Opinion: Osborne’s mortgage scheme is the worst of both worlds

Perhaps the best outcome from the Chancellor’s budget announcement that the UK Treasury is to underwrite billions of pounds worth of mortgages has been the muted reaction to it.

In a budget which was distinctly underwhelming, the Chancellor must have hoped that his latest attempt to ‘get the banks lending more’ would be hailed in the same way that previous populist capitalist measures, such as the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme were.

Most economic decisions are empirical, and there are valid points to make on either side of any argument.

But the Chancellor’s plan has nothing to recommend it. It will do nothing to strengthen either the drivers of growth in the economy, nor the transmission mechanisms to get increased levels of capital into the marketplace, while increasing the level of risk in the economy, by increasing the proportion of capital employed which is reliant on house price levels rising.

The greatest virtue of the coalition’s economic policy to date has been its reluctance to chase easy options, choosing to tackle the systemic problems within UK PLC rather than simply deliver very high short term growth rates.

That’s why I’m disturbed by the Chancellor’s latest move on mortgages, which is an ill-conceived and mistimed grope for populism following a by-election disappointment, rather than part of a broader economic strategy.

The first problem with the plan is that it’s a supply side measure. As I have repeatedly written on this site, the problem at present in the UK is not simply with the supply of credit, it’s with the demand for credit. At a time when consumer confidence is low, and inflation is high due to previous supply side measures going awry, it’s a misdiagnosis of the country’s economic malaise to pronounce that the problem is banks not lending enough. So this measure quite simply won’t work.

Secondly, supply side measures take longer to have a tangible impact on the wider economy as they work through the system, from central bank, to commercial bank, to consumer. Demand side measures, such as actually building new houses, have a much more rapid impact, for better or worse. If Osborne wants to increase demand and live with the risks inherent within it, then he should do that, not embrace halfway house solutions.

The third problem is that by committing the government to guaranteeing loans against the value of family homes, the Chancellor is merely re-inflating the housing bubble, which put us into this mess in the first place. At a time when bank’s are rightly having stabilizers applied to their capital ratios, Osborne is freewheeling downhill.

The government needed to produce either a ‘shock and awe’ budget, or a ‘steady as she goes’ budget, what has emerged is a mess, a clumsy embrace of short-termism, with the best outcome being a can kicked further down the road, and the worst case scenario seeing market confidence decline for no appreciable benefit to the economy or society.

* David Thorpe is a member of the Liberal Democrats in Newham, and works for an economics publication.

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54 Comments

  • Here’s a better way of spending £120bn:

    The Government could become a landlord. It could build new homes, recover rental income immediately after the build and undertake to sell them off in, say, twenty years.

    This would ease the housing crisis, provide stimulus to the economy and start raising rental income for the Government in no time at all.

    Seems to me that there’s only ideology in the way of going down this route.

  • Richard Dean 25th Mar '13 - 2:00pm

    UK Universal Inheritance is ridiculous, and is simply not going to happen. Pushing for it would make LibDems into a laughing stock – it’s just so obviously someone looking for some free money for themselves. If taxpayers are to give money away, most would prefer to give it directly to their own sons or daughters.

    Osborne doesn’t seem to have much room to move. I read somewhere this morning that the government’s debt is projected in 2015vto be close to twice what I was when this government took office, and still growing. This particular measure has a chance of stimulating some activity, therefore some employment, and therefore bringing in some extra income tax and VAT.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/24/george-osborne-plan-c-carney

  • david thorpe 25th Mar '13 - 3:45pm

    increasing the supoply of capital with the aim of increasing the demand for housing is ciompletely stupid if the supply of housing does not also increase-the only impact is for prices to rise.

    None of what I have said above is original or indisghtful-the government are setting up a britiosh equivalent of ‘fannie mae’ and freeddie mac in the US-and look how that ended…

    also a deposit for a hosue is not a human right-there are other thyings for thwe government to spend moeny on…

    a better approach would bve to buiold social hiousing for those on the waiting list….and infrastructure projects of other kinds to spark economi demand which wopuld give non social houysing teenats the confidence and incoem to buy a private hosue without state aid…

  • Bill le Breton 25th Mar '13 - 4:18pm

    Richard, I hope you noticed in the Rawnsley article the significance of the change to the Bank of England’s mandate: I suggested elsewhere that this was the key to the budget. http://www.libdemvoice.org/no-braking-at-gambon-a-monetary-policy-guide-for-petrolheads-33811.html

    And how extraordinary that the letter from our leader on the budget didn’t even mention it. Just shows you the level of his understanding of economic policy imo.

