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Wednesday, April 8

Why the financial crash happened. Rethinking American society, Part 1 (UPDATED)

Here I talk with one of Pundita blog's earliest 'regular' readers about the true reason for the global financial crash and about America's refusal to confront issues connected with globalization.

CLAUDIA: There's been a lot of finger-pointing about who's most responsible for the financial crash, whether it was greedy bankers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and so on. Who is most responsible?

PUNDITA: All the situations you allude to are third and fourth-order effects of the actual problem, which is that there's too much money in the world. The crash was a kind of Deus ex Machina. It gave humanity a brief reprieve because almost overnight billions if not trillions of money vanished.

So, the crash was akin to taking some water pressure off a cracked dam. The dam can be considered the international monetary system, as overseen by the world's most powerful central banks.

CLAUDIA: If there's too much money why isn't everyone a billionaire? Are you saying there's too much money concentrated in the hands of a few?

PUNDITA: I'm saying there's too much money in the world, period. That's why the crash was only a respite. Amazing but true, humanity is drowning in money even though there's still a lot of poverty. Regarding the poor, think of the old saying, 'Water, water everywhere and none to spare.' And in fact, the poorest nations -- the ones where corruption runs amok -- are doing their part to contribute to the rising flood.

CLAUDIA: Pundita, I'm lost.

PUNDITA: First let's back up. We count computerization as the beginning of the modern era. But the modern era in trade began with the EFT -- electronic funds transfer -- which made possible the modern phase of globalization.

Now stop and think about what EFTs unleashed. Every time a bank makes a loan, it's creating money. Every time you swipe your credit card to buy something that you're not paying for in full at the moment, you're creating money -- or to be more precise your bank is.

At first the central banks could contain and offset the inflationary effects of mushrooming money creation by fiddling with interest rates and deploying various other mechanisms that would sop up excess money.

The mechanisms began to creak from the strain as the success of globalized trade made itself felt in countries outside the handful of successful industrialized nations. The standardization of the medium of globalized monetary exchange, which occurred with the creation of the petrodollar, further streamlined the process of money creation.

The FSU Experience

There were other significant contributing factors to the mushrooming money, which I'll skip over at this point, except to mention the fall of the Iron Curtain. Virtually overnight, vast quantities of money were created by the opening up of the FSU (former Soviet Union) countries, and the rampant corruption that proceeded. This happened because a tremendous amount of money in the form of aid and loans were pumped into the FSU.

And the privatization of the FSU's huge state-run companies that traded in key resources, such as oil and gas, created billionaires who plowed mind-boggling amounts of wealth into the global financial markets.

All this led to corruption on a vast scale and over a very short period of time. Of course there was always corruption in the Soviet Union, but the union's demise opened the floodgates to the Western financial markets. In one case alone, if I recall, $4 billion dollars in aid to Russia was stolen in one swoop -- by Westerners, but the spoils were shared with those in Russia who helped pull off the crime.

Corruption Mushrooms Money

To understand this angle with regard to the money supply, think about how corruption creates vast quantities of money. Say you're a corrupt procurement specialist for equipment that's bought with international loans made to poor countries. You're raking in $100,000 a month in dirty money. You have to hide the source of the bribes, which you do by laundering them through banks and through the creation of front companies.

As soon as a bank gets hold of your dirty deposits it can turn around and loan out based on the deposits, thereby leveraging your dirty money into -- more money.

And the companies you create as fronts can then borrow. This creates yet more money. And of course the profits from the legitimate businesses are banked, where the bank can loan out yet more money -- thereby creating even more money.

CLAUDIA: It's like Mickey Mouse and the brooms in the Sorcerer's New Apprentice.

PUNDITA: [laughing] That's a good visual. Except here the sorcerer never showed up to undo Mickey's botched spell. So humanity's had to depend on increasingly ruinous financial crashes to sop up some of the excess money.

Mega-business of Money

I haven't even gotten to the good part, which happened with the industrialization of money, or what's sometimes called financialization.

Money is supposed to be payment, but it's been transformed into a product -- and during the past two decades, into a very hot product.

There have long been a variety of financial instruments but once trading in those instruments skyrocketed, once entire markets were created to trade in them, a globalized money industry was born that took on a life of its own. Trade in exotic financial instruments mushroomed, which led to things such as junk bond markets, energy futures markets, bundled mortgages markets, and you name it.

