Income inequality before and after tax

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Jul 212014
 

In several previous posts, we have explained how the GINI index can be used to quantify the degree of income inequality within a population or country. The higher the GINI index, the more inequality there is. National comparisons of inequality are usually based on working out the GINI index for countries using their residents’ gross (pre-tax) incomes. However, it is also possible to calculate the GINI index for net incomes, incomes after taxes have been taken into account.

This enables economists to assess the impact of tax systems on income distribution (and income inequality) in a country.

The graph below (Figure 2 from Brown et al, 2013) shows pre- and post-tax income GINI coefficients for a selection of countries, including the larger economies in Latin America.

gini-pre-post-taxesIn the European countries, such as Belgium and Sweden, on this chart, the GINI coefficient after tax (dark bars) is much lower than the GINI coefficient before tax (light-colored bars). This means that the taxation system has led to less income inequality than existed prior to taxation. In general terms, this means that the tax system is (overall) a progressive one [i.e. one where taxes take an increasing proportion of income as income rises].

In Latin American economies, a different picture emerges. With the exceptions of Brazil and Costa Rica, the GINI coefficients after taxes are taken into account are actually higher than the GINI coefficients before tax, meaning that income inequalities have become greater as a result of the tax system. In general terms, these tax systems are regressive [where taxes take a decreasing proportion of income as income rises].

In Brazil and Costa Rica, the levels of income inequality remain unchanged after taxation is taken into account.

Clearly, if reducing income inequality is a priority for Latin America, then something has to change. Whether a nation prefers a tax system that is regressive or progressive is a question of political beliefs and policy, as well as a question of economics.

It should be noted that the chart is based on calculations using data from 2012 or earlier. It will be interesting to see how Mexico’s recent major fiscal reforms impact its GINI coefficient in the coming years. Will the recent reforms lead to a more equitable situation and reduce the GINI coefficient, or will they foment greater inequality of income, making the rich richer and the poor poorer?

Note:

The exact methodology used to derive the post-tax GINI coefficient is not clear in the original article. In particular, it is unclear whether or not the after-tax income in the chart includes the large number of Mexican workers in the informal sector who generally do not pay any income or payroll tax.

Source of image:

“Towards financial geographies of the unbanked: international financial markets, ‘bancarization’ and access to financial services in Latin America” by Ed Brown, Francisco Castañeda, Jonathon Cloke and Peter Taylor, in The Geographical Journal, vol 179-3, September 2013, 198-210.

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Country groupings: BRICs, EAGLEs and now MINTs

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Jun 122014
 

Economists have long suggested various sub-groupings of emerging markets. One of the most commonly used in geography is BRIC, an acronym formed from the initial letters of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The term BRIC was first coined by  Jim O’Neill in a 2001 paper entitled “The World Needs Better Economic BRICs”. The concept of BRICs has become outdated as the four countries’ economies have diverged over the past decade.

Next on the scene was the term EAGLEs to cover the world’s Emerging and Growth-Leading Economies. The advantage of this acronym is that it is not tied to specific countries. Any term comprised of country names is likely to date fairly quickly, and become much less useful. The members of the EAGLEs club are currently:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Eqypt
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Mexico
  • Russia
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Turkey

Combined, these ten EAGLEs are  expected to account for 50% of all global growth that occurs over the next 10 years.

The four MINT countries

The four MINT countries

Jim O’Neill has recently popularized another contribution to the terminology of countries believed to be emerging market giants: MINTs. The term was originally coined by Fidelity Investments. The four members of this exclusive grouping are:

  • Indonesia
  • Mexico
  • Nigeria
  • Turkey

In proposing the new grouping, O’Neill makes a compelling case for Mexico’s future economic success. First, its large population ensures a viable domestic market. It also has a growing middle class and a steadily improving dependency ratio (the number of working age people compared to those not working). In addition, Mexico has a privileged position in world trade, linking North America to Asian markets. O’Neill believes that Mexico could experience double-digit rates of economic growth in the coming years, with GDP/person rising from its current figure of about 11,000 dollars to 48,000 dollars by 2050.

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Extreme poverty declined between 2010 and 2012

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Feb 012014
 

As we saw in an earlier post – Poverty on the rise in some states in Mexico – the total number of people living in poverty in Mexico continues to rise, though the poverty rate (as a percentage) remains roughly the same.

The measures of poverty used by Mexico’s National Political and Social Development Commission (Coneval) are multidimensional, and not simply based on household or personal income. This map shows the changes in “extreme multidimensional poverty” (a category that includes “the poorest of the poor”)  that occurred in Mexico between 2010 and 2012.