  • @Caracatus: “On top of that many people will have debt from tuition fees”

    Rubbish. Almost no one buys a house in their early 20s, and increased tuition fees haven’t got further than that into the population.

  • Mboy

    Can you not disagree politely?

    Anyway, tuition fees have been around for 15 years, and at significant levels for around 8 or 9 years so it will touch people in their late 20s

    I think the post you are criticising was pretty fair – what is it you would disagree with? Do you think the policy is a good one?

  • Richard Dean 25th Mar '13 - 4:50pm

    I don’t give the change of mandate as much significance as some do, but I am open to persuasion. Rawnsley suggests the present mandate is already loose. If the change was vital, a competent government would surely make it happen now, not wait a year. Perhaps that, and the abstruse nature of the topic, plus a wish not to make it a subject of controversy, was why it wasn’t mentioned in NC’s letter.

    I didn’t understand the Chancellor’s change for the date of a letter. What was that about?

  • Richard Dean 25th Mar '13 - 5:01pm

    @David Thorpe. Have you fully understood the Chancellor’s arrangement? When I heard the speech, I got the distinct impression that the deposit guarantee would only be for new builds. On the BBC News that evening, one plucky woman said she would now be able to use her £5000 savings as a deposit, instead of having to continue to pay rent while saving more. That sounds like a good thing to me.

  • @Richard Dean 25th Mar ’13 – 2:00pm
    “This particular measure has a chance of stimulating some activity, therefore some employment, and therefore bringing in some extra income tax and VAT.”
    There is currently no VAT on new build. Personally I see no reason why there shouldn’t be VAT @20% on new build since a new house is a luxury (so that will be £1m for the postage stamp piece of land and £100k plus VAT for the mansion built on it, plus stamp duty on the whole transaction.)

    This would also remove an anomaly in the construction market where new build incurs no VAT but renovation etc does.

  • @Richard Dean 25th Mar ’13 – 5:01pm
    “one plucky woman said she would now be able to use her £5000 savings as a deposit, instead of having to continue to pay rent while saving more.”

    Yes this does sound good until you realise that a lot of people will be thinking the same thing. Hence many people who aren’t currently in the market will now be looking to enter the market with the obvious implication of driving up demand and hence prices.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Mar '13 - 6:13pm

    Richard,

    If the writer of the leader’s letter actually knew what was going on he could have had the leader write, “We have given new instructions to the Bank of England to do more to support the Coalition’s economic policy and its determination to boost growth and employment through monetary policy.”

    The new regime comes in straight away and may just help the present Governor get more votes at the next meeting of the MPC for extra stimulus. We shall see.

    The policy being adopted relies very much on influencing expectations. It therefore requires a clear communications strategy to help construct those expectations. It is possible that the ‘letter’ will become a key part of that strategy.

  • Richard Dean 25th Mar '13 - 6:53pm

    @Roland
    I feel that a McEnroe response is in order. If houses are built for people to buy, then people need to be willing to part with their money to buy them. That willingness is going to affect house prices no matter how the finance is provided!

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '13 - 9:35pm

    Richard Dean

    UK Universal Inheritance is ridiculous, and is simply not going to happen. Pushing for it would make LibDems into a laughing stock – it’s just so obviously someone looking for some free money for themselves. If taxpayers are to give money away, most would prefer to give it directly to their own sons or daughters.

    The amount proposed is only what recently we were giving to large numbers of young people in subsidy for university tuition fees. If what you say is correct, wouldn’t our participation in abolition of this subsidy have been greeted by cheers from the populace who thereby were enabled to keep more of their wealth and do what they wanted with it?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '13 - 9:44pm

    Richard Dean

    I feel that a McEnroe response is in order. If houses are built for people to buy, then people need to be willing to part with their money to buy them.

