Political Calculations
Unexpectedly Intriguing!
31 March 2009

We're not sure if this qualifies as a "Markets in Everything"(TM Marginal Revolution) item, but somewhere, some excessively over-enthusiastic Picasso fanatic may just have finally realized the living room furniture of their dreams (via Core77):

We especially love the homey touch provided by the doilies, but Hannes Grebin's description of the furniture is truly something to behold:

"I wanted to dissolve the otherwise clear symmetry of furniture and its visually coded function. I found out that terms like taste or comfort are a matter of learning, which are changing at any time and can easily be adapted. Therefore, in an experiment I tried to dissect the familiar image of cosiness. Despite their fractal and asymmetric geometry the furniture perfectly meets the demands of ergonomics."

Our translation of what Hannes Grebin said is the title of this post....


30 March 2009

Kitov, 2006, Figure 1: Observed and predicted inflation (GDP deflator) There are two questions that we'll seek to answer in this post:

  1. How might the change in a nation's population over time affect its rate of inflation?
  2. Are U.S. baby boomers the most inherently evil generation ever in economic history?

Before we go any further though, for the sake of eliminating the suspense involved, here are the answers to both questions:

  1. Predictably.
  2. Yes.

We are being a bit facetious with our second question, but let's see if you don't draw a similar conclusion after we work through the first question.

That question arises as we've recently been looking to develop a model for anticipating the future rate of inflation in the United States, which we could then incorporate into the kind of tools we develop and make available to everybody in the world here at Political Calculations. In doing that, we began with a July 2006 paper by Ivan Kitov, a geophysicist whose work in economics we first became familiar with back in 2005 (via one of David Smith's discussion forums, whose archives unfortunately appear to only go back four years), which has intrigued us for some time: Exact Prediction of Inflation in the USA.

In the paper, Kitov presents his findings of a remarkable correlation between the measured rate of inflation observed in the U.S. and the change of the size of the U.S. workforce over the years from 1965 through 2002, which is observable in the figure we've excerpted from the paper. In this chart, we see that inflation, as measured by the GDP deflator, closely follows the trajectory determined by the change in the size of the U.S. labor force (dLF) with respect to the total labor force (LF) some two years earlier. In simpler terms, changes in the rate of inflation in the U.S lag the change in the relative size of the U.S. labor force by a two year period.

How That Might Work

How might changes in the size of the US. workforce drive changes in the U.S. inflation rate? We suspect that the answer to that question lies in the change in consumption patterns driven by those entering and exiting the U.S. labor force.

As individuals first enter into the labor force, a good portion of their personal consumption of goods and services becomes driven by things related to their work. Things like increased expenditures for clothing suitable for their work, transportation, housing, and the cost of all things related to these kinds of consumption items lead to a relative increase in the demand for these goods and services.

Aguilar & Hurst, 2008, Figure 1: Core and Total Nondurable Expenditures Over the Lifecycle Log Deviation from 25 Year Olds This consumption pattern is sustained throughout an individual's working life, until they retire. Shortly after retirement, personal consumption expenses tend to drop sharply, as work done by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst demonstrate in their 2008 paper Deconstructing Lifecycle Expenditure. We've excerpted a chart from this paper (left) to show how attaining retirement age would appear to affect personal consumption.

This chart runs for individuals from Age 25 through Age 75, showing the log deviation in personal consumption expenditures from the level recorded for 25 year olds. We see personal consumption rising from Age 25 through Age 45, peaking in the range between Age 45 and 55. After Age 55, as retirement takes place, total personal consumption expenditures (the top pink line) fall steadily before leveling out over Age 65, the generally accepted age of retirement in the U.S.

Aguilar & Hurst, 2008, Figure A1: Fraction Employed and Hours Worked Over the Lifecycle The chart to the right illustrates that the drop in consumption coincides with the rather dramatic reduction in the fraction employed and hours worked for individuals over Age 60. Aguilar and Hurst argue that this change in individual personal consumption is driven almost entirely by the individual's departure from the workforce. Simply put, they reduce their spending by the amount they previously incurred to participate in the workforce over their working portion of their lives.

Why the Baby Boomers Are Inherently Evil

Now that we've established that work drives certain kinds and levels of personal consumption at different points in an individual's life, let's consider what happens when we apply that kind of lifecycle spending pattern to millions of individuals.

Here, if the aggregate number of individuals entering the workforce increases each year, we can reasonably expect that the relative increase in the demand for the work-driven goods and services that they consume would tend to drive prices higher. Conversely, if the aggregate number of individuals exiting the workforce each year increases each year, we can reasonably expect that the relative increase in demand for work-driven personal expenditures will fall, taking prices lower with them. Meanwhile, if the aggregate number of individuals both entering and exiting the workforce are nearly equal over time, we can expect that prices will remain fairly stable.

Number of Registered Births in the United States, 1909-2004 Beginning with that idea of stability, let's consider the effect that we might expect the baby boom generation's entry and pending exit to the U.S workforce to have upon the rate of inflation in the United States. The baby boom generation consists of those individuals born between the years of 1946 and 1964. During these years, the number of people born in the U.S. were substantially higher than in the two decades both preceding and following.

Adding 18 and 22 years onto 1946, we see that significant numbers of baby boomers would begin entering the U.S. workforce in large numbers in 1964 (for those with a high school education) and 1968 (for those graduating college.) Adjusting for the two year lag between the change in the size of the U.S. labor force and a correlating change in the rate of inflation, we would reasonably expect to see a surge and sustained increase in the level of the U.S. inflation rate, first beginning in the years from 1966 through 1970.

That is, in fact, exactly what we do see as the average annual rate of inflation jumped from a range of 0.7% to 1.9% in the years from 1961 through 1965 to a range of 3.0% to 6.2% from 1966 through 1970. More than that however, we see inflation continue to run at high levels throughout the baby boomer entrance into the U.S. workforce.

