Transcript of April 2021 Asia and Pacific Department Press Briefing

April 14, 2021



Deputy Director, Asia and Pacific Department

Senior Communications Officer, Communications Department


MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Greeting from Washington, D.C. I am Keiko Utsunomiya, from the Communications Department. Thank you for taking the time to join us today. We have already received some, but please send your questions, if you're on the IMF Press Center, and if you're on the Webex, please raise your hand or send a brief message, using the chat function.

Now, let me introduce today's speaker. I am here at the IMF's studio with Mr. Jonathan Ostry. He is the Deputy Director of the IMF's Asia and Pacific Department. He's going to give a short opening remarks on the latest economic outlook for the region, and then we will take questions from you. Jonathan?

MR. OSTRY: Thanks very much, Keiko. And warm greetings from Washington, D.C., and good evening to you, in Asia. It's a real pleasure to be with you and to give you some of the highlights of the IMF's Regional Economic Outlook for Asia Pacific.

The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented output losses in the Asia Pacific Region. Losses varied widely across economies, as a function of the stringency and effectiveness of containment policies, dependence on tourism and contact intensive services, and the degree of policy support. Some of the Pacific Island countries have been among the worst affected.

Although a recovery is now underway, and the pandemic is receding in some countries, elsewhere, second and third waves of infections are raging, notably in India and some of the ASEAN economies. While exports and manufacturing generally have held up, due to surge in global demand for pandemic related supplies, services are taking longer to recover, adding to sectoral divergence. The pandemic has increased income inequality by disproportionately hurting low-wage and informal earners, as well as young and female workers. Divergence is thus multidimensional, across countries and within countries, across sectors, age groups, gender, and skill level. A region known for its trademark growth-with-equity model now runs the risk of entrenching excessive inequality.

Let me turn to some of our detailed country level forecasts. Overall, we expect regional growth to come in just above seven and a half percent this year, and just short of five and a half percent next year. While these averages are a welcomed rebound from last year's contraction, they mark significant -- they mask significant heterogeneity at the country level. And this divergence seems likely to persist.

For China, growth has been marked up to 8.4 percent this year, due to stronger net exports, reflecting higher global growth and the U.S. fiscal stimulus. India has seen a more sizeable upward revision, to 12 and a half percent, on account of continued normalization of its economy and a more growth-friendly fiscal policy. But the current surge in infections presents a worrisome downside risk.

Revisions have generally been positive for the advanced economies in the region. Australia's growth projection has been revised up to four and a half percent, given the better-than-expected outturn in the final quarter of last year and healthier domestic demand expected this year. The outlook for the Japanese economy has improved, thanks to unprecedented domestic policy support and favorable external conditions, with growth in 2021 now projected at 3.3 percent, and two and a half percent, next year. For Korea, growth should pick up to 3.6 percent this year, and moderate to 2.8 percent in 2022, driven by favorable external environments and for manufacturing and for exports.

Against these upward revisions, growth in the ASIAN economies has been marked down to 4.5 percent, given still high COVID-19 caseloads in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, which will slow the pace of normalization in contact intensive sectors. The outlook for tourism is also expected to remain subdued, affecting prospects in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar gravely concerns us all. In addition to the tragic loss of life, we project that the coup will have a devastating impact on livelihoods, that could last well into the medium term. South Asia, excluding India, is recovering, led by Bangladesh, due to higher-than-expected exports and remittances, notwithstanding the recent spike in infections. Outlooks in Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are affected by weak tourism and limited policy space.

The pandemic is inflicting a devastating toll on the Pacific Island countries, particularly those highly dependent on tourism and volatile commodities trade. This will add to preexisting vulnerabilities, not only because of uncertainty about when borders reopen and tourism recovers, but also due to ongoing natural disaster and climate risks, stresses from high debt and overleveraged balance sheets, diminished policy space, and dwindling correspondent banking relationships.

The recovery in Asia depends on a smooth handoff from public support to private demand. After the historically unprecedented stimulus in 2020, fiscal policy in the region is expected to continue to do its part this year, with the fiscal stance remaining supportive in the region. However, there is notable cross-country variation, with some economies expected to soon begin moderating fiscal support on the back of strong health indicators and large stimulus, last year. The evolution of current account position will reflect a balance between positive spillovers from the U.S. fiscal stimulus and waning demand for pandemic related supplies.

