November 2017 Archives

Yesterday, I published the first half of this article, describing the issues currently preventing a return to a more normal real estate market, and the facts that any proposed solution needs to be built upon. At a quick recap, the main facts to take into account are: magic solutions don't exist, people will continue to be people, The Mortgage Loan Market Controls the Real Estate Market. The main issues causing problems are: Overly paranoid underwriting, the overly restrictive requirements regarding income documentation that do not take into account societal changes since they were solidified in the 1930s, and a return of an old (and discriminatory) monster known as the 60% owner occupancy rule that is only going to get worse with time.

So, how would I fix this mess?

First off, I'd get rid of the 60% owner occupancy requirement for condominium loans. Other than scale, I can't see a difference between this requirement and Redlining, which has been illegal for decades. Furthermore, it's just helping the already rich get richer, to the detriment of those without large amounts of cash for a down payment. I described this issue at length in the first half of this article, so I don't want to make those who have already done so wade through it again, but if you haven't read the first part you probably should. This article will still be here when you're done. I've said many times I don't hate rich people and I want to be one of them, but they don't need the rules artificially rigged in their favor. Nor, unlike investments in employment producing enterprises, does this provide economic benefit to the economy. It's a purely parasitic transfer of wealth from those who don't have a large amount of cash to those who do.

Second, repeal or substantially amend the rules essentially prohibiting all but private money lenders from making more money when they make a riskier loan. I don't want to bring back loan sharks, not that they're kept out now. The current rules enacted in 2009 don't keep loan sharks out and they do keep out the enterprises with the ability to bring real competition back to the field. Allowing the regulated lenders with access to the capital markets to make these loans means that for consumers there is both more money available and a less costly alternative to loan sharks. More money legally able to make these loans means more supply for the same demand which means lowered interest rates, as well as meaning that people have the ability to choose whether getting the loan they can qualify for and get puts them into a better situation, instead of being locked out by law. In the early 1990s recession, such loans and the lenders who made them were at least one of the biggest drivers of recovery, perhaps even the biggest - but they're completely absent now because Congress and the Federal Reserve made them illegal in 2008. Allow mortgage securities investors to make more money if they assume a little more risk, and many of them will choose to do so. In fact, net returns on the secondary mortgage market are so low right now it's hard to imagine a scenario where the increased money they make does not more than pay for the increased risk, meaning pension funds and the like which are required to have so many percent of their money in mortgage securities can maybe start showing something more closely resembling a reasonable rate of return to those investing in them.

Third, we need something (or several somethings) that fills at least part of the niche that Stated Income loans used to fill. Yes, Stated Income was badly abused, but when it existed, there were people it was intended for and those who made responsible use of it for many years. The self-employed, those with large deductible expenses, those with gaps in employment or changes in career. When Stated Income loans went away, a large number of people who weren't having any difficulty making their payments suddenly found they were unable to refinance when their loan hit the end of the fixed rate period. People who were making the payments and had made ALL of their payments, had excellent credit, good reserves of money they could access if they had to, suddenly found their 5% interest rate shooting up to 9% or more but through no fault of their own were completely unable to refinance into something more affordable because the rules they originally qualified under were gone, made illegal at the stroke of a pen by the government. Many lost their homes solely for this reason.

I am NOT saying bring back Stated Income. I am saying we need alternative methods for documenting income that are generally acceptable, and acceptable in all loan niches from A paper down to what used to be called sub-prime. Methods of documenting and making acceptable to underwriters interrupted income. Change in Job Title or Career, providing you can show me a stream of income for at least four to six months at what you're doing now, should no longer be a reason to refuse a loan at all. I think the maximum you should be allowed is the stream documented in the current career, but income from all careers you may have had over some relevant period should be allowed up to that maximum. To illustrate what I'm saying, if six months ago you went from making a salary of $3500 per month as a clerk to $6000 per month as a nurse, you should get credit for ($6000x6months + $3500x18 months)/24 months = $4125 per month. If you did the reverse, you get credit for $3500 per month because the maximum is what you're making currently. Document the income, but be real about the economic changes that have happened since the traditional standards were adopted. Currently, if the sort of situation described in these examples applies, regulatory underwriting standards automatically reject the loan, and that's not in anyone's best interest. Current loan standards reject the loan even if someone went from being an employee making $6000 per month to being a contractor with a contract for $9000 per month for doing the same work, and that is nonsense on stilts.

