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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/9040/nonsense-about-deflation/

Nonsense about Deflation

December 2, 2008 by

We are now hearing ominous warnings about imminent deflation. Checking the welcome page at AOL this morning, I see that the lead item in the financial news section heralds “The Looming Threat of Deflation.” This headline encapsulates two highly problematic ideas. The first is that deflation would necessarily be a bad thing. The second is that deflation is likely to occur in the near term. FULL ARTICLE

{ 33 comments }

Paul December 2, 2008 at 7:55 am

Actually I highly disagree with this article. The author seems to be stuck in the 70s. He ignores the fact that interest rates continue to plunge and treasury prices continue to soar. The PPI and CPI suffered it’s biggest decline in over 60 years. Clearly asset prices such as real estate, stocks, metals, and commodities have been nosediving for the past several months. In fact stocks and commodity prices falling together is a very rare occurance. The only other time that has happened? The 1840s and the 1930s.

The banks may be sitting on that money, but they aren’t lending it out. The author assumes it is easy just to lend that enormous pile of money out right now. But they’ll only lend if they have the expection that they’ll get their money back. Right now consumers and businesses are saturated in debt and the economy is in decline. Any threat of inflation in the near future would be very brief, as the bond market and the holders of US dollars (i.e. China, Japan) certainly won’t let that happen. Until the enormous asset bubbles completely bursts, don’t expect runaway inflation anytime soon.

Chris J December 2, 2008 at 8:40 am

What do I do with this information? Should I just go out and buy things I need at current deflated prices? Sure. Should I invest in my own future employabililty so I can job hop as wages move up or down? That’s probably not a bad move. What else?

Should I speculate on future price increases? I think Paul is right. There is still a lot of bubble left to pop. I bought my house at a deflated price but I’m satisfied that its price can fall further. Though I’m not saturated in debt, I’m not anxious to assume more.

At some point though the fed will succeed in causing inflation. At that point I’ll likely lament not buying a farm at 2008 prices.

eric lansing December 2, 2008 at 9:11 am

Robert, if you doubt deflation commeth, you have not been paying attention. The Fed will soon have trippled the size of it’s balance sheet and banks are not lending any money. That is not a recipie for inflation.

J Cortez December 2, 2008 at 9:35 am

Any threat of inflation in the near future would be very brief, as the bond market and the holders of US dollars (i.e. China, Japan) certainly won’t let that happen.

They said the same thing about Japan in the 1980′s.

I only skimmed though it but I agree with the theme of the article. A steady deflation isn’t some kind of abomination at all. And the current deflation isn’t bad either, it’s more like the calm before the storm.

It seems to me he holds a similar view as Frank Shostak, who spoke about a month or so ago about a period of deflation due to paranoid banks sitting on reserves and then large amounts of inflation when they feel safe again and start lending it out. It might take six months, it might take a year, it might take two, but it will happen.

And when that happens, I don’t see how the Fed can sop up all that excess money (by the time the banks feel safe again, they will have probably pumped a few trillion in) without bringing down the system they’ve been trying to patch up for the past two years.

The only saving grace for the dollar I can see is that other countries central banks will be inflating as well and dollars will be preferable to other worthless currencies. That is, of course, if the dollar doesn’t completely collapse.

Dick Fox December 2, 2008 at 9:44 am

Finally an outstanding article on deflation. Robert Higgs did not once crow about how deflation harms those who benefit from inflation. Not once did he say that deflation is a good thing. He simply pointed out the absurd idea that it is deflation that is the cause of the destruction that results from inflationary malinvestment.

We are not currently in deflation and attempts by the FED to pump in liquidity to cure this fantasy malady will do no good. We are in a situation where people do not trust transactions because the government has been stepping in and changing the rules. The markets can deal with bad news and they can deal with good news but no one will invest in a world of uncertainty where you can get killed on either side of the trade, even both sides.

So Paul, Chris, and eric you are wrong because you confuse price changes with deflation. It may be that banks are hoarding cash waiting to invest but that does not mean deflation. There can still be a decline in the value of the monetary unit, even if prices are falling. Once the banks are faced with a situation where they must invest, all that liquidity will come rushing out.

