Market Forces: Should a taxi ride cost even more?

In the rain on Wednesday night, I got a cab home from the city – a $15 fare. Near my house the driver had to turn from a busy road into a side street, across oncoming traffic.

As the windscreen wipers flicked back and forth, the oncoming headlights of a bus distorted into a kaleidoscope of colour in the raindrops. At that exact moment, the driver took his foot off the brake and began to make his turn.

Every muscle in my body tensed and I opened my mouth to shout something, but then he stopped again. The bus had to swerve past the yellow bonnet of the car. Once it was gone the driver proceeded.

And I’d rate this guy as one of the better drivers I’ve had in recent times. At least he didn’t drive on the footpath.

So when the state government announces it is raising the fares on taxis, what do I think? I say thank god. Let’s make driving a taxi rewarding enough that people with a will to live and proper skills want to do it.

The government is proposing to raise flagfall from $3.20 to $5.20 after 5pm and to $6.20 on Friday and Saturday nights.

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A sheltered industry

The market for taxis has long been a mess. A big part of the problem is the lack of actual market forces. The industry has long been regulated to within an inch of its life. The biggest single rule has been a cap on the number of taxis in Melbourne, that drives up the value of a cab.

The licenses (aka plates, aka medallions) that permit you to have a taxi in Melbourne are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The owner gets half the money you pay. The value of the medallion exists only because the number of taxis is regulated.

As the medallion owner reaps return on the investment, the cab driver gets screwed. An Age journalist recently trained and worked as a cab driver and made $8 an hour for his troubles.

One of the reforms proposed by the Victorian government’s taxi review was for the split of revenue to change from 50:50 to 55:45. A ten percent increase for the driver is hardly earth-shattering, but it has been opposed by the Victorian Taxi Association. That is the peak body for the industry. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t effectively represent the users of taxis or the casual drivers. It is backed by the money.

It also opposed the big reform proposed by the taxi industry review, increasing the number of cabs in Melbourne. Despite its arduous work in representing the interests of the medallion holders, that reform has driven down the price of a taxi license. (In 2012, licenses were changing hands for as much as $500,000.)

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The government has agreed to a clever approach – leasing 12 month taxi licenses at $22,000 a year. This price is indexed at below the rate of inflation. The eventual effect is that the price of a taxi license approaches zero, and the market is no longer held hostage by the medallion holders.

The other big change that is being stealthily introduced is deregulation of fares. Part of the problem is that a taxi is just a taxi. There’s no easy way to get a good one. No way to offer a better service and charge a higher price.

Quality lottery
Another yellow ball bouncing round the barrel of the quality lottery

But in country areas, the government is introducing a rule that allows taxis to set their own fares. I see a link with today’s announcement. Might higher fares in the city build a consensus that really, deregulated fares are the desirable outcome?

Hopefully by that point, the taxi industry as we know it will cease to exist anyway. The hire car and limousine market has also been given freer rein under these reforms. Hire cars differ from taxis because they cannot pick up fares on the street –  they have to be booked. Pre-smartphone, this was an impediment. Now booking your ride is only an app away.

The biggest player in this space is Uber.  It started as a a way for towncar and limo drivers in the US to make money in their downtime, and is now available worldwide. The little car-hailing company that could is now worth an estimated $3.5 billion. According to their website, riding from my house to the city could cost as little as $10 and you might end up riding in a Prius or a Mercedes.

If they put our yellow cabs out of business, I won’t shed a tear.

Unemployment is down! We Think!

Unemployment numbers are out and they look like good news. Unemployment fell 0.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent. This matters to everyday life in the following four ways.

1. Lower unemployment should mean bigger pay rises, and more options if you lose your job.

2. Lower unemployment increases the chance the Reserve Bank will hike interest rates, which will get you a better return on the money you have stashed in the bank.

3. Lower unemployment tends to force up the Australian dollar, creating cheaper holidays and cheaper imports. (It jumped over US94c this morning for the first time since last November.)

4. Lower unemployment increases the chance of the incumbent government doing well in the polls. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But…

There’s not total absence of doubt.

If you look at the numbers more closely, there’s a few little things that might make you worried.Image

For starters, while the latest data, seasonally adjusted, shows the unemployment rate falling sharply, the trend data (calculated over a longer period) actually has unemployment rising.

There are things doubters can always say about the monthly data, that are not especially helpful.

“It’s just one month!”

“The standard error of the unemployment rate estimate for this survey is 0.2 per cent!”

“Seasonal adjustment is not perfect!”

