Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Can Private Equity Firms Like Bain Do Whatever They Want With the Companies They Buy?

    May 22, 2012Mike Konczal

    Three critiques of the notion that private equity's actions are above public concern.

    The question of Romney's tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital will stay in the headlines as the Obama team releases ads on the subject and Romney continues to run on that record. But what can we take away from this debate?

    Three critiques of the notion that private equity's actions are above public concern.

    The question of Romney's tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital will stay in the headlines as the Obama team releases ads on the subject and Romney continues to run on that record. But what can we take away from this debate?

    Ezra Klein argues that running a leveraged buyout company ought to give one some sense of solidarity with those left behind. As LBO/private equity creates winners and losers, winners should be in favor of an expanded social safety net that helps those who lose in the layoffs get back on their feet with minimial disruptions. Since LBO overall creates more wealth, part of that wealth should be taxed for the benefit of those who need help adjusting to their new economic reality afterwards - such as providing continuous health care coverage, job training, etc.

    One thing I'm noticing in these debates is an almost tautological idea that since shareholders own the firm, anything shareholders do with their firm is legitimate and outside the boundaries of public concern or critique. It was in the background of what Karl Smith was discussing on Sunday's "Up With Chris Hayes," and Josh Barro made it more explicit this morning on twitter.

    A Stick

    Let's imagine that I buy a stick. Under a idea of general, everyday libertarianism, since I own the stick I can do anything I want with it. I can break it in half, burn it in a fireplace, carve it into something else, turn it into woodchips, attach a kite to it, exclude people from using it, etc. I can't hit people with it, or use it to set their stuff on fire, or attach duct tape to it in order to steal their stuff - but that's a function of general prohibitions against force and fraud. Short of that, it would be weird to say that I shouldn't do whatever I want to my stick of wood - that something I do with it could be illegitimate - as long as I enjoy it.

    But does a private equity firm own its portfolio businesses in the same exact way that I own my stick? Is it weird to even think, outside general prohibitions against force and fraud (which I'll treat as unproblematic as it relates to the question at hand), that their actions could be illegitimate? There are many references to increasing profits, or making firms more dynamic, or "creative destruction," but those are side effects of shareholders doing whatever they want with its portfolio. The core issue is that there could be nothing illegitimate in terms of how a private equity firm runs those businesses in the sense there's nothing illegitimate I could do with a stick I own.

    Three Critiques

    Starting from this baseline, the critiques as far as I read them (which will draw on two previous posts) break down along three lines:

    1. Tax/regulatory loopholes. I did an interview with Josh Kosman, author of The Buyout of America, where he argued that the whole point of the enterprise is to game tax law loopholes. Private equity "saw that you could buy a company through a leveraged buyout and radically reduce its tax rate. The company then could use those savings to pay off the increase in its debt loads. For every dollar that the company paid off in debt, your equity value rises by that same dollar, as long as the value of the company remains the same."

    A recent paper from the University of Chicago looking at private equity found that “a reasonable estimate of the value of lower taxes due to increased leverage for the 1980s might be 10 to 20 percent of firm value,” which is value that comes from taxpayers to private equity as a result of the tax code.

    That's one thing in an industry with large and predictable cash flows. But after those low-hanging fruits were picked, as Kosman explained, "firms are taken over in very volatile industries. And they are taking on debts where they have to pay 15 times their cash flow over seven years — they are way over-levered."

    This critique has power as far as it goes. But let's combine it with another issue.

    2. Risk-shifting among parts of the firm. Traditional "creative destruction" is about putting rivals out of business with better products and techniques. Leveraged buyouts and private equity are about something different, something that exists within a single firm. This is often described as putting new techniques into place, firing people and divisions that are not performing, and generally making the firm more efficient.

