Pearlstein: Discussion on Bernard Madoff

Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein was online Wednesday, Dec. 17 at 11:00 a.m. ET to discuss the SEC charges against Bernard L. Madoff, who is accused of stealing $50 billion of his clients' money.

Read today's column: Madoff's Lessons For the Market.

The transcript follows.

About Pearlstein: Steven Pearlstein writes about business and the economy for The Washington Post. His journalism career includes editing roles at The Post and Inc. magazine. He was founding publisher and editor of The Boston Observer, a monthly journal of liberal opinion. He got his start in journalism reporting for two New Hampshire newspapers -- the Concord Monitor and the Foster's Daily Democrat. Pearlstein has also worked as a television news reporter and a congressional staffer.

Pearlstein was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his columns about mounting problems in the financial markets. His award was one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by The Washington Post this year.

Read Pearlstein's latest columns.


Middle, America: Does not the Madoff scandal, with its incestuous composition, finally deflate the myth that Wall Street, Greenwich, and K Street attract "the best and the brightest?" In reality, finance has been a house of cards, a rigged game for "insiders" and the already wealthy. I believe not a few Americans think Madoff is simply "just deserts" for "the best and brightest."

Steven Pearlstein: I believe you are right.


Kiev, Ukraine: Is that true that in America (and in Western countries at all) is very high culture of trust to financial institutions. So that is a main secret of "success" of Madoff's frauds. Maybe, you've heard about similar case in Russia in early 1990s with company MMM (Ukraine had also similar scandals). And after such scandals people on post-Soviet area became more careful, too cautious regarding finacial structures. Could we expect that Americans (and Westerners) after last scandal will become careful too?

Sergiy Nedashkivskiy, Kiev, journalist

Steven Pearlstein: Actually, this is a very good point. We have evidence now, of course, that people ARE becoming too careful and too distrustful of counterparties. Not just investors, but banks, who are reluctant to lend to other banks. And this is not good for the system. The reality is that any financial system is able to run only because it is lubricated by trust and confidence -- trust and confidence that is reaffirmed and supported by actual outcomes. And when it goes, it is hard to keep the machinery of finance moving. So there is a danger here of over-reaction and the government and the financial sector need to address that quickly. Restoring faith in credit ratings and audits is a BIG first step.


D. Clark: Not a question just a comment. Based on today's and previous articles I suggest you write an entire column on what you think ought to be done to make the financial marketplace more transparent and understandable to the "common" man.

Steven Pearlstein: Column? That sounds to me like a book.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. P: That's a great column in today's paper. I remember a high school classmate with a "classic" Jewish grandmother who would occasionally forget I was there and ask "is it good for the Jews?" She also was very conservative with her money and checked EVERYTHING before laying out a nickel - if she could have been in charge of watching the financial industry we wouldn't be in the mess we are.

Steven Pearlstein: Sadie for the SEC!


Baltimore, Md.: Steve: Unless I missed it, you did not mention that Mr. Madoff is also the former chairman of NASDAQ. That put him high up in the financial firmament -- high enough so that people must have felt he was above reproach.

What I found so interesting in the news stories is that he "busted" himself, calling his sons into his office and saying, hey there's no money, this was a giant con game. I think that's a first in the history of financial fraud.

Finally, I want to recommend the story Michael Lewis ("Liar's Poker") has in the December issue of Portfolio. He talks about a trader named Danny Moses who, "...when a Wall Street firm helped him get into a trade that seemed perfect in every way, said to the salesman, 'I appreciate this, but I just want to know one thing: How are you going to screw me?'"

We all should have been asking that question, shouldn't we? The End (Michael Lewis, Portfolio, Dec. Issue)

Steven Pearlstein: I didn't mention that Madoff had something to do with the founding of NASDAQ (not sure if he was chairman). And I suspect when the full story comes out, it is going to be a more complicated and rather tragic story than simply about a crook who stole people's money. The family thing is a window on that. I suspect Mr. Madoff was in this for the respect it earned him and the status it gave him on Wall Street and within the Jewish community, not primariliy for the money. It probably worked for a while and then, for some reason, stopped working, he thought he could just cut a few corners to put it back right, and then it only got worse and he got caught in one of those traps where he had to keep doing things wrong in order to hide his previous errors.


linda/brooklyn: Thomas Friedman finally addressed an issue in today's column that I've long been wondering about: The reaction of the international community now coming to understand the level of corruption that is rife throughout the financial industry of the united states.

