Transcript of the podcast:
MIKE TOWNSEND: Three weeks into the war in Ukraine, the tragedy and heartbreak are now a part of the fabric of every day. For those of us half a world away, this first major war of the social media age is literally right at our fingertips. Pictures and stories, information, and misinformation, it's all flowing out of the war zone faster than we can process. Our phones show us images of breathtaking devastation, casual cruelty, and untold human loss right alongside stories of remarkable courage and resilience. Even the president of Ukraine can broadcast to the world from his own cellphone.
This senseless war leaves me with so many questions—questions that I think a lot of people share. Big, mostly unanswerable questions. At the top of the list: How does this end? What constitutes winning or losing at this point?
What becomes of Ukraine? Is the goal to bomb this country of more than 40 million people into oblivion?
What becomes of Russia, its economy, its financial system, its people? It's been one thing to isolate North Korea. Is it even possible to isolate the largest country on earth, one that occupies nearly an eighth of all the land on the planet?
The United States and its allies recognize the necessity of defending democracy and that it comes at a cost. But what are those costs, and what are the long-term implications for the U.S. economy and the global economy? How will this impact the hundreds of U.S. companies that have ceased operations in Russia? Will they ever go back?
Welcome to WashingtonWise, a podcast for investors from Charles Schwab. I'm your host, Mike Townsend, and on this show, our goal is to cut through the noise and confusion of the nation's capital and help investors figure out what's really worth paying attention to.
In just a few minutes, I'm going to talk to Bruce Mehlman, an expert on policy and political trends who will help me explore some of these difficult questions presented by the Russia-Ukraine war.
Bruce is a master at distilling the onslaught of information and breaking it into understandable segments that bring an often-overwhelming big picture into sharp focus. He not only speaks to what is happening in the moment but also weighs various possible outcomes and their impact.
But first, just a couple of updates on some of the other issues making headlines here in Washington.
At the top of the list is a stunning 48 hours last week that saw Congress approve the massive government funding bill after months of delay.
The current fiscal year began on October 1, but Congress has been unable to pass a single one of the 12 appropriations bills that fund every federal agency and every government program. That has meant that lawmakers had to pass a series of temporary funding extensions to avert a government shutdown. The first extension was in place until early December. Then a second extended funding through mid-February. When that deadline came and went without much progress, a third extension was approved that was set to expire on March 11. And with less than a week to go before the latest deadline, Congress still had not agreed to a broad funding plan for the government.
But the war in Ukraine changed everything. Bipartisan support for getting a package of humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine as quickly as possible became the most important issue in Washington. And the best way to get that done was to attach it to a bill that combined all 12 appropriations bills into one gigantic spending package.
Congressional staff scrambled to draft the massive bill. In the wee hours of March 9, the bill was finally ready, and it came in at a staggering 2,741 pages long. Less than 24 hours later, it was approved by the House with a strong bipartisan vote. And just 24 hours after that, on March 10, it was approved by the Senate with a margin of 68-31.
The Ukraine aid package started at about $6.4 billion and quickly grew to over $10 billion. By the time the bill passed, it was up to $13.6 billion.
In addition to the Ukraine aid, the bill divvies up about $1.5 trillion in annual spending among every federal program and ensures all government operations are fully funded through the end of the fiscal year on September 30. In the end, there was something for everyone in the bill—Republicans liked the significant increase in defense spending, and Democrats applauded increases to domestic spending. Now that the fiscal year 2022 funding is done—almost six months into the fiscal year—this spring Congress will have to begin work on the fiscal year 2023 appropriations process, in order to meet that September 30 deadline.
The whole process last week was rather amazing. An appropriations bill that had been stuck for months became unstuck in the matter of a couple of days. The aid package for Ukraine more than doubled in size in less than a week. And a bill of more than 2,700 pages of text passed less than 24 hours after it was introduced.
But nothing motivates Congress quite like a crisis. And however it all got across the finish line, it's hard not to see it as a win for the White House, which got a major piece of legislation approved in a narrowly divided Congress and gets to share some of the credit for moving quickly and decisively to help the people of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as expected, the Federal Reserve this week increased its key interest rate for the first time since late 2018. Fed Chair Pro Tempore Jerome Powell had signaled that he would be proposing a 25 basis point increase in the Fed funds rate earlier this month when he testified before Congress. This is expected to be the first of a series of rate hikes this year as the Fed scrambles to combat fast-rising inflation. But Powell indicated that the uncertainty about the effects of the war in Ukraine on the U.S. and global economies makes the path forward for the Fed less clear than it was even just a month ago. He said the Fed would remain flexible as it studies the data in the months ahead.