Changes in levels of extreme poverty in Mexico, 2010-2012.

Changes in levels of extreme poverty in Mexico, 2010-2012. Credit: Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved. Data: Coneval

In areas shaded red, a higher percentage of the population experienced “extreme poverty” in 2012 than in 2010; their personal situations and opportunities have presumably become significantly worse. Interestingly, this category includes the prosperous states of Nuevo León (economy based on manufacturing and services) and Quintana Roo (tourism).

The reverse is true for areas shaded blue where the extreme poverty rate has fallen: many of the people living in those areas have moved out of the most extreme category and presumably have seen their fortunes and opportunities improve, even if, in most cases, not sufficiently to have escaped the “poverty” category completely. This category includes more than half of Mexico’s 32 administrative divisions.

The fact that “extreme poverty” has declined in more than half of Mexico is encouraging, and suggests that government policies aimed at poverty reduction, such as Oportunidades are gradually making a difference. It remains to be seen whether or not this trend continues over the next few years.

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Review of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”

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Jan 272014
 

Every so often a book comes along that shakes up established wisdom and forces us to rethink our viewpoints and beliefs. The latest such book to cross my desk is Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, published by publicaffairs in 2011.

poor-economicsThis is a worthy read for anyone interested in development theory, policy, practice and economics. The authors are professors of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Their book reports on the effectiveness of solutions to global poverty using an evidence-based randomized control trial approach.

Banerjee and Duflo argue that many anti-poverty policies have failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. They conclude that the battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence.

The authors look at some of the unexpected questions related to poverty that empirical studies have thrown up, such as :

  • Why do the poor (those living on less than 99 cents a day) need to borrow in order to save?
  • Why do the poor miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need?
  • Why do the poor start many businesses but do not grow any of them?

The book is supported by an outstanding website that includes:

  • Introductions to each chapter
  • Maps showing cited studies with links to original sources
  • Data and figures used with interactive data tools
  • A “What Can You Do” page with links to major organizations working in the field or for the problem discussed in the chapter

The website’s links to research papers mentioned in the book include four studies related to Mexico:

1. Do Conditional Cash Transfers Affect Electoral Behavior? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Mexico, by Ana L. De La O.

The evidence comes from the pioneering Progresa, the original Mexican conditional cash transfer (CCT) program (since repackaged as Oportunidades).  This CCT program led to a 7% increase in turnout and a 16% increase in the  incumbent vote share, with clear implications for politicians in areas where CCT programs reach a large percentage of voters.

2 School Subsidies for the Poor: Evaluating the Mexican Progresa Poverty Program, by T. Paul Schultz of Yale University (August 2001).

This study considered how a CCT program affected school enrollment. The CCT program increased enrollment in school in grades 3 through 9, with the increase often greater for girls than boys. The cumulative effect was estimated to add 0.66 years to the baseline level of 6.80 years of schooling.

3 Experimental Evidence on Returns to Capital and Access to Finance in Mexico, by David McKenzie and Christopher Woodruff (March 2008)

Microenterprises are often unable to access suitable financing, even though they are responsible for employing a large portion of the total workforce. This experiment, which gave cash and in-kind grants to small retail firms, demonstrated that this additional capital generated large increases in profits, with the effects concentrated on those firms which were more financially constrained. The estimated return to capital was found to be at least 20 to 33 percent per month, three to five times higher than market interest rates.

4 Working for the Future: Female Factory Work and Child Health in Mexico, by David Atkin (April 2009)

Atkins’ paper found that children whose mothers lived in a town where a maquiladora (export factory) opened when the women were sixteen years old were much taller than those children born to mothers who did not have a similar opportunity. The effect was so large that “it can bridge the entire gap in height between a poor Mexican child and the “norm” for a well-fed American child.” (Poor Economics, 229)

The increase in height could not be fully explained by the changes in family income resulting from employment in a maquiladora. As Bannerjee and Duflo suggest, “Perhaps the sense of control over the future that people get from knowing that there will be an income coming in every month -and not just the income itself- is what allows these women to focus on building their own careers and those of their children. Perhaps this idea that there is a future is what makes the difference between the poor and the middle class.” (Poor Economics, 229)

Conclusion

Banerjee and Duflo’s positive message is that poverty can indeed be alleviated, but we need to take one small measurable step at a time with constant evaluation of whether or not particular policies are successful, based on evidence, not just on belief systems.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” deserves its place of honor alongside other such genuine classics as E.F. Schumaker’s “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” (1973). It is a must-read for geographers, regardless of your political persuasion.