I do have a concern though. The price of oil is now down below $50 bbl but the price of gold is still up. Oil producers and oil support companies are cutting back on their capital investments. This could lead to another serious supply problem if inflation does heat up once again and businesses renew their huge demand for oil. The production resources will again not be able to keep up with demand and we will have have another oil price surge.

The answer to all of this is to stop the crazy gyrations of the money supply. We need to anchor the currency to a solid foundation, preferably gold, and then these monetarily induced problems will go away.

greg December 2, 2008 at 11:20 am

We experienced commodity inflation due to over speculation in oil, housing, energy related ag commodities and assorted metals. As the speculation turned from calls to puts, the prices fell faster than they went up, but still are higher than they were 5 years ago when speculation started.

The “deflation” caused by a reverse in investment position expanded into other markets as investors rushed to deleverage to cover their margins. And presently, we are trading in a range off the bottom as investors have shortened their window of investments.

Now this “deflation” has given the Fed a blank check to increase the money supply to inject liquidity into the market. Most of this injection has been done as investments taking perfered stocks and collecting interest. There will be no problems if the government uses the interest and principle payments to pay down the debt. But if they use these funds as revenue to expand stimulus programs, we will have inflation and the economy will suffer.

Chris J December 2, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Mr, Fox,
I’m very ok with being shown where I’m mistaken. If I’m wrong I want to be corrected. You’re right, lowered prices do not necessarily mean deflation. Help me out here.

You said, “There can still be a decline in the value of the monetary unit, even if prices are falling.” How would you know? Prices are a reflection of value…though sometimes delayed. Gold is a good example. Its price is delayed in falling (I believe) because of an increased demand driven by fear that the dollar may collapse. As another example, the price of unskilled labor is delayed in falling because of government intervention. Not all prices are falling but the price of other currencies is. How do you measure the value of a dollar without considering price?

“The answer to all of this is to stop the crazy gyrations of the money supply. We need to anchor the currency to a solid foundation, preferably gold, and then these monetarily induced problems will go away.” YES!!! But how? Sell all of my dollars for gold and encourage everyone I know to do the same? Maybe. Stop working and put my family on welfare to help bankrupt the system faster? Nope. Write a letter to Shimkus and Durbin?

This is the discussion I’m after. What do we actually do with this wonderful insight? Are we capitalizing on it? Are we seeking a solution? Are we (including me) just hoping somebody will read this and think we’re smart?

Eric December 2, 2008 at 1:03 pm

I think this article is pretty accurate.

But we should be careful to use the terms,

price inflation – prices going up
money inflation – increase in the money supply

Likewise, for deflation.

Price inflation and price deflation depends upon both the supply and the demand for money. It also depends on an increase or decrease in the wealth (not dollars) that exists, or as Frank Shostak says, the pool of real savings.

Today we see a large increase in the demand for FED notes. This is likely because of fear of recession/depression. Banks also fear they will not get their loans repaid and are still unsure of the rules of lending. As Rothbard wrote, keeping higher cash balances are the usual reaction to uncertainty.

All the bailouts signal that money inflation will be huge. This should cause lenders to fear that they will lose by lending at low interest rates and wait until the rates rise. Eventually, we are going to see the effects of the money inflation. But the amount of lag time is very hard to predict. Months, years, decades? Who knows? I’m guessing it will be 2 more years before prices really start increasing. The FED can also try their manipulations, but they only have 2 pedals, brake and accelerator. But just like a steering wheel with 180 degrees of play, it’s going to be near impossible to steer this economy to a safe harbor.

In the LA times on Sunday, they had a page 1,lead article which addressed the bailouts and even wrote that we “may” see inflation – meaning price inflation – a big change for them – as they usually never say anything bad about the FED. When they feel the need, they usually print one of my letters bashing the FED. But this is the first time they had a page one article. I wrote that they need to look at mises.org and LewRockwell.com. One day, they may actually reference this site.

Then they had a table of where the money has already gone and how much more was allocated but not yet spent. Their figures were staggering, to say the least.

So, now I’ve seen 3 sets of figures for the bailouts.