There is one other recent development in Washington that I think investors should keep an eye on. Last week, the White House issued its much-anticipated executive order on cryptocurrency. The order represents the first attempt by any administration to create a government-wide, coordinated strategy for the regulation and oversight of cryptocurrency.
The order involves nearly two dozen federal agencies and calls for a series of reports to be written over the next six months on a variety of topics, from the creation of a central bank digital currency to how best to combat money laundering and other criminal uses of cryptocurrency. Reports are also required on how cryptocurrency can be used to improve financial inclusion, how to make sure that systemic financial stability is maintained and how best to protect investors and consumers from scams, fraud, and abuse.
And, as with almost everything going on these days, there's a tie to the war in Ukraine. Cryptocurrency is being seen both as a potentially beneficial mechanism for making donations to the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian businesses, and as potential avenue for Russia to avoid the economic sanctions placed on it by much of the West. Of course, one of Russia's key backers is China—and China banned cryptocurrency last year.
The key to this executive order is that it does not just stop at issuing a bunch of reports. It calls on these agencies to submit proposed legislation to Congress where necessary to clarify jurisdiction or implement new policies. One of the key issues Congress is likely to have to decide is just which financial regulatory agency will have ultimate authority over the cryptocurrency space. It could be the Federal Reserve, it could be the SEC, it could be the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, or CFTC, or some combination of these agencies.
The bottom line for investors interested in cryptocurrency is that this definitely merits watching. By next fall we could have a much better idea of what the regulatory environment for cryptocurrency will look like going forward.
On my Deeper Dive today, I want to spend some time digging into some of the tough questions about the war in Ukraine. It feels like the world has shifted in several fundamental ways, and it feels like things can't go back to the way they were before, at least not any time soon, and possibly never. Geopolitics has changed. The global economy has changed. The markets have changed. How are we supposed to process all of this? To help me sort all this out, I've asked Bruce Mehlman to come back to the podcast. Bruce is the founding partner of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, a Washington political consulting firm. He spends his time focusing on the connections between policy, politics, the markets, and history. His insights are always valuable.
Thanks so much for joining me, Bruce.
BRUCE MEHLMAN: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me back.
MIKE: So let's begin with a very broad question. Is this a reshaping of the world order? The response of much of the world to Russia's invasion of the Ukraine has been pretty stunning. Ukraine has become a symbol for democracy around the globe. The isolation of Russia from the world's economy has happened with incredible speed. It feels like we're seeing a reinvigoration of NATO. Now, Finland and Sweden, who have long held out, want in. So what are the implications of all this?
BRUCE: Well, obviously, it's very early, but it does feel fairly seismic. And, for me, while I don't know, necessarily, where we're ending up, it feels like we just ended the post-Cold War period. So you think about the U.S.-Soviet Cold War—in 1989, the Berlin wall came down. In 1990, the Moscow McDonald's opened up, and it was open for the next 32 years. It just closed. That was the post-Cold War period with hyper globalization, you know, technology, multinationals, nations were putting economics first. It feels like the winds have shifted, and how things go in Ukraine and Russia will determine how far and how long they've shifted.
MIKE: Bruce, it seems like Vladimir Putin has made a series of staggering miscalculations here—how strong the Ukraine defense would be, how unprepared his own military would be, how quickly the world—both governments and, as you just mentioned, companies—would react in a coordinated way to isolate Russia, and the crushing impact on his economy. So how did this happen?
BRUCE: You know, it feels like running a country, similar to running a business, doesn't always go well. If you have a supreme leader who isn't told the truth, whose underlings fear him and, therefore, who just say what he wants to hear. He thought he had been investing in military upgrades. He believed Ukraine was going to fall in a day or two. You know, he's a scary dude, and if you crossed him, he would poison you or kill you. And as a result, a lot of yes-men spent a lot of money, or allegedly spent a lot of money, on things that didn't have them prepared. That's thought number one.
