Who actually managed to predict the global financial crisis of 2008?


5:10 pm - February 23rd 2013

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by John Clarke

So Gordon Brown’s still to blame for the Coalition’s current economic disaster? According to the Telegraph’s Iain Martin, in the wake of Britain’s debt downgrade, Brown should be mostly blamed because he was unprepared for the global financial crisis.

He’s not the only one to have criticised Brown in this way. Brown himself admitted he should have better regulated the banking sector. Even David Cameron apologised.

But what unites critics of Brown and the man himself? None of them predicted the crisis.

Hardly anyone did. This academic paper puts the number of people who predicted the crisis at 12 (PDF). Let’s have a look at this list and see if George Osborne or any other of Brown’s critics are on it. The list is: Dean Baker, Wynne Godley, Fred Harrison, Michael Hudson, Eric Janszen, Steve Keen, Jakob Madsen & Jens Kjaer Sørensen, Kurt Richebächer, Nouriel Roubini, Peter Schiff, Robert Shiller. No, I can’t see them either.

It’s a short list isn’t it? Not many people predicted the financial crash. Given that these 12 are such a small group I think it would be fair to call them Geniuses of Foresight. They’ve now been joined by a much less exclusive club – Geniuses of Hindsight. This band of intellectual giants managed to predict the crisis after it happened. It’s a great skill. They have got closing the door after the horse has bolted down to a fine art.

To properly blame Brown there needs to be a proper appreciation of what options an alternative government would have taken, and in fairness to Iain Martin he has criticised Tory politicians as well. So what did the Conservatives say about this?

In March 2008 David Cameron told senior figures from the City of London: “As a free-marketeer by conviction, it will not surprise you to hear me say that a significant part of Labour’s economic failure has been the excessive bureaucratic interventionism of the past decade too much tax, too much regulation, too little understanding of what our businesses need to compete in the modern world.”

That’s pretty unambiguous and there are more instances like it. Conservative ministers are, understandably from a political perspective, ignoring all this. Canada and Australia are offered as alternative models that could have been followed despite there not even being much of a debate a financial regulation in the UK prior to the crisis.

Of course, Brown was the person behind the desk at the time during the long boom, and automatically attracts the lion’s share of political blame. But to criticise him for following what everybody else believed is just plain wrong. It’s also, to be blunt, intellectually dishonest unless the person making the claim had the foresight to see what was happening.

Anyone blaming Brown for this needs to take into account the group euphoria surrounding financial markets that everyone, including the majority of commentators, was fooled by.


John Clarke is chair of Islington Fabians. He tweets from here and blogs here.

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A few journalists (for example Larry Elliot) pointed out pre-2008 that the level of private debt was unsustainable. They were very much on the fringes, though.

As the man from the LSE said to the Queen “Everyone was relying on somebody else”. This was why most of the mainstream missed something that was staring them in the face. The institutions that should be asking tough questions (parliament, the press, the Fabians!) have given up that role.

A driver can’t predict the traffic miles ahead but he’s still responsible for any car crashes he has if he if he just shuts his eyes and slams down the accelerator.

I can add a least two names to the list above of Geniuses of Foresight.

First, Anne Pettifor in her 2006 book ‘The Coming First World Debt Crisis’ (for more see http://www.debtonation.org/about-2).

Second, Hazel Henderson in ‘The Money Fix’ here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JhjmV0iLpk

I suspect there are others.

The torygraph jumped the shark years ago.

Brown , in right wing eyes was, while Prime Minister of the UK also flying to New York to sit in the boardrooms of every investment bank in the US and single handedly bringing them all to the edge of bankruptcy.

While doing this he was flying to Iceland and Ireland to also destroy their banking system. What a man of such power.

” A driver can’t predict the traffic miles ahead but he’s still responsible for any car crashes he has if he if he just shuts his eyes and slams down the accelerator.”

And the real drivers where Reagan/Thatcher/Milton Freeman who positively encouraged the idea of just closing your eyes and slamming down the accelerator.

