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Bailouts, 'illegal state aid' and the Commission's value system

by Migeru Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 05:43:19 AM EST

Via today's salon comes the following piece.

EUObserver: Commission has 'no reason' to question Fortis deal (29.09.2008)

The European Commission said on Monday it had been consulted during the negotiations and had so far no reason to believe the deal was in breach of EU competition rules.

"Up until now the national authorities in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have been listening to what the commission has been saying, so we have no reason to think that what they are going to notify the commission of is not going to be acceptable to the commission in terms of state aid rules," Jonathan Todd, a spokesperson for the institution told a press briefing in Brussels.

He said the transaction itself was in compliance with the rules, as the purchase did not exceed the going market rate. He also expressed confidence that any "accompanying measures" that may be taken alongside the purchase, of which the commission will be notified "will be compatible with the rules on competition, in particular the rules on state aid."

If you check the Salon thread, you'll see that the consensus of all the commenters seems to be that this looks like a breach of 'State Aid Rules' as they would be applied in other industries. In fact, taking a cue from the discussions of the Paulson bailout, if the situation is one of insolvency and not illiquidity, the Commission's argument that the purchase did not exceed the going market rate cannot possibly be right. And in any case it was not a purchase of 50% of the shares, it was an equity injection.

But if (as was argued on that thread) "Banks are the lynchpin of the economy" and that's why the Commission sees no reason to intervene on competition grounds, this signals something very important about the Commission's value system:

The stability of the financial system trumps perfect competition in a single market
And if perfect competition is not the unquestionable top priority of the Commission, other national (and European) economic goals should be taken into account when non-financial businesses crucial to local economies fail and would need to be rescued.

Also, when a Commission policy clearly is built around market competition as a goal rather than (as it should be) a policy to attain other goals, it needs to be called into question more forcefully on these grounds.


Display:
Some comic relief from an earlier Salon.

EUObserver: EU rules out US-style bailouts (25.09.2008)

"The situation we face here in Europe is less acute" than in the US, says the EU economy commissioner

There may be need for stricter financial monitoring worldwide, but in Europe in particular, US-style bank bailouts are not necessary at this stage, EU officials told MEPs on Wednesday (24 September).

To be fair, EUObserver is conflating bank rescues with the Paulson plan
However, referring to the recent decision by the US to buy $700 billion (€476 billion) of bad debt from banks and other financial institutions, he stressed that "the situation we face here in Europe is less acute and member states do not at this point consider that a US-style plan is needed."
But still...


A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 05:48:13 AM EST
Almunia on Friday:
member states do not at this point consider that a US-style plan is needed
Ireland on Tuesday:
The Government has decided to put in place with immediate effect a guarantee arrangement to safeguard all deposits (retail, commercial, institutional and interbank), covered bonds, senior debt and dated subordinated debt (lower tier II), with the following banks: Allied Irish Bank, Bank of Ireland, Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Life and Permanent, Irish Nationwide Building Society and the Educational Building Society and such specific subsidiaries as may be approved by Government following consultation with the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator.
to the tune of €400bn. Overtaken by events, much?

What if the Commission decided the Irish guarantee is illegal state aid?

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:04:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What if the Commission decided the Irish guarantee is illegal state aid?

Well, a court challenge would take a long time to wander through the system, by which stage the guarantee would have run out anyway.

Anyway, if a bank actually looks like failing it'll probably be nationalised, which I have reason to suspect is the alternative that was being considered on Monday night for one or more banks.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:07:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Commission would be smart to get the procedure started right now - it would have no detrimental impact on the bailout, but would set the ground for a serious review of how competition should apply in the banking sector as the dust settles.

Because that WILL be a vital question, and we cannot ignore it even as we deal with today's emergency requirements.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:36:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That doesn't preclude the Irish state (or the banks themselves) from receiving a hefty fine from the Commission. And as Pierre pointed out yesterday, €400bn is nearly 3 times Ireland's GDP. However the guarantee is nominally "to the tune of €400bn" but at "market prices" for "insurance" (again h/t to Pierre) it would be worth something like $10bn to the banks.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:45:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the announcement has apparently tightened the CDS spreads on the banks a lot, so it's now not worth 10bn(?).

According to the Irish Times:

THE GOVERNMENT'S emergency legislation to guarantee the Irish banking system will allow the State to take a stake in any financial institution that receives financial support from the exchequer.

The Bill gives the Minister for Finance wide-ranging powers to protect financial institutions and allows for competition law to be set aside to allow bank mergers, if deemed necessary to protect the stability of the financial system.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:55:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It also made their shares go up, and "tightening their CDS spreads" is a competitive advantage at a time when being able to borrow more cheaply (or at all) on the 3-month interbank market is a matter of life and death for banks.