So, the money industry quickly passed beyond the ability of any single government or even a consortium of governments to manage. Indeed, every time a national government tried to get a handle on the trade in one type of financial instrument, the trade would flow to another country -- and with the speed of a few taps on a computer keyboard.

That's how you got countries the size of a postage stamp, and countries such as Poland, transforming into world financial capitals even though they exported no goods to speak of. And those very same countries became magnets for "black money" -- profits from illicit trades.

All those exotic financial instruments, which were traded on credit, were in turn creating floods of money. That led to the creation of more exotic trading instruments, because as money piles up, it has be invested somewhere, in something.

So here is where your Sorcerer's Apprentice metaphor really comes into its own. All those buckets that the brooms are carrying can be thought of as financial trading instruments, and the water in the buckets is the money they're creating.

CLAUDIA: Was the Dotcom crash due to this excess money?

PUNDITA: Sure; there are even elements of the 1990s Asian financial crisis which stemmed from the money glut. And that crisis quickly engulfed other world regions and led to the crash of the U.S. stock market.

CLAUDIA: The market crashes work like ShamWow.

PUNDITA: [laughing] You're a good analogous thinker. Yes. But when the most effective mechanism for sopping up excess money is market crashes that cause dislocations throughout a society, that's a sign of a deep socio-economic problem.

The Dope Peddler's Plight

The heavy trading in mortgages, which followed on the heels of the Dotcom crash, arose from the need to do something with floods of money that quickly began to accumulate again in the wake of a crash. And it's been argued that even the U.S.-led housing boom was fueled by the need to find places to put excess money.

At some point what to do with accumulated money becomes a huge problem. This is illustrated by some funny stories about drug dealers who were quite literally suffocating from their ill-gotten gains. That was before the money laundering business became a sophisticated globalized industry, but around the time that globalized drug sales skyrocketed.

When they had no more room in the house to store the cash profits, some drug dealers would dig holes in their yard to store the money. Then the ground would cave in from all the holes, taking the house with it. The cops and firemen would show up and see stacks of 100-dollar bills sticking up from the dirt and rubble. There's another visual for you.

When the illegal bucks got efficiently laundered into the banking system, they began earning big money -- and in turn creating yet more of the stuff.

So, when you start having your money create lots of money you might be okay, until billions of your fellow humans do the same. When they do -- think of Mickey Mouse trying to command the brooms not to keep dumping buckets of water into the castle.

CLAUDIA: You once wrote about globalized banks like Citibank encouraging the Chinese to use credit cards. If even a relatively few people in China start to buy on credit, that would also skyrocket the creation of money.

PUNDITA: Many Chinese still favor cash even for purchases of big items such as cars because those who can afford to blow a wad have a lot of cash. But yes; you can look at the timeline and find places where events caused money creation to spike within a relatively short period. The industrialization of remittances, which occurred near the start of this decade, is another milestone on the timeline.

Remittances as a Microcosm of the Money Industry

Here I'll take a minute to explain how this created another flood of money because it can be applied to many situations. In the old days remittances were an informal family affair. When an immigrant or ex-pat worker in a foreign country scraped up enough money to send home, he'd go to a place such as a halal market or some other local business, which would courier the money back to the old country. Or he'd telegraph the money, if the home country had a Western Union. And the better-off immigrants, the ones who had bank accounts, would do bank-to-bank transfers.

But all this was ponderous, slow and risky -- the latter because home governments often frowned on the lack of control they had over remittances, and because couriers could get robbed of their cash.

So along came major governments and the World Bank and IMF, and got behind streamlining the process of remittances transfers. They encouraged governments in Emerging Markets, aka Developing Countries, to accept remittances as a key means of obtaining hard currency. And they got those governments to encourage their citizens to send remittances when they worked abroad.

With the stamp of government approval, globalized banks were able to make the remittances procedure easy and cheap -- much cheaper than the Mom-and-Pop operations that traditionally handled remittances.

And thus the remittances industry was born, with large numbers of workers all over the world paying a small fee for making the remittances -- and I think maybe in some cases paying no fee. All this came in time with the globalization of the workforce.