But what happens when the net number of individuals entering the workforce is no longer climbing with respect to the aggregate number of individuals leaving the workforce? Or better yet, what can we expect as the leading wave of baby boomers begin retiring in large numbers. Kitov explains:

The changes in the inflation behaviour observed in the 1970s and 1980s are a pure consequence of the accelerated labor force growth associated with the measured participation rate increase (Kitov, 2006a). There were two distinct phases in the participation rate increase separated by a short period of "quietness". When reached its peak value around 1983, the participation rate effectively stalled at the attained level and has not been changing since then. As a consequence, the labor force has been growing only due to the growth in working age population. This period is known as "Great Moderation" and was possible completely due to the constant participation rate and population growth at an annual rate above 1.0% since 1983.

The "Great Moderation" is currently approaching its natural end. The labor force projections made by various institutions (CBO, 2004; BLS, 2005) undoubtedly indicate a decrease in the participation rate and a decaying growth rate of the working age population. According to the projections, staring from 2010, the annual increase in labor force will be less than 1,200,000 – the value separating inflation and deflation. Hence, a deflationary period is very probable starting 2012 because of the two-year lag between the labor force change and inflation.

In relying upon the CBO's and BLS' labor force projections, Kitov is off by several years for projecting the onset of a period of deflation to begin in the United States. Going by the workforce participation rate observed by Aguilar and Hurst, for which Age 60 marks the beginning of a sharp reduction in the average number of hours worked per individual coinciding with retirement, which the leading edge of baby boomers would reach in 2006, we would anticipate a sustained period of deflation to begin in 2008, given Kitov's observed two-year lag between change in labor force and change in inflation rate.

And so we see that in addition to perhaps driving the high rates of inflation in the 1970s, the baby boomers very existence may also be driving the deflationary forces that are giving Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke the worst kind of nightmares these days. We therefore conclude by finding that U.S. baby boomers are perhaps the most inherently evil generation ever in the economic history of the world.

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27 March 2009

Carnival Midway from The Jerk Welcome to the Friday, March 27, 2009 edition of On the Moneyed Midways, where once again, we bring you the best money and business-related blog posts that we found in the past week's best money and business-related blog carnivals!

If there's a theme among the posts we selected for this week's edition, it's perverse incentives. Things like how closing down a credit card can actually lower your credit score. Or why measures implemented to control workers comp costs in California are actually driving the cost of workers comp up for employers in the Golden State. Or how the Democrat's proposals to expand health care to provide "universal" access by mandating it might instead drive primary care providers out of the business.

And best of all, how you can exploit a government program that allows you to buy U.S. dollar coins using your zero-interest APY for purchases credit card as a way to zero-out the interest on your existing high interest debt.

All these posts, and the rest of the best of the week that was, await you below!...

On the Moneyed Midways for March 27, 2009
Carnival Post Blog Comments
Carnival of Debt Reduction How Do You Improve Your Credit Score When Credit Companies Close Your Account? Cash Money Life Patrick discusses how credit scores are determined in explaining how closing down a credit card account can actually lower your credit score.
Carnival of Personal Finance Should I Buy Pet Insurance? MyMoneyMinute Jason recently had a pet health emergency and does the math to work out if pet insurance is really worth what it costs.
Carnival of Real Estate The Death of a Real Estate Blog The Real Estate Tomato Jim Cronin considers when he should throw in the towel on his real estate blogging. Absolutely essential reading! because the logic applies to any activity.
Carnival of the Capitalists The Zombie Guide to Human Resources Inside Forty Should your company's hiring and firing practices resemble the plot to a zombie movie? James Archer's take on how the walking dead can influence your HR practices is Absolutely essential reading!
Cavalcade of Risk Comp Medical Managemenet: Study Profiles Runaway Costs, Weak Results The Sentinel Effect Richard Eskow reflects upon the findings of a study that reveals that perverse incentives to control costs that are really leading to runaway costs in California's workers' comp system.
Cavalcade of Risk Self-Reinforcing Negative Feedback Loops: A Simplistic Threat to Primary Care Disease Management Care Blog Jaan Siderov applies the lessons he learned from Paul Krugman's Depression Economics to Obama's proposed health care reforms to predict why they might cause local primary care practices in the U.S. to collapse. Absolutely essential reading!
Festival of Frugality I Don't Make Enough to Save Money Single Guy Money The Single Guy delivers a dose of reality to a friend who doesn't seem to get that her chronic lack of money has a great deal to do with her chronic lack of fiscal discipline and out-of-control spending habits!
Money Hacks Carnival Reduce Debt with a DIY Balance Transfer Five Cent Nickel Simply brilliant. Nickel explains how to create your own fee-free, zero-interest balance transfer for your high interest debt by exploiting the U.S. Mint's direct coin purchase program in The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere!

Previous Editions


26 March 2009

Suburban Commando Camouflage Pattern In evolutionary terms, it's easy to understand why so many animals have developed coloring or texturing that allow them to remain nearly invisible in their native habitats. This kind of camouflage gives them a competitive advantage that other members of their species might lack, which first helps to aid their own survival against predators while also helping ensure the survival of their offspring. Over time, the adaptation for protective coloring spreads over the entire population of the species.

But what about people? It's no surprise that camouflage has long been used by hunters to be successful in their pursuits, not to mention its obvious utility in military applications, but what other places might the ability to better blend into one's surroundings provide a similar competitive advantage?

Would you believe in the crease in front of the net in hockey? Via Core77:

Trevor Leahy's Camouflaged Goalie Pads

High school senior Trevor Leahy has used design to give him a slightly unsportsmanlike advantage: Combining skills he learned in a graphic design class with readings on Darwinism and camouflage, hockey goalie Leahy has developed a set of goalie pads that resemble the very net he's guarding.

"When the shooter comes down and only has a split second to shoot the puck, they're looking for net," said Leahy, a senior from Hampton, N.H., who grew up in Byfield. "If you put the net on the pad, they'll shoot at the pad instead of the goal."

So far, Leahy has logged two shutouts with the pads. In practice, two of Pingree's top scorers say, the illusion is particularly effective when there's a scramble in front of the net and they need to shoot quickly... [Opposing players] say they have fired the puck directly into Leahy's pads. The illusion diminishes if they are farther from the net, with more time to shoot.

Leahy, who had the pads custom-made by a Canadian manufacturer, has applied for a design patent."