There is huge uncertainty surrounding our projections. Setbacks in the vaccine rollout, questions about the potency of the vaccine against new variants of the disease, and a resurgence of the virus, together, constitute a key downside risk. On the upside, however, a faster vaccine rollout would propel the economic recovery. Strong international cooperation remains essential to ensure adequate vaccine production and universal distribution at affordable prices. In this respect, the efforts of China and India have been commendable, and we hope both countries continue to make supplies available to other countries, while ensuring adequate supplies at home.

The changing external environment is essential driver of risk in the region, given Asia's outward orientation to trade and capital flows. For export-oriented economies in Asia, with strong linkages to the United States, the U.S. fiscal expansion will provide positive spillovers through the trade channel. But U.S. interest rates are already on an upward trajectory, and this is spilling over to Asian emerging market economies. If U.S. yields rise faster than markets expect, or if there's miscommunication about future U.S. monetary policy, adverse spillovers through financial channels and capital outflows, as during the 2013 Temper Tantrum could present challenges by compromising macro financial stability ability.

The consequences will vary according to country specific trade and financial linkages. The share of foreign holdings of Asia's government debt has diminished in recent years, reducing exposure to the changing risk appetite of nonresident investors. In addition, greater official reserve holdings, more flexible exchange rates, stronger supervision of bank balance sheets, and better anchored inflationary expectations should, together, help to dampen the impact of any faltering in foreign investors' risk appetite.

However, the increase in leverage across government, household, and corporate balance sheets means that higher borrowing costs, when they occur, will hurt. What is the message? If I choose only one, it is for divergence to be vigorously countered across all the dimensions I described. History must not be allowed to become destiny. A first priority is to ensure that vaccines are widely available and to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Boosting vaccine supply and administration capacity are essential to underpin the recovery. Fiscal support targeted towards vulnerable groups should remain accommodative until private demand recovers. Broad lifelines should be phased out, only gradually, as the pandemic recedes. And future support should then be geared to achieve needed reallocation of resources toward new, dynamic, green, and digital sectors.

Even now, policymakers need to be attentive to anchoring public debt, in credible medium-term frameworks, especially where fiscal space and buffers have been eroded. Monetary policy should continue to be data dependent, attended to macroeconomic and financial stability risks. The challenges, going forward, are considerable, given changes in the international environment, the possibility of renewed bouts of capital outflows, and the risks from inflated housing markets, in some countries. Policymakers will need to deploy the multiple instruments in their toolkits to safeguard macro financial stability in this challenging environment.

A renewed structural reform drive is essential to boost productivity and output potential, while fostering greener and more inclusive growth. Let me mention three imperatives. First, trade has been a powerful driver of growth and poverty alleviation in Asia, for decades. It has been a cornerstone of the Asian Miracle. To fulfill Asia's potential for trade led growth, restrictions that impede trade need to be reduced. These include tariffs and non-tariff barriers, such as quotas, subsidies, local content rules, and licensing requirements, where progress has stalled since the 1990's, notwithstanding welcomed recent regional initiatives, such as the RCEP and CPTPP. Easing of trade and technology tensions and facilitation of digital trade would also provide a welcomed fillip to growth.

Second, corporate debt vulnerabilities, especially among small and medium enterprises, need to be addressed by pivoting from pandemic liquidity support to solvency support, so as to facilitate balance sheet repair, enable zombie firms to exit, and allow dynamic entrants to thrive. Pandemic support policies, while necessary in the short-term, have obscured pre-pandemic vulnerabilities and allowed unviable firms to continue operating. As such policies are withdrawn, insolvency frameworks need to be strengthened to allow nonviable firms to exit, while assuring adequate credit flow to productive firms and facilitating fresh equity capital to help companies overcome debt overhangs and grow job opportunities.

