TIME Argentina

Argentina Slides Into Default as Debt Talks Fail

Argentina Debt
Axel Kicillof, Argentina's Economy Minister, addresses the media after a negotiation session in New York on July 30, 2014 Craig Ruttle—Associated Press

Argentina slipped into its second debt default in 13 years after Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof and U.S. creditors failed to come to an agreement by the deadline on Wednesday at midnight

(NEW YORK) — The collapse of talks with U.S. creditors sent Argentina into its second debt default in 13 years and raised questions about what comes next for financial markets and the South American nation’s staggering economy.

A midnight Wednesday deadline to reach a deal with holdout bondholders came and went with Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof holding firm to his government’s position that it could not accept a deal with U.S. hedge fund creditors it dismisses as “vultures.” Kicillof said the funds refused a compromise offer in talks that ended several hours earlier, although he gave no details of that proposal.

“We’re not going to sign an agreement that jeopardizes the future of all Argentines,” Kicillof said after he emerged from the meeting with creditors and a mediator in New York City. “Argentines can remain calm because tomorrow will just be another day and the world will keep on spinning.”

But court-appointed mediator Daniel Pollack said a default could hurt bondholders who were not part of the dispute as well as the Argentine economy, which is suffering through a recession, a shortage of dollars and one of the world’s highest inflation rates.

“The full consequences of default are not predictable, but they are certainly not positive,” Pollack said.

An earlier U.S. court ruling had blocked Argentina from making $539 million in interest payments due by midnight Wednesday to other bondholders who separately agreed to restructuring plans with the country in 2005 and 2010.

There was no immediate comment from the hedge funds, which refused to participate in the debt restructurings and won a U.S. court judgment that they be paid the full value of their bonds plus interest — now estimated at roughly $1.5 billion.

Kicillof dismissed a decision by ratings agency Standard & Poor’s to downgrade Argentina’s foreign currency credit rating to “selective default” because of the missed interest payments.

“Who believes in the ratings agencies? Who thinks they are impartial referees of the financial system?” he said.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez had long refused to negotiate with the hedge fund creditors, often calling them “vultures” for picking on the carcass of the country’s record $100 billion default in 2001.

The holdouts, led by New York billionaire Paul Singer’s NML Capital Ltd., spent more than a decade litigating for payment in full rather than agreeing to provide Argentina with debt relief. They also sent lawyers around the globe trying to force Argentina to pay its defaulted debts and were able to get a court in Ghana to temporarily seize an Argentine naval training ship. The threat of seizures forced Fernandez to stop using her presidential plane and instead fly on private jets.

Restoring Argentina’s sense of pride and sovereignty after the 2001-2002 economic collapse has been a central goal of Fernandez and her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner.

Argentina has made efforts to return to global credit markets that have shunned it since the default. The government paid its debt to the International Monetary Fund and agreed in May with the Paris Club of creditor nations on a plan to begin repaying $9.7 billion in debts unpaid since 2001. It also agreed to a $5 billion settlement with Grupo Repsol after seizing the Spanish company’s controlling stake in Argentina’s YPF oil company.

Analysts say a new default undermines all of these efforts.

“This is unexpected; an agreement seemed imminent,” said Ramiro Castineira of Buenos Aires-based consultancy Econometrica.

“Argentina would have benefited more from complying with the court order in order to get financing for Vaca Muerta,” he added, referring to an Argentine region that has one of the world’s largest deposits of shale oil and gas.

Only a few international companies have made commitments to help develop the fields as many fear the government’s interventionist energy policies. The government has also struggled to get investors because it can’t borrow on the global credit market.

Prices for Argentine bonds had surged to their highest level in more than three years on the possibility that Argentina would reach a deal with the holdout creditors. Argentina’s Merval stock index also climbed more than 6.5 percent in midday trade on a likely deal.

Optimism had been buoyed by reports Wednesday that representatives of Argentina’s private banks association, ADEBA, were set to offer to buy out the debt owed to the hedge funds. In return, the reports said, the U.S. court would let Argentina make the interest payments due before midnight Wednesday and avoid default.

The deal failed to materialize.

