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The Return Of Stagflation

The Return Of Stagflation

Authored by John Mauldin via,

I have been writing this letter for 22 years. Sometimes I look…

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This article was originally published by Zero Hedge
The Return Of Stagflation

Authored by John Mauldin via,

I have been writing this letter for 22 years. Sometimes I look into the future and other times merely try to explain the present. Today I’m going to look at several possible futures. There are forces at work in both Congress and the Federal Reserve that could take us down radically different paths. There are also changes in the Zeitgeist, the way we act and think both in and as a society, that are going to have major impacts.

What I am not doing today is predicting the future. I am looking at events and saying if “this” happens we need to be prepared for it. I’m increasingly concerned we are in an economic situation with almost no wiggle room. We had serious issues before the pandemic which haven’t gone away. Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus obscured this reality, but can’t do so forever.

The late 2020 and early 2021 recovery was exactly that: a recovery from an exogenous event. It wasn’t new, organic growth—or at least not most of it. Moreover, the “exogenous” event is proving less than exogenous. We have wonderful vaccines, very effective in preventing severe disease and death. They help protect the people who get them, but the macro benefit is limited because they aren’t being administered widely enough and quickly enough. This limits global trade and travel, without which sustainable recovery is difficult.

Yes, we’ve learned to cope. We’re making adjustments but still a long way from normal. Much like the COVID-19 disease itself, the economy endured a severe acute phase followed by a chronic “long COVID.” The ongoing symptoms are less severe but still problematic.

Today we’ll explore all this and consider the possibilities. Longtime readers know I call the shots as I see them. Maybe I’m wrong but I fear we have consumed all the wiggle room. Now we need everything to go exactly right… and I have serious doubts it will.

Weaker Expansions

This year’s economy is built on top of last year’s, which was on top of the year before, and on back. It’s an iterative process. Nothing, not even COVID, wipes out the past. We keep feeling its effects.

So before we talk about future growth, let’s look back. I have said many times GDP has serious flaws as a growth measure, but it’s what we have. The bars in this chart are real GDP growth by quarter back to 1990, at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate. The gray vertical bars are recessions, of which there were 4 in this period.

Source: FRED

I want you to look at the periods between recessions, what business cycle theorists call the “expansion phase.” Looking only at those (omitting the recession quarters), here is the average quarterly GDP (annualized rates) for the last three expansions.

  • 1991–2001:     3.6%
  • 2001–2007:     2.8%

  • 2009–2019:     2.3%

The last three expansion/recovery phases were each weaker than the last. Maybe that’s coincidence, but it matches a lot of other data showing “growth” isn’t what it used to be.

Remember how this is supposed to work. If you want, say, 3% average GDP growth over long periods, which you know will include recessions in which growth is zero or negative, math says the expansion phases need to average well above 3%. They didn’t do so over the 2 years before COVID struck. The last 21 years have seen sub-2% growth for the entire period.

However, in the four quarters since the COVID recession, growth averaged a stupendous 12.8%. If you go back another quarter and include Q2 2020 (which was -31.2%), it’s still 5.8%. In either case, GDP says we are now experiencing the most gangbusters expansion in decades.

Does that really make sense? Is it where the economy would be right now if COVID had never happened, and the 2019 trends continued? That’s just not plausible. Growth was only 1.9% in Q4 2019 and prospects for more looked pretty bleak at the time.

I and others were saying the mild growth was a consequence of Federal Reserve policy and would only get worse unless the Fed changed course. This is from my December 20, 2019, Prelude to Crisis letter. It’s doubly haunting to read now.

The Fed began cutting rates in July. Funding pressures emerged weeks later. Coincidence? I suspect not. Many factors are at work here, but it sure looks like, through QE4 and other activities, the Fed is taking the first steps toward monetizing our debt. If so, many more steps are ahead because the debt is only going to get worse...

Just this week Congress passed, and President Trump signed, massive spending bills to avoid a government shutdown. There was a silver lining; both parties made concessions in areas each considers important. Republicans got a lot more to spend on defense and Democrats got all sorts of social spending. That kind of compromise once happened all the time but has been rare lately. Maybe this is a sign the gridlock is breaking. But if so, their cooperation still led to higher spending and more debt.

