Guest Post: "How Can No One See An Imminent Fall in Chinese GDP and a Secular Slowdown Thereafter?"

I am now wondering if Google censors posts (I use Blogger), I put this post up at 1:33 AM, and even had a reader e-mail me that the post had disappeared (with no listing in “Recent Posts” which happens if I put up a post and then remove it). I have a record that it was indeed posted, but it was nowhere to be found as of 8:30 AM in my post archive. Hhhm.

The text as originally posted follows:

George Jankovic, serial entreprenuer (former president of NutriSystem) and quantitatively oriented investor, sent us a guest post that questions conventional wisdom about the growth prospects for China. Analysts have raised the specter that GDP growth would drop to 5%, which internally would be allegedly be tantamount to a recession (5% growth is necessary to absorb the increase in workforce). But just about no one seems to take seriously that China could have zero or negative growth.

For instance, in the daisy chain by which information often travels, one investor buddy told us that an economist who has advised the Chinese government is sanguine about the situation there. He believes that an export bubble is reversing as speculative capital flows leave the country, which he contends is not so much a decline in real effective demand. Moreover, China is not burdened by high debt levels, so it has room to manoeuver.

Similarly, the World Bank’s latest China Quarterly gave a cautiously optimistic update (Brad Setser provides something of a summary, although he insists readers read the report). However, one forecast already seems to have been trumped by events. The World Bank predicted that China’s current account surplus would rise in 2009, and it would add as much in foreign exchange reserves (in dollar terms) in 2009 as 2008 (and 2008, at least so far, showed eye-popping growth).

But although the World Bank saw China’s FX reserves moving rapidly from $2 trillion towards $3 trillion, Bloomberg reported last weekend that China’s FX reserves fell:

China’s foreign-exchange reserves dropped for the first time in five years as a result of the global financial crisis, Market News International reported, citing Cai Qiusheng, head of the investment management bureau under the State Administration of Foreign Exchange.

The current figure must be lower than the peak of about $1.9 trillion, Cai told a trade forum in Beijing over the weekend, the English-language wire service said. He didn’t specify which period he was referring to or give a figure.

The lack of detail is troubling, but the source would be in a position to know.

Again, none of these indicators are definitive, but Jankovic focuses on a statistic, power genration, that is part of the official government releases, which suggests the decline is more pronounced than has been widely acknowledged. Perhaps the Chinese are in denial, as our fearless leaders were until the downturn had morphed into a crisis. Note that electricity consumption fell even more sharply.

From Jankovic:

Power generation in developing economies where manufacturing is a high % of GDP should correlate well with GDP growth. China’s power generation declined more than 8% in November. In his FT.com Long Room posting, Joules Watt concludes that would correspond to a GDP growth of only 1.5% y-o-y based on his regression analysis of power generation vs. GDP growth. I think things will get even worse for China in 2009 and secular growth will never return to the levels we have gotten accustomed to during the last 30 years. The impact of these cyclical and secular slowdowns on a variety of products, such as oils and metals, will be huge.

Whether the official GDP data will confirm it or not, Chinese yoy real GDP growth will turn negative in the first half of 2009. Perhaps for all of 2009. This is the first time that China has been hit by both an external shock and an internal one. They are still blaming the US for their problems, but they were a co-participant in this bubble: their T-bill purchases fueled the credit bubble in the US which, in turn, fueled their export bubble. Everybody’s credit bubbles fueled everybody’s export bubbles, and vice versa, worldwide. So the Chinese export bubble has to collapse, as well. The same is true for their real-estate bubble (although this one was much smaller than US and UK bubbles).

Rare is an analyst willing to even contemplate low-digit growth rates for China in 2009, let alone NO GROWTH (Jim Walker from Asianomics (ex CLSA) predicts 0-4% growth). But, while history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. During its first 30 years of recovery and industrialization after WW2, Japan experienced several “growth recessions” when its growth halved from the boom times. But in the mid 1970s recession, it got much worse. Industrial production growth went from +16% y-o-y throughout the first half of 1973 to -19% in February 1975! Real y-o-y GDP growth went from more than 10% to solidly negative for a few quarters in late 1974 and early 1975.