Third, the welcome shift toward a greener energy mix during the pandemic must now catalyze further efforts to advance the green agenda. Increased investment in green technologies, coupled with higher carbon prices, are essential to reduce emissions. Policies should build on recent country initiatives, including incentives for energy efficient vehicles in China, tax rebates for efficient home appliances in Korea, and support for a climate resilient infrastructure in Japan. Policy strategies need to internalize political economy considerations and limit adverse distributional impacts. Only in such cases will greener growth be politically sustainable. In this respect, safety nets to compensate losers and trampoline policies to allow workers to shift from declining to new sectors will need to be improved.

I thank you for your attention and look forward to taking your questions.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Thank you, Jonathan. Now, I would like to turn to the Webex. I see Mr. Anthony Rowley, from South China Morning Post. Anthony, please, go ahead.

MR. ROWLEY: I have two questions. The first one concerns supply chains, manufacturing supply chains in Asia. You know, the U.S.-China tensions and the trade wars that are taking place, and the imminence of tech wars. It's been suggested that the supply chains will bifurcate into two. In effect, one serving China, another serving the U.S. and some of its allies. So, my first question is what is your view on this? And secondly, is there any evidence that this bifurcation is actually taking place yet? That's my first question.

The second question is different. It concerns emissions of CO2, carbon dioxide. In China, India, Russia, Japan to some extent, we have enormous emissions of CO2 caused by coal power stations, and some experts are suggesting that whatever these countries do, they are not going to be able to meet their COP26 Targets, or any future targets because they are simply using too much coal and they are on track to go on doing so. So, what's your view on that, please?

MR. OSTRY: Very good. Well, thank you for those two questions. I'll start with the trade issue and then come to the green future for the region issue.

So, I think it's important to give the context on trade. Trade plunged last year following a period of healthy growth in trade. But the main factor driving the poor performance of trade last year was not really the trade tensions. It was the pandemic and the ramifications from that. We expect trade to recover this year; to rebound essentially offsetting the contraction we saw last year. And then post reasonable growth over the medium term.

That being said, the trade tensions have been costly. They have been costly for the main parties to the tensions, and they have been costly to the world. We estimate that the U.S.-China Tariffs have inflicted costs of something just short of a half a percent of global GDP. And in an environment where growth has suffered a very bad recession, this has been a self-inflicted wound.

So, we have repeatedly called for all the parties to try and work toward a multilateral-based solution; a rules-based solution, reinvigorating the multilateral rules-based system, strengthening its institutions, and confronting the various issues that led to the trade crisis.

You mentioned the risks of bifurcation and whether there is any evidence of such bifurcation at present. And my answer to that is we don't see much evidence of this bifurcation, and we do take comfort in that because the risk of this -- these trade tensions morphing into technology tensions and technological decoupling would inflict a much larger cost on the global economy, maybe an order of magnitude larger, in extreme situations, than the ones wrought by the tariff tensions.

So, again, we very much hope that we revert to a strong multilateral, rules-based system that can fully address the various issues that have amplified the risks of technological decoupling. Technologic decoupling is so dangerous because you know, China and the U.S. are tech hubs for the world and so if those tensions were to get red-hot, there would be not only a chilling effect on tech in trade in high-tech products. There would also be a move to much less efficient production across the world as global value chains were adversely affected toward less efficient structures, and this would reduce productivity. And there would be a chilling effect on knowledge diffusion throughout the region, and throughout the world. So, these are our recipes for poor productivity and growth performance going forward, and we very much hope they can be avoided.

Now, let me turn to your second question on the green agenda, the green recovery. And let me start out by saying this is an existential issue for the world, and an existential issue for the region. Let me focus on the region since this -- we are here to talk about Asia Pacific-- and Asia Pacific has this existential threat from not addressing climate change because first, and foremost, Asia contains, as your question indicated, a number of the world's largest emitters, including China, and India, Japan, Indonesia, Korea. And it includes of course, very close to home, some of the world's most polluted cities.

And pollution in these large, metropolitan areas induces huge health costs, every year, and even pollution related deaths. So, this is a powerful issue for the citizens in this region, including in these very polluted cities.

In addition, the region included some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, and climate related natural disasters. And here I think of the incredibly vulnerable Pacific Island economies, where the frequency of natural disasters has increased over time, and climate risk is huge. And the needed investments to address adaptation needs are monumental, and far exceed the investment capacity of these countries. So, this is a huge issue both for the large emitters, and for the countries that are facing huge adaptation costs, and climate risks.