It was worth €10bn when it was given and results in a reduction of the "cost of capital" which only adds to the €10bn, doesn't subtract from it.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:59:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Knock-on effects... After the run on Northern Rock the Brown's government was forced to up the deposit guarantee from 100% of the first £2k and 90% up to £35k (I think it was) to 100% of £50k (to match the US FDIC's $100k deposit guarantee). The outcry over moral hazard and how he was putting the taxpayers at risk was quite loud. But now...

FT.com: Pressure mounts in UK to guarantee savings (September 30 2008)

Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, was facing growing pressure to extend the guarantees on British savers' bank deposits after Ireland promised to underwrite the debts and savings accounts of its six largest lenders in a desperate bid to restore investor confidence in the ailing sector.

...

It enraged British and European officials and may fall foul of the European Commission's rules on state aid by offering competitive advantages to some Irish banks. The guarantees make the six lenders more attractive to savers and investors. The European Commission said it was only contacted overnight about the scheme but was looking to see whether state aid was involved.

On Tuesday, Mr Brown made it clear he was ready to increase the level at which savers' deposits were guaranteed from £35,000 to £50,000 but indicated he did not want to act until the markets had calmed down. However, the change could come in the next few weeks. But the government is reluctant to offer Irish-style guarantees to British banks and Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, would resist such a move, arguing that any guarantees would represent an unacceptable level of moral hazard.



A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:09:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An important point to make, and an important precedent to flag as such, indeed.

But it seems that everybody has decided to suspend their critical skills in order for bankers to be "saved" so that they do'nt take us down with us.


In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 05:55:01 AM EST

How Do You Make a DC Intellectual Look Less Articulate Than Sarah Palin Being Interveiwed by Katie Couric?

That's easy. You ask them how failure to pass the bailout will give us a Great Depression.

The odds are that your favorite DC intellectual type has uttered some dire warning like that. After all, they all heard some authority like President Bush or a highly respected news reporter make such a claim. All right-thinking people know that we just have to give $700 billion to the Wall Street crew or the economy will collapse.

While all right-thinking people might know we need the bailout, just about all right-thinking people don't have a clue as to what they are talking about.

(...)

It is remarkable how the contemptuous comments that the elites have directed at the masses for opposing the bailout can be so much more accurately directed back at themselves. In fear and anger they have embraced a bailout that makes little sense in the context of the economic crisis facing the country. Rather than listening people who actually understand the economy (I doubt a single economist in the country believes that the bailout is the best way to help the economy) they have shouted down and shut out critics of the bailout and have been willing to spread all manner of outlandish scare stories to advance their case.

It was impressive to see the mass outrage over the bailout at least temporarily stop the bill. But, the full court press by Wall Street, the media and the entire political establishment is hard to counter. If the bill is not stopped, those who vote for it should at least be held accountable for the economic mess they create. Remember, these are the folks that couldn't see the housing bubble.

Again, the same question: why are we even listening to the "experts" that put us in the mess in the first place?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 05:57:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To be fair Jérôme, there are people who tried their best for the mess not to happen, and who are now saying we should go with the bailout (most notably Krugman).

Admittedly, they are also saying that it's not the right plan. But the right plan does not seem possible to pass, and Republicans seem quite ready to hold the Economy hostage.

Anyway, another person we are listening to and who didn't put us into this mess is you, and I'm pretty sure I can remember reading you saying (and I agree with that) that we must act to mitigate the fall of the financial system.
I'm not going to say 'save' in case it's understood as keeping it as it was -it's in dire need of major reforms. But an uncontrolled collapse would be dire.

The bailout is not the best way to help the economy. It's possibly the best we can get to kick the can along the road to a point where there can be no Republican veto, and somewhat competent people in federal agencies.

"It failed because Nacy Pelosi said some unkind things about George Bush in her speech"

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 07:43:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Posted with some prodding from Colman...

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:00:27 AM EST
Thanks for writing this, it's exactly what I was thinking.

If the financial sector needs support because of its strategic importance, then the need for support of other sectors should be evaluated on the strategic importance criterion: which is something free-market ideology prohibits.

So do Barroso and team practise what they preach, do they even believe in it? Or is it just a handy doctrine masking a power and money grab? More to the point, isn't that what it appears fairly clearly to be right now?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:11:20 AM EST
The Fortis deal creates very competition issues in the Netherlands, if ING or Rabo end up buying the ABN-Amro network that Fortis bought and now has to sell.

The incredible concentration of banks in recent days should give us pause:


Why The Biggest Banks Will Only Get Bigger

The three biggest banks in the country are now bigger than ever, with a combined 31% of all U.S. deposits. Bank of America leads the pack with 10.99% of all U.S. deposits. J.P. Morgan trails only slightly at 10.51%. And Citigroup ranks as the only one of the big three below the 10% cap, with 9.8% of all U.S. deposits.

