David Collum: Everything That Mattered In 2018
The only thing nearly as enlightening as reading David Collum's epic Year In Review is listening to him and Chris Martenson riff about its highlights.
Strap in, grab some eggnog, and listen to this year's recap:
Everyone thinks the markets are now correcting. But compared to the size of the correction I think both you and I expect, this is just a drop in the bucket. This is merely the vibrating puddle in Jurassic Park. This is not the big one.
What's amazing is this recent romp, which has lasted now almost 10 years, is the only gigantic bubble that I'm aware of in which the storyline behind it is just complete garbage.
Every other bubble, like the Tech bubble — well, tech is amazing. The 1920's bubble — wow, we just invented electric power and cars and planes. There's always a great, great story.
This particular bubble in which we have had for 10 years is central banks are going to print money to cover our backs.
That's the stupidest Goddam plotline I can ever imagine.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with David Collum (87m:25s).
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David Collum: Everything That Mattered In 2018
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Chris Martenson: Welcome everyone to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. It is December 19th, 2018. Hey, listen, we are here today talking with Dave Collum about his year in review and is continuing our annual tradition. Listen, it's the best year in review in the business. And it's, listen, in order to know where we're going, we’ve got to figure out what just happened. What better than a gigantic romp through where we have just been?
Now for those of you unfamiliar with Dave he is professor of chemistry in chemical biology at Cornell University. And in addition to his academic interest Dave authors this macro-economic assessment entitled, Year in Review. It's hands down, listen people, the best synopsis of everything and anything that mattered in the previous 12 months. And Dave's latest year in review can once again, thankfully be found in full and all its glory in PeakProsperity.com where you can also download a PDF for your offline reading pleasure wherever you happen to do that. I'm excited to have him with us now live in order to expand on these really excellent insights.
David Collum, thank you so much for being with us again.
Dave Collum: Thank you very much. You think this is a Friday upload? Is that the target date?
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. We are going for Friday.
Dave Collum: We have been doing this for years and you know, we go back probably 20 years, back on some you know, Doug Knoll's chat board or something. It has been a long time.
Chris Martenson: We are both celebrating 10 year anniversaries this year. Ours has been the 10th year since the initial release of the crash course. You, for being the 10th official year, I guess, of your own amazing year in review, so congratulations on that.
Dave Collum: Yeah, it's you know, I feel like I got to pull my brains out through my nostrils like an Egyptian when I do these. Painful.
Chris Martenson: As you painfully reflect back and given the ultrawide ranging views in display from your year in review — what are you most surprised to be here discussing with me yet again that has not changed since last year? Maybe since we started?
Dave Collum: You know, everyone thinks the markets are now correcting. It, you know, the correction I think both you and I expect to sell large, this is just a drop in the bucket. This is the vibrating puddle in Jurassic Park. This is not the big one. What is amazing is this recent romp, which has lasted now almost 10 years, is the only gigantic bobble that I'm aware of in which the storyline behind it is just complete garbage. So every other bubble the tech bubble you say, well tech is amazing. The 20's bubble, wow we just invented electric power and cars and planes. There is always a great, great story. This particular bubble in which we have had for 10 years is central banks are going to print money to cover our backs. That is the stupidest Goddam plotline I can ever imagine. That's just dumb.
Chris Martenson: Well, it is just dumb. And here we are again, so I want to get into all of this. We are going to look at the debt and economy and all these other things which are — what you are alluding to is that there is really no narrative to support this one, right? So we have the tech narrative, the internet. It was transformative. A lot of dumb things got done on the back of the credit bubble that Greenspan blew back there is the 90's.
Before we get there we got to describe the caveats. Dave, you described yourself as 1/1,124th economist what does that qualify you for?
Dave Collum: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Yeah, everyone has at least that much economist in them. Yeah, I'm a big believer in the 10,000 hour model. We can get into it if you want. People ask me about global warming, I'm like I haven't spent 10,000 hours, so my opinion isn't worth anything. My wife gets mad, but you know, I think I've got the 10,000 hours logged in trying to understand markets from sort of a 35,000 feet perspective. It's not — it's not that I understand them the way some of these serious Wall Street guys do maybe, but it's from standing back and looking at it and trying to take a wide angle lens view in understanding it in the context of history. That semi qualifies me. I am pretty good at taking complicated problems and turning them into stupidly simple metaphors and stuff like that.