    Yes, and they need to HAVE the money, as well. And they need to have MORE money than other people who are also willing to buy the houses and pay that amount. Otherwise those other people will put in that higher bid and so get the houses. So then what if those other people are buying them in order to let them out? They will let them out to those who wanted to buy them but couldn’t afford it. Or what if they wanted to buy them to have second homes? Or wanted to buy them for no particular reason except that they thought they could sell them for more in ten years time and that would raise more money than putting the cost in a savings account for ten years?

    So what if as a result of this young people are living in cramped and crowded accommodation? So what if their children can’t study properly and grow up stunted in their development due to not having the space a growing child needs? So what if marriages break down and children grow up with all the consequences of that, due to the pressure caused by the high price of housing? According to you, Richard Dean all this doesn’t matter, because “I’m all right, Jack”.

  • Richard Dean 25th Mar '13 - 9:57pm

    I agree that my adjective “ridiculous” was over the top, and I apologize. But UK Universal Inheritance is really not going to happen. The state is not Daddy and Mommy, and UK taxpayers don’t part with their money that easily.

    The woman who I quoted did say she had £5000 to put down on a deposit. Sure, she’s in comoetetion with others who have money too. That’s life. That’s reality. It’s been like that for ever and will be like that for ever. If we had to consider every what-if under the sun, no-one would ever get anything done, and we’d all be worse off.

    You’re maybe tired, Matthew, already dreaming perhaps? I don’t think I ever said things don’t matter, or that “I’m all right, Jack”.

  • @Richard – I think that ball was in! :)

    I agree with your point, but just feel that given the existing shortage of new housing, encouraging more buyers into the market may well leave many disappointed.

    Regarding “I got the distinct impression that the deposit guarantee would only be for new builds.” the devil is in the detail!
    “Help to buy” consists of two schemes, the first is the “equity loan” (government provides a loan of up to 20% of property value) is only available on new build and will start in April 2013. The second is the “mortgage guarantee” which provides incentives for lenders to lend to people with small deposits. The second scheme can be used ofr both existing and new build, however this scheme will be available from January 2014. [Source: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/10012.htm ]

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 11:21am

    Have you asked any voters, Dane? Many who expect to gain will say yes. Many who expect to lose will say no. How many of which type are there?

  • david thorpe 26th Mar '13 - 11:54am

    @ richard dean-its for new builds yes-but its garuanteeing the mortgage-not against the risk of building the house-so Im not saure the houses will be buiolt inn capacity equal to the deamdn generated by this scheme-thus increasing demand at a greater rate than supply-or not increasing demand at all-also this scheme covers people who are not first time buyers-and therefore will have equity alreday-and thus will be competeuing for the credit wqith first time buyers-agin the supply of housing may not exceed the demand for it…

  • @Richard Dean 26th Mar ’13 – 11:21am
    “Have you asked any voters, Dane? Many who expect to gain will say yes. Many who expect to lose will say no. How many of which type are there?”

    Richard, haven’t you learnt anything! :)
    The (UK UI) scheme’s criteria will be drawn up so that the ‘majority’ of the population get to receive the benefit, with the ‘minority’ actually footing the bill – and if they decide to complain they will be chastised for being wealthy and depriving the disadvantaged etc. etc.

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 12:31pm

    @Roland. I am an old and crusty individual. I see selfishness disguised as generosity in many places. I am uncomfortable in other people’s comfort zones. I simply don’t believe the population will fall for the con trick of UK UI.

  • Paul In Twickenham 26th Mar '13 - 2:09pm

    David – You will have seen that the OBR has this morning told the Treasury Select Committee that it anticipates that the number of new builds that will result from these measures will be “very small” and that the primary effect will be “shown up in prices rather than in quantities” of housing.

    This dovetails with widely circulating reports of wealthy property owners who are contacting estate agents and asking for advice on how they can use this scheme to reduce the deposit they need to purchase properties. As I noted when commenting this on an article by Bill Le Breton last week – this is less about stimulating house building than about giving another pump to the house price bubble and increasing the nominal value of housing.

