Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder

Secretary of the Treasury in the Truman Administration, 1946-53. Other Federal positions once held include Executive Vice-President and Director, Defense Plant Corporation, 1940-43; Assistant to the Director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 1940-44; Federal Loan Administrator, 1945; Director, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1945-46. Secretary Snyder was a longtime close friend of Harry S. Truman beginning with their service in the U.S. Army Reserves after World War I.

Washington, D.C.,
July 6, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess

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NOTICE
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened September, 1970
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder

Washington, D.C.,
July 6, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess

[1717]

HESS: Secretary Snyder, perhaps this afternoon we should continue on with our discussion of taxation and debt management.

SNYDER: Mr. Hess, I have prepared a narrative which I hope would be helpful in summing up some of the matters which we've had under discussion in the last few interviews. With your permission I'll read this into the record.

The attention of the Secretary of the Treasury must be given continuously to both policy determining and administrative responsibilities. His policy determining tasks relate particularly to matters of finance involving Government action in both the domestic and the foreign fields. As an administrator he

[1718]

controls the operations of Treasury bureaus, offices, and divisions which, taken together, comprise one of the largest business organizations in the world. The memorandum which I am going to read described the principal policy determining developments and the principal administrative advances which have transpired in the Treasury Department during my administration.

The narrative is in three sections. The first deals with tax policies and public debt management. The second with international finance. And the third with the Department's operating bureaus.

Treasury policy under my direction adhered to the view that protection of the Nation's basically strong economy required the utmost soundness in Federal finance. The Treasury

[1719]

held that in periods of prosperity, considerations of financial soundness plainly dictated the realizing of budget surpluses so as to make possible systematic reductions of the public debt. This view was presented to the Congress and the Nation on numerous occasions in connection with the consideration of tax legislation. The Treasury presented also the companion view that premature and piecemeal tax reduction measures would be ill advised in the light of the need for careful overall revision of the Federal tax system and the elimination of inequities. It had been the Treasury's sustained position that taxation should be related to budget requirements, to economic conditions and to debt management problems. In appearing before both the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate

[1720]

Finance Committee in 1947, I opposed the general tax reduction then receiving the consideration of those committees. After expressing confidence in the economic outlook for 1947, I stated in my presentation:

Under the existing high national income, taxes at present levels can be paid with less hardship and less effect on business than would be possible under less favorable circumstances. High production was achieved in 1946 under the current tax rates. I believe that we could go into 1947 with the same general tax rates without any decrease in production. Once taxes are reduced, it would not be easy to reverse the action taken and restore them.

Pointing out that bill H. R. 1 would reduce revenue by about three and a half billion dollars a year, I further stated:

Even if tax reductions were now appropriate, the method of reduction adopted by HR. I would not appear to me to be equitable. The bill would give too little reduction to lower income and relatively too much to higher incomes.

[1721]

I then gave as my view, that the premature tax reductions proposed in H. R. I might make later achievement of comprehensive revisions of the tax system difficult or impossible. Although this bill was subsequently passed by the Congress, a veto by the President postponed the untimely tax reduction. A similar bill making the reductions effective January 1st, 1948 instead of July 1, 1947, was also vetoed.

When the Congress revived tax reduction proposals in 1948, the Treasury again strongly opposed such action and reiterated the need for sound fiscal policies to cope with inflationary pressures and to reduce the national debt. Citing evidence of continued inflationary pressure, the Treasury pointed out that tax reduction would be almost certain to raise prices and have little promise of increasing

[1722]

production. Although expressing definite opposition to tax reduction legislation in 1948, the Treasury supported the president's recommendation for readjustment of the tax load, under which tax relief for the lower income groups would have been compensated by the re-enactment of the excess profits tax modified to meet postwar conditions. Despite the opposition of the administration, the Revenue Act of 1948 reducing taxes by five billion dollars annually was passed by the Congress and enacted over the president's veto. In order to counteract the increased inflationary pressures released by the tax reduction, provided by the Revenue Act of 1948, the administration in January 1949 proposed a four billion dollar tax increase to the 81st Congress. Appearing before the Joint