As long as this continues—as it almost certainly will, for a long time—the Fed will find it near-impossible to return to normal policy. The balance sheet will keep ballooning as they throw manufactured money at the problem, because it is all they know how to do and/or it’s all Congress will let them do.

Nor will there be any refuge overseas. The NIRP countries will remain stuck in their own traps, unable to raise rates and unable to collect enough tax revenue to cover the promises made to their citizens. It won’t be pretty, anywhere on the globe…

Crisis isn’t simply coming. We are already in the early stages of it. I think we will look back at late 2019 as the beginning.

COVID was nowhere on the radar screen when I wrote that. A few weeks later it made the Fed intensify an already-loose policy stance while Congress passed gargantuan spending bills that sent the debt even further skyward.

These had initially beneficial effects, as seen in recent GDP numbers. The question now is how long those effects will last.

Back on Its Own

Hindsight is always 20/20. It’s easy to look back and say governments overreacted in the initial COVID crisis, both with economically harmful protective measures and added spending to mitigate that harm, but there was much we didn’t know at the time. I think they were right to err on the side of caution. The first massive stimulus was necessary; subsequent rounds were more questionable.

Necessary or not, the spending was truly staggering. Here’s a chart comparing the inflation-adjusted per-capita spending with two previous crises. In fiscal terms, we just lived through the equivalent of two New Deals. And instead of 10 years, it happened in less than two.

Source: The Washington Post

The scale and speed of this spending explains much, if not most, of the recent GDP growth. Putting an extra $14 trillion on top of normal government spending into a $20 trillion economy is a massive sugar high. It wasn’t a free lunch by any means; the national debt went up accordingly. But it still had a short-term stimulus effect.

The stimulus effect is now ending. The last round of $1,400 payments is either spent or banked. The extended and enhanced unemployment benefits ended this week in the states that hadn’t already canceled them. The small businesses who received payroll support are reaching the end of their rope.

Yes, Congress is considering a pair of infrastructure bills whose price tags, if they pass in the proposed form, will outweigh the prior COVID bills. But passage is increasingly dubious. (More below.) Even if they do, the spending will be spread over many years. It won’t come close to replacing the other programs that have ended, or will end soon.

For all intents and purposes, without more stimulus the economy is back on its own as the fourth quarter approaches—and basically where it was in late 2019. It may even be worse, considering changes to the workforce. Millions have died, become disabled, retired early, or are retraining for career changes. While this may be long-term positive in some cases, it’s not necessarily positive for the next quarter’s GDP.

Danielle DiMartino Booth at Quill Intelligence looked at data from Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes almost every job posting in the country. It is amazingly comprehensive. I will quote one paragraph and then ask that you look at the data. But the point is the total job postings are essentially unchanged from January 2020. Danielle did highlight a few details.

Lucky for us, unlike some real-time data sets started after the pandemic, Burning Glass also provides weekly data job postings baselined in January 2020. That gets us from the JOLTS July data to The Conference Board’s August data to the week ended September 3rd, depicted in the bottom two charts above. In the aggregate, job postings are UNCH, up 0.1% (light blue line). But it’s the slicing and dicing by industry and educational attainment that’s most edifying. After peaking at +34.1% in the week ended June 11th, postings in Financial Activities (red line) are up a scant 0.7%. Meanwhile, after peaking in the week ended May 14th, openings for those with Extensive education (yellow line) are down by 17.7%, a level last seen in February. At the opposite end of the spectrum, postings for those with Minimal education (purple line) are still up 30.1%; but they’re well off their July 16th peak of +75.1%. Leisure & Hospitality openings (orange line) peaked that same week at +46.5%; they’ve since fallen to +13.4%.

Source: Quill Intelligence

I find this simply astounding. Job postings requiring extensive education are down 17% and job postings requiring minimal education are up 30%. This isn’t the world we told our children about when we urged them to get college degrees. Other statistics show there is a great deal of complacency in the job search market among the unemployed. This is most strange given the higher wages being offered, etc.

