Is Labour’s economic policy really neoliberal?

Image: Sophie Brown, CC BY-SA 4.0

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have become used to diatribes on social media which predict that its policies will lead Britain’s economy into a Venezuela type scenario, with a collapse in the currency and hyperinflation. However, readers of three recent blogs by Richard Murphy on his Tax Research website may be surprised to learn that Labour is supposedly trapped in what Murphy describes as “deeply neoliberal and profoundly conventional thinking”. They might also be puzzled to discover that this denunciation was provoked not by a new policy statement from John McDonnell, but by a two-sentence comment on someone’s Facebook page by James Meadway, McDonnell’s “chief economic adviser”, on what’s known as ‘modern monetary theory’ (or MMT). According to Meadway:

“MMT is just plain old bad economics, unfortunately, and a regression of left economic thinking. An economy ‘with its own currency’ may never ‘run out of money’ but that money can become entirely worthless”

In his first response Murphy produced a series of what he claimed to be ‘entirely fair extrapolations’ from those two sentences alone. These concluded with the rather unfair claims that Meadway believes that “achieving full employment and growth will leave the currency valueless”; that under a Labour government “austerity will remain in place”; and even that we can “expect Labour to deliver more Tory economic policy”.

Murphy has a well-deserved reputation as a leading figure in the tax justice movement who, as a trained accountant, has expertly dissected the tax avoidance practices of multinational companies and the failures of successive British governments to crack down on them. He is also a vigorous advocate of MMT, which explains why he was so annoyed by Meadway’s somewhat dismissive Facebook comment. Sadly, however, he now seems to have descended into quite seriously misrepresenting Labour’s policy position, and this has much wider implications.

One curious aspect to this is that Murphy’s onslaught is almost entirely focused on just one strand of Labour’s current economic policy. This concerns the so-called ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’ which was formulated by two Keynesian critics of Conservative austerity policies, Simon Wren-Lewis and Jonathon Portes. The rule commits Labour to balancing the budget for current (day-to-day) spending over the first five years and borrowing only to invest in reconstructing the economy.

In his first two blogs Murphy disregards all Labour’s proposals for public ownership, ‘democratisation’ of the economy including support for cooperatives and workers’ rights, financial regulation, a national investment bank, and even policies he himself has supported such as a financial transactions tax and cracking down on tax havens. In a third blog, responding to a defence of Labour policy by Jo Michell, Murphy is dismissive of what he terms unspecified ‘supply-side reforms’. This suggests that Murphy has paid less attention to the debate that has been taking place within McDonnell’s team than The Economist magazine, which devoted a critical but respectful three pages to those same reforms.

Equally problematic is Murphy’s failure to acknowledge what he must know to be the case. Borrowing to invest is very different in its consequences than borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which is what the Conservatives have been doing since 2010. If Murphy wants ‘demand-side’ policies to generate full employment and growth, job-creating investment programmes, whether they be for housing or for renewable energy and sustainable transport, will be far more effective in achieving those goals. By comparison the ‘multiplier effects’ on aggregate demand of tax-cuts are much more limited, because corporations and the very wealthy are more likely to save the money or invest outside of the national economy.

A close reading of Murphy’s argument reveals, however, the critical implication of his reliance on MMT thinking. Murphy believes that governments do not need to borrow on the money markets at all because the Bank of England can simply create as much money as needed with a few keystrokes on a computer. MMT argues that this is what normally happens when Governments spend. It claims that taxes as well as bonds sold to the ‘public’ are only necessary to withdraw excess money from circulation and avoid inflation (an argument which is not that modern, as it harks back to what Keynes argued during the Second World War).

As Meadway acknowledged, MMT advocates are correct to insist that states with ‘sovereign currencies’ (which critically no longer includes any of the countries inside the eurozone) can never run out of money. Central banks can create as much of it as they want with a few strokes on a keyboard. Indeed, the so-called quantitative easing (QE) programmes pursued by all the major central banks since the financial crash of 2008 has provided the most spectacular possible confirmation of that. Trillions of dollars, euros, pounds, and yen have been pumped into the system’s money markets over the last decade which, while helping to restore bank balance sheets, has also fueled a boom in asset prices (bonds, shares and property prices) which has mainly boosted the wealth of the 1%.