Wells Fargo is a very distant fourth with just 4% of all U.S. deposits.

What we are looking at right now appears to be the beginning of an unprecedented concentration of banking power in the U.S. that was aided by the destruction of the federal cap on bank deposits. The cap prevented any bank from making acquisitions that would give it more than 10% of U.S. deposits.

A commenter to that article notes the same about the UK:


A similar position will exist in the UK. Once the dust settles we too will have three goliaths, Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds TSB. Most people in the UK will have their savings or mortgages with these three banks. Most businesses and entrepreneurs will have loans from these three banks. The power within our economy will be concentrated amongst three Boards of Directors who will have enormous responsibility. It may well mean a significant long term lack of competitiveness amongst these lenders which will lead in turn to worst deals for home owners and individuals. It will be a long time before financial entrepreneurs enter the market and take on these giants to give us back a real choice. The question we must all ask ourselves is how much choice can we really give ourselves, knowing what we now know. For the truth is we are all to blame for what has happened,. We took the fruit from the Garden of Eden and bit into it in the form of cheap loans, mortgages, and re-mortgages for that nice shiny car. We got greedy and bought property to rent out to others and will pay for the consequences for many years to come. In the UK we will have to put our trust in the FSA to be the guardians or our rights and to make sure we the people get a fair deal from these giants of capitalism. In time real choice will come back, and that will be a good thing; but when it does, we must all think back to 2008 and keep ourselves in check.

And these become REALLY 'too big to fail', and can blackmail governments, and the economy in general, even more easily than before.

This should not be tolerated. (In fact, I was preparing to post this comment as a FP post before I saw yours; it probably needs to be posted anyway, a bit later)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:34:19 AM EST
A company "too big to fail" needs to either be nationalised or broken up.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 06:47:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
but nobody seems to care about this new problem we're creating right now.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 07:01:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, at one level it's a problem we can look at next week/month, but it will need dealing with.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 07:05:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If we want to avoid pre-judging, the "nationalisation" and subsequent "breakup" can take place after it has failed and seen as too big.

Nationalisation of a bankrupt company wiping out shareholders and creditors should not be seen as a bad thing. It's definitely better than a straight bailout.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 08:03:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A Commenter:
We took the fruit from the Garden of Eden and bit into it in the form of cheap loans, mortgages, and re-mortgages for that nice shiny car. We got greedy and bought property to rent out to others and will pay for the consequences for many years to come. In the UK we will have to put our trust in the FSA to be the guardians or our rights and to make sure we the people get a fair deal from these giants of capitalism. In time real choice will come back, and that will be a good thing; but when it does, we must all think back to 2008 and keep ourselves in check.

This has become common wisdom, but it's exaggerated at best and nonsense at worst. Cheap loans became poisonous because real income was either stagnant or falling. If real pay had followed productivity, the loans would have been unnecessary.

Instead the loan sharks have made a killing. Some ate so much they exploded, and the most adaptive are feeding off their remains.

The structural issue - practical wealth sharing - is barely being mentioned.

The nonsense will continue until governments start publishing metrics of street-level economic health which aren't as detached from everyday experience as GDP and stock prices are.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 07:30:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Listening to Amy Goodman/Democracy Now, Wed. A.M.

The US Senate votes today on the $700 billion bailout.

Have you ever had an INTENSE sense of deja vu?  I swear, I've been here before. Oh well.

Hello ET/Europe.  I wish you well.  Take care of yourselves/each other.  This is the beginning of the End Game for the US.  The new bailout bill is being pushed in the Senate, giving more tax breaks to business, as a bill to be passed OR THE NEXT BILL WILL BE LEFT WING, and of course, we can't have that.

A couple weeks ago a US military "group" was assigned (for the first time in US history) to the US for "crowd control".  There are extended gasoline shortages in the US southeast as a result of the hurricanes.  Will the food shortages begin prior to the election or simply be hinted at?

Take care of yourselves.  The US is lost.  The people "spoke" two days ago when the US House voted down the bailout.  The Masters said, "What?!!!" and will give even MORE to the wealthy.  How odd?  Your house is on fire; add more gasoline, that will help. Again, my deja vu.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 08:50:59 AM EST
Link.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 09:18:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yup, that was the one.  Goodman reported in on Dem. Now; that was the only reference I saw (heard?) of it.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.
by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 01:01:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps someone can explain to me why we need all these new laws all of a sudden to facilitate the bailouts?

I can understand why you can't necessarily know in advance which banks precisely will need to be bailed out. But if banking is such a vitally important strategic sector, then why is the safety net not put in place before the chips hit the table?

