Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'Yes' the bankers bear responsibility, but now they are scapegoats..

Before getting on to the main subject, please accept my apologies for the lack of posts recently, but 'real life' sometimes has to take a priority. As I still have demands on my time, a quick post today, and one which is a commentary on news, rather than a particular theme.

Perhaps the most important point I would like to make follows from an article in the Telegraph in which the commentator was discussing a bleak picture for the world economy. He refers to the huge US borrowing needs that are emerging.
Where is the money to come from? China, the Pacific tigers and the commodity powers are no longer amassing foreign reserves ($7.6 trillion). Their exports have collapsed. Instead of buying a trillion dollars of extra bonds each year, they have become net sellers. In aggregate, they dumped $190bn over the last fifteen weeks.
For regular readers, they will remember that I proposed that China would have to start selling US assets to fund their own stimulus, and that in doing so they risked a collapse of the $US. I noted that the Chinese would have to strike a balance in the volume of sales of these assets, such that they pulled in as much value as possible before the whole market collapses, leaving them with piles of useless paper. It looks very much like they are following this course, and the question that therefore looms in my mind is to ask how long before all the other $US holders follow suit?

In the meantime, for those who are probably already spooked in the bond market, the sheer scale of the continuing growth in US government commitments must be rapidly eroding what little confidence there may be left in the $US. On the one hand, Obama's 'stimulus' package looks set to progress through government, and on the other hand there is the latest bailout announcements for the banking system in the US. With each month that passes, the numbers, the massive and horrendous scale of the commitments of the US government, are moving beyond belief.

For those who look at these numbers, they are still comparing these numbers with notional and shrinking measures of GDP. However, for overseas holders of the $US there will be an increasingly frightening question that will by now be crossing their minds. In order for the US to repay this borrowing, at some point they must sell more goods and services than they import, must have a positive current account balance. In order for these monstrous sums of money to be repaid, this means not only reversing a massive trade and current account deficit, but turning these massive deficits into massive surpluses. Quite simply, it is not going to be possible to achieve this if the US government continues the massive borrowing, and attempts to support their economy through ever more borrowing.

In all of the measures, there is not one single measure that addresses fundamental structural reform of the US economy. As such, the holders of $US assets are going to very worried indeed. For those of you who still doubt the potential for a complete $US collapse, I will refer you to a link here, in which it is revealed that there was an electronic run on the US banking system in September, revealed in a C-span broadcast:
At 2 minutes, 20 seconds into this C-Span video clip, Kanjorski reports on a "tremendous draw-down of money market accounts in the United States, to the tune of $550 billion dollars." According to Kanjorski, this electronic transfer occurred over the period of an hour or two
I suggest that watching this will correct any misconceptions that the $US and world economy is not currently in a position of extreme fragility. The really odd thing about this is that the media have not grabbed hold of it yet.

Overall, the process of the unravelling of the $US appears to be going very much as I expected/predicted. The continuing desperate attempts of the US government to support ever larger parts of their economy is just adding fuel to the fire.

Meanwhile, as this is all going on, the world and the media are increasingly distracted with what can only be described as a media circus. The particular circus I am referring to is the question of executive pay, which has served as a handy distraction in which huge numbers of commentators and politicians can indulge in self-righteousness. The reality of the situation is that, whilst the bankers played a part in this crisis, they were not alone, but aided and abetted by government, regulators, and central banks.

However, with their cap in hand for ever more bailout money, one of the prices that the bankers have to pay is to take the full measure of blame on their own shoulders. They are not in a position to point their fingers at the others who have been complicit in the mess that has been created. The price is that blame is doled out to them, and they must bend over and take the beating on behalf of all of those who are responsible. Perhaps one of the more moronic variants in the media can be found in the Telegraph, regarding the enquiry into the crisis. I recommend reading this, if only to illustrate how puerile the whole business has become.

These enquiries also serve a more immediate distraction, which is to shift focus away from why so much money is being poured into an insolvent banking system. This is a matter of importance, not the pay rates of the bankers who are benefiting from the bailout. Whilst their remuneration should be a matter of public concern when they are being bailed out, it is insignificant when compared with the actual bailout overall (over some of my recent posts, I have been building towards a further discussion of the bailouts, but have not yet had the time to address this).

I can not help but think that all of this talk of evil bankers is simply a distraction which serves the politicians by diverting our attention from what really matters, which is that all of their plans and schemes are doing nothing to reverse the current economic crisis, and are already leading to the ultimate collapse of the $US in the case of the US, and £GB in the case of the UK. It only serves to direct all the blame onto a group who are unable to defend themselves, and who are therefore convenient scapegoats.