The top two complaints are true and can only be resolved by waiting for more data (which will, itself, be subject to the same issues…).

But the ABS manages seasonal adjustment pretty well. They even account for the fact that Easter was in March last year and in April this year

March is a big month for falling unemployment.

Red line represent falls in March
Red lines represent March

On average, unemployment has fallen in 19 of the last 20 Marches, by an average of 44,000. Why? perhaps it’s only now that businesses are getting over the summer lull.

The ABS takes that effect out systematically. The red lines are the last 20 Marches, almost all of which show falling unemployment. But the average of the blue lines is just about zero:

Red dots are original data, blue lines are seasonally adjusted.
Red dots are original data, blue lines are seasonally adjusted. (data for last 20 Marches.)

We can trust this data for now. But it will be very interesting to see if April results in the effect being magnified or reversed.

Ethical economics: the externalities of eating meat.

Australians get through a lot of meat. The ABS released its meat and livestock series this week, and it caught my eye. Every month we kill and eat (or export) this many of the following animals:

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I’m an ex-vegetarian.

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A pork belly sandwich with which I crossed paths recently…

So this is not a diatribe or an attempt to persuade you to stop eating meat. It’s an attempt to persuade you that economics provides ways of thinking about issues beyond what you may expect.

Meat-eating can be considered as an economic issue. There are externalities to take into account.

CO2 emissions is one (agriculture is omitted from our carbon tax). But another is the ethical issue of killing. That might not seem like an externality – it’s central to the process – but it is external to the market. There is no price mechanism that accounts for the slaughter of the animal.

If we model that as an externality, there are important differences in the number of kills per mouthful of meat.

Here’s the monthly tonnage the industry produces.

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The result of that is that every meal represents a different amount of the externality in question.

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This is important information. If we aim for a buddhist ideal of minimising killing, perhaps we ought to eat only very large animals?

But deaths are not equal. Even fervent vegans would place more ethical and emotional weight on the death of an elephant than a fly (I think).

What happens if we weight these creatures by their brain size?

Cow 450g
Pig 180g
Sheep 140g
Chicken 4g
(Humans, for reference, have brains weight around 1.4kg.)

In this case, the chicken races up the league table to be a relatively ethical choice. The sheep, with a modest body size for its biggish brain, becomes the least ethical choice.

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Of course brain size is not the only measure of intelligence. (And intelligence remains a highly disputable way to measure the possible ethical externalities of killing animals.)

If you are interested in reading a bit more about animal intelligence, I found this article particularly amazing.

Do you really get a job by looking at job ads?

How exactly do people get jobs?

A few people I know are currently looking for work. I began to wonder if combing through advertised jobs is enough, and thought a little sample of my own experience might help answer that question.

1996. My first ever job was selling ice-creams at a festival in Melbourne called Moomba. I got the job through a friend’s dad. Pay and conditions were great.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 100%.

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Back when I wore a watch

1998 After I finished school I got a job as a busboy at a cafe in a shopping centre. It wasn’t advertised but I handed my resume out to 20 businesses near my house and this one had an employee quit the next day. $8.50 an hour in cash seemed pretty good to me.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 100%. Inside running: 0%.

2000 I became a waiter at Pancake Parlour. Pay was a whopping $7.27 an hour. It was an advertised job for which I went through a quite involved interview process.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%.

2001 Waiter at italian restaurant. Through a friend. I lasted about three weeks.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 100%.

2002. Market research interviewer. A friend who worked there told me the place was hiring. Great pay and conditions so I joined the union. Ended up doing market research for big tobacco, but I didn’t mind because smokers loved to chat about smoking. It beat asking people about banks.
Ad: 80%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 20%.

Teaching english2003 I applied to an ad for an English teacher in the small town of Qinhuangdao, China, where I found I could go months without seeing another foreigner.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%.

2004. I parlayed my meagre teaching experience into a job as a tutor in the first-year economics subjects, which was among the best and most convenient jobs for a student ever.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%

2005. My first full time job. I became a graduate Treasury policy analyst, living in Canberra.Treasury shot tidied up Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%

2005. Ski instructing at Perisher Blue. A week-long “hiring clinic” for which you have to pay hundreds of dollars serves as both interview process and training.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%

2008. Nauru budget adviser. I happened to have just finished my tutoring contract when I was asked by someone I knew in the federal government to come to an interview. I don’t think they interviewed anyone else.

nauru office Ad: 0%. Luck: 20%. Inside running: 80%

2009 Victorian government policy officer. Through a recruitment company.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0% (I’d say it was 100 per cent luck but luck should be good and this job wasn’t.)