    It is a scandal that Liberal Democrats are supporting this Tory nonsense, and it will end very badly: Alistair Darling quite correctly characterised this as an inflationary measure that will be as toxic in its effects as the worst excesses of the US sub-prime debacle.

    I don’t believe I have ever previously agreed with anything that Kamal Ahmed in The Telegraph has ever said, until a couple of days ago. I recommend this : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/kamal-ahmed/9950463/Osbornes-sub-prime-mortgage-mistake.html

  • david thorpe 26th Mar '13 - 2:13pm

    @ paul
    I wanst aware of that-but yes its dsadly predicatble and inevitable…..

  • Completely agree with David Thorpe. It seems like a measure designed more to grab headlines than stimulate growth. It ‘s all risk and little gain.

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 2:54pm

    Apologies again Dane, I was reporting my feelings rather than any logic or fact. This is because I am a human being. And for that reason, I just don’t believe UK UI is either realistic or fair. Any time free money is available there’s a host of sharks wanting a bite. A liberal approach might be to avoid taking tax from people unless it is absolutely essential. Maybe you could make it a voluntary payments scheme? I’d certainly volunteer as a recipient.

  • Well argued article, Dave.

    I am not against a a Britiish equivalent of ‘fannie mae’ if the mistakes that were made in the US can be avoided. This basically means supporting stability in the mortgage market i.e. providing finance for long term (25 year) fixed rate mortgages and mortgage guarantees on good quality conforming capital repayment loans i.e. loans with historically conservative income to loan multiples and 80% loan to equity ratios with private sector mortgage guarantee insurance available for lower deposit levels.

    The preliminary conditions for the introduction of such a government sponsored scheme in the UK would include a housing market that is not reliant on a critical shortage of housing supply, continuing restrictive planning conditions, quantative easing and near zero base rates to maintain property asset values.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Mar '13 - 4:29pm

    Richard Dean

    But UK Universal Inheritance is really not going to happen. The state is not Daddy and Mommy, and UK taxpayers don’t part with their money that easily.

    I’ve always thought a fund to give everyone some sort of chance in life, paid as they enter adulthood and paid from a tax on inheritance to be eminently sensible. The idea of inheritance stems from the days when it would be young adults inheriting the money, but with today’s lifespans it’s more likely to be people in their 60s getting it.

    It seems to me to be absurd that as a result the housing most suitable for bringing up families tends to be in the hands of those well past bringing up families, while those who are bringing up families are often doing so in cramped conditions, or doing a bad job at it due to having to spend so much time working to pay off the mortgage.

    I fully appreciate there tends to be strong emotional resistance to the idea, so I’m not suggesting the Liberal Democrats should put it forward and expect it to be an immediate vote winner. However, it seems to me illogical that people will complain about their children being unable to get housing and so staying stuck living at home, feel sad that they are denied grandchildren because their children cannot get housing to start a family, and yet resist the idea of inheritance tax “because I want something to pass on to my children”.


    The woman who I quoted did say she had £5000 to put down on a deposit. Sure, she’s in competition with others who have money too. That’s life. That’s reality. It’s been like that for ever and will be like that for ever.

    Yes, and I’m pointing out that if people have more to bid when buying housing, the consequence is that house prices will rise. So if you give people extra money to buy houses, it doesn’t help them, instead by pushing house prices up it helps those who are trading down. This aspect of the free market seems to escape many Conservative politicians and commentators.

    So, my feeling is that any sort of subsidy for house purchase needs to be targetted – seems to me targetting it at the young is a good idea, and needs to come from housing, acting as a disincentive for people to hold onto it just for investment and balancing the tendency for it t push house prices up.


    You’re maybe tired, Matthew, already dreaming perhaps? I don’t think I ever said things don’t matter, or that “I’m all right, Jack”.

    Yes, I’m tired of selfish right-wing arguments which seem to care nothing about how society is deteriorating due to the rise in inequality, and I’m dreaming of a society where we do think all should start adult life with a chance of getting somewhere. Caracatus points out “a sharp rise in parental support to help people buy their first property”, which means those who don’t have access to inherited wealth will mostly NEVER get the chance to have a house of their own. You don’t seem to care about things like that, what you are saying here seems to me very much to be “I’m all right, Jack”.

