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Will 2013's Most Troubling Economic Trend Continue This Year?

If consumers don't finally jump on Wall Street's optimistic bandwagon, the deep divergence between America's two economies could stall us again.

Credit: Getty Images/Ikon Images
Credit: Getty Images/Ikon Images
By Michael Lewis, Daily Finance

From one perspective, it's clear that the sun is coming out again for the U.S. economy: 2013 was one of the nation's best years in decades. But closer to the ground, there's a fog bank shrouding the economic climate -- and a much different narrative, one that has been more cautious than those numbers alone can tell.

Analysts believe the market at large will experience another round of robust growth in 2014, despite an expected taper in the Fed's easy-money policy. But central to those upbeat forecasts is the notion that the average consumer is feeling better and better.

So, "average consumer," are you feeling better and better about the economy?

Don't Believe the Hype 

Take a glance at the economy's many indicators from 2013, and it's difficult to be pessimistic. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI) rallied well above the 20 percent mark toward 17,000. The Nasdaq (^IXIC) leapt up more than 35 percent, while the S&P 500 (^GSPC) came in between the two at just under 30 percent.

New housing starts, which remain near historical lows, continue to grow beyond forecasts: They jumped nearly 23 percent in November to an annualized rate of more than 1 million. Analysts see the numbers growing nicely through 2015.

The official unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in January 2013. By November 2013, the figure had shrunk to 7 percent flat.

We could go on, but you get the picture: By the numbers, the economy looks strong.

Economists Are Confident; Consumers, Not So Much 

While the economy at large has made a good stab at brushing off the dirt from its devastating fall, the consumer can't seem to forget that, not too long ago, an even more upbeat environment quickly turned sour -- too fast for anyone to take cover. That's making us more cautious.

According to The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index, the average American isn't feeling the same jollies as the stock market. Following a precipitous drop in October, the index fell an additional two points to 70 (the scale goes from 0 to 100) in November.

Specifically, the numbers seemed to reflect growing concern over business conditions (25 percent said conditions were "bad") and employment. The percentage of those expecting the job market to grow fell from 16 percent to 12.7 percent. There was similar pessimism regarding incomes, with fewer people expecting their incomes to increase.

However, once the holiday season kicked into high gear, things predictably improved. The CCI hit 78.1 in December -- its highest level since before 2013's government shutdown. Nearly all indicators reversed their defeatist trend.

So, are we finally seeing a real mood improvement, or was it just transient Christmas cheer?

Discover Financial Services (DFS) recently released its December Spending Monitor data, and it echoes much of the CCI report, with the number of consumers who see the economy improving up 5 percent to 30 percent. Yet when it comes time for people to put their money where their mouths are (what Discover calls people's "spending intentions"), more consumers are keeping a tighter grip on their wallets. Nearly 30 percent anticipate spending less on discretionary goods and household expenses this month than they did in December. Compared to the prior month, that's a 13 percent increase in those reporting they're going to cut back.

Such behavior, while logical (it makes sense to let the credit card cool down after buying gifts for the entire family), does cast some doubt over December's figures, suggesting they may mainly reflect seasonal optimism. And while the numbers offer plenty of insight into the American consumer's behavior over the past 60 days, they still aren't offering a conclusive answer to the biggest question: What is the real state of the U.S. economy?

A Matter of Interpretation

We live in a data-driven culture. Check into any news outlet and you'll hear plenty of facts regarding the economic indicators. These days in the financial world, the general outlook predicts a continued market rally, and rightfully so when you look at the numbers. The view from the top is sunny with a chance of rainbows. But Main Street isn't impressed.

The thing is, the consumer doesn't trust the system as much as they used to. We've seen how quickly all those upbeat indicators can change.

And not all consumers react the same way to the data. Expensive fashion brands are rallying along, as are sellers of big-ticket items, like, say, Winnebago (WGO). The iconic RV company saw its motor home deliveries jump more than 30 percent in the last quarter. The share price of Jeweler Tiffany (TIF) is at a 52-week high and it recently posted a killer earnings report. The "haves" are buying into Wall Street's sunny outlook. But what about the "have nots"?