2010. Journalist at the Financial Review – I applied at a timely moment when a bunch of people had quit. But there was no job advertised and I had someone on the inside put in a good word for me.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 30%. Inside running: 70%

2013 – Freelance writing. I sell things mostly to people I know from my other jobs, but also via some cold calling.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 20%. Inside running: 80%

After having had 17 jobs, just six came from simply seeing an ad and applying. My crude averaging of the numbers (including some jobs I didn’t go into above) says ads explain 46 per cent of my jobs, inside running 32 per cent, and luck 22 per cent.

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(I should note luck played a pretty big part in being born to a family that cared a lot about education and invested in my future. It also doesn’t hurt to be in a bunch of categories that are unfamiliar with the sting of discrimination. Is my experience strongly shaped by these privileges?)

The common trope is that 70 per cent of all jobs are not advertised.

Economic theory suggests a great benefit and a great cost. If firms are able to fill jobs quickly and minimise their search costs, that could be an advantage. But if it means they miss out on the best human resources, they suffer.

Despite the risks of hiring through word-of-mouth, the approach is not about to go away. This paper finds that firms that hire through referrals may be more profitable.

This expert recommends job hunters should spend: “20% of the time responding to job postings … another 20% ensuring your resume and LinkedIn profile are easy to find and worth reading, and the remaining 60% networking to find jobs in the hidden market.”

If my experience holds for everyone, its going to be advantageous to keep working in the same city, or at least the same country, where you have a bunch of connections. It also doesn’t hurt to be on LinkedIn.

But I want to know if the same is true for you. Have you got your jobs by responding to ads and going through rigorous processes? Have you been lucky? Made your own luck? Deliberately developed and used your networks? Please share your experience in the comments! (Look for the words “Leave A Reply” below)

When the first-day-back-from-holidays blues can be fatal

We all know the feeling. You take your annual leave and go on a terrific holiday. Perhaps some cultural time in the capitals of Europe. Perhaps a noodle and beer-intensive tour of South East Asia.

Then you return to work. The swivel chair sits forlornly awaiting your return. Hundreds or thousands of emails demand your attention.

You dive into work with a mixture of novelty and regret – this used to be very familiar, you think, and now it is not. At least until around midday, when it will seem as though your holiday never happened at all.

But it turns out there is clear evidence of the holiday. It can be measured in your performance. A recent working paper released by the US National Bureau of Economic Research finds that rather than refreshing your batteries, the holiday makes your performance worse.

And here’s the really bad news:

The study was done on surgeons.

Fatality risk increased for every day the surgeons took off between procedures.

In the study the mean mortality rate the first day after surgery was 0.62 per cent. Mortality rose by .05 percentage points for every extra day it had been since the surgeon held a scalpel. That is a 7.4 per cent rise in the risk of dying.

The study (Hockenberry and Helmchen) covered 56,000 patients and 188 surgeons and focused on a procedure called coronary artery bypass grafts. 

Hospitals prefer doctors who do a lot of surgeries, because they are more effective. Surgeons who did more than 100 of the procedure per year had lower one-day mortality outcomes (0.52 per cent), but for them, time off was even worse. For every day of rest, the morbidity rate of their next surgery rose by .09 percentage points.

The doctors did not perform worse on absolutely every measure. When they were back from a break, they apparently sped through the surgery, using less resources. Each day off correlated with a fall in the cost of surgery of 0.6 per cent.

But the saving was well below the value of life lost. In other words, society would prefer the doctors to spend more time and money. The researchers theorise that the cost effect and the morbidity effect are related – relaxed surgeons with their brain still on the golf course are failing to notice important complications and therefore closing up when they should be doing more work.

“After temporal breaks, surgeons may fail to identify and treat life-threatening complications.”

The effect was stronger for surgeons if they had had a lot of time off from surgery in general, rather than if it had been a long time since they undertook the specific procedure being studied.

The effect requires more study before we can determine a policy response.

If the depreciation of skill happens exponentially the longer doctors are on break, we could encourage them to take several two-to-three day breaks a year, rather than one four-week holiday. 

But if the depreciation of skill has a linear or decreasing relation to time away, doctors could be encouraged to take all their leave in a lump. General learning theory suggests most forgetting happens straight away, suggesting the latter solution would be preferred, but this study did not attempt to answer the question.

