Everything You Need To Know About Central Bank Digital Currencies

Sep. 10, 2021 3:16 PM ET3 Comments

Summary

  • Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) could represent the greatest change to the financial system since Bretton Woods.
  • CBDCs could completely revamp the global financial system as we know it, and ultimately, could re-engineer the nature of money itself.
  • Everything from how credit is created, the role of central banks and governments in society, monetary and fiscal policy transmission, and monetary policy tools could be revamped via CBDCs.
  • Investors will do well to educate themselves on the topic of Central Bank Digital Currencies, as their implications and consequences are immense.

gold coin on gray background - CBDC
kertlis/iStock via Getty Images

The inevitable introduction of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) could be the most historical and fundamental change to the global financial system since Bretton Woods. In almost any iteration, CBDCs could completely revamp the global financial system as we know it. They have the potential to change the face of finance, and ultimately, change the nature of money itself. Through CBDC's, fiat money will become truly digitalized and finalize the merger between monetary and fiscal policy.

The development and implementation of digital government money is not necessarily a trend or development one might trade, but rather represents what could be the biggest change to how the financial system is constructed and operates, and is a development everyone must be aware of and would do well to educate themselves on. Should Central Bank Digital Currencies be developed and introduced in a certain permutation, then what money and currency actually are will be reinvented. Everything from how credit is created, the role of central banks and governments in society, monetary and fiscal policy transmission mechanisms, how the banking system operates, how transactions are processed, the very nature of money itself and how it works, all these things have the potential to be redefined and reengineered entirely.

The problem is however, with these significant changes come even more significant implications. Brought on by temptation, necessity, wealth inequality and rise of populism, Central Bank Digital Currencies "might open a Pandora's box of unintended consequences, fiscal as well as monetary, overwhelming our would-be masters of money."

What are Central Bank Digital Currencies?

In their most powerful iteration, Central Bank Digital Currencies will allow individuals, businesses and almost everyone in the private sector to have a digital wallet or bank account directly with their central bank. This in itself is significant, as within our existing financial system it is only commercial banks who are able to account directly with central banks in the form of central bank reserves. In the United States, it is though this channel the Federal Reserve conducts its quantitative easing (QE); they purchase assets from the commercial banks in exchange for central bank reserves. Without going too much into the dynamic of how QE works, it is via the commercial banking system where true money creation occurs for the real economy. Allowing individuals to have a direct CBDC account with the Fed would allow the central bank to stimulate and interact directly with the individuals, something that cannot be achieved in the present system.

This direct interaction with individuals is being purported as one of the main reasons behind the development of CBDCs. The bypassing of the commercial banking system offers policy makers a completely new toolkit in how they are able to conduct monetary policy. No longer will central bankers' stimulative measures be constrained by the wills of commercial banks and private sector credit creation. Rather than relying on bank profitability, regulation and demand for credit to influence the money supply in the real economy, the Fed would be able to inject liquidity directly to individual consumers and businesses themselves. Such a form of a Central Bank Digital Currency would truly transition the central banks from the lenders of last resort to the spenders of last (or first) resort. With such a potentially powerful tool comes great responsibility and equally great consequences, as I will endeavor to detail below.

Almost every central bank in the world has, at the very least, begun preliminary research into the development of their own form of government digital currency.

Source: EY - Tokenization of Assets

Source: EY - Tokenization of Assets

The fact that CBDCs are gaining prominence and entering developmental stages throughout the world at a time where traditional (and "emergency") monetary policy tools among most developed nations are nearing their end of their usefulness, along with the move of many nations, particularly the United States, to a program of fiscal dominance, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) coupled with the rise of populism should come as no surprise. Policy makers have made it clear their intentions are to support asset prices and attempt to generate economic growth at any cost, as they simply cannot afford not to; CBDCs and their inevitability appear to be the culmination of these trends. Debt, demographics and disinflation have put central bankers in a position where they will do anything and everything to avoid Japanification. Central Bank Digital Currencies are the next step down this path of monetary and economic intervention.

Types of CBDCs and how they work

Without going too deep into the potential technologies and infrastructure behind the Central Bank Digital Currencies being in development, it is important to have an understanding of how the various iterations of CBDCs will work and what form they may take. There are numerous different forms of CBDCs being developed, and as such, within this section I will attempt to best summarize these different proposals, along with the potential uses and utility of each.

Retail vs. wholesale

Firstly, CBDCs will either be in a retail or wholesale form. A retail CBDC would be designed for use by the wider population and consumers themselves. This would allow central banks the tools to directly interact with consumers, and thus provide policy makers the greatest amount of stimulative or restrictive measures and data gathering capabilities. A retail iteration of a CBDC represents the most significant change to the monetary system of today and it is through this iteration that money itself will be completely redefined.