Finally, I'd concentrate on the low end of the market - real first time buyers. I don't mean what the NAR considers to be "starter homes" of up to the conforming loan limit. I mean the people making $10 or $15 dollars per hour and the properties it would be appropriate for them to purchase as first time buyers. These people strongly tend not to have large down payments because they can't save them on such salaries. If a couple is both making $15 per hour, they're making about $4800 per month. If they've got car payments and maybe some debt, they can maybe afford a $200,000 loan at 6%, which may be higher than current rates but is low in terms of both historical rates and where we're most likely headed.

In most of the dense highly populated urban areas where the majority of the actual population lives, this means condominiums, or developments that may look like detached housing but are still legally condominiums. But condominiums or true single family detached housing, this price range is the real foundation of our housing market.

The real first time buyer market is damned weak for reasons that go back nearly 15 years now. In the Era of Make Believe Loans, the people in this market segment got leapfrogged by real estate agents and loan officers who realized they could make a larger commission by selling the people who should have been buying one of these properties a more attractive and therefore more expensive property. And now, with the 60% owner occupation rule for condominiums, the people who should be the market to buy these are locked out of the vast majority of condominium ownership because nobody will fund the loan they need to buy.

Let's take a slightly more in depth look at the situation of this couple who each make $15 per hour. With taxes and health care, if they can save $500 per month, they're doing better than 95%+ of their compatriots, and at $500 per month it takes them about seven years to save a traditional 20% down payment, assuming no financial setbacks at all. How many times you know has a car gone seven years without needing repairs? Why should their cars be any different?

What I'm trying to get at is that these people do not have enough for a traditional 20% down payment, and rules that require them to have that much are not based upon reality. Such rules will crash the market further, if implemented as currently proposed. This will result in further transfer of wealth from these people to the people who already have the cash for a down payment, who then are able to buy for a lowered price, and turn around and make a profit by renting to these people. Even a 10% down payment takes three and half years to save, while a 5% down payment takes just under two years, and none of these figures include the actual costs of buying the property nor any reserves so that a minor setback that occurs in the first couple years after purchase isn't an unrecoverable financial disaster. Think about that: Two years of scrimping and saving just to make a bare minimum 5% down payment, plus at least another year so they can pay the actual costs of buying, plus perhaps another year or more so they've still got something in the credit union in case the car needs fixing after they've bought the property. Minimum four years, more likely 5 or more, of focused disciplined saving just to have the money for a 5% down payment that the wealthy people in Congress and the lenders behind them are trying to outlaw as too small by a factor of 4. I have a great number of words for those who would mandate a 20% down payment rule for all loans, but I can't use any of them in a family friendly environment.

When I look at the loans which are out there and available to the general public right now, there is one loan program which the first time buyer with a 5% down payment can qualify for: The FHA Loan. The downsides, however, are many. The most significant is that the FHA loan is one of those government controlled loan programs out there that never did repeal the 60% owner occupied ratio requirement, and the FHA is now more firmly wedded to it than ever. Practically speaking, this means that once a condominium complex drops below 60% owner occupancy once, those wanting to buy there will never be able to get an FHA loan again. In point of fact, I don't know of any loan current loan programs requiring less than 25% down without a 60% owner occupancy requirement.

The FHA loan charges an insurance premium to borrowers to pay for the chance of default on the loan. Even if there is evidence somewhere showing that the 60% owner occupancy ratio significantly increases risk of default or loss, even if this requirement isn't illegal for precisely the same reason why Redlining is illegal, there is no reason on God's Green Earth why this insurance premium cannot be adjusted to pay for such increased risk, and if ever there has been a reason why we should make an entire insurance pool pay a slight increase in premiums, this is certainly that instance. The practical fact in favor of it is that paying to remove the 60% owner occupancy requirement prevents a crash in value of that development the first time it drops below 60% owner occupancy. Remember, The Mortgage Loan Market Controls the Real Estate Market. If the FHA won't lend on the complex, and every other lender requires 25% down payment in order to buy, people with less than 25% down payments can't buy there, which means the prices fall for that complex. When the value of a property falls, especially for reasons like that, likelihood of default skyrockets. There's a strong likelihood that removing the 60% owner occupancy requirement will lower the default rate over time, thereby lowering the risk and therefore the premiums necessary for that risk.