The upshot was that remittances skyrocketed. So even though the banks were only collecting a tiny fee, that created tons of new money. Most importantly, banks getting hold of the remittance money, if only for a few hours, could loan out against it, creating yet more tons of money.

CLAUDIA: I wonder if they've thought up making a market in trading remittances futures. It's as if anything we do today can be turned into a financial instrument.

Do central banks know about this problem of excess money?

Why Governments Hate to Talk About Excess Money

PUNDITA: I doubt that kind of market exists, but give them time. Yes, in theory you can make a financial market in anything -- even betting on which raindrop will roll down a window pane fastest, as in "Guys and Dolls." Then there could be insurance to cover your position on raindrops -- and that insurance in turn could be traded. This of course is outright gambling, but much about the trade in exotic financial instruments is just that, except that gambling doesn't create interest -- until the bookie's or casino's profits are banked.

Sure the central banks know.

CLAUDIA: Then why is the Fed printing up tons more money and creating tons more money through borrowing as the solution to the financial crisis?

PUNDITA: [laughing] I didn't think I'd have so much fun explaining the end of civilization. Well, see, they're trying to create a sort of life-jacket for people to ride out the floods of money. So in their view what does it matter if you're bobbing in 20 feet of water or 30?

They're applying outmoded monetary theories. The Keynesian model, all the money supply management models, went out the window at least a decade ago. Money in this magnitude is unprecedented in human affairs.

CLAUDIA: Pundita, why is nobody in government talking to the public about the real cause of the crash?

PUNDITA: Part of the reason is that they can't see how to talk about it without making it seem that they're attacking globalization. That is Taboo. So they talk around the edges of the problem, and they talk about its effects. The same thing happened at the G20 Summit last week. They went nowhere near talking about the real problem -- at least, not in public.

CLAUDIA: Why isn't it possible to make excess money disappear when it's in the form of debt?

PUNDITA: Oh, that sort of thing has been done! Remember the G7 meeting in 2005, when they forgave Africa's billions in debt? But that's like Mickey throwing a couple brooms out the window in an attempt to lower the flood waters. As soon as those two disappear, five new brooms and their water buckets materialize.

As soon as a country's debt is forgiven, that leaves the government free to borrow more money -- or to mooch it outright in the form of financial aid. So the whole cycle starts up again, complete with corrupt officials skimming a few million or billion and having to launder it. And with all that new aid or loan money sitting in banks, that means the banks can turn around and loan out against the deposits, thus, creating more floods of money.

In short, you get about two months of a breather when you forgive massive debt. Then the flood waters start rising again.

In theory, you could just keep forgiving debt, or allow countries to default on their debt, in an attempt to keep the flood waters at bay. But here we come to a snag. Unless you address the root cause, you're leaving unaddressed a secondary effect that will actually precipitate the crash of civilization -- and which is busily doing so right this minute.

Black Money and Secondary Effects of Financialization

Financialization is not exactly the same as capitalization. So when Marxist economists argue that financialization is capitalism run amok, they're just being cheesy.

The basic function of stock markets is to raise capital for companies that produce goods and services. The financial markets are to raise money -- money that is not necessarily tied to the production of goods and services -- beyond servicing a money market.

Now, imagine that you're an investor, plugging along with a 5% return on stock in your favorite Widget, Inc. company. Along comes a friend and says, 'Hey! I'm getting a 10% return by playing a market in financial instruments!'

Multiply that situation by billions of trades, then do not ask why so many corporations are running around the world, cutting deals with foreign governments so they can raise enough capital to compete in the cutthroat globalized markets.

On many levels this situation is disastrous. It's a blow to liberty, not to mention civilization. Walk the cat backward and you'll see why. The lobbyists for those corporations lean on their home governments not to condemn human rights violations and unfair trade practices in the foreign countries where the corporations are roosted.

And because corporations from so many different countries are competing for the government's help, the foreign government can demand whatever the traffic will bear in bribes for their help. If you want to see where this has led, watch the PBS "Frontline" show this week. It's titled "Black Money."

From the blurb about the show, it seems the documentary focuses on just one kind of black money -- the bribes paid by transnational corporations to governments -- and not the black money from illegal activities. But the bribe amounts that the corporations pay are staggering in total -- they're in the billions.