Those who claim to have predicted the 2007/08 financial crisis is a bit like great sporting events. Those who claim they were there far exceeds the actual attendance. The permabears who daily predict impending doom are a bit like that. They are just Cassandras where every wrong prediction is ignored and people focus on when they were allegedly right. A prediction without a timescale is VALUELESS. Someone who warns everyday that a great storm is imminent does not get credit when eventually a great storm occurs. Making generalised comments that credit is growing too fast and house prices are rising too high, is not a correct forecast if and when they crash. A correct forecast is when you correctly identify the mechanism whereby the crisis occurs and the timescale you are using.

How many of the above Cassandras predicted a collapse in the shadow banking system through the increase in haircuts, due to a loss of faith in repo securities? None of them. That right there is how the banking/financial crisis was amplified. The entire U.S. sub-prime market could have declined to zero and it would not have led to the GFC without a transmission mechanism. Just saying markets are overvalued and claiming to be right when they crash is not analysis that has any use for policy or anything else. Analysis that says the regulators are ignoring the unregulated shadow banking system and it will create problems would have been a valid prediction.

Who can credibly claim to have predicted the GFC is an easy question to answer. Those who made money from the crash is the answer. They were the ones shorting the banks and the securities that oiled the wheels of the shadow banking system. So a relatively small number in truth.

Guano

There were plenty of nay-sayers. But simply saying nay doesn’t really constitute predicting what happened. Hence the very comprehensive study linked to in the article. It explains some of the economic modelling and theories that saw a tiny hadful of people predict with some accuracy (in terms of scale, timing and order of events)what as to come.

It doesn’t list millions of nay-sayers who like a stopped clock just happen to be right twice a day.

Shatterface

One might argue that the driver (Brown) had got the motor running again before he was forcible ejected from the driver’s seat and a new driver got in, slammed on the breaks, and stopped us getting anywhere ever since. Stagnation since Summer 2010, when our car got its new driver. ;)

Richard W
Ah, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Silly little boy.

William Keegan makes the case for why Gordon is not to blame. He carries more authority than many, having been one of the few to question the praise that was coming Brown’s way in 2000-04. Paul Krugman, Amartya Sen are among those who seem to agree

http://www.searchingfinance.com/products/books-econ-politics-finance/saving-the-world-gordon-brown-reconsidered.html

I’m no expert but it seems to me as though no bugger had a clue. If economics is, like the weather, too big and chaotic then the only wise thing to do is know your limits. There are plenty who claim special insights into both, we should probably treat them equally sceptically.

The elephant in the room isn’t economics, though is it? It’s banking. The true problem is in the use if debt and complex devices in a Byzantine system. That’s where the risk was and that’s where the attention needs to be focused.

I’m still waiting for something that looks like adequate banking reform. I’m still waiting for some bankers to stand in the dock and answer the difficult questions. I’m not holding my breath though, because until we have an alternative to the rich paying our political parties its the one who pays the piper that calls the tune.

10. Richard Carey

@ Cherub,

“If economics is, like the weather, too big and chaotic then the only wise thing to do is know your limits.”

I kind of agree. Economic theory cannot predict the future (although it can tell you a lot about how the economic system works and what is inherently unstable). What passes for economics these days is a mish-mash of statistics (historical data), dodgy modelling and politically-driven policies, dressed up with a load of jargon to give them intellectual cover.

“The elephant in the room isn’t economics, though is it? It’s banking….”

Yes, although I would say it’s the monetary system at the very heart, although this is almost synonymous with banking. The bankers have managed, over the course of many decades, to position themselves in the role of high priests, presiding over the monetary system, rather than as only one, albeit an essential, sector of the economy.

“I’m still waiting for something that looks like adequate banking reform. I’m still waiting for some bankers to stand in the dock and answer the difficult questions. I’m not holding my breath though”

Indeed. You are wise not to hold your breath. I fear that no effective change will take place, unless there is some kind of catastrophe, and that is hardly to be wished for.

You forgot to add one to the list – Vince Cable.

In November 2003, Cable asked Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, “Is not the brutal truth that … the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?”

Brown replied, “As the Bank of England said yesterday, consumer spending is returning to trend. The Governor said, ‘there is no indication that the scale of debt problems have … risen markedly in the last five years.’ He also said that the fraction of household income used up in debt service is lower than it was then.”