I mean, anybody with eyes and ears who hasn't been hiding under a rock on the dark side of the moon and maintained total radio silence should know that the banking sector can fail and can fail catastrophically. If for no other reason, then because the US has had at least one previous round of crisis over the past 12 months.

So why are laws being cobbled together in the last moment to cover an event that has been in the cards for the last twelve months at least?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 10:08:06 AM EST
Because discussing laws to enable a bailout can trigger a bank run even if the fundamentals are sound?

It's the magic of fiat money - it's all a confidence trick so you have to maintain the confidence.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 10:10:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm tempted to say "so what?" If the fundamentals are sound, a bank run would be a liquidity crisis, not a solvency crisis, right? So we'd have to provide liquidity (with strings attached, of course, but we're assuming that things are properly planned for ahead of time, right?). But that doesn't cost the taxpayers money or debase the currency, does it?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 10:44:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Market fundamentalists have denied until banks actually crashed that there was any risk of banks crashing (remember: markets allocate risk better!), so it was not necessary to plan for that, the market would take care of it.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 11:18:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The market is taking care of it, all right.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 11:29:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Let's take this once more for Crown Prince Knud. You're saying that because the market fundamentalists denied that there was a potential problem with the banking sector, I now have to accept that the government burns the midnight oil to make laws that there will never be sufficient time to debate or deliberate or even properly consider, in order to respond to the cries from those same market fundamentalists that we must save the banking sector?

headdesk

Can we please bring out the guillotines now?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 11:39:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Can we please bring out the guillotines now?

IF I understand your meaning ...

Hey, JakeS.  I'm the resident ET violent loonie.  Work your own side of the street. :)

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 01:10:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
is, that industrial politics often is good for the one country that does it, and bad for all the other countries.

How would you make sure, that undustrial politics is used to make a better live for all Europeans, and not to make a better live for the people of one country on the cost of other European countries?

Some applies for the Stability&Growth Pact by the way. Everybody knows, it is not perfect, but you need some fixed rule, as long as the most important budgets are the national ones.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 12:09:38 PM EST
Such a valid point.... so valid..

I do not know what to add...shouldn't banco santader or BBVA or La Caixa had the right to buy bank cheap because they were awful (and the spanish banks good)?

Isn't this preventing good competition.. those doing it fine should get rewarded with the easy and cheap adquisition of other banks if there is no concentration in the market..and the spansih banks have no networks in a lot of countries...

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 04:36:15 PM EST
Barriendo pa' casa?

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 05:15:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The stability of the financial system trumps perfect competition in a single market

Bloomberg:Ireland May Bypass Competition Laws to Protect Banks (Oct. 1)

Ireland's government could bypass competition laws to approve a merger of two financial institutions should this be necessary to maintain stability in the banking system, according to a proposal before the country's parliament.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan could approve a transaction even if it reduced competition, should the deal be necessary ``to avoid a serious threat to the stability of credit institutions,'' according to the Credit Institutions Financial Support Bill 2008, which lawmakers in Dublin began debating last night.

The bill, published late yesterday, is intended to enact Ireland's proposed guarantee of the deposits and debts of six lenders. The debate in parliament continues today.



A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 05:17:21 PM EST
Five days later we have another data point... (posted in the Salon by Fran
Public spending curbs and rules against state subsidies will be thrown - temporarily - out of the window to rescue European banks from the abyss of the global financial crisis, EU leaders agreed at the weekend. Leaders of the four largest European Union economies - Britain, France, Germany and Italy - came up with no EU-wide magic formula, or rescue package, to defend the buckling European financial system.

They did agree, however, that national governments should be at liberty to take drastic action to shore up their own financial institutions, busting EU limits on national budgets and flouting European rules against public subsidies if necessary. Meeting in Paris, the Big Four insisted that national governments must "consult" their European partners before taking action which could harm rival banks in other countries. This was a rebuke to Ireland's decision last week to guarantee all bank savings for two years but also, implicitly, a recognition that other nations may have to take similar action.

...

EU laws forbidding state subsidies to private companies would also be "applied in a flexible manner" (ie suspended), the summit decided. At France's insistence it was agreed that there should be "punishments", not golden parachutes, for the bosses of financial institutions which needed state bailouts.

Note that the article only talks about the four heads of State/Government present at the meeting, but present there were also the ECB Chairman and the Commission President. It is therefore implied that the Commission will relax its state-aid rules. The Independent goes a bit far when it says "a flexible manner" means "suspended". There is still EU-wide competition to protect as when Irish bank executives went on British media encouraging people to switch their deposits to take advantage of the Irish guarantee.


A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Oct 6th, 2008 at 03:30:21 PM EST


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