Chris Martenson: Well maybe we share that same trait. That is really my only addition I can offer to this. I tell people I'm not an economist, but I play one on the internet. So Dave, you've also described yourself as a permabear, I have done the same thing to myself. But more subtly, I am actually a perma skeptic of several ideas. One is the idea that debt is the same thing as wealth. Another is that you can print up prosperity via central bank mechanisms or maybe I'm a skeptic of the idea that the Fed's Overton window is near wide enough for the many predicaments we face. What are your thoughts there?
Dave Collum: Well, yeah, I agree. In fact, one of my big concerns is when the time comes not to be a big skeptic you and I are going to be so scarred that we crawl out of our little layers and say you know what? The birds are chirping because the world is going to look like it just burned down. And we are going to have to know when it's time. What happened was in '09, everyone says people sell at the bottom out of fear, right? I was in Cash on '09. I failed to buy at the bottom out of greed. And the greed was I was salivating, the greed was history showed we were at a historical fair value in '09. People think we were in some depths of deeply, deeply discounted shares. That is just bologna. And you can see it on — one of the things I did this year more than any other year, I was just banged on the evaluation issue because I just got to lay it all out there this year so when we finally do regress to and through the mean people can say gee, I read that somewhere, right? So we never got beyond fair value in '09. And history says we were going to. So I blew it by saying, you know, we got more downside. You can't just regress to the mean you got to go below it.
Then the Fed jumped and something I have yet to find a single person claiming credit to have seen and that is they dumped $20 trillion into the system. You remember when Bear Stearns got bailed for 30 billion and it was mind boggling and now that is a quaint number. For them the Fed and central banks to dump $20 trillion was so unprecedented it caught me on my heels.
So I rode out this market. I sat on the sidelines. I have been watching in amazement and maybe you know, hoping for some schadenfreude at some point. This is the one cycle I would say I played poorly. Even though I held a lot in gold so did okay for a while, but.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, I'm in the same boat and we've been in the same boat. We have been preaching safety and security for a long time. And let's be fair about this, too. 2009 we saw the central banks start to dump a lot in and by 2011 they had unwound that it got down to 0 new additions. But then they freaked out and threw more in. I thought QE2 they got to be dumb dumping in how dumb can this get?
Of course a couple more cycles 2016 there we were it looks like it does now in early 2016, late 2015 the market is going oat the bear market equity territory. We have outflows, currency gyrations, skyrocketing interest rates at the margins, it's coming towards the center. All of that reversed one morning at 2:30 in February and everything went the other direction.
Now we have the data, we see the central banks in 2016, 17 largest additions to the balance sheet in the entire cycle. Even as they were saying everything looks good. Unemployment is — they were saying the nice palliative statements, but what was really happening is they were putting emergency levels of liquidity in. Let's talk about 2019 and that context. They are all publicly committed to not doing anymore of that. Do you believe them?
Dave Collum: No, but I'm you know, and I use a King Cnut metaphor, illusion this year in which Cnut standards says watch, I'll hold back the tides. And then he says, see nobody can hold back the tides. And so I think it's kind of a King Knut moment where for a while it can look like they are pulling it off, but at some point they are cannot pull it off. Regression the mean will happen. It kind of feels like somewhat real. And my biggest fear is they will somehow find a way to make it stretch over a dozen years and crushes with the scariest of all variables, the consumption of time.
So a fast collapse gives you know, gives people who want to buy deep value opportunities a great opportunity. If they just grind the thing for straight 12 years, nobody wins. Nobody wins under those market conditions.
Chris Martenson: Well maybe Illinois. Oh no, probably not Illinois.
Dave Collum: I think Illinois is taking losses in the locker room taping up their wounds. Yeah, exactly.
Chris Martenson: For those listening what I am referring to is you and I, everybody listening has lost because we lost 10 years of interest income, which is about a trillion missing dollars that did not flow into helping our children pay off student loans or to start businesses or any of that. That trillion flowed to the big banks and what did they do with it? Record bonuses. The usual story. That decade has lost and it killed the pensions, all of which are under water. So Dave, I know you wrote extensively about pensions. How do you think the central banks or the Fed in the US sense how do they go about addressing that? Do they do it directly or do they try indirectly by propping markets and hoping, fingers crossed, this all works out somehow?