12. margin4error

Andy May

Nah – Cable just used nay-saying as a political point scoring tool from time to time. If we count Vince Cable we can count pretty much everyone as having predicted what would happen. Everyone at some stage criticised the economic strength of the UK from 1995-2008.

And of course his party-political criticism of Brown wasn’t a prediction. And had it been a prediction that the UK’s high level of personal debt would trugger a crash, he would have later admited to that prediction being wrong. After all, he noted when writing on the subject that it wasn’t personal debt that caused the crash. “trigger for the current global financial crisis was the US mortgage market” which was of course well outside the control of the UK government.

What Vince did that others didn’t was recognise the scale of the banking crisis relatively quickly after it started and proposed radical solutions such as nationalising Northern Rock quicker than others. Brown was understandably reluctant to take on such liabilities as a government, though he did eventually realise it was probably for the best.

And of course, having made such calls, Vince became the man who predicted the crash, and all record of him criticising the red tape and burdensome regulation that held our banking system back – was stricken from the public memmory.

13. John Devalle

Another who predicted the crisis, as far back as 2003, is Warren Buffet. In a scarily accurate statement, he described derivatives as ‘Weapons of mass financial destruction’.

RichardW “A prediction without a timescale is VALUELESS.”

Not at all. The observations that the dominance of the financial sector in the UK and the US is unhealthy, and that new financial instruments are very risky, are of great value. It would be difficult to predict which factors would cause a financial bubble to burst but it is very useful to understand that a time will be reached when they will.

Very few people bothered to look at what the financial sector was actually doing and thus to understand the inherent risks. This is understood today, but very few people dare to take the necessary steps because the financial sector is too powerful.

What’s being overlooked, of course, is what Brown did after the fall of the Rock. He may not have been a great Prime Minister (let’s be frank, he very definitely wasn’t a great Prime Minister). He may have been seduced away from his academic strengths by the lures of money, power and Tony Blair. But at least he knew what the fuck you do when a finance crises causes a demand-shock recession. His successor most certainly did not.

A particularly good comparison point is VAT policy. Brown recognised very quickly what was going on, and knew (being an actual economist, once upon a time) what to do about it. One thing he did was diminish the demand-suppressing impact of the most savagely regressive tax regime on our books (VAT down to 15%). It wasn’t the only thing he did, but it was a recognisable part of an effort to relieve the burden on the common consumer and re-balance the economy to get out of a demand shock.

The Tories took a tax which falls heaviest on the poor, and which inhibits demand (in a demand shock recession) and then raised it by 5%.

Brown was a shit Prime Minister, but he was doing the right things about the recession, and the economic trend lines show it. The Tories got in and killed his 2-year-old recovery stone dead.

Chris, with respect, the use of the term, “recovery” is stretching things a bit under the circumstances. “Not quite dead yet” and “recovery” aren’t the same.

17. margin4error

Cherub, with respect, recovery did seem to be the story until mid 2010.

We showed five consecutive quarters of growth until then of 0.4, 0.4, 0.6, 0.7 and 0.6 before the new government depressed expectations across the markets and triggered a period of stagnation that remains nearly three years later despite us hosting an Olympics that added 0.7% to GDP (by Treasury estimates).

Our economy shrank by 6.5% during the creash. That’s about the same as the USA and a little less than Germany. But where as countries like the USA and Germany followed the same path out of recession as the UK, proping up spending and using stimulus policies like the scrappage schemes and kick-start programmes for building projects – the UK changed policy in mid 2010 and halted our recovery at about -4% to -3% below the pre-crash high.

Of course government wants to claim that it’s damaging impact on expectations has no impact on consumers or markets or companies and so on. But only the economically illiterate would imagine that to be true.

Love this take on it and the concept of parallelism: http://www.jace.gr.jp/ACEI2012/usb_program/pdf/8.6.1.pdf

Economics is a pseudo science at best and it’s difficult to think of one positive thing it has given the world (post Keynes).

@M4E
My point is that those recovery figures would be considered pathetic under normal circumstances. The best one can say is that they were growth.

The criticisms of Brown have got nothing to do with whether he could have predicted the crisis or that he “caused” it. Almost none of his critics ever claim this (despite the silliness of some of the commenters above like Sally).