1. LewRockwell.com blog, says $4.6 trillion
2. Baltimore Sun $7 trillion
3. La Times $8.6 trillion

I see only one way they will raise the money for this – create it from thin air. So, we will see a huge money inflation. If demand for FED notes subsides somewhat, and prices begin to rise, I expect we will see something dramatic happen and the bubble for FED notes will burst. Demand for FED notes will suddenly drop and prices will soar. People’s fear will go from fear of a depression to fear that their savings will be robbed – though this may be 2 somewhat different groups of people. Interest rates will then go way up, as they did in the late 70′s.

Anyway, that’s my take. So, Arthur Laugher, wanna make another bet?

greg December 2, 2008 at 2:06 pm

If we go to a gold standard, the real price of gold would go up to $4,000 an ounce on demand alone. What impact would that have on the economy?

Chris J December 2, 2008 at 2:32 pm

I don’t know, Greg. The price might come down as people realize there is no reason to favor gold over dollars. It would sure be interesting.

Brian Macker December 2, 2008 at 3:11 pm

I disagree with this article. At this very moment we are experiencing a classical fractional reserve deflation. At the same time the government is trying to fight these market forces via a combination or fiat monetary inflation. Both can happen at the same time.

Meanwhile the fractional reserve deflation is being driven by asset price deflation. Asset prices that were originally driven up by an initial fractional reserve inflation. (I’m using fractional reserve to include any form of leveraged “savings”).

You can’t talk about this stuff without being clear about which type of deflation/inflation you are discussing. Otherwise you sound like you are denying a deflation that is actually occurring as pointed out by the other commenters.

Poop Tart December 2, 2008 at 8:07 pm

i believe we are seeing both price deflation and monetary deflation right now. the bubble burst has and will continue to deflate asset prices as well as continuing fractional reserve deflation in the money supply as brian macker suggested. the monetary deflation now is not a constriction of the base money supply, but the supply in circulation. we will not see the bailout money circulate until the market recapitalizes and both confidence and lending increases. at this point i believe we will see a massive influx in the money supply courtesy of the fed and treasury. whether or not this will trigger a hyperinflation episode is dependent on how fast lending increases or if the fed has any foresight into this.

68bug December 2, 2008 at 8:31 pm

There is monetary deflation and price deflation. I fear that price deflation is not from increased productivity but from the whole economy having a going-out-of-business sale.

The monetary deflation from 1866 to 1897 was interesting. The price of gold rose when paper money called greenbacks were distributed during the Civil War. The price of gold rose to something like $35 per ounce. At the end of the Greenback era in about 1879 the government decided to restore the value of gold to its pre-war value of around $20 per ounce and return to a gold standard. The change-over was painful.

Unanticipated monetary deflation can hit borrowers hard. They have to pay back loans with dollars worth more than the ones they borrowed. Like the Asian currency “meltdown” in 1998 when Greenspan tightened up the dollar to combat perceived “irrational exuberance” on Wall street.

Gerry Flaychy December 2, 2008 at 8:36 pm

The Fed don’t gives money to banks, it loans them that money.

Soon or later the banks will have to pay back the excess reserves money to the Fed. This means that this money will then return back where it comes from i.e. thin air: there will be a destruction of money, as big as its creation.

So, how then can we have a price inflation in a later time due to the present money inflation?

Fred December 2, 2008 at 8:42 pm

The second element of inflation and deflation hinted at by Mr Tart above is the velocity of money. In our fractional reserve system they can print all the money they want and stash it in banks. The consequences of this action will, for the most part, go unnoticed by those living below the dam. The daily impact on the consumer, I’d speculate, is felt in the form of changing interest rates on personal debt. Beyond that-not too much. But as the lake of money fills behind the dam it will eventually have to go somewhere. If the dam doesn’t break completely it will spill. To the degree it spills or breaks will be the degree of inflation. I believe that capital has no direction to go but from M2 to M3. When it reaches the M3 bucket then we should begin to see velocity increase. With BOTH elements, supply and velocity of money changing hands, you will have inflation.

Tech bubble, housing bubble, what’s next?

Inflationary activity in currencies seem to be where the next bubble will emerge. Any thoughts/disagreement there?

gfh

Bruce Koerber December 2, 2008 at 8:55 pm

War against ‘terrorists’ is the trump card.

If productive resources are coercively channeled towards war efforts prices will no longer go down. And inflation, even at high rates, will be excused because of the ‘unusual’ circumstances requiring patriotic sacrifices!