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '13 - 4:43pm

    Where do I say “I’m alright, Jack”? Nowhere!

  • david thorpe 26th Mar '13 - 5:24pm

    @ mathew

    the right to own a hosue is not a human right-and not the job of thwe state-across Europe and the US people rent ratehr than buy-sometimes all their lives-and the sky hasnt fallen in-if the government want to garauntee £120billion worth of somehting-i CAN THINK OF DOZENS OF FAR MORE IMPORTANT THINGS THAN ensuring people can buy a house-and secondly this plan will NOT increase the available capital to first time buyers in any way-as they will get the garuantee but so will a non first time buyer-the latter will have mroe equity so the bank will lend to them-
    if this was a subsidy for first tiem buyers it would be ineffective and imoral-that its more likley to be a subsidy for buy to let landlords ios disgusting in the extreme

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Mar '13 - 6:48pm

    I can see the phrase “I’m alright Jack” being used whenever someone disagrees with a left winged policy. The problem is that in a world of global competition for limited resources, many “compassionate” policies often hurt the poor more than they help. So no more moral lectures from the left please; use reasoned argument instead.

    Secondly, I think we are all in agreement that as a whole helping people buy second homes is an awful policy. I would also add that I believe many conservatives would agree with us, so the question is, how did it get through?

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Mar '13 - 12:44am

    Inheritance is not a human right, that’s just a slap in the face to people who don’t even have access to clean drinking water. Same goes for home ownership.

  • Alex Sabine 27th Mar '13 - 1:21am

    I will indulge Richard Dean by making a brief comment. However I’ll succumb to one of his other pet hates by quoting an economist, this time Roger Bootle of Capital Economics, since he sums up the problems with rigging the housing market in this way more pithily than I would.

    Reviewing the Budget in his Telegraph column, he wrote: ‘Then there were the measures to boost home ownership. This continues to be one of the worst features of postwar British policy. Housing is not the key to prosperity. And, however important it is, what is needed is a stimulus to supply, not increases to demand. We can no more get rich by buying and selling each other’s houses than by each agreeing to take in each other’s washing. Increasing the demand will only raise prices further.’

    The other problem is moral hazard, though it’s fashionable to say we can worry about that once the housing market is frothing again…

  • Richard Dean 27th Mar '13 - 11:27am

    Isn’t this just envy speaking? Why ought it to be a human right?

    In a society in which merit is rewarded by advancement, inheritance of wealth need not make much of a difference. Ask Alan Sugar! By contrast, in a society in which everyone is forced to get an inheritance, the apparent rewarding of an absence of effort goes against the principle of rewarding effort.

    Inheritance of culture and style is probably far more important. It comes from the family environment – whether supportive of school work, whether supportive of sport, whether stressed, whether loving. It also comes from the physical environment – whether clean, safe, healthy, inspiring, or not.

    We already try to counter family-based and environment-based disadvantages to social mobility by providing schooling for all, sports facilities, policing services, apprenticeships, advice, counselling services, job opportunities that do not depend on who you know. These seem far more important than inheriting capital.

    The other major problem about inheriting capital in this way is surely that it’s rather likely to be squandered? Parents who pass their wealth on to their children will have prepared those children in subtle ways to use the wealth well. Having the state give away money free seems like an invitation for sharks to tempt and party.

  • Robin Martlew 27th Mar '13 - 12:50pm

    I always wonder about these proposals that propose some sort of income as of right funded by some sort of taxation!
    I just wonder where people think money comes from!

    Money is no more than a practical expression of the value of goods or services.A newcomer contributing to the supply of goods and services, (growth) is in fact creating a value which in my opinion should be recognised as ‘money’: That however is not how our system recognises it. (?s/z?)

    I want to change the system, not b****r around with one that is constantly failing!

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Mar '13 - 2:11pm

    david thorpe

    @ matthew

    the right to own a house is not a human right-and not the job of the state-across Europe and the US people rent rather than buy-sometimes all their lives-and the sky hasn’t fallen in

    But I’m not saying it is. Indeed, elsewhere I have been very critical of the “right-to-buy” policy, this and my support for taxation on property has often led me to be accused of someone who is OPPOSED to the right to own a house.