    The critique here is that, instead of making the firm more efficient, it often simply shifts the risks into different places. As Peter Róna, head of the IBJ Schroder Bank & Trust in New York, described it in 1989:

    The very foundation of the LBO is the current actual distribution of hypothetical future cash flows. If the hypothesis (including the author’s net present value discounted at the relevant cost of capital) tums out to be wrong, the shareholders have the cash and everyone else is left with a carcass. “Creating shareholder value” and “unlocking billions” consists of shifting the risk of future uncertainty to others, namely, the corporation and its current creditors, customers, and employees…
     
    The notion that underleveraging a corporation can cause problems is neither new nor unfounded. What is new is the assertion that shareholders shouid set the proper leverage because, motivated by maximizing the return on their investment, they will ensure efficiency of all factors of production. This hypothesis requires much more rigorous proof than Jensen’s episodic arguments… although Jensen denies it, the maximization of shareholder returns must take place, at least in part, at someone else’s expense.
    Shareholders gain, but at the expense of other stakeholders in the firm. This isn't the normal winner/loser dynamic, where some suffer in the short-term to do what's best for the long-term. Here the long-term suffers to create short-term winners. Once again, this issue becomes problematic when combined with another critique.
     
    3. Dividend looting. The theory behind private equity, as Róna caught above, is that it requires shareholders to be the proper and most efficient group to set the leverage ratio. But what if, instead of setting leverage for the long term to make the firm more efficient, shareholders simply use additional debt to pay themselves, regardless of the health of the firm? As Josh Kosman put it:
    If you look at the dividends stuff that private equity firms do, and Bain is one of the worst offenders, if you increase the short-term earnings of a company you then use those new earnings to borrow more money. That money goes right back to the private equity firm in dividends, making it quite a quick profit. More importantly, most companies can’t handle that debt load twice. Just as they are in a position to reduce debt, they are getting hit with maximum leverage again. It’s very hard for companies to take that hit twice...
     
    The initial private equity model was that you would make money by reselling your company or taking it public, not by levering it a second time...Right after this goes on for a few years, you’ve starved your firm of human and operating capital. Five years later, when the private equity leaves, the company will collapse — you can’t starve a company for that long. This is what the history of private equity shows.

    This runup in dividend payouts is feature of the post 1980 financial markets more broadly, one that LBO had a hand in creating:

    The blue line is profits, the solid red line is payouts. As Josh Mason noted (my bold), "In the pre-neoliberal era, up until 1980 or so, nonfinancial businesses paid out about 40 percent of their profits to shareholders. But in most of the years since 1980, they’ve paid out more than all of them...It was a common trope in accounts of the housing bubble that greedy or shortsighted homeowners were extracting equity from their houses with second mortgages or cash-out refinancings to pay for extra consumption. What nobody mentioned was that the rentier class had been doing this longer, and on a much larger scale, to the country’s productive enterprises."

    Versions of these three arguments form the core of the private equity critique. Instead of simply carving a figurine or starting a BBQ, private equity uses its stick to game tax law while cashing out short-term value, leaving others in the firm worse off and the firm itself more prone to collapse and less able to produce long-term value. Do you find this critique convincing? What else is missing?

    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • Cyclicalists/Structuralist Divide, Redux

    May 18, 2012Mike Konczal

    Karl Smith has had some great posts lately, both about Noah Smith and the cyclicalists/structuralist divide and about Rajan's Foreign Affairs article (I, II). I'm going to add my own thoughts on each topic here.

    Karl Smith has had some great posts lately, both about Noah Smith and the cyclicalists/structuralist divide and about Rajan's Foreign Affairs article (I, II). I'm going to add my own thoughts on each topic here.

    Noah Smith has a blog post arguing that cyclicalists should start talking about structural issues too. Using David Brooks' recent terms, he says "I do not mean that cyclicalists should stop recommending things like quantitative easing. I mean that they should start also throwing out ideas about how to improve our economic performance in the long run."

    There's two issues here worth bringing up. The first is that Obama is in a ton of trouble, because all he's done in the past two years is talk about long-term problems (remember Winning the Future?) while dancing around the short-term unemployment crisis. His big achievement, health-care reform, wasn't about how in a rich, modern society like ours everyone has a right to health care. Instead it was explained as a way of "bending the cost curve." Bending the long-term cost curve is about as much of a "structuralist" way of pitching expanding health care as possible.