The research is part of a field of study that looks at human capital and how it erodes. It is well-established that the amount of time that elapses between repetitions of a task decreases the quality of outcomes.

This raises questions about a lot of training courses the modern office worker is encouraged to attend. Is the day off worth the meagre benefit if it also makes the worker less productive on their return?

The link between time off and productivity may also have negative implications for going part-time, buying extra leave, and taking career breaks. These issues are ever more relevant in the modern economy where parental leave is all the more common, where people change jobs often, and where jobs may encompass a wide range of tasks undertaken infrequently, rather than repetition of a few tasks.

There is room for a lot more research on this question, but for now, there is one clear lesson: Don’t choose a surgeon with a suntan.

 

 

How H&M can happily set up shop while Myer weeps.

Swedish clothing brand H&M is opening a new store in Melbourne today. It’s the latest big global clothing retailer to show up here, following Zara and TopShop.

Japanese brand Uniqlo is also set to launch here soon.  But why are they coming? The headlines have been full of bad news for all retailers.

Clothing retail looks especially terrible.  

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Growth has been stagnant for years. Why come to Australia?

The beginnings of our answer are overseas:

The value of clothing retailing fell in Canada last year by 0.6 per cent. The UK saw the same result.

People everywhere are spending far more on food than on clothing these days. And yet I don’t see people shuffling around in clothes that need repairing.

I had begun to suspect prices may have something to do with it, but the ABS inflation data for clothing was still a shock to me:

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Despite a 10 per cent hike at the time of the introduction of the GST, the price of clothing has risen only 1 per cent since 1993!

I remember 1993. I was 12 years old. For the first time it was possible to buy a pair of Nikes that cost over $100. The last time I went and looked at Nike sneakers, the price range was roughly the same (and I picked up a pair from the factory outlet for $30). If they’d followed the inflation path of food and beverages, sports shoes would all be over $200 now. But they haven’t and they aren’t.

Why not? The answer is not on the demand side. It’s not that in two decades something fundamental has changed in the way humans wear clothes. It’s about the supply side.

And that’s what’s interesting about H&M. It owns stores that sell its own brand. It makes only very limited attempts to stock fancy Italian or American brands. A bit like its Swedish retail older sibling, Ikea, it is vertically integrated and tightly focused on cost.

I bought a terrific shirt at H&M’s Sapporo outlet 10 days ago, for ¥500 (A$5.50). Even on the discount rack that is an absurd bargain. Only after I got it back home did I think to look for this tag, and it was as I suspected.

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There are moral issues when it comes to making clothes in Bangladesh. I don’t want the fact that this post doesn’t cover them to stand, in anyone’s mind, for the idea that they are unimportant.

The fact of the matter is that if you can control costs well enough, you can make big margins even as prices fall. That’s the difference between Myer and H&M. Cost control. Myer can’t do it so easily because while it has 66 stores, H&M has 2600. H&M can make or break people while Myer deals with suppliers that have options and won’t let their margins be crunched. 

A quick look in the H&M annual report shows just how good those margins are. More than half of the average price tag is mark-up. 

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And that’s why H&M‘s share price is up about 20 per cent over 3 years, while Myer’s is down around 30 per cent. 

MORE FACTS:

The H in H&M stands for Hennes (“for her”), the name of the original company that sold women’s clothing. The M stands for Mauritz Widforss, which was the name of a hunting apparel shop next door to the original Hennes, which H&M took over to develop a men’s line and become what it is today.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the business models of big clothing retailers, check out these very good Forbes profiles that highlight the differences between Uniqlo, Zara and H&M.

Economics is not about “money”

Like most people who care about economics, read about it or talk about it, from time to time people say this to me:
“I couldn’t get interested in economics. I just don’t care enough about money.”
They say it dismissively. As though economics was about money.
Economics is about people.
Take the latest work by one of my favourite economists, Professor Jeff Borland. He produces a “labour market snapshot” each month that he emails to interested parties. The April one was focused on the plight of the young.
“Employment prospect of the young in Australia have weakened considerably since the GFC,” he writes.
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The biggest fall in employment is among those who are not in full-time study.
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This is not an academic issue. It’s a goddamn human tragedy. Unemployment at this tender age correlates with worse outcomes on just about every measure.
“Unemployment while young can lead to long-term reductions in wages, increased chances of subsequent periods of unemployment and poorer health outcomes,” according to UK economists.
Brotherhood of Saint Laurence executive director Tony Nicholson: “And in our modern economy that means that they’re really being sentenced to a lifetime of poverty.”
“One in three (32 per cent) long-term unemployed youngsters have contemplated suicide and one in four (24 per cent) in this group admitted to self-harming,” according to a UK survey reported in early 2014.
This blog from the Peterson Institute for International Economics: “Considerable research suggests that less stable employment experiences of young people can lead to “scarring” that affects their future employment and earning prospects.”
The critics of economics implicitly accuse it of reification – that by creating ways of quantifying and measuring the material world they bring materialism to the centre.
There could be a germ of truth there. But to not study the material world in a systematic way would be to deny the real influence it has on humans’ experience of their lives.