I will re-emphasise that I am not saying that the bankers did not play a part in the crisis, that they should not be getting large salaries at taxpayers expense, but the way that all of the blame is being heaped upon them is pure scapegoating. This is not a trivial matter, as it means that the others that were responsible for creating the mess are the very same people who are supposed to be resolving the mess, and often with policy that just replicates the original problem in new forms - in other words, the government borrows more as a stand in for the fall in consumer borrowing.

Without the economists, politicians and central bankers taking their blame, they can continue in their positions in which they can continue to cause so much damage.....

Note 1: For those who might mention that Obama is a new pair of hands......take a look at his economic team and policy....

Note 2: A rushed post, so I am sorry that I can not respond to the many good comments on my last post. I will try to catch up....

22 comments:

  1. I agree vigorously with everything you say in this post.

    The senior bankers are a bunch of greedy little oiks but they are just a distraction from the real story, which is that our government is borrowing us into ruin.

    I also agree about Obama. The guy is a brilliant orator and probably a very pleasant man, but he's way, way out of his depth. The hole he is digging is so deep that the U.S. wont see the light of day for years and years.

    However, I don't think its utterly hopeless for the UK and the U.S.A. Both countries share certain traits; a powerful work ethic, a drive to succeed, good organisation, entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness.

    The only reason these traits are failing us is that we've legislated our way out of competition with the rest of the world. With the political and public will, that could change. What will it take to bring about that change? A disaster, I expect. And it seems that one is coming.

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  2. Steve, yes I am often impressed by the UK's work ethic, but over recent years I think we have developed the illusion that a viable economy can be based on businesses like specialty jams. People work very hard in their speciality jam factories, shops and export services, but it has only been possible because of their customers' borrowing (directly or indirectly). I can't see how we can turn things around in time when half of our GDP is based on such non-essential services.

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  3. Hello Cynicus,

    I've only just started reading your blog, having been directed here by a link in a post on a BBC blog; as terrifying as I find it, your predictions and analysis of what's going on make a great deal of sense.

    I agree wholly with you on the issue of the bankers; it seems that those who are also culpable for the current state of the economy are determined to ensure that all of the blame falls on the bankers.

    Interestingly, it seems that a risk manager who was dismissed from HBOS (apparantly for flagging up that buying risky debt was not a good strategy) also agrees: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7882581.stm

    (From that article: "What my personal experience of being on the inside as a risk and compliance manager has shown me is that, whatever the very specific, final and direct causes of the financial crisis, I strongly believe that the real underlying cause of all the problems was simply this - a total failure of all key aspects of governance".

    His analysis and suggestions make extremely interesting reading, although also rather frightening.

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  4. An interesting insight into banker's pay:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/daniel_finkelstein/article5704480.ece

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  5. An interesting interview on September's electronic run on the U.S. banking system, thank you for pointing it out.

    The priorities of our media are quite extraordinary; whilst the TV and radio stations were preoccupied by the start of the Premier League football season and John Sergeant on 'Strictly Come Dancing', the world was facing economic and political collapse.

    I hope any Third World War doesn't clash with the World Cup or 'I'm A Celebrity'. I know which event would be most likely to be dropped from the schedules!

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  6. A £37 billion bailout was required to prevent the UK banks from collapsing. In the past 3 years, when the bankers all knew there was a problem, they have paid themselves about £20 billion in bonuses. (See Bankers bonuses"). Do you think that the banks might have been more solvent if the staff had not Madeoff with all the funds?

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  7. Great point about the legislation killing our competitiveness... couldn't agree more!

    I had a removals firm come round yesterday and they said they couldn't take down my light to put it into storage - because of Brussells regulations! He said I would need a certified electrician to do because they wouldn't be allowed to touch it! How can we continue like this? I'll have to take it down myself now....

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  8. This is all now well beyond the realms of economics and its now pure politics.

    Our govts are either incredibly stupid or know something we dont.

    The only thing I can come up with to explain all this apparent stupidness, is they are involved in some sort of giant debt restructuring and debt swop plan.

    I get the idea this is much, much more than advertised.

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  9. No-one seems to comment much on outcomes and strategies... CE, how about a post on this inviting comments?

    I like to think that the worlds' leaders and their cohorts have strategies which are much more artful than the one's I can think of, but maybe as Kanjorski is alluding to, they don't...

    So lets examine the architecture and outcomes!

    I'd like to suggest (others hopefully have other suggestions or can build on/alter this one) Before examining the strategies and outcomes for each possibility, lets outline the the bare facts - that there are creditors (the West) and debtors (the East), we can assume that the creditors will want to be paid back somehow at some time.