The criticisms are that the UK economy was ill-prepared to deal with any “bust” in the UK or global economy, especially one focused on the banking industry.

It’s called the precautionary principle. You don’t manage the economy on the assumption that the good times will last forever. Even the most basic knowledge of economic history shows that there is an economic cycle.

That was Brown’s failing. He genuinely seemed to belief that “boom and bust” had been eliminated.

@ margin4error

You are wrong that the US has had any net stimulus of the public sector.

There has indeed been fiscal stimulus at the Federal level (“Obama’s fiscal stimulus” if you like) but this has been offset by the individual states cutting public spending by a larger amount.

It’s clearly shown in the last three charts on this blog.

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=22618

The actual reason why the US economic has recovered faster is probably more to do with its faster restructuring of its banking system and writing off of bad debts and the massive boost to the US consumer and corporate sector by the collapse in fuel prices (shale oil) unlike the UK that has seen oil & energy prices almost double over the last 2-3 years.

Chris Naden

Brown has never been an economist. He has no economic qualifications (either academic or professional) and no professional or practical economics experience before becoming shadow Chancellor.

Much like the current incumbent.

The rest of your post displays a similar ignorance. Darling put VAT back up to 17.5% whilst he was Chancellor (not the Tories putting it straight from 15% to 20%) Even prior to a general election there was a realisation that fiscal tightening was essential so as to avoid higher interest rates or a collapse in sterling. And in Darling’s memoirs he states he was intending to raise VAT to 19% after the election.

@ 14. Guano

“Not at all. The observations that the dominance of the financial sector in the UK and the US is unhealthy, and that new financial instruments are very risky, are of great value. ”

Well it does not help your case by making an observation that is not true. Finance does not dominate the UK and certainly not the U.S. economy. The financial sector in both grew but they did not dominate. What is unhealthy is problems in the financial sector spread to the real economy and preventing that happening is the real challenge. Financial derivatives are not inherently risky, they are good things if used properly. What is unhealthy is the opaqueness and often outright fraud in how derivatives have been accounted on balance sheets.

“It would be difficult to predict which factors would cause a financial bubble to burst but it is very useful to understand that a time will be reached when they will.”

So this alleged knowledge effectively has no real world application. Moreover, whether bubbles even exist is contested. Fundamental efficient market hypothesis adherents would deny that bubbles at all or can be observed in real time. Everyone in hindsight can see markets that were overvalued after they fall. However, if we apply some logic to the notion that many people can observe bubbles in real time. That alone would suggest that the bubble would not exist because all this knowledge would prevent the bubble happening. For example, if lots of people knew that the oil price would fall to X on Thursday. What would happen is they would use that knowledge to make it fall to that price tomorrow. The same logic applies to people who claim to have some special insight into real times bubbles.

“Very few people bothered to look at what the financial sector was actually doing and thus to understand the inherent risks.”

You mean apart from the tens of thousands of analysts reports that are churned out every year.

” This is understood today, but very few people dare to take the necessary steps because the financial sector is too powerful. ”

I am not saying that markets can’t get overvalued and sometimes crash. One only has to think back to the Dot Com frenzy at the turn of the century. From at least 1998 onwards it was obvious that there was too much hype about the so-called new economy. Guys in sports bars discussing stocks instead of baseball and football. People remortgaging their homes to buy dot com stocks. Crazy valuations for companies who had never filed a years accounts never mind few of them were making any money. What possible application was that knowledge to policymakers, that those stocks were overvalued when the crash never occurred until years later. No form of regulation is ever going to prevent people being stupid.

What I am railing against is the hindsight myths. John Devalle post at 13 is a perfect example. Warren Buffett apparently seen the GFC because he made some comments about derivatives. I think Warren Buffett is probably one of the smartest investors of all time. The context of his comments on derivatives was in relation to the opaqueness and sewer accounting around derivatives, not derivatives per se. His company sells derivatives, a company of his size needs derivatives to hedge their exposure. Warren Buffett was showing a paper loss in 2008 of $11.5bn.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/01/credit-crunch-warrenbuffett

During 2008, Warren Buffett spent hundreds of millions buying shares in Irish banks because they were cheap. They got cheaper right down to zero. For all his talents does that sound like someone who seen the GFC coming? Yet, all these myths grow about people from generalised comments they made in the past.