Your average mall store is suffering in a big way, with specialty apparel stores like Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) getting slammed. Part of this is due to changing trends in fashion, and the failures of some companies to adapt. But it's also related to the increasingly sharp dichotomy between the wealthy few and the rest of us.

Walmart (WMT), that bastion of all things cheap, can't seem to discount its goods far enough to drive sales higher. In mid-November, the company's CEO suggested that the blue-collar shopper isn't feeling the same jollies as Wall Street -- that food and energy costs remain high while wage growth is minimal. Their shoppers are still suffering from the greatest economic downturn since the Depression.

The Story to Watch in 2014

This is a truly fascinating trend, if slightly disturbing.

The mismatch between those two sets of data gives credence to the views of those pessimists who claim the market's recent gains are primarily a product of the Fed's quantitative easing, not true recovery, and that the stock prices don't have much to do with a real return to economic normalcy, let alone prosperity.

It wasn't an easy thesis to prove in 2013, as the $85 billion-per-month bond-buying program continued unabated. But 2014 will see the Fed's taper begin, and, if all goes according to plan, the bond-buying program could be cut down to zero before the end of the year. Investors, analysts, and consumers alike will keep an eye on how this impacts corporate earnings.

As the Fed's extremely easy-money policy vanishes into the rearview mirror, consumer spending will be more important than at any time since the financial crisis. Though the spending numbers haven't told the full economic story in the past few years, people need to keep buying clothes, homes, and cars. If they don't, even the currently rosy numbers will sputter and stall out.

