Posts Tagged ‘13 Bankers’

The Real Debate Is Will The Wealthy Pay More Taxes.

Friday, May 6th, 2011

The best way to reduce debt is to grow.  Right now Washington seems obsessed with the idea that cutting taxes in combination with cutting federal spending is the best way to go.  Otherwise, we are told, the dollar will sink to zero value and our debts will sink our country’s value to zero.

But what if this formula doesn’t work? This formula has been in force for the past 11 years and hasn’t worked.  What happened in fact, was that deficits increased dramatically and the country plunged into a Great Recession that accelerated the pace of the existing deficits.  Now we are told to ‘double down?’

The truth is that countries seldom default because they can’t afford to pay down debt, they default because the public is convinced they cannot raise enough revenue to pay down debt.

From an economix op-ed by former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson and co-author of the best selling 13 Bankers. 

On the first day of 1791, the recently founded United States Treasury had nearly $75.5 million in outstanding debt. This was roughly around 40 percent of gross domestic product, a large amount of debt relative to the size of the economy — but not out of proportion to what we have become accustomed to in recent decades.

However, relative to federal revenues, the debt was enormous — about 20 times the amount that the government was then capable of taking in. In contrast, the total Treasury debt outstanding since 1950 has fluctuated between 30 and 90 percent of G.D.P., with the debt-revenue ratio never worse than 5 to 1 — and in recent decades between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1.

The debt-revenue ratio matters, as it is relevant to whether the country can readily service the debt. Very few countries default because they can’t afford to pay their debts, either to their own citizens or to foreigners. Defaults occur when the political process in a country determines that, for whatever reason, the government cannot raise sufficient revenue……

Most of our government spending, now as always, goes to wars and transfers to relatively poor people and to older people. The military spending will come down — if we can end the wars (as we did in the past). The social transfers were constructed in a more open-ended fashion — and our long-term budget forecasts account for this form of future spending in a more transparent and more honest way than we do for the probability of future wars or financial crises.

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example, in the context of when the government’s debt ceiling will be raised. And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level. Although this has grabbed the headlines, it is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay, and on what basis, in the form of transfers to relatively poor people — and how rising health-care costs should affect those transfers.”

Beezer here.  For the past 11 years we’ve had tax cut after tax cut and the net result has been disasterous.   Still, one of our two political parties, the Republicans, maintains that we need yet more tax cuts, while at the same time decrying recession boosted deficits and supposed long term structural debt issues posed by our health care delivery system costs.   We are told we need to ‘double down’ on a formula that produced disasters.  The intellectual dissonance here is astonishing.  So when Johnson points out that historically countries default because they refuse to raise sufficient revenues, not because they don’t have sufficient income, then it certainly appears we could be approaching that position.   If the Republicans persist in resisting efforts to raise revenue then US default on debt is a real possibility.

Representative Democracy, RIP.

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

“There are two things that matter in politics.  The first is money.  I can’t remember the second.”

This very insightful observation regarding American politics came from Mark Hanna, campaign manager for President William McKinley during the presidential campaign of 1896.  In the book ’13 Bankers’ co-authored by former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson and entrepreneur/lawyer/philosopher James Kwak, it was noted that Daniel Webster received regular stipends from a powerful banker and leveled a veiled threat to the banker that Webster’s loyalty would diminish if the stipend failed to arrive in a timely manner.

The point?  Money influence on government is as American as apple pie. 

The question is has that influence now gone beyond an invisible ‘tipping point’ where the concept of ‘representative democracy’ no longer holds?

Johnson, in an article entitled ‘Did the Poor Cause the Crisis’ published in Project Syndicate, argues forcefully that the persistent idea that poor people, abetted by government sponsored enterprises Fannie and Freddie, caused the North Atlantic financial meltdown is proof that our government now exclusively responds to the needs of the nation’s very wealthy. 

“In December, the Republican minority on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), weighed in with a preemptive dissenting narrative. According to this group, misguided government policies, aimed at increasing homeownership among relatively poor people, pushed too many into taking out subprime mortgages that they could not afford.