“It is an unfortunate situation which is pushing the country into another default. As defaults go, we all know when we get into one but it is very unclear when and how to get out of it,” said Alberto Ramos, Latin America analyst at Goldman Sachs.

“We just added another layer of risk and uncertainty to a macro economy that was already struggling,” Ramos said.

___

Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava, Ben Fox and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.

MONEY Debt

9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors

iPhone submerged in water
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

More than a third of Americans have debts reported to collection agencies. If you're one of them, here are the repayment and negotiating strategies you need to know.

Today’s encouraging economic news notwithstanding, plenty of Americans are still struggling with their own personal economies. According to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute, more than 35% of Americans have debt that has been reported to collection agencies. What’s more, the share of consumers in collections hasn’t changed, even as overall credit-card debt has decreased in recent years.

If you’re one of the many people being dunned for delinquent credit-card, hospital, or other bills, it’s easy to feel intimidated by collection agencies and confused about the repayment process. But rather than panicking and avoiding your collector’s many calls—and there will be many—here are 9 ways to gain the upper hand in negotiations and, most important, keep from paying a penny more than you have to.

1. Don’t Get Emotional

When a debt collector calls, he’s trying to assess your ability to pay and may attempt to get you to say or agree to things you shouldn’t. You’d be best served by keeping the initial call short and businesslike. Collection agencies are required by law to send you a written notice of how much you owe five days after initially contacting you. Wait to engage with them until after you receive this letter.

2. Make Sure the Debt Is Really Yours

If the debt sounds unfamiliar, check your credit reports. Request a report from each of the three credit bureaus for free from annualcreditreport.com and scan for any incorrect data. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that one in 20 consumers could have errors in their reports, and 24% of the mistakes people reported were about a debt collection that wasn’t actually theirs. (Learn more about how to fix costly credit report errors.)

3. Ask for Proof

Once you get written notice, contact the debt collector. If you are disputing the debt because of an error or identity theft, send a letter to the collector by certified mail within 30 days of receiving your notice stating that you will not pay and why. Also notify each of the three credit bureaus by mail, explaining the error and including documentation so that the problem can be removed from your report. If you are unsure about whether you owe money or how much you owe, ask the collector by certified mail for verification of the debt. That should silence the calls for a while; collectors must suspend activity until they’ve sent you verification of the debt.

4. Resist the Scare Tactics

Some debt collectors may try a range of tricks to get you to pay up, but it’s important to know your rights. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, collectors cannot use abusive or obscene language, harass you with repeated calls, call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., call you at work if you’ve asked them to stop, talk to a third party about your debt, claim to be an attorney or law enforcement, threaten to sue unless they intend to take legal action, or threaten to garnish wages or seize property unless they actually intend to. If the agency commits a violation, file a complaint with the FTC and your state Attorney General, and consider talking to an attorney about bringing your own private action against the collector for breaking the law.

5. Be Wary of Fees

Typically, the contract you agreed to when you took out the loan or signed up for the line of credit states how much interest a collector can charge on your debt. Most states have laws in place capping the amount of interest agencies can tack on. Check the balance the original creditor listed as “charged off” on your credit report. If there is a big increase in the amount the collector wants, consult your original contract. Your verification letter may also give you more info about how fees are calculated. If you believe the debt has been inflated, reach out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which might be able to resolve your issue with the collector.

6. Negotiate

Collection agencies will push you to pay the full debt at once, but if that is not an option for you, tell them how much you can afford to pay and ask if they will settle for that amount. If they accept these terms, get confirmation of the deal in writing before you pay. This way, you avoid any miscommunication about the total to be paid and time frame for the payments.

7. Call In Backup

If you and the debt collector can’t reach an agreement and it appears likely they will take you to court, consider hiring an attorney. While the fees and costs of doing so may be prohibitive, the collection agency is more likely to drop the case in favor of easier targets, a.k.a debtors without attorney representation.

8. Know the Time Limits

Creditors may imply that court action can be taken against if you don’t pay up, and while that’s true, there is only a certain window of time—typically three to six years—in which a creditor can sue you over the debt. While you’ll still owe the money, and collectors may still call about it, creditors cannot take you to court over it once it’s past your state’s statute of limitations. Statutes vary widely by state and type of debt, so check your state’s specific rules if the collector is calling about older debts.