My feeling is that the large emitters have understood very well the need to confront this challenge. In the recent past, we have seen the large emitters commit to carbon neutrality in 2050, or 2060. This included both advanced economies like Japan or Korea, and it also included very notably China.

And I think we have seen the beginnings of the set of measures that these countries plan in order to achieve their commitments. We have seen for example, in China the Coal Tax, the National Emission Trading Schemes, we have seen in Japan, in the Third Supplementary Budget, a number of interesting investments in their green future. India has recommitted to its Paris Accords, and there is indeed certainly the potential for India to exceed those commitments at its discretion. Korea has launched the Korean New Deal with a significant green component.

At a global scale, I think Asia has heard the message that green investments and raising carbon prices are a pro-growth, pro-equity policy, and over time that combination of higher carbon prices, and green investments would produce millions of jobs, perhaps on the order of 12 million jobs over a decade, and large gains to global GDP.

So, Asia has heard this message. Is it the case that every component of the strategy to get from A to B has been nailed down? No. So, this is a work in progress, and we need to focus on the implementation, focus on the full package of policies. But I am convinced that Asia, large emitters have heard the message and the need, and are beginning to do what is required.

I would also say that for those in this region who face huge financing needs, may be on average 3 percent of GDP. But in some of the smaller Pacific Islands, easily in the double-digit percent of GDP. The international community is going to have to step up to the plate to assist in providing grants and climate financing on highly-concessional, favorable terms.

Let me stop there.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Thank you. Related to Anthony's first question, I believe [next questioner] has a question on trade. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Keiko. Thank you, Jonathan. I do have a question related to trade. Firstly, you mentioned that trade has been a powerful driver of growth in innovation in Asia for decades, and that the IMF welcomes initiatives such as the RCEP and the CPTPP. How would the implementation of RCEP impact Asia's economic recovery, and global recovery? And would an early implementation be helpful?

And secondly, just to follow-up on the Green Agenda question, China aims for carbon-neutrality by 2060. How does that fit in the full picture of the region's Green Agenda? And what role do you expect China to play in the process? Thanks.

MR. OSTRY: Thanks, very much, for those two questions. So, I think what we've seen over the years, indeed decades, and as I mentioned in my opening, Asia is inherently an open trading region. And even as there were global trade tensions, Asia sought to invigorate regional trade liberalization. And the RCEP that you mentioned, as a case in point. It brings together many, many countries, but including three regional giants of China, Japan, and Korea for the first time in a common, regional agreement. RCEP is not as deep an agreement as some of the others that have been passed in recent years. But it, nevertheless, has the potential to deepen trade between Northeast and Southeast Asia. And I would highlight in particular the reductions in local content rules as providing a powerful impetuous for greater trade in the region.

I would also see a powerful signaling benefit from the RCEP. The global environment has been extremely challenging, and yet, Asia was able to conclude this agreement in this challenging environment, sending a very powerful signal of its commitment to open and liberal trade.

There is more to do, especially in areas, for example, of ecommerce services investment. And of course, we all hope that future agreements can address those issues. But I see RCEP as a very welcome step for the region.

I would just add there are estimates out there of relatively small static gains accruing as a result of RCEP. But frequently these studies underestimate the total gains because the larger gains are dynamic and occur over time through investment, as investment decisions are affected. So again, I see some potential there.

You asked also about China and its role in greening the recovery in the region. I would say that the green agenda requires global cooperation. It requires regional cooperation. But at the end of the day, each nation has to make its own sovereign decisions, and people are moving at different speeds on this. We very much hope that China's commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060 will set a powerful example because everyone does need to move together on this global issue. And so, we hope very much that China's commitments will invigorate the green agenda throughout the region by setting an example and by showing leadership. Let me stop there.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Another questioner from the Webex.

QUESTIONER: Yes, I am, Keiko.


QUESTIONER: Could I just ask Jonathan, please, a question on productivity. You mentioned it earlier. There is an accelerated pickup of technology going on around Asia because of the pandemic. There's a view that this will boost productivity, automation, robots, and the like. Do you have any views of whether it will boost productivity or is that not the case? Thank you.

