«The role of finance has to be fundamentally rethought»

Jamie Morgan, an English contrarian analyst, former researcher for the Open University and the School of Social Sciences in the University of Manchester, UK, currently at The Center for Excellence in Global Governance Research of the University of Helsinki, Finland, is an economist with a MA in International Relations and a PhD in International Politics. Jamie Morgan has lived and worked also in China, Thailand and the USA. He has published in a wide variety of journals on subjects as diverse as political economy, Chinese areas studies, philosophy, international relations theory and social theory. He recently wrote an insightful paper about the limits of central bank policy and has an interesting research about China. The roots of the present crisis, the policy response by central bankers and Governments and the unique position of China in all this mess were the main themes of our conversation.

QUESTION: One of the constraints you mentioned in your analysis of the central bank policy in the US is the fact that Alan Greenspan (former chairman of the FED), Tim Geithner (Obama secretary of the Treasury), Ben Bernanke (chairman of the FED), Lawrence Summers (Director of the White House’s National Economic Council) are sons of the same “mother”, as you said are drawn from the same pool that created the current problems. Do you think that choosing Geithner and Summers was the main casting error from Obama Administration regarding the policy to manage the depression? The best solution is to lay-off this magnificent people?

 

ANSWER: Not a main error no. Not a main error in the sense that there were ready alternatives in terms of personnel to call on. Not a main error in the sense that there were many options for Obama in terms of what to do about the crisis in the short term once it had occurred. The issue now is what will be the long term structure of the finance system. Will it be mainly liberal with some intervention or mainly controlled with limited markets? Whatever the current rhetoric it will probably remain mainly liberal. A liberal system is driven by finance institutions as profit making organizations with a motive to develop ‘financial innovations’. These allow more financial transactions, more lending, more investment and speculation. There are advantages to this. But there is always the vulnerability because of the profit motive and the operation of markets. Such a system creates an arms race between regulators and the regulated. It creates a context in which regulators are always playing catch up. Any system has constitutional rules that make it what it is and indicative rules that provide guidance on how things are currently done. The problem with more liberal markets is that they encourage constitutional rules to be treated as indicative rules and as such the mentality becomes one of how to push the boundaries. A great deal of financial innovation could just as easily be called evasion. What else is a special purpose vehicle? There are always economic arguments that can be applied to these things to provide some form of justification.

 

Jamie Morgan: «Economics is method led in teaching and research rather than reality led. When things go wrong it is reality’s fault for failing to conform to the models created through method. Economists refer to this as problems of ‘distortion’, ‘exogeneity’, ‘political effects’ and so on. Economics is highly conservative in its approach to change.»

 

QUESTION: Economics is basically rhetoric to ‘cover’ other agent movements?

 

ANSWER: When securitization began it was hailed as a way to extend home ownership in the US. But it is important to remember that this wasn’t the motive of those creating the securities. They aren’t interested in the overall effects of what they do on the structure of the economy. They are interested in the individual technique and its profitability – whether it has a market and how it can be exploited. Exploiting it means pushing the new technique into new areas of business (expanding the market). It is a short step from securitizing credit worthy mortgages to the ‘toxic waste’ of later collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). There wasn’t enough skepticism, perhaps, regarding the broader questions of what is the role of economy in society and what is the role of finance and banking in society? Economics has become rather poor at asking and answering such questions. Social welfare has become a quantitative subject rather than an ethical debate. This brings one back to Greenspan, Bernanke and all the rest. Economics has had decades of development now in which it has become a highly technical discipline. Careers are made in terms of applying new statistical techniques and in developing new mathematical models of enduring problems of ‘resource allocation’. Economics is method led in teaching and research rather than reality led. When things go wrong it is reality’s fault for failing to conform to the models created through method. Economists refer to this as problems of ‘distortion’, ‘exogeneity’, ‘political effects’ and so on. Economics is highly conservative in its approach to change.

 

QUESTION: In what sense?