This is the likely scenario if the ‘deflation-to-inflation’ time horizon is more than six months. That is why now is so critical. If we are fortunate enough that the economic equilibrium forces are so powerful that they quickly overwhelm the dumbfounded unConstitutional coup despite their most imaginative intervention then the window of opportunity will be opened for the liberty-minded to use all the educative means at their disposal to move the ideological change forward.

Part of the ideological change requires the identification of the members of the inner circle of the unConstitutional coup so they can feel the wrath of the victims of their oppressions. Who besides Paulson and Summers are among this elite group of economic terrorists?

newson December 2, 2008 at 9:44 pm

to dick fox:
deflation, as the restoration of monetary integrity, is a salutary thing. painful, sure, but the same argument could be said about coronary bypass surgery. hurts like mad, but the alternative is ultimate death.

why, even japan didn’t suffer deflation in the post-bubble years (and boj was more restrained than the fed will be). deleveraging yes, deflation no. banks won’t lend? no hay problema, fed just monetizes all the new treasury paper. once he’s performed this miracle, bernanke moves up a notch and turns our water to wine. the crowds roar.

newson December 2, 2008 at 11:23 pm

gerry flaychy says:
“The Fed don’t gives money to banks, it loans them that money.”

this is irrelevant. if i loan you money @ 1 basis point and roll over the loan regularly for years and years, in a high-inflation environment, it’s almost as though i give you the money. the beauty of discounting.

Gerry Flaychy December 3, 2008 at 9:17 am

“this is irrelevant. if i loan you money @ 1 basis point and roll over the loan regularly for years and years, in a high-inflation environment, it’s almost as though i give you the money. the beauty of discounting.” newson

If you do that, i will have to pay you interest, and after a certain number of years, i will have give you back more money than the amount you loan me at first. So, even in that extreme case, it will still be relevant.

But this extreme case, is not the regular case with the Fed. The Fed can, and regulary do, change the interest rate and the amount re-loaned, and even not re-loan.

If the Fed don’t give money but loan it, it is justly because the Fed want to have it back at the moment the Fed choose. The goal of the Fed is to control, specialy the rate of inflation, and the rate of interest.

But a goal is not always easy to attain, and some times, very difficult, as we are seeing now.

greg December 3, 2008 at 11:08 am

Gerry is right about the Fed funds that are lent to the banks which allows the banks to maintain their reserve levels. The problem is the Treasury. In order for them to finance the TARP, they sell T bills and the Fed is one of the major buyers. This money is created and given to the government and it is likely the government will pay the Fed back by selling more T bills. It is that transaction that is going to create the inflation in the future. But if the Treasury pays back the Fed from payments the companies they lent to, the inflation impact will be reduced but not eliminated.

JKS December 3, 2008 at 4:18 pm

New commenter, and relatively new reader. I’m not an economist, so the chart from the STL FED scares me to death. What does this all mean? How do we prepare for hyperinflation?

It is great to be able to come here and read commentary and ideas that just make sense to me…even if i have trouble understanding some (alot) of the economics.

newson December 3, 2008 at 8:13 pm

to gerry flaychy:

the extreme example is merely to highlight that it not necessary for the fed to purchase outright the toxic paper from the banks in order to achieve its inflationary desires, and to recapitalize the banks’ balance sheets.

the banks can avail themselves of the very cheap money borrowed from the fed and either ride the yield curve or make new loans. over time, this interest-rate subsidy will serve to recapitalize the banks’ balance sheets. the bank of japan used this technique, amongst others, to float away some of their bubble-era problem-loans.

Gerry Flaychy December 3, 2008 at 8:38 pm

What is useful to know, and that wich is rarely mentioned, it’s that if the Fed can create money, it can also de-create money. And that is what the Fed is doing on a regular basis, particulary in buying and selling bonds in the market.

If usually, there is price inflation, it is because the Fed want it like that !
It is not because the Fed cannot do otherwise, or because the banking system use fractional reserve !