Back in 2013, the fifth anniversary report of the Green New Deal Group, to which Murphy contributed, called for Green QE. This, along with measures to prevent tax dodging, was to finance a programme of spending on green infrastructure projects of around £50 billion a year. Creation of a Green (or National) Development Bank would bypass the private banking system by issuing bonds which the Bank of England could purchase along with all the other bonds it has been purchasing under its QE measures. The advocates of this plan argued persuasively that this would be a far better use of the additional QE money than feeding into property prices in cities such as London.

So what’s the problem? And why did Meadway follow up his initial Facebook comment with the rather cryptic observation that ‘Any country that isn’t the US trying to apply MMT’s prescriptions would find itself in the same position’ i.e. ‘close to catastrophe’? As one commentator quoted by Murphy asked: ‘Why is the US different?’. Meadway did not respond to this, but Wren-Lewis himself has replied to Murphy’s critique of the allegedly neoclassical economic assumptions behind his models. I am not concerned here with that rather technical debate. In my view the critical question, which neither Murphy nor Wren-Lewis address, is what happens to the exchange-rate if the Bank of England keeps on pumping out more money when other central banks have called a halt to QE?

The MMT school originated in the USA amidst a current of heterodox Keynesians who are understandably insouciant with respect to the strength of the dollar. They stress the willingness of foreigners who want to sell to the US to not only accept dollars in payment, but to hold onto those dollars for extended periods of time. Central banks in China and the rest of East Asia (especially since the region’s financial crisis in 1997/8) as well as the Gulf states of the Middle East continue to hold billions of dollars in their reserves. Indeed, any attempt to swap sizeable quantities of those reserves into another currency or gold would lead to a sharp fall in the dollar and reduce the value of their remaining assets. In summary: the US is different because it retains the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of controlling the only national currency which also functions as world money.

This of course is not true of the pound. But when the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan were all engaged in pressing those keyboards and generating extra liquidity to compensate for the implosion of the global banking system, the Bank of England could join in without worrying about the exchange-rate. A future Labour Government cannot assume it will be in the same situation. If it was, and interest-rates fell again to very low levels, the fiscal rule would, as Jo Michell noted, be suspended and fiscal policy can be used “with all means necessary”.

Murphy sneeringly commented that in this case the rule would be “just a sham”. He also sneered at the very idea that “Labour thinks it has to live in fear of the money markets. And so bankers. And so their supposed ability to manipulate exchange rates”.

Unfortunately, the experience of other radical social democratic governments in Europe (France in the early 1980s, Sweden in the early 90s) as well as the not so radical Wilson/Callaghan government of the mid-1970s suggests that any future Labour government should be worried about the money-markets. Even if exchange-rates are not simply ‘manipulated’ by what in the 1930s was termed a ‘bankers’ ramp’, they are vulnerable to intense speculative pressure. A Corbyn-led government, with its commitments to all the other radical measures Murphy ignores, may well have to ride out a period of capital flight and a sharp fall in the pound. Being aware of this possibility is not “neoliberal”. The recent crash of the Turkish lira (by 45% at the time of writing) is an illustration of what can happen in the course of a few days.

Some might respond that a fall in the pound will make exports cheaper abroad and contribute to reducing the current account deficit and rebalancing the economy. But Britain’s economy is also far more dependent on imports than the US, and after decades of deindustrialisation rebalancing will take some time. Meanwhile, the higher prices of imported food, energy and manufactured goods will cut into living standards – as they did after Brexit – and potentially fuel an inflationary spiral. In an extreme case this process can, as in Venezuela in recent months, make the currency worthless. Of course, the British state remains in a far stronger financial position than Venezuela or Turkey, but regardless of Brexit we do not and will not inhabit an autonomous national economy. The wartime economy, sometimes referenced when MMTers quote the Keynes of the 1940s, was managed on the basis of tight controls over both prices and cross-border currency flows – as well as cheap raw materials from the Empire and dollar credits from the USA.

Today, we have a national economy inextricably enmeshed in both the European and the world market. Most of the major banks and corporations operating in Britain are multinationals capable of transferring funds from one currency to another with the stroke of a keyboard. Imposing effective controls over speculators and tax dodgers will require at a minimum cooperation with the European Union. The best thinkers in the Marxist tradition always understood that socialism in one country was not a sustainable option. One could say the same today for the unfettered demand-side Keynesianism advocated by Richard Murphy and the MMT school.