Which Australian state is most entrepreneurial? And is that a good thing?

Entrepreneurialism – it seems – is not about the wild frontier nor about libertarian values. The most entrepreneurial state in Australia is its most densely populated and most left-leaning (arguably).

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The data comes from the ABS series Business Entries and Exits. They show not only that Victoria has (slightly) more businesses per capita than anywhere else, but also that it is extending that lead.

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Is that surprising? Victoria is not only a wealthy state, which allows residents the opportunity to strike out on their own, it is also a beacon for immigrants, who often open small businesses. Also it has experienced a lot of structural change as manufacturing businesses close, forcing people to create new opportunities for themselves. 

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The beginning of a Bin Hire empire for Ben?

(Another point of note is how the ACT is a laggard for total number of businesses, but mid-pack when it comes to opening new businesses. I’m imagining a lot of senior public servants applying for an ABN as they prepare to lose their jobs and become consultants under the Abbott government.)

But historically, the ACT is the worst place to start a business. More than half of them disappear within a few years. In fact, Tasmania and SA, with their seeming reluctance to start businesses, are rewarded by having the highest four-year survival rates.

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The failure rate of small business is not a mainstream topic of conversation. But I can’t help imagining all the life savings that get flushed away, and all the relationships that fail when small businesses disappear.

 

It’s the hidden underbelly of capitalism, in a way. We focus on the big businesses that put people out of work, but in those cases, workers have none of their own capital involved and governments guarantee their benefits. When your local milk bar goes down or a removals company runs out of money, nobody notices but the proprietors. They’re not just looking for a new job. They are dealing with the death of their dream. But nobody comes to interview them about their plight.

Governments go ga-ga over small business, calling it the backbone of the economy, etc, etc. But they are risky. The data show you are much safer working for or investing in a business with more than 20 employees.

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But if you believe in yourself, the carrot is there. Last year, 27 businesses went from having no 1-4 employees to having over 200 in the space of one short year. It’s a bit like buying a Tattslotto ticket – it is unlikely, but just possible that you will have a very exciting result.

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House prices – lessons from the huge differences between cities

Here’s what $1 million gets you in central Sydney. A functional two-bedroom apartment with around 100 square metres of floor space.

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Here’s what $1 million gets you in central Melbourne. A two-level, three-bedroom apartment with two carparks and a balcony that’s half as big again.

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Here’s what $1 million gets you in central Adelaide. A substantial house in the centre of town.

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The debate about house prices makes a lot of hay out of differences over time. Prices in Melbourne are 5.4 per cent higher than they were three months ago! That is generally seen as an argument that Melbourne prices must be set for a fall. 

But the difference in prices between Australian cities is even bigger.

Sydney’s median price for an attached house was at Melbourne’s current level in 2003 and has risen from there. Melbourne was at Adelaide’s current level in 2007 and has risen. Taking this perspective would seem to suggest there’s nothing to stop Melbourne house prices from going up further.

Obviously there are constraints. Wages differences between the cities are real. This chart shows $/week in the capital cities.

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But they are not as big as house price differences. (source: RPDATA)

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House price to income ratios in these cities show Melbourne and Sydney are similarly “unaffordable” and in Adelaide things are a bit easier. 

You could in theory argue that means Melbourne and Sydney prices are as likely to fall to Adelaide levels as Adelaide’s are to rise. I’ve argued before that expecting house prices to be a consistent multiple of income over time is a wrong expectation. 

The fact that house prices can be so different in Australian cities hints at the truth. There is no “correct” level for Australian house prices. We cannot rely on history to say where they should be, neither can we rely on price-to-income ratios. In fact, the concept of “Australian house prices” is suspect. Housing markets differ wildly by location. 

People like Christopher Joye and Steven Keen who publicly bet on house price falls regularly get egg on their face.

The only clear lesson of all this really, is that if you want a lot of house for your money, you should look outside the capitals. Here’s what $1 million buys on 10 acres near Ballarat.

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