    Now, possibilities, strategies & outcomes...

    If they are paid back via trade then the West has to develop surpluses via a long road of reform, which seems so unlikely as to be not feasable. Which begs the question - What will happen if the West simply cannot pay back what it owes? Do we automatically defer to War as the most likely outcome, as the East will want something for all its hard labour, and the most obvious form of compensation would be the reluctantly ceded assets of the debtors - trinkets like industry, gold reserves and fundamental things like land & countries - the ultimate form of collateral.

    So what are the chances of Wen Jiabao & Obama, Brown et al. sitting down and collaborating toward a mutually satisfactory outcome that doesn't end in tears? Well, I'd have to say that the word collaboration in this sense would be contingent upon the their various strengths and weaknesses and interdependances - or how they rate as 'Top Trumps' cards if you like...

    Real wealth and economic might would rate very highly (because it can be used to buy all the other contingencies - however crudely/effectively) in detemining countries 'Top Trump' ratings, so China would rate very highly. The US and UK would have a rapidly diminishing score here. But the US, UK & allies have a traditionally hegemonic geopolitical & cultural role in the world with important strategic alliances, which is still very powerful and surely must take time to weaken... So they would score considerably higher than China here.
    There are more important categories for scoring each country/alliances Top Trump worth of course (such as military force), but I think those are the most pertinent to the first phase of possible outcomes...

    From my understanding, the most important contingent factor presently however, upon which all collaborative efforts hinge is as CE says - the importance of the Dollar. It won't benefit China to have a worthless dollar, so they will be willing to collaborate to the extent to which that doens't happen - to my mind it would have to be a holder of $US with nothing to lose to start a run on the $... And looking at the major holders of US$'s who's that going to be? Who holds large enough reserves to start a run on the dollar? And what would be the response of those who had most to lose as a result? - Would the big players with most to lose not just shore up the currency by buying the stuff which was coming onto the market? That must make sense than just letting it go into freefall, and risk the collapse of 'everything'!

    Now, I believe that the US is using this situation to prevent the collapse of everything either with or without the conscious approval of the major holders of US$'s, and as a result it is happy issuing trillion $ bailouts... Faced with the choice of the collapse of everything they don't have much choice after all...

    So, lets assume for a moment that there won't be a $ (or UK pound) collapse for the reasons outlined above... (I think this a very real possibility unless someone can convince me otherwise)

    Then what happens?

    There are a myriad of possibilities here, but the facts still stay the same - there are debtors and creditors, and the debtors must pay at some point... How do the Top Trumpers do that collaboratively? There has to be a devaluation of the West's worth - this is absolutely true, but how and over what timeframe?

    I do appreciate the absurdity of the current economic crisis as ellucidated so elloquently by CE, and I also appreciate how fragile the situation appears to be, but when you examine the contingent factors supporting collaboration against the collapse of everything, I believe you must end up concluding that there is life in the old dog yet... In the face of seemingly so much adversity, its how we wind her down & let her go gracefully which is the real challenge for humanity...

    I look forward to reading other peoples' opinions and views on how things might play out...

    Just finally... Given that the only constant thing in life is change, and that a boom in species dominance within its ecosystem precedes its collapse, it might be fair to take Jeffrey Sachs comment that the world is bursting at the seams and build on it with the conjecture that we our demise as a species is imminent. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the economic crisis will precipitate it... There are plenty more flies in the ointment...!

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  10. Bankers' pay is a red herring.

    $ collapse? Don't think so - for all the nuttiness of their bailout brigade, there's too much debt denominated in $ for people to flee. Plus where would they flee to in a great deflation?

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  11. David Larkin said... 'The priorities of our media are quite extraordinary; whilst the TV and radio stations were preoccupied by the start of the Premier League football season and John Sergeant on 'Strictly Come Dancing', the world was facing economic and political collapse.'

    I have been reading Cynicus' blog for a while now and I am coming to the conclusion that the primary purpose of the MMM is the distraction of us all.

    The scale of the latest bail out defies even imagination. In the FT today: 'US unveils $2,000bn bank clean-up'. See http://tinyurl.com/d9hb5t.

    Thank you again Cynicus for your clear analysis & explanations.