Thought number two, Ukraine is tougher than people appreciate. President Zelensky in the Ukraine has done a Churchillian job of rallying his nation to their own identity and to, you know, "Russians, go home."
And number three, you know, there are broadly changes in warfare. I mean, because Putin's theory of the case is these are brothers being led falsely by Nazis, he hasn't taken the approach of "level every city and kill every citizen," which is, you know, horrible and brute force. Instead, he's trying to capture things, and that makes their tanks subject to drones, makes their use of air power, which is a massive superiority for the Russians, a little bit more constrained.
MIKE: Well, Bruce, since the war started, it's become much more difficult to determine exactly what's going on inside Russia, especially with the crackdown on the press that has happened in the last couple of weeks. But it's clear that the economy there is cratering. The ruble is falling. The stock market is crumbling. What's the impact inside of Russia when companies like McDonald's, that you mentioned earlier, closed their 850 locations, when Ford, which employs 4,000 workers in Russia, suspends its operations. People there must be starting to really feel it. So do you think there's a tipping point for sort of an internal fail or some kind of internal reaction in Russia?
BRUCE: You know, it's really going to test a couple of things. First, Russia works really hard to dominate all the media. And so what your average Russian citizen is told on all official channels is that Ukraine is led by Nazis, is, you know, all of these lies where the West and NATO provoked it. For many citizens, they're going to believe the lies that they're told, and they're going to be … you know, they will be told that this was the, you know, Washington and the United States government taking their jobs away.
That said, there's a lot more internet access in Russia than there is in China, and they didn't put up a Great Firewall. Some of the businesses that have maintained their work are the businesses that are maintaining global internet connectivity to Russia and Russian citizens. And thank God they are, because that's the only way the truth will get through.
Again, we'll see how long this lasts, but there's a real chance if you're the average Russian, your standard of living and growth go down, your great job with a Western company and a cool Western brand goes away. Your access to Western technology, iPhone, or websites goes away. You're earning less by selling things because you've lost all of these markets. There's a lot less freedom, a lot less access to information, thought police and fewer opportunities to engage globally. Hell, their airlines may stop flying for lack of spare parts. If this goes for a while, it's pretty hard to hide all of that or to claim that all of that is the treachery of the West. But that doesn't mean Putin won't try.
MIKE: Well, you mentioned this going on for a while. I think the next big question is sort of now what? I don't think there's much chance that Putin is just going to retreat. It seems more likely that he does the opposite and just goes all in, which brings into discussion things we haven't considered possible in decades, like the use of non-traditional weapons. So what can the endgame really be at this point for Russia and for Ukraine?
BRUCE: You know, far be it from me to ever know what Vladimir Putin's actually thinking. It feels like, first, he may be of the mindset to realize that the parade of horribles I just mentioned mean there's no good outcome other than let's just end it now, lie about what happens, cut your losses, save your economy. It doesn't feel like his brand.
Number two, he may feel like gain on the battlefield that will improve your negotiating position, and, ultimately, play for some of the things that felt like they were within reach at the start, and even still the Zelensky government, perhaps, for purposes of a lot less killing of its citizens may, ultimately, cut a deal that is better than status quo ante, if you're Putin.
Third, wait for the West to grow tired, divided, and angry. That's something that we in the West do. People don't like our troops being in harm's way, although they're less so right now, but, you know, people don't like the inflation. There's a sense that maybe he can out-wait and outlast Europe and the West. You know, they're really galvanized at the start, but will they remain that way months in? And, finally, you know, there's the big play with China, and Vladimir Putin is trying to phone a friend. And if they can get China to bail them out economically, give them military weapons, you know, if you're President Xi, this may be a way to keep America occupied, to keep America spending, and to get some gasoline on the cheap.
MIKE: Bruce, I want to follow up with you on a couple of points you just made in that comment. The first is the sort of unity of much of the Western world. Obviously, the depth and breadth of the sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, other allies around the globe are unprecedented. What do you think it would take for the U.S. and the European Union to lift sanctions? I mean, are these in place now for months? Years? I guess what I'm getting at is, can the global economy continue to function smoothly if Russia is not part of it?
