Rebuilding General Motors

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Decades in the making, General Motors' (NYSE: GM  ) careless ways finally caught up to it. Now bankrupt, what's being called the "New GM" will be owned by bondholders, the UAW's health-care trust, the Canadian government, and, well, you … the always-obliging taxpayer. When GM emerges from bankruptcy, taxpayers will own 60.8% of the company.

This New GM, we hear, will be a lean, mean, profitable Motown machine. Therefore, taxpayers' 60.8% ownership stake might be worth something meaningful. Maybe even enough to recoup a significant portion of their investment.

Stop laughing
Maybe is the keyword there. Unlike most Wall Street banks, which issued debt-like preferred shares to the government, most of taxpayers' investment in GM will wind up as common stock. We lent money to the banks; we own General Motors. There's a big difference.

There's also a big difference in the outcome of these bailout structures. When you lend money to an otherwise autonomous company, they're quite inclined to pay you back (at least when they can). Indeed, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) are trying to repay taxpayer money in full, plus interest, as fast as humanly possible.

But when the government takes a direct ownership stake in a company, the outcomes are far different.

Good examples of just how different come from AIG, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae. Just like General Motors, taxpayers are majority owners of these companies' common equity.

Unlike some banks, where it looks like taxpayers will recoup a significant portion of their investments, AIG, Freddie, and Fannie are still pathetic disasters. True, this is mostly because their problems were far deeper than anyone else's. But it also stems from the shortcomings of direct government ownership.

To see what I mean, look no further than Fannie Mae's recent 10-K shareholder report, which states:

Prior to the conservatorship, our business was managed with a strategy to maximize shareholder returns. However, our conservator has directed us to focus primarily on fulfilling our mission of providing liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market and to provide assistance to struggling homeowners. In support of this focus on our mission, we may take, or be directed by the conservator to take, a variety of actions that could adversely affect our economic returns, possibly significantly.

The "conservator" here is, of course, the government.

An honest translation of this statement is this: "Because we're owned by the government, we have precisely zero incentive to make a profit ever again. In fact, it is insisting we don't even try."  

Now, some would say this example isn't fair. Fannie and Freddie were already quasi-government companies to begin with. Furthermore, most would agree there's little reason to nurse them back to life, since their existence is now widely acknowledged as flawed.

So we turn to insurance giant AIG, in which taxpayers also directly own a 79.9% stake. As reported by the eminent blog Zero Hedge, a derivatives trader detailed how AIG dumped assets at unnecessarily low prices earlier this year. The sales were so inequitable that, as one investor on the other side of the trade apparently stated, "We have never done as big or as profitable trades -- ever."

He goes on to explain the rationale for such fire-sale trades: Knowing that its chief shareholder is the government -- devoted to unconditional support -- AIG had little incentive to properly price the products. It turned into a dispassionate machine. Also, by selling assets at unreasonably low prices, traders could transfer profits to buyers at the expense of taxpayers, so at least someone could make a private profit.

Surprised? Don't be. When your owners are as dutiful and forgiving as Uncle Sam, such behavior can hardly be blamed. That's the nature of incentives. And it reminds us that debt restructuring, layoffs, and asset sales often aren't enough to outshine the capitalistic incentive that creates profit. We'd be foolish to expect anything different from the New General Motors.  

Stop expecting miracles
I'm not writing this because I necessarily disagree with our ownership stake in GM (even though I do). I've argued that taxpayer money given to Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) is (or would be) more beneficial as common equity. What's ideal isn't always what's necessary.

But we should keep our expectations realistic when discussing the "New GM." As it stands, we intend to transform a company utterly incapable of surviving in private hands into a viable, profit-making enterprise while majority-owned by the government. Correct me if I'm wrong, but history shows this is as close to improbable as it gets. Our track record with AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac confirms this.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Morgan Housel will throw up if another commentator thinks using the name "Government Motors" is either clever or original. He doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of American Express and has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (37) | Recommend This Article (55)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 11:56 AM, lution wrote:

    or Amtrack.... Taxpayers are now in another bottomless cesspool that will only continue to get worse.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 2:52 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    So, the government taking an ownership stake in GM is a bad idea. So bad in fact, that the government should only have offered to take an ownership stake in the banks to ensure that only those in really bad shape would take it. "...ensures that only those that have exhausted other options come begging for help"

    Perferred shares from the banks, bad idea. Ownership stake in GM, bad idea. You got any good ideas, or are you only going to gripe?

    P.S. Shouldn't we stop listing GM as a ticker symbol?

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:02 PM, cmfhousel wrote:

    "Perferred shares from the banks, bad idea. Ownership stake in GM, bad idea. You got any good ideas, or are you only going to gripe?"