    The second is that blurring these two items as an economic matter has been a major problem for both the Obama economics team and for a certain variety of centrist, deficit-hawks in their view of our economic situation. This is the "two deficits" problem. In this argument our short-term deficit isn't large enough, but our long-term deficit is too large. Fine as far as it goes. But in this theory, in order to fix the first you have to make progress on the second at the same time.

    Maybe there are political reasons why this is the case, but the economic ones don't jump out. There are good short-term ideas and good long-term ideas. If they are each good ideas, why not do each on their own? Why do they have to move together? The explanation most give, as a Treasury official told Noam Scheiber, is that the government needs to show “some signal to US bondholders that it takes the deficit seriously” and that “spending more money now [on stimulus] could actually raise long-term [government] rates, thereby offsetting its stimulative effect.” I think this is dead wrong, and if Obama loses this argument will be one of the major reasons why. It is what kept him trying to kick Lucy's football negoitate with Republicans in 2011. If both need to move, they throwing a roadblock in front of one stops the other - and given that Republicans won't budge on tax increases, it takes away the case for more stimulus in the short-term. Meanwhile interest rates continue to stay at record lows.

    As for the Rajan piece in Foreign Affairs, I think there are two big problems with it beyond what Karl mentions ("the piece had little to do with the recession and nothing to do with borrowing and spending for recovery"). The first is the crux of his argument, which is that 2007 featured "artificially inflated GDP numbers." It is no doubt impressive to people who haven't thought about it hard to state that we had a GDP bubble in 2007 alongside a housing bubble. But what does that even mean? What else would be true about the world if US GDP was unsustainably high in 2007?

    Jim Bullard made this argument recently and even then the justification for the argument switched completely within days, once it came under the critical scrunity of the econoblogosphere. In one version the case was about how the collapse of the housing bubble represents a technology loss. In the second argument it was pure wealth effect: we feel poorer, and the only solution is to beg policymakers to “please reinflate the bubble."

    The second issue is that the manitude of numbers are completely off. Subprime mortgages were about refinancing, not about new home construction. As Karl Smith noted, to the extent subprime encouraged single-family home construction, it came at the expense of multi-family home construction. Residential building construction is off about 400,000 workers - even if those jobs are gone completely, we have 5 million more workers unemployed right now than we did in 2007 (12.5m versus 7.5m). I'd be happy to say that the NAIRU is up 400,000 people if we can end these so-called structural arguments here.

    [Also: Rajan's GSE argument has been debunked in several places. It is hard to argue that Congress is pro-consumer-debt and pro-debtor/easy credit policies in the past 30 years when it passed the 2005 bankruptcy reform act. It is not controversial to argue that the 2005 bill was significantly harder on debtors looking to file bankruptcy. Instead of Congress, the major thing that changed the consumer debt markets came from the Supreme Court. In 1978's Marquette Nat. Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp, the Supreme Court interpreted the word “located” in the National Bank Act of 1863 as meaning the location of the business and not the location of the customer, which completely changed how credit cards would work in the following decades.

    Also, the conservatives' publically-stated calculus is off. There is a sense in which there are short-term things we can do, or long-term things we can do, and we have limited time and energy, so better to focus on the long-term things. But there's reason to believe that conservatives are purposely ignoring the short-term things, because weak economies are the perfect time to be able to achieve their preferred long-term agenda ideas.

    We know from the explanations for dissenting votes on the Federal Reserve that those dissenting from more demand now believe that this higher demand through monetary policy gets in the way of making "hard choices" on entitlements and tax reform. The Wall Street Journal has Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Richard Fisher saying “The more we offer accommodative monetary policy, the less incentive they have to pull their socks up and do what’s right for the American people.” (This is also currently going on in Europe.)

    If you view the Great Society, the New Deal, and the whole regulatory/Keynesian/welfare state as a form of tyranny, well, destroying most forms of tryanny requires bloodshed. If a conservative revolution happens in the next Congress, and the only cost was 4 years of mass unemployment, wouldn't it be worth it to experience liberty in our lives? I fear this explanation drives more conservative commentary on economics than we realize.]

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  • Why a Strong Middle Class Is Necessary For Growth

    May 18, 2012Mike Konczal

    A new paper maps out the best progressive arguments about how inequality is hurting our economy.