Even if such a step does not lower the default rate and therefore the risk over time, insurance pools are legally obligated to pay increased premiums in innumerable instances for purposes of social engineering. If you're not going to argue for the abolition of all of them, show me a more deserving candidate. You can't, because there isn't one. I'm a diehard libertarian and deficit hawk, and I'd vote for the US taxpayer financing this increased cost if there was no other way because the benefits to the treasury would far outweigh the cost. The FHA needs to abolish their 60% owner occupancy requirement immediately if they want to move people in urban areas onto at least the bottom rung of ownership. If they don't want to move people onto the bottom rung of ownership, then why do they exist?

(Note: At this update, the FHA is now using a 35% occupancy rate. While this is better than 60% for several reasons, everything I said about 60% still applies at 35%.)

Once people are flowing once more into the bottom rung of housing ownership, I think the market will pretty much sort itself out. It won't be immediate and it won't be perfect, but solutions alleged to have either of those properties rarely function anything like intended. Putting into effect small changes intended to push the markets back towards normal don't prevent someone from also finding some other solution I've overlooked, they won't hamper the implementation of additional ideas, and someone does try other solutions this cannot do anything but help push the market back towards normalcy. Those who currently own and live in bottom rung units will have equity increase as well as just flat out being able to sell, enabling them to in turn move to the next higher rung on the ladder if they so desire - and many of them desire, because they've been wanting to sell and move up for years but haven't been able to sell because the loan markets have been so screwed up, first in one direction (leapfrogging them) then the other (cutting them off from potential buyers).

As a general rule, It's really only first time buyers that have issues with saving a down payment. Once you're an owner, equity tends to increase over time. Not universally, and not evenly, but the vast majority of home owners are paying their balances down every month and when normal conditions apply, values do tend to increase for many reasons. The point is, if you buy a $100,000 condominium that increases in value to $130,000 over a period of several years while paying the balance down to $80,000, when you sell you'll walk away with $40,000 after expenses of selling - a perfectly acceptable down payment for much pricier properties. This is the "move up" or "property ladder" idea that, when the loan market isn't as screwed up as it has been, happens every day because of natural demographics. Normally, "move up" owners tend to have more of a down payment than they really need.

It takes some time, but the people in the rungs above that will see the benefits from this as well. It's straightforward macroeconomics. The "move up" or "property ladder" effect works on such a routine level that it's like water is for fish. Fish don't realize water is there, and most folks take the property ladder so much for granted that it is built into all of their assumptions about housing. The fact that it's so screwed up right now is itself one of the biggest things wrong with the housing market. Fix the property ladder, and you go a long way towards fixing the entire market, given time. It doesn't make everything magically better overnight, but as I told you at the beginning, there's no "magic wand that makes it all better right now" solution. There are, however, a few cheap and easy fixes that get things almost inexorably started in the right direction, especially if undertaken together.

Caveat Emptor

Original article here


Lots of folks have offered lots of different proposals for fixing the real estate markets and the mess we were in (and continue to be in to a less obvious degree). All of the ones I have seen have suffered from one or more of about three problems. First, the majority have been suffering from what I like to call "magic wand" syndrome: somebody waves this magic wand and all of a sudden everything is magically all better. Not gonna happen. Macroeconomics doesn't work that way.

Second, they think that people are somehow magically going to stop doing things in their own best interest. Sometimes I wonder if blunt enough language exists to get through these folks' mental barriers. Any proposed solution that wants to have a hope of being successful is going to have to acknowledge that people will continue to be people, and in the main, act in what they perceive to be their own personal best interests.