    Nope, just gonna gripe. Most people would agree the situation is terrible yet necessary. That's why I wrote "What's ideal isn't always what's necessary."

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:03 PM, FinancialFellow wrote:

    I think it's pretty well agreed that government ownership of GM is not an ideal situation. Hopefully the government is able to get out of it as soon as possible and recoup some of the money that they've already sunk down that cesspool. I have to admit that I don't have a ton of optimisim that the new GM will succeed either. Until American car companies are able to shed much of the overhead associated with their union contracts I think they will still be at a competetive disadvantage. Admittedly they cut quite a bit in preparations for forming the new GM but, there's still quite a bit to go.

    For those reasons, and the fact that I have yet to see American car companies consistently produce quality automobiles that last at least 200K miles I'm not going to be putting any money into GM. For now, at least, I'm going to stick with investing in the larger market for the long term and peer to peer lending for shorter term investments:

    P.S. Good question on delisting GM, pondee619. I'm guessing here but I think that doesn't occur until the company completes bankruptcy - whereas now they've only filed.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:05 PM, cmfhousel wrote:

    And by that I mean, do I have a grand plan that will restructure the banks and GM and make everything 100% perfect? No. No one does. There are costs and benefits on each side of the equation, and it's important to point them out.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:18 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    From TD Ameritrade:

    "The symbol you entered, GM, changed to GMGMQ on June 2, 2009."

    Maybe my Broker is wrong or maybe the Fool just can't, or won't, keep up.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:19 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    I'll call the whole thing even if I get two new Cadillac CTS automobiles out of this deal for no additional outlay of cash. It seems only fair since the bill, when all the government bailouts are tallied, will total $100,000 for each and every breathing legal resident. I might as well have something tangible for it.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:22 PM, fetchbr wrote:

    Said overhead that the American auto manufacturers are "saddled" with in their employee costs is solely due to a seriously different method of insuring retirees health in those foreign countries.

    However you wish to lay blame for that disparity is up to you but when people continue to insist it's the "union's fault" (my words not anyone elses but I feel the implication is there whenever I read it) ignores the fact that the business could have chosen to not agree to those terms.

    Frankly, I think for the longest time we've focused too much on the political aspects of solutions ("Bust the unions!") rather than the practical ones (higher federal fuel taxes). Dealership sprawl has been one of the biggest issues to date with the domestics and with those first steps to eliminate a lot of them (dealerships) I truly think we'll have an easier time of making GM profitable.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:24 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

    catoismymotor, LOL

    You want 2 CTS's? I want a brand new H2. Heck, I'll even pay for the gas :p

    Oh wait, GM doesn't own Hummer anymore LOL.

    GM will be in economic and business classes for decades to come:

    "Case Study: The Collapse of GM" or

    "Case Study: How Not To Run A Company - The GM Story"


  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:28 PM, slakk wrote:

    All these brainiacs in government and private business keep missing the one true fact of profitable success. A company has to sell a product or a service that consumers are willing to buy, over and over again. You can play with the books and the numbers all you want, but if no one is droppin' coin into your purse, you don't profit. I work for a big auto. I tried to warn them 10 years ago that this would happen. they've been trying to find some way to fire me for ten years. If they would have taken that effort and energy and places it into creating a product that the consumer wants to purchase, rather than play corporate and union political games, they may have been profitable. There is a sour culture in Detroit of backstabbing and money grabbing to climb the corporate and/or union ladders. With such selfish endeavors, the product and therefore the companies suffered. They won't listen to the little guy-- cuz he makes less, and doesn't have a degree or a golf-club membership-- or a big-giant house on the million dollar mile, or a wife that lets him cheat with the seceratary. If you can imagine anything dirty in business, Detroit has done it, but worse.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:43 PM, Netteligent09 wrote:

    AIG, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae are under major overhaul during the past 6 months with major progress with new management and independent Board of Directors. They cleanhouse, sell off bad assests, and ready to come back before summer.

    I like a new GM cars with reasonable pricing and improve technology. Market is very competitive. They will come out stronger and better in a long run. They still have a lot to do. Expect to grow in 2010.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 3:46 PM, FinancialFellow wrote:

    fetchbr -

    Good clarification on "union's fault". You can't blame them for getting as much as they got. Heck, that's there job. When I negotiate a salary for my job I'm trying to get as much as I can, too. The blame for accepting the contracts falls on GM.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 5:14 PM, TxTom wrote:

    GM couldn't survive any other way than for the government to step in and referee an orderly bankruptcy. Anyone holding GM common stock had loads of time to sell it on the way down. At least now we'll have a viable auto industry with a relatively clean balance sheet. When "gov" gets their investment back our American car companies will compete well with Japan and others.