 

ANSWER: Just look at the dominance of the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) over the last thirty years. The EMH states that rational individuals immediately evaluate and incorporate all available information for a financial asset (equities etc) and this is reflected in the pricing of that asset. As such it is impossible to develop a successful strategy to profit from speculation in the longer term because there are no irrational trends to be exploited. This has been a mainstay of prestigious MBA courses. It implies that ‘bubbles’ and market crashes are extremely rare if not impossible. The EMH has been criticized from within economics. But simply gaining a hearing for the idea that information is imperfect, people are not fully rational and markets do not necessarily sort themselves out has taken a long time. Information and behavioral economics have been developing since the 1970s. Joseph Stiglitz came from this field, so did Robert Shiller. The fact that one can win a Nobel Prize for saying what seems perfectly obvious to anyone other than an economist indicates just what the problem with economics as a field is. Would I fire Geithner, Bernanke, Volker and the others? No. I would advocate a sea change in how economics is studied and taught so that their eventual replacements are more diverse. Where is this generation’s J. K. Galbraith or J. M. Keynes? Who asks the difficult questions and sees things from a point of view that no one else is? I would also advocate a change in the way economic and financial policy is made. More checks and balances are required, more seemingly naïve questions need to be asked? Economic theory as is creates overconfidence.

 

QUESTION: Do you think in the ECB we have the same problem of group thinking?

 

ANSWER: Yes and no. The theoretical problem is perhaps similar since there is a limited range of economic theory and ways of modeling economies to draw on in providing ways of thinking about policy. The Taylor Rule Framework [the manipulation of short term interest rates to maintain stable inflation and economic growth] has been very influential for all central banks in the past decade. Price stability as part of a monetarist orthodoxy has been over-emphasized by all central banks. The ECB, however, is different than other central banks in terms of a practical problem. The ECB faces the problem of creating a consensus that is rather different than other domestic central banks. How does one pursue monetary policy across Europe when the individual economies are so diverse? What do the German and Italian economies have in common? Maintaining monetary union may well prove a real challenge in the next few years because there are good reasons for different economies to want to push interest rates and the Euro in different directions based on domestic growth, public debt, and inflation issues.

 

Jamie Morgan: «The idea that capitalist economies can grow consistently without recession is probably dead. It requires a combination of amnesia and over-confidence in both free markets and the powers of state intervention/regulation to believe that recession can always be avoided.»

 

QUESTION: The NICE (non-inflationary, consistently expansionary) economy invented by Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, the ‘Great Moderation’ of volatility suggested by Bernanke a few years ago, all that mantra trying to convince the politicians that the business cycles and the instability of  the financial system were things of the past is finally dead?

 

ANSWER: The idea that capitalist economies can grow consistently without recession is probably dead. It requires a combination of amnesia and over-confidence in both free markets and the powers of state intervention/regulation to believe that recession can always be avoided. That said, some policies will be better than others and economies can be more or less stable. Also, when contracting they can be returned to stability more or less quickly. To do so requires a fuller understanding of the vulnerability of particular economic systems to crisis. To do so also, and rather paradoxically, requires the acknowledgement that the future is unwritten and economic systems are too complex to be simply predicted or presumed to continue in one form over the long term. It is important to look for broad systemic causes of possible instability (vulnerabilities). These are real characteristics that can then be addressed. For example, it doesn’t require any great genius to acknowledge that rising levels of debt in an economy create potential problems. Understanding the problem though requires exploring what the nature of that debt is and why it has occurred. Again, economists have proved rather poor at this kind of broader exploration of causes and future possibilities. Economists like narrow questions, often set up as hypothesis tests. Since much of economics is now quantitative and obsessed with statistical forecasting it is ironic that they have such a poor track record at identifying the key moments and forms of crisis that really matter to us. It was Keynes perhaps who said, it is better to be approximately right rather than precisely wrong.

 

Jamie Morgan: «The sources of that debt were of course also sources of growth in and of themselves – the financial sector. In some economies, housing, retail, finance and services associated with all of these became the main drivers of growth. In a sense these economies (the US, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Iceland, etc.) became increasingly reliant on unstable and unsustainable sources of growth.»

 

QUESTION: Regarding the crisis, it seems from your recent paper at Cambridge Journal of Economics that you would advice two extreme moves from the first moment in August 2007: a rapid cut to 0% in interest rates and a pre-emptive multi-trillion dollar exercise. You mean a big shock therapy in the first first moments? So the big political mistake from the central bankers and Treasury and Finance Ministers was they were reacting always slowly and too-late regarding the course of events?

