventually spell the end of wars - how naive I was...)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 11:49:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you want balanced economic growth, demand must increase with productivity. That means some combination of growth in consumption, investment, government spending (or tax cuts), and exports.

Exports are already doing quite nicely, there are limits to what government can do, and businesses tend not to want to invest today unless there is the strong prospect that people will buy their products tomorrow.

So, yes, I think consumption growth and increased consumer confidence are part of the answer to re-start economic growth.

Having said that, I think there is a middle ground between where Germany is now and the debt-ridden consumer society of, say, the US, where Europe should not want to go.

by TGeraghty on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 04:26:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Economist is happy because:

  • companies are making more profits, thanks to

  • their record exports, made possible by

  • lower labor costs

look again at the graph on the left:

Income for German workers has been going down in the past few years! So the Economist is really celebrating that Germany is following the anglo-saxon precepts: pay people less, be "competitive", make profits. Exports and profits are doign well, but not the average Germans.

I personally think that this austerity cure was necessary because the German DM was overvalued when it entered the euro (but it would have been political suicide for any German leader to admit it) - thus they joined the currency with a handicap, which they have now more or less compensated for. The overvaluation came from the weigth of the reunification (which was also based on the political decision to overvalue the Ostmark to give extra purchasing power to Eastenr Germans - at the cost of the competitivity of their whole industry).

So Germany had to sweat off a few extra pounds of fat, and is now back in shape - but that will be the case only when wages start growing up again.

The most worrying trend in the above graphs is that of Italy. Italy is not doing well with the euro. They have not adapted yet to the discipline of a strong currency (remember that their modus operandi has always been to devalue the lira every now and then to regain cometitivity - as they have few external assets, and lots of domestic savings, that external rate was not such an important factor beyond trade). Italy is now uncompetitive, with no way out - the purge is going to be even nastier than in Germany.

But maybe the only point is that "good" news are put on the front page of the Economist and that can change some perceptions. But we at the Europena Tribune should be consistent and say that this is not necessarily the right things to be happy about.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 05:20:22 AM EST
Income for German workers has been going down in the past few years! So the Economist is really celebrating that Germany is following the anglo-saxon precepts:

Yeah, that's the crux of it - I wanted to write the same but you said it so much better!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 06:49:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So Germany had to sweat off a few extra pounds of fat, and is now back in shape - but that will be the case only when wages start growing up again

...and jobs too; but with the presently planned reforms, it's either wage growth or jobs gorwth or neither that can be expected.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 06:52:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good points Jerome.

I think what we all welcome is any sign that Germany might be recovering from the weight of reunification. The eurozone as a whole is a challenging project and if the motor of Germany is restarting it provides that much more ability to address difficuly issues.

For example, I fear your analysis points up exactly why there are murmurings in Italy about leaving the euro. This could be a terrible blow to the credibility of the project, but if Italy's pain needs ameliorating for political reasons it can only be done if other areas regain some of their prosperity.

Further, whilst wages have stagnated, if they have done so by negotiation (social partnership) then the fabric of society has been preserved far better than under anglo-saxon precepts. Of course, as you note, this is only proven if wages start to rise again.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 07:10:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What you say about Dm entry into the euro is enlightening (also your remarks about Italy). Could you envisage at some point to do a story on this, ie how the different national economies came into the euro, what the significance of their level of entry (exchange rate) was, and how they have been getting on with the euro since? Or is it too much of a vast subject?
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 01:14:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
for Jérôme, forgot to say.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 01:29:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it is a big subject, basically that of the Maastricht Treaty criteria. I will try to do a diary about it.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 03:26:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In addition to the overvalued currency, there is also the problem that 1990s wage settlements may not have been justified by productivity gains, so that the current moderation is bringing German labor costs back down to reasonable levels.

That's the view of Thomas Geoghegan, who is a very labor-friendly and Europe-friendly American writer (in fact he is a former labor lawyer):

German unions have had to keep wages down of late. But that's at least in part because in the early 1990s they pushed them up too high, even by my left-of-center standards.

