Venezuela’s debt has been in “eventually it stops” territory for years now. The economy is reeling thanks to a violent 50% import cut. PDVSA is billions of dollars behind on payments to foreign partners critical to its operations. And people’s stomachs are churning because there literally isn’t enough to eat. China, Wall Street and a few other creditors are the only ones still getting paid.

Venezuela’s debt is obviously not sustainable right now, but if things changed, could it be? It’s hard to say given the uncertainties. For one, the government’s spending is a black box. Over half of the public sector’s budget is cash transfers to unconsolidated entities. PDVSA is another black box. Nobody knows exactly how much oil it exports and how much cash it gets for those exports. Plus a lot could change in the coming years: policy, the executive, oil prices.

But it doesn’t end there: Assessing debt “sustainability” in the context of mass-hunger and a depression has staggering ethical implications. Venezuela’s GDP in dollars is also unknown and arguably unknowable in the context of byzantine exchange controls. Venezuela is complicated. These details matter. But if you abstract the nuance away and look at the problem from thirty thousand feet, a clear picture emerges.

What is debt sustainability? How do you model it?

To assess debt sustainability, you typically start by modelling a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio. For the debt to be sustainable, three conditions must hold behind the modeling woodwork:

  1. The government’s income must be reasonably in line with its expenditures (fiscal accounts ).
  2. Foreign currency inflows must be reasonably in line with outflows (external accounts ).
  3. The country’s debt strategy must be realistic given political, social and economic constraints. (Must have margin for error, allow for economic growth and rally stakeholder support ).  

In any case, under my starting assumptions, Venezuela’s debt burden looks almost as bad as Greece’s. The base case assumes a:

  1. Sustained, long-run real GDP growth of 2.6% (± 0.3%)
  2. Marginal interest rate on new debt of 9.5% (∓ 0.5%)
  3. Sustained, long-run primary balance of 0.0% (± 0.5%)
  4. Starting GDP of $130 billion (± $10 billion)
  5. Public external debt stock of $140 billion
  6. Average interest rate on the current external debt stock of 6%
  7. The EIU’s 5 year U.S. inflation forecast (about 2% per year)

The most contentious assumption is the starting GDP figure of $130 billion. The IMF’s estimate for 2017 as of April last year is $149 billion.* Comparing the historical ratio of imports to GDP, which has stabilized between 4x and 5x in 2013-2015, with the most recent total import figure of $17.8 billion, yields a GDP of $71 to $89 billion. If you include another $6 billion for potentially omitted oil imports, the range rises to $95 to $119 billion. Adjusting Venezuela’s average 1998-2002 GDP in dollars for cumulative inflation, GDP growth, and exchange rate effects also produces figures in this ballpark.

By assuming a base GDP of $130 and considering the ±10 uncertainty 3x over, I think I capture all reasonable estimates. When you crank the mathematical crank, this is what the assumptions yield in terms of debt to GDP:

In the base case (middle line), Venezuela’s debt/GDP ratio starts out at 108% of GDP and rises to 119% in 5 years. The initial debt loadalready very high compared to Brazil’s 66% debt/GDP, Mexico’s 43% ratio, and Colombia’s 38% ratioworsens with time. If on this path, bond markets will eventually demand Venezuela unpayable interest rates (like they have for the last two years) and the country will be unable to refinance debts as they come due. The base case is not sustainable. It goes without saying that trajectories above the base case line are also hopeless. When the parameter uncertainties work against Venezuela 1, 2 or 3 times over, the debt/GDP ratio really balloons.

In the areas below the base case line, where the uncertainties work in Venezuela’s favor 1x or 2x over, things still look bleak. Even though Venezuela grows faster from a higher starting point, has a larger fiscal surplus, and faces lower interest costs than in the base case, the debt/GDP trajectory still rises. Better, but not good enough.

The debt/GDP ratio only stabilizes below 83% of GDP when the uncertainties I listed come through 3x in favor of Venezuela. Does that mean the debt is sustainable then? Not necessarily.

Merely stabilizing the debt/GDP ratio at 83% poses serious risks. While shouldering that debt load, the economy is highly vulnerable to external shocks like the oil price shock that rocked Venezuela in 2014. Furthermore, the debt is highly vulnerable to policy shocks, like a sudden increase in expenditure to attend a crisis.