I don't see anyone talking about this particular aspect of the thievery. The Great Unraveling (Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, Dec. 16)

Steven Pearlstein: I've written before about the corruption on Wall Street -- not just the legal, fraud kind, but the broader corruption of values. In that respect, I think it is different than a lot of industries. But I have to tell you that, as bad as it is, I doubt very seriously that the world of finance is less "corrupt" in other places, particularly Asia, where brother Friedman was writing from this morning.


Chairman Cox: I was surprised by his critique of his staff attorneys. Is this going to stick? Don't all these guys ultimately report to Cox?

Steven Pearlstein: They report to him ultimately, but it would be incorrect to say that in all matters he takes direction from them. Its a big place and the chairman is not exactly the chief operating officer, by law or by tradition. Many of the staff attorneys, who are permanent civil servants, have no use for Cox either -- they think he has undermined them and the agency. So this is a bit more complicated than it may seem at first.


Herndon, Va.: Dear Steve, Monday morning quarterbacks are having a field day - oh the returns were unrealistic, the accounting firm was obscure, the strategy cannot work for such a big fund.

My question is: How many other funds exist today that have obscure accountants/unrealistic long term returns and could be running a ponzi? How can investors find that out without triggering bankruns?

As always, I love reading your column and answers - you are the best!

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks. It's true that scams like this always look more obvious in the rear view mirror. But as a practical matter, if you are putting your money into a fund that isn't audited by one of the major accounting firms (there are more than the Big Three, but not many more), then you need to go to the next level of scrutiny, it seems to me. Not that the major accounting firms can't be bamboozled or coopted -- unfortunately, they can more easily than they like to admit. But a three person firm in a 13x8 foot office out on Long Island -- come on!


Fairfax, Va.: Steven: Thank you for your columns, I find them insightful. I have a question on the auto industry bailout. Why can't the Treasury direct that the auto industry received some of the $335B that has been loaned to them? I thought part of the reason (there are more reasons for the bailout than reasons for going into Iraq) was to increase the liquidity in the market place. The USG could guarantee the loans but why is new money from Congress supposedly needed? I am in favor of keeping the auto industry solvent -- just don't understand why new money is required and parts of the $700B can't be used.

Thanks, Sean

Steven Pearlstein: The Treasury can use the so-called TARP money for some sort of auto bailout, no question. The law gives the secretary very broad powers, which was something he asked for, something I supported and something a lot of people criticized at the time, calling it a "blank check."


Washington, D.C.: This Madoff mess has been going on for years - does Harvey Pitt have any culpability in not having him investigated and letting this fester?

Steven Pearlstein: I wouldn't know, but I strongly doubt it. If Harvey Pitt had interfered in an investigation, the staff attorneys would have dropped a dime on him in a New York minute.


Charlottesville, Va.: Dear Steven,

With the fraudulent repackaging of toxic loans that led to the global economic crisis and this latest, unprecedented-in-scope Ponzi scheme, what can be done to restore public trust in business? I have read your recent pieces on the failure of leadership and I think they are on target. The one issue I would take with your position is that it relies mostly on CEOs exhibiting the moral courage and leadership needed to speak out when the public interest is threatened. I agree that CEOs should do this, but would point out that others should step up as well. Research shows that people are more likely to take action outside the path of the herd if they view themselves as leaders or as somehow responsible. It seems like we ought to have the same attitude towards our country's economic health that we have towards national security. Most people, if they knew about a potential terrorist attack would do something about it, and not just say to themselves "not my problem, that's the government's job." How do we develop a cultural belief that safeguarding our economic health is everyone's responsibility--even if differences in levels of knowledge make some more immediately responsible than others?

Steven Pearlstein: It's a good question. But I'd say that there is an important difference: For most people, there's nothing counter to self-interest to warn about a terrorist attack, while it can be very costly, financially, to break from the herd if you are on Wall Street. You lose profits, you lose market share, your stock price declines, customers get angry at your ruining the "game" and stop doing business with you. It requires courage, no doubt about it, although over the long run such a leader and his/her investors will actually come out better for it. But the analogy you use is not a perfect one for that reason.