And all those bribes have to be laundered in some fashion, which often includes investments in illegal businesses such as drugs, the arms trade, and the WMD-parts and technology trade -- and in supporting terrorism. And last but not least, helping to take over entire economies.

Then militaries throw up their hands and ask, 'Where the hell is all this dirty money coming from that's supporting these insurgencies and terrorist gangs?'

Too often, the tragic answer is that it starts with legitimate firms just trying to get a wedge in a foreign country because they can't raise enough from capital markets, despite the huge pool of investors.

Financialization, or rather the huge part it plays in investment markets, is squeezing out much investment capital because its returns to the investor can be dazzling and quick, in relation to capital investments. Thus, the phenomenon of mid-level employees who can make tens of millions in yearly bonuses for pulling investment into a particular financial instrument.

Another secondary effect is the extreme inflationary aspect of too much money. That aspect has been tamped down in many countries simply because the economy is moribund due to bad government fiscal policies.

CLAUDIA: [laughing] That reminds me of the essay you wrote in defense of morons.

PUNDITA: I'd forgotten about that post. But yes, human society has been saved many a time by the actions of idiots. Humanity moves forward on many pairs of stilts including faith and reason, knowledge and ignorance, and idiocy and intelligence.

India Dodges the Inflation Monster

Rescue by idiocy happened in India starting around the 1960s. I don't know whether "Slumdog Millionaire" mentioned this little factoid -- I tend to doubt it -- but there are more millionaires in India than the entire population of the United States. And the U.S., remember, is the third largest population in the world.

That factoid does not count Indians who are simply very well off financially. In fact, if you're a reasonably bright and well-connected Indian businessman it's hard not to get rich by selling products in India.

And this wealth was created prior to the business-friendly improvements that the Indian government began in the 1990s after they wised up.

To understand how all that money could have been made in a heavily socialized economy, think of the consumer base. Think of the basic household supplies that a billion people require, and which have to be replaced on a frequent basis. Think of toothbrushes, toothpaste, detergent, plastic buckets. Everything you can think of, you have a billion consumers for it.

So, by the 1980s, in big Indian cities it should have cost $5 million in rupee equivalent for an apartment the size of a shoebox. Why didn't this inflationary event happen? Because in those days India's central government, which was a knockoff of what Michael Vlahos termed, "Creepy European socialism," strangled investments.

And thus, Indian businessmen converted rupees to dollars and pounds sterling and shipped them overseas by the boatload. Then they plowed the fortunes into investment opportunities -- and banks -- around the world. Where of course it helped mushroom the global money supply.

All that money could have done so much good at home. But that is how India was saved from galloping inflation arising from too much money chasing too few goods and prime real estate: by siphoning it off to other countries in reaction to idiotic fiscal policy on the home front.

CLAUDIA: What's going to happen when there's no place left to siphon it to? My God. The human race is drowning in its own success.

PUNDITA: There are ways to brake the problem of excess money, although it will always be a problem going forward. Some of the ways have very unpleasant side effects, such as totalitarianism or military dictatorships to enforce low goods consumption and control financial markets.

American Ostriches

Before an intelligent and humane solution can be worked out, first societies have to squarely confront the problem. The United States should be in the vanguard because we hold the key to braking the problem.

The obstacle to this, as I mentioned, is the connection between excess money and globalization. As soon as you even look as if you're going to say a word against globalization, many Americans stick their fingers in their ears and chant, 'La la la I won't listen I won't listen I won't listen you commie isolationist fruitcake.'

The anti-globalists aren't any better. They pretend to listen and take copious notes. Then they extract quotes out of context and print them on a bumper sticker: "Globalization is killing the planet." You could have saved your breath.

Then there are the corporate heads who know exactly what you're talking about, and who will go to any lengths to shut you up.

CLAUDIA: What about the Obama administration? Do you think they understand the true situation?

Equalization and How it Failed in America

PUNDITA: President Obama's heart is in the right place, if he truly wants to address astronomical health care costs, inadequate public education and job training, energy requirements and dilapidated infrastructures -- even though his plans for executing these goals are open to argument. However, his every proposal to help America is like trying to heal a festering wound by applying a clean bandage.

The wound is what I call Equalization -- or to be more precise, the blind application of Equalization in the USA. Here I'm not speaking of factor-price equalization, but in a broader sense.