Theoretically, if the early observed level of success continues, we should see other goalies begin adopting the same kind of camouflaged goal patterns on their pads in short order. Better still, we should also expect how hockey is played to change as well. For example, we might expect longer shots on goal become more frequent than they are today because the opposing players would be more likely to score.

Or more interestingly, perhaps they could turn the tables and evolve their own form of camouflage to get closer to the net, undetected.

Previously on Political Calculations

What lessons can we learn from the humble boxfish when it comes to designing more fuel efficient cars? We find out in our original post Rediscovering Nature!

Image Credit: OPFOR


25 March 2009

Last December, Tyler Cowen asked:

Are there conditions, however rare, under which market adjustment and convergence does not occur? If a few of the vertices get stuck, can it become impossible for the economy to fulfill its mutating pinwheel program of change and adaptation?

To which, the ever-quippable Ironman at Political Calculations commented:

I would think yes. A series of disruptive events could prevent order from re-emerging. A realistic example of that would be an initial shock, followed by others or, more likely, a series of responses that prevent a new equilibrium from forming.

We hate it when Ironman* goes out and makes statements like this, because that means that we end up with a lot more work to do, especially when we haven't already done the work to back up Ironman's wild claims yet.

S&P 500 Average Monthly Index Value vs Trailing Year Dividends per Share, April 1963 through February 1976 And now that Ironman has put us on the hook like this, we have to ask: are there any examples of anything like a series of disruptive events that acted to prevent the return to order (aka "convergence") in a market? Fortunately for us, we have a case study: the U.S. stock market from April 1963 through February 1976.

What makes this period of stock market history unique is that it begins with a period of order, which provides a context against which we can appreciate the magnitude of disorder resulting from a series of disruptive events. In this case, those disruptive events prevented order from being re-established in the stock market for a decade. Here's our chart demonstrating the emergence of order, then the breakdown of that order and the series of significant and disruptive events that acted to keep a newer level of order from re-emerging.

As a side note, we find that this period, perhaps more than any other we've reviewed to date, most closely resembles the period from June 2003 onward in which we find ourselves today. That said, here are the major events that we identify as coinciding with the milestones we marked on the chart above.

Major Events Coinciding with Stock Market Milestones, April 1963 through February 1976
Month and Year Major Event/Comment
April 1963 Following a period of disorder, the market enters into a period of stability, in many ways, very similar to the period of June 2003 through December 2007.
May 1965 Sudden, significant (greater than two standard deviations) downward shift in stock prices. We've previously noted that this kind of change is often an early warning that established order in the stock market is beginning to break down.
February 1966 Another sudden, greater than two standard deviation downward shift in stock prices. We've found that this type of move, following months after an earlier move, may indicate that a breakdown in stock prices is imminent.
April 1966 The last uptick in stock prices before the previous order in the stock market finally breaks down. In May 1966, the market breaks through the -3 standard deviation lower equilibrium limit that the market had established between April 1963 and April 1966.
October 1966 A micro-recession begins in the U.S., with corporate dividend payments falling for the next quarter.
March 1968 The stock market bottoms and begins a rapid recovery in April 1968 as President Lyndon Johnson announces on 31 March 1968 that he will not seek re-election, even after winning the New Hampshire primary earlier in the month.
November 1968 Richard M. Nixon wins the 1968 election for the U.S. presidency.
November 1969 Stock prices fall as the U.S. economy slows and inflation grows throughout 1969, officially entering into recession in December.
May 1970 Stock prices plunge following President Nixon's ordering the invasion of Cambodia on 30 April 1970 and widespread anti-war protests take place. Forward momentum of stock dividends stops.
November 1971 Stock prices bottom before the U.S. dollar is officially devalued on 18 December 1971 and the U.S. leaves the gold standard for setting currency values.
January 1973 Stock prices peak as a peace agreement between the United States and North Viet Nam is announced, including the return of U.S. prisoners of war.
October 1973 Israel is attacked by four Islamic nations beginning the Yom Kippur War. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigns in disgrace. On 16 October 1973, the Arab-dominated oil-producing cartel OPEC announces a total embargo of nations supporting Israel's defense, targeting the U.S. on 20 October 1973. The Saturday Night Massacre involving the firing of prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal takes place.
March 1974 The OPEC oil embargo against the U.S. is ended on 17 March 1974.
August 1974 Richard M. Nixon announces he will resign as U.S. President on 8 August 1974 as a result of the Watergate scandal.
January 1975 The two-year long stock market crash of 1973 and 1974 ends and stock prices resume an upward trajectory.
September 1975 Stocks bottom after falling sharply beginning in July 1975, as another micro-recession takes hold in the U.S. with corporate dividends first stalling then falling for a six month period.

February 1976 Order resumes as the growth rate of both stock prices and corporate dividends stabilize. The long series of disruptive events affecting the stock market ends.

In case you're interested in seeing what other trouble Ironman got us into in replying to Tyler's post, here's the rest of his comment, beginning with another excerpt from Tyler's original post:

Today, banking, finance, and construction all need to shrink and indeed they are shrinking. Given the centrality of lending and project evaluation, is a sufficiently healthy banking sector needed for the pinwheel to properly turn? Must investors abandon their quest for liquidity to bring their information to bear on market prices?

You need to first define what a healthy banking sector looks like and does. What we know today is that a healthy banking sector doesn't look like what it did in the last decade, nor should it do what the banking sector did in the last decade. Instead, we should look at those financial institutions that escaped the carnage and make it possible for more of those kinds of institutions to rise to the forefront.

The biggest problem out there is that far too many people are consumed by trying to put things back the way they were. In a way, it's almost like they're trying to re-assemble a cow from a truckload of hamburger - what they're doing ain't pretty, nor is it likely to be successful.

The kind of equilibrium stability theory that obsessed Franklin Fisher was written off as irrelevant some time ago. Maybe people will start looking at it again.

Well, yes, now that you mention it, some are, although I think that an econometric approach is the wrong way to go.

The problem is that a lot of econometrics tries to shoehorn real world data around a Gaussian normal distribution, which ultimately requires one to assume the underlying datapoints are statistically independent of each other. That's not how the world really works.

That approach can be useful and periodically holds, once you adopt Paretian assumptions (where power-law distributions and interdependencies hold), how prices change become lot easier to explain. Even in our current situation.