Motley Fool contributor Michael Lewis has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.
Jamie January 17, 2014 at 04:20 PM
I do not suggest that we force anyone to donate their wealth. But tying that in with Greenspans comments, I fear we are headed the way to socialization through either a collapse of the system upon itself with the widening gap between rich and poor which some say is through greed (and even if one does not see it as greed, it only matters what the majority perceived it as) or simply by continuing the extreme leftist momentum to which I do not even think we have even begun to see yet. A good example of what I am talking about is Bolivia, where drinking corporations made it illegal for citizens to collect rain water to drink which was the tipping scale that brought on the current socialist regime there. I think that qualifies as runaway greed. I actually would like to avoid a similar result here. In my above comment by Greenspan he did go onto say that education is one of the keys to personal responsibility to achieving success but also with fair policies that enable such goals. Global competition is often preached by the elite to the workforce, but it is also a two way street, and when nations like India & China train their citizens with national funds to achieve educations and job training, then we should consider it as well, because an uneducated untrained workforce is a prime target for socialization. Many point to the skills gap as the result of unskilled workers and lazy people who do not want the jobs, and that may be true for some individuals but corporations rely on the government to train the workforce for their specialized jobs (socialism) instead of investing in training employees with private fund which is what I thought capitalism was. In the post WWII era many skilled tradesmen were trained by the auto, steel, railroad, & other top industry (private funds) now because of one sided definition of competition, barely any company wants to train the workforce, but has no problem importing skilled labor from nations that did train their workforce with national funds. Now many on this board or the other board under the minimum wage article have called out the liberals for despising the rich, but if the rich and well off are referring to the working poor as lazy and stupid, then would not that mean they despise the poor? If so, this is the ingredients for class warfare and eventually the result will be horrible for all or most.
Bob McBride January 17, 2014 at 05:09 PM
I'd like to see a lot less of pejorative terms like "lazy" and "greedy" and less playing to the emotions of those on both sides. Most of the problems we're experiencing in this country are the result of a changing economic balance of power, brought on in large part by the technological advances that have occurred since the early-mid 80s. They have so changed the economic landscape that harkening back to a time prior to that for solutions is completely pointless. We are fast approaching a time when we'll be at a loss to provide jobs of any kind for a significant portion of the population. That may, in fact, require a significant increase in the size of the safety net, possibly on a permanent basis. People are just beginning to acknowledge the problem as a real one. Solutions, assuming there are any of significance, are not forthcoming at this point in time. What we seem to be doing best at this point is working towards our own obsolescence as a workforce. Which is why I suggest drastic measures regarding minimum wage, now, would only hurry the process along at a time when we have barely begun to recognize the problem for what it is.
novato 3per January 17, 2014 at 05:49 PM
This whole situation was manufactured by the globalist puppet masters.The money people, corporate globalists, have labeled this as a mature economy, with an older population, less propensity to consume, higher labor costs and too many laws regarding saving the environment. I was invited to a seminar dinner 2 years ago by the largest investment firm FIDELITY INVESTMENTS. After dinner they advised us to open our eyes to international investing especially Brazil, India and China. Our major corporations make more profits overseas than in the USA. hence the high unemployment and record stock market valuations. As a result of this they are keeping profits abroad and paying low taxes.
novato 3per January 17, 2014 at 05:51 PM
We are favoring a flood of immigrants not known for their dedication to education like the Chinese and Indians who provided almost half of our engineers. instead the plan is to lower wages, increase the population with younger tax paying consumers. India and China, their economies are improving and some of these graduates go back to their country to work as engineers. I have observed both political parties taking their cue from the lobbyists and playing along with globalization at the cost of our future. The worst example of a billionaire globalist George Soros launched the Obama campaign in 2002. The country is still spending billions in forcing middle age throwbacks into accepting corporate globalism as their model, they reject it, good for them. We could have done wonders with the infrastructure with the billions spent in the endless wars.
novato 3per January 17, 2014 at 05:52 PM
Instead, we have the strongest military to impose obedience to our currency the dollar, expect them to treat it as if it were gold, and fiercely punish those like IRAQ who tried to switch to selling oil with the EURO currency. we bombed IRAQ one month later. The Euro (which was the real weapon of mass destruction for the USA)was a potential contender for another global currency. We destroyed the world economies in 2008 with the Wall street and US Bank failures and the Euro went downhill. We are continuing to print wealth to make up for the fact that we produce very little , except war weapons, that the rest of the world wants.
McCloud January 18, 2014 at 09:09 AM
Dump Durbin.
Robert Mihaly January 18, 2014 at 01:15 PM
This column by Paul Krugman may enlighten some. It's clear that some posters believe both it and its corollary...both nonetheless false. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/the-myth-of-the-deserving-rich/?_php=true&_type=blogs&smid=tw-NytimesKrugman&seid=auto&_r=0