BRUCE: Well, remember, that while they are talking about the West not buying oil, they haven't extended necessarily some of the SWIFT … no use of the SWIFT system to the sale of oil and gas. And so Russian oil and gas remains on the global markets. I think if you went full scale and said take out everything, including Russian oil and gas, that's a global economic situation different from what we're looking at right now. It was, I think, the 12th largest economy—it may be smaller than Texas's economy—but oil and gas is where they punch above their weight, and then food, especially wheat, where Ukraine and Russia are the breadbasket of Europe. I think we're going to feel a lot of downstream impact from those things, as well as maybe some other commodities.
What will it take to lift the sanctions? I think that's still being figured out. Obviously, we'd like Ukraine territoriality and sovereign integrity to persist. We'd like to see civilians not killed, some kind of guarantees of their safety, perhaps the return of the borders. And the question becomes, at the minimum, the Donbas regions, which declared their independence. It would be great if they were talking about giving Crimea back, because Crimea belonged to Ukraine before 2014. But, again, we're so early that, you know, the sanctions are as likely to get tougher before they got relieved or better.
MIKE: The other thing you mentioned that I wanted to follow-up on is your comment about China, definitely a country that has sort of aggressively not been part of the sanctions. They've called Russia a friend recently. What do you think the impact has been on China's thinking, particularly when it comes to Taiwan? Does seeing the depth and speed of the free world's reaction maybe make China less likely to move against Taiwan, or does it not work out that way?
BRUCE: If I were the Chinese, I would imagine I am now taking a look at some number of sanctions that I didn't expect were within the West's arsenal. And I'm asking myself, "Am I sanction-proof?" Putin spent years getting what he thought was sanction-proof. He had 600 and I don't know however many billion dollars tucked away that was his war chest to preserve and protect his currency. But a lot of that were in Western banks, which they froze. I think if I were China, I imagine they have a couple of years' worth of work and effort needed to be more sanction-proof.
The piece, if I'm China, though, that has me scratching my head is seeing what all of the Western businesses did. You know, in the old days, you would think there were two levers. There was the military response, and then there were the governmental sanctions response. Here, the military response, President Biden took off the table early and has kept it off the table. The governmental sanctions response was more powerful. But it turns out there's a third leg on the stool, and that's the number of businesses suggesting that they're suspending and/or divesting. Russia was not nearly as integrated in the global economy as China is.
But what China has to ask is, are they so critical for multinationals that they're too big to bail? That the companies such as Apple simply won't walk away, even if China does to Taiwan what Russia did to Ukraine. I sort of feel like that was probably the way it was before Russia went into Ukraine. And now I just don't see how a company like Apple would be able to respond differently. I know how important it is economically, but it feels like in some ways we've now set a precedent that would be hard for a lot of these businesses to undo. And if I'm China, that forces me to recognize how reliant I am on foreign food, foreign technology like semiconductors, and foreign jobs, among other critical areas.
MIKE: Do you think that some of these decisions made by company executives—U.S. companies, I'm talking about—were made so quickly that they don't really have a strategy for what happens over the long term? I mean, how do these company decisions impact their bottom line, and how do they figure out when or if to go back, to open those businesses, to start up those factories again, to re-establish those partnerships? And this seems like they're way outside of the playbook that they may have had.
BRUCE: You know, businesses have found, I feel like, maybe since the great financial recession of '08-'09, but certainly since some of the things like the Parkland School tragedy or the bathroom laws in Texas and North Carolina, we've seen what some call stakeholder capitalism, with business, again and again, rallies on what feels like in their own minds maybe a one-time basis to a broader cause. Maybe their employees care about it, or their customers care about it, or they just think it's a matter of right and wrong. And that accelerated with things like the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 riots. I think we've gotten to a point where the era of business neutrality is over. Businesses are increasingly recognizing not only are there more geopolitical risks, but there are more of these sort of challenges they're going to face.