This narrative has the potential to gain a great deal of support, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. But, while the FCIC Republicans write eloquently, do they have any evidence to back up their assertions? Are poor people in the US responsible for causing the most severe global crisis in more than a generation?

Not according to Daron Acemoglu of MIT (and a co-author of mine on other topics), who presented his findings at the American Finance Association’s annual meeting in early January.  (The slides are on his MIT Web site.)

Acemoglu breaks down the Republican narrative into three distinct questions. First, is there evidence that US politicians respond to lower-income voters’ preferences or desires?

The evidence on this point is not as definitive as one might like, but what we have – for example, from the work of Princeton University’s Larry Bartels – suggests that over the past 50 years, virtually the entire US political elite has stopped sharing the preferences of low- or middle-income voters. The views of office holders have moved much closer to those commonly found atop the income distribution.

There are various theories regarding why this shift occurred. In our book 13 Bankers, James Kwak and I emphasized a combination of the rising role of campaign contributions, the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, and, most of all, an ideological shift towards the view that finance is good, more finance is better, and unfettered finance is best. There is a clear corollary: the voices and interests of relatively poor people count for little in American politics.”

Beezer here.  Johnson, citing Acemoglu’s research, argues that the behaviour of Fannie and Freddie was far less important to the crisis than imagined by Republicans.  The real dynamics that brought on the collapse were those unleashed by a decades long push to deregulate Wall Street in particular, and American financial institutions overall.

“The FCIC Republicans point the finger firmly at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other government-sponsored enterprises that supported housing loans by providing guarantees of various kinds. They are right that Fannie and Freddie were “too big to fail,” which enabled them to borrow more cheaply and take on more risk – with too little equity funding to back up their exposure.

But, while Fannie and Freddie jumped into dubious mortgages (particularly those known as Alt-A) and did some work with subprime lenders, this was relatively small stuff and late in the cycle (e.g., 2004-2005). The main impetus for the boom came from the entire machinery of “private label” securitization, which was just that: private. In fact, as Acemoglu points out, the powerful private-sector players consistently tried to marginalize Fannie and Freddie and exclude them from rapidly expanding market segments.

The FCIC Republicans are right to place the government at the center of what went wrong. But this was not a case of over-regulating and over-reaching. On the contrary, 30 years of financial deregulation, made possible by capturing the hearts and minds of regulators, and of politicians on both sides of the aisle, gave a narrow private-sector elite – mostly on Wall Street – almost all the upside of the housing boom.

The downside was shoved onto the rest of society, particularly the relatively uneducated and underpaid, who now have lost their houses, their jobs, their hopes for their children, or all of the above. These people did not cause the crisis. But they are paying for it.”

Beezer again.  To repeat for emphasis.  The major point of the article is that America’s elected leadership today responds exclusively to the needs of the super rich–and has to invent narratives that rationalize this behaviour.  Even one as outlandish as a narrative that blames the poor for the current recession.

“Acemoglu breaks down the Republican narrative into three distinct questions. First, is there evidence that US politicians respond to lower-income voters’ preferences or desires?

The evidence on this point is not as definitive as one might like, but what we have – for example, from the work of Princeton University’s Larry Bartels – suggests that over the past 50 years, virtually the entire US political elite has stopped sharing the preferences of low- or middle-income voters. The views of office holders have moved much closer to those commonly found atop the income distribution.”

Beezer again.  So long democracy.  It was nice knowing ‘ya.

Small Towns, Fairness And Economics 101.

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Anyone who reads my posts knows a couple things about where I get much of my information.  The first is economics Professor Mark Thoma’s blogsite economist’s view.  It’s a fascinating aggregation of many blogs and it always, always elicits a robust outpouring of commentators, such as Beezer.  The second is that Beezer regularly reads another blogsite called Baseline Scenario.  This is a site written primarily by three authors, the two main ones being Simon Johnson, another economist and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and James Kwak, a successful software entrepreneur, a former consultant at McKinsey and now a Yale Law School student.  Johnson is also a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Johnson and Kwak also co-authored the book ’13 Bankers’ that dealt primarily with the bank system’s role in the current recession.