But your point is well-taken, as I tried to indicate in the diary: eventually the strategy of growth through increased worker insecurity and labor cost reductions is self-defeating, as it helps destroy the very consumer confidence that is needed for long-term recovery.

by TGeraghty on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 04:33:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I also think there is some real good news here -- the continued success of "social partnership" in bringing down labor costs indicates that the German IR system need not be scrapped; it continues to produce adjustment to changing economic conditions with relative labor peace. It's becoming clear to me that these kinds of institutions are a real alternative to Thatcherite neoliberalism in terms of successful economic adjustment.

Also, the education and innovation initiatives should help build on the strengths of the German economy in the long-run.

by TGeraghty on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 04:37:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Social partnership is the model used in Ireland, despite what some clueless commentators might suggest. We're just starting up the process of negotiating a new national wage agreement at the moment.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 11:14:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For those who don't have a subscription to The Nation, this article, "No Flat World In Europe", is available here
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 12:17:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for that.
by TGeraghty on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 06:00:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Anyone able to enlighten me about the demographics of the East? Is the population as aged as the West, or in a different stage?

To the voices questioning the wisdom of a consumer led boom I would add the concerns Jerome has articulated about a coming oil shock. This is perhaps not the time to be increasing debt levels in society.

On the other hand, it's worth considering that the ECB is holding inflation too low for Germany and this is stalling the recovery. It's one thing to live within your means, but a little bit of inflation can be a good thing after a downturn. The economy is partly a psychological thing after all.

A great post, (of course my time living in Germany was so good that I'm biased) but I really believe that reunification is always an underestimated factor when people promote the US style economy as a model.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 05:25:58 AM EST
Anyone able to enlighten me about the demographics of the East? Is the population as aged as the West, or in a different stage?

As was covered in an earlier thread, the most important demographic process in East Germany was a massive migration to West Germany (plus a dramatic fall in childbirths). More exactly: while one fifth of all people, mostly young people, moved West (3.3 million), half as many moved from the West to the East (1.75 million), but most of those were seniors. Thus, tough the expected age of people in Eastern Germany is lower, the population is still older.

Now, elsewhere I repeatedly made the argument that the age structure doesn't really matter to the economy (what you 'win' in  the reduction of retirement fund budgets, you 'lose' in jobless benefit budgets and childraising costs).

However, in this case, the off-migration was a massive brain-drain of the, eh, 'best and the brightest', who'd be required for the envisioned capitalist paradise as entrepreneurs or skilled workers. Also, while I don't think much of arguments with the 'lower productivity' of old people, what is certainly a factor here is old people's difficulty to learn and adapt to a capitalist 'worker market' after having lived all their life in, ah, 'real existing socialism'.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 07:04:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Anyone able to enlighten me about the demographics of the East?

Originally, it is not so much different from that of Eastern Germany. Therefore, if you look at Germany as a whole, reunification did not have a big effect. But, as DoDo said, post-reunification migration changed the demographic structure in different regions.

But the decisive problem is a different one: In the east, there are several Millions of pensioners who never payed into the national retirement security system, but still have to be payed from its funds. That is what you have to keep in mind when you compare German with the US economy.

by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 08:51:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just a thought: how long will it be before journalists begin explaining to us that, after all, though it looked as if US/UK economies were zooming ahead while continental Europe stagnated, in fact what we have always known is that the business cycles of these different economies move at a different rhythm, so that it often happens that the UK is on the way up while Germany and France are stuck, and vice versa?

I say this because this explanation is put forth every now and then when the other narratives no longer have cred. Are we moving into a phase like that?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 01:27:15 PM EST
Well, as you say it is always known, so in the US/UK they will only wheel it out when the US/UK are doing badly in direct comparisons..
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 03:59:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The fact that the US and UK have slightly different cycles as continental Europe is indeed an important item in the propaganda war.

The US (and the UK) had their recessions in 1990-91 and 2001-2002. ole Europe had theirs in 1993 and 2003-04, each time about 2+ years later.