While it’s always dangerous to draw direct analogies from one country to another or from one time period to another, a country that is 25+ years into its industrialization, that is heavily dependant on both net exports to the world at the time of a global GDP and trade collapse, and that is also dependant on its real estate construction, has to get into deep trouble.

Can the rest of the fixed infrastructure investment help (infrastructure investment commands by far the highest % of GDP)? If you exclude investments in factories etc. (which will plunge with plunging exports) and home and office building construction (which are already plunging), what’s left has already peaked. 2008 should have been the peak railroad construction year based on their 5-year plan. 2009 will, at best, match it if the Chinese government does move up some of the planned future construction. Road construction already peaked couple of years ago. The same is likely true for ports. Airports should have a brighter future, but only long-term. So, no help from this largest sector of the economy either.

I don’t think there will be any help from consumer spending either. While the Chinese were not buying stocks in Shanghai on margin as the US investors did in 1929, they still lost a lot of money there. And since that was an epic bubble (based on cyclically-adjusted P/E ratios, it exceeded the Japanese bubble of 1989 and vastly exceeded the US 1929 and 2000 bubbles), it has still to deflate. What’s more important is that wage growth in China didn’t match its GDP growth over the years, so wages declined as a share of GDP. Consumption as % of GDP has roughly matched that fall.

As all kinds of businesses downsize now not only because of the recession, but also because of the new labor law, wages as % of GDP will further decline. Confidence has also been hit by multiple factors — hey, all you need to do is read the papers (anywhere in the world, for that matter). These two factors will hurt consumption growth. You can already see this in declining car sales. Auto manufacturing was, along with its upstream industries like car parts, one of the strongest growing industries in China during the boom times.

So there will be no place to hide in 2009. But, that’s not all…

Japanese growth never exceeded 10% after 1975. It never got even close to 10% while it routinely exceeded it prior to the mid 1970s. I believe that China will experience the same. It is not only much a more mature economy now, but the one that has already completed a good chunk of its industrialization and its exports are currently so high compared to the world GDP (much higher than Japan’s ever were) that one can’t expect their super high growth to persist. Long-term demographics don’t work in their favor either.

While this doesn’t mean that a great Chinese growth story ends, it will be a shock to many. For instance, while the current recession will hit hard the immediate Chinese demand for oil, metals and other commodities, the secular growth slowdown along with a more efficient energy and metals usage (they have just decided to raise taxes on oil, for instance, which will lead to more efficient usage over time) will hit the long-term demand, as well. Is the world ready to contemplate a much slower growing China? It better be.

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40 comments

  1. Anonymous

    Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has urged companies to "do everything possible" to maintain their workforce amid the global downturn, state media said on Tuesday.
    During a two-day visit to the southwestern city of Chongqing from Sunday, Wen expressed great concerns about the fallout from the global economic crisis, the China Daily said.
    "Companies must not lay off workers easily," Wen said to the city's carmaker Changan Group, which may cut more staff over the next four months after sales declined in November.

    Chongqing — home to millions of migrant workers who have been the backbone of cheap labour which has fueled China's export-driven boom — has had tens of thousands flood back after being laid off due to cuts in factory orders from the United States and Europe.
    Wen said personnel should be cherished, not only by companies but also by the government.
    "Human resources are a fundamental competitiveness. While the economy worsens, we should treasure the professionals more," he said.
    Wen also encouraged students at Chongqing University to be optimistic about job prospects after he reassured university students in Beijing, as reports said a quarter of 6.1 million college students could have trouble finding jobs.
    Wen said it was a prime task to maintain stable and relatively fast economic development and take more direct, powerful and effective measures to implement central policies to meet domestic demand and promote growth in a substantial way.
    "Next year, it is the most important target to stop the declining trend of economic growth," he said.
    http://www.iii.co.uk/news/?type=afxnews&articleid=7085134&subject=economic&action=article

    Think these guys aren't scared as hell. Just hope that these idle factories don't get turned into a war machine.

  2. dearieme

    I don’t see why everyone assumes that the Chinese Empire will survive. Nor the American, though I guess that’s likelier.

  3. PB

    Interesting piece. It raises a question that has occupied my mind amidst the media jabber about the China stimulus: what is left to build?

    Most urban Chinese skylines are amazing testaments to the force of real estate speculation. Even large cities can only have so many elevated expressways.