We're going to have to reign Ironman in.

Previously on Political Calculations

We've been systematically going backwards through time to identify the major periods of order and disorder in the S&P 500. Here are the posts with our discussion, with links to the charts included in each post:

* Who is Ironman, anyway? This post is all that we have that offers intriguing clues!

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24 March 2009

Question Economics, as it's often practiced, is really a kind of "cargo cult science."

That term was originally advanced by physicist Richard Feynman. Here's how he defined it, after describing a number of examples of the achievements of the practitioners of modern pseudosciences, such as reflexology and UFOlogy, and also the "soft sciences" represented by the fields of education and criminal rehabilitation:

... In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas -- he's the controller -- and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

So how does that insight apply to the field of economics? Better still, how does that apply in the current state of the world today?

Doug Reich explains:

... rather than understanding and initiating the fundamental cause of some effect the cargo cult imitates the form of the causal process in the hope that it will bring them the actual effect. In this case, the islanders created an imitation airport in the hopes that it would result in actual goods being brought by airplanes. In the same way, Keynesian economists can be thought of as cargo cult economists.

Everywhere we hear the Keynesian doctrine that in order to restore economic prosperity, we must encourage spending. If only people would spend we would be OK. The Fed is lowering interest rates to zero in order to encourage lending. Obama is proposing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to "restore" economic growth. Naturally, the money for these programs will be created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve when it purchases Treasury securities with fake money.

In a simple barter economy, you would not think to offer nothing for a good that you desire. You would offer something that you own or have created. In reality, nothing changes when you introduce a medium of exchange (money) in order to simplify transactions. In order to actually spend money, you must produce something and offer it as a value for a value. In other words, spending or "demand" is a consequence of production. Your demand is your supply which is in essence Say's Law.

Notice that the cargo cult economists try and imitate the form of a valid economic transaction by advocating the creation and expansion of paper money. When the government prints paper money and offers the paper dollars for goods and services, it appears that someone has produced wealth and is exchanging it for an equal value. After all, in the past, when the paper was backed by real wealth (gold), it was observed that there was a lot of paper money around. So, just as the cargo cults fabricated control towers and runways in the hope that it would bring real goods, the cargo cult economists believe that by creating paper money with fancy ink and stamping a large number on it, wealth will result. But just as the "planes don't land" for the islanders, creating paper money does not create goods.

What we observe among "cargo cult economists" is an absolute devotion to economic theory in absence of real empirical evidence that might support the theory, or worse, evidence that directly contradicts what would be predicted to happen by applying the theories. We see, for instance, Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman pushing for massive amounts of fiscal stimulus and qualitative (or quantitative) easing of monetary policy by the Fed, despite all evidence to the contrary of either policy ever being genuinely effective.

But why is that? Why would such a prominent economist apparently disregard the actual outcomes observed from applying the economic theories he advocates? Why would he also go so far as to suggest that the inevitable failures from applying such demonstrated flawed or inadequate theories are either the inevitable result of not doing even more of what the theory demands or because the people responsible for executing the policy were incompetent to do so.

Physicist Jean-Phillippe Bouchaud tackles that question in his essay Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution, which appeared in edited form in the October 2008 edition of Nature, and from which we stole the title of our post (emphasis ours):

Classical economics is built on very strong assumptions that quickly become axioms: the rationality of economic agents, the invisible hand and market efficiency, etc. An economist once told me, to my bewilderment: These concepts are so strong that they supersede any empirical observation. As Robert Nelson argued in his book, Economics as Religion, the marketplace has been deified.

It would seem the theory itself can never be wrong and can never be discarded. And that's the kind of thinking that can turn even a Nobel-prize winning economist into the leading witch doctor for the popular field of cargo cult economics, where unquestioning devotion to dogma outweighs observed reality. Bouchaud constrasts the hard science of physics with the soft science of economics (again, emphasis ours):

Physicists, on the other hand, have learned to be suspicious of axioms and models. If empirical observation is incompatible with the model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient. So many accepted ideas have been proven wrong In the history of physics that physicists have grown to be critical and queasy about their own models. Unfortunately, such healthy scientific revolutions have not yet taken hold in economics, where ideas have solidified into dogmas that obsess academics as well as decision-makers high up in government agencies and financial institutions. These dogmas are perpetuated through the education system: teaching reality, with all its subtleties and exceptions, is much harder than teaching a beautiful, consistent formula. Students do not question theorems they can use without thinking.

Bouchaud continues on to offer his prescription for strengthening the economics profession, but we'll conclude with his assessment of the outcome of applying economic models that rely upon assumptions not supported by real-world empirical observations:

Reliance on models based on incorrect axioms has clear and large effects. The Black-Scholes model was invented in 1973 to price options assuming that price changes have a Gaussian distribution, i.e. the probability of extreme events is deemed negligible. Twenty years ago, unwarranted use of the model to hedge the downfall risk on stock markets spiralled into the October 1987 crash: -23% drop in a single day, dwarfing the recent hiccups of the markets. Ironically, it is the very use of the crash-free Black-Scholes model that destabilized the market! This time around, the problem lay in part in the development of structured financial products that packaged sub-prime risk into seemingly respectable high-yield investments. The models used to price them were fundamentally flawed: they underestimated the probability of that multiple borrowers would default on their loans simultaneously. In other words, these models again neglected the very possibility of a global crisis, even as they contributed to triggering one. The financial engineers who developed these models did not even realize that they helped the credit mongers of the financial industry to smuggle their products worldwide –they were not trained to decipher what their assumptions really meant.

Real science begins with observations, then moves onto developing models that describe observed reality, which are then tested and tried by experiment under normal and extreme conditions. In our view, that's the direction economics needs to go if it's ever to develop into a true "hard" science.