    I'm not interesting in finding someone to blame. I'm interested in the future of our American car companies and the U.S. economy. Lots of companies and individuals (and our government) all made plenty of mistakes. Let's just get over it.

    I LOVE the new Camaro!! Three more weeks and I'll be driving mine. Good old American muscle!

    Go ahead, laugh. I didn't buy the car for fuel economy, but even with 426 HP it gets 24 MPG highway. Sure, it's a toy. That's why I bought it. But Toyota didn't get the revenue. They have nothing like the Camaro.

    General Motors will do just fine. They realize that quality is essential. When people in this country see what our companies are capable of producing, we will build and sell plenty of cars in this country and around the world.

    Buy American!!!!

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 5:23 PM, ktgunn wrote:

    "...AIG had little incentive to properly price the products."

    I'm terribly dismayed by this statement. It shows a lack, perhaps a criminal disregard for fiduciary responsibility, or perhaps willful sabotage.

    This is probably the same mindset that got us in this mess in the first place, after all, bank and insurance company managements took risks in violation of their reponsibility to shareholders, but in favor of their own financial reward potential.

    I give America's financial management class a failing grade.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 6:20 PM, brascal53 wrote:

    While I don't like government ownership of private business, I think GM may prove to be a good investment. It's mission is different than Fannie and Freddie, which are there to provide as many mortgages as possible. It is different than AIG because we are not taking on all the "toxic assets" that we took when we bought AIG. With GM, we pretty much get a clean balance sheet, a partner with the union rather than an adversary and best of all a demand for guys that has been unfulfilled for the last 2 years. On top of that we get a company that has shed 20% of it's worst performing dealers. Think of a mutual fund that can just get rid of it's worst performing stocks _Without taking a hit. I think GM will start making a profit in about 11 months . I think a smart investor will be the guy who buys it today at less than a $1 a share. The car market has no where to go but up.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 6:41 PM, xetn wrote:

    If you all want to agree that the nationalization of American companies is a good thing for: your choice of protecting jobs, or .., just think of the what is wrong with the idea. First, governments have no incentive for efficiency, profit or cost control. Governments are based on bureaucratic functions and are only concerned with increasing power. If you doubt these assumptions, just look at all the failed socialist economies. Ask yourself, what has China learned since the inception of their communistic government in 1946 and then the conversions of most of their economy (an on-going process) to a market based economy. Sure, they still do central planning, but they are privatizing their banks and state-owned enterprises at an amazing pace. Guess who has the most viable economy at the present.

    The simple fact is that most of the former east-bloc countries have converted to a market based system.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 6:47 PM, matthunt97 wrote:

    It always amazes me when I watch the Feds (or any governmental type) do business. I own a small company that specializes in environmental consulting. When I deal with the Feds (USFS, BLM) the nutty inefficiencies compound themselves with glee and abandonment. Will GM be managed differently? Probably not. Nor will AIG or any other business entity with substantial Federal ownership, or fingers in the pie until they divest themselves from such.

    I predict at best a tasteless series of clones similar to Toyota's, Honda's, and Fiats from GM and Chrysler with the inability to regain substantial market share. This is in keeping with the politically correct, environmental friendly thinking of the current administration combined with typical government management nonsense (shall the senate decide what dealership closes?).

    And if the price of oil rises substantially again soon it won’t matter much what GM or any other car company manufactures and markets in the near term…….it now cost me 10 bucks more to fill a tank then it did 2 months ago……something has to give in my budget to accommodate such increases (and it isn't a new car from GM).

    While if might not be idea to have the current situation at GM, the alternatives and government ownership all smell like a rat in the grainery.


  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 6:49 PM, 59a wrote:

    b pickens says we spend 700 billion importing crude the new gm is coming out with an electric car next year if a lot of people buy the volt gm will make money the same people who own gm are spending 700 billion on fuel use some of that money to subsidize the volt that will create jobs here cut our dependency on foreign fuel put gm in the black it is a win win

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 7:20 PM, MyPiggyBank888 wrote:

    Could it be that GM will become a postal service? Govenment managed workers! OMG and how about all the stuff that goes on at the postal service. Boxes, letter, building doing what? Getting social security checks, bills and etc. to us so that we can see it all go obsolete. If the postal service doesn't go under, certainly better replacements will come along like on-line everything.

    Get a grip! GM will change. The people who use it will demand efficiently and maybe will see improvement.

    Go postal and fool on!