[1723]

Committee on the Economic Report in February 1949, I again emphasized the importance of the Federal Government having a substantial surplus in periods of prosperity to permit a reduction in the public debt. Accordingly I considered it essential that the tax program suggested by the President be enacted. As my confidence in the basic soundness of the economic structure and the need for prudent fiscal policy were part of my convictions, I think that they were well born out. I was most gratified that we had escaped further inflationary pressures, and felt that adherence to the policies that I had urged all along would have reduced the inflationary effect upon the country which then threatened. I also felt justifiably concerned that we did not fully exploit our opportunity to reduce the public debt at that time. Future fiscal

[1724]

policy must be guided by developments in the domestic recovery. It was cited, particularly the accumulation of inequities and other defects under the stress of world finance. It was thought to have greater equity, incentives to business, and more efficient tax administration. I pointed out that premature and piecemeal reduction would increase the difficulty of achieving a balanced tax structure.

As early as 1947 before the Ways and Means Committee, I set forth the goals of the Treasury in the taxation field. These included first: Revenue adequacy. Two: Equitable treatment of different groups. Three: Minimum interference with incentives to work and invest. Four: Encouragement to broad consumer markets for high level production and employment. Five: Ease of administration and compliance. And six:

[1725]

Flexibility in response to the changing economic conditions combined with structural stability to facilitate business planning.

As I considered it highly unlikely that the fiscal and economic situation would permit enactment, at the time, of all of the ultimately desirable legislation, I urged the need for advance planning to lay a sound foundation for future legislation. I took the occasion to discuss some of the broader problems involved in each of the major issues. In furtherance of my policy of study and advance planning for revision of the tax structure, detailed research studies on most of the major tax issues were prepared in the department and made available to the Congress and to the public. These studies served to acquaint those concerned with taxation with the varied and difficult consideration

[1726]

involved in revising the tax structure.

In 1948 the Treasury took the view that many technical revisions could be made to improve the tax system and its administration without substantial revenue costs. In furtherance of this view, certain proposals were made to the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. A number of these proposals were incorporated in a bill which passed the House in 1948, but was not considered by the Senate. Some of the presentations, relating principally to increasing the administrative efficiency of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, were resubmitted in 1949 and enacted into Public Law 271, 81st Congress, 1st Session.

In the field of international taxation, Treasury policy endeavored to be instrumental in the promotion of the Nation's economic

[1727]

interest while furthering the broad aims of our foreign policy. With respect to the application of the U.S. tax laws to Americans doing business abroad, the Asians doing business in the United States, my program was designed on one hand to safeguard American business from burdensome double taxation and on the other to facilitate the flow of international trade and investment. With a view towards minimizing the international double taxation, the Treasury negotiated tax treaties with a number of countries. As of September 1949 treaties to avoid double taxation were in effect in Canada, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. And treaties with Belgium, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, and Ireland had been signed but were awaiting ratification. Treaties with a number of additional countries

[1728]

were in various stages of negotiations at that time.

The Treasury participated actively in United Nations' fiscal matters. The Fiscal Assistant Secretary of the Treasury is the United States representative on the U.N. fiscal commission and helped to launch the commission at its first session in 1948, and participated in its second session in 1949. In connection with the Ninth International Conference of American States held in Bogota in 1948, the Treasury prepared a document on taxation which served as instructions for American representatives at the conference. It outlined U.S. tax policy with respect to income derived abroad and presented a program for possible revisions. More recently the Treasury actively engaged, in cooperation with the State Department, in

[1729]

developing ways and means of implementing the President's point 4 program by removing tax deterrents to foreign investments. The Treasury Department also assumed an active role in developing machinery for the coordination of Federal, state and local fiscal policies and practices. The Treasury worked towards the development of a tax system which would best serve the purpose of eliminating conflicts overlapping, and other faults of present policies. This required the cooperation, not only of the executive and the legislative branches of the Federal Government, but also of the states and other localities.