Does that mean we should abandon hope and reconcile ourselves to more austerity? Certainly not. A radical break with neoliberal policies of spending cuts, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing, and anti-union legislation remains on the agenda. There is much that still needs to be thought through about how to manage the threat posed by the money markets which Murphy blithely wants to ignore. There are policy proposals which I disagree with, such as retaining Trident nuclear submarines and wasting more money on HS2, and I am skeptical about recent proposals for a universal basic income.

However, I also attended the daylong New Economics conference in London in May which was open to all Labour Party members. What most impressed me was not the lineup of headline speakers, but the diversity of contributions in workshops I attended on finance and housing, and the openness to debate on questions such as alternative forms of public ownership and the urgent challenge of climate change. If Richard Murphy wants to contribute to those discussions, I hope and suspect he would still be very welcome to join.

  • worldcitizen55

    “… There is much that still needs to be thought through about how to manage the threat posed by the money markets… ”
    No, that’s complete drivel. And your dog whistling oh Turkey! oh Venezuela! is as ignorant as it is disingenuous. (Which latter you would know, had you bothered to read anything of MMT’s academic literature before writing such nonsense.)
    Both Turkey and Venezuela have considerable debt denominated in *foreign currency*. IE not the currency their Govs issue. Is it really so hard for you to grasp how rather obvious that key difference is? Think about what ‘monetary sovereignty means if you can make that cognitive stretch. (UK has no debt in foreign currency.)

    We also get your hand waving, speculative drivel about ‘money markets’ denominated in UK£. Apparently according to you these present perfectly willing holders of UK£ Gov (savings!) Bonds will suddenly decide en masse to trash the value of their own holdings. All of them, all together, in micro second synchronicity.
    Leaving aside the extraordinary, illegal collusion that would take in a market regulated by *Gov*, are you seriously trying to tell us that these stg£ asset holders will do all that, risking massive losses, just because UK decided to operate its economy at full employment? Because UK Gov spent, in the long run, a few percent more of GDP into the economy, and created the growth, instead of private business/banks spending that money via investments?

    And just supposing they did manage to cause some fluctuation/dip in exchange rates, so what? Real physical Capital cannot simply ‘flee’. Do you really think the parties on both sides of *real* trade, with substantial investment and mutual interests won’t spot some speculative capital account trading screwing with their investment returns, and not know that such speculative trades cannot be sustained for long absent any change in underlying fundamentals?

    Your whole piece is riddled with the most implausible hand waving nonsense pretending to be ‘economics’. You are a disgrace.

    • Andrew Lane


      I see you are fully signed up to the Murphy/MMT snake oil. Let me point out some of the (various) problems with MMT.

      MMT states that a country can print as much of it’s own currency as it wants, and therefore never default. This is not a new observation. Because MMT relies on the economy being a closed system – with no leakage – it ignores the possibility of a technical default through exchange rate weakening. In real terms, if you knew the government was printing money many people will do something with that money before it devalues. Either convert it into another currency or buy something with it, driving inflation even higher.

      MMT then decides to assume away any risk of inflation by saying inflation will ONLY ever occur at full employment. This leads to two observations. The first is that it is obvious that inflation can and does occur without full employment. The second being that MMT does not have a serious model for inflation (it assumes an L-shaped Philips curve).

      Now, given that MMT has now got rid of monetary policy (by substituting fiscal policy, and printing money at 0% rates rather than issuing debt) and wants increased spending through far increased M0/M1 money supply, you would have hoped that they would have a detailed model at least of what that would do to inflation. Instead, we simply get the assurance that inflation simply won’t happen. This, as they say in the industry, is horses**t.

      Ask Murphy himself for a definition of full employment is and he won’t give you one – mostly because MMT is used as a cover for ever increased government spending and control of the economy. Despite unemployment being at 40 year lows and sitting at the NAIRU level, Murphy still claims unemployment is a huge problem and we are nowhere near full emplyoment. Despite not being willing to give his definition of what full employment actually is. Ask him for an inflation model and you will simply get the “it won’t happen” argument.