Workers are clearly looking not just for higher wages but for better working conditions and higher wages. I’m not sure that will change for quite some time. We are in a wage-price spiral. Every region in this week’s Federal Reserve Beige Book highlighted the increased cost of labor. One line stuck out to me: A hotel firm raised the wages for their cleaning staff to $15 an hour. They noted the current staff was very pleased with the raise but it attracted no new workers.

Dangerous Assumptions

One serious downside risk is inflation. Economists talk about “nominal” and “real” GDP, the latter of which is adjusted for inflation. Higher inflation pushes real GDP lower. An economy showing 4% nominal growth and 1% inflation would have 3% real growth. Not so bad. But if nominal growth stays exactly the same but inflation rises to 4%, real growth would be 0%.

It gets worse. If nominal growth falls just a little, say from 4% to 3%, then a 4% inflation rate would push real growth down to -1% recession territory. A little bit of inflation can amplify a mild setback into a serious one in real terms.

I mentioned the 4% inflation rate because that is exactly where we are when we look at PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditures) inflation, the Fed’s favorite measure.

Despite that, the FOMC projects inflation falling toward 2% within just a few months, and below 3% today. Oops:

Source: FRED

CPI has run well north of 5% over the last six months. The Atlanta Fed’s wage growth tracker is now at 3.9% on its way to 4%. Newsweek reports national average apartment rents rose about 9.2% in this year’s first half. The average apartment in the US now costs $1,200 per month.

These things aggravate each other, too. Inflation pushes input costs (wages, materials, rent, etc.) higher. This can reduce output, and result in lower nominal GDP if common across the economy. With the Fed likely to reduce its asset purchases slowly, if at all, extended inflation in the 3% or higher range is entirely possible, and maybe likely, at least for the next year or so. (I am still in the long-term deflation/disinflation camp, but I also optimistically assumed the Federal Reserve would lean into inflation and take its foot off the gas pedal.)

This is only now beginning to show up in growth forecasts. We see it first in the non-subjective models that react faster than human forecasters. Here’s the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast as of Sept. 2. Notice how the green line (their model) turned down in late August. I expect it to turn down even more by the end of September. The Blue Chip consensus runs a little behind but I doubt it will retreat as fast. Then again, they are more often wrong than not, nearly always to the upside.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Last week’s Human Capital Losses letter outlined why as many as 4 million people may no longer be considered part of the labor force, at least for now. That is almost 3% of the total labor force and since GDP is the number of workers times productivity it can be expected to be a 3% drag on GDP starting with the fourth quarter, unless an enormous amount of people come back to work. It’s certainly not in the data yet.

COVID has had labor force effects we are still struggling to understand. Whether it’s early retirements, health concerns, long COVID disability, a doubling of the number of homeschooling families, excessive government benefits, or (more likely) some blend of all those and more (like preexisting demographic trends), worker shortages limit output. Rising productivity can offset some of this, but not all. And maybe not fast enough to avert another recession.

Other things could help, too. We see significant new demand for certain products and services, as well as desire to rebuild inventory. Those would be positive for GDP. But they’re not assured and it is not clear how much they would help. Businesses are struggling to adjust.

The Human Infrastructure Wrench in the Gears

This is where I will get into trouble. The current $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill if passed as proposed would be a massive blow to the economy. You can’t raise taxes to the extent this proposal would and not expect a negative impact. And those are just the major tax increases. There are hidden cost increases all throughout the legislation.

Senator Manchin has said he will not support a bill of that size. Senator Sinema has also indicated she will not. My Washington sources say there is a number somewhere between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion they might accept, which would raise capital gains and corporate taxes (along with personal taxes on higher incomes) to pay for the expenditures.

To further the plot, the government will run out of borrowing authority in the next month or two unless Congress raises or suspends the debt ceiling. It may end up being part of the infrastructure reconciliation bill. I have no idea how that would work out, but we will know soon.