Their problem is to keep this price inflation low, and this, on a steady basis.

pbergn December 4, 2008 at 3:25 pm

Disagree with the author’s main premise in this article that deflation is not a real threat:

It is true that the monetary base has increased significantly this year, but since the businesses are closing and the GDP is shrinking coupled with increasing unemployment rate, the main problem is deflation right now and not inflation…

You see, even if all the banks that hoard the liquidity and serve as dams holding it, decide to invest somewhere, they will not be able to flood the system with liquidity since there are increasingly less credit-worthy consumers available for that liquidity… (think of liquidity as water; even if you have a great basin filled with it, and the waterways are clogged, that water has no way to drain, unless the pathways are unclogged).

The Middle Class is shrinking, demand for durable good is sinking. People have used all the possible lines of credit they could get. And now, with the housing market disaster, they can’t even get an equity line of credit as well…

Now, the threat of inflation exists, I admit, but I do not see how all this liquidity can be effectively and quickly unleashed, when the economic activity has shrunk to a minimum, and there are not enough prime consumers to lend to… The only way this can happen is if banks start throwing cash right and left from the helicopters, regardless of credit history and investment risks… But if that happens then nothing really can be done – all the rules will be broken, so no game can be meaningfully played…

Again, deflation is a real threat, since the liquidity is useless if there are no unclogged receptacles to receive it. Actually, the true reason why banks are “sitting” on all that cash is that there are no worthy investments to make, and they can’t just throw the money away…

I agree that there is no real reason for the present deflatory situation to occur, except for some subjective reasons, but once it starts it creates a chain reaction, that will, indeed bring the whole economy to the grinding halt… I am not saying that creating more money is the solution… There should be more job stimulation macroeconomic policies implemented in order to unclog this mess…

Stanley Pinchak December 4, 2008 at 6:18 pm

pbergn,
I don’t think that things are so dire that were he alive, Hayek would recommend make work projects on infrastructure and the like. At this point, less governmental intervention and a reduction of harmful regulations including the minimum wage would be most beneficial for recovery. All of the Fed, Treasury and Congressional meddling in the market have created a much more uncertain environment than would have been obtained had normal market procedures been allowed to take place unmolested. The financial sector is a veritable minefield where no one is certain when the state will nationalize a particular firm or asset next. This is being compounded by additional bailouts in the industrial sector, starting it appears with the auto industry. This intervention more than any other factor is preventing the reallocation of capital necessary to get the economy back on an even keel. Finally, countercyclical monetary policy to prevent the monetary contraction endemic to fractional reserve banking only sets the stage for the next business cycle.

Brian Macker December 4, 2008 at 8:29 pm

“I agree that there is no real reason for the present deflatory situation to occur, except for some subjective reasons”

What do you mean, “no real reason”? Of course there is a reason. The reason was Alan Greenspan holding interest rates below market for a long time.

pbergn December 4, 2008 at 9:34 pm

To: Brian Macker

Exactly that – low interest rate should have resulted in inflation, but what we are observing is deflation, when there is no ANY reason for this kind of situation under ANY economic theory that I know of…

It feels like there is some sort of strange thing going on with the financial system…

There is no reasonable explanation to the current deflation phenomenon…

If you have a theory, please let us know what led us to this…

To: Stanley Pinchak

So, how do the Austians explain the current unusual situation? The Austrians predict hyperinflation, but I can’t see where it is going to come from, since noone is buying, everybody is conserving for food…

What happened to all those trillions? Hoa do you explain this? ‘Cause I can’t…

Stanley Pinchak December 4, 2008 at 10:22 pm

pbergn,
The current deflation is the result of fractional reserve unwinding. As banks realize that there are uncertain times ahead (at least in the near term) they are reluctant to loan out to level set by their minimum reserve. In order to justify this they make credit extension contingent on traditional and even more strict lending standards. This has a contractionary effect on the money supply. This buffer also explains where the Fed monetary base expansion is currently located. Mark Thornton suggests that the banks are using this money to pad their balance sheets which still contain many assets of dubious quality.