In April 1949 I invited representatives of state and local governments to meet with me and other Federal officials for purposes of exploring some of the current inter-governmental

[1730]

fiscal problems. The conference discussed several issues of mutual interest. The Treasury agreed to take responsibility for developing, in cooperation with other Federal departments, concrete proposals to implement the recommendations of the conference in reference to the problems which it had considered. Arrangements were made with state and local representatives to be in consultation with the Treasury's technical staff on a continuing basis. Under this cooperative arrangement, recommendations were worked out with respects to one: A program for payments in lieu of taxes to state and local governments on Federally owned real estate. Two: The application of state and local taxes to persons and businesses on Federal reservations. And three: Methods of reducing tax administrative duplication between the

[1731]

state and Federal Government. And four: The coordination of Federal, state and local excise taxes.

We turn now to public debt management. When I took office, the country had only started the tremendous task of converting the economy from a wartime to a peacetime basis. Federal expenditures which had raised the output of the country to the highest level on record during the war years had been cut back sharply as soon as the war ended. In the fiscal year 1945, Federal expenditures had been just under a hundred billion dollars and had accounted for nearly one-half of the gross national product. In the fiscal year ending June 30th, 1946 they dropped to a little over sixty billion dollars. This prompt cut in Federal expenditures by the

[1732]

president after the close of the war was necessary and desirable but it left the Nation facing the problem of replacing as rapidly as possible the production which had gone for war purposes with civilian production held back. Great concern was felt that reconversion could be achieved only after the country had experienced serious unemployment and severe economic dislocation.

Not the least of the economic factors which were causing concern, was the size of the public debt. As can be seen, it had increased more than fivefold during the war years. The size was unprecedented, both in terms of the dollar amount involved, and of the debt relation to the economy of the country. The total debt outstanding in June 1946, at the time I entered the Treasury,

[1733]

amounted to two hundred seventy billion dollars. It constituted 60 percent of all outstanding debts, public and private, which totaled four hundred forty-five billion dollars. The forty-eight billion dollar debt at the end of 1939, before the United States started its defense and wartime finance programs, was only 23 percent of the entire debt of the country. The postwar debt was very widely held. The ownership of the debt on June 30, 1946, in which the debt was classified by type and holder, this showed a quite different picture. This broad ownership made it possible for the debt to play its part in the flexible fiscal policy which was necessary to promote economic stability in the postwar period. The particular composition of the debt was the result of conscious planning by the Treasury

[1734]

as part of its policy of fitting Government securities to the needs of the various types of investors. Practically all of the securities sold to commercial banks for example, had been short term in order that the banks would be kept in a highly liquid position. This was essential if banks were to be in a position to finance reconversion needs. Business corporations, likewise, have been provided with short term securities for the temporary investment of their reserve funds. Insurance companies and savings banks, on the other hand, held longer term securities, largely with maturities over ten years. Savings bonds, were, of course, the principal type of Government security held by individuals. At the same time, the broad ownership of the debt contributed to easing the problems of debt management. It also made

[1735]

proper debt management particularly vital, because every segment of the economy was affected. Total government security holdings of individuals, including marketable as well as non-marketable issues, amounted to sixty-four billion dollars on June 30th, 1946, a significant change from the situation prior to the war when they owned only ten billion of government securities. Over forty-three billion dollars of government securities held by individuals were in savings bonds. Other non-bank investors also held large amounts of government securities. Financial institutions had a large proportion of their assets invested in the public debt issues of the Federal Government. For mutual savings banks it amounted to eleven and a half billion dollars, about 64 percent of their total assets. All insurance companies, life, casualty,

[1736]

and marine held twenty-five and a half billion dollars of government securities. Life insurance companies alone had holdings of twenty-two billion dollars which was over 46 percent of their total assets. Federal agencies and trust funds, which are by law required to invest their accumulated funds in government securities, held twenty-nine billion dollars. Other long bank investors, which includes business corporations and state and local government and other small groups of investors, held thirty-two billion dollars. The commercial banking system held one hundred and eight billion dollars of government securities. Commercial banks held eighty-four and a half billion dollars of the total. This comprised 71 percent of their earning assets. The balance of twenty-three and a

[1737]

half billion dollars was held by the Federal Reserve Banks.