9. Don’t Get Tripped Up By Your Own Good Intentions

Collectors can’t legally “re-age” your debt by giving it a new delinquency date, but you can inadvertently extend the statute of limitations or restart the clock in some states by making a payment on old debt, agreeing to an extended repayment plan, or even acknowledging that the debts is yours.

More Help for Conquering Debt:

3 Simple Steps to Get Out of Debt

7 Ways to Improve Your Credit

Which Debts Should I Pay Off First?

 

 

TIME Money

Study: 35% of Americans Facing Debt Collectors

The word "Bankruptcy" is painted on the side of a building in Detroit on Oct. 25, 2013.
The word "Bankruptcy" is painted on the side of a building in Detroit on Oct. 25, 2013. Joshua Lott—Reuters

The delinquent debt is overwhelmingly concentrated in Southern and western states

(WASHINGTON) — More than 35 percent of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies, according to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute.

These consumers fall behind on credit cards or hospital bills. Their mortgages, auto loans or student debt pile up, unpaid. Even past-due gym membership fees or cellphone contracts can end up with a collection agency, potentially hurting credit scores and job prospects, said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank.

“Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections,” Ratcliffe said. “It can tip employers’ hiring decisions, or whether or not you get that apartment.”

The study found that 35.1 percent of people with credit records had been reported to collections for debt that averaged $5,178, based on September 2013 records. The study points to a disturbing trend: The share of Americans in collections has remained relatively constant, even as the country as a whole has whittled down the size of its credit card debt since the official end of the Great Recession in the middle of 2009.

As a share of people’s income, credit card debt has reached its lowest level in more than a decade, according to the American Bankers Association. People increasingly pay off balances each month. Just 2.44 percent of card accounts are overdue by 30 days or more, versus the 15-year average of 3.82 percent.

Yet roughly the same percentage of people are still getting reported for unpaid bills, according to the Urban Institute study performed in conjunction with researchers from the Consumer Credit Research Institute. Their figures nearly match the 36.5 percent of people in collections reported by a 2004 Federal Reserve analysis.

All of this has reshaped the economy. The collections industry employs 140,000 workers who recover $50 billion each year, according to a separate study published this year by the Federal Reserve’s Philadelphia bank branch.

The delinquent debt is overwhelmingly concentrated in Southern and Western states. Texas cities have a large share of their populations being reported to collection agencies: Dallas (44.3 percent); El Paso (44.4 percent), Houston (43.7 percent), McAllen (51.7 percent) and San Antonio (44.5 percent).

Almost half of Las Vegas residents— many of whom bore the brunt of the housing bust that sparked the recession— have debt in collections. Other Southern cities have a disproportionate number of their people facing debt collectors, including Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi.

Other cities have populations that have largely managed to repay their bills on time. Just 20.1 percent of Minneapolis residents have debts in collection. Boston, Honolulu and San Jose, California, are similarly low.

Only about 20 percent of Americans with credit records have any debt at all. Yet high debt levels don’t always lead to more delinquencies, since the debt largely comes from mortgages.

An average San Jose resident has $97,150 in total debt, with 84 percent of it tied to a mortgage. But because incomes and real estate values are higher in the technology hub, those residents are less likely to be delinquent.

By contrast, the average person in the Texas city of McAllen has only $23,546 in debt, yet more than half of the population has debt in collections, more than anywhere else in the United States.

The Urban Institute’s Ratcliffe said that stagnant incomes are key to why some parts of the country are struggling to repay their debt.

Wages have barely kept up with inflation during the five-year recovery, according to Labor Department figures. And a separate measure by Wells Fargo found that after-tax income fell for the bottom 20 percent of earners during the same period.

MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

image (8)
Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

MONEY Debt

Have You Conquered Debt? Tell Us Your Story

Have you gotten rid of a big IOU on your balance sheet, or at least made significant progress toward that end? MONEY wants to hear your digging-out-of-debt stories, to share with and inspire our readers who might be in similar situations.