I'll describe Equalization as the theory that the greatest disparity in income between the richest and poorest nations can disappear if the rich nations stop producing goods, focus on providing services, and become consumers of the poorer nation's goods. Thus, the benefits of trade for rich and poor nations are supposed to eventually equalize.(1)

How are the rich nations to fund their consumerism if they don't produce goods? By their citizens funneling a portion of their disposable income into investments, which not only makes it easier for poor countries to compete with the trading giants, but also helps finance businesses in the poorest countries.

CLAUDIA: That idea turned out to be a disaster for this country.

PUNDITA: As with so many economic theories Equalization omits many factors, which has caused its proponents to overlook galactic-sized chunks of reality.

One overlooked reality in this case is that only a relative handful of people in the rich countries are capable of being full-time investors -- and skilled ones. That means they put their investment money and trust in the hands of professional traders. That means a small number of people come to control vast wealth and capital flows.

You see where that led: to the Dotcom bubble, the Enron debacle, the bizarre credit instruments that finally crashed the financial markets, and individual employee bonuses in the tens of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, as our consumerism helped ease the worst poverty in many countries, inside the USA Equalization was working in reverse. A smaller and smaller number of Americans holding greater and greater wealth. And a larger and larger number of Americans falling from the middle class and having to go deeper and deeper into debt just to meet basic needs, or continue to consume above their baseline needs.

That explanation isn't a pure example of Equalization -- which I don't think exists outside the theory -- because the United States didn't fully give up export trade in things. But that's the basic idea of Equalization: an investor-consumer class substitutes for a goods-producing class in a rich country, to the betterment of the world's poorest exporting nations.

CLAUDIA: I've never heard that before but it's the craziest thing I've ever heard. How did that idea gain acceptance? And isn't a large population like ours becoming involved in the financial markets swelling the global money supply -- creating the problem you've been talking about?

PUNDITA: Well, that's why I said that the USA holds the key to getting a handle on the problem. But sure you've heard that idea before; you just haven't heard it discussed separately from globalization.

CLAUDIA: You mean I've just never heard it spelled out in plain English, just like everyone else hasn't! Pundita, what's been going on?

PUNDITA: I suppose it wouldn't do to call a spade a spade because when put into practice, the concept has so many holes that any reasonable American who hears it says the same as you about it.

But it's not a conspiracy. The idea gained popularity over a succession of U.S. government administrations and to my knowledge it was never spelled out in domestic policy; all we heard about it was in references to the benefits of globalization.

And I suspect that the looming disaster with the Social Security program, which was foreseen decades ago, was a factor. I think it gave a boost to encouraging the growth of an investor class among middle-income Americans as a means to supplement Social Security.

There were several other things about Equalization to attract politicians from both sides of the US political aisle. And of course it was hugely attractive to globalized corporations, including banks and investment houses.

It was also attractive to American officials who believed that the country's economic success depended on raising billions of people out of poverty so they could become consumers of U.S. goods.

And the idea attracted radical environmentalists -- the ones who believed that the planet could only be saved if the biggest industrial nations slowed down their production.

Another group among the U.S. Equalization boosters were the journalists and media moguls who loved the idea of Americans using investments to become more 'socially responsible' toward the poorer nations.

That's only the short-list. Americans might have backed into Equalization but we took to it like a duck to water. What we didn't stop to consider is what happens when so many relatively well-off people in the 'First World' nations invest a chunk of their disposable income in the globalized money industry -- and when their investing is joined by investments from huge numbers of people in the countries that Equalization helped.

Financial markets sprouted around the globe like a desert sprouting grass in the wake of a drenching rain, as the world's money supply kept rising, and rising, and rising.

Thus, solutions are proposed that are not directed to the problem of excess money but to its second- and third-order effects. That returns us to the G20 Summit in London.

The G20 Leaders Play Ostrich

As near as I can make out, the summit leaders are inching toward outfitting everyone on earth with a life jacket to survive the flood of excess money. The jacket would be made from draconian regulations for the money industries and from money created to serve the needs of the population and to service government debt.

The reasoning is that when the flood finally bursts the dam we can all bobble around in our life jackets and hopefully many of us can hang on until the waters recede.