    It's great to get to watch the arguments against inequality in the United States being built in real time. On issues ranging from political corruption to a lack of a serious, sustained response to the economic crisis, people are telling sharper and more critical stories about why inequality should be a concern for the country. Which is important, as inequality is not going away.

    A new paper maps out the best progressive arguments about how inequality is hurting our economy.

    It's great to get to watch the arguments against inequality in the United States being built in real time. On issues ranging from political corruption to a lack of a serious, sustained response to the economic crisis, people are telling sharper and more critical stories about why inequality should be a concern for the country. Which is important, as inequality is not going away.

    One of the issue areas where this has been lacking is long-term economic growth. The research has been substantial, but few have collected and curated it into a set of arguments for why inequality is bad for the health of our economy. This is one of the more important battles. The normal assumption is that inequality helps everyone by allowing the economic pie to grow as big and as quickly as it possibly can. The background thought animating this is that there's a serious tension between efficiency and equality -- to support equality is to necessarily sacrifice economic efficiency.

    Heather Boushey and Adam S. Hersh from the Center for American Progress have a new paper out, "The American Middle Class, Income Inequality, and the Strength of Our Economy: New Evidence in Economics," that summarizes the case for why inequality can damage the economy. They start by reviewing the literature trying to link income inequality and growth, and find that the link is, if anything, in the other direction. "Roland Benabou of Princeton University surveyed 23 studies analyzing the relationship between inequality and growth. Benabou found that about half (11) of the studies showed inequality has a significant and strongly negative effect on growth; the other half (12) showed either a negative but inconsistently significant relationship or no relationship at all. None of the studies surveyed found a positive relationship between inequality and growth."

    But why should this be? If the long-term health of the economy is driven by human capital, savings, and technology, what does inequality have to do with anything? Here is where they create a map of the arguments through which a strong middle class and a more egalitarian distribution of income can build long-term growth:

    We have identified four areas where literature points to ways that the strength of the middle class and the level of inequality affect economic growth and stability:
     
    A strong middle class promotes the development of human capital and a well educated population.
    A strong middle class creates a stable source of demand for goods and services.
    A strong middle class incubates the next generation of entrepreneurs.
    A strong middle class supports inclusive political and economic institutions, which underpin economic growth.
    They pull together the current research, as well as the range of supporting evidence, for each point. They focus on how educational attainment is becoming more tied to parents' income, the instability of growth and macroeconomic risks to weak middle-class demand, the fact that the Kauffman Foundation found that less than 1 percent of entrepreneurs come from extremely poor or extremely rich backgrounds, and the way inequality is involved with our polarized politics. All of these have consequences for our economy.
     
    The research will continue to move forward here. There's a lot of fascinating work done on the relationship between inequality, balance-sheet recessions, and slow recoveries right now. I'm interested in the way the government creates and enforces property changes under massive, entrenched inequality. Do exclusive, 1%-dominated political and economic institutions produce property regimes -- high rents from patents, repressive creditor/debtor relationships, all labor income from finance viewed as capital income for tax/regulatory purposes, privatization of public goods, corporation structures predisposed for financialization -- that are terrible for growth?
     
    This paper gives us the best up-to-date arguments that progressives discussing inequality should understand inside out. I thought I was fairly versed in these arguments, and I learned a ton from it. As they say, read the whole thing.
     

    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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    Flag image via Shutterstock.

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  • JP Morgan Proves That Size Does Matter

    May 15, 2012Mike Konczal

    Breaking up the big banks might not be the whole solution, but it could make resolution authority more credible.

    Breaking up the big banks might not be the whole solution, but it could make resolution authority more credible.