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  12. The mainstream media has perpetuated the myth that "no one saw this crisis coming" however recent events with Sir James Crosby prove that this is not the case, it's just that anyone who wanted to stop the party was silenced, sidelined, sacked or ridiculed as a crank or Dr Doom.
    I have been a keen reader of this blog for several months now and I also recommend moneyweek.com and marketoracle.co.uk for interesting non-mainstream analysis with a view to protecting your wealth.
    Most people who have listened to an IFA (what an oxymoron) will have been crucified in the last 12 months and will be in the next 24.
    The plan to start quantitative easing by buying corporate junk securities on a MASSIVE scale is well underway in the Bank of England, and we will probably hit near zero interest rates next month.
    It's "shit or bust" as they say.
    If this fails we will be looking at 4 million unemployed by 2011 (which means 6+ million in reality).
    I wonder by then will the Queen still be giving knighthoods to the chief architects of this catastrophe and their tax-dodging mates?
    I echo David Larkins feelings, the dumbed down media is only just cottoning on to the true scale of the problems.
    A crime wave and civil unrest is inevitable, "best placed to weather the global storm" is right up there with "British jobs for British Workers" as a phrase that will haunt Brown until his dying days.

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  13. Hi Cynicus,

    I am an avid follower of your blog. I was wondering what you thought about this FT article which says that all the Chinese government can do is invest in US treasury bonds (at least for the moment), even though they know the US dollar will depreciate.

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ba857be6-f88f-11dd-aae8-000077b07658.html?nclick_check=1

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  14. Josiah Stamp's GhostFebruary 12, 2009 at 6:08 AM

    ChaSh said,

    "I have been reading Cynicus' blog for a while now and I am coming to the conclusion that the primary purpose of the MMM is the distraction of us all."

    Chomsky put it better than any in this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_Consent:_The_Political_Economy_of_the_Mass_Media

    You might find, if you've come to this conclusion purely on your own observations, that Chomsky will wrap it all up for you and stick a label on it.

    ;)

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  15. Red:

    How does your reasoning that there will not be a USD collapse jump to include the UK? I am guessing this is related to your top trump rankings? The UK has been sliding down the table for ages!

    Whilst US' creditors will not want their holdings to become worthless, as CE has said, their actions to prevent a collapse will probably only delay the inevitable.

    I believe you are correct in that world leaders are trying to find a mutually beneficial solution but cannot think what the US and UK could offer them other than the real assets that you describe, and obviously this would be rather unpalatable.

    A more preferable option for the US and UK would be for them to resort to their tried and tested ability to destabilize. They could destabilize the countries of (or next to) our creditiors, the countries that are allies of our creditors, the countries that trade with our creditors, and generally foment trouble between our creditors and other states. This would divert attention from the fact that we have nothing to offer them and would force the US/UK's creditors to focus on preserving their own physical security.

    According to a US historian (Tarpley) there is evidence to suggest this is already underway. For instance the recent trouble in Sudan - funnily enough they supply China with oil. Pakistan? They are a traditional ally of China.

    Tarpley argues the ultimate geopolitical aim is to cut China off from its essential resources leaving it no choice but to invade the Russian oilfields and thereby starting a war which will destroy both countries.

    See: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=MouUJNG8f2k&feature=related

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  16. Jonny

    Thanks for the reply - its good to hear other peoples ideas.

    The reason why I suspect that the UK pound will not be allowed to collapse is because of the important and powerful strategic alliances that the UK has (and that have been publicly re-emphasised by Hillary Clinton in the past couple of weeks - I believe these remarks were made deliberately as a preventative show of solidarity which reinforces the hegemony of the West) and because of the knock on effect that a collapse in the pound would have. I believe that the UK pound will continue to devalue, but I think a collapse that precipitates a dollar collapse is a proposition that excepts the importance of other important political & strategic realities.

    I had a look at Webster Tarpley's video... I'm always a bit sceptical of quasi-academic sages that are filmed against a backdrop of bookcases and wooden panelling (so as to infer knowledge & wisdom!) With regards to his rhetoric, I think you could brand him a (conspiracy) theorist, which is not to say that what he is saying isn't true, but that the hard facts to support his conjecture is either not there, or not concrete enough to be considered true - so he's a theorist. I find it tricky to differentiate between good theory & conjecture and bad, but I always try to keep an open mind and remember that wisdom can mainfest itself as a kind of innate knowledge, which as it is translated by the theorist may become seemingly fanstastic or absurd - like David Icke's proposition that lizards are running the world... Not to say it isn't true, but there is no concrete evidence to suggest that it is... What I take from this proposition is metaphorical - that there are a class of powerful people who exert great influence in/on the world, which is true, whether collusively or not.

    A good theorist supports his conjecture by seeding his narrative with established fact - in Tarpley's case, reference to Obama's childhood, the existence of powerful figures such as Brzezinsky etc. in order to 'sell' his theory.