So whenever you do comparison that start at the beginning of a decade (1990 or 2000, you start at, or very close to the bottom of the US cycle, but nowhere near the bottow of the European cycle. Typically, a 1990-2000 comparison starts off with a structural 5-10% advantage for the USA (the one-two years of recession in Europe which were years of growth in the US; the period does not include a US recession but does include a European one).

Similarly, a lot of the crowing by the anglo-saxon is based on numbers for the past 2 years, which are indeed not really good for Europe, but (at least in the case of France, and more generally when you take growth per capita numbers) if you take the last 10 years, which includes one recession for each zone, then the differences are not so stark (2% growth per capita per annum in France vs 2.1% in the USA for 1994-2004).

The dotcom bubble eventually burst, even though it took a lot more time than the bears predicted. The housing and debt bubble WILL also burst, and the less leveraged economies of France and Germany will fare a lot better after that.

i also look forward very much to the day when State-owned EDF becomes the cash cow of France as it produces the cheapest electricity around at a time when energy prices are skyrocketing, and everybody (well, mostly the Brits and the italians) pays through their nose for French nuclear power...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Aug 20th, 2005 at 05:05:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is anectodal evidence.

1.  Last year, I met a German fellow while travelling in northern part of Thailand.  We had drinks while staying at the same hotel.  He invited his parents (from Germany) to visit Thailand.  He was in his late 20s, and left Germany for Hong Kong, working for a Chinese sporting good company as a marketing director.  He was unhappy about Germany's (a) "socialist system," (b) "high taxation and regulation," (c) "the Turkish and Kurdish immigration that would not assimiliate into German society."  According to him, the downtown areas of many major German cities look like Turkey (a 3rd world country).  Turkey of course committed the first genocide in the 20th Century - murdering almost 50% of Armenians in 1915!  In fact, Adolf Hitler told German officers who were ambivalent about the Holocaust - "Who now remembers the Armenians."  Oh, I got off the tangent.

Anyhow, this German fellow was   extremely pessimistic   about Germany's future and did not want to return back.  His other worry was that Germans are  aging and there are fewer young people to support the old ones.  He was just fascinated by the economic growth of China.

2. Last week, I met a German cell phone network engineer in San Francisco, who is on assignment in Texas.  He was also pretty pessimistic about Germany's future. He did not like Schroeder's government and did not see any concrete results in Markel's program.  His other worry was that Germans are  aging and there are fewer young people to support the old ones.

He realized that "sacrifices must be made" but was unsure whether Germany is ready or willing to do it.

by ilg37c on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 11:12:19 AM EST
your anecdotal evidence fits the general public opinion here quite well. Nearly everyone is pessimistic about the economy, the demographics, the politics. And it is just this pessimism that is becoming a factor which itself impedes a positive development (see e.g. the problem of consumer confidence). That's why the Economist-story is so important.
by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 11:26:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Right on point! Germany's biggest economic problem is people's perception of their own economy.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 01:55:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
(a) "socialist system," (b) "high taxation and regulation," (c) "the Turkish and Kurdish immigration that would not assimiliate into German society."  According to him, the downtown areas of many major German cities look like Turkey (a 3rd world country).

a) that pretty much identifies who says that, if "socialist" is a dirty word to him
b) ditto
c) sounds bordeline racist to me, especially as the last point is patently untrue. Having shesh kebab stores in the streets does not make German cities look like Turkey...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 04:49:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Come on Jerome.

Falafel is a tell tale sign of imminent social decline.

You know like O'Reily and the Falafel that drove him to say dirty, dirty things.  As we all know if only Mr. O'Reilly had not had contact with this hussie food from the Middle East he wouldn't have been driven to falaphilia.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 09:43:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Mr. O'Reilly got his Falafel and Loofah mixed up.  They're so similar, you know. :)

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by caldonia on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 09:58:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
he's been eating the loofah, and  bathing with the falafel, which might explain why he's so angry all the time.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg
by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Sun Aug 21st, 2005 at 11:32:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also: (d)   He was just fascinated by the economic growth of China.

Is telling. All hail slave labor & unlimited pollution...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Aug 22nd, 2005 at 08:51:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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