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NAFTA 20 years on: success or failure?

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Jan 092014
 

The North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) came into effect on 1 January 1994. Twenty years on, opinions remain sharply divided over the extent to which NAFTA has benefited Mexico and Mexicans.

NAFTA has led to progress

The Economist magazine is among those arguing that NAFTA has transformed the Mexican economy for the better, but that much remains to be done if Mexico is to make the most of its partnership with the USA and Canada. Two recent articles from The Economist summarize the arguments for NAFTA having been a success story for Mexico:

NAFTA has hindered progress

Other analysts are equally convinced that NAFTA has hindered Mexico’s economic progress and has brought problems for many Mexicans. For example, Timothy A. Wise, the policy research director at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, argues that NAFTA has had adverse impacts on agriculture and on Mexico’s food security.

In Wise’s view, NAFTA had a sequence of impacts. First, it led to a flood of US imports of corn, wheat, meat and other staples which drove Mexican producer prices down below the costs of production. (Some US corn exports to Mexico were “dumped” at prices 19% below even US farmers’ costs of production). While Mexico’s own agricultural exports to the USA increased due to NAFTA, the overall agricultural trade deficit between the two countries widened considerably, with Mexico needing to import almost half of its total food requirements by the mid-2000s.

The international prices for many of these imported crops have doubled or tripled over the past decade, and Mexico’s agricultural trade deficit with the USA jumped to more than $4 billion. Why does Wise choose to highlight the beer industry? He argues that even the success of Mexico’s beer industry has brought more benefits to US farmers than Mexican farmers because the two major raw materials for beer (barley and malt) are not produced in Mexico, but imported from the USA.

Similarly, in a Guardian article entitled NAFTA: 20 years of regret for Mexico, Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC, concludes that, “It’s tough to imagine Mexico doing worse without NAFTA.”

Conclusion

Both sides of this argument hold some merit. While some sectors of Mexico’s economy, and some people, have undoubtedly gained from NAFTA, others have lost.

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The impact of immigrants on U.S. public budgets

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Sep 052013
 

As the US Congress debates new immigration reform legislation there is considerable confusion concerning the fiscal impact of immigrants. One side argues that immigrants pay relatively little in taxes and absorb costly benefits in terms of public health, education, welfare, etc. Others note that immigrants often pay significant amounts in taxes and get little back in terms of benefits. Obviously, it depends on the immigrant and perhaps on their legal status.

OECD-migrationIn June 2013, the OECD published “International Migration Outlook,” a study on the budgetary impacts of immigrants to OECD countries. (OECD countries Mexico and 29 other mostly rich and mainly European countries). The study compares native-born with foreign-born residents, some of whom may have already become citizens. The study suggests that immigrants may have a slightly positive impact on fiscal budgets. The average for all OECD countries was 0.3% of GDP; the comparable figure for the USA was 0.03%.

Immigrants tend to have lower incomes, pay a bit less in taxes, but receive less in benefits. They tend to be younger and thus receive less in public health benefits. If they have children, they receive considerable education benefits. Obviously these are gross generalizations as some immigrants are highly paid executives and scientists, who pay significant taxes, while others may work as domestics or laborers, paying far less in taxes. Given that many public costs, including defense and debt service, are very hard to allocate to migrants versus native-born, the study suggests that immigration appears to be neither a drain nor a gain on fiscal budgets.

A big issue in the USA is the specific impact of Mexican immigrants on the fiscal budget, particularly the impacts of undocumented immigrants. Many legal immigrants from Mexico are family members joining their relatives. They may or may not be employed and thus may not pay income taxes. On the other hand, virtually all illegal immigrants seek employment. Furthermore, many obtain formal sector jobs by using fake Social Security cards or “Individual Tax Identification Numbers.” Their employers deduct federal and state income tax from their paychecks and forward these funds to government tax agencies.

Undocumented immigrants rarely file tax returns and thus very rarely receive the tax refunds to which they might otherwise be entitled. All immigrants pay considerable amounts in gasoline and sales taxes as well as property taxes, either directly or indirectly as part of their rent. Given that most illegal immigrants are rather young, relatively healthy and without children, they may have only a small impact on public education and health expenses. Their children are often born in the US, are US citizens, and should not be considered immigrants. It appears that undocumented immigrants might be paying more into the public coffers than they receive in benefits. A closer look at the data may provide some answers.