Debt sustainability is not just about being able to pay your debts in theory. It’s about having enough margin for error to pay them in practice. With basically no savings, Venezuela’s margin is significantly reduced. For that reason, I would hesitate to call Venezuela’s external debt sustainable even if it stabilizes at 83% of GDP.

What would it take to stabilize the debt?

As per the simulation, it would take a:

  1. Sustained, long-run real GDP growth rate of 3.5% (0.9% higher than base case)
  2. Long-run primary fiscal balance of 1.5% (1.5% higher than the base case)
  3. Marginal interest rate of 8% for new debt (1.5% lower than base case)
  4. Starting GDP of $160 billion ($30 billion higher than base-case)

Is that possible? Sure. Is it likely? I don’t see it. For starters, it looks like Maduro will stay in power until at least 2019. A lot of things will have deteriorated by then. Even if Maduro eludes defaulting on the bonds, Venezuela’s GDP and external assets will likely fall, it’s debt will likely rise, it’s long-run growth potential will fall (thanks to a smaller, weaker private sector), and PDVSA will produce less oil.

That aside, the model parameters required to stabilize the debt/GDP level just don’t seem feasible, no matter who’s in power.

It’s hard for me to imagine that Venezuela will manage to sustain a growth rate of 3.5% over the long run. Without regime change, it’s obviously impossible. With regime change, it’s still hard.

If Venezuela only grew 1-2% in the 80s and 90s when it had imperfect but generally functional institutions, and Venezuela only grew 3.1% during the largest oil boom in its history (2000s), it’s difficult to imagine it will grow 3.5% per year in the long run. There could be a spike in “catch up” growth after good policy for a few years, sure, but then what? What are the drivers for long term growth in Venezuela’s undiversified economy? Oil? Newsflash: the number of barrels produced per capita has about halved in the last 50 years. Venezuela requires a deep existential change to achieve sustainable growth. Politicians don’t seem to have that in mind.    

The surplus (ahem, deficit)

To stabilize the debt, a sustained, long-run primary fiscal surplus of 1.5% is required. I can’t imagine that happening either. If the regime doesn’t change, it obviously won’t happen. If it does, it also might not happen.

Any faction that gains power will be politically unstable and be strongly tempted to cut taxes and increase public spending to gain popularity and consolidate power. That’s why I don’t see fiscal surpluses being a stable equilibrium in the foreseeable future. In fact, I think political forces will push in the opposite direction, making a primary deficit more likely.

Incentives aside, the next regime will inherit a budget that’s a mess. On the income side, SENIAT is in tatters: tax collections increased 186% in 2016 when inflation was 500% or more. A lot of that decline in real revenues was the recession and other effects, but some of it must have been efficiency losses. PDVSA is also in tatters: light and medium crude production declined 24%/16% in the East/West regions while heavy crude production only grew 12% in 2010-2015. In addition, production from fields operated solely by PDVSA declined 27.5% while fields operated by joint ventures that charge juicy commissions increased 42.3% in 2010-2015. On the expenditure side, the state has a massive payroll, a massive pension system and massive indirect subsidies it cannot simply slash. Taming the current deficit will not be easy.**

Bankrolling Venezuela?

Stabilizing the debt at 83% of GDP also requires that bond markets lend to Venezuela at 8% for the forecast period. Somehow, I can’t help but laugh at that idea. Firstly, inflation is picking up and interest rates in dollars are poised to rise under Trump. That means issuing debt in dollars will be more expensive for all emerging market economies. Secondly, modern Venezuela is a semi-failed state run by largely inept politicians.

The last time markets were willing bankroll Venezuela for 8% a year was a decade ago, in 2007, when oil was booming and Chavez lived. Cuando éramos felices y no lo sabíamos. We’ll be lucky if markets lend us money at 10% in the next five years.

The road ahead

Folks on Wall Street often say that “Venezuela doesn’t need to default.” Strictly speaking, they are right. It is possible for Venezuela to get its act together, rationalize policy, attract massive investment, regain investor confidence, not default, etc, etc.

But to confuse possible scenarios with probable scenarios is dangerous and misleading. Let’s not delude ourselves. Sooner or later, Venezuela will likely have to restructure its debt. It’s high time to begin planning for that scenario, rather than crossing our fingers and looking the other way.