Dave Collum: Well, the market prop won't work now because we just propped the market and the pensions went from poorly funded to pathetically funded. If a pension in — the pensions there were in 2012 were funded to the extent of 85%. Now they are funded to about 35% and that's after one of these roid rages. So what's another roid rage going to do for these guys? They're dead. I think the pensions are toe tagged and bagged. I don't think there is any mathematical way for their pensions to grow or tax their way out of the mess they're in. I think it's a done deal. And then the question comes down to who gets screwed? And I think we might see pensioners get crushed and then there might be people who are just destitute. They will be eating out of dumpsters.
Or, the model that I picture the most is some goofy model in which the Feds pretend like they are just loaning the states money to put in the pension funds, knowing the states will never pay them back. So they will monetize state debt. That is going to tick me off. That is going to — there are some massively overpaid pension plans across the country. They are ridiculous – -there are people retiring at $800,000 a year in public service that is just crazy. There is no chance I want anyone paying that tab. Anyone who didn't incur it. If the state wants to pay it because they agreed to it, that's fine. I don't want that washing up on my doorstep.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, well said. One of the things in this year in review like others so many great quotes packed in. Here is one that really stands out for me from Tony Dedon, the founder of Edelweiss Holdings, "We have abolished the idea of failure, nature's cleansing mechanism. As a consequence, we have lost real economic vitality. We've substituted finance for industry as the locomotive of economic growth. In GDP terms, hey, it looks terrific, but it's neither enduring nor real."
Great quote there. I mean, that's what we're really talking about is this institutionalization banishment of failure, but what do you get when you stop that process?
Dave Collum: What you do is it is the equivalent of hanging onto a gangrenous leg. It doesn’t work well in the end. So you get — all sorts of zombies. There is the classic zombies of companies, which the definition of zombie like there is a definition of zombie, but there is. Basically, there is a company that can't pay its interest payments with its cash flows, so it has to take out debt to pay its interest payments. That thing is dead. The company is no longer a financially viable institution. The question is how long they stay walking the earth, right, before someone puts a bullet in their head like in a zombie movie. It is totally up in the air, but they're dead. They're not coming back. And at some point their productive assets will be auctioned off on some courthouse steps somewhere. As long as the Feds keep propping them up they keep popping up doing damage. The zombie metaphor works perfectly for me. And so when it finally gives way all these mistakes that the market has made because of the excess capital that has been dumped into it will surface. All bodies will be floating to the surface before we are done.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, I guess the idea there that some people are holding onto is the ultimate Fed put, can the Fed keep all these different zombies alive? Big one in my book as I study it closely is the shale space. Shale operators have not made money on a free cash flow basis since they started. Their so-called break even prices are a complete fantasy or fiction or fraud depending on which F you like. And they are kept alive —
Dave Collum: There is another one I like more. The bomb. Yeah.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, that one. So these you know, this idea let me take exception with Tony. How can I because he's just so famous. But he says, "We've abolished the idea of failure…" maybe we've just instead of abolished the idea, what we've just done is we have just delayed a much larger failure — would you agree with that?
Dave Collum: Well, I would interpret Tony more literally and that is we have abolished the idea of failure, but we haven't abolished failure.
Chris Martenson: Not the reality of it. You got to spend some time with him, didn't you?
Dave Collum: Yeah as Jim Grant said — I quoted this one, he said, "You can change what people think, but you can't change what is." He has got this — yeah, so Tony is a real smart guy. And he's old school, right? In Switzerland he manages old money. His goal is to carry that wealth from generation to generation without losing any of it, so there is kind of a inherent conservatism to what he thinks about. And it wouldn't look inherently conservatively wacked out to anyone from another era. To the current era he just looks like an old, stodgy bastard. And you know, it's going to be a classic case where the old guys are going to say yeah, I've seen this plot before. I know how it ends.
Chris Martenson: I got to ask, Dave, is 2019 the year that valuations matter again?