    The blockages are more political than economic at this point, though. The Chinese development model is one deeply afraid of the empowerment of its own people, hence the traditional bias towards foreign companies (they can be controlled and intimidated) and large-scale, state-controlled infrastructure projects.

    It’s an industrialization model that is dependent on the large-scale dislocation of people and their property rights. This model was barely tenable during the boom times, and I imagine it can only get worse.

    In China’s drive to emulate and surpass the US, it has overlooked one crucial point. The United States had an open continent and only small numbers of natives to run roughshod over in the drive for nation-building. China, on the other hand, is trying to pull off a similar feat on top of 1.3 billion people. And unfortunately, the East Coast region where industrialization has been torrid is also where the most arable farm land is (or used to be, maybe I should say).

    The political climate that has allowed China’s tremendous industrialization- one of tremendous land grabs and dislocation- is now likely coming to an end. What comes next is unclear, to say the least.

  4. Timothy

    Nobody wants to say it publicly for fear of angering the Government and losing business. In private however they are much more candid, I have heard from a number of reliable sources that the PBoC expects falling GDP in 09

  5. Anonymous

    A key difference between China and Japan is in demographic trends. As long as Chinese population continues to grow, their economy will be growing briskly on a secular timescale. And as long as Chinese continue to be avid savers, they will keep providing the flow of cheap credit to American consumers.

  6. Anonymous

    Dear Yves, your blog has advanced well beyond the point that you should be allowing google to archive, catalog, and possibly claim copyright to your material.

    The plus of having google as your data sheppard is that their search capability will likely update faster with your new content.
    But I don’t need no stinkin google to tell me to go to Yves for financial insight. I’ve already turned on several people to your site, hence I think your growth is likely exponential?

    I’m not sure how computer literate you are, but you should likely get your own dedicated server and load in a commercial blogging package.
    A good ISP host will maintain the server and provide tech support. I’ve used aplus.net and been satisfied.

    (you’ll no doubt be able to locate numerous unemployed tech people who will help you for a cup of joe. I’ve also heard they’re working for warm blankets and mittens this time of year. Just look for the oil drums filled with burning paper.)

    You could also try tekserve in Manhattan, though I’ve just bought peripherals there.

  7. Anonymous

    Yves, I concur with the anon suggestion about “your own blog.”

    GOOGLE is a CIA set-up/asset and this can more than be followed in the censorship that has occurred by and through this global privately owned entity – just as the PRIVATELY owned US is, just ask the 79-80 countries that have kicked the same “money changers” out, but not until AFTER the total annihilation of the country and its’ infrastructure.

    Sounding familiar?

    Next, CHINA’S COMMUNIST GENERAL IN THE PAST WROTE ABOUT THIS TIME.

    Scroogle or search engine the text of that General and be afraid, very, very afraid.

    I was a (considered an “old dog”) mortgage broker who refused to underwrite mortgage loans to CHINESE NATIONALS during the 1990s, and through to 2005-06. Why? Because our US government was subsidizing the Chinese, as it does the State of Israel …

    BUT NOT AMERICANS …

    in jobs already provided before they arrived, as well, income without paying any taxes.

    It goes on and on.

    I hope this posts. I’ve been censored repeatedly in this FREE MARKET CAPITALISM!

  8. Anonymous

    Yves, I concur with the anon suggestion about “your own blog.”

    GOOGLE is a CIA set-up/asset and this can more than be followed in the censorship that has occurred by and through this global privately owned entity – just as the PRIVATELY owned US is, just ask the 79-80 countries that have kicked the same “money changers” out, but not until AFTER the total annihilation of the country and its’ infrastructure.

    Sounding familiar?

    Next, CHINA’S COMMUNIST GENERAL IN THE PAST WROTE ABOUT THIS TIME.

    Scroogle or search engine the text of that General and be afraid, very, very afraid.

    I was a (considered an “old dog”) mortgage broker who refused to underwrite mortgage loans to CHINESE NATIONALS during the 1990s, and through to 2005-06. Why? Because our US government was subsidizing the Chinese, as it does the State of Israel …

    BUT NOT AMERICANS …

    in jobs already provided before they arrived, as well, income without paying any taxes.

    It goes on and on.

    I hope this posts. I’ve been censored repeatedly in this FREE MARKET CAPITALISM!