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 8:25 PM, Beladinah wrote:

    What I want to know is how the government will act toward other car companies doing business in the US now that they (still don't feel like it's a collective "we") own the majority of GM? Won't there be a tremendous incentive to create barriers to open competition in this industry? How do we guard against that? I don't want to have to pay more for my next Honda!!

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 8:56 PM, matthunt97 wrote:

    Not buying an electric GM car to do field work with....nor a Honda........nor a Toyota Prius......Beladinah....that is one of those stinking rats in the grain bin.....some politician will get the bright idea...

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 9:41 PM, bear1010 wrote:

    GM, Ford, and Chrysler won't be profitable until they get rid of the UAW.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2009, at 9:44 PM, qzz wrote:

    In spite of all the denial from the feds and the auto execs Obama and his cohorts are calling the shots at GM and Chrysler. Fiat presently builds cars that do not meet US safety nor emission standards. Chrysler will have to totally redesign that piece of junk before it can be sold here. GM is going to be forced to build a small car in the US that is a copy of one that is in production overseas.So the business model is already sunk.

    Obama is not going to allow offshore drilling or nuclear power in order to keep energy prices high, there will also be a major increase in the fuel taxes to assure that a small car that no one wants will become feasible

    If the American auto industry built so many cars that no one wanted why did all the foreign conpanies copy our designs? Porsche with a suv, come on guys the only ones that did not like American design was the tree huggers.

    By the way, if you think getting rid of the dealers was Detroits idea I have a bridge to nowhere that I will sell cheap.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2009, at 8:47 AM, TMFCop wrote:

    I recently read a comment somewhere that basically called the GM bankruptcy the "perfect" government investment. After all, who would pay $60 billion for a company worth $500 million that requires a 100% return for it just to break even?

    Our tax dollars at work. Yes! This is indeedy change we can believe in.


  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2009, at 10:40 AM, Belllr1 wrote:

    The more serious problem with GM as a government corporation is the extent to which the government will go to validate its decision to use our money to become the owner of GM. Paticularly what actions will it take to compete with Ford and foreign domestic auto producers? Will it give more "freebie" financing to Gm. Will it set emission standards so high that only GM with preferential treatment can meet them? Will we wind up with cars that no one wants but the only cars you can buy or own unless a special tax is paid? My guess is the new GM will wipe out Ford and foreign firms buildinng cars in the US so that you can only afford to w

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2009, at 2:07 PM, ReillyDiefenbach wrote:

    "Governments are based on bureaucratic functions and are only concerned with increasing power, blah blah blah..."

    Do any of you haters know how much more efficient and cost-effective Medicare or the V.A. are than the for- profit health care companies? I won't embarrass the wonderful U.S.A. by comparing how much cheaper it is in any foreign country to buy medications or to be FULLY insured as opposed to insured-unless-you're-sick-for-a-long-time. That would cause some of you "investors" to admit the fundamental error of your "thinking," which extends only to your daily check of your brokerage accounts and not a millimeter further.

    Do any of you morons honestly think you could mail a letter and have it get there with 99.999999% certainty for 44 cents with Postal Service, Inc?

    Didn't think so.

    Maybe a government owned GM would actually produce a car people would want to buy instead of the gas- guzzling, low-rated crap they've been making.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2009, at 3:16 PM, mchall wrote:

    This article seemed to imply that the reason that the results from AIG, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae have been very poor, compared to the banks' results is the government's approach to the situations.

    Se, here is the fundamental flaw in Morgan's premise: The difference in results is an observation from which a cause-result relationship cannot be inferred.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2009, at 4:18 AM, PeterBradshaw wrote:

    catoismymotor wrote "..the bill, when all the government bailouts are tallied, will total $100,000 for each and every breathing legal resident." But $60B among 300M legal residents is $200 each. You might be able to get a 1963 Corvair or two for that, but not two Cadillacs. Even if gas goes to $10 per gallon.

    Arithmetic apparently can be added to spelling and civility as a frequent lack among MF (and other) bloggers!

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2009, at 11:33 PM, Marksc5 wrote:


    apparently you don't drive American made cars.I only drive Gm products and had a Jimmy that had over 300,000 miles and never had any problems other than mainenance items like water pumps etc.

    I don;t agree with the gov bailing out GM.They built good cars and their bankruptcy had to do with the financial mess than about poor cars.

    BTW.I have an HHR that I put almost 70000 miles on it in about 14 months.Runls like a top and hasn't missed a beat.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2009, at 2:55 AM, MAURIZIO400 wrote:

    government or "public" ownership of the means of production is spelled communism by the dictionary.

    say no more.