Dave Collum: I don't know. You know that's true, too. I actually read an article by Larry Summers, I am bottom feeding now. And he basically does some Bayesian analysis where he shows the probability of a recession sort of changes over time and it gets higher and higher. But then it plateaus. And so some number of years out it just each year has a certain coin toss and quality to it. And the argument he makes is therefore it doesn't matter how old the expansion is the probability now is becoming a constant with a lot of noise of course. I got to think that is wrong. It might be based on empirical observation. I don't know. But the longer an expansion goes the more scar tissue you develop and the more damage you develop from the expansion. Expansions are great, but then they start doing and stuff, right? And you start over expanding. I think expansions do die of old age. I don't believe Summer's model. It might be like someone who is 80 years old the chance of dying at 81 or 82 or 83 is about the same, but they are closer to death than a 20 year old.
Chris Martenson: Yeah. You know, bless you for reading Summers. I don't subject myself to that very often. In fact, not this year at all, I don't think. Good on you for doing that.
But come on, this is the longest expansion. Second longest in history. And lots of recession signs sort of starting to creep up. Let me ask you this — how is the economy doing?
Dave Collum: I think it stunk for 10 years. And I now it's starting to show signs of failure. And so, for a brief period this year all of a sudden it was giving this Goldilocks high fives. I'm thinking, how can this possibly be? A year ago I was writing about this stuff and there was already cracks in a number of regions of the economy, like housing and auto and things like that. I actually asked rhetorically, did I miss a boom? Did I blink or something? And in some sense the answer is yes because what we had this year were these one of expenses. They start with the hurricane rebuild from the '17 hurricane season. They are still rebuilding. That shows up as GDP. That doesn't show up as wealth, but it shows up as GDP. And then you had the taxes — the tax reductions, all of a sudden there was this sort of road rage euphoria. Fantastic more money is coming from overseas. Turns out that money was always in some bank. That money was in some bank like HSBC and Bank of America, stuff like that. So it's not like bringing it over here is any sort of construct that's worth even thinking about. It's in the multinational banking system. Then the third one was the tariff war. You say I don't know if that is bad for the economy. Not early on when people started front running it and they started doing stuff very quickly to be the tariffs. And so they were doing all sorts of exporting and importing and all the moves you make because you say it is going to get harder once those tariffs are in place. So we get this polis of pretariff activity, which I sort of bizarrely call “tarifying.”
Dave Collum: So I think we did get a boost. I think we jammed some adrenaline in the corpse and it flinched.
Chris Martenson: You know, as I drove around I think you noted this as well, I saw help wanted signs here and there. They seemed to have an uptick, but you know the usual statistics that people were citing, like initial claims– I kept beating the drum on this, but it was too complex to really get much traction with. And the number of people who qualified to file initial claims has plummeted to an all time low. They're exhausted. To really qualify for an initial claim you have to have held a full-time job that qualified you in some fashion. So all the people who are part-time you know, sub 30 hour a week so they don't trigger any healthcare benefits or whatever they are up to is just fewer people qualify. So that number was just one of many in this series of US government Soviet crop report equivalent reporting that doesn’t tell us much. How do we — signal from noise where do you see the balance of that in terms of indicating where we are in this economy cycle?
Dave Collum: I absolutely have spotted the economic warning signs, but don't forget, these are the lowest run in the economic pattern. If someone is listening and they are in one of these jobs, no offense, but these are the jobs that require no skill to speak of, require certain personal skills maybe. When you see how employment in front of McDonald's this is not the same as Caterpillar is now hiring 2,000 people. Those are missing I think. I watched those. I don't see factories being built. I don't see any of the stuff that is part of the real economy. What I see is the consumption economy. We both know you don't get rich by consuming. Right? The whole idea that we are a consumption economy is completely insanity. That guy should be fired. There is no such thing as a consumption economy. You have an economy where you make stuff and then you get to consume after you make some wealth. And the consumption is the — is reaping the profit of the wealth creation. It isn't the wealth creation per se.