  9. Jesse

    The ‘China Miracle’ is remniscent of the “Japan Miracle’ if you are old enough to remember that one.

    China will do all right if they can make the transition from an export – foreign capital investment policy model to a fully functioning developed economy with domestic demand and decent wages.

    One cannot starve themselves into prosperity. The problem in Japan is that the keiretsu and MITI are too powerful.

    When the cities start burning it will be too late for Beijing to react perhaps.

  10. Anonymous

    a minor quibble, but unless China started exporting power, electricity “consumption” cannot “fall more” than electricity generation. i haven’t seen the stats, but in my mind, the possible explanations are (in rough order of likely validity)

    1. the stats are not perfect — some sources/sinks may have moved on/off grid, or data collection may not be perfect

    2. they are exporting power via high voltage transmission lines (unlikely)

    3. their transmission infrastructure has become significantly less efficient and thus electrical loss between generation and usage has increased

    4. i am completely wrong and china has finally perfected energon cubes, allowing them to transform (hah!) into the first potential green economy

  11. patrick neid

    I have no doubt that George Jankovic will be right. The question–now or later? If the folks pushing the mother of all recessions are correct it will be now.

  12. Anonymous

    Again, the COMMUNIST GENERAL who wrote about what the CHINESE were to do, in this coming time of POPULATION EXPLOSION in CHINA, was to go to the countries where clean air, etc. was/is. AND, the NATIVE AMERICANS are considered of the same TRIBE/s of the Chinese.

    Get the picture?

    The Chinese Communist General stated that the NATIVE AMERICAN BROTHERS AND SISTERS have suffered at the hands of the “whites,” for a long, long time.

    Chinese are now considered protected in Africa, as “blacks,” under new laws, for their BUSINESSES.

    Read RUSSIA TODAY, for some very interesting thoughts about how China is doing business around the world.

  13. baychev

    Anonymous @ 10:25 AM
    “electricity “consumption” cannot “fall more” than electricity generation”

    you are trying to be smart while knowing nothing about electricity: it does not stay ready for consumption at your power outlet. if you dont use it, it goes away.

  14. tyaresun

    Calculated Risk reported Ed Hyman telling clients that Q4 2008 growth will be negative for China.
    Also, I have read other reports projecting negative growth for China in 2009. For example, Jim Walker, voted best regional economist in an Asiamoney magazine brokers’ poll for 11 years through 2004 when he worked for CLSA Asia Pacific Markets, estimates China will grow zero to 4 percent next year, with a 30 percent chance of a contraction.

  15. Anonymous

    I am not a specialist in china, but I feel that we should be very careful in making forecast about China, Russia and several other countries. IMHO and all data from major Western media sources about those countries that are not direct allies of the USA or “stray from the course” (as France occasionally did) should be taken with the grain of salt as they might be part of systematic disinformation companies with the goal of increasing capital outflows from the countries.

    I suspect there that if you try to correlate information presented in such publication as NYT, WasPost, FT, etc one can see distinct “invisible hand” of quite different nature that we refer in economics.

  16. Anonymous

    A most excellent post.

    Anyone that dared to say Red China would go in reverse let alone go negative, would be skinned alive and pinned up on a wall. I can see where Google would strike it.

    Building your own server, loading your blog on it and keeping it in your clothes closet is not such a bad idea.

    Just the fact investment money would flee Red China during a world economy slow down was confirmed by factories being shuttered there by the tens of thousands. Also confirmed by electric draw.

    Happy talk abounds in the distance as cold hard facts come to the forefront.

  17. gaius marius

    it shouldn’t go unmentioned that vitaliy katsenelson has been all over this as well, and for some time. if i may simplify for those who wish not to click through, he posits that china as constructed doesn’t really have an economic neutral — they have full speed ahead or full reverse — because they are in what he calls “late-stage growth obesity” and are under tremendous financial and operational leverage.

  18. Anonymous

    Can’t China just rent out more pandas at $500K/year? 1,000 pandas would bring in 500 million/year for China. That’s nothing to sneeze at, Sneezing Panda!

  19. Anonymous

    gaius marius said…

    it shouldn’t go unmentioned that vitaliy katsenelson…”

    Had not come across him before. A virtual skinning?