It was obvious, in June, 1946, that the decision made with respect to public debt which amounted to two hundred seventy billion dollars and which was interwoven in the financial structure of the entire economy, would significantly affect the economic and financial welfare of the country. It was essential, under these circumstances, that debt management be directed towards promoting and maintaining a stable and smoothly functioning economy. In the course of formulating debt management policies, I consulted with advisory committees, representing a cross-section of American business, for an exchange of views and information. The consultations were greatly helpful in determining the soundest possible

[1738]

debt management policies. But, of course, in the final analysis, the responsibility for these policies fell on me, and they could not be delegated. The Treasury's debt management program had three principal objectives: One: To maintain confidence in the credit of the United States Government. Two: To reduce the amount of the debt. And three: Reduce bank ownership of Federal securities and widen the distribution of the debt.

I felt that my prime responsibility in the Treasury was that of maintaining confidence in the credit of the United States. It is for that reason that stability of government bond markets was a continuing policy under my administration. Stability of the government bond market during the transition period has been of tremendous importance to the country.

[1739]

It contributed to the underlying strength of the country's financial system and eased reconversion for industrial and business enterprises and for the Government. It was in marked contrast to the situation after the First World War when the severe decline in the prices of government securities contributed to the business collapse, which occurred within two years after the war's end.

In maintaining stability of the government bond market, it was necessary, at times, to take steps to prevent too sharp a rise in government security prices. And at other times declining prices had to be halted. Beginning in the spring of 1947, the Treasury took smart action to control an incipient boom in the Government bond market. By selling long term bonds from some of the Government investment

[1740]

accounts; by offering the investment series of bonds to the institutional investors, and by increasing short term interest rates; all of these operations combined to take upward pressure off the market. When conditions changed and the downward pressure on bond prices developed, the market was stabilized through purchases of long term bonds. All of these actions were taken with a view towards promoting confidence in the Nation's business and financial structure, and the attainment of a high level of employment and production in the economy. In reference to my efforts to reduce the national debt, I recall stating in June of 1946 when I took office, the following:

It is the responsibility of the Government to reduce its expenditures in every way possible, to maintain adequate tax rates during this tax transition period and to achieve a balanced budget or better for 1947.

[1741]

During the first of the fiscal years after I took office, the Federal Government operated with a budget surplus. In the fiscal year 1948, the surplus was in fact the largest in the history of the country. Starting in March 1946, the large cash balances that had remained after the end of the victory loans were applied to the reduction of the public debt. These balances were largely expended during 1946, and subsequent debt reduction was effective through pay-offs from the budget surpluses of the fiscal years 1947 and '48.

In 1949, however, we were no longer having budget surpluses, due largely because of the tax reductions enacted by Congress in 1948 over the President's veto. As a result, by the end of August 1949, the debt stood at two hundred fifty-six billion dollars. Let's point out that

[1742]

strong inflationary pressures existed during most of the postwar period, and in order that debt reduction would have the greatest possible anti-inflationary effect under these circumstances, it was concentrated on debt held by the commercial banking system. The concentration of debt reduction in bank holdings was made possible because of the Treasury's policy of fitting the debt to the needs of investors, and placed a large volume of short term debts in the hands of the banking system. The reduction in the public debt held by the commercial banking system was actually greater than the reduction in the total debt. The total public debt was reduced twenty-eight and a half billion dollars from its postwar peak of two hundred eighty billion dollars reached on February 28th, 1946, to the postwar low

[1743]

of two hundred fifty-one and a half billion dollars in April of 1949. During this same period bank held debts was reduced by approximately thirty-four billion dollars. This came about because the Treasury was able to increase the Government security holdings of non-bank investors. Funds from the sale of savings bonds and other non-marketable issues to non-bank investors were available for the retirement of maturing issues of bank held debts. By the end of August the total amount of debt outstanding had risen to two hundred fifty-six billion, an increase of four and a half billion dollars from the low point reached in April. During this period, bank holdings increased approximately one billion dollars so that the net reduction from February 1946 to the end of August totaled thirty-three

[1744]

billion dollars. Because of the social and economic benefits of broad ownership of public securities, the maintenance of widespread distribution of the debt had been an essential part of the Treasury's postwar debt management policy. It had been one of the principal objectives in the continued promotion of savings bond sales. Broad ownership of the public debt is good for the purchasers of government securities and it's good for the country. It gives to the people a greater sense of economic security and causes them to take an increased interest in the national issues, It gives them a direct stake in the finances of our country.