Woodbridge, Va.: I never heard of this guy Madoff (he MADE OFF with others' money) until now. Why couldn't they arrest him $20 billion ago?

Steven Pearlstein: If only they knew...


Silver Spring, Md.: So here I am, sending 15 percent of my pre-tax paycheck into deferred compensation, and investing, in the stock market, for my retirement.

But I look at this huge Ponzi scheme that snared so many sophisticated investors, management failure in the Big Three Autos, the collapse of investment firms, this disingenuous re-packaging of bad loans...and I have to wonder if I'm a TOTAL IDIOT. What chance do I stand on Wall Street?

Should I stop diverting money to market investments and just dress better? Enjoy each day a little more or hand money over to a Wild West Marketplace? Really, I'm asking!


Steven Pearlstein: And it is a good question. You really can't trust most money managers or corporate to put your interests in front of theirs. All you can do is look into possibilities where their interests are well aligned with your interests. There are things you can do. You can put stop loss orders in to limit losses on individual stocks. You can buy index futures. You can buy government bonds. You can buy government-insured CDs. You can spread money around different fund families. None of these prevent that you won't ever get bamboozled. But it will limit your losses just as it will limit your up-side, particularly during bull markets.


Re: Oversight ... NOT: From the Post this morning on the Madoff thing: "The nation's chief securities regulator said yesterday it was 'deeply troubling' that his agency had failed to catch perhaps the largest Ponzi scheme in history despite 'credible and specific allegations . . . repeatedly brought to the attention of SEC staff'" ... I'm inclined to believe, based on what we know so far about our economic collapse, that this is was true for just about everything concerced with this debacle. True or not? SEC Ignored Credible Tips About Madoff, Chief Says (The Post, Dec. 17)

Steven Pearlstein: Not everything -- the SEC does not exist to tell investors or even money managers that they are taking too much risk. And there is a natural tendency for inestors to create bubbles because momentum investing can be so profitable during long stretches of time. The SEC and other agencies, however, are meant to prevent outright fraud, to make sure investors have the information they need, and most importantly, to check on the work of the private sector gatekeepers, like the accountants and rating agencies. In All of those things, the agencies have once again let us down, in part because of the ideological disposition of the political appointees who ran them (Cox, Greenspan, Snow) and in part because they have been coopted, politically and intellectually, by the industries they are supposed to regulate.


Severna Park, Md.: Hi Steven - I really like your idea about turning accounting firms and rating agencies into regulated public utilities, but also am frustrated that we are forced, again, to design new laws and regulations to control greed.

Almost every problem we are experiencing can be related back to the way the market rewards only for short-term success. If the goal for companies was long-term strength and profitability, accounting firms wouldn't be tempted to ignore warning signs. Executive compensation, stock prices and risk ratings would make sense. Is there anything that can be done to change this focus?

Steven Pearlstein: Here's one idea: Much higher capital gains taxes for short-term gains, plus a tax on transactions.


Rockville, Md.: Do you remember in the 90s there was a well-publicized incident in which an immigrant from either India or Pakistan living in Virginia had created a pyramid scheme, lost millions of it gambling in Atlantic City, and then killed himself and his whole family before being arrested?

My wife's from India and I know some people who lost several tens of thousands of dollars (the increment in which he sold shares) with this guy. It was an affinity scam, in which he spoke the language of Indian business which sounded real good to my smart-but-not-savvy Indian friends.

I don't know enough about Mr. Madoff's marketing to make a judgment about whether Jews would be particularly vulnerable, but based on his client list it seems likely.

There are a lot of questions (and judgments without much factual background) out there about the extent to which the sales of subprime mortgages was similarly an affinity scam within the African-American and Hispanic communities. During the crisis, there were some stories about how brokers with cultural affinity were able to look beyond "traditional" kinds of documentation common among whites to help minorities qualify for loans. No doubt, some deserving borrowers got into homeownership this way; but we now know many others shouldn't have.