That said as a long preface, what follows is two posts, one by Thoma at economist’s view, and the other by Kwak at Baseline Scenario.  Thoma writes about the small town he grew up in and Kwak writes about a recent experience he had at Yale Law School–two very different posts. 

But somehow they are related, in Beezer’s view.   The issue is putting an understanding to why they are related.  We’ll leave it up to whomever reads both, as we’ve done, to find what the connection really is, if any.

First, Thoma’s post.

As many of you know I grew up in a small town, it was just a bit under 4,000 people at that time, the same town that my mom was born in. I recently went back there for a high school class reunion (35th). While I was there, something struck me that I’ve been meaning to write about.

In the town I grew up in, pretty much everyone knows who the best doctor is, the best dentist, the best painter, the best carpenter, and so on. There were sometimes disagreements about exactly who was best, e.g. who had the best restaurant, but we all knew who to choose if you needed something done, something to eat, your house cleaned, lawn mowed, legal work, child care, whatever. The people who didn’t weren’t very good at these kinds of jobs didn’t survive for very long. I can think of three lawyers off the top of my head, and if I needed one, I’d know who to choose, or certainly who to ask (growing up, my next door neighbor was the county clerk, and she could be very helpful in navigating anything related to the courthouse — she saved me once when I was in court for going 95 mph and the judge thought a night in jail would be a good lesson — thanks to her I escaped jail, but I did get the message — losing my license for a month helped with that).

I thought about this again yesterday as I was trying to change dentists. I’ve lost confidence in the one I have, but have no idea who to choose. I asked a few people, and they had recommendations, people mostly say the like who they have, but it was nothing like the kind of comprehensive knowledge I had where I grew up. Same for choosing a painter, a car mechanic, or most anything else. I never really know if I can trust them when the initial choice is made.

In an environment like I grew up in, there is little need for many types of regulation, it is largely redundant. If I still lived there and needed a room added onto my house, I have a friend I grew up with who does that type of work and I would trust him to do it right. Period. And if it wasn’t right, he would make it good. These are people you see frequently around town, or hear about from others, people you grew up with from kindergarten through high school (even college since many of us ended up at Chico). Sure, the doctors and dentists and the like came from outside, but my grandmother was a nurse, one of my mom’s good friend worked for a dentist in town, people played golf with the doctors, dentists, etc. at the local 9-hole course, socialized with them at the Tennis Club — you knew what you needed to know. If someone got sick at your restaurant, it was over for the owner. Word would spread quickly and everyone would know. If you had a good story and a good reputation — being good in grade school and being known as honorable has its rewards — you might survive. The town, person by person, would make it’s call. That call wasn’t always correct, small town rumors, cliquishness and the like are known menaces, but for the most part the town took care of itself. So while it wasn’t always perfect — there are parts of the town I don’t miss at all — it managed well enough.

What I’m wondering is whether this can, at least in part, explain differences in attitudes toward regulation between more conservative rural areas and larger cities that are generally much more liberal. In a larger city, you are much more vulnerable to predatory type behavior, unfair treatment, much more likely to be dealing with strangers you have never seen before and will never see again. That uncertainty, and the experience of being taken advantage of if you aren’t continuously on guard, and sometimes even if you are — maybe a contractor did a lousy job and refuses to fix the flaws or refund money — might lead you to declare “there ought to be a law!,” or that “someone needs to stop this!” You would be much more inclined to think that regulation was needed.

That’s not to say that things are perfect in small towns, they’re not of course, or that exploitation of the weaker by the stronger isn’t present. It is. Farm labor comes to mind. And there is still a role for safety and other types of regulation. But there does seem to be a much stronger sense that people can take care of themselves without the need for a bunch of rules and regulations, and without the need for police looking over your shoulder to make sure that you comply.

And that’s just the town. If you add in all the farmers who live in the vicinity — the reason for the town to exist at all — farmers who are their own bosses and think they ought to be able to do as they please with the land that has often been handed down for generations, it’s easy to see how a “leave us alone to take care of ourselves” attitude comes about.

Just a thought.”