Third, they fail to understand that the loan market controls the real estate market. I'm going to be talking about the implications of this fact quite a bit in this article. If the loans don't exist, neither do the buyers, at least not in sufficient numbers. The alternative, waiting for people to be able to afford to buy with cash, would mean either a massive crash in housing prices - to the point where nobody can profitably build - or stagnation until massive inflation takes hold and general price levels catch up, which has the same implications for value in the housing market and much worse implications for everything else. The only way to move away from the loan market controlling the housing market will effectively crash the value of housing much further than it has already fallen. Whether this is done by maintaining dollar cost constant while everything else spikes, or by crashing the actual value, the implications are the same. It takes a certain amount of materials and a certain amount of labor to create an acceptable housing unit, and the costs for those are well in excess of what most people can afford to pay 100% cash for in a unit of housing or anything else. If the people can't afford to pay for it, there won't be any sold, and before too long there won't be any more being built. Yeah, we could go back to one room log cabins and massive unreinforced masonry apartment buildings with no running water or electricity, but I happen to think that the idea of having at least a minimal building code is a good idea. It costs money to comply with building codes - more money than most people are willing or able to save prior to purchasing a home. That's the situation as it would exist without loans. Lest you think the influence of loans is something recent recent, here's entertaining evidence otherwise. Seventy year old evidence that most of you will have seen before, if probably not considered in this context, describing a phenomenon that had been widespread in the United States since the 1830s. When you're looking at the real estate market, you're essentially looking at the loan market - the exceptions are damned few, statistically speaking.

So understand that if you want to fix the real estate market - really fix it - what you really need to do is fix the loan market.

This is far from straightforward, and yet the evidence is overwhelming that we have problems. 26.8% of all loans were rejected in 2010. That's 26.8% of ALL loan applications - the data wasn't broken down by loan type, but I strongly suspect it was lower for "rate/term" refinances and higher for both "cash out" and purchase money, as that would be in line with what I know and what's related to me by others in the business. 2010 was a great year for refinancing as rates tumbled - but few could actually qualify. I know I don't want to take an application if I don't have a reasonable idea that this loan should stand an excellent chance of approval. If the values in the neighborhood don't support an appraisal that's going to work, I'll tell the folks, "Look, I will process this if you really want me to, but I think you're wasting your time and about $450 for an appraisal. The highest selling price within the distance and time that appraisers are allowed to consider is 10% less than the value we need - and that was a bigger property well maintained." Similarly, if the debt to income ratio isn't going to work, it's better serving both the applicants and myself to find out as soon as possible.

What are the sorts of things I'm seeing or hearing about as reasons for a decline on an application? Most common is that appraised value of the property is too low, usually on a refinance simply because bargaining power for those willing to actually make a purchase is so great right now. Somebody owes $400,000 on what was a $600,000 property and is now a $440,000 property - a 91% Loan to Value ratio, and that's for those people who don't owe more than the property is currently worth. No lenders want to refinance above 80% loan to value right now (some will, with PMI, but even there 90% is about the absolute limit). Net result: That rate under 4% for a thirty year fixed rate loan you see everyone quoting is no good if you can't qualify for it because you don't have the equity and you sure as heck don't have the cash to pay your loan down that far. If you're in default or in trouble, your current lender will likely work with you in the hopes of avoiding losses. That's not the same thing as a regular refinance. I predicted this problem back in March 2006.

Another reason: Debt to income ratio doesn't work, usually because of a term of low to non-existent income. In plain English, someone has been laid off, or downsized, and it took them a while to find a new job. Even if the income now is as high as the income was before - it usually isn't - due to the way lenders calculate income having six months of missing income can completely kill your chance of a loan until that period is at least 2 years in the past. Stated income is essentially dead, so there just isn't a good way around this. I can get you a hard money loan at 13% or so if your equity is good enough (25% or more; 35-40% if there's "cash out") but that just doesn't help most people.

These ways are pretty much predictable. I can look at the situation before we even complete the application and tell if it's likely to be rejected on such grounds. Yeah, I'm perfectly willing to go ahead and try if the people say to try, but most people get the message when I tell them that in my experience, if they submit a loan application it is likely to be rejected. I can't remember anyone who told me to go ahead and commit them to spending the money for the appraisal when I'm talking about predictable reasons for rejection. From what other loan officers have told me, this tends to be their experience as well.