But here's my real question -- it is widely believed (with justification) that mainstream journalism avoids mentioning racial issues in negative contexts. If minority borrowers were put into bad loans, the press will cover the fact that the victims were minorities, but not the perpetrators. If trust based on shared ethnicity makes minority group members vulnerable to affinity scams, isn't the press doing them a disservice through the doctrine of expunging "non-essential" racial information?

Steven Pearlstein: I think you raise an excellent, excellent point. A lot of these are "affinity scams," as you call it because people use ethnicity as a signal -- in this case, a signal of loyalty. And there is a reluctance on the part of the press to write or talk about ethnicity because of the instinct for political correctness that the media (along with the academy and business in general) has allowed to have been imposed on them by outside interest groups.

Just this morning, for example, I walked into the office, checked my voice mail, and the very first caller was somebody who was Jewish and outraged that I would point out Mr. Madoff's religion/ethnicity and cite it as having any relevance to the story. Of course, he was going to lodge an official complaint with my editor, and probably the ombudsman. And I can assure you there will be others before the day is out, in which I will be accused of being a "self-hating Jew" and all the rest. Unfortunately, these kinds of complaints have an impact, in many cases a subtle impact, on the willingness of the media to deal with realities of ethnic cultures, because no self-respecting person likes to be called a bigot in public. As a result, we ignore things that are hugely important in understanding why the world works the way it does.


Re: Madoff: So, which is worse, the $50 million dollar ponzi scheme, or the SEC's refusal to heed the warnings about Madoff?

Steven Pearlstein: Don't get overly carried away about the warnings. The SEC gets thousands of "warnings" a day, most of which are bogus and few of which it has the resources to check out. In this case, however, with a fund that claimed (erroneously) to be managing $7 billion, the warning should have been given a higher priority.


Reston, Va.: Steven - I always thought that the CPAs doing the audits of these companies, funds, and charities were subject to losing their licenses (and their livelihood) if any audit they signed off on was not correct. Has this not been happening during all these financial scandals? If not, why not? What has the AICPA been doing? Thanks.

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, it is true, losing a license is a possibility. Two things. First, the industry is largely self-regulating and, like lawyers and doctors, is very very very reluctant to discipline its own. There is a federal accounting oversight board now, but it tells you something that even in the wake of Enron, it debarred very few individuals and no major companies. Remember, even the people who staff these agencies are trained accountants -- how else would they have the background to be able to judge? But that seems to mean that they are reluctant to deliver the occupational equivalent of capital punishment on one of their own. They can always rationalize a lesser punishment.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Isn't this the biggest crime of the century? Why has there been so little news coverage and analysis? It seems that this makes Enron pale be comparison.

Steven Pearlstein: I think the coverage has been pretty extensive, actually. One thing about the media -- we know a good story when we see it.


Westmoreland, New Hampshire: In 1992 the SEC brought a lawsuit against two Florida accountants in the Federal District Court in the Southern District of New York. (A court house that is losing credibility along with the SEC on letting Wall Street crime slip through its fingers.) The accountants, Avellino and Beines, had sold over $440 million in unregistered notes and gave the money to Bernie Madoff to manage. The SEC lawsuit leaves out Madoff's name. Then the records are sealed. Lee Richards is appointed as the receiver. Former SEC head in NYC, Ira Sorkin, is the lawyer for Avellino and Beines. Now flash forward to today: Madoff is in the Southern District of NY Federal Court; his attorney is Ira Sorkin; the SEC has named Lee Richards as the trustee of all records in the case. If you can't smell a rat here, you don't have a nose.

Steven Pearlstein: That, sir, sounds like a tip that needs to be followed up by some better reporters than me. I'll take care of that right now. Thanks.


Meridian, Miss.: Why would his bond be set at a measly 10 million dollars when he says there is 50 billion missing?

Steven Pearlstein: That's a big bond. He doesn't have the $50 billion any more and in any case, its not his money.


Frostbite Falls, Minn.: Hey. Boris Badenov here. Natasha and I open new big buck-o investment vehicle here. Want all your readers to sign up. Big returns, no losses. Fearless Leader guarantees so.

Don't tell moose and squirrel.

Dos Vedanya

Boris B. Badenov Just Good Enough Hedge Fund Frostbite Falls, MN USA

Steven Pearlstein: Funny.