[*] The IMF’s more recent October 2016 data indicates a 2017 GDP of $314 billion. I’m assuming that is a mistake, because (a) it doesn’t make sense and (b) it’s inconsistent with the April 2016 data, the October 2015 $144 billion figure for 2017 GDP, and the April 2015 $183 billion figure.

[**] In normal countries, when a government spends more than it earns, it has to borrow or burn savings to cover the difference. In Venezuela, there’s a third option: to print the difference. In my model, I’m assuming that fiscal deficits actually lead to increases in debt, like they do in normal countries, because there’s no money printing. I see no point in considering a future where Venezuela continues to print money in the long run, devalue the currency and cause massive capital flight. That is clearly not sustainable, either. 

[***] An earlier version of this post contained incorrect end-year debt/GDP ratios. The previous 120% figure for the base-case debt/GDP ratio for 2016 has since been corrected to 108%. After the change, the simulation converges to 83% of GDP instead of 90% of GDP in the +3x uncertainty case. The errors were corrected and the text is otherwise unchanged.

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  1. Maybe debt is not the issue but rather GDP. Venezuela’s debt/GDP ratio is the same as the USA. Obama added more debt in 8 years than the Venezuela government did over a similar period and only few people are expressing concern. Paralyzation of the economy resulting in a rapidly contracting GDP. GDP is only half from 6-7 years ago. Why would that trend not continue rather than keep is level in your base case?

    • The thing is, the U.S. economy and the Venezuelan economy aren’t comparable. One is a well managed advanced economy, and the other, sadly, is the worst managed economy in the world. It’s not apples and oranges, it’s apples and screwdrivers. You are right that GDP may continue falling. In that case, the debt is surely not sustainable. I only considered positive growth rates to entertain the idea that there could be a policy/regime change in the coming years.

  2. We had a long go at this in the editing process, but I still think it’s just so weird to try to argue this point when the denominator is so hard to pin down.

    Venezuela’s Dollar GDP is a weirdly otherworldly piece of data…evanescent, existing in a kind of potential state mediated by an exchange rate fantasy.

    There just aren’t any good answers to the question.

    For instance: imagine that Maduro falls tomorrow and the incoming administration manages to secure a financing agreement with IMF that jacks imports back up to 2012 levels. (Hey, it’s a thought exercise, it’s allowed to be far-fetched.) Would you then —pivoting off of your GDP-is-a-given-multiple-of-imports hypothesis— think that GDP was back to 2012 levels too?! That doesn’t seem right at all…

    But if you don’t really know GDP with any degree of confidence, if very, very disparate estimates for GDP are within the realm of possibility, how useful is debt-to-GDP as a measure?!

    (We discussed all this in editing — I’m just floating it again here to show how the sausage is made…)

    • There are too many unknowns, although the debt exercise is interesting: LTdebt seems known, but shorter-term commercial debt is substantial and probably growing; oil bbls. production/capita decline in the last 50 years, by my calculation, is about 66%, not 50%, but, more importantly, oil bbls.export/revenue per capita has fallen even more, given the increase in internal gasoline consumption/greater heavy-lighter crude mix/Chinese loan liability/Cuba-Petro-Caribe giveaways/etc ; real GDP is a black box (black hole?). One of the few things supposedly known is international reserves, and I’m not even sure we can trust them, plus the need in 2017 to pay an amount equal to the supposed intl. reserves in intl. debt servicing….

    • Quico, thanks for bringing up the point. The post was getting long, and you know as well as I that this hyper-technical stuff sort of bores readers. Still, if you don’t like debt to GDP, consider another metric, debt to exports:

      Bolivia 85%
      Mexico 98%
      Ecuador 114%
      Costa Rica 135%
      Dominica 143%
      Peru 150%
      Uruguay 161%
      Chile 201%
      Colombia 203%
      Argentina 217%
      Brazil 228%
      Venezuela 474%

      Put that in a graph and it will look just as alarming. (This assumes 1.8mbpd in cash exports and $45 for the PDVSA basket). Re your other point: the GDP/imports measure is not static. It has merely stabilized in a range in the last few years. It used to be 7x in 2010. It has to be taken with a grain of salt.