I’m not really making a prediction here. These labor issues, inflation, and legislative maneuvering create a great deal of uncertainty. COVID and so much more will all be impacting the economy over the next few months. The market is currently priced for perfection. And admittedly, S&P 500 profits are through the roof. A lot of good is happening at the same time all of these issues are coming into play. If the problems I highlighted above are resolved in a positive manner, we could see the market explode to the upside.

My point is it’s exceedingly dangerous to assume the recent strong growth will continue into 2022 and beyond. COVID’s economic impact will remain significant but diminish as we all learn to deal with it. We are either going to return to the previous trends, which weren’t great, or see new trends form. If the latter, they could be different but not necessarily better.

These potential problems could develop into actual problems and recessionary conditions. The economy is way too close to stall speed. If the engines stop turning, your portfolio needs to be ready.

I am increasingly concerned that the Fed is toying with inflation and the economy could slow down more than they currently project. They are roughly projecting 2–3%+ growth and slightly above 2% inflation. That would be a very good outcome. I am more worried they are wrong, as they have often been in the past, and we’ll get the worst of both worlds: higher inflation and lower growth—in a word, stagflation.

*  *  *

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Tyler Durden Mon, 09/13/2021 - 12:30


Global Debt Expected to Surpass $300 TRILLION and GDP Growth Slows

Thanks to the all-encompassing “Helicopter Money” that is Modern Monetary Theory, global debt has soared to yet another record-high in
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Thanks to the all-encompassing “Helicopter Money” that is Modern Monetary Theory, global debt has soared to yet another record-high in the second quarter, as governments and consumers piled on the deficits.

According to data published by the Institute of International Finance (IIF), global debt— which accounts for government, bank, corporate, and household debt— hit an outstanding $296 trillion in the second quarter, up by $4.8 trillion since the first three months of the year, and more than $36 trillion since the beginning of the pandemic.

But the debt pile doesn’t stop there! with the unprecedented pace of borrowing, the IIF is now expecting global debt to soar past $300 trillion— which is likely a no-brainer because as per the famous realization by Cady Heron, the limit does not exist! Undoubtedly, thanks to MMT, not only will we surpass $300 trillion, but will also skyrocket past $400 trillion, catapult past $500 trillion, etc., until— well, infinity!

Among the countries reporting the highest levels of debt is China at the top of the list, with debt levels jumping by $3.5 trillion from the first quarter to a total of nearly $92 trillion between April and June. On the other hand, the US surprisingly noted a debt deceleration, with a total of approximately $490 billion— the slowest since the onset of the pandemic.

Also on the bright side, the IIF said that the debt-to-GDP ratio slumped for the first time since the Covid-19 crisis. The institute found that 51 of the 61 countries observed have seen their debt-to-GDP ratio fall in the second quarter, as economic activity has been on a strong rebound since the beginning of the year. This caused overall debt as a share of GDP to decline from a record-high of 362% to around 353% in the second quarter.

But, all good things must eventually come to an end, because according to hot-off-the-press projections published by Fitch Ratings, global GDP is set to grow by only 6% in 2021, down from a previous June forecast of 6.3%. “Supply constraints are limiting the pace of recovery,” the report explained, adding that,a greater share of demand growth is being reflected in price increases and US inflation forecasts have been revised up again.”

As such, Fitch downgraded its 2021 forecast for China from 8.4% to 8.1% growth, and trimmed growth expectations for the US economy from 6.8% to 6.2%. The Eurozone, on the other hand, had its growth forecast for the current year boosted to 5.2%, up from 5% in June.

Information for this briefing was found via the IIF and Fitch Ratings. The author has no securities or affiliations related to this organization. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

The post Global Debt Expected to Surpass $300 TRILLION and GDP Growth Slows appeared first on the deep dive.

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“Team Transitory” Suffers Blow As Used Car Prices Resume Surge

"Team Transitory" Suffers Blow As Used Car Prices Resume Surge

In the past month, a feud has broken out between the so-called "team transitory",…

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"Team Transitory" Suffers Blow As Used Car Prices Resume Surge

In the past month, a feud has broken out between the so-called "team transitory", comprising mostly of pro-Fed, pro-Biden commentators, who urge the public to ignore the "transitory" hyperinflation that by now is painfully obvious to everyone (see today's UMich report for the gruesome details), and not to blame either the Fed or the administration for the collapse in the dollar's purchasing power. Then there are the realists who see a much more ominous trend in deglobalization - you know, the same trend that allowed inflation to decline along with interest rates since the early 1980s - and warn that even when the currently supply chain logjam ends some time in 2022, inflation will still be far higher than in the past few decades.