    Before we start talking about the advantages and disadvantages of introducing size caps and restricting business lines through a new Glass-Steagall, it is important to understand how very big the five biggest banks are. If you need a sense of how big JP Morgan is and why it is hard for it to "hedge" without moving the market, the graph below gives you a sense. This is a graph I put together during Dodd-Frank based on data that was floating around at the time:

    When bills restricting size of a large financial institution have been introduced they usually put size in the context of deposit liabilities (what we provide a backstop for and what reflects consumer savings, expressed as a percent of all deposits) and non-deposit liabilities (what reflects a blunt measure of size and potential for shadow banking runs, expressed as a percentage of GDP). The SAFE Banking Act, which has been reintroduced, mostly impacts the six firms listed above. The original SAFE Banking Act had a cap of 3 percent of GDP for non-deposit liabilities for financial firms (2 percent for actual banks) -- a space that ignores over 8,000 banks to just focus on the biggest six.

    Yesterday Elizabeth Warren sent out an email with PCCC calling for a new Glass-Steagall. Let's back up: what kind of regulation do we have in the financial sector? First, there's the background regulation that structures and forms the financial markets. How are derivatives treated in bankruptcy? How is capital income and debt taxed? How are contracts and corporations set up and enforced? And so on.

    The second level of regulation is "prudential" regulation. Prudential regulation of financial institutions is the various ways regulators regulate banks. Capital requirements are one example. So is prompt corrective action, restricting dividends for troubled firms, etc. One reason to do this for regular banks is to act as a coordinator for dispersed depositors who are unable or unwilling to perform these functions. Another is that financial firms have serious macroeconomic effects on the economy. And another is to intervene in issues of asymmetric information. The everyday libertarian case against regulating a restaurant is "who would want to poison their customers?" As we saw in the last 20 years, Wall Street is comfortable not only selling their customers poison at a high margin, but taking out life insurance on them through the credit swaps market.

    The third level is blunter, and that's strict prohibitions, either on businesses or on size. What are the advantages and disadvantages of adding prohibitions? One factor is simplicity compared to other forms of prudential regulations, but what else is there?

    Resolution

    Adding prohibitions can help ensure the end of Too Big To Fail. In this sense it works to amplify, rather than replace, Dodd-Frank's resolution authority.

    A common response is that the problem with Too Big To Fail isn't that the firms are too big or too complex, but too interconnected. Matt Yglesias notes that in the context of resolution, prohibitions aren't that important: "we can't put investment banks through the bankruptcy process because it's too systemically chaotic. In that case, Glass-Steagall is irrelevant and what we really need is a new legislative mechanism for the resolution of investment banking enterprises. That's what Dodd-Frank is supposed to do. This all just backs in to the point that even though the phrase 'too big to fail' has caught the public imagination, it's never been clear that size is relevant."

    But here's Martin J. Gruenberg, Acting Chairman of the FDIC, in a big speech last Thursday:

    While there are numerous differences between a typical bank resolution and what the FDIC would face in resolving a SIFI, I want to focus on a few key differences...

    In addition, the resolution of a large U.S. financial firm involves a more complex corporate structure than the resolution of a single insured bank. Large financial companies conduct business through multiple subsidiary legal entities with many interconnections owned by a parent holding company. A resolution of the individual subsidiaries of the financial company would increase the likelihood of disruption and loss of franchise value by disrupting the interrelationships among the subsidiary companies. A much more promising approach from the FDIC's point of view is to place into receivership only the parent holding company while maintaining the subsidiary interconnections.
     
    Another difference arises from sheer size alone. In the typical bank failure, there are a number of banks capable of quickly handling the financial, managerial, and operational requirements of an acquisition. This is unlikely to be the case when a large financial firm fails. Even if it were the case, it may not be desirable to pursue a resolution that would result in an even larger, more complex institution. This suggests both the need to create a bridge financial institution and the means of returning control and ownership to private hands.
    Resolution authority is an untested solution for a financial firm, particularly one as large and complex as JP Morgan. Size and complexity make a difference. If financial firms were smaller and more siloed, there is an argument that resolution authority, which is one of the core mechanisms of Dodd-Frank, would work more smoothly and be more credible.
     
    Market Power and Competition
     
    As Barry Ritholtz noted on the JP Morgan loss, "Simply stated, once you are the market, you are no longer a hedge." Size makes a difference in these markets, and by breaking up the largest firms you'd see reduced market power. In terms of size, Andrew Haldane argues that economics of scale in banking top out at around $100 billion, or signficantly less than a 3 percent GDP liabilities cap. Beyond market power, the largest banks represent a large amount of political power as well.
     