      • Frank, how do you get 1.8mbpd in cash exports, when total actual production is just south of 2.0mbpd, less 0.6mbpd or more internal gasoline consumption (-Chinese loan payments/Cuba etc. giveaways, not to mention 0.14 mbpd estimated lighter oil imports at intl. market prices)?. I guess you’re normalizing out the items in (), in an ideal rational setting, but you still have substantial internal bls. consumption, which will probably never be priced at export real market value.

        • Just back of the envelope #s. I grabbed Monaldi’s 2015 production figure of 2.86, and tacked off internal consumption + china loan ammortizations + petrocaribe, and the 2016 drop. I’ve seen higher estimates. I’ve seen lower. Wanted to be middle of the road. You could well be right that it is lower. In that case, the debt/exports ratio will be higher.

  3. A fair treatment, but unfortunately it’s irrelevant until and unless two larger factors are corrected: official theft and rule of law.

  4. A very sophisticated analysis based on an arbitrary indicator…It is not even about not knowing the denominator, the whole debt/GDP ratio itself isn’t very useful. Of course you are going to think: oh well here goes Venny Trader with the typical rants.

    Perhaps you might want to look at what Prof. Shiller has to say about this metric:

    In the meantime, let’s revisit this conversation by end of 2017 please. I can’t wait to probe you wrong (again and again). See you then.

    • I think you’re missing the point of the article. I’m not discussing whether there will or won’t be a default on the bond debt, which is only 42% of the overall stock. I’m not interested in that question here. I’m arguing that the overall debt is not sustainable, and that the debt/GDP metric will likely balloon in time. These are two distinct things.

    • By the way, thanks for the link to Shiller’s article. Valid points, but they don’t change the fact that Venezuela’s debt/GDP ratio, and it’s debt/exports ratio, are alarmingly high (see response to Quico above)

      • Frank, I just don’t look at debt/GDP ratio at all. No matter whether it is Venezuela, the US or Greece. The debt/exports ratio is a bit more sensible but it is still has its pitfalls. The minute we establish that PDVSA is black box in many matters, that the country receives financing from China which can be rolled over under circumstances unknown to the public, etc, all these ratios and classical economic arguments go out the window. In addition, the fact that the country subsidizes many things/or people steal them (incl. gas, water, electricity, food, etc.) the more difficult it is to asses the true consumption levels of the population.

        To your point on overall debt sustainability: Questioning sustainability implicitly brings up debt refinancing/restructuring/default (which ever is applicable) as it is one of the mechanisms to make that total debt more sustainable.

        Moreover, there are countries (Italy for example) which have historically operated with high levels of debt (or Japan as Javier puts it). However, these countries suffer from other things which are not necessarily contemplated by traditional economic theory (in Japan, for example, the population is pretty much dying, it is a demographic time bomb, and so is Europe) and which I speculate is somehow related to how the economy has been managed for many years (and how expensive the cost of living is).

        Javier, for me Japan is a basket case. You only have to look at their demographic projections to know there is something wrong with how the country as a whole has been managed over the last 20 years. People and economists tend to get fixated at economic indicators without considering the overall picture. As the great Sir James Goldsmith once wrote back in 1993:

        “One of the defects of modem culture is that we are taught to believe that every problem can be measured in economic terms. But when society’s principal tool
        is measurement rather than understanding, great mistakes follow. Gross National Product is the official index used to assess prosperity. But GNP measures only activity. It measures neither prosperity nor well-being. For example, if a calamity occurs, such as a hurricane or an earthquake, the immediate consequence is a growth in
        GNP because activity is increased so as to repair the damage. If a great epidemic hits a community, GNP grows as a result of the construction of new hospitals
        and the employment of public health workers. If the crime rate increases, GNP grows as more police join the force and new prisons are built. We can take this even further. The cost of cancer in America is estimated at 11 0 billion dollars per annum, 3 equal to I. 7 per cent of the GNP; the cost of drug abuse is 200 billion dollars, 4 or 3.1 per cent of the GNP; the cost of crime is 163 billion dollars, 5 or 2.6 per cent of the GNP. These three areas alone contribute 4 73 billion dollars, 7.4 per cent, to the nation’s GNP, and they are all growing. These are extreme examples, certainly, but they demonstrate that GNP is not a qualitative measurement but only a measure of activity, good and bad. Nevertheless, all our official statistics are based on the one objective: growth of GNP. And our plans for social development are subservient to it.”