 

ANSWER: Yes, but understandably so. As I suggest in the paper, they had become prisoners of discourse (their theories and attitudes) events and institutional arrangements (the rules and blind spots of the central banks and other regulators). The big mistake was really to allow economic development to follow a pathological course in the first place. On a global basis there has been a mismatch between export dependent economies and import dependent economies creating problems for the flow of capital. There has also been a general tendency for GDP to grow faster than incomes meaning that the economies with high levels of consumption necessarily required more debt to maintain growth. The sources of that debt were of course also sources of growth in and of themselves – the financial sector. In some economies, housing, retail, finance and services associated with all of these became the main drivers of growth. In a sense these economies (the US, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Iceland, etc.) became increasingly reliant on unstable and unsustainable sources of growth. The credit freeze that began in August 2007 in what then became known as the US sub-prime crisis with its associated problem of CDOs was a manifestation of systemic pathology. The systemic crisis could have begun in lots of different ways. It could of course have remained an attritional crisis of slow decline if Lehman Brothers had been approached in a different way by the Bush administration. Even that attritional crisis could have been ameliorated if the main central banks and treasuries had approached the issue of stabilizing the supply of credit differently.

QUESTION: From the 1970s it seems that the financial system developed an extreme rent-seeking dynamics coupled with an oligopolistic structure based on risky leverage. This system “engulfed” and “financialized” all the economy and markets, bringing systemic risk to the edifice. How we sort out of this box-trap if liquidity management and interest rates manipulation can’t fix it?

 

ANSWER: I think the role of finance has to be fundamentally rethought. Should the finance sector be a source of economic growth in and of itself or should it exist on a smaller scale to provide a controlled means of desired growth for other sectors? This is the key question. Ideas about economic development, knowledge economies, post-industrial societies etc. tend to lead to the notion that economies have to ‘progress’ in the direction of providing services since this is where their competitive advantage over newer economies lies. This argument is often conflated with the rise of finance. There are, however, no good reasons why economies should increasingly rely on their service sector and why they should also expand financial services. Who is being ‘serviced’? What does this mean?

 

Jamie Morgan: «Changing the finance system in any fundamental way therefore confronts a political problem and a basic economic problem of structural change and dislocation. That said, smaller finance with less ’rent seeking’ speculation, intra-financial multiplication etc. would be one where banking operations involved little or no proprietary trading, and would be mainly deposit based in its operations. If it was deposit based it would necessarily require a combination of higher savings rates and lower consumption rates. Do people want that? I can’t answer that question for them.»

 

QUESTION: The gurus say that “progress” is financial hegemony and financial globalization. Isn´t it? Hilferding’s financial capitalism of the beginning of the 20th Century was a toddler if we benchmark with today’s financialization…

 

ANSWER: It is worth remembering that the overall cost to world economies of the financial crisis is far in excess of any employment and tax effects from those financial services in the last decade. One of the big confusions here is that globalization is often used as a ‘cause’ for changes that have occurred and that cannot be resisted. Globalization is an outcome not a cause. It is a power distribution that is expressed as a set of economic relations. Its current manifestation did bring growth of a kind, but a highly unstable, highly unequal kind. It had its ‘masters of the universe’. There is no reason why different relations are not possible. What is required is the will. One of the curious aspects of economics is that it usually relies on the basic assumption that we are rational individuals but at the same time it tends to simply reject the idea that as rational individuals we are capable of collectively engaging in dialogue to seek rational solutions to our collective problems. Economics is all about the power of individual action aggregated as mindless mobs that are described as optimal market effects. Willed collective action is seen as a distortion. This is anti-democratic and a rather depressing judgment on human potential. The main stumbling blocks of course are that financial capital is extremely influential in major economies and that financial sectors are large sectors of many important economies. Changing the finance system in any fundamental way therefore confronts a political problem and a basic economic problem of structural change and dislocation. That said, smaller finance, with less ’rent seeking’ speculation, intra-financial multiplication, etc., would be one where banking operations involved little or no proprietary trading, and would be mainly deposit based in its operations. If it was deposit based it would necessarily require a combination of higher savings rates and lower consumption rates. Do people want that? I can’t answer that question for them. If they did, it would be likely that capital markets would have less of the feel of casinos and more of the feel of chapels. Is this desirable? It really comes down to your faith in market forces. The more chapel-like the system became the less need there would be for ‘risk spreading’ and thus the less need for financial innovation and hedging. Derivatives markets and all the other areas of finance that so few people really understand would whither.