New York City, N.Y.: 1. What exactly happened to the $50 billion, does any one know where it went? 2.Why is Mr. Madoff allowed to bail himself out with his clients money?

Steven Pearlstein: Who says its his clients money he'd be allowed to use?


Washington D.C.: Mr. Pearlstein,

I'm a huge fan of your columns, thank you so much for helping us figure out what's really going on out there. My question is about your article today - you mention that there are just too many built-in conflicts of interest, which I agree with. However, I can't understand why its taken this long for the house of cards to fall apart. What has changed in the last 5, 10, 20 years that led to this happening, and why didn't it happen (or did it?) in the mid-20th century? My understanding is that the structure of relationships between companies and their accounting firms hasn't necessarily changed in that time - so what was propping up the system for so many years?

Steven Pearlstein: A complicated question. First, it has happened in the past, including the 20s and during the 19th century, so this has been a recurring problem. Second, the relationship between the big accounting firms and big companies got more complicated when the accountants branched out from auditing to providing consulting services to the same clients. The rules on that have been tightened up since Enron, but the recent experience with some of the banks indicates that the problem has not been solved. There were a lot of potential liabilities that were left off balance sheets and annual reports that the auditors either should have known about or should have insisted were more fully disclosed and explained.


Washington, D.C.: Re your angry voicemail: Why this person should have been angry with you is truly puzzling, given that all the news coverage -- especially in the New York Times -- has pointed out how Mr. Madoff seems to have particularly targeted wealthy Jews, including much of the Jewish population of Palm Beach, which for years found itself shunned by WASP society down there. I guess I could understand the caller's wrath if Madoff had conned those very WASPS (it would be a shonda, as you pointed out), but as he was principally conning fellow Jews, the caller's anger is weird and a little scary.

Steven Pearlstein: Believe me, its so typical as to be predictable.


Baltimore, Md.: I've had my CPA for about 14 years. I've worked in public and private accounting. I've watched the Big 8 become the Final 4. I've seen Enron and Arthur Anderson collapse. Who is going to be left standing after this pile of dust clears? Who is going to have any credibility?

Steven Pearlstein: Here's an interesting question: If we value auditors for their judgment and thoroughness, why isn't there a public ranking out there of how good they are, based on how many times it turns out that the books they check turn out to be fraudulently false? Why can't investors or boards of directlys go on the Internet and look that up? That is a question you might pose to the new accounting oversight board, which continues to put the commercial interests of the accounting firm (confidentiality) above what ought to be the higher interests of investors (transparency).


Columbus, Ohio: "Trust but verify" is how our one-time president described certain business dealings. When the public can not rely upon the verifiers---in our case the government--to do its part, isn't this a great source of loss of trust? (Re: Madoff, subprime, Enron, et al). Much more damaging than, say, drugs to the national economy.

Steven Pearlstein: You betcha.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Pearlstein,

Thank you for answering our questions today and thanks generally for all the wise columns in these crazy times.

My question: From my limited understanding, Madoff's stated strategy relied on the use of options. However, given the huge amount of money he was managing, these transactions would have swamped the market had he actually been carrying out this strategy.

Why didn't anyone notice this? I realize there were a few raising questions, but this is so fundamental I can't understand why most market participants didn't see it (let alone regulators). Or did they not have all the information they needed to connect the dots?


Steven Pearlstein: I'm not so sure this is as obvious as you suggest. A lot of options are traded and transacted not on regulated exchanges, but privately, and this private trading could well be bigger than the public trading. I know that a few people raised this issue as a red flag rgarding Madoff a while ago. But I suspect its not quite that simple.


Richmond, Va.: Steve, The single best argument I saw for the bailouts was from your 9/26/2008 column "Gut Check" where you correctly summed up the choice facing the nation as:

"You can try to prevent a financial meltdown or you can teach Wall Street a lesson, but you can't do both at the same time"

After Madoff, I've changed my mind on the bailouts. I'd rather teach Wall Street a lesson and take the meltdown. Gut Check (The Post, Steven Pearlstein, Sept. 26)

Steven Pearlstein: Okay, well that's a choice. Not sure it's the wise choice, however.


Prescott, Ariz.: I read somewhere that Elliot Spitzer was pushing an investigation into Madoff right around the time that the illegal leak that took Spitzer down came out of the Justice Department. Suppose there is a connection there?