CLAUDIA: Creating gobs of fiat money just makes the flood of excess money rise higher. [laughing] Oh but wait, I get it! If we're bobbing in 10 or 20 feet of water where's the difference as far as our life jacket is concerned?

PUNDITA: I think you're in the swing of G20 thinking. The big catch with the G20 life jacket is that keeping it strapped to so many people will require totalitarian measures. These measures won't work very well, mind you, a point which I think the G20 leaders would rather not confront.

Draconian oversight measures would only create more rogue regimes. ('Come live in sunny downtown Anarchy, where your life won't be worth a plug nickel but at least you won't die wrapped in red tape.')

And the G20 solution would only create more layers of corruption, which will dump yet more buckets of money into the rising tide of money sloshing around the planet.

CLAUDIA: They're trying to corner all the consequences of excess money without fixing the problem.

PUNDITA: My work is done. Nicely put.

I don't know about you but I need a break. If you want to discuss more of this later, let me know.

CLAUDIA: I'd very much like to continue with this if you have the time. What you've told me is upsetting but it's better to know what we're really facing. Thank you very, very much, Pundita.

PUNDITA: You're welcome, Claudia.

[Part 2 of this discussion will be published on Monday, 6:00 AM ET]

1) "Alternatively, rational economic agents in "first world" economies may choose to invest in financial assets instead of human capital — further eroding the long term ability of the "first world" country to produce and grow. As predicted by Adam Smith, this effect would reduce the inequality between First World and Third World countries, increasing overall fairness." - From Wikipedia article on neomercantilism
This entry is crossposted at RBO with great illustrations, of course. It's hard for me to pick a favorite but maybe the close-up of the ostrich wins by a beak. What a fitting portrait of the G20 participants. RBO also has an editorial comment: "... her version of ‘Why It’s Better For the US to Export More Products Than to Eat Bank Notes’ For Dummies.
This entry is crossposted at Uppity Woman. Thank you, Comradess Uppity! Labor in potato fields always good for sharpening mind!
Yesterday evening Dan Riehl at Riehl World View linked to this post and gave it high praise for the information it provided and criticism for the length of the published dialogue, and for bringing in some material he considered a distraction from the central points, thereby making the length "that much more of an issue given the format."

His comments are a repeat of advice he gave me in 2005 when I complained to him that no matter how hard I worked to break down unfamiliar concepts for the general reader I didn't think I was making headway.

His point was that I had to be more sensitive to the medium I was working in -- the blogosphere -- and that if I didn't want to stoop to providing catchy 'hooks,' I was writing for the wrong medium.

I followed his advice in catch-can fashion, but often ignored it during the melee of research, analysis, and writing, which could be exhausting.

A compromise might be to provide a summary or introduction for posts that discuss unfamiliar concepts or bring up a series of complex interlocked issues.

The thought of taking time to summarize makes me feel as I have to swallow castor oil. But Dan's criticism is very constructive, particularly at this juncture in my blogging, when I'm striking out in a new direction.

All right; I'll think on all this. Thanks, Dan.
"The heavy trading in mortgages, which followed on the heels of the Dotcom crash, arose from the need to do something with floods of money that quickly began to accumulate again in the wake of a crash. And it's been argued that even the U.S.-led housing boom was fueled by the need to find places to put excess money."

This all makes my brain hurt, but I guess it's a good kind of hurt.
Beth, I feel the same way you do. But I just heard from Procrustes at RBO. She's gonna crosspost it -- and of course with illustrations. That's what we need: peektures, lot's of cool peektures to make it all easier on the brain LOL
The terrorists of 9-11 indeed got what they wanted. Absolute disruption.
I agree, it was Greenspan....

"rouge regimes"?? Hopefully you're not talking about regimes heavily invested in makeup but rather rogue regimes.

Thanks for some very informative and in-depth discussion of our $ troubles.

Hangtown Bob
Hangtown Bob Thank you for catching that typo. LOL. I'll fix right away
Here's a chart of the dollar money supply.


Note that supply really took off AFTER the recession set in, not before.

Either your premiss is disproved or we're making matters much, much worst.
Joseph, I was referring to the global money supply; the amount of which can only be 'guesstimated,' for several reasons (including the huge amounts of black money and counterfeit money), although the signs of oversupply don't depend on knowing the exact amount.

However, the chart you provided actually tends to support my claim.
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