      The MMTers then argue that tax will be used to control inflation – whilst steadfastly refusing to detail by how much. yet again we can make a few observations. By not having an inflation model, MMT doesn’t really have a good idea about how much taxes would have to rise to control inflation – so controlling any inflation would be a hit or miss affair at best. But taxes would have to rise significantly if you are talking about the 50bn or so extra spending Murphy suggests, unless you are willing to accept significantly higher inflation, and that interest rates will be set to an effective zero. MMT also ignores the basic PV = MQ velocity of money. 50bn of extra MMT money printing would flow through the economy and multiply the broad money supply up by many times that amount, requiring even larger tax rises to counter, because again, you’ve got rid of monetary policy. Of coure if you raise taxes to that extent, you choke off growth at the same time, so any extra investment is likely to be choked off regardless. There simply is no free lunch.

      You could also argue that if MMTers were worried about low growth, low inflation and unemployment the easier way to achieve their goals would be to simply lower taxes, but this does not seem to fit in with their government centric view of the economy – so higher taxes and printed money it is.

      It is at this point worth noting that “traditional” QE is simply not the same as MMT style money printing. QE is in real terms an asset swap and does not increase the base money supply, or reduce the amount of government debt held (again something which Murphy quite incorrectly claims). QE works by increasing liquidity and lowering long term interest rates. When the debt bought through QE matures the QE has to be unwound or the debt rolled over – typically by issuing new debt into the market.

      MMT money printing simply prints money, with the idea that more money = more wealth = more shiny things the government can buy. MMters are very keen to ignore any potential drawbacks of this tried and tested road to economic ruin.

      As a (real) economist and a pension fund manager, we wargamed our response to Corbynomics before the last election. We actually used Murphy’s proposed 50bn a year of “people’s QE” money printing as a starting point.

      Our initial reaction would be to reduce our holding of Gilts to the legal minimum and then hedge the rest with interest rate swaps. The cash would be reinvested in offshore assets, or in the FTSE (which derives 90% of its revenues from outside the UK, and acts as a decent inflation and currency hedge). We estimated a 25-40% drop in the value of the pound were no action to be taken to control the extra inflation generated.

      To control the extra spending, we estimated the basic rate of income tax would have to rise to close to 40p in the pound. The higher rate close to 75p. The effect on growth of these wholly experimental policies would be to send the UK economy into a severe recession – there simply would not be a growth boost. Inward investment would dry up inflation would likely be a problem and higher taxes would kill the economy, all due to the irresponsible policies of the government, which would pose a huge risk.

      Simply put, there is no free lunch. If you want the government to spend more, you could simply argue for higher deficit spending or increased taxes. And be honest about it. MMT simply will not provide a land of milk and honey with no negative consequences. Murphy and the other MMTers are either in denial, delusional or more worryingly, actively misleading people if this is the claim they are making.

      MMT (itself not new, just a rebadging of chartalism) is as close as you can get to economic snake oil, and this is why it remains very much a fringe economic “theory” and there are many serious economists from across the political spectrum out there who have pointed out the various, gaping holes in it.

      Why not try Murphy, and ask him if he can give you:

      1. A detailed, numeric definition of full employment
      2. A detailed inflation model for MMT
      3. How much taxes would have to rise for each X amount of increased MMT spending.

      My guess is he will be unable and very unwilling to provide you with such answers, bar in some form of rhetoric. I get the distinct impression that he is simply an MMT hanger on, and doesn’t really understand it, or much of economics in general. He likes it because it fits his worldview, however disjointed and fantasy filled that may be.

    • Pete Green

      The level of invective in this response is a trifle overdone don’t you think? I can assure you that I’ve read enough MMT literature to see where the blind-spot is and you have just confirmed that.

      But with respect to your specific point about Turkey and Venezuela I agree of course that having a considerable debt denominated in foreign currency is a serious problem which makes a falling exchange-rate far more devastating in its consequences (as evident in the East Asian crises of 1997-8 or repeatedly in Latin America). One could also refer to Greece with debts denominated in euros which only the ECB could produce, giving the ECB in particular a chokehold over the Greek state evident within days of the election of the Syriza government in 2015.