Steven Pearlstein: No.


Boonton, N.J.: In the context of leadership, do you see anyone within government or the financial community who can restore both integrity and investor confidence? If you haven't seen it yet, Steven Pearlstein is now hosting a new discussion panel on On Leadership.

Steven Pearlstein: Any number of people are available to do that, if they want to, starting with the president elect.


Thru the Looking Glass: If the well-respected former head of a major trading board - NASDAQ - doesn't understand the difference between the market and a Ponzi scheme, or at least doesn't understand the illegality of running a Ponzi scheme, or maybe even believes that the reward of running his own little Ponzi scheme outweighs the risk and price of getting caught, then what does that say about our "modern" (and I use that term very lossely) confidence-based economy?

Steven Pearlstein: It says that there will always been people who are not what they appear to be.


Washington, D.C.: Can you help on a technical question: if the fund claimed to be $7 billion, how did Madoff lose or steal $50 billion? Did he intentionally keep the reported fund total low in order to fly below the regulatory radar?

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, if the $50 billion is correct, then he did mis-report, and probably for good reason -- it would have been another red flag or invited more regulatory scrutiny.


Anonymous: As a black person, I think your opening punch line was a beautiful thing in how your parents raised you. It does matter. The key issue is folks, your kids and grands, understand the reasoning behind that practice.

Steven Pearlstein: Indeed.


Tampa, Fla.: Higher taxes on capital gains? Some years ago Warren Buffet suggested a surcharge on short-term capital gains as a way to discourage speculation.

Steven Pearlstein: Good idea.


New York: Considering how poorly the SEC has done, i think it's wishful thinking to believe that some kind of public utility is going to be able to stop these kinds of problems.

One proposal is to require public companies to get their statements insured. That would give someone a pretty good incentive to check things out. The ratings agencies don't suffer when their ratings are wrong because they say a rating is just an opinion (hide behind 1st amendment). But if someone has to pay out $$ for a mistake, they'll be more likely to look into it.

Steven Pearlstein: Insurance companies. You mean like AIG?


Savannah, Ga.: Tell me if I'm wrong here please. I understand the SEC bashing themselves for not looking "harder" at Madoff, but if he had a set of cooked books why would the SEC necessarily investigate further? If they said "let us see your books" and he said "sure" and handed them over why would they have reason to go get a subpoena? If there was some smoking gun, other than some person's allegations, that is different. But if they asked for books and the ones he gave them looked OK, I'm not sure what they could have or should have done.

Steven Pearlstein: If they don't also look at his checking account balance at the same time, then they're not doing their job.


New York City: Steven,

The U.S. has single-handedly driven the world into a recession and continues to rock international financial markets with horror stories on an almost daily basis. We've gone from being the safest, most transparent haven for investment in the world to a "decade of scandals" as you put it in today's column. What needs to be done to repair our reputation in the world community? How long will it take to repair the damage? Years? Decades?

Steven Pearlstein: Years.


Anonymous: This is not a question I expect you to be able to answer, but I wonder what goes on inside the mind of a Mr. Madoff. Even the most ruthless of robber barons in financial history had their philanthropic sides. Here was a man who took millions of dollars meant for charities, smiled, and stole it. What kind of a person is that?

Steven Pearlstein: Complicated.


Great Falls, Va.: Come on, you took the bait on a ridiculous overstatement in that first question.

The financial world contains a good deal of the "best and the brightest," simply because it's an industry that can generate more revenue than most and therefore can can pay more than most. It seems like a slap in the fact to millions of honest workers in the finance industry to suggest otherwise. Madoff is not representative.

I don't work in finance, but I work in an industry that often loses its best personnel to the investment banks. Much of the basis for that has nothing to do with Bernie Madoff or mortgage backed securities -- it's because the financial world works with money, and therefore is better suited to determine what makes money. Armed with that knowledge, it then recruits the best people it can to execute those plans. To get the best people, it must pay handsomely.

Steven Pearlstein: That's all true -- but maybe they weren't as bright as they thought they were, relative to the rest of us.


Steven Pearlstein: That's all the time we have today, folks. Will be gone for the next couple of weeks. See you in the New Year. Happy Holidays.


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