23 March 2009

With the S&P 500 flirting around the 800 level today after plunging to a low of 676.53 at market close on 9 March 2009, we thought we'd take this opportunity to graphically point something out:

Accelerations of S&P 500 Average Monthly Index Value and Trailing Year Dividends per Share (and Futures)* - 23 March 2009

The two points highlighted on the chart are the values of the accelerations in the rate of growth of both stock prices and expected future trailing year dividends per share that directly correlate exactly with the closing value of the S&P 500 on 9 March 2009 of 676.53 and the midday value for the index on 23 March 2009 of 799.50. All the other points for stock prices represent the acceleration in the rate of growth of the average monthly value of the S&P 500. Also, please note the date for when the futures data for the S&P 500's dividends per share was extracted....

Given that the expected future level of dividends per share are those available as of 4 March 2009, we'll confirm that today's market action is not due to the latest banking bailout proposal from the U.S. Treasury, despite Reuters' claims to the contrary.

It is instead being driven by the expectation that the current economic crisis will not be getting any worse than already expected. Stock prices are simply going where the expected growth rate of dividends per share some 9-10 months into the future are driving them.

As for where stock prices will be heading, see here.

Update 4:35 PM EDT: And we're there! The S&P looks to have closed above 822.95, right within our target range. Look for it to bounce around and near this level for a bit.... (Link will include data through 23 March 2009 when Yahoo! Finance updates their database for the S&P 500's closing value.)

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20 March 2009

Carnival Midway from The Jerk Welcome to the Friday, March 20, 2009 edition of On the Moneyed Midways, where we're ready to not be so nice this week while presenting the best money and business-related posts we found among the week's best money and business-related blog carnivals!

Why not be nice? As it happens, that turns out to be the common theme shared by the two posts that made some pretty compelling arguments against excessive niceness in business matters that we declared to be Absolutely essential reading! this week.

But then, they weren't good enough to be the Best Post of the Week, Anywhere! That post, and the rest of the best of the week that was, follow now....

On the Moneyed Midways for March 13, 2009
Carnival Post Blog Comments
Carnival of Debt Avoid Paying $81 Billion On Your Credit Card Restoring Your Finances and Your Faith How closely do you check the line items on your billing statements? Kathryn tells the story of Juan Zamora, who filled his gas tank and month later, received an $81 billion dollar bill.
Carnival of HR Best Is Not Always Nice HR Bartender Sharlyn Lauby makes a pretty compelling case that the best bosses aren't necessarily the nicest ones in Absolutely essential reading!
Carnival of HR A No Bull-#$&! Performance Review Process Great Leadership Dan McCarthy advocates boiling the annual performance review dreaded by both employees and employers down to the most basic level possible.
Carnival of Personal Finance Are Student Loans Bad? Living Almost Large LAL takes on the conventional wisdom that "student loan debt is good" in considering the pros and cons of taking on debt to pay for school.
Carnival of Real Estate Precisions Without Accuracy | Why Housing Statistics Can Be Just Plain Wrong Exit Real Estate 540 Can you go by the sale prices in your area to determine the value of your home? Ben Roberts says housing statistics may not be telling you the real story because they lump two different kinds of housing markets together.
Carnival of Taxes What Law Requires Us to Pay Taxes? Bargaineering With tax time approaching, Jim provides an invaluable service to the anti-taxpaying hucksters who claim that there's no law requiring Americans to pay their taxes.
Carnival of the Capitalists Death by Contract - Or Lack Thereof Small Business Trends Absolutely essential reading! Diane Helbig argues that when business is involved, it's time to put being nice aside in favor of protecting your interests through contracts.
Festival of Frugality A Frugal Diet or a Frugal Lifestyle Frugal Dad The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere! Jason wonders whether efforts to live a more frugal lifestyle is more like a fad diet than a real change.
Money Hacks Carnival Switching Majors or Careers Studenomics The studenomist weighs in on when and why a student might consider ditching their major in favor of another.

Previous Editions


19 March 2009

Theoretically, the reason governments tax businesses is to support the costs that businesses impose on taxpayers, or rather, to pay for the things and services that governments provide that specifically benefit businesses.

In practice however, the politicians and bureaucrats who run governments tend to look at businesses purely a source of potential revenue for funding their ambitions. The only real question is to what extent do they do so, and the answer to that question can have a significant impact on the future growth of businesses within a given government jurisdiction.

The accounting firm Ernst & Young address that issue in their January 2009 report Total State and Local Business Taxes, explaining how the burden of state and local government taxes on businesses impacts the potential for their future economic growth:

If state and local business taxes were equal to the value of the benefits business received from state and local public services, they could be considered a payment for services and taxes would not influence business location decisions or impact competitiveness. However, if state and local business taxes exceend the value of the benefits received from government services, the difference represents an excess cost to business that will reduce profitability in the absence of shifting the tax through higher prices or lower payments to labor. When such excess costs exists, they can affect a company's choice of locations.

To that end, Ernst & Young calculated each U.S. state's business tax burden ratio - the ratio of business taxes to benefits received by businesses in each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. We've presented their data in the dynamic table below, which you can sort either from high-to-low or low-to-high value by clicking each of the column headings:

Ratio of Business Taxes to Government Expenditures Benefiting Businesses, FY2006
State 2006 State and Local Business Tax Collections ($billions) 2006 State and Local Expenditures That Benefit Business ($billions) Ratio of Business Taxes to Expenditures That Benefit Business
Alabama 6.0 3.8 1.58
Alaska 2.9 1.2 2.53
Arizona 9.8 6.0 1.64
Arkansas 3.5 2.3 1.51
California 70.2 42.1 1.67
Colorado 8.0 4.1 1.95
Connecticut 7.0 4.0 1.74
Delaware 1.9 1.1 1.72
Florida 31.6 19.9 1.59
Georgia 13.3 6.8 1.95
Hawaii 2.4 1.4 1.77
Idaho 1.9 1.2 1.57
Illinois 25.6 11.9 2.15
Indiana 10.1 5.2 1.94
Iowa 4.8 3.0 1.61
Kansas 5.2 2.9 1.83
Kentucky 6.5 3.6 1.80
Louisiana 9.7 5.2 1.85
Maine 2.8 1.2 2.23
Maryland 8.6 5.9 1.47
Massachusetts 12.7 7.1 1.79
Michigan 16.3 10.0 1.63
Minnesota 9.3 4.5 2.08
Mississippi 4.0 2.4 1.70
Missouri 7.7 4.5 1.71
Montana 1.6 0.9 1.73
Nebraska 3.3 1.8 1.86
Nevada 4.9 3.5 1.42
New Hampshire 2.5 1.2 2.18
New Jersey 18.1 9.8 1.85
New Mexico 3.9 2.3 1.69
New York 52.2 25.6 2.04
North carolina 11.6 7.3 1.58
North Dakota 1.5 0.7 2.06
Ohio 18.0 10.2 1.77
Oklahoma 5.8 2.8 2.09
Oregon 4.7 3.3 1.43
Pennsylvania 21.8 11.1 1.97
Rhode Island 2.2 1.3 1.78
South Carolina 5.6 3.3 1.70
South Dakota 1.4 0.7 1.98
Tennessee 9.0 4.2 2.15
Texas 47.6 21.5 2.22
Utah 3.4 2.2 1.49
Vermont 1.3 0.7 1.90
Virginia 11.1 7.7 1.43
Washington 13.7 6.4 2.14
West Virginia 3.2 1.6 2.05
Wisconsin 9.1 6.0 1.54
Wyoming 2.4 0.6 4.21
District of Columbia 2.1 1.0 2.04
United States (Total) 543.9 297.5 1.83