I can tell you talking to a lot of chief executives, they don't want to be in the political business. They don't want to be NGOs. They'd go do that if that's what they wanted to do. Their goal is to sell cool, innovative products to everybody. But sometimes what you want to do and what you're stuck with aren't necessarily one and the same. A lot of businesses with Russia, it feels like don't have a plan. Although to be fair, a whole lot of businesses … this was a small amount of money. I mean, we know there's been genocide in China for years, yet genocide hasn't moved most companies doing business in and with China to change. Apparently, you know, the invasion of a sovereign nation is kind of where the line is. Although had China gone first with Taiwan, we might have tested the theory. But because Russia's gone first, now it feels like there is this precedent. God forbid China goes into Taiwan because I think a lot of folks don't know what they'd do, but I do know every business I work with that's multinational is contingency planning and is reassessing their vulnerabilities and their supply chains, trying to make sure they're hedging risks that are geopolitical that they didn't worry as much about five years ago.
MIKE: Let's talk about the supply chain issue for a minute, because we've heard so much about that over the last six or eight months. It felt like we were turning a corner on the supply chain issue, but how much does this war set us back when it comes to global supply chain delays and problems?
BRUCE: Yeah, it's like Godfather III. Every time I think I'm out, they bring me back in. So, you know, look, when you think about where the shortages were, the challenges had been in workers because of COVID, and long COVID, and people who were afraid of the virus or people who were afraid of the vaccine. It had been in semiconductors for a variety of reasons. In part, the trade wars prior to the whole pandemic had led to hoarding and changed behavior, but then you had both a demand shock, where all the demand was in goods, not services, but everybody had more money than they used to because of the government handouts, and a supply shock as a result of weather and some other events. And so bad mismatch, something like 40% increase in demand for semiconductors and 0% increase in capability to produce them.
And then in energy. Well, energy has gone way up. So energy challenges, given Russia's centrality, are surely going to stay bad for at least most of this year, it feels like. On semiconductors, this doesn't help. There are risks, given that neon is a really important element of semiconductor manufacturing, and that is overwhelmingly, I thought from Ukraine, maybe from Russia, I thought from Ukraine. Although some of the bigger, smarter players quickly stockpiled when things started getting sideways, but how long does that last for? There are other critical minerals there that matter, too. You know, and even with workers, think of tech, there was a robust number of programmers, and coders, and internet-type engineers both in Russia and in Ukraine. To the extent they're unavailable, you need to replace them with folks elsewhere, and we were already in a super-tight market. That just makes the market that much tighter.
MIKE: Obviously, the most significant impact here at home, I think, to most people has been gas prices, which have gone absolutely crazy, some stations, you know, raising prices in the middle of the day. Why? How long does that go on? It's not like we're in a gas shortage, and the U.S. imports very little oil from Russia. So do you think prices just normalize at some point soon? Is this a shock event that's going to recede, or do you think this is going to be here for a while?
BRUCE: It's a great question. I mean, obviously, at the end of the day, the gas market is supply and demand. It's always felt as a driver that prices go up during scary times faster than they go down when you get the all-clear. That's not scientific or data-based; that's just the perception of a driver who spends a lot of money every time I fill up. I assume right now there are worries about global availability. We know there have been logistics challenges that have made it somewhat difficult on supply and demand. And we know, look, there have been a couple of years, half a decade, arguably, of two things. First, the frackers over-built-out, and, therefore, there was a crash because there was excess capacity when price … when the bottom fell out of the price market. You know, we let the market fluctuate. And then, two, the Europeans, in particular, have been very keen on decarbonizing, but they didn't replace the energy sources that they had with enough renewables or reliable enough renewables. So when the wind stops blowing in Europe or the sun stops shining, there's a spike.
It could get worse here. Obviously, we could see '70s-style energy shocks. I know the administration has asked the Saudis and others to try to step up and help out, but the administration was decidedly not nice to Saudi Arabia and to MBS, the presumptive incoming leader, right up until we needed them. And, you know, having not spoken to them or recognized them, having been against their economy's only real product, and that has led to their not taking our phone calls at the moment. I hope diplomacy can turn that around.
MIKE: Well, Bruce, obviously, the markets here had been reacting pretty wildly over the last few weeks. The markets have been mostly down, but there's been a lot of volatility that include some big up-days. If the war drags on, does the market settle down and just accept this as, I don't know, the newest iteration of the new normal?