24. margin4error

Cherub

Those figures were hardly laughable. A relatively steady annualised growth rate under the conditions faced of 2.1% is pretty impressive.

All the more so given how badly it all got screwed up after the election.

Shinsei

Thanks for the link. That’s a real interesting read. I can’t quite determine when looking at the three bottom graphs whether we are talking relatively small %s or relatively large because I can’t work out if they are using the US convention of annualed quarterly GDP figures or using the European (and UK) convention of individual quarter figures.

But either way – the figures would therefore suggest that it is actually public and market expectations that make the immediate impact – given that the USA recovered to pre-crash highs relatively quickly on the back of precieved stimulus, while the UK has yet to do so, having stagnated under a government that talks up crisis and austerity.

As I say, thanks for the link. Will read more of that blog in future.

1) Making vague comments about the inherent weakness of parts of the economy or financial system does not count as “predicting the global financial crash”. Any more so than Gary Lineker opining in December that Arsenal/Chelsea/Man Utd/Man City are “looking quite good at the moment” counts as an accurate prediction should one of them eventually win the Championship.

2) Plenty of people however did predict the financial crisis as is evidenced by the fact they actually put their money where their mouth was and made financial decisions based on expectations of a crash. Read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short for a list of all the Wall St & City financiers who made a bundle by shorting US sub prime property.

The criticisms of Brown from the the free market ,deregulation zombies on the Right wing is priceless when you consider that before the crises in 2008 both Cameron and Osborne were demanding even more crazy deregulation than Brown was already doing. (Of course this has been air brushed out of history by conservative central and their media buddies)

Brown and Blair gave the city what they wanted, and the city fucked it up. And in doing so they destroyed their claim to be geniuses that should be paid huge amounts of money for their expertise. They didn’t have any expertise,. (Unless you count drug money laundering) It was all bullshit. The self regulating free market proved to be nonsense. As too the rather quaint notion that shareholders have any clue as to what the businesses they own were doing.

RichardW: “Financial derivatives are not inherently risky, they are good things if used properly. What is unhealthy is the opaqueness and often outright fraud in how derivatives have been accounted on balance sheets.”

Except that in practice nobody seems to have worked out how to prevent the fraud.

That list is way too short.
Brown and other G7 finance ministers were warned by Jim Chanos and other hedge funders in 2007 about the coming crash.
Against their own financial interests too.
(Chanos is a famous “shorter” who made a fortune when Enron collapsed.)
They were ignored.
“But I think we were seen probably as much as an annoyance as anything else from people who wanted to catch a plane or get home.
But there was some uncomfortable paper shuffling. There was sort of, you know, that looking at the ceiling across the table. There was a bit of eye rolling. There’s no doubt about that.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-johnson/jim-chanos-warned-brown-g_b_274527.html

29. Luis Enrique

I think you should get some credit if you were warning prior to 2007 that credit booms tend to end in tears. Even if such warnings are vague, plenty of economists showed no awareness of the danger, prior to the event.

See here for summary of research showing most crises follow credit booms
http://www.nber.org/digest/mar10/w15512.html

on the other hand, we did’t have the crisis because private sector debt was “unsustainable” (i.e. it wasn’t caused by borrowers being unable to service their debts) we had a crisis because the world banks had managed to get themselves into the ridiculous position where they were bankrupted by falling house prices, combined with an unregulated and largely unknown shadow banking system that fell to pieces when everybody began to doubt bank solvency. People like Keen and Godley did not predict that, their predictions were more akin to, say, predicting a current account crisis arising from continual trade deficits (a crisis that still hasn’t happened yet, despite decades of deficits).

Richard W: “Financial derivatives are not inherently risky, they are good things if used properly. What is unhealthy is the opaqueness and often outright fraud in how derivatives have been accounted on balance sheets.”

Let’s not overlook that prior to the financial crisis credit rating agencies were awarding triple stars to a selection of financial derivatives that turned out to be worthless.

Try Gillian Tett on: Fool’s Gold:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gillian_Tett

margin4error

Your dismissal of Any May’s claim that Cable should be on the list doesn’t wash.