  20. Anonymous

    There are a lot of family money in my area which was made during the last China bubble over a century or so ago. They still tell stories how many people lost money thinking the bubble would never end.

    I guess people never learn.

    China is a nation with hundreds of millions in poverty, extensive pollution, growing corruption, increasing drug abuse (opium anyone?) among its youth, numerous ethnic groups becoming restive, and an upcoming disparity in females vs. males. Other than that, everything’s fine.

    This is why economists fail as predictors of anything.

    The China bubble will pop. And when it does, please don’t write an article about how no one saw this coming….

  21. Sean Maher

    This isn’t new news…I’ve been forecasting the US to outgrow China in 2009 on my finance blog Dead Cats Bouncing, which has been picked up on Reuters, Seeking Alpha etc…their export and investment led model of growth is out of road, and local monetary conditions are dangerously tight.

  22. Anonymous

    For some reason, the ad on this thread (at least on my magic screen) asks if I’m “Looking for a beautiful Asian Bride?”, along with a picture of a corpulent honky gazing at an attractive model. Bizarre.

  23. James B

    I, too, saw the post last night and wondered where it had gone when I checked back an hour later. I’ve been wondering for some time about the universal forecasts of continued Chinese growth in the face of a huge global recession. How does that work for a massively export-oriented economy? It reminds me of all the “decoupling” talk we were hearing this time last year. I think the poster will be proven correct.

  24. Anonymous

    @Yves,

    I have been a remote server Admin for 4 years now, we run both a forum and a gaming server. It was also in the top 5 ranking of the world for many years by more than one ranking system.

    So with that said yes your site has been glitching for about one week now, i did not bring it up as i figured you already knew. Recent comment is frozen and the comments window like to play up. I even have tried different Internet portals, fire fox , opera, etc. it does seem to help a bit. IE 7 and 8 are the totally screwy. It also seems on the server side not the user, so yes for quality’s sake and peace of mind to a degree, you should find a new server or have your own. You’ll have much more control over all aspects of the bog and less advertising.

    Goggle the all seeing eye on the dollar lol maybe lol, but the military has had a listening post in Arizona for 40 years now. If memory serves its 3 flags( words used in the conversation) and it gets anilized by a low ranking intel officer. That station has now been replaced with a new facility on the east coast, with better hard and software.

    skippy

  25. Glen

    Has anyone made consideration of Chinas chronic bad/non-performing loan situation? Last count I saw it was well over $1 trillion – certainly enough to put a very large dent in their surplus and make many of their financial institutions insolvent. With all the additional spending, the total surplus will diminish to zero fast and not leave alot of capacity for buying crappy US dollar bonds etc.

  26. Anonymous

    Several months ago, GMO and Hussman both predicted big slowdowns in China due to their massive dependance on exports.

  27. Anonymous

    09 will be the year of major disappointment about China. The article above does not even touch the perilous state of financial system in China, which is essentially bankrupt. what is still lost upon observers is just how big the infrastructure bubble in China already been. For example, China has built on average 15,000 bridges a year for the past 10 years. Urbanization as a major driver is another myth in China. Most of Chinese villages have populations of above 100,000 people and got very little to do with agriculture. Finally, the major reason China will experience secular slowdown, is demographics. One child policies mean that by 2020, China will have exactly same demographic profile as Japan has today.

  28. Anonymous

    to anonymous

    some anonoymous wrote this There are a lot of family money in my area which was made during the last China bubble over a century or so ago. They still tell stories how many people lost money thinking the bubble would never end.

    I guess people never learn.

    China is a nation with hundreds of millions in poverty, extensive pollution, growing corruption, increasing drug abuse (opium anyone?) among its youth, numerous ethnic groups becoming restive, and an upcoming disparity in females vs. males. Other than that, everything’s fine.

    This is why economists fail as predictors of anything.

    The China bubble will pop. And when it does, please don’t write an article about how no one saw this coming….

    BOY OH BOY — it is like americans calling the keetle black

    substitute usa for china and you might get it right!!!

  29. Anonymous

    The posting glitch could be due to
    server failure and Google restoring a very recent backup.

    Love the blog.