Chris Martenson: And this is right at the heart of, I think, what has bothered me the most as a skeptic. I am skeptical of this idea that wealth is in any way created by the Federal Reserve. They are a distributive or redistributive organization. They take from one and give to the other. They don't just create purchasing power out of nothing, but they have handed a lot of purchasing power to the 1%. So the question is well, where did that come from. I think at least part of that is contained a little bit in this one quote. So many nuggets, but I pulled this one out of your economy section. No maybe broken market section — yeah, broken markets. The quote here is, "Equities grant 300 plus percent off the lows while the GDP tracked the Great Depression compounding at 2% a year." That to me, sort of encapsulates a lot in this, which maybe sums up this statement — this time is different. The Feds created real wealth. It's enduring. It's going to last. Equities are up 300%. We don't need that stinking economy. We got price support by the central banks that got our backs. Is that a fair way to characterize or am I missing something?
Dave Collum: Yeah, well the other one the metaphor that I loved; it is so deeply buried, right? It is something — I have people — I have an acquaintance who read one of my year in reviews twice on an iPhone. There's a psychosis under that, right? The metaphor I really like flipped out there that would go easily missed is the Feds made stone soup. They brought out the pot. They threw a stone. They said if you guys can throw your private enterprise guys could throw a few things in here that would taste better, right? So, that is all the Feds do is they bring out the kettle and the stone. And they hope the free market will actually bring the rest. And so yeah, I — you can't print the prosperity. I think roughly speaking the equities have to follow the GDP. I get a little tangled up in that detail sometimes, where I say okay, but let's say GDP didn't grow. You are still producing wealth every year. You and I as sort of resource consumption guys realize that, you know, you can't keep growing the GDP indefinitely because we'll swallow the earth, right? It will be the stadium with the puddle in the middle of the stadium that exponentially blows up.
I've never even all the way back to high school, understood the idea that the only — the only way for the economy to be healthy is to just keep growing. Fill the known universe with elephants if you do that.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. There is this other idea, which I think you did a great job unpacking in this Year in Review, is this trollop that oh, you know, equities grow at 10% a year. Equities are a claim on something. If you have both equities and debt both compounding at twice the rate that your underlying economy is compounding, even if you had infinite resources, eventually you have a math problem. But once you understand resources are limiting there is a Ludwig minimum somewhere in that story, right? Even once you find that limit in there it is absolutely grade school math to prove that you can't have equities and debts compounding faster than your economy forever. It's just hard, but oh my gosh that might be one of the hardest concepts to get across to people, which means I don't think we are talking logic. I think we are talking belief systems. That is something I think you expose well is how many beliefs systems are just easily scratched at.
Dave Collum: Last year I banged down back of the envelope calculations where I tried to figure out why equities don't return the same as bonds. And you say, well, of course, they don't. Everyone knows that. I know, but why not? Why wouldn't the free market arbitrage those? And I came to the conclusion it must be in there for long-term they must return the same as bonds. Actually, Ben Graham said that. I think he didn't live in this era. Then what happened is after I wrote that last year all year long I thought about that. It is the name for Baader Meinhof syndrome where you are noticing things you wouldn't have otherwise noticed. What you notice is there are a lot of people out there saying equities don't return squat over time.
For example, Rob Arnaud, who was said by Howard Marks to be one of the true geniuses, right? I know Howard Marks is good. Arnaud says equities are going to return when you correct for everything about 3, 3.5% a year over a long period. And there is no one who realizes that. And no one, no one corrects for things like fees and corrects for things like taxes and corrects for things like when you have an inflated gain not a real gain, but an inflated gain you get tax done you actually lose. Again, I talked about it last year. I spent more time trying to get a little bit deeper. I pulled out this McQuarrie paper I actually got sent to me by Jesse Feldman, he said in case you missed this — which I had, of course. It was this paper talking about, look, over time you can get this. I think his estimate was too high. He said over 40 year periods you can get killed.
Now there is a chart in there, if people are listening to this, go read it. There is a chart in there that I think is the scariest chart of them all. It is a plot of the inflation adjusted S&P or Dow. I can't remember. And what I do is everyone always says how long did it take inflation adjusted to go from the peak where you don't want to be invested through the trough and get your money back? That's the favorite trick and it's usually about 20 years. But what people don't notice, what this chart shows so clearly is that after you get your money back 20 years later on the capital gains you go through a rise — every time you go through this rise which now you are in the black and it dips back to the final dip. The point where you go back right back to where the original peak was before you finally exit that awful sort of edy that you're stuck in — turns out to be between 40 and 70 years later. You literally can go 40 to 70 years on an inflation adjusted capital gain of 0. It happened four times in the 20th century from four major peaks to 40 to 70 years later hitting that same price again on a dip before it finally took off and hopefully doesn't go back.