MR. OSTRY: So, let me say a couple things about the productivity question and the role of automation. We are seeing, I think, and we also know from past recessions and severe crises that automation, increase automation is often the result. And new technologies, greater automation can expand the production possibilities frontier, can make economies more productive.

But there is an important policy challenge that needs to be confronted in these times which is to ensure that the human costs of technological innovations are not ignored. And what that means is that we need to equip workers, including those who may not be as skilled and able to be productively employed in higher technology sectors. We need to equip them with the capacity to have a fair shot in the new, more digital, and indeed, greener economies that we hope Asia will move toward in the future.

So, this speaks to the need for, first, providing adequate social safety nets. And second, more importantly, as I mentioned in my intro, trampoline policies, education, skill development, life-long learning to allow workers throughout the region, including significant informal workers who have suffered disproportionately, the low-skilled, the youth, women. All of these integral parts of the labor forces, they need to be equipped to deal with the more digital, more automized economy that is coming in order for the recovery, the digital recovery to be inclusive, and thus, sustainable.

There is always a danger if people are left behind that inequality rises. And in an extreme case, this can lead to social unrest, as we documented in our last regional economic outlook. And this is a recipe for non-inclusive and much more fragile growth, and obviously, not a direction in which we want to head. Let me stop there.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: One more question from the Webex. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER: My question is about the ASEAN 5 countries' growth has been cut again in the latest WEO, and the possible reasons behind would be a spike in the pandemic and a slower recovery of the tourism. So, my question is would IMF support a regional-wide vaccination passport across all those countries and encourage the vaccination and boost tourism? Or would there be any other methods or suggestions you would have for those countries? Thank you very much.

MR. OSTRY: We've all been reading in the newspapers discussions of COVID passports and those discussions will continue. What we have emphasized is the need for accelerating the vaccine rollout for assuring fast, universal distribution at affordable prices throughout the Asia Pacific region, and indeed, the world.

Only once populations are fully vaccinated will we get back to a healthy, sustainable recovery. And that is urgently needed. There is no better investment that countries can make, that the world can make right now than moving faster to ensure this outcome. As we've said, a faster universal rollout of vaccines would add something on the order of $9 trillion to the global economy. I challenge anybody to find better bank for an investment buck then accelerating the vaccine rollout. So that is the key.

Now, as you've said, the ASEAN region is in the throes of, you know, a resurgence of the pandemic, most notably in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. And so, vaccine rollouts there are urgently needed, and the containment policies to deal with the transition to the vaccine rollout will be costly economically, but they are necessary.

In addition, tourism is an important driver of growth in many of these countries. Notably, Thailand, but also Cambodia and Lao PDR, and so, there is an important degree of uncertainty exactly about when tourism can return, when borders can reopen. This is going to be dependent on the global progress with the vaccine, as well, frankly, as the health protocols that are introduced at the country level to host tourists coming from abroad.

We have seen different protocols. We have seen, for example, in the Maldives tourism has rebounded much better than anyone would have expected. And this has a lot to do with the specifically protocols that Maldives has introduced. And we are seeing travel bubbles pop up here and there, including Australia and New Zealand very recently. So, the different protocols and COVID passports may be part of that, but I don't have any strong views on that question. Thanks.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: While we are on the ASEAN, I would like to take a question on Vietnam. The Vietnamese economy grew 2.91 percent in 2020 and 4.48 percent in the first quarter of 2021. How does the IMF view the economy has driven itself forward with the use of fiscal monetary policy tools in addition to other tools? What are the IMF's recommendations for the country to achieve its set growth targets?

MR. OSTRY: Well, I'm very happy to see this question on Vietnam because Vietnam performed much better than virtually all of the countries in our region last year. A rare positive growth number in a sea of negatives. And this was due mainly to the incredibly proactive and effective set of containment policies introduced very, very early in 2020, and really showed what can be achieved with a strong health response.

And it sort of manifests itself in a strong pickup in growth. The fact that prolonged lockdowns were not needed, so reopening could proceed much faster than elsewhere. And when, inevitably, one or two localized outbreaks occurred, the authorities were vigorous in attending to those and did so very effectively. And there was a payoff also in that macroeconomic policy support on a huge scale was not needed in Vietnam. So again, it is a situation where the investment in a strong healthcare response repays itself many times over.