  30. Juan

    A telling twist:

    ‘Beginning in November 2006, the Marxists Internet Archive faced a number of serious Denial-of-service attacks, attempting to exploit a misconfiguration in server’s operating system. By January 2007 the attacks had crippled much of the archive, and left volunteers with CPU issues. [2] That the majority of systems involved in the attack were either in China or belonging to Chinese institutions led to speculation that the attacks may have been politically motivated and directed by the People’s Republic of China. [3] The seriousness of the attack, coupled with other hosting issues, led to the closure of the Marxists Internet Archive’s main server and several of its mirrors for a number of weeks in February and March 2007.’

  31. River

    One area of the Chinese economy often overlooked is their rapid build out of military equipment and modernization.

    I have seen many estimates of % of Chinese GDP spent on new military equipment and modernization but they are all over the map.

    I doubt that China will slow it’s military program and drive to equal that of other major world powers.

  32. donebenson

    Another excellent post.

    Marc Faber is on record saying that China could well have negative growth in 2009, but that the authorities will probably never report [admit] it.

    Also, as someone pointed out a few days ago, Chinese exports as a percent of world GDP are 5-6 times as large as US exports were [as a % of world GDP] in 1929. And you {Yves]have helped to make us aware of the similarity of China in 2008 to the US in 1929.

  33. mxq

    Anon @ 7:17…thx for pointing that out…if anyone doesn’t click through, here is a pretty good thought:

    “For the past 20 years or so, [Chinese] rural household income has grown at a rate half that of GDP growth. The slow household income growth, combined with rapid GDP growth, means that China has created a huge production capacity but it has done so at the expense of its own consumption base. This fact alone should have disproved the decoupling hypothesis. All the new “excess” production had to go somewhere, i.e., to the U.S. What’s more, the persistence of this gap suggests that over time, China’s growth has become more, not less, a derivative of America’s consumption appetite.”

  34. asphaltjesus

    Yves,

    It’s very likely that your post ended up in database never-neverland. As in, you submitted it, but it didn’t publish.

    As a Database admin I can tell you for certain there’s a great deal of maintenance going on at early hours like 1AM on 24-7 systems like blogger.com. Kind of like winning the lottery, you hit a magic condition whereby you submitted content and it did not get completely processed.

    Make a note of the time, date, content and other conditions that created the error and keep track of the errors going forward in a text file. If it’s a “censorship” thing, the error would happen again. I seriously doubt this is the case, but one way to find out is by tracking the errors.

    Thank you again for publishing. If you really want your own publishing platform, I’m happy to assist to by giving you some time and my expertise in web applications.

  35. Born Again Democrat

    I would seriously doubt that Google would censor a post such as you describe. Once their credibility is gone their whole business model explodes. They are not suicidal.

  36. Anonymous

    In the summer of 2007 I wrote that it was June 1929 in China. Having lived in Japan during the bubble, I could see all of the same indications of the beginning of the end. Where casual visitors saw growth in the plethora of construction cranes lining every major Chinese city, I saw bad debts waiting to happen. Plenty of supply, limited demand.

    China faces an enormous number of problems right now, many of which have already been mentioned. At the risk of being redundant, I’ll list a few: bad debts in public entities, extremely high exports/GDP ratio, 140,000,000 stock holders who have an average cost of 4000 SSE and who grew up thinking the government provides everything, 750,000,000 peasant farmers who dream of being gainfully employed tomorrow and driving a Mercedes next week, excess capacity in just above every industry (after they canabalized productive capacity from SE Asia), a terrible demographic (30 million more marriage age males than females by 2015), and a history of shooting itself in the foot. Social strife on the horizon? That is what the $560 billion stimulus package is supposed to avert. Good luck.

    Ask yourself, what is more representative of China, the period from 1500 to 1990 (when they had precious little to do with everything from the Renassaince to the Industrial Revolution), or the last decade and a half of rapid, technology-off-the-shelf growth? Miracle is an overused word.

  37. Yves Smith

    asphaltjesus,

    The post did publish. I got several comments after it went up the first time (they came via e-mail, I get an e-mail every time a comment is posted), plus an e-mail from a reader who tole me he had started it, refreshed his browser, and it was no longer there.

  38. Anonymous

    Unfortunately, chinese officials and policy makers are still saying how China will keep it’s export competitiveness and how the state will support key industries through export rebates…
    They don’t seem to have a graps with reality. This is so sad.

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