A 2007 study by the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) entitled “The Impact of Unauthorized Immigrants on the Budgets of State and Local Governments” directly addressed this issue. The study notes that at the Federal level roughly 50% of illegal immigrants pay income or payroll taxes, which include Medicare taxes. But they generally are excluded from such Federal benefits as Social Security pensions, Medicare and Medicaid (other than emergency services), Food Stamps, and Assistance to Needy Families. The data suggest that in general illegal immigrants usually pay more in federal taxes than they receive in benefits. On the other hand, a number of court cases mandate that state and local governments cannot withhold from illegal immigrants certain services such as education, selected health care, or law enforcement. Many illegal immigrant children do not speak English; therefore their education may be more costly.

In assessing the fiscal impact on state and local government budget, the CBO analyzed 29 reports published since 1990. The study noted that undertaking such an analysis is very challenging and involves many big assumptions. Still the CBO analysis concluded that the relatively small amount spent by state and local governments on services for illegal immigrants is not fully offset by the even smaller amount of tax revenues collected from them including federal revenues they may receive for this purpose.

In conclusion, available research suggests that the impact of immigrants on public budgets is not very clear. With respect to all immigrants, there appears to a slight positive fiscal impact according to a recent OECD study. The older CBO analysis indicates that undocumented immigrants appear to have a positive impact of the federal budget, but a negative fiscal impact for state and local governments. Of course, the impact varies enormously among migrants depending on their incomes, tax brackets, consumption patterns and needs.

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Shopping habits in Mexico

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Aug 282013
 

Kantar Worldpanel México’s survey of shopping habits for 8,500 homes across the country reveals that 70% of household expenditures are spent in one of three main “purchasing channels”.

1. The first, traditional convenience or “corner” stores receive 35% of household spending, and are the channel most frequently visited, 217 times/year/household on average. Poorer households rely more on these stores than middle-class households. Most visits (71%) are on weekdays and 44% of visits are to purchase items for immediate consumption.

2. Supermarkets are the second main channel, used by 98% of households, with a frequency of 49 trips/year. Supermarkets are favored by middle class families for their weekly or biweekly shop, usually on weekends.

3. The third main channel is door-to-door and catalog sales, used by 92% of households, with a frequency of 42 times/year.

According to the study, 74% of households choose the nearest store and 78% attach importance to the location of the store.

Cities with Oxxo Distribution Centers. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

Cities with Oxxo Distribution Centers. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

It is no coincidence, then, that Oxxo, the nation’s largest convenience store chain, recently opened its 11,000th store in Mexico. Oxxo now serves residents of 350 towns and cities, and plans to add a further 1,037 outlets before the end of this year. Its extensive network is served via a chain of 15 strategically-located distribution centers in the 13 cities shown on the map above.

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Why Is Mexico in the OECD?

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Jan 172013
 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was founded in 1961 to promote economic growth. Its current 34 members include 25 European countries along with Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Chile and Israel. Mexico joined the group in 1994. Four new members were admitted in 2010: Chile, Slovenia, Estonia and Israel. Russia is not yet a member but is moving toward that goal. The current Secretary General of the OECD is Mexico’s  José Ángel Gurría Treviño, first appointed in 2006; his current term in this position extends to 2016.

oecd_logo

OECD member countries are among the most highly developed and wealthiest countries on the planet. Though OECD members represent only 18% of the world’s population, they account for 55% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), measured on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis. Among OECD members, Mexico has the lowest per capita GDP, slightly behind Chile and Turkey. In terms of the UN Human Development Index (HDI) Mexico trails all the others except Turkey. How did Mexico become a member of this very elite set of countries?

There are three main criteria for OECD membership:

  1. Democracy and respect for human rights
  2. Open market economy
  3. GDP per capita (PPP) at least as high as the poorest OECD member

When Mexico became a member in 1994, it was a democracy albeit a one party democracy. It was very clearly an open market economy and its per capita GDP was slightly higher than Turkey’s. Consequently, it met the criteria and was admitted by other OECD members. (See Elżbieta Czarny et al., The Gravity Model and the Classification of Countriesin Argumenta Oeconomica, 2 (25) 2010.)

What are the benefits of OECD membership?

As a member, Mexico fully participates in OECD discussions concerning economic, social and environmental situations, issues, experiences, policies, and best practices. OECD collects and analyzes a very wide range of data which enables Mexico to monitor its position and progress on numerous important dimensions. OECD also has numerous world class experts and committees that can assist countries on specific issues and policies.