Now, for 2021, the IMF is projecting very healthy growth in Vietnam. I think on the order of 6 or 7 percent. And you know, the message that we have is to make sure that you are continuing to support those who are vulnerable in your economy, as you have been doing, and continue with the vaccine rollout which has just started in Vietnam and is, hopefully, going to be accelerated very, very quickly.

And lay the foundation for strong medium-term growth, including making sure you have the tax and revenue resources to build your infrastructure and build public investment, ensure your financial system is resilient, and continue with efforts to build the pro private investment environment in Vietnam on a structural basis which will also have a payoff in terms of reducing external imbalances and the strength of the external position in Vietnam. I'll stop there.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Turning to South Asia. Isn't the 2.9 percent projection for Nepal high as tourism hasn't recovered and remittances are likely to take a hit? Low-income countries have limited resources to support economies. Except for the IMF, other organizations haven't provided much debt relief. How should the government respond to COVID's shockwaves?

MR. OSTRY: Thanks very much for that question on Nepal. The question was really asking are our projects for Nepal on the optimistic side. My sense is that they are reasonable at this point. There is a natural rebound that will statistically flatter the growth number in 2021. But more importantly, we assume that as the containment measures in the non-tourism sectors are unwound, there will be some recovery in the non-tourism economy. So, I think this would be a driver of growth this year.

On financing, the questioner will recognize that the IMF provided emergency financing last year which helped to support the pandemic response in Nepal. And of course, Nepal will have to work closely with its international multilateral partners to continue to access concessional financing and grant financing to support its development agenda.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Let me take two more questions. One is on Bangladesh. Bangladesh now faces a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic which has already forced the government to impose strict restrictions on movement once again after last year. What types of fiscal measures should the government take to resolve the pandemic-induced economic downturn?

MR. OSTRY: Thank you for that. So indeed, Bangladesh is in the throes of another wave of the pandemic, and this is presenting challenges and downside risks to growth. The challenge for policy is to sustain the effective response that Bangladesh made during the initial phase of the pandemic, including supporting its most vulnerable through social safety nets, through support for the agriculture sector, and so forth. So, this is the challenge.

Going forward, there is always the need to strengthen the fiscal revenue capacity of the economy to support expenditures. And again, working with development partners to also help fiscal cushioning. Thank you.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Let me turn back to East Asia for the last question. This is on Korea’s monetary policy. Last year, Bank of Korea cut the interest rate to prevent economic shock. Since the economic recovery is appearing, do you think Korea should start considering a rate hike? And also, she's asking if the IMF has any advice on K-shaped recovery in Korea.

MR. OSTRY: Very good. So, on the appropriateness of monetary policy, I would say two things. I would say that both fiscal and monetary policy responded appropriately and effectively to the pandemic and the macroeconomic costs that the pandemic inflicted. Korea is another one of the countries in our region where the growth numbers, in a relative sense, were extremely good last year and the recovery seems to be well-entrenched for this year. And that is no small measure due to the very effective macroeconomic policy support provided both by fiscal and monetary policy.

On where monetary policy should be headed now, we think the current level of interest rates remains appropriate given the still substantial slack in the economy and the fact that inflationary pressures are not yet in evidence.

On the financial stability side, we would not recommend raising interest rates to contend with any financial stability risks, including those related to housing. Yes, the questioner is right in terms of the level of household debt and the fact that a lot of this household debt relates to mortgages and housing. But we consider those financial stability risks to be well-contained thanks to the appropriate macroprudential policies that Korea has had during this housing boom. So, I will stop there.

MS. UTSUNOMIYA: Okay. Thank you, Jonathan. This will conclude our briefing today. I trust you have access to Jonathan's blog in the IMF website, entitled “After a Strong Crisis Response, Asia Can Build a Fairer and Greener Future.” The transcript and the video will be posted on our website as well. Thank you again for joining us today. Stay safe and see you next time, hopefully in person. Good-bye.

IMF Communications Department

PRESS OFFICER: Keiko Utsunomiya

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