And now Kwak’s post:

“For a class, I read an old (1986) paper by Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thaler on fairness. It’s based on surveys posing various hypothetical situations where businesses can take some action. For example, most people thought that it was OK for a grocer to pass on a wholesale price increase to consumers (Question 7) but not to raise prices because there is a general shortage and the grocer has the only shipment of a certain item (Question 12). In short, people have an intrinsic sense of fairness the authors summarize this way: “The cardinal rule of fairness is surely that one person should not achieve a gain by simply imposing an equivalent loss on another.”

Today in class, the professor posed the first question from the paper:

“A hardware store has been selling snow shovels for $15. The morning after a large snowstorm, the store raises the price to $20.”

In 1986, 82 percent of respondents thought this was unfair. In class, it was about 50-50.

As the professor said, this is probably because there are a lot of business school students in this class. Business school students are classic Econ 101 robots. They know enough to know that if there is a demand shift, not only is it OK to raise prices, but you should raise prices in order to clear the market. In this case, supply is fixed in the short term, so raising the price won’t increase supply; the Econ 101 argument is that raising the price allocates the shovels to people who will derive more utility from them (because they will pay more), thereby increasing social welfare.

But this rests on a huge assumption: that willingness to pay is the same as utility. Unfortunately, however, this assumption fails in the real world; poor people simply can’t pay as much for snow shovels as rich people, and as a result a price increase will allocate shovels to rich people, not to those who need them the most.* But people who believe Econ 101 only remember the demand and supply curves they saw on the first day of class, so they think firms should raise prices.

I suspect that belief in Econ 101 is not only stronger among business school students (and the businessmen they become) than among ordinary people, but is also stronger today than it was in 1986. The free market ideology teaches not only that businesses can maximize profits by any legal means, but that they have a moral imperative to maximize profits by any legal means, including generating profits by imposing equivalent losses on their counterparties. (Essentially all proprietary trading fulfills this condition.) And three decades of this ideology have probably changed people’s responses to these types of questions.

More fundamentally, the 1986 paper shows that Econ 101 is diametrically opposed to human beings’ intuitive sense of fairness. Yet public policy largely follows the dictates of Econ 101. Is that a good thing?”

Beezer here.  Somewhere there is a nexus here that helps explain the deep conflicts we now see in our political atmosphere.  Small towns as described by Thoma would necessarily be very wary of government regulation because the small town intimacy takes care of what might otherwise require regulation.  They’d be conservative about ‘big government’ in other words.  Forgetting, of course, that small agrarian towns wouldn’t exist today without Agriculture subsidies.

And econ 101 posits that price is the only factor needed to ‘clear a market’ effectively.  Forget that the real world might want to ‘clear’ the market a little less efficiently in order to protect a large portion of its citizens–to protect the commonweal.

The Real Way To Reduce Deficits. Let Bush Tax Cuts Expire.

Friday, August 27th, 2010

From Simon Johnson and James Kwak, co-authors of the best-selling book “13 Bankers,” in a New York Times economix article.

“To see where our current deficits come from, we need only look at the budget office’s baseline projections. In January 2008, the budget office projected that total government debt in private hands — the best measure of what the government owes — would fall to $5.1 trillion by 2018 (23 percent of G.D.P.). As of January 2010, the budget office now projects that debt will rise to $13.7 trillion (more than 65 percent of G.D.P.) — a difference of $8.6 trillion. Of this change, 57 percent is due to decreased tax revenues resulting from the financial crisis and recession; 17 percent from increases in discretionary spending, much of it the stimulus package necessitated by the financial crisis; and another 14 percent to increased interest payments on the debt — because we now have more debt.”

And elsewhere in the same article is this:

“According to the Congressional Budget Office, extending the Bush tax cuts would add $2.3 trillion to the total 2018 debt. The single biggest step our government could take this year to address the structural deficit would be to let the tax cuts expire. And a credible commitment to long-term fiscal sustainability should reduce interest rates today, helping to stimulate the economy.”

Beezer here.  So the single best way to both reduce future deficits and restore public confidence in our ability to maintain fiscal discipline is to let the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule.  All of them, not just those for the rich.

Again, Kwak and Johnson write about long term spending trends.  This time in an article that appeared in Project Syndicate, a non profit public policy journal.