Certainly being a member of this elite group provides Mexico with an amount of international prestige. On the other hand, most development analyses and comparative OECD reports show Mexico near the bottom on most measures and rankings.

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The value in Mexico of unpaid work in the home

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Aug 042012
 

A study by the National Statistics Institute (INEGI) based on 2010 data calculated that routine work done in the home (almost 80% of the time-value involved by women) is worth about 2.9 trillion pesos to the Mexican economy each year, equivalent to more than 20% of Mexico’s GDP. By way of comparison, manufacturing accounts for 17.2% of GDP, and commerce 15% of GDP.

The INEGI calculation includes the costs in time/labor needed to meet the demands of the home, and the net salary that would be paid for someone undertaking those tasks.

INEGI divides work done in the home into six categories:

  • help and assistance to members of the household. [In market value terms, this is equivalent to 6.9% of GDP]
  • preparation and serving of meals [5% of GDP]
  • cleaning and maintaining the home [3.5% of GDP]
  • shopping and household administration [2.9% of GDP]
  • washing and looking after footwear and clothing [2% of GDP]
  • helping other households and voluntary work [1.6% of GDP]

INEGI’s findings suggest that some aspects of family life and the division of “duties” (such as that common to older images like the one below) are not changing very rapidly.

"La Familia" ("The Family"). School chart of unknown date.

“La Familia” (“The Family”). School chart of unknown date.

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Is Mexico experiencing a demographic dividend?

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Jul 232012
 

Mexico’s 2010 population of 112 million makes it the world’s 11th largest country in terms of population. The rate of population increase is now slowing down as fertility rates fall. The rate of increase, which was 2.63%/yr for the period 1970-1990, fell to 1.61%/yr for the period 1990-2010.

Even as the total population continues to grow over the next few decades, some very important changes are underway in Mexico’s population structure.

The graph divides Mexico’s population into three age categories: under 15 (youth), 15-59 (working age) and 60+ (elderly).

Mexico's population structure, 1970-2010

Mexico’s population structure, 1950-2010

The percentage of the total population of youthful age peaked in about 1970 at 46.2% and has since fallen to 29.3% in 2010. Over the same time period, the percentage of working age population has risen from 48.2% to 61.6%, while the percentage of elderly has gone from 5.6% to 9.1%.

Why is this important?

Perhaps the most obvious change is that government spending on schools and services for youth needs to shift towards spending on health care, pensions and services for the elderly. There are already some suburbs of the Mexico City Metropolitan Area that have experienced a dramatic shift in average age. Perhaps the most notable example is the Ciudad Satelite area, an area originally intended to be, and planned as, a genuine satellite settlement. A few decades later, the urban expansion of Mexico City had swallowed it up. An area which once had many young families now has very few children. The homeowners association of Ciudad Satelite estimates that 75% of the area’s 50,000 inhabitants is now elderly.

The major benefit of the changing population structure would appear to be that, in 2010, there are more wage-earners (and tax payers) for every person of non-working age (assumed for simplicity to be youth under 15, and the elderly aged 60+) than at any previous time. In other words, the total dependency rate is lower than ever before.

Economists argue that this “demographic dividend” should raise GDP, and could offer many significant advantages, such as enabling greater government expenditures on infrastructure or on social services. They point to several countries in East Asia as examples where economic growth spurts went hand-in-hand with a period of demographic dividend.

Despite the claims of economists, I’m not convinced that Mexico will prove to be an equally good example of the benefits of a demographic dividend. In Mexico’s case, the early phase of higher youthful population (and considerable economic growth) was accompanied by a high rate of emigration of working age Mexicans to the USA. Admittedly, emigration has now slowed, or stopped.

As Aaron Terrazas and his co-authors point out in Evolving Demographic and Human-Capital Trends in Mexico and Central America and Their Implications for Regional Migration [pdf file],

“But across Latin America, and in sharp contrast to East Asia, favorable demographic change has failed to translate into economic growth and prosperity. National income per capita has increased only modestly since the start of the demographic dividend, with Mexico outperforming its southern neighbors at comparable points in time. And emigration from the region has continued to grow despite the demographic transitions in Mexico and El Salvador, with the United States absorbing between one-fifth and one-quarter of the region’s annual population growth.”

Whether or not Mexico experiences a demographic dividend, it will not last for ever. In Mexico’s case, it looks set to last only about about 20 years. By 2050, according to current predictions, about 26.4% of the Mexico’s population will be youthful, and 27.7% elderly, while the percentage of working age will have fallen to 45.9%.

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