The majority of the actual rejections are ones that I never would have predicted. This class of failures seems to stem from mortgage investors who have taken losses and are now completely paranoid about losses, to the point of ridiculousness. I think the most egregious was a lender refusing to refinance because there was a private money second that had been originally written to comply with their own specifications when the people bought the home. I was the original agent and loan officer, and the client's parents wanted to give them a loan that would be forgiven in accordance with federal gifting rules so as not to create estate tax problems. So under the lender's instructions, we wrote it up with a given interest rate and payment schedule that did not take into account the planned forgiveness and did include the projected payments in the client's debt to income ratio. Everything worked, everything fit, everything completely above board, legal, verified and copacetic- until the refinance several years later where the bank wouldn't lend because this - much shrunken - private money second was still in place - even though the holders would sign any subordination the lender wanted, or even reconvey the trust deed and convert it into an unsecured personal loan. There was no issue whatsoever with property loan to value ratio, client credit, debt to income ratio or anything else. Just a flat rejection because they owed money to a non-institutional lender. I have yet to tell this story to another loan officer or processor without getting a three word response that most people abbreviate "WTF?", usually with severe emphasis on the last word thereof. (Under other circumstances, it would have been hilarious coming from my processor who is usually quite ladylike). I tried taking the loan elsewhere only to be told it wouldn't be approved there (or there, or there, or ...) either, in large part due to paranoid investor rules about approving loans that had been rejected elsewhere.

Just because the worst I can personally vouch for, but that doesn't mean it's the only one. Refusing to allow the inclusion of rental income for other properties despite extensive documentation of it actually being paid. Slight job title changes due to consolidated duties. Many things that would take way too long to explain, but I (and other loan officers and our loan processors) have been flabbergasted by. Crap that just wasn't on the radar even 20 years ago, well before the Era of Make Believe Loans, but today it's being used as a reason to refuse a loan application.

Now, let me ask "Who is being hurt by the current state of the loan market?" Yes, lenders have taken some real damage, but they are not among those being hurt the worst from current events and going forward. Their pain is mostly in the past, and the ones that have survived this far are pretty much insulated from bad effects going forward. The federal government has assumed the liabilities for the bad loans. They're also still making their usual and customary margin - if not more - on every loan they sell to the secondary market ("mortgage investors" above). In point of fact, lenders - who in my opinion bore far and away the largest non-governmental share of guilt for the meltdown - are doing very well with sweetheart deals from the Federal Reserve and other government agencies, not to mention the hundreds of billions they got through TARP.

Consumers are being hurt far worse. Few people can buy because they can't scrape up the higher down payment necessary even considering the lower prices. As a result, people who need to sell for whatever reason, can't sell.

Another group taking it in the shorts are mortgage investors. A lot of these are pension plans and investor groups who have to invest a certain amount in mortgage securities, because they have traditionally been such a solid investment and there are therefore requirements to invest in them written into their charter documents. The results of this are as obvious as gravity: if you're not making diddly squat on something you're required to have and which you have recently lost a blortload of money on, you're going to be certain you only fund the very safest ones, leading to the paranoid nonsense of underwriting rules discussed earlier and other things that prevent would be borrowers from getting the money to borrow.

Making the entire situation worse are several rules the federal government has passed, allegedly to "protect" consumers, but the net effect is to protect the big lenders with the large bundles of campaign contributions from competition, and even if the politicians in Congress are ignorant enough to believe these rules benefited consumers, the lenders who sponsored them are not. Among other things, these rules prohibit both charging significantly higher rates of interest to compensate for risk and funding loans without having traditional documentation to show the people can afford it.

I'm going to cover the latter item first. Stated Income (and so called "NINA programs, which you may have heard called "ninja" loans) were so badly abused I doubt I can communicate how much damage it did to people who weren't dealing with the situation every day of their working lives. But traditional income documentation was set in place when almost everyone worked the same job with the same company from the time they first went to work as teenagers to the time they retired. I shouldn't have to tell people how rare that is today, or how common disruptions in employment, changes in employer, or even career field, let alone moving to self-employment. The income documentation it requires is inflexible and doesn't take into account the way people work in this modern world. We change jobs, change careers, get promoted, get laid off, go back to school and find new careers, sometimes at intervals measured in months. The response of traditional income documentation to all of these is to cause the loan to be rejected. Pardon me, but I really don't think that someone who can document making $10 an hour in one field, $11 per hour in a second, and $12.50 an hour in a third all within a 2 year window is a larger risk for extended unemployment than anyone who has been solely in any one of the 3 fields. If one field of employment dries up, they still have two others where they have a track record of employment. Traditional lending standards, however, disagree. Such an applicant will be rejected outright for the loan because they cannot show 2 years in the same line of work. Even if the 2 years same line of work requirement here were to be relaxed, lending standards declare that said folks are only able to count the income from the one they're currently in, averaged over a 2 year period even though they may only have been doing it a few months. $12.50 per hour over six months is about like making $3.12 per hour over two years, and the loan is rejected because debt to income ratio is too high.