    I do believe it is a human right to have somewhere private to live of a standard compatible with the weather where it is and to have sufficient space to raise children if one wishes at an age when one still has the fertility to do it. I know some will not accept the bit about raising children, but I do see that as a natural part of being human and something which in almost all cultures across time has been accepted as a natural part of being a free human. Historically land ownership in this country implied also duties – in the feudal system the aristocracy owned the land but were supposed to have a duty to provide sufficient support for the peasantry for them to be housed and raise families. I believe that duty remains, largely delegated to the state, but it is also why I cannot accept land ownership to be absolute and free of any duties which may include taxation, in particular if ownership by some results in others being squeezed out of their human rights to housing.

    I’m not saying that right necessarily includes owning housing. I think it is covered by there being sufficient state owned housing rented out at cost price to provide a minimum standard to all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Mar '13 - 2:33pm

    Richard Dean

    In a society in which merit is rewarded by advancement, inheritance of wealth need not make much of a difference.

    But it does. Our society is NOT one in which merit is rewarded by advancement. Sorry Richard, but when you say that, it’s all part of your “I’m all right, Jack” attitude. When people can slave and toil all their lives and yet never have enough to afford even the meanest of housing, where is the reward for merit?

    Having access to inherited wealth makes a HUGE difference. It gives you the freedom to do other things, to make use of your skills and try out new ideas, without the constant fear of how you are going to pay the bills. If you look at our society now you find MOST people who are doing well were helped out by coming from a background where there was a bit of family money to push themselves forward.


    Ask Alan Sugar!

    Most people are not Alan Sugar. Alan Sugar is not an average sort of person. Whether he made his money through personal skill or through happening to be in the right place at the right time is debatable, I think a mixture of the two. However, even if it is entirely through personal skill, raising someone like this as the typical example we all could reach is ridiculous. It is rather like raising Usain Bolt as an example and saying we could all run like him if we only but tried.

    By contrast, in a society in which everyone is forced to get an inheritance, the apparent rewarding of an absence of effort goes against the principle of rewarding effort

    No, it doesn’t. No-one has suggested here that all rewards for effort should be taken away and put into this scheme. Indeed, the amount Dane Clouston suggested was very modest, as I said, less than the amount until recently we used to give to all young people who qualified for a university place. The suggestion here is that by giving this sum of money to all people at the start of their adult lives they are placed in a position to be better able to use their skills and advance by their own efforts because it gives them a platform to build on, perhaps by paying for more education and training, perhaps by giving them enough to start a business, perhaps to enable them to put a deposit on a house so in future they have the freedom that owning a house gives.

    You, on the other hand, seem to think it is fine and dandy for people to be squeezed by poverty out of all chances of any decent life. Now I speak as someone who grew up in poverty, but helped very much by the fact that at least when I was a child we had a roof over our heads thanks to council housing. I don’t wish to boast, but I think I have a bit of a brain (not much of anything else that helps people get places) and I’ve used that to get places. Not everyone in that situation is like me. Some aren’t that intelligent. Some just aren’t going to make it as Alan Sugar or even something much more modest, however much they try. What about them? You don’t seem to care, you don’t seem to understand the point that our society is growing rapidly more unequal in wealth, which condemns many at the bottom to a lifetime of misery even if they are decent hard-working people. Oh no, since YOU are fine, and YOU have done well in life, in effect you say to them “Stuff you, I don’t care, I’m all right, Jack”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Mar '13 - 2:40pm

    Richard Dean

    The other major problem about inheriting capital in this way is surely that it’s rather likely to be squandered? Parents who pass their wealth on to their children will have prepared those children in subtle ways to use the wealth well.

    Oh, come on. The gossip pages of the press are FULL of the children of the wealthy squandering away their money on drugs and fripperies. Given that I’ve just criticised you for raising the extreme example as if it’s typical, maybe it’s a little unfair of me to mention it, but here I am doing so: Hans Rausing …

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Mar '13 - 3:36pm

    I know Dane, I didn’t mean to be over critical. I think inheritance tax should be increased to 50% (or an accession tax adopted), I just don’t know whether universal inheritance would be the best use of that money. I’m not strongly against the idea.

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