BRUCE: You know, you and I are having talks, it feels like, once a year, where we keep thinking, 'Well, the new normal.' And so, you know, the new normal was the pandemic and all the things the pandemic wrought. Now, the new normal seems to be, you know, strongman and Europe at war again, or at least, you know, the resumption of large military spending. I don't know what the new normal is, other than the new normal is volatile and the new normal is disruptive. And so I think for both investors and for business types, just don't assume that the last 30 years, which were relative peace and prosperity, will continue forever. Don't assume that inflation has gone away forever, or that capital will be cheap forever. The Fed's got something to say about that soon. And one presumes they're going to go after some of this global inflation. The new normal is disruption.
MIKE: Well, Bruce, this has been a fantastic discussion. I want to wrap up with a look at the impact on our politics here at home. President Biden seems to be getting high marks for his handling of the crisis. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill put aside months of bitter animosity to pass a massive government funding bill that includes nearly $14 billion in aid for Ukraine. So how do you think this war in Ukraine changes some of the political calculus here at home?
BRUCE: Certainly on the short term it's been good for the administration. You see that in the poll numbers. In part, it gave them something else to talk about, you know, as did the Supreme Court vacancy. The President's poll numbers had been doing really poorly because of inflation, and crime, and Delta followed by Omicron, pandemic handling, and failure to pass some things, like BBB. But the Supreme Court vacancy, and then, particularly, the ability of the West to rally. A lot of that is credit that belongs to President Zelensky of Ukraine. But, I think, this administration has played a fairly savvy hand—the State Department, like Secretary of State Blinken and others.
That said, elections are coming. And we like to think politics stop at the water's edge. Politics never stopped at the water's edge. I mean, just think about the Daisy campaign ad LBJ ran against Goldwater, with a nuclear bomb blowing up a little girl with a flower, or, you know, Reagan's bear in the woods, or Dukakis with a tank, you know, the crazy helmet, that was awesome.
As I see the midterms, Ukraine will feature in it as both sides try to position that they're right and the other side is wrong, and, therefore, you should elect their team. So are rising prices Biden-flation or Putin's price hike? Did the unsuccessful or clumsy exit from Afghanistan embolden Putin, or does Biden deserve credit for deft diplomacy? Are recession or shortages coming back, or are we seeing growth, notwithstanding war and pandemic, so the administration would deserve credit? Which way to play energy? Has this been Congress leading and the administration is reluctantly coming along? You can make that case. Or has the administration kind of restrained the less thoughtful influences—like, a no-fly zone is actually a really bad idea. It won't accomplish it. All it will do is get you into conflict and let Putin claim that rather than losing to Ukraine, he's losing to NATO, and that's a whole different scene. Finally, is a peace deal, if we, God willing, get one, is that appeasement or is that success? All of those things are going to feature in campaign ads coming to you.
MIKE: Well, Bruce, you've given us lots to think about today. Thanks so much for taking the time to join me.
BRUCE: Appreciate you having me. I'll look forward to talking to you again in a year.
MIKE: That's Bruce Mehlman. You can find him on Twitter @BPMehlman.
Well that's all for this week's episode of WashingtonWise. We'll be back with a new episode in two weeks, so please take a moment now to follow the show in your listening app so you don't miss an episode. And if you like what you've heard, leave us a rating or a review—that really helps new listeners discover the show.
For important disclosures, see the show notes or schwab.com/washingtonwise, where you can also find a transcript.
I'm Mike Townsend, and this has been WashingtonWise, a podcast for investors. Wherever you are, stay safe, stay healthy and keep investing wisely.
After you listen
When Russia invaded Ukraine it set in motion a series of abrupt changes. These changes have sparked a host of challenges around the world and prompted questions for investors. How will this conflict end? What will be the impact on the U.S. and global economies of the sanctions on Russia? What are the impacts of the war on the supply chain? What are the longer-term implications of the decisions by hundreds of U.S. companies to pull out of Russia? Bruce Mehlman, an expert in political and policy trends, joins host Mike Townsend to discuss these and other questions. They explore how we might be entering a new period in history–what Bruce calls the "post post-Cold War era"–and what that might mean for investors.
Mike also looks at how bipartisan support for a package of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine was the catalyst that helped Congress pass the massive government funding bill that had been stalled for more than five months. And he provides updates on the Federal Reserve's decision to begin increasing its key interest rate and the White House's executive order that seeks to craft a government-wide strategy on cryptocurrencies.
WashingtonWise is an original podcast for investors from Charles Schwab.
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