In regards to the former item, if lenders can't charge more interest to allow for higher risk, then there will be no higher risk loans made, despite the fact that they are good loans and the ability to get those loans puts people into better situations. If Young Couple A can get a loan for $90,000 on a $100,000 condo at 8% - much higher than currently available rates - their monthly cost of mortgage become $660, which even with $250 per month for association fees and $100 per month for property taxes means they are paying almost $300 per month less than the $1300 per month rent they were paying for an identical unit elsewhere in the complex, and they're building equity with that money and they OWN the damn thing, which means they are motivated to take care of it. If it is a condo, they get a seat at the table in deciding how to manage the complex. If not, they get to decide all on their own. This also generates all sorts of other good things that I have yet to hear anyone make a single argument against in my time on this planet. Unfortunately, they probably can't get that loan on a condominium, even without this restriction, because of the re-institution of another brain damaged rule: The 60% owner occupancy requirement.

The 60% owner occupancy requirement for condominiums is an old monster come back to life. VA and FHA loans, controlled by the federal government, never dropped this requirement, but every other loan program in the known universe did. When the federal government nominally reassumed ownership of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which had been ruined by political requirements and political appointees, as they were always controlled by politicians), Fannie and Freddie were required by Congress to resume requiring 60% owner occupancy, and so the entire mortgage market in homage to investor paranoia above re-instituted this requirement. Practical effect: Once a condominium complex drops below 60% owner occupancy even once, units in that complex will never be eligible for any of the loans designed to move people into at least fist time ownership ever again, because from that point forward the only people who can buy are the ones with enough cash that they don't need a loan that comes with a 60% owner occupancy requirement. Remember, the loan market controls the real estate market.

Let me also observe that there are a lot of places out there that are legally condominiums even if they may not look like it. A group of detached dwellings on a large lot sharing parking and community recreation? Odds are long they are legally condominiums, and therefore the lender must treat them as condominiums. If it's got a Homeowner's Association and dues, it's most likely a condominium. Many developments in recent years have taken the "legally it's a condominium" route because it makes the property more valuable and means the developer can make more money. But once they drop below 60% owner occupancy, they're still stuck with the rules that lenders have for condominiums, and the questions isn't if it's going to bite a given development, but when.

The fact that these units are not eligible for those loans means that most people can't buy them. Since most people can't buy them, the value drops until some investor realizes that for a $30,000 investment in what used to be a $100,000 condo but is now only worth $60,000, he can make over $750 per month by renting it for $1300 to the poor suckers who can't buy because they don't have the down payment required. Additionally, his equity is increasing every month. All because the renters can't manage to save the necessary down payment because they're too busy paying all their money to investors like this. Overall effect: Transfer of wealth from the less affluent to the more affluent. The people who already own them when such a change happens see a loss of a large portion of their value, quite likely going from having made a significant upfront investment to owing more than the property is now worth - because your average buyer who might actually want to live in it, can't buy it, it's worth far less. I should also mention that in practice this is extremely discriminatory in effect. If it were a private company doing this, it would be probably disallowed by the courts because try as I might to have someone point me at research that shows the 60% owner occupancy ratio means something tangible, nobody has been able to do so. Even if such research exists somewhere, may I point out that Redlining has been illegal for decades? What is the 60% owner occupancy ratio if not Redlining on a smaller scale?

(Note: FHA and other government loans are now using a 35% owner occupancy ratio. While this is better, it's still not good. Everything I said above still applies, even if it is an easier bar to clear and possible that if a development drops below 35%, it might get back to that level)

This is the situation we face in the current housing and loan markets. Tomorrow, I will propose some solutions. Not grand sweeping costly solutions that will allegedly fix everything overnight. Solutions like that not only aren't real; they tend to screw the markets up even worse. But incremental changes grounded in accepting the changes in society that have happened in my lifetime. Small touches that make a big difference over time, by allowing the markets to return to a state where the vast majority of those who would like to buy do not face artificially increased barriers to ownership, and therefore, the people who currently own and would like to sell are able to do so.

continued here

Original article here

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