Cable made a sustained critique from the parliamentary benches and in Lib Dem media work of the dangers of growing personal debt to the economy over a period of years running up to 2007. He stood out at as one of the rare voices making such a critique – and just about the sole voice in parliament.

The sustained nature and shrewd analysis of his critique shows it was more than just tit for tat point scoring.

Had the media not ignored him and given attention to this throughout that period, he would be hailed as a genius now.

I claim a place on the list too!

I told my Dad in 2000 not to worry because Bush would be a one term President. The US had fallen into a negative savings rate and the personal debt chickens would be coming home to roost. I also suggested that there would be inflationary pressures too with wage demands increasing from Asia. So I thought Bush would be dealing with a major recession before his first term ended.

I think my analysis was pretty good; I was just surprised it took so long. But it was impossible to have anticipated just how long the inevitable would be put off for by the innovation of derivative packaging of debt, which was new because the information technology and software that made it possible was new.

It was the discovery in the second half of 2007 that some financial derivatives were worthless that led directly to the collapse of the inter-bank lending market in Britain as banks started rejecting the collateral offered to support inter-bank borrowing.

Northern Rock had been especially dependent on borrowing in the inter-bank market to support its asset portfolio of home mortgages. As word got around that NR depositors could be at risk, a run on the bank began as depositors queued up to get their money out. Another factor in the loss of depositor confidence was that NR, by media reports, had been unduly relaxed about lending 100pc loan-to-value mortgages as well as about checking on the credit-worthiness of mortgage applicants.

As tends to happen in these situations, concerns over the liquidity of one bank leads to an adverse domino effect on depositor confidence in other banks.

If this narrative is broadly correct, predicting the financial crisis depended on realising that some financial derivatives were worthless – as were the ratings of financial assets awarded by the credit rating agencies.

Bob B
“If this narrative is broadly correct, predicting the financial crisis depended on realising that some financial derivatives were worthless – as were the ratings of financial assets awarded by the credit rating agencies.”

Indeed. Those who predicted a crisis, sometime, realised (or suspected) that the value of assets were not being properly assessed, that it was next to impossible to assess the value of some assets, that auditors and credit agencies were not looking deeply at how assets were valued and that state oversight was being weakened. Although in theory the objective of markets is to value assets and understand risk, in fact assets were being given inflated values because everyone else was giving them that inflated value, and nobody had looked for the real underlying value. Then everybody lost confidence in those valuations at the same time; result = crisis.

Large sections of the financial sector are not markets (even though on TV when they say “let’s see what is happening in the markets” they are talking about the financial sector). The financial sector is no longer a way of assessing the real underlying value of assets as they have been sliced and diced so much (supposedly to spread risk but in practice to create opportunities for speculation).

Didn’t Robert Shiller on: Irrational Exuberance (Princeton UP) destroy the myth that changes in stock market prices reflect changes in fundamentals?
http://homes.ieu.edu.tr/~stunc/ITF%20413%20Spring/kitaplar/Irrational%20Exuberance.pdf

Sellers and holders of assets have a powerful incentive to present enhanced values of the assets. Look what happened to the share price of Facebook after initial flotation.

In the news today, George Osborne is reported as saying poor lending decisions by British banks in the years leading up to the financial crisis has had a significant impact on the recovery: “Osborne weighs impact of banks’ bad loans”

It is looking more and more that Bob Diamond was absolutely right when he said in that BBC Today interview with John Humphrys on 4 November 2011 that the banks must accept responsibility for what went wrong. In the interview – which I listened to – he repeatedly said that banks must work towards a situation where banks could fail without taxpayer support and without causing systemic instability.

The question is whether the government’s Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill goes far enough. The proposed firewall to separate retail from investment banking could save this or future governments from having to bail out failing investment banks – and the so-called ‘shadow’ banks, like hedge funds – but it isn’t going to do much about increasing competition in retail banking on high streets or to prevent mis-selling.

Btw the consumers’ association Which? says that the industry was thought to have made a profit of £5bn each year from the sale of PPI – so question marks remain over whether the banks will ultimately lose out even after paying out compensation for the mis-selling.


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