The latest CPI print was viewed as a victory for "team transitory" because some of the prices that had spiked during the pandemic eased, led by used cars, whose prices this year soared amid supply chain disruptions and a rebounding economy has been a major contributor to the jump in U.S. inflation.

This was enough for TT to declare victory and proclaim that it's all downhill from there.

There is just one problem: real-time data is now showing that used car prices are once again on the rise after the summer slippage, confirming what we said moments after the CPI report was published this week.

The Manheim U.S. Used Vehicle Value Index, a measure of wholesale used cars, increased 3.6% in the first 15 days of September compared with the same period last month, and is again back near all time highs. That's the first month-over-month rise in the index since May; in total the index has risen by more than 50% since the COVID lows in early 2020. 

The index jumped 24.9% from the same period a year ago through the middle of the month, indicating that not only has the drop in used car prices ended but that higher prices are coming, and with them more humiliation for team transitory, as the spike in the Mannheim index assures a sharp jump in the CPI print either next month or in November.

"The latest trends in the key indicators suggest wholesale used vehicle values will likely see further gains in the days ahead,” according to the Manheim report.

"Wholesale used vehicle prices rose rather significantly in the first half of September compared to the first half of August," Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst at Cox Automotive, told Bloomberg"Dealers appear to be stocking up on used vehicles, which have seen supply stabilize somewhat, to have something to sell because new vehicle inventory remains low."

Elevated used car prices have primarily been due to snarled supply chains and a shortage of materials (such as semiconductors) for new car production, which pushed dealer inventories to all time lows...

... and forced consumers to buy on the secondary market.

“The main pressure continues to come from new car supply shortages. With the increase of delta variant, many manufacturers have significantly cut their production,” said Brian Benstock, general manager and vice president of Paragon Honda and Acura, a dealership in Woodside, Queens, in New York City. “A story about used cars cannot leave out the story about new cars.”

Incidentally new car prices are now also surging, and will likely continue to rise as carmakers have said production of new vehicles this fall will continue to be constrained by a chip shortage and the spread of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia. IHS Markit slashed its vehicle production forecast for this year by 6.2%, or 5.02 million vehicles, the biggest decrease to the outlook since the chip shortage emerged. In the latest sign of fallout, on Thursday, General Motors said Thursday it is cutting production at six North American assembly plants.

Finally, even ignoring used car prices, a more ominous increase is emerging in such core inflation as shelter costs and Owner Equivalent Rent.  Commenting on whether core inflation slowed or sped up in August, Bank of America economists said that the traditional measure of core CPI inflation rose just 0.1% mom in August, below the consensus (0.3%), BofA said the following:

  • The weakness was due to a bigger than expected reversal of the reopening spikes in a number of components.
  • Stripping the most volatile components of the CPI leaves a modest upward trend in “true” core inflation.

As BofA concludes, when it asks rhetorically "Is it time to break out the champagne" for team transitory, the bank responds "We don’t think so."

Tyler Durden Sun, 09/19/2021 - 11:00
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Actually, It All Makes Sense

Actually, It All Makes Sense

Back in June, we explained that the reason behind the market’s shocking response to the Fed’s hawkish policy…

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Actually, It All Makes Sense

Back in June, we explained that the reason behind the market's shocking response to the Fed's hawkish policy announcement when yields plunged instead of spiking higher, had little to do with what the Fed would actually do (as every Fed action is now in direct response to the market, which the FOMC is compelled to prop up no matter the cost) and everything to do with the market's read of r-star, and we quoted DB's head of FX strategy George Saravelos who said that everything that is going on "boils down to a very pessimistic market view on r*" or in other words, the same argument we made 6 years ago when we predicted - correctly - that the Fed's hiking cycle would end in tears (as it did first in November 2018 when the Fed capitulated on its hiking strategy after stocks plunged, and then again in Sept 2019 when the Repo crisis forced the Fed to resume QE).