This is the most terrifying chart that — and I couldn’t get guys like Liebowitz to create it for me. I used chemdraw to create the thing. Real sophisticated thinking for you, chemdraw to make finance charts. And I made it myself. Said this is what I'm trying to get you to make. It's a scary chart to me. The other thing we talk about if you are investing throughout this — you buy in at 29 and you keep investing, you are still fine. I go, yeah, but if in 1929 you were 40 years into your investing career you got no compounding left. You got no price cost averaging left in you.
So a millennial who starts buying now they will be fine because they will buy all the way down and all the way up. They will be fine. The boomer who has got 85 or 90% of their savings committed to the risk assets right now will never recover.
Chris Martenson: Well, indeed. That 3 and 3.5% return I might decompose that into 1% population growth and 2% productivity. There you go.
Dave Collum Population growth. That's a biggie. The other thing is history 3.1 to 3.5% does not include changes in valuation. So he says throughout an entire market cycle like Hussmann likes to do you get 3 to 3.5%. Assuming no change in valuation, whether you want to go high to high or high to low it doesn't matter. Now, what he also said was that if you now factor in the valuation change that he thinks would get us to the mean value, the next 10 years is going to compound at -3% and that will kill people. That is going to be demolishing. And Felder concludes that and Hussmann is even worse and Jeremy Grantham says that. These are not nitwits. These are smart guys. Now other people just don't even pay attention.
Chris Martenson: So yeah, no and Hussmann is the guy that really does it for me most. I mean, he just takes the data, just runs the math. Just has these incredible correlation charts between returns and valuations where the only way to escape that negative return over the next 10 years, according to Hussmann is for something to be profoundly different this time. Something has to change. Right? And —
Dave Collum: Not going to either.
Chris Martenson: What's that?
Dave Collum: It's not going to. For 200 years it hasn't happened, so I don't know why it's going to happen now.
Chris Martenson: Well, I guess the only thing we can hope for is that behind the scenes the Federal Reserve and the other banks are going to just continue to prop things back up forever, hey Hosanna never should we have trouble.
Dave Collum: That is the key though. We are at a super high valuation. If they just prop it up then we go back to Rob Arnaud's 3 to 3.5% ,assuming there is no change in valuation.
Chris Martenson: Yes.
Dave Collum: That is the predicted 3 to 3.5%. Here is the problem, then you start getting cascading failures because pension funds are 7 to 8. So they are going to be coming in light. What do they have to do? They have to take corporate profits and dump them into the pension funds to bring them up to speed. And all of a sudden corporate profits drop and guess what? You're not going to get crushed. There is no way out of this. We perceive we have created twice as much wealth as we’ve actually created. How do you get out of that? That's a delusion that will only be resolved by an awakening.
Chris Martenson: It's true. I got six different directions I want to go with this. Let me first — let's take the core of delusion, to finish that out, and then I'll get into corporations.
Debt. Debt is the thing that the Fed and the federal government will tell us can be safely ignored. Hey, deficits don't matter, Dick Cheney quote. The Fed never factors in debt growth when it's saying hey, look at how great things are. So there has been a debt super cycle in place, Dave, since the early 1980's. Now that broke in 2008. The US Federal Reserve said, not on our watch. Now there is another 100 trillion just of debt with which to contend on the global balance sheets. Take us through the role of debt and I don't know in everything we see and hear and touch and taste today.
Dave Collum: Well, debt and lack of savings are two sides of the same coin. The boomers have plenty of debt at a personal level, boomers have plenty of debt and they have no savings. So if they had a ton of saving and a ton of debt at least you could cancel those two but they don't. The millennials have saved nothing, the younger generation, and they seem to not know it. So great survey showing that they have something like the average 30 to 35 year old has something like $15,000 and thinks they're retiring at 56. You guys, I thought we did a lot of drugs when I was young. This is crazy.
– Peak Prosperity –
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