Use the confidential form below to tell us about it. What kind of debt did you have, and how much? How did you erase it—or what are you currently doing? What advice do you have for other people in your situation? We’re interested in stories about all kinds of debt, from student loans to credit cards to car loans to mortgages.

Please also let us know where you’re from, what you do for a living, and how old you are. We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.

TIME Congress

The Tricky Gimmick Congress Will Use to Fund Your Highways

Congress pays for a 10 month fix now by threatening greater deficits later.

On Monday night the White House endorsed the House Republicans’ plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund—which finances highways, roads and bridges—alive for the next 10 months, saving about 700,000 jobs. While the bill will bring the Transportation Department program back from the brink of a crisis, it uses an accounting trick known as “pension smoothing” to pay for it. Here’s a guide on why the short-term revenue raiser is no good for the long haul.

What is pension smoothing and why should I care about it?

Pension smoothing raises money for the government in the short term in exchange for increasing the debt over the long term. By reducing pension contribution requirements, pension smoothing temporarily increases companies’ taxable income to raise revenue for the government. But over the long-term, companies will be on the hook to contribute more to their pension funds, lowering tax revenue. Some conservatives, including fellows at the Heritage Foundation and Keith Hennessy, a senior White House economic advisor under President George W. Bush, have warned that pension smoothing increases the risk of a taxpayer funded bailout of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government insurance company that protects pensioners from risk in their private plans.

Does anyone like it?

Congress in the past has turned to the tactic in dire situations (see next question) because it is pro-employer and a revenue raiser in the short-term. Since the Congressional Budget Office scores bills in 10-year windows, supporters of the House and Senate bills to save the Highway Trust Fund can avoid questions about raising deficits in the long-term.

It’s no one’s ideal revenue raiser. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, told TIME last week he’s “not real happy about pension smoothing,” but still “dedicated” to passing this year’s fix. On Tuesday, reporters asked House Speaker Boehner at a press conference why he would support pension smoothing, which Republicans decried earlier this year as a gimmick when Democrats wanted to use it to fund an emergency unemployment insurance extension.

“These are difficult decisions in difficult times in an election year,” said Boehner. “It is a solid piece of legislation that will solve the problem in the short-term. The long-term problem is still there and needs to be addressed.”

Several outside think tanks and media organizations have announced their opposition to pension smoothing, including the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the editorial board of the Washington Post, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Has pension smoothing been used before?

In 2012, Congress first turned to the revenue-raising gimmick to fill another transportation funding shortfall. Last year, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) included it as part of a failed proposal to repeal an Obamacare provision and end the government shutdown. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans tried to use it to extend unemployment insurance. Now it will be used to save the Highway Trust Fund from insolvency.

What are the alternatives?

A month ago, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill to raise the federal gas tax (currently around 18 cents a gallon), which hasn’t been changed since 1993 and is the main source of financing the Highway Trust Fund. The Corker-Murphy bill would address the cash-strapped program by increasing the tax by 6 cents in each of the next two years and then index the rate to inflation. Besides the Corker-Murphy bill, Congress could tax drivers on how many miles they drive and communities could set up more tollbooths. Other potential long-term solutions are in the works but unlikely to pass this year.

MONEY Student Loans

WATCH: Why Illinois is Suing Over Student Loans

Illinois is suing debt consolidation companies for allegedly fraudulent student loan practices.

MONEY Divorce

The 7 Biggest Money Mistakes That Divorcing Women Make

Divorcing couple arguing
Hybrid Images—Getty Images/Cultura RF

A financial planner flags the costly errors women commonly make when a marriage breaks up.

Divorce, in my experience, is about two things: children and money.

The courts in most states typically will prioritize children’s interests first and foremost. Courts will also protect children’s entitlements by enforcing child support.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a comparable authority that protects a divorcing spouse’s financial needs. The law simply mandates a fair and reasonable financial outcome.

And beware: Dividing marital property is almost always a one-shot deal, for better or worse. Simply thinking that your outcome is unfair is not enough to try to reopen your judgment. To successfully appeal a division of property, you have to clear a very high bar: You have to prove that the divorce court made a mistake when considering the facts of the divorce or applying the divorce laws in your state to the case. Alternatively, you have to prove fraud or duress.