The bottom line, for those who missed our lengthy take on this complex topic is that the equilibrium growth rate in the US, or r* (or r-star), was far far lower than where most economists thought it was. In fact, as the sensitivity table below which we first constructed in 2015 showed, the equilibrium US growth rate was right around 0%. This means that each and every attempt by the Fed to tighten financial condition will end in disaster, the only question is how long it would take before this happens.

Today, we won't recap the profound implications from Powell's huge policy error which we laid out previously (we suggest readers familiarize themselves with our recent work on the topic published in "Powell Just Made A Huge Error: What The Market's Shocking Response Means For The Fed's Endgame"), but we will touch on a recent blog by Deutsche Bank's Saravelos - who unlike most of his peers on Wal Street, has a clear and correct read on what is currently going on in the market - and to help clients comprehend what's actually going on, he has penned a simple framework to understand current market behavior. As Saravelos puts it, "there is no “puzzle” in the way global bond markets are behaving and it is entirely possible for yields to fall as inflation pressures rise."

As Saravelos explains, the starting point is that over the last six months the global economy has been experiencing a negative supply shock due to COVID. This can be most clearly seen in the incredibly sharp run-up in inflation surprises against the equally incredible sharp run-down in growth surprises.

In simple Econ 101 terms, we are  experiencing a leftward shift in the global economy’s supply curve. A negative supply shock (permanent or not) does two things: it lowers growth and increases inflation.

This is exactly what markets have been doing: inflation expectations are close to the year’s highs, but real rates (the closest market equivalent to a measure of real growth) are at the year’s lows.

The moves in the two variables are therefore entirely consistent with the incoming data.

Now what is most notable is that real yields have dropped more than inflation expectations have risen. The combined effect has been to lower nominal yields.

As Saravelos puts it, "there is nothing surprising about this, because there is nothing automatic about which effect dominates" and it ultimately depends on consumer sensitivity to rising prices, or in wonkish terms the slope of the demand curve: the greater the demand destruction from price rises, the bigger the negative effect on growth relative to inflation pushing yields down and vice versa. So, what the market is effectively doing, is pricing in substantial demand destruction from the supply shock.

Is this the correct thing to be pricing? Perhaps it is, we have been highlighting this unfolding demand destruction since May, and consumer confidence in the US is collapsing.

What about central bank reaction functions? There is an automatic belief in the market that higher inflation should mean more hawkish central banks. But as the DB strategist notes, "this belief rests on 30 years of demand shock management, where inflation has always and everywhere been positively correlated to growth." And as an interesting aside, according to Saravelos, Larry Summers was right about inflation risks this year but wrong about the cause: lower supply has dominated over stronger demand. A supply shock similar to the one we are currently experiencing means the central bank response is not obvious, and as a result "raising rates will only make the growth shock worse." By implication, tapering - which is tightening no matter what you read to the contrary - will similarly be a policy mistake and compound the economic slowdown, leading to an even more powerful easing reaction in the coming quarters.

Which brings us to central banks' characterization of the current inflation shock as transitory; as DB explains, it is another way of saying that they currently prefer to accommodate rather than respond to the supply shock. In terms of capital markets, ss long as the Fed looks through the shock, risk appetite will likely stay resilient, the dollar weak and volatility low. However, the moment the Fed does respond, all bets are off.

Bottom line, current market pricing is fully in line with a supply side shock with very strong demand destruction effects. A low r*, as we have been arguing since 2015 and again since June, is likely to prevail post-COVID only flattens consumer demand curves further. Saravelos concludes that "he continues to believe that it is the behavior of the consumer, including the desired level of precautionary savings as well as the response to the unfolding supply shock that is the most important macro variable for the market this year and beyond." As such, the latest UMich survey which showed that Americans are panicking over soaring inflation, and whose buying intentions have plunged to the lowest levels on record...

... is extremely alarming.




Tyler Durden Sat, 09/18/2021 - 17:00
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