      But the absence of foreign denominated debt does not mean a currency such as the pound cannot be subject to sustained speculative attack. That won’t be a response to full employment as such but to a government which threatens to raise their taxes and regulate their activities. There doesn’t have to be collusion – just a recognition of what works to their advantage. If there coiuld be a run for the exits which would devalue their assets the issue for them is who gets through the door first.

      Your other substantive point is that real physical capital cannot ‘flee’. That’s also true and worth noting but not relevant to my argument. My point was about the impact of a falling exchange-rate on inflation via import prices. That I would argue is where the fault-line becomes a gaping crack.

      • Stephen Ferguson

        MMT economists are more than well aware of ‘pass through’ inflation as Randy Wray explains here in a blog post “MMT AND EXTERNAL CONSTRAINTS”

        “the MMT principles apply to all sovereign countries. Yes, they can have
        full employment at home. Yes, that could lead to trade deficits. Yes
        that could (possibly) lead to currency depreciation. Yes that could lead
        to inflation pass-through. But they have lots of policy options
        available if they do not like those results. Import controls and capital
        controls are examples of policy options. Directed employment, directed
        investment, and targeted development are also policy options.”

      • Calgacus

        I agree that rhetoric should be toned down, though I agree with worldcitizen’s substance. And I don’t think this is a bad article or a disgrace. It is just mainly wrong. As usual things are not given proper weight and credence is put in some common but baseless fabrications.

        But the absence of foreign denominated debt does not mean a currency such as the pound cannot be subject to sustained speculative attack.
        Pretty much limits the “sustained” part. The attackers would be cutting their own throat “trashing their own savings”. I’m sorry to break it to people, but the pound does have some solid value behind it. As does the dollar, the renminbi, the yen and the chocolate-backed Swiss Franc. They’re not going to collapse. So any possible depreciation won’t and can’t really cause inflationary spirals. Just a price bump, at worst. Depreciation boosts exports and shrinks imports and so is self-limiting. So the pound goes down a little. It did after the Brexit vote. Did the sky fall?

        the experience of other radical social democratic governments in Europe (France in the early 1980s, Sweden in the early 90s) as well as the not so radical Wilson/Callaghan government of the mid-1970s suggests that any future Labour government should be worried about the money-markets.

        This is based on a fabricated, but common history. First, calling France or Sweden “radical” then is more than a trifle overdone, for “conservative” could be a better word. Sweden & France were trying to return to the successful postwar policies – but after they had been declared unfashionable. The nonsensical story is that these governments were forced to abandon their traditional “conservative” 😉 “Keynesian” policies, or that the UK was forced to beg from the IMF. The reality was that these were choices, very bad ones. “Doing nothing” would have been a far superior choice. For instance, France commissioned a report from US economist Robert Eisner on its expansionary policies. His recommendation was to continue them as they were succeeding well and to ignore the not very meaningful currency depreciation. Mitterrand, as the so-called “left” does so often, decided to destroy his own program for no economic reason. Or from an irrational obsession with fx currency values, grossly disproportionately to its economic importance. Around the same time Austria, under Bruno Kreisky – followed the same policies – quite successfully, but nobody remembers that. Alain Parguez & Bill Mitchell have also written about France’s entirely self-inflicted destruction back then.

        Stephen Ferguson’s link is very, very good. IMHO the best and clearest explanation and reply to common objections to MMT & international worries are the two relevant chapters in Abba Lerner’s 1951 Economics of Employment. As Lerner comments, the basic possible negative systematic effect of expansion on exchange rates is depreciation due to rising imports, due to prosperity. But he notes how absurd this argument is, as it is an argument against prosperity from any cause whatsoever. (And is therefore only made against government led expansion in favor of the general populace, never against the usual crony capitalism for the rich). For a rich developed country, the benefits of functional finance expansion dwarf the self-limiting and only speculative effect of depreciation. In general, countries like the UK are obsessed far, far beyond reason with matters of foreign exchange. It just is not that important, compared to the domestic economy that austerity blithely wrecks with wild abandon.

        The best thinkers in the Marxist tradition always understood that socialism in one country was not a sustainable option.
        No, that’s Trotsky, who was wrong. All he had was rhetoric, backed by no rational arguments. Socialism in one country most certainly is not only economically sustainable, but economically superior to, outcompetes non-socialism. By the way Abba Lerner, (MMT grandfather) first met Hyman Minsky, (MMT father) after he returned from visiting Trotsky to unsuccessfully convince him that his one country stuff was wrong.