The continued intervention in the form of bailout, nationalizations, and swaps for preferred stock by the Fed and Treasury further increase the near term uncertainty. Higgs suggests that this uncertainty was responsible for the poor economic performance prior to FDR’s death. The entrepreneurs needed to be assured that the market would return to some semblance of normalcy before it managed to manifest this in growth.

pbergn December 4, 2008 at 10:41 pm

TO: Stanley Pinchak

I understand that, and agree with your explanation. But I am worried on the more long-term effect of this situation, since there is physical damage being done to the economy in a form of enterprises closing, filing for bancrupcy, merging, outsourcing…

You see, this is ireversable damage, as opposed to reversable one, where enterprises try to restructure or lay of workers when the economy contracts, which can be reversed when it starts to grow…

My concern is that vicious cycle of mistrust will eventually drive most of the medium-size and smaller companies to bancrupcy, and banks will simply sit on their pile of cash, since there are no relevant investment opportunities in the US. In fact, the capital may start draining overseas, wiping oit what is remaining of the local job market…

I still not completely buy the idea, that the simple “mistrust”, or subjective factors in the motivations of banks can entirely prevent all this liquidity not spilling out into teh larger economy…

There is something ENTIRELY different going on! Mark my word on this one…

Nothing entirely explains the observed, only some bits and pieces of it…

Thanks for the explanation, though…

edc December 5, 2008 at 12:37 am

All great points.

I am not an economist but an observer. First post, hear me out.

We are discussing a couple trillion right (bailouts, printing)?

We know jobs will start to disappear soon?

We know that asset prices are expensive still?

Did wage price go up, or money supply go up and qualifications for credit go down (or allow loose risk). Loose risk, lets think psychology “Easy Money woohoo” that isn’t risky! Lets add leverage! LOTS! Oooh Here is a smart idea, lets mix debt assets together collaterlize them, securitize them and selll them ac-cross the globe, for another really smart idea – lets sell shadow insurance to offset risk (sell to people who have no vested interest whatsoever insuring the “things’. Lets get the whole world involved making it too.
Now we add humans WITH EMOTION.

How many trillion did central banks print?

Because there are over 600 TRILLION worth of derivatives out there.

If wages globally have rose in proportion with the credit creation that took over 25 years to build and got very parabolic in the last 7 years.

The chain reaction has started, it will only pick up from here. Retail, Commercial, Consumer Debt. Layoffs are going, people are consuming less, people are stating to change socially. Foreclosures are only going to increase with job loss.
can we see how lower costs will be helpful right now?
Processes like that take time to recover. Everyone who could qualify for a home bought a home. Qualifications got very loose! The market went up until it didn’t. Government bailouts can’t support asset prices, it won’t work. It will just increase the debt in while creation of money not winning.
Things are to expensive still in regards to wages, this will come closer to correcting as people who need money can’t get it, people who didn’t need to borrow did do it and do not want to take risk. Yes some will borrow to take on risk, will banks lend?
Either way, the savings rate was negative for 5 of last 6 years. We can’t keep consuming.
http://tinyurl.com/6mfyye

Hoarding has begun and will manifest as more bad news drops. It will peak but society will change.

Credit crisises can’t be fixed with a fountain that fills a pool with water. Trust, confidence, on a global scale. Resource producing “smaller” Nations took out to much debt (or has an ineffective that can’t adapt to the credit crisis) with high natural resources prices that were demanded by growing nations and consuming nations. The growing nations produced for the consuming nations. Consuming nations slowed levered consumption, producing nations got less orders, growing nations have less orders, resource producing (smaller nations) same story. They all borrowed, how much?

Add psychology of “sheeple”; this and my friends we have a mess.

Everything is tied and woven together. The thoughts above are just a small piece of the problem. The market is HUGE, the problem is HUGE. Our central bank is already levered 50:1 Oct31 – kitco.com. Uhmm. November is when they actually started buying stuff. They are helpless to these forces. Psychology hasnt’ budge yet, it only manifests more doubt because it is confidence and social mood that will fix the problem. I would think that this takes time.

Social mood will take long time IMO…

I learned a lot from all the above comments on economics. The world is very complicated and ridged. Those derivatives get really complicated as companies lose capitalization and get downgraded. Causing more cards to fall down.

newson December 5, 2008 at 1:59 am

g. flaychy says:
“What is useful to know, and that wich is rarely mentioned, it’s that if the Fed can create money, it can also de-create money. And that is what the Fed is doing on a regular basis, particulary in buying and selling bonds in the market.”

true. but if you compare the ratio of bond purchases versus bond sales, you’ll see that the fed is only a bond seller in rare occasions. the mechanism is there, it’s just not used.

joebhed December 30, 2008 at 8:32 pm

a pro-cyclical, fractional-reserve based money system.
That’s how.

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