Another postwar objective of savings bond sales was to combat inflationary pressures. The sale of savings bonds was a two-edged weapon against inflation. It took purchasing

[1745]

power directly out of the hands of consumers and the funds obtained from the sale of savings bonds were available for the retirement of bank held debts, thereby, reducing the money supply. The total amount of savings bonds outstanding towards the end of 1949, was fifty-six and a half billion dollars, an increase of seven and a half billion since June 30th, 1946. The success of the postwar savings bond program is especially notable since it was generally expected that a flood of savings bond redemptions would be one of the major debt management problems as soon as the war ended. The sale of savings bonds, did not, however, occur at the expense of other types of savings. By 1949 individuals had increased their holdings of Series E Savings bonds by 9 percent since the end of 1945. But in this same period,

[1746]

individuals increased their shareholdings of savings and loan associations by over 60 percent; their life insurance by 30 percent; their deposits in mutual savings banks by 25 percent; their savings accounts in commercial banks by 15 percent; their checking accounts by 10 percent; and their postal saving accounts by about 10 percent. Of the various forms of liquid savings, only current holdings in the hands of individuals have declined.

Just to show you that the handling of a debt is a day to day business, I point out that achievement of the three specific debt management objectives were obtained through day to day handling of the debt operation. There was, for example, the matter of refunding maturing issues. This is one of the constantly recurring duties of the Secretary of the

[1747]

Treasury. There is a Treasury bill maturity each week. There are frequent maturities of certificates of indebtedness, and in the past, and in the three years of 1946, '47 and '48 there were several note and bond maturities maturing each year. In addition there were savings bond and savings note maturities and the redemption of these issues before maturity. The volume of refunding carried through each year, amounted to approximately fifty billion dollars at that time. In itself a task of considerable magnitude, it exceeded the total of all security refunding engaged in by all the borrowers in the country during the twenty-five preceeding years. A point to be constantly considered is the fact that the Treasury must at all times adapt its debt management policies to changing economic

[1748]

conditions. Flexibility of the Treasury's policies of that period is illustrated by the movement in the short term interest rates during the period from the time that I took office. Short term rates were permitted to rise, beginning in mid-1947; when conditions changed they held steady from the fall of 1948 until this summer; then when conditions changed again, they were allowed to start rising again. If conditions would change, there would be a reversal of this position. Flexibility in adapting Treasury policies to changing economic conditions made it possible for Treasury activities to make its maximum contribution to postwar economic stability. During this period, the country enjoyed a level of prosperity never before achieved in peacetime up until then. National income reached the highest level on record and continued near

[1749]

that level. Civilian employment likewise obtained the highest peak in our history during the postwar period. I'm referring back to the time that we are now discussing, 1949. There is no doubt that the successful management of the public debt, and the maintenance of the continued period of stability in Government bond markets, contributed materially to the economic well-being of the country during that period.

This takes us through December 30th of 1949, the next chapter will be forthcoming shortly which will carry us through January 20th, 1953.

HESS: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned H.R. 1, and on June 16th, 1947 Mr. Truman vetoed that particular bill. In doing some background

[1750]

research on taxation and the public debt, I took several quotes from a book by A. E. Holmans, and the book is United States Fiscal Policy, 1945-1959. In speaking of H.R. 1, Mr. Holmans has the following quote:

In the course of his discussion with the Senate Finance Committee Secretary Snyder states quite categorically that there was no recession in sight. Clearly the economic forecast on which the Administration's fiscal policy was based was that there would be no recession which would require anything more drastic than the automatic stabilizers....