 

QUESTION: Those financial risky innovations must disappear?

 

ANSWER: They would not disappear, however, as long as global trade continued to occur in ways that required insurance on future currency and price movements. Here one comes back to the old argument for a single global currency, or at least a non-State official reserve currency, like Keynes ‘Bancor’. This is a radical step. Moreover, the simple reduction of capital markets would have a whole range of other social ramifications. Private pension systems would now operate in a radically altered investment environment and this might change the role of public pensions. By definition financialization has created a whole range of social effects that would have to be addressed. It would be a road that it would be difficult to take just a few steps down, which is one reason why states will hesitate. But if you look around you at mass unemployment, at the future tax burden and devastation of public spending, at the effects of consumption based societies that increasingly focus on individual satisfaction and confuse this with personal autonomy, then perhaps there is a mandate.

 

QUESTION: The financial crisis is near the end, or we risk have a double-dip recession?

 

ANSWER: No one genuinely knows. There are too many x factors involved. Behind every set of numbers are basic assumptions about what government, corporate and individual attitudes and behavior will be and how these will interact. Things could go ‘right’ and things could go ‘wrong’. Either way though, the effects of the recession on corporations, the heavy losses incurred by banks (affecting future lending) and the fiscal problems of most states mean that even if things go ‘right’ it is likely that any recovery will be slow. This is not necessarily a bad thing, painful though it is likely to be. One of the problems of a rapid return to rapid growth is that it would likely be based on pressure on banks to increase the supply of credit and improve the conditions under which it is given. This risks extending the period in which banks are poorly capitalized, which creates ongoing problems of bank solvency. At the same time, it risks reigniting many of the pathological developments – particularly in the UK and US – that resulted in the problems in the first place – from imprudent securitization to housing bubbles. There are no welcome answers once the kind of financial crisis we have had has manifested.

 

QUESTION: In the vast group of economies with a large “financial deepening” regarding the GDP, with the largest financialization of the economy, can we separate the cases of those that made also a big bet in the last technologic revolution? Cases like the US and Ireland, or Singapore, and their tech-led strategies, were not different than the other ones like Spain or Iceland or even the UK?

ANSWER: Yes they can be separated in some ways. All economies are different. This affects their causal role in economic events and also the consequences for each state of those events. That said, there are commonalities, leverage levels created by issuing financial institutions, for example. Housing market effects… The financial crisis is not a replay of the dot.com boom and the crash of 2000-2. That was an equity bubble begun in the US by particular characteristics (the growth of venture capital, deregulation of telecoms, new developments that increased the effectiveness and reduced the costs of information technology…). It had significant effects on world markets but not in the fundamental way that a finance and banking crisis has. Liquidity and the supply of credit are central to economies. Confidence in banks and its withdrawal has wide ranging effects that something like the collapse of Enron cannot emulate. A ‘run’ on a tech company doesn’t mean the same thing as a ‘run’ on a bank. Remember that the collapse of the finance system was effectively a series of runs of different kinds: a loss of confidence in the value of securities making them impossible to value, the withdrawal of counterparties and capital from investment banks, margin calls on financial organizations such as hedge funds that were highly leveraged using securities as collateral based in short term ‘rolling debt’, the withdrawal of deposits from commercial banks… knock on effects to equity markets. All of these things precipitated recession rather than responded to it.

 

Part II – The China factor – understanding China in the current financial system crisis

 

QUESTION: Your recent analysis about the limits of central bank policy is focused in the three major central banks, FED (The Reserve Federal System, of the United States), ECB (European Central Bank) and Bank of England (BofE). It seems that the moves and actions from other central banks like the Bank of China (BofCh) are also important, due to the actual power position of China in the real world financial system. How you evaluate the behavior of BofCh since the 2007 subprime crisis?  Just recently, BofCh said it will continue a “moderately loose monetary policy” and analysts continue worried with the risks of a big bubble in stocks and property in China.