For the results, Ernst & Young estimate that 25% of the cost of education in each state directly benefits businesses. They also state that the data in the table:

... illustrates the range of tax to benefit ratios, from 1.43 in Oregon to 4.21 in Wyoming. In other words, in every state the business tax burden exceeds the value of government services that directly benefit business.

Which means that every one of the U.S. states are unnecessarily putting themselves and their citizens at a competitive disadvantage.

For our part, we were surprised at the high business tax-to-business benefit ratios determined for both Alaska and Wyoming, which both have reputations for being low-tax states, but Ernst and Young explain that this result is due to "their significant severance taxes."

HT: King Banaian


18 March 2009

The San Francisco branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve puts you in the shoes of the Fed Chairman with an online game where you set U.S. monetary policy via the level of the federal funds rate while the economy throws inflationary and deflationary shoes at you!

Our results:

Ironman Reappointed as Fed Chairman!

We had the U.S. dollar plummet in value during our tenure as imaginary Fed Chairman, sparking off a bout of deflation. Our solution was to initially cut interest rates to a level between 1% and 2%, but to tolerate a low level of deflation, with the inflation rate dropping into negative territory between 0% and -1.5%. As deflation subsided, we slowly and steadily increased the federal funds rate target to ensure that inflation was kept at bay.

HT: Craig Newmark


17 March 2009

8:50 AM PDT: We've been looking for a challenge, and by gosh, we found one this morning as we were catching up with our favorite industrial design blog, Core77. It would seem that Amy Tenderich of the DiabetesMine blog has launched a Design Challenge for 2009:

Welcome to the 2009 DiabetesMine™ Design Challenge, an online competition to encourage creative new tools for improving life with diabetes.

Do you have an idea for an innovative new diabetes device or web application? This is your chance to win up to $10,000 to realize your design concept, and potentially help transform life with diabetes for millions of people.

Sounds pretty good to us! The chance to win ten thousand dollars is a lot of incentive so why not go for it?

Better yet, why not do it "semi-live?" We'll launch this new project this morning, beginning at 8:50 AM Pacific Daylight Time and track our progress as we go from idea to execution. We'll conclude our activities for today with whatever we come up with to officially enter.

The Idea

9:00 AM PDT: The thing that really attracts us to this challenge, aside from the potential for winning prize money, is that the web application aspect falls right into our core competency - we build online tools that solve useful problems, or more specifically, tools that do useful math to solve problems. So that's where we'll direct our attention. Our first question: What kind of math do those with diabetes do on a regular basis?

To find out, we'll go to the Internet's leading tool for finding information: Google, and do a search for "diabetes math."

From here, we reviewed the top three links returned by Google, along with the key takeaways we see:

  1. Math in Medicine

    In the treatment of Diabetes, math is used all of the time. Don't let this title scare you, using math to help treat kids with Diabetes is really quite simple. It's as simple as Carbohydrates and units.

    This site really isn't useful beyond that insight.

  2. Math for Diabetes | Googol Learning

    I [Shayne B., Age 10 of Edmonton, Alberta] was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes two years ago. I use math every day to decide how much insulin I need and how much food I can eat for my meals.

    I need two injections of insulin each day. Each injection is made up of two types of insulin - fast acting and slow acting. I don't ever change the amount of slow acting insulin, but I have to change the amount of fast acting insulin based upon my blood sugar levels. I need one extra unit for every four points that my blood sugar is above eight. I have to use math to calculate how much extra insulin I need.

    I have to test my blood sugars at least four times every day. If my blood is not in the range of 3.5 to 15, then I have to either eat or have extra insulin. I have to use math to determine if I need to do something.

    I have to have three snacks and three meals each day. I need to measure the amount of carbohydrates in each. I have to read the package and add the carbohydrates together until I get the desired amount for each snack or meal. I have to use math to calculate the amount of carbohydrates per portion and add these portions together to get the right total.

    I really do use a lot of math in my life. Without knowing math, I wouldn't be able to live life as well as I can now.

    Math would appear to be highly necessary for diabetes patients - it's literally a quality of life issue....

  3. American Diabetes Association, Novo Nordisk Inc. Announce Grant ...

    American Diabetes Association, Novo Nordisk Inc. Announce Grant Recipients

    Award Winners to Conduct Educational and Behavioral Research

    Alexandria, VA (January 26, 2005) — The American Diabetes Association Research Foundation today announced two recipients of a $600,000 grant from Novo Nordisk Inc. The gift was presented to the Association to support peer-reviewed research on educational and behavioral approaches to diabetes management with an ultimate goal to improve the health outcomes of people with the disease.

    The recipients are Victor Montori, MD of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and Russell Rothman, MD of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Montori will investigate the use of a new tool, called Insulin Choice, designed to help patients and clinicians overcome the barriers that might prevent patients with type 2 diabetes from considering insulin therapy earlier in the course of treatment. Patients who require insulin, but do not opportunely incorporate it into their treatment plan, may be more likely to develop the serious complications of diabetes including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, and nerve damage leading to amputations. Dr. Montori and his team anticipate that a decision-making tool such as Insulin Choice will lead to more opportune consideration of insulin therapy, resulting in improved patient outcomes.