McCloud January 18, 2014 at 02:13 PM
Wasn't Paul Krugman the guy who thought Obama's stimulus was the solution? These guys never get score carded after they are proven wrong, and live another day to fill the heads of people with no memories.
McCloud January 18, 2014 at 02:45 PM
A far better column to read: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/walter-e-williams/2014/01/17/column-income-inequality-demagoguing-illustrates-stupidity-libera
Jeanne Large January 18, 2014 at 03:58 PM
Lewis, McBride, Jamie, Novato, McCloud, Mihaly, OK, I read all your comments and have some understanding of your points of view but not your vision. Now what? What kind of an economy and nation do you want your family and the next generations of your family to live in? What do you plan to do to help make this country a good place to live with a stable future? I'd revamp our tax structure, fund good education, universal preventative healthcare and maintain a safe, stable infrastructure. What about you?
Bob McBride January 18, 2014 at 04:14 PM
Nothing I can add to that, Large. Looks like you've laid out the blueprint for the next couple of generations at least. Good work. Take the rest of the afternoon off. The minions will handle the details.
Jamie January 19, 2014 at 11:27 AM
Jeanne Large - Well if I laid out a definitive plan to cover every problem we face in this union I would simply write a book and charge for my services and then demand a tax break only for me (kidding) which would contradict what I preach, but I will address some of what I would like to see. Much of what I propose would require me to be supreme chancellor who would contradict the constitution and of course that will not happen so imagine with me please. First, both conservatives and liberals need to understand that we are and have never been a free market economy. We are a socialist, just look at education, post office; military, police/fire, and transportation just to name a few. In addition, we have always subsidized every key industry even before TARP and the auto bailout, just in different forms. The problem is the denial that it is and always was socialism. I hindsight I am still on the fence as to whether we should have bailed out the auto and banking industry, but for my argument for defending the bailout for both industries (this is my solution going forward), I say that was socialism and if taxpayers dollars are going to do so then we have become shareholders of the corporations which means that the government gets to appoint board members to the corporation and taxpayers get to collect dividends until the government sells the shares which is their right to sell or not at any given time. Sounds like a crappy deal huh? Well, the corporations of those industries would have a choice to either take the deal (socialism) or go through an orderly bankruptcy procedure. The size and scope of the failure of the auto and banking industry would have been huge and would have created a reset for the majority of citizens and those members of the elite class who would have to scramble to restore their own destiny by re-educating themselves as individuals.
Jamie January 19, 2014 at 11:28 AM
Now that brings me to education, I think we should have a comprehensive reform not abolish the department of education both at the federal and state level. This may mean that the regulation is re-written as well, but first and foremost we need national standards on the S.T.E.M. core to prepare our students to compete in an ever evolving technology based economy. I am all for charter schools and vouchers that could allow for students of one district to cross over to a better school of another district if there is room. This would create a more market based style of completion even amongst public schools. As for aid to college students, and this is where I hope to piss many off in an effort to wake up the masses, I would reform government tuition aid (not abolish) so that only fields that are projected to be in demand by employers receive aid. This would prevent wasted tax payer dollars which pay for students to pursue liberal arts degrees. For those who want to study liberal arts and similar degrees, feel free, but you are on your own to figure out how to pay for it. Business’ will have to have a say to as to what it is that they are looking for so that the next generation as well as the current generation of workers who may find themselves unemployed have a clearer path to re-adjusting to the current demands of the economy. This will address the skills gap. And I do believe it only makes sense that we offer assistance and opportunity to our citizens first before diluting our economy with citizens from other nations. We would not be the only nation that has such a policy and that is what I refer to as global competition. Trust me there will still be plenty of room for a pathway to citizen applicants from other nations that will bring value to our economy, and I will welcome them and the diversity they will bring.
Jamie January 19, 2014 at 11:28 AM
As far as welfare and unemployment, I am all for a social safety net as long as it is not abused. So just like my view on financial aid, those that find themselves on these programs would have to undergo some communicative forum that they too would have to enter into an education system to receive aid that will actually prepare them to be self reliant. Those able bodied that are unable to comprehend S.T.E.M. curriculum, I have a plan for them as well assuming they want temporary aid between careers. All those jobs that are being filled by foreign workers because citizens feel they are too good for such as janitors, landscapers, harvesters, and others like them will be offered to the unemployed and paid at whatever the current minimum wage is. If they refuse the work, then they lose unemployment welfare benefits (this will truly identify the lazy from those who are searching for opportunity or a second chance). When there are still low level jobs left unfilled, then immigration policies can be eased and those who seem to despise anyone who has browner skin then they do will just have to live with that fact and learn to live with multiple languages in this nation and embrace diversity.
Jamie January 19, 2014 at 11:28 AM