 

ANSWER: The Bank of China is important but this needs some context. It cannot be viewed in isolation from the broader role of China. Over the last decade China has had 3 linked main roles. First, it has since joining the WTO been the preferred location for production and assembly of a whole range of export products. Clothes, shoes, computers, toys etc. Low wage levels and low margins helped to create underlying price deflation in the West that in turn helped enable the long term growth in consumption with low overall inflation there. This occurred in the context of a trade imbalance where China imported far less than it exported. As such China was accumulating foreign currency and became prone to pressure for its own currency, if allowed to float freely, to appreciate. Second, to avoid this appreciation China has managed its currency and spent billions on preventing currency appreciation since this would make its exports more expensive. The US in particular has frequently accused China of ‘currency manipulation’ in contravention of international regulations. Third, in ‘recycling’ foreign currency, particularly the US$, China has been a main buyer of US Treasury Securities, and also of other traded securities such as Collateralized Mortgage Backed Obligations issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and various others. It, therefore, also contributed to the capacity of Western economies to generate more debt, public and private, at higher levels of leverage.

 

QUESTION: Most American economists from right and left wing blame China for that West-China “marriage” of the last twenty years…

 

ANSWER: It would be wrong, however, to simply blame China for its role in the gradual development of the conditions that led to the recent financial and economic crisis. China did not create the system, it did not create the Basel Accords, it did not create the WTO, and it did not force other states to borrow and spend beyond their means or design increasingly exotic ways of producing debt. China has played a role in a dysfunctional system.

 

QUESTION: Sure, but has China power to change that dysfunctional system?

 

ANSWER: Of course, the problems of that system are also China’s problems. It is a one party authoritarian state. Its ruling party has little popular legitimacy based on ideas anymore. It has become a ‘performance regime’. This is one where the right to rule is based mainly on the capacity of the party to deliver improvements in material conditions or standards of living. Low growth or recession and rising unemployment in a country with no reliable formal avenues for genuine political participation or dissent to create genuine checks and balances is a huge potential problem for the state. Particularly when the country has accumulated so many other problems: corruption, environmental degradation, land disputes, rising income inequalities, ethnic divisions in the West, a failure to replace the old health and welfare system that was based on the work units and communes etc.

 

Jamie Morgan: «The current recovery in China’s economic growth seems to be mainly based on property speculation, and on government spending for existing or new projects. Property speculation never ends well, it is the illusion of growth. Since the new government spending, initiated since November 2008, has been very rapid one must question how well planned and effective that spending has been and is likely to be.»

 

QUESTION: The Chinese ‘performance regime’ is at risk?

 

ANSWER: Since China has a high export market dependency, contraction in Western markets has to be offset by new avenues of growth in China. Unlike most Western states, China has its huge reserves to draw on to generate spending and boost the domestic economy. As an authoritarian regime it also has a great deal of power to compel its banks and larger corporations (quasi-privatized or not) to comply with its policies. As such, China has moved very quickly to a Keynesian fiscal policy as well as, as you suggested, a ‘loose monetary policy’. The state is engaging in a wide range of new infrastructure projects, tax rebates, and spending incentives. At the same time all the major banks are being ‘encouraged’ to improve the terms and conditions of lending.

 

QUESTION: This Chinese Keynesianism will be successful?

ANSWER: However, that has created a series of tensions. China currently has a high savings rate. For China to become genuinely less export dependent it must create its own consumer society. The problem is that changing deep-seated behavior is difficult. Most Chinese view the state with great distrust. Any additional money is saved because it may be needed for unanticipated medical bills, for retirement (especially problematic due to the one child policy), for school fees for the next generation, to cover sudden unemployment… Consumption may be increasing in China but the prospect that such consumption will become a domestic economic driver to offset export dependency is unlikely. This didn’t work in Japan. The current recovery in China’s economic growth seems to be mainly based on property speculation, and on government spending for existing or new projects. Property speculation never ends well; it is the illusion of growth. Since the new government spending, initiated since November 2008, has been very rapid one must question how well planned and effective that spending has been and is likely to be. To a large degree one would guess that China is simply hoping that it can outspend the recession in the West i.e. that consumption and growth will recover there, restoring export growth.

 

QUESTION: Can China continue to be the financial power house of last resort for the US as the Italian and the German family banks were for the European empires of the 16th Century?