“Finally, there is the issue of entitlement spending, which is mainly an issue of health-care costs. According to the CBO’s alternative fiscal scenario, growth in Social Security is comparatively modest, from 4.8% of GDP in 2010 to 6.2% in 2035. A relatively small change in the parameters of this program could lower its future costs, as was done in the 1980’s. At the same time, however, the relative cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and other health care programs will more than double, from 4.5% to 10.9% of GDP…..

This year’s health-care reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is a starting point. According to CBO data, the ACA will reduce the long-term fiscal deficit by two percentage points of GDP per year. A top priority should be to preserve and expand its cost-cutting provisions. Another obvious step to consider is to phase out the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health plans, which would not only increase revenue, but also end the distorting effects of employer subsidization of health care.

But efforts to tackle health-care costs continue to be hampered by widespread reluctance to tackle sensitive issues, as epitomized by the “death panel” tempest of a year ago. Reshaping the US health-care system to focus on successful outcomes and quality of life, rather than on employing the newest and most expensive technology, is a challenge for which no one yet has a proven solution. It remains, more than any other single factor, the key to long-term fiscal sustainability.”

Beezer again.  Kwak and Johnson also cite various tax reforms that would help restore fiscal sanity, including elimination of deductions for interest payments on homes, imposing a Value Added Tax (VAT) and a cap and trade carbon system which would increase revenues ($145 billion by 2018) while eliminating inefficient energy subsidies.  See a report financed by the Economist on the cap and trade idea.

This from the Economist report:

“The results are surprising. A frequent worry about carbon taxes is that they will hurt business and the economy. But in our simulation Britain’s economic performance would improve. Despite raising an extra £11 billion in net revenue by 2015 and £18 billion by 2020, our carbon tax (£31 a tonne in 2015) would help economic performance, not hamper it. Output would be 1.2% higher by 2020 than under the current arrangements.

Philip Summerton, of Cambridge Econometrics, explains that, with a general carbon tax replacing specific, expensive subsidies for renewable energy, more gas-fired power stations would be built. Since gas power is cheaper than wind power, for example, that would lower the cost of electricity. That, in turn, would boost production: manufacturing would grow by an extra 2.5% by 2020.”

But all that aside the first thing to do is to let the Bush tax cuts expire  Then figure out how to restrain health care cost increases going  forward, bringing them closer to those experienced in other developed countries.  VAT taxes, cap and trade taxes, employer health premium deductions and all the rest will help.  But as long as a significant political party, Republicans, persist in maintaining it’s all about hammering the middle class and labor instead, the path to prosperity will be delayed.

CNBC Watch. More Wall Street Meme Propaganda.

Friday, May 21st, 2010

CNBC this morning featured former IMF Banker Simon Johnson (co-author of the book “13 Bankers” ) and US Senator Ted Kaufman, both proponents of breaking up TBTF bank holding companies and forcing derivative trading onto public exchanges.

You have to understand that CNBC represents a point of view opposite to Johnson and Kaufman.  In our equity and bond markets today, making money depends on large volume trading and volatility.  Boring, stable markets reduce trader and exchange profits.  And boring, stable markets make CNBC boring as well–or at least the CNBC management believes so.  The cable station is a child of the markets and the symbiotic feedback loop between the markets and CNBC is fairly straightforward.

Nevertheless the CNBC staff took Johnson’s and Kaufman’s opinions fairy well.  Show co-host Joe Kernen did make a stab at placing Fannie and Freddie (government sponsored enterprises that are legally private) as the main culprit for building a housing bubble and, thus, causing the financial meltdown.  This is a Wall Street meme aimed at diverting responsibility from risky, leveraged Wall Street bets to government as the main culprit in the meltdown.

They then went to US Senator Bob Corker, who is opposed to reforming derivative trading and to downizing the TBTF banks.  Corker complained that the derivative reforms will, somehow, limit credit to companies and leave them bereft of any way to hedge currency risk, or product input pricing.  He didn’t explain how this would happen.  He just took it as faith, as did the CNBC staff listening to him.  Those are the official Wall Street memes, of course, which is why Corker quickly followed Simon and Kaufman.