    Dr. Rothman’s research will address the challenge of patient care for people with diabetes who have low literacy and/or numeracy (math) skills. These skills are particularly important to patients with diabetes because caring for diabetes often requires the daily application of math and reading skills, such as for counting carbohydrate grams, interpreting blood glucose monitoring, and applying insulin regimens. Dr. Rothman and his team will test the reliability and validity of a new scale, the Diabetes Numeracy Test, to measure diabetes related math skills in patients within the primary care setting. They also plan to demonstrate that a new educational program that teaches diabetes management skills that compensate for poor reading and math ability among diabetes patients will lead to better diabetes management..

    "This is an extremely important and often overlooked area of diabetes research," said Don Wagner, Chair of the American Diabetes Association Research Foundation. "We look forward to seeing the results of this innovative work which has the potential to lead to more effective strategies to improve diabetes management, as well as the overall health of people with diabetes.” He added, “We certainly appreciate the generous support of Novo Nordisk in making this research possible.”

    Diabetes is a chronic disease and a silent killer. 18.2 million Americans have diabetes and 1.3 million are newly diagnosed each year. Diabetes is the nation's fifth leading cause of death by disease, killing more than 213,000 people annually. A major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, diabetes is also the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and non-traumatic limb amputations.

    This press release demonstrates both the need and the potential for an aid for doing the math related to treating diabetes with insulin.

Taking all these things together, it seems to us that a online web application that aid those with diabetes with determining what amount of insulin they need might be an ideal focus for our efforts. That's where we'll go next....


9:18 AM PDT: The next phase of this project is to see what kind of math an individual with diabetes needs to do to find their correct insulin dosage. But before we can go any farther, are there any online tools that already exist? Another Google search is in order, this time, we'll look for "insulin dosage calculator."

Here, we scanned through several pages of results. The top returned link "Free Insulin and Nutrition Tools surprisingly doesn't offer any online tools for calculating insulin dosage levels, so we may have hit on a promising area.

We find the "Mealtime Insulin Dose Calculator, which is an Excel spreadsheet - this one cries out for conversion to a web-based tool with a simple interface!

We also find a number of applications for calculating initial insulin dosages, which probably wouldn't apply to an individual who is already taking insulin and just needs to maintain certain levels of it in their bloodstream for optimal health. Ditto for intravenous insulin dose calculators, which would most likely be medically supervised. We also find a number of software applications that can be downloaded, but that are device specific, which limits their utility.

There's a patent application for an "Insulin-Dose Calculator Disk" from 2003, which once again suggest to us an opening for an online application - something that can be accessed anywhere the Internet is, from any device capable of accessing the Internet, such as a mobile phone. Doing a separate search for such a disk on the market, we find the InsuCalc Insulin Dosage Wheel, which considers some 12 different combinations of insulin-to-carbohydrate ratios and blood glucose correction scales. The device appears to have been available since 2005, but only to and through diabetes healthcare professionals, "who can instruct their patients on the proper use of the device and monitor its effectiveness".

We find that Medtronic has something called the "Bolus Wizard® Calculator," which appears to be a feature offered on the company's insulin pumps.

Finally, we hit "A Simple Insulin Dosage Calculator", in an article by Neil Bason. This device is essentially a programmed calculator, but the beauty here is that Neil provides an example of the math the calculator does! We'll use this math to build a "proof-of-concept" prototype of the kind of tool we envision.

Proof of Concept Prototype

9:53 AM PDT: This is where we'll be doing the magic that we do best. Ready. Set. Go....

10:09 AM PDT: Done. Here's the prototype interface:

Blood Sugar, Carbohydrate and Expected Activity Data
Input Data Values
Your Current Blood Sugar Reading
Your Target Blood Sugar Reading Level
Your Carbohydrate Intake [grams]
Your Ratio of Carbohydrates to Insulin Units
Your Expected Level of Physical Activity

Calculated Results Values
Number of Insulin Units for Dosage

And that's it. The prototype tool above represents a proof-of-concept of how we might be able to create an online application for calculating insulin dosage levels that would be accessible from any Internet-access capable device, from PCs to game consoles to mobile phones to electronic readers, etc.

In the meantime though, we ask that individuals currently treating their own diabetes condition continue to use whatever method their medical providers have specified for calculating insulin dosages. As we indicated in the research section, there are a lot of different factors that go into determining insulin dosage factors, which our proof-of-concept tool may not cover (for example, our "default" unit insulin dose reduces blood sugar by 55 points - other types of insulin dosages may affect blood sugar levels by a higher or lower amount.) Plus, there's an entire review process that this tool will need to pass through before it might be considered to be an appropriate method of calculating an individual's correct insulin dosage level.

From this point, all that's left for us is to assemble an entry package to submit to the contest. We'll see what comes of it!

Update (18 March 2008): Did some minor editing to better clarify:

  1. Where patients might obtain an InsuCalc insulin dosage wheel, and
  2. That there are other types of insulin that affect blood sugar levels to varying degrees, while
  3. Also specifying to what extent the "unit" insulin dosage used as the default for our tool reduces blood sugar levels.

What can we say? The endorphin rush of innovation really mucks up our ability to write as clearly as we can!

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16 March 2009

Stock Market Chaos When we last looked at where stock prices were heading, back on 3 March 2009, we anticipated that the S&P 500 would drop to a range between 655 and 680. They arrived at that range just three days later, with the S&P hitting a low value of 666.79 and closing at a level of 683.38 that day. The next trading day, 9 March 2009, saw the S&P 500 close within our target range at a level of 676.55.

But really, when we forecast a target range for the S&P 500, we have no idea when it's going to get there. Alternatively, when we forecast when a market bottom might occur, we have no idea at what level the bottom will be. Sadly, that's just the nature of the kind of forecasting that we can do. As we've previously observed:

As a practical matter, our experience to date (and remember, we've only been doing this since December 2008) is that you can work out either how much things will change, or perhaps when they will, but not necessarily both simultaneously.