During 1947 both the President and the Secretary of the Treasury stressed the need to begin debt retirement then in order to give evidence of determination to retire it, (1) and in order to maintain the 'integrity' of the debt.(2)

Holmans' first footnote is as follows:

Secretary of the Treasury to the Senate Finance Committee; Senate Finance Committee, Hearings on H.R. 1 (1947), p. 15. 'The Secretary did not say whether he meant by this that the whole National Debt should be retired.'

[1751]

What would you say in answer to his footnote?

SNYDER: Mr. Hess, our national debt had risen catastrophically from the middle thirties up to its peak of two hundred eighty billions of dollars. The President and I felt that now that we had finished war activities and that we were in a very prosperous period, it would be very stimulating and significant to our future government financing, federal financing, if we showed an intent, showed evidence of an intent to pay back some of that huge debt that we had accumulated in trying to overcome the recession and the depression and the enormous war incurred debt. It was our desire to try to trim that debt down. We had set, in our own mind, a goal to reduce it to around two hundred billion dollars, which would give real evidence that the debt was not just piled up there with the idea of

[1752]

it staying there forever. That would have been a reduction of eighty billion dollars, or approximately a third of it. Of course, right at that very time, when we were endeavoring to do that, a school of thought began to be put forward and advocated in many areas, that we owed the debt to ourselves and that it didn't make any difference that if our gross national product grew, the percentage of debt to the gross national product could also grow and that we could actually increase our debt and stimulate our economy at the same time through deficit financing, or planned financing, as they called it then, planned economy. Mr. Truman and I possibly were of the old school and we had hoped to trim the debt down. It was not with the notion of paying off all the debt, or any specific amount, at any

[1753]

specific time, it was our goal to gradually reduce the debt and we hoped, in our own mind, we'd kind of hoped, to reduce it down to two hundred billions of dollars.

HESS: And Mr. Holmans' second footnote is:

President Truman, in his message vetoing H. R. 1, Item 116 of 1947 volume (Veto of Bill to Reduce Income Taxes, June 16, 1947). 'What exactly was meant by "the integrity of the debt" was not explained; it is hardly reasonable to suppose that failure to retire some of the debt would give rise to some of the fears of this eventual repudiation.'

Any further thoughts on that?

SNYDER: Well, yes, I might call to mind the fact that along about that time we had the example of some debt repudiation in European countries. We had the example of the Russian government confiscating the savings of the Russian people. There were quite a number of articles written,

[1754]

and speeches made, as to whether we were just letting our debt run rampant and never had any intention of repaying it. It was affecting our savings bond sales and our other indebtedness marketing and that was the intent. Preserving "the integrity of the debt" meant that we did have the intent to meet the obligation of this Government. I'm speaking as of that period now. We seem to have a new concept, both the conservatives and the liberals seem to have reconciled themselves to operating our Government on a tremendous debt load and, of course, at this time it's bearing very heavy on us with the interest costs of this present debt. Frankly, when the Eisenhower administration, the so-called business administration, failed to take hold of this problem and materially reduced the cost of Government and the cost of handling

[1755]

the debt, it gave a signal to us then that the day of balanced budgets or intent to operate within a balanced budget by the Government, were days gone by after our period. The Eisenhower administration did have one or two balanced budgets, but they also turned up the highest peacetime deficit that we ever had. So, I think with that background you'll see what we had in mind at the time.

HESS: And you also mentioned H.R. 3950, and on July the 18th, 1947, the President vetoed H.R. 3950. It was entitled "To Reduce Individual Income Tax Payments." I'll read just a couple of quotes that come from the President's veto message which is printed in the 1947 volume of the Public Papers, pages 342-44.

I returned H.R. 1 to the House of Representatives on June the 16th, 1947,

[1756]

without my approval, stating that it represented the wrong kind of tax reductions at the wrong time. This is still the wrong kind of tax reduction and this is still the wrong time to provide for tax reduction.

Any further on that?

SNYDER: Well, his reason for making such a statement was that the bill proposed inequitable reduction for large income vis-a-vis the smaller income brackets, and we, Mr. Truman and I, had in mind a great number of other adjustments in the tax structure which would be more equitable than the ones proposed in that particular bill.

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