    Here's a (conspiracy) theorist suggesting that a North American Union is imminent with the minting of a new currency - the Almero replacing the dollar - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj2oC64NSIA

    Anyway... theories aside, it is true that governments conduct foreign affairs and have trade/defence strategies to deal with them, and it must also be true that part of the purpose of those strategies must be to play out future scenarios & plan for them. But we can only guess with greater or lesser degrees of certainty what is likely and what is not.

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  17. Jonny,

    some morons living a neocon wet-dream think China could be 'persuaded' to invade Russia.....
    hell I'm convinced.

    Up until 5 minutes ago I figured the future to very possibly involve China and Russia co-existing in mutual respect, doing business to mutual advantage, and leaving the bankrupt West to live from scraps falling from the Top Table.

    But now I see the light. The idea of russia trading commodities for chinese consumer goods is too simple, too obvious, for the stupid, weak leaders of both countries to appreciate.

    But honestly, surely a conspiracy theory too far?
    (I had better go and google Tarpley)
    FJ

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  18. Red
    I don’t doubt that the UK and US will attempt to prop up their currencies as the alternative would be unthinkable. But how could they do it? What sort of favours could they call in from their strategic alliances as it seems many of our allies are in a similar boat.
    Someone sent me the Tarpley link so I thought I’d share it. Haha – yes the wood panelling and bookcases are a bit much. Of course its an opinion, nothing more. All I am saying is there are alternative methods the UK and US could use to divert attention from the current situation by making our creditors’ lives very difficult.

    FJ
    Indeed it probably is a Neocon wet dream! But fundamentally its geostrategy - something empires have done for millennia. To quote Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard (1997): “To put it in a terminology that harkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.” (p.40)
    Would the US/UK really accept China and Russia sitting at top table while waiting for scraps to fall? I personally think that sounds more far fetched than the West resorting to unconventional tactics to improve its position. Despite our economic weakness, the US and UK possess an awesome global web of intelligence assets that could be deployed to tilt things to their advantage.

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  19. What happens when America is the country with the least to lose and most to gain by the selling of US dollars and rely on other countries to have to buy them in order for their reserves to keep their value eg. china will have to buy unless they want the value of their reserves to disappear completely.

    What if they could convince another country (or group of countries) in a similar position to buy their dollars (bonds) and in return they will buy these other currencies(securities)?

    They could continue for another 30 years, that's just enough time for them to finish their careers, have a pleasant retirement leave a few bucks for their direct decedents and leave the next generation(s) with all the problems, sounds exactly like the kind of world the baby boomers would create...touche, touche.

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  20. Anonymous wrote;

    What happens when America is the country with the least to lose and most to gain by the selling of US dollars and rely on other countries to have to buy them in order for their reserves to keep their value eg. china will have to buy unless they want the value of their reserves to disappear completely.

    It cannot be that easy for US (or UK) to sidestep their obligations.
    In the above scenario, is there anything to stop China buying - indeed buying with alacrity :-

    EXXON, BP et al
    MSoft
    Rio / BHP
    ???
    in fact buying chunks of any quality multinationals denominated in £/$ ought to do the trick.

    But before we get to this stage,
    i am having a big problem imagining ANY scenario in which it is more adventageous to America than China for the USD to be weak and weakening.

    Am i being thick? I know we are trying to deflate our debt away, but...



    Jonny,

    sure, i hear you. But dirty tricks can be played both ways.
    Personaly, these 'black-op/web of spies' theories leave me cold.
    Very probably they are more Hollywood than fact. Furthermore i cannot influence them, or benefit from them anyway. So i am not going to waste my time trying to understand them.
    (Hope that does not sound arrogant - there is only so much my little brain can cope with.)

    FJ

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  21. FJ

    If its an area which doesn't interest you then that's your prerogative. But if you choose to remain ignorant on a subject then is it fair to belittle the views of others who are probably better informed?

    Incidentally Hollywood doesn't even come close to depicting what is carried out in our name; reality is far too unbelievable!

    As I'm sure you and Mark would agree our discussion is really going outside the scope of this blog so let's agree to disagree.

    Best wishes.

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  22. It is a Nash equilibrium. Up until this point everybody benefitted from maintaining their dollar holdings. If one of the big holders try to sell, the dollar collapses and nobody gets out.
    The question is, has it now become an advantage to do that? The IMF has just announced they are going to sell some of their gold holdings, $4billion I think. China will buy it. We could see more of this kind of gradual trading of real assets for dollars, with the dollar gradually trading down.
    Then again it could all collapse tomorrow, but from China's point of view sooner rather than later is better. As we have now passed peak oil, and as world production is falling 9% a year, it makes sense to knock America out of the equation, as they use 25% of world crude supply.
    Just my opinion though.

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