As we've been demonstrating, and despite White House economic advisor's Larry Summers exceptionally ill-informed "Irrational Pessimism" speech to the contrary, investors have been behaving in an exceptionally rational fashion in setting the level of stock prices. As the outlook for the expected future growth of corporate dividend per share payments declined throughout the first quarter, we find that investors have adjusted the level of stock prices in direct proportion to those expectations.

And that's no different today, with stock prices rebounding strongly after reaching the bottom we had forecast, although later than we had hoped (but still well within the window of time in which we anticipated a market bottom occurring.) So why are stock prices headed upward and where might they go next?

Accelerations of S&P 500 AMIV and TYDPS (and Futures) as of 16 March 2009 As best as we can describe it, what appears to be happening now is that investors are shifting their focus forward in time, to a period roughly 10 months into the future, as corporate earnings are expected to recover and the expected level of dividends per share stops declining. (Note to Larry Summers: this is not evidence of a robust economy. At this writing, it's evidence that investors are expecting things to stop getting worse.) This coincides with a positive acceleration we observe in the expected future rate of growth in dividends per share for the S&P 500.

The timing of this upward move isn’t an accident. With the imminent closing of the first quarter of 2009, most companies anticipating a worse-than-previously expected year have taken action to reduce their dividends, which removes a considerable amount of negative uncertainty potential from the market. Likewise, the end of the quarter means that a new dividend futures contract has opened, which when combined with the positive statements from the banking and financial sector of the economy in the past week, is in part responsible for the more forward-looking shift in investor focus that we've long been anticipating.

Barring any change in the outlook for the future growth rate of dividends that would require us to alter our forecast, with this forward shift in investor focus, we would anticipate that stock prices will rise to a range between 815 and 840, given the typical levels of the amplification factor that we've observed in the stock market since 2001.

Just don't ask us when exactly it will get there. We don't know! (See the fourth update below!)

Clarification: Our chart above gives the closing value of the S&P 500 for the point indicated for 13 March 2009 rather than the average of the S&P 500 index' closing values through this point of the month. We anticipate the average value for the month to be below the 815-840 range we've indicated on the chart.

Update (1:50 PM PDT): Sure enough, we make a prediction and some big company has to come along and cut their dividend! We'll be adjusting our target range after the dust settles in a few days....

Update 18 March 2009: The growth rate of dividends dipped a bit, but not much. Look for upward growth to continue toward the lower end of our target range, then stall out until the next shift in investor time frame focus or significant change in the outlook for dividend growth (a currently unexpected dividend increase or cut.)

Update 18 March 2009: (A little bit later in the day!) Hello, Oracle! Maybe we can go back to that original range - we'll see once the futures market incorporates the S&P 500's #24 company by market capitalization newly announced nickel-per-share quarterly dividend!

Update 23 March 2009: Okay, we hit our target range just seven days after we announced it!

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13 March 2009

Carnival Midway from The Jerk Welcome to the Friday, March 13, 2009 edition of On the Moneyed Midways, where we review the best posts we found in the best of the past week's money and business-related blog carnivals!

Friday the 13th is often considered to be the most unlucky of days by the superstitious. We're not superstitious, but we're thinking that there might just be something to it, because we were certainly unlucky in our weekly review of the blogosphere's money and business-related blog carnivals.

Why? Apparently, the second full week of March 2009 is when many of the people who volunteered to host blog carnivals simply chose to phone it in, rather than to lift a finger to help the bloggers who contributed to their carnivals by taking the time to actually present a reason to read their posts. Instead, in carnival after carnival, we were treated to some variation of the following description of the hundreds of honestly contributed posts:

Name presents Post Title posted at Blog Name, saying "Blogger provided and frequently unhelpful description of contributed post."

Repeat after us, lazy blog carnival hosts: "The Blog Carnival web site is evil. And obsolete. It generates worthless content that should never be used. Ever. Because it's obsolete. And evil."

Frankly, we find that running a simple Google Blog Search generates more worthwhile content. Don't believe us? Check out our "Carnival of Savings" for this week. It took us all of 15 seconds to create, and yes, it's better than anything automatically generated by the obsolete and evil Blog Carnival.

For an example of the kind of content a host should manually generate for a blog carnival, just scroll down for the best posts we found among the blog carnivals we could tolerate reviewing in the week that was....

On the Moneyed Midways for March 13, 2009
Carnival Post Blog Comments
Carnival of Debt Reduction Rent to Own Advice Peak Personal Finance Why is "renting to own is about the worst way possible to buy consumer goods"? Peak Personal Finance explains all, simply!
Carnival of the Capitalists Starting a Business Is Like Asking Out a Girl for the First Time My Wife Quit Her Job Steve tells the story of how he first met Jennifer (now his wife) and relates it to the kind of risk-taking someone seeking to launch a business needs to do.
Festival of Frugality How to Remove Burnt Smell from a Microwave? FIRE Finance Has the smell of burnt popcorn forever contaminated your otherwise well working microwave oven? The folks at FIRE Finance have been experimenting on what works to remove the odor (and also that "yellow film!") Absolutely essential reading!
Festival of Frugality Costco vs Sam's Club Wide Open Wallet Ashley throws the big-box wholesale retailing giants into a cage match! Who provides some 33 randomly-selected items at a lower cost? Click through to find out!...
Carnival of Everything Money Stocks vs Corporate Bonds Monevator The Investor describes the upside and downside of investing in corporate bonds as well as we've ever seen it done. Absolutely essential reading!
Leadership Development Carnival Truth and Transparency HR Bartender Sharlyn Lauby nails the difference between truth and transparency. The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere!
Cavalcade of Risk The Japanese Banking Crisis of the 1990s: Are We Facing a Similar Stagnation? The Personal Financier Absolutely essential reading! Dorian Wales considers the lessons to be learned from the Japanese in how they unsuccessfully dealt with their bubble-initiated banking bust.

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About Political Calculations

Welcome to the blogosphere's toolchest! Here, unlike other blogs dedicated to analyzing current events, we create easy-to-use, simple tools to do the math related to them so you can get in on the action too! If you would like to learn more about these tools, or if you would like to contribute ideas to develop for this blog, please e-mail us at:

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