        “…We measure the success of nations on the basis of their GNP. That is why we reach false conclusions and make mistakes with tragic consequences. We believe that it is our moral duty to spread to other communities throughout the world the model of society which provides the fastest GNP growth. The fact that growth is achieved at the cost of social stability is ignored. That is how the West has destabilized the world. We have convinced ourselves that there exists only one valid economic and social model: our own. By attempting to impose it universally, we have exported to almost every corner of the world our diseases: crime, drugs, alcoholism, family breakdown, civil disorder in urban slums, accelerated abuse of the environment and all the other problems that we experience daily. We have become so accustomed to these diseases that we explain them away by suggesting that they are no more than the normal phenomena inevitably associated with healthy economic development and progress.
        What is more, as we fail to understand the causes of our problems, we are incapable of solving them. We deal exclusively with the symptoms.”

        I’m long done with GDP…

        • So, the exporting of the model of “fastest GNP growth” has caused the exporting of “crime, drugs, alcoholism, family breakdown, civil disorder in urban slums, accelerated abuse of the environment,” etc.,etc.–interesting theory from the Twilight Zone — thank God Venezuela has adopted the opposite model of declining GDP growth, and therefore is not suffering and has insulated itself from these many social plagues….

        • Venny T – I almost posted something along the lines you draw. The inflow of USD (reserve currency or equivalents) is a better measure against interest payments on similarly denominated debt. This would seem to be especially true in high inflation countries, and in hyper-inflation countries you have significant erosion due to contract lags in payment for exports in their own currency. And GDP is (to be funny) “relative”. The thought I came up with is that while agricultural production may not be a big counter in GDP in V., and a 40% increase in production there might be offset by a 5% decline in oil exports (I don;t have a clue what each sector contributes), but it would be very significant to the internals of the country. Equate the price of imported food to interest payments, for example. There’s also the consideration of a diversified economy v. dependence on one major sector. All GDP attempts is a summary indicator. The underlying story is around the components of GDP, and the balance and quality of production to contribute to an “on-going country”.

    • Indeed, Schiller has a point. But let’s remember that his anaysis is primarily made on developed economies, with a mutiverse of hard currency inflows, or in a completely different case to Venezuela: their debts are denominated in their local currency. Such is the case of Japan, which has a sustainable debt/GDP ratio north of 200% (200%!). But, unlike Venezuela, Japan can print its own currency to pay debt. They’ve actually done a lot of currency manipulation and helicopter money strategies to boost inflation. So, Japan’s debt is sustainable, while Venezuela’s 70%, 90%, 130% or 150% depending on how you assume the GDP, is not.

      And taking a much more relevant ratio as Frank mentioned above: exports to GDP, comparing the hard and pure cash inflows VS productivity. Venezuela registered 474%. On a declining oil production trend since 2005, a global context with potential higher FED rates, strong dollar and slow commodity prices recovery…you get the picture. Ugly.

      I do agree with the fact that Venezuela and PDVSA will avoid default this year too. But the maneuverability margin is tighter and tighter with every maturity. Of course, higher oil prices even in the range of $45 for the Venezuelan basket will bring some relief, but the gap will still be there. And it has been covered with depletion of hard currency stocks and assets. These are not unlimited sources. Look at Citgo. Citgo Petroleum assets are pedged. Citgo Holding assets are pledged. What other major and most importantly liquid assets remain? Not that much.

      The point is that, even as default may not come this year, or even the next if oil prices pick up, the opportunity cost of servicing this debt while having no change of policy, regime or increased oil production is not sustainable in the long run for the whole macroeconomic spectrum, not just debt service. And that’s the point of this article. Not everything is about default.

  5. Commentors may disagree with the numbers, but as Frank states, the overall picture is clear: Venezuela will keep refinancing itself until its interest payments are unsustainable.

  6. Monaldis producton figure for 2015 seems a bit on the high side …..too close to the official numbers, look instead at the Opec figures for Venezuelan production derived from ‘non official sources’ or from EIA (2.5 kmd if my recollection is right) , take the volume that is used to cover domestic consumption (then estimated to be 750 kbd now estimated to hover over 600kbd) then add the volume used to pay Chinese loans and other financial commitments (300 to 400 kbd) plus the volume of underpriced 2015 supplies to Cuba and Petrocaribe and you get a lower export number .(about 1.5 kbd) .