The CNBC crew didn’t ask Corker what he thought about the current situation where more than 90% of derivative trading is done over the counter (OTC)–that is outside of public and regulatory view–by five of the world’s largest banks, four of  them TBTF Wall Street holding companies: (1. JPMorgan Chase, 2. Goldman Sachs, 3. Bank of America, 4. Citibank, 5. HSBC.).

One wonders how our large corporations managed to survive and prosper before the rise of derivatives, and their inherent trading volatility.   Of course they did survive and were quite easily able to hedge currency and material prices without the innovation of opaque, off the board derivative trading and traders.  But those kind of observations challenge the meme’s validity so they weren’t brought up when Corker was on.

Kernen brought up Fannie and Freddie with Kaufman on the air, but made no contrary observations when Corker was on the air.  To be fair, that’s not his job anyway.  He’s there to push the daily Wall Street meme and he does.  That’s what he’s paid to do. 

CNBC needs to re-balance it’s point of view and hire some co-hosts who know finance, markets and trading and offer a different point of view over the day’s events.  This unrelenting, one sided point of view means no one is seriously covering the issues of the day.   Instead of having the occasional, brief appearance, of knowledgeable players who don’t always follow the meme, such people should have a regular chair at the table.  All day long.

Dream on.

Memo To Obama. Don’t Stand Between Bankers And The Pitchforks.

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

In my previous post I recommended reading “13 Bankers,” written by Simon Johnson (a former IMF Banker) and his partner at the blogsite Baseline Scenario, James Kwak, a PhD, soon to be lawyer, and successful software entrepreneur.

In the introduction to that book, the authors repeated reports that the President, during a private meeting with the CEOs of America’s 13 largest banks, told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”  The time was Friday, March 27, 2009.  The stock market had fallen 40%, the economy had lost 4.1 million jobs (on its way to losing more than 8 million) and the public was pretty sure these big bankers had a lot to do with all the misery.  Everything that’s transpired since has solidified the public opinion of who the bad guys are.

Figuratively if not literally the pitchforks were definitely out.  And they still are.

At bottom, reducing the size of so-called too big to fail (TBTF) banks is a political problem.  It’s time the President step aside and let loose the pitchforks.  The political will to do what is right has arrived (watching the Senators skewer Goldman Sachs last week should leave no doubt) and the President should no longer stand in the way. Better, he should grab a pitchfork himself.

From “13 Bankers:”

“In the long term, the most effective constraint on the financial sector is public opinion.  Today, anyone proposing to end the regulation of pharmaceuticals or to suspend government supervision of nuclear power stations would not be taken seriously…The best defense against a massive financial crisis is a popular consensus that too big to fail is too big to exist..The megabanks used political power to obtain their license to gamble with other people’s money; taking that license away requires confronting that power head-on.  It requires a decision that the economic and political power of the new financial oligarchy is dangerous both to economic prosperity and to the democracy that is supposed to ensure that government policies serve the greater good of society.”

TBTF banks are not only not necessary for economic prosperity they are demonstably bad for the nation’s economic prosperity.  They stifle competition with more than half their profits coming from a 78 basis point advantage in borrowing costs over competitors:  An advantage created by their bailout which confirmed investor beliefs that the administration simply won’t allow them to fail–no matter how poorly they invested other people’s money.

We don’t need TBTF banks, we need more competition at the top of the food chain.  We need to dismember TBTF holding companies, separating safer, more stable commercial banks from their riskier investment bank brethren.  That’s the way it was for more than 40 years of terrific economic growth in America.  Forty years of growth without a single financial crisis.

Obama wants to walk a fine line of regulatory reform without disturbing the near monopoly enjoyed by these 13 banks.  The public wants much more.  It wants to eradicate TBTF and it senses the nation’s economy, far from being circumscribed, would better flourish without the obvious mal-investment TBTF banks made.  Mal-investment made with complex, risky securities that hid from regulators the huge leverage being made by TBTF bankers, magnifying a housing slump into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Stand aside, Mr. President.  Once again, the public is ready to lead the politicians.  As FDR replied to a woman badgering him to do more to fight the Great Depression “Miss.  You must force me to do it!”

So do it, Mr. President.




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