Over the course of years working with divorced and divorcing spouses, I’ve found some common financial mistakes that women make that threaten their financial security.

I’ve listed the mistakes here so you can be forewarned. Let me add a word of caution, though. It’s not enough to know that these issues can be a problem. You may feel as though you can handle them on your own. But with many of them, it is crucial you seek expert financial advice.

  1. Trading off part of the financial settlement you’re entitled to in exchange for securing child custody or greater visitation time.
  2. Underestimating your financial needs and assuming you can reduce your budget without consideration of the proportion of fixed overhead expenses.
  3. Believing in the “lawyer knows best” myth and letting your attorney dictate what your goals are and what your best short- and long-term outcomes are. You must be knowledgeable and responsible for your own financial security.
  4. Deciding financial issues one at a time and neglecting the interaction of factors such as income taxes, capital gains taxes, investment risk, inflation, and transferability of assets. All parts move like pieces in a puzzle and affect each other; they fall into place when you understand the comprehensive picture.
  5. Failing to adequately “insure” (that is, make enforceable) financial provisions of a settlement. If your spouse becomes disabled or dies, you may lose your support. You must protect your rights to your financial entitlements via life insurance on the payor.
  6. Failing to address unsecured debts or develop strategies for paying them off before your divorce is final. Unlike divorce — which is governed by state law — credit card debts and commercial loans are governed by federal law. Creditors do not care if your ex-spouse fails to pay off your debt as ordered in your settlement agreement. It is still your debt.
  7. Not planning, before the divorce is finalized, how to handle post-divorce financial issues such transferring pension benefits, securing health insurance, and changing ownership of accounts.

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Vasileff received the Association of Divorce Financial Planners’ 2013 Pioneering Award for her public advocacy and leadership in the field of divorce financial planning. Vasileff is president emeritus of the ADFP and is a member of NAPFA, FPA, and IACP. She is president and founder of Divorce and Money Matters, serving clients nationwide from Greenwich, Conn. Her website is www.divorcematters.com.

MONEY credit cards

The One Credit Card You Need to Ease Pain at the Pump This Summer

paying for gas
The right credit card can provide an antidote to pain at the pump. Ana Abejon—Getty Images

You can get as much as 5% back if you swipe it right.

If you’ll be spending part of this July 4th weekend in the car—whether that’s for a day trip to the beach or a 500-mile drive to visit the in-laws—be prepared to pay more at the pump this year than last. A gallon of regular gasoline sits at $3.70, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or about 9% higher than in 2013.

Those in the know, however, will be able to get a discount that mitigates the price escalation. How, you ask? With a cash back rewards card that gives them some extra juice at the gas station.

The picks that follow can get you up to 5% back on your purchase at the pump. You’ll notice something about these selections: None of them are gas-station-branded cards. The ones below offer more flexibility and more money back.

If you want to get the most money back possible…

We at Money are pretty big fans of the class of credit cards that offer 5% cash back in rotating categories. Within the category, both the Chase Freedom and Discover It offer 5% at the pump from July to September on the first $1,500 spent. That means if you spend $250 a month on gas, you’ll end up saving almost $40.

If you’re planning a cross-country road trip, it might pay to sign up for both. The Freedom and It cards are fee-free, so there’s no downside to doubling up.

But if you’re only planning on getting one, go for the Chase Freedom, which offers a $100 sign-up bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months, says CreditCardForum.com’s Ben Woolsey.

If you’d rather have an all-purpose card…

Managing a number of credit cards for specific categories can be daunting for some consumers. If that’s you, check out solid cash back cards that offer good rewards throughout the year. BankAmericard Cash Rewards holders, for instance, earn 3% on the first $1,500 spent at gas stations the entire year without having to pay an annual fee. There’s also a $100 sign-up bonus once you spent $500 in the first three months.

Also consider Money’s Best Credit Card winner American Express Blue Cash Preferred. While this card comes with a $75 fee, you receive 3% back at gas stations in addition to a $150 sign-up bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Where it comes out ahead of the BankAmericard is if you’ll also use it at the supermarket, since the best feature of Blue Cash Preferred is the 6% cash back you get on the first $6,000 spent on groceries.

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