    Then take account of the fact that the net price yield per bl is lower (not US$ 45 per bl )because you have to factor in the cost of imported light crudes and products which have to be blended with the propportionally increased production of heavy crudes plus the product imports which now substitute for the shortfall in local refining prodction and you get an income which is even lower than one might assumme……

    Much of the local production of diesel fuel oil now has to go to keeping the power flowing from thermoelectrical power plant whenever guri power genration figures fall as happens almost regularly now (we can be talking of over 100kbd used to fuel those power plants) …..

      • The only heavy crudes ever excluded by Pdvsa from Venezuelan production figures were the very small volumes used 10 years ago to produce orimulsion , since orimulsion production was shut down long time ago Venezuelan oil figures include all faja production , The EIA figures in any event include all crude oil figures including all faja production …..!!

        People think that the danger of default and bankrupcy arises only from Pdvsa’s failure to pay its bond debt . There are however other quite heavy Pdvsa financial obligations to banks and other parties which non payment could on their own cause the declaration of Pdvsa’s bankrupcy or insolvency by US courts ……!! This is never discussed …….because all attention is centred on the Bond debt . The danger of this happening is however very real !!

        Each year Pdvsa s financial situation patently becomes worse and worse , of that there is little doubt , falling production and exports are now a matter of public knowledge …….the assets that could be mortgaged to lenders to obtain additional financing have all been used up , rising oil prices might help lessen the danger , but other factors like the rise in interest rates and the increasing incapacity of Pdvsa to maintain even basic operations and commercial payments make it more vulnerable to a breakdown than it ever was in past years ……..Nothing is inevitable but Pdvsa;s prospects grow darker day by day.!!

        Now that Maduro has decided to fill Pdvsa board with a group of totally inexperienced ninconcoops (apparently linked to Al Saimis circle of special friends ) the chances of a Pdvsa breakdown grow even greater……..!!

  7. I think it’s worth doing a heterodox DSA for a heterodox country.

    We have to treat the government’s local currency deficit and foreign currency deficit as two separate animals: the first is barely relevant, I assume that the local currency deficit will continue to be financed via money printing; the second is the only one that needs external financing. In this case Venezuela will probably be deleveraging in the next five years, as access to external finance is almost entirely shut.

    Then if instead of using the rule of thumb of imports to nominal GDP you use the alternative rule of thumb of dollar exports to GDP (around 4.4x), then as the oil price recovers in the coming years (even assuming a new long-term flat trend in the real price, which has not been the case in the last 60 years) then GDP in dollars grows in line with exports and the result is completely different, even assuming that Chavismo delivers zero real growth.

    Venezuelan debt has long been unsustainable assuming the Venezuelan people consume enough for a decent living. But the fact is they don’t, and they won’t return to a decent consumption level any time soon. You can call it debt sustainability through misery.

    • Carlos, thanks for bringing up this point. It’s clear that misery is sustaining bond, china, and the other debts they are current on. I also agree that the local and foreign currency deficits are different animals, but they link in important ways:

      If you have a foreign currency deficit of 0, but a local currency deficit of 10% of GDP, you can issue 10% of GDP in local paper at market rates, pay exorbitant local currency interest rates, and crowd out the private sector. If you do this, the debt also balloons (b/c of the high interest). It is not sustainable. Alternatively, you can repress the financial sector, cap interest rates and force banks to buy your local currency paper at less than market rates. If you do that for too long, capital flight picks up (b/c of negative real rates) and your foreign currency deficit is no longer 0. If you wanna keep the same import level, you get an FX deficit, because people are buying FX not for imports but to put it in HSBC Miami. If you want to stop *that* from happening, you can set up exchange controls, and it’s a story we know. There are massive efficiency losses with imports, arbitrage, etc. Again, for a given import level, the FX deficit becomes larger.

      Alternatively, you print large parts of the local currency deficit. If you do, inflation rises, FDI dries up, capital flight picks up, and again your foreign currency balance of 0 becomes a deficit. Less FX inflows via FDI, more FX outflows via capital flight. In the short run, the link between the two deficits is not to close. But in the long run they are very linked. Los desastres en uno se pagan en el otro.


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