A wholesale CBDC on the other hand would be introduced for use within the commercial bank interbank market and other selected institutional and shadow-bank participants. The goal of a wholesale CBDC would be to increase the efficiency and ease of transaction within these wholesale markets. However, compared to a retail CBDC where direct interaction with consumers provides the mechanisms of stimulus and intervention the central banks truly desire, the benefits of a wholesale CBDC do not appear overly significant. Indeed, from a payments infrastructure perspective in the United States, "there appears to be no need for a CBDC in wholesale payments in the United States", as the existing wholesale payments infrastructure allows efficient wholesale transactions to be processed with "infinitesimal operational costs and zero demands for collateral or liquidity".

Direct vs. indirect

A direct model represents the likely iteration of a retail CBDC described above. A direct model would allow consumers to have a direct relationship with their central bank, who would then need to provide many, if not all, the banking and payment services whose responsibility currently falls to the commercial banking system. For a CBDC to have any meaningful stimulative ability by central bankers, a direct model would be required as this would eliminate the need for intermediaries in the money creation process. Simply, a direct model would allow consumers to have a bank account directly with the Fed, in which they hold their Central Bank Digital Currencies. The central bank would then have complete autonomy over every CBDC held by the private sector within their CBDC account.

There are both significant benefits and consequences associated with a direct iteration of a CBDC. Most notably and meaningful is the role of commercial banks in a world of direct central bank money. Such an environment would completely alter the responsibilities and requirements of the central banks as well as the commercial banks. Whilst costly for central banks and significant in scope, some permutations of CBDCs could result in the central bank completely intermediating the commercial banking system and taking complete control over the roles and responsibilities commercial banks provide. Everything from banking to lending. This is a significant development in which I go into further detail later.

An indirect (or two-tier model) of a CBDC would allow consumers to hold their CBDCs directly with a commercial bank, similar to how deposits are used today, with the commercial banks continuing to act as the intermediary between the central bank and consumers. The commercial banks would be required and obliged to provide the CBDC to consumers on demand, of which the commercial banks themselves will hold on reserve with the central banks. This is similar to how central bank reserves work today, and may not necessarily be a meaningful change to the financial plumbing currently in place.

Indeed, the central bankers utility of the two-tier model largely depends on the restrictions and regulations commercial banks are offered in relation to their ability to use their CBDC reserves. Whilst this model would remove the central banks from the significant operational requirements of a direct CBDC model, if the goal of a CBDC is to allow central banks to bypass the commercial banking sector and provide direct stimulus, a two-tier model may not necessarily provide any meaningful additions to how central banks can stimulate.

Token-based vs. account-based

A token-based CBDC would be akin to digital cash in a similar manner to the currencies of today, the difference being cash would be completely digital and a physical alternative redundant. A token-based CBDC would make all units of the CBDC fungible and would be a bearer instrument, fully transactable by the holder.

An account-based CBDC differs on the other hand, as it is through this version of a CBDC whereby the policy maker's toolkit becomes immense. In an account-based CBDC system, ownership of a CBDC is demonstrated through ownership of an individual account that holds the CBDC. One would demonstrate ownership of a CBDC account and all of the currency within. The individual CBDCs themselves would not be fungible nor would they be a bearer instrument.

An account-based form of a CBDC is perhaps better categorized as an identity-based form of money. One's identity would be imbed in their CBDC account, and thus their identify embedded within their money itself. By embedding ones identify within ones currency, an account-based or identify-based CBDC could be manipulated for both good and bad based on the individuals status in society or their spending habits as a means to implement monetary "stimulus".

Associating an individual's money with their identity is one of the most important and impactful considerations associated with Central Bank Digital Currencies; herein lies the association with money as digital surveillance and the dangerous path this can ultimately lead for society as a whole.

Infrastructure: Distributed ledger technology vs. existing banking technology

Whilst a CBDC could be introduced via the existing banking infrastructure or via distributed ledger technology, the use of either type of technological infrastructure will not likely have any meaningful impact on how a CBDC functions. Whilst discussions around CBDCs have generally associated them with distributed ledger and blockchain technology, there are variations of CBDCs that could be built using conventional centralized transaction technology.

Indeed, though true digital currencies of today (i.e. cryptocurrencies) are synonymously associated with decentralised distributed ledger technology, a CBDC utilising a centralized database would still be effectively digital, whilst retaining similar characteristics to today's monetary payment systems. Distributed ledger technology on the other hand would be costly and difficult to operate for a CBDC to be used in a direct, retail iteration.