Now onto taxes, once we have narrowed the skills gap and lowered the unemployment, then we could finally have an opportunity to have a flat tax system in which everyone/business feels the burden of the cost of running the government which is not cheap. I can go on and on but will stop. And I fully expect to have negative backlash from the other commenter’s, but at least it is a start to laying out a plan that can be tweaked as time and circumstances change. Some may think that I am a socialist/communist for what looks like a centralized government theme, but my intentions are actually to secure a regulated capitalist system. Some of my suggestions lack in depth detail, but I would be here for days explaining what I would like to see because the issues we all face are complicated.
Jeanne Large January 19, 2014 at 12:43 PM
Thank you, Jamie. I look forward to reading your books. Anything on preventative healthcare?
Giorgio C. January 19, 2014 at 01:01 PM
Jamie, Before we solve the problem regarding hiring for STEM jobs, we need the TRUTH. Are Americans too dumb, or not qualified, for these jobs, hence the need for H1b visa? Or, are educated Americans seeking too much in both compensation and quality work conditions, that the employer has deemed the American worker both spoiled and lazy? Or some of both? If the former, then yes, our colleges should have been re-educating American workers pronto, but our colleges lack the flexibility to mobilize students and workers for such training. Our leaders, including Obama, should have treated such training with the same level of urgency as that of invading foreign countries. Instead, our colleges are stuck in their frozen state of ineptitude like dinosaurs in tar pits.
Jamie January 19, 2014 at 10:47 PM
Jeanne – Diet and exercise is really all I have to say. If everyone would read up on nutrition and take care of themselves, would that not lower the cost of healthcare for all? Giorgio – STEM is the only place to start. I do not think that Americans are too dumb; we as a diversified community have no disadvantage in our DNA to learn. I think our lack leadership again on both sides of the isle has pandered to a nation that was on top for so long that we took for granted and lost sight of what made us so great historically. I also think we suffer from a case of delusional exceptionalism and that we must as a whole get out of the comfort zone and continuously reinvent ourselves through education. A great first step in improving our education system will be to convert to the metric system so that our high school students do not have to wait until they reach chemistry to be introduced to it. Many employees need to understand is that the labor force is in fact a market and not preach that unskilled labor should be paid at a lowest rate because of lack of demand and then complain that skilled labor asks for too much. Now at some point the market will dictate the limit as to what skilled labor will achieve and equilibrium will be realized. But when employers complain that skilled labor makes too much and appeals to the government to bend the rules so they can bring in cheaper labor are just as much to blame for our economic woes as those workers who refuse to educate themselves to meet demand.
Jamie January 19, 2014 at 10:48 PM
Now our colleges could definitely improve the quality of our education but I must dispute the notion that they cannot provide students with what they need to compete. Many foreign students come to the U.S. universities because we have the most tier one universities in the world especially in technology and go back to their nations of origin and compete with us. But as I am often told, universities educate, and industry trains. Every company is different and universities cannot tailor their curriculums to give each employer exactly what they are looking for every job. Job training from private industry has diminished and when the skills gap was created, they look for shortcuts and minimal investment to fill those jobs such as exploiting the h1b visa for example or look to the government to provide fill in the holes with aid for training or subsidies. Now when employers are doing that, isn’t it the same as uneducated employees saying the government is not doing anything to improve their situation? Finally as for invading other nations, I am tired of seeing my tax dollars used to build and defend other nations. We have military installations all over the world and do not even charge for our services from those nations. Cannot the EU build their own combined military and defend their selves? I think more taxpayers should also be outraged that their dollars are used to build economic infrastructure in other nations like Iraq and then send jobs from the US to those nations. l I am reminded of a viral Facebook thing that said something like: I wish the US would declare war on itself and attack itself and then rebuild the nation by providing its citizens with jobs in an effort to win them
Giorgio C. January 20, 2014 at 09:49 AM
Jamie, Has someone done an audit of the use of H1b visas to find out very specifically where Americans are coming up short? This assumes that the employer is not simply seeking indentured servants, the best bargain in town. Show me how these jobs are being advertised, and who applied, and who did not get the job. Is it really about work conditions in these industries, that STEM jobs have become the jobs no American wants to do, something akin to picking grapes? Or is it truly about qualifications? If Americans do not possess the qualifications, specifically what remedial training will address this? Regarding education, yes, we have good universities, but so what? Our kids from working class communities are not ready to take full advantage of them as a result of a poor k-12 education experience. They are then always behind. Why is it there is such high teacher turnover for science and math teachers? How about paying them more? The teachers unions need to quit crying foul at every solution. If math and science teachers can make more in private industry, then time to give them a pay parity adjustment. So, first, let's begin with the audit of the H1b process. If you know where I can find such, please let me know, Jamie. Thanks. P.S.--how come the only elected official who cares about American workers is Bernie Sanders, a self-described Socialist Democrat. I'm no socialist, but I sure appreciate this elected representative's concern for American workers. I don't see this with the Dems and Pubs.