    And in terms of business lines, Kevin J. Stiroh and Adrienne Rumble, in "The dark side of diversification," look at financial holding companies as they absorb different business lines in the late 1990s and 2000s. "The key finding that diversification gains are more than offset by the costs of increased exposure to volatile activities represents the dark side of the search for diversification benefits and has implications for supervisors, managers, investors, and borrowers." New business lines introduce new profits but also introduce new volatility. The more volatile a firm is, the harder it is for it to fail without bringing down the financial system.
     
    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
     
    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
      

     

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  • On Hysteresis Hysterics

    May 14, 2012Mike Konczal

    Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett have a great editorial in the weekend's New York Times, "The Human Disaster of Unemployment." They correctly identlfy the many long-term psychological and social problems of periods of mass unemployment for people, families, communities, and ultimately our nation.

    Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett have a great editorial in the weekend's New York Times, "The Human Disaster of Unemployment." They correctly identlfy the many long-term psychological and social problems of periods of mass unemployment for people, families, communities, and ultimately our nation. As is the nature of editorials written by people with cross-ideological committments, the solutions are a bit off, but this weakness is also part of the issue with discussing the urgency of unemployment because of "hysteresis."

    Imagine having a fever so bad that it permanently raised your body temperature. Now imagine a period of unemployment so bad that it permanently reduces our economy's ability to produce things and employ people. That's hysteresis -- the long-term scarring of our economy from periods of short-term unemployment. I've discussed this before, and I think the evidence is very convincing it is a major issue. Hysteresis is part of the engine in the recent Brad Delong/Larry Summers paper arguing for self-sustaining stimulus.

    Crucially, hysteresis is an intellectual challenge to the so-called structuralists who would argue that we should ignore the short-term economy and just focus on the long-run health of the economy. Beyond us all being dead in the long run, the long run is just a series of short runs right after each other. And hysteresis shows that short-run problems can perpetuate themselves and become embedded in the long-run economy.

    Where I become ambivalent about the focus on hysteresis is that it too quickly presumes that special policy is required to combat it. Instead of a weak economy and poor job growth, suddenly hysteresis calls for the assumption that jobs are available and that the long-term unemployed, for whatever individual reasons, can't take them. I think the easiest way to fight hysteresis is just to have a lot of jobs available through strong demand, and employers will be perfectly incentivized to train workers however they need to as they look to expand their workforce. But others would take their eye off the ball of full employment and try to focus on just the long-term unemployed policy-wise, through such things as special job training programs.

    Is there data we can use to test this theory one way or the other? I was able to get the people in charge of the flows data at the BLS to send me an update of one of my favorite data sets, flows from unemployment to employment by duration of unemployment. We've talked about this data last year here and here, and now I have it updated through April 2012. The longer you've been unemployed, the less likely it is that you'll find a job over the course of a month.  But how has this changed during the Great Recession and the aftermath?

    Thesis: if hysteresis is problematic in that the long-term unemployed have become detached from the labor force in such a way that it requires policy intervention beyond creating jobs - like special job training programs - then we'll see that people who have only been unemployed a short time (low duration) find jobs easiers than a year ago. But we will also see that those that have been unemployed a longer-time will not show any increase in their job finding rate, and maybe their rate of finding a job has even decreased. The unemployed parts of the economy will be bifurcating into a healthy short-term section and a dislodged long-term section.

    I'm plotting the chance of the unemployed for the average of the first four months of 2007, 2011 and 2012 each (the data is seasonally unadjusted) by duration of unemployment. How did the last year look?

    The purple line for 2012 is pulling away from 2011 across the entire unemployment spectrum. The chances of finding a job are increasing for all unemployment spell lengths, though they aren't anywhere near 2007 levels. Meanwhile, here's a graph of the six month moving average of each duration bucket going back 9 years:

    The entire job market is weaker, even for those who have only been unemployed for a few weeks. Though the suffering the long-term unemployed are going through is real, the best policy for them is providing anti-poverty relief through cash and services while pushing on expansionary fiscal, monetary and debt-relief policies to get the economy back on track.

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