  • There is no issue about investment in this argument. The argument is about Labous fiscal rule.

    What SWL, JP and James Meadway seem to miss is that both training and depreciation are current spending items (where they are placed is via international accounting standards so not open to debate).

    So with training it is going to mean you can build hospitals but not staff them under this rule.

    Secondly with depreciation being a current spending item means just to keep up will need more and more investment, this is a bridges to nowhere policy.

    Is it Neoliberal? No I don’t think so but it’s certainly neoclassical (neoclassical econ isn’t necessarily neo-liberal but all neoliberals are neoclassicals). This rule comes from a time before the welfare state, it appears the above 3 mentioned do not realise that.

    • Changed my mind in this case the fiscal rule is when you see the Labour party release and it says “only the MPC can make that decision” putting decision making in the hands of an independent central bank that binds the governments hands is blatant neoliberalism

  • David Lloyd George

    Well if you come to (internal) power blasting Ed Balls for being an austerity-lite neoliberal and then adopt almost his entire economic policy, then I’m afraid you are going to have to be a little less sensitive.

    Not that you – and Meadway, Wren Lewis et al – are not entirely right in this debate with Murphy and the MMT ideologues. The latter are not living in the world as it is, but in the world as they hope and believe it could be.

    But, politics. You did this, disingenuously, to other Labour economists. So therefore you also own the disappointed anti-neoliberals.

  • Reading this piece felt like peering over a hedge into a landscape enshrouded in mist. Before Labour can get anywhere near the levers of economic policy, the whole country has to clear Brexit. And as it approaches, with no deal’ a distinct possibility, & some kind of poorer economic scenario inevitable even with a deal, it seems likely there will be another run on the pound. Rees-Mogg et al. are already decamping into the Euro, the Bank of England is also buying Euros, and many members of the financial elite are reportedly shorting the pound. In these circumstances, predicting a dark scenario of capital flight under a Labour government seems ….premature? If and when McDonnell moves into No.11, the damage may have already been done – under the Tories! The issue here is not about sovereign debt, still less about capital flight in response to full employment (at 4% unemployment we have that already) or taxation when an economy appears solid and investments profitable. The UK’s problem is that with Brexit the UK economy is looking increasingly unstable and, if anything, liable to shrink. Indirect investors react to signs of impending economic/fiscal/financial distress. They predict it. They may even help to trigger it à la Soros. This really isn’t about ‘money markets’; it’s about confidence and the lack of it. As for direct investors – the Nissans of this world – they too may end up withdrawing. A contributor below writes that real physical capital cannot flee. But I’m afraid it can. Drive through the US rust-belt states as I have (where Trump won the presidency by the way) and you will see plenty of examples of departed “physical” capital.

    • Calgacus

      Yes, but why did that physical capital flee the rust-belt? Largely because of the extent that the US withdrew in the 70s-90s from Keynesian / MMT policies rationally supporting domestic employment there. Rather the US government, like the UK under Thatcher, worked hard to de-industrialize and wreck productive regions. And Soros did not cause the UK any distress – he enormously benefited the UK and the average Briton by breaking the misguided policy of overvaluing the pound and indirectly keeping the UK out of the Euro suicide pact.

      • Agreed on the rust-belt; although the effect of the 1971 Nixon shock (taking the $ off the gold standard) and the 1973 oil price increase (OPEC) also played a role. On Soros, well he certainly helped (I didn’t say ’caused’) to trigger the sterling crisis that took the pound out of the ERM (to which the UK was committed). Without his massive bet against sterling – which other traders noticed and emulated – the BOE would probably have handled the pressure with a gentle increase in the interest rate:
        And by the way, much as I couldn’t stand Thatcher, I beleive she was against joining the ERM – but ceded to her chancellor.

  • Peter, you have responded to the 3 blog posts by Richard Murphy, who is sympathetic to MMT, but not one of the core economists who have developed this (and I have not read his posts so cannot comment on your response to his arguments). How about you respond to Bill Mitchell, who is one of the founders and leading practitioners of MMT, whose posts I have read and does deal with this. He has also written a 3 post series on exactly this topic. See, and

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