Giorgio C. January 20, 2014 at 10:18 AM
Here's one report on Feds busting employers for misuse of visas, specifically for paying lower than prevailing wage http://www.cio.com/article/481122/H_1B_Visa_Fraud_Used_to_Undercut_Wages
Jamie January 20, 2014 at 12:14 PM
Giorgio – Perhaps one should ask: Are there any audits done at all? I would prefer a government audit but would that not require more taxpayers dollars to conduct? What I have found is an article from the NY Times that reported Infosys agreed to pay a fine although they admitted no guilt, but did admit to: “major errors and omissions in records it kept on its employees in the United States”. Now their simple errors lead to unbalanced hiring that put qualified US job candidates at a disadvantage, yet conveniently Infosys benefited by lower wages. The link is: below. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/us/indian-tech-giant-infosys-paying-34-million-to-settle-visa-abuse-case.html
Jamie January 20, 2014 at 12:15 PM
Now I assume that since I quoted the NY Times which reported the outcome of a federal investigation, I will get criticized for quoting a “liberal” source, so I found another article from Forbes which I assume is a “conservative” or balanced which reports that in certain cases the visas allow for programmers from India to be paid about $7,000 per year which equates to about $3.37/hour assuming a 40 hour work week which is even less if they work more hours/week versus $70,000 for qualified experienced US programmers who have found themselves in the unemployment lines. It also states that there were Hindi only meetings that put English speaking programmers at a disadvantage. Now, stop and think for a moment, why would anyone want to risk going to the top engineering/tech schools and risk around $40,000 in school loans ($120,000 for 4 years) and an additional 2 or 3 years of graduate degrees for masters in computer science or engineering which now brings the school costs (loans) to over $200,000 which of course accrues interest to see their trade marginalized by exploiting the work visa programs? Quoting from the Forbes article: “federal prosecutors and investigators insisted Wednesday that they had uncovered extensive misuse of visas at Infosys.” In addition, it says that US firms stopped training, yet India firms do train Indians. The link to that article is: http://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2012/04/10/true-global-outsourcing-should-end-the-visa-debate/
Jamie January 20, 2014 at 12:16 PM
Also, tech jobs are not limited to those which require masters, bachelors, or even associates degrees. There are simple certificate programs that can qualify for what manufacturers that pay premiums. If some that want a better career but do not see themselves at a traditional 4 year college they can get manufacturing technology certificates at their local community college or even certain private trade schools. In Chicago there is a school called BIR Training that offers certificates in CMM/CNC programmers as well as 3D molding technology in which graduates of these programs start off at over $15/hour and in some cases $20/hour and above. These programs really only require a foundation built on arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and maybe some trigonometry. Are you telling me that US workers are incapable of learning that?
Jamie January 20, 2014 at 12:16 PM
Also, tech jobs are not limited to those which require masters, bachelors, or even associates degrees. There are simple certificate programs that can qualify for what manufacturers that pay premiums. If some that want a better career but do not see themselves at a traditional 4 year college they can get manufacturing technology certificates at their local community college or even certain private trade schools. In Chicago there is a school called BIR Training that offers certificates in CMM/CNC programmers as well as 3D molding technology in which graduates of these programs start off at over $15/hour and in some cases $20/hour and above. These programs really only require a foundation built on arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and maybe some trigonometry. Are you telling me that US workers are incapable of learning that? Finally, I can go on and on as to why dem’s & rep’s have both screwed us over so much brother, but might I suggest eliminating the Senate? Seems redundant. Is the House not capable to do both? Also, get rid of the electorate college.
Jamie January 20, 2014 at 12:16 PM
Finally, I can go on and on as to why dem’s & rep’s have both screwed us over so much brother, but might I suggest eliminating the Senate? Seems redundant. Is the House not capable to do both? Also, get rid of the electorate college.
Jamie January 20, 2014 at 12:17 PM
Sorry for the duplicate posts.
Giorgio C. January 20, 2014 at 01:04 PM
Jamie, I completely support spending tax payer dollars on audits! It is a small price to pay to ensure that the Americans are not getting robbed via acts of fraud. I work in government, at the state level. I personally know of fraudulent hiring practices that have occurred within our agency, including someone stacking the deck by having two family members of a job applicant seated on a job interview panel. That is blatant corruption. Thank God for "snitches"! Such corruption is even more likely where profit is involved, thus the reported misuse of H1b visas. Audits to prevent fraud and corruption are needed. Yes, they cost, but in the long run, it is money well spent.
Giorgio C. January 20, 2014 at 01:54 PM
How about not re-electing any more incumbents? Remember the D.R.I.P campaign? Don't Reelect Incumbent Politicians.
Sun Tzu January 24, 2014 at 03:31 PM
Sorry folks but I just don't think it's fair to burden future generations with the debt of quantitative easing. I starting selling of quite a bit of my stocks for more tangible assets and most likely with sell of a fair amount more next week. I wish the best of luck to all of you.

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