 

ANSWER: China of course can contribute to the West recovery by buying Western Treasury securities to bankroll public spending there. This in itself creates several problems and dilemmas. Over the next few years the volume of Treasury securities issued is going to increase to an unprecedented degree (putting world wars aside). At the same time, no one knows what the effects of rising government spending are going to be. Economic models that forecast the future have always been problematic. At the moment they are all but useless because there is no reliable stable basis on which to model. Forecasts coming out of the IMF, World Bank and domestic institutions are currently no better than augury. The US is a big problem for China in this context. If government spending, and particularly forms of ‘quantitative easing’ or perhaps a return to bubble based housing markets, create inflationary pressures then the real value of the $ is reduced. Similarly, a weak US economy can result in a reduced value of the $. In either case China would be buying Treasury Securities now and be repaid in the future in $s of less value. At the same time, China has a vested interest in keeping the US spending in order to stabilize its own export markets. China has no control over US domestic economic policy and whether it will result in a less vulnerable structure of the US economy in the future. Ironically, of course, a less vulnerable structure would be one that was less reliant on consumption and on debt creation to maintain growth in consumption. This would be an economy that was less ‘globalized’ and less inter-dependent with China.

 

Jamie Morgan: «The Chinese Party can choose to respond to growing dissent by introducing new reforms that open the door to further uncontrollable changes… a Glasnost situation. This is unlikely under Hu Jintao but perhaps more thinkable by the following generation. The Party could choose to continue to act in contradictory ways: fostering a complex highly differentiated society and occasionally intervening in ways that indicate that the Party itself is an anachronism. This could also have repercussions. Either way, change is coming.»

 

 

QUESTION: So, paradoxically, China is in a very bad situation for the coming years?

 

ANSWER: Personally, I think China faces grave problems and the very real possibility of a transformation in its political structure because of the way it is embedded in a whole series of problems, domestic and international. This may occur as early as the Eighteenth Party Congress in 2012 at which Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are due to step down.

 

QUESTION: Can you be more specific how you vision that transformation?

ANSWER: The starting point in thinking about this is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is committed to its own survival and thus to China as a single party authoritarian state. China’s economic reform has necessarily involved huge changes in society. This has created the need for social reform and, at the same time has created new social dynamics – groupings with wholly new needs and attitudes. As society has become more differentiated there has also arisen a demand for representation. A Marxist-Leninist ‘vanguard’ party traditionally represents the working class and peasantry. In a command economy where everything is administered by and provided by the state this ‘representation’ quickly becomes control and oppression and this can be highly effective. In an increasingly market economy it is not. The Party no longer has direct control over people’s daily lives and those lives are highly varied. The Party has to respond to this. It becomes a ‘performance regime’, as I mentioned before. But it also pursues other changes. In China’s case, the CCP gradually developed a more encompassing ideology, putting aside the notion of class conflict, putting back the idea that socialism would be fully achieved to some vague time in the future, and embracing the idea that the CCP can represent and have as members virtually anyone who is not deemed an enemy of the state. The CCP is now more of a ‘quanmindang’ or party of all the people. Current policy focuses on the idea of the ‘harmonious society’.

 

QUESTION: The CCP are suitable for that mission?

ANSWER: The problem is that the Party itself has become one of the main stumbling blocks to creating a harmonious society. There is a great deal of corruption and rather poor information control at the top end. Whenever the leadership feels threatened it responds in oppressive ways that make a mockery of limited moves towards the rule of law. This is not to say that there have been no changes but they cannot go far enough because they cannot create effective checks and balances. Only enfranchisement and a multi-party system can do that. So what ‘transformation’? If economic problems persist in China due to the financial crisis then one can easily see a situation where the Party is forced to confront growing dissent. There is already a great deal of dissent in China but it is not well organized and directed at the state. But it could be. Authoritarian regimes are both strong and brittle. The Chinese Party can choose to respond to growing dissent by introducing new reforms that open the door to further uncontrollable changes… a Glasnost situation. This is unlikely under Hu Jintao but perhaps more thinkable by the following generation. The Party could choose to continue to act in contradictory ways: fostering a complex highly differentiated society and occasionally intervening in ways that indicate that the Party itself is an anachronism. This could also have repercussions. Either way, change is coming.

 

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