  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2009, at 11:15 AM, caltex1nomad wrote:

    Now that Edward Whitacre,Jr. has been named the new CEO of GM I don't see much hope. He did a lousy job at AT&T and walked off with millions. Who's idiot decision was it to make him CEO ?

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2009, at 1:30 PM, PhillyDan wrote:

    The new GM will be successful to all of you doubting Thomas'. Mark my post and come back in three years and then we can really tell the outcome, rather than flap our jaws or in this case, our fingers.

    Regarding comment on Amtrak, I have several friends that work for Amtrak in labor jobs and they are really pleased with how Amtrak is remaking itself for the long run. They believe that Amtrak is well run and is a viable asset and necessity for the American public.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2009, at 9:54 PM, Letitallhangout wrote:

    MAURIZIO400 wrote :

    "government or "public" ownership of the means of production is spelled communism by the dictionary.

    say no more."

    Just because the communist / dictatorship builds a car does not make that car a bad one.

    Even as nasty as he was, Hitlers little VolksWagon

    (car for the people) was a pretty good idea. It captured the hearts of the world.

    We now have a Leader/president that is pushing for a Socialistic/Dictator style government and who knows, maybe he will make GM build an American Vunderauto.

    (ps: I didn't vote for either of them.)

  • Report this Comment On June 12, 2009, at 5:44 PM, kev53 wrote:

    GM is now just a modern version of WPA. All its doing is keeping GM workers off unemployment. GM will never amount to anything cause its rotten to the core. Management and UAW are responsible for what GM has become and they should all be ashamed of themselves.

  • Report this Comment On June 12, 2009, at 9:16 PM, TxTom wrote:

    The government HAD to step in a prop up GM. You can gripe all you want about this happening, but it did, so get over it. This is and was the ONLY way our iconic American car manufacturer could shed legacy costs and come out with a clean balance sheet and the ability to compete on a level field.

    Take a note: GM WILL build cars that Americans want, and they WILL be able now to get on the cutting edge of technology and build our cars of the future. I hope no one here would have preferred to see only foreign cars on our streets. That (except perhaps for Ford) was the only other outcome absent assistance and restructuring.

    I hear tons of people griping about our taxpayer dollars being spent to save GM, but basically the other option would have been disastrous. Why can't people see that?

    NOW if GM can't swim, even with all the anchors that have been removed from their legs, arms and waist, I'll be the first to say "LET THEM GO". But on a now "level playing field" I say give them a chance!

    Lots of jobs were saved, and not just at General Motors. That's a good thing. And we need to save and create more jobs! That will also happen.

    Buy American cars. Give our auto manufacturers the chance to prove they can do it right. Stop just automatically believing that GM and Ford are inferior to Honda and Toyota. MAKE them stand behind their products, and if there are any quality issues, demand they fix every one. But don't just avoid buying American cars without giving them the opportunity to prove themselves worthy. I have faith they will produce high quality products. Believing only the Japanese can build quality cars is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I ordered a new Camaro. I expect the car to be everything it can be. Not expect, demand! I will give GM the benefit of the doubt, and I believe they will perform.

    C'mon folks, put your faith and purchase dollars into American cars. They are warranteed for 100,000 miles and backed fully by our government. What do you have to lose?

    And PLEASE stop griping about how we "bailed them out". That is history. Let's look forward and pull together and get this country back on it's feet! We need more optimism and a lot less complaining.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2009, at 9:17 AM, jblank100 wrote:

    I have a father who worked on the line for GM and a father-in-law who was a millwright for Kaiser Steel. They were able to provide a comfortable living for their families and secure an adequat retirement. But BOTH say the same thing occurred at both companies. The UNIONS drove them to hire incompetent,uneducated employees and then protected them when they should have been fired. Their products became more and more inferior and their costs significantly increased. Mngmt blamed the unions and vice versa. Sound just like the Post Off? - which is bankrupt also There are lots of State, Local and Federal workers in the same situation . These folks could only work in unions or GOVT jobs. The new GM will NEVER be profitable as long as the GOVT is involved and their strategy is to TELL people they want to buy a "green" car. What a joke!

  • Report this Comment On June 22, 2009, at 5:40 PM, AustinAndy wrote:

    IMHO, General Motors will never be profitable until they get out of government ownership AND ou of hegemony to the UAW. In the case of profitable cars, look at a busy road some day and just count the SUVs versus other cars. They usually make up 40-50 percent of the traffic. Under the "experts" in the government, GM will stop making profitable SUVs and concentrate on hybrids or electric cars like the Volt, which are demonstrably NOT profitable. Even the Toyota Prius has too few sales to be profitable.

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