Will CBDCs be interest bearing?

Whether a CBDC is interest bearing or not interest bearing is one of the most important considerations governments must decide upon developing their digital currency. The introduction of an interest bearing CBDC completely changes the fundamental nature of money itself. Whilst bank deposits and financial assets house the majority of the world's currency, the distinguishing feature of money today lies in the fact that physical cash itself is a non-interest bearing instrument and has no associated interest rate. The introduction of an account-based, direct, and interest bearing CBDC to replace digital cash would be a policy makers dream; opening the floodgates of liquidity and monetary intervention unlike anything we have yet seen. For example, if the central banker's econometric models are telling them a negative 3% interest rate will stimulate the economy, an interest bearing CBDC would allow direct implementation of such monetary policy measures, instantly and selectively. Such levels of direct stimulus are simply impossible today so long as the commercial banking system intermediates monetary policy and the real economy. The ability for central banks to attach an interest rate to a CBDC has significant ramifications for not only the functionality of monetary policy, but the way consumers and individuals view their currency. Such consequences are discussed in further detail in the following sections.

Regardless of the specific technology, infrastructure and type of CBDC ultimately introduced by central banks worldwide, it is important to understand that, at the end of the day, CBDCs are programmable money whereby the terms and conditions of that money are controlled by policy makers as a means to conduct monetary policy in a way that is simply impossible today.

Why Do We Need CBDCs?

As I have touched on above, there are a variety of reasons why Central Bank Digital Currencies are in development, most of which lies in the added power and broader range of monetary policy tools CBDCs would provide central bankers and policy makers.

In a world of interest bearing CBDCs, herein lies perhaps the greatest tool for the ever increasing manipulation and intervention in the economy. As with all stimulus measures available to policy makers, there will be both benefits and consequences. By directly controlling the interest rates of a CBDC, central bankers could charge different interest rates on their CBDC deposits to different people. This is where an account-based or identity-based CBDC becomes a powerful tool for central bankers. By assessing the historic spending and savings habits of individuals and corporations, policy makers could offer a lower rate of interest or an outright negative rate of interest to whomever historically has saved more than they have spent, in the hope this will encourage consumption and generate economic growth. Political agenda could become the foremost determinant of interest rates and stimulus, along with ESG and populist considerations. Indeed, as a means to counter the demographic problem facing the developed world, an interest bearing CBDC could be used by paying higher rates of interest to younger savers and lower rates of interest to wealthy retirees. This effectively becomes a tax for those who have been less inclined to spend and opens up a vast array of consequences.

An interest bearing and identify-based CBDC would indeed allow central bankers to target different outcomes for different people. What's more, it is not just via interest rates a CBDC could undertake such targeted monetary policy measures. A direct CBDC allows policy makers to conduct true money printing. For businesses who have generally struggled to access credit in times of crisis as bank lending standards soar, the central bank could simply inject additional units of their CBDC directly into the business's CBDC account. This is direct stimulus in its truest form; afforded only by the introduced of CBDCs. In an economy where the structural drivers of growth such as demographics remain unfavorable and thus driving the disinflationary trends we have succumbed to over the past 40 years, the types of stimulus offered by CBDCs will be far too tempting to ignore. As we issue more and more debt to try and stimulate, the productivity of debt and velocity of money remain at their lowest levels in over 70 years, central bankers are attempting to do whatever it takes to change this dynamic. To think they will not at the very least trial CBDCs seems folly, even in the more democratic countries like the United States.

Source: Hoisington Investment Management

Source: Hoisington Investment Management

A digital government money affords policy makers even more stimulus tools beyond just those mentioned above, however. Indeed, an extreme case could see expiration dates on people's holdings of CBDCs as a means to encourage spending. CBDCs give policy makers and central banks the power to wipe out your savings. This is a powerful and scary tool.

Direct stimulus allows policy makers and central bankers the ability to conduct their policy decisions as a means to effect human behavior and economic decision making in a way that traditional monetary and fiscal policies cannot.

Implications & Consequences Of CBDCs

What has become clear to me through my research on Central Bank Digital Currencies is how the negative implications of their introduction are more than likely to outweigh their benefits. From changing the nature of money itself, the potential for the direct injection of unlimited liquidity, to how a CBDC would impact the banking system, the implications for the dollar's status as the global reserve currency, to the privacy concerns and the potential for abuse of power, the consequences of adopting CBDCs could be broad in scope and severe in nature.

As I have discussed, CBDCs provide policy makers with unprecedented tools for monetary intervention and economic influence to a point far beyond the monetary and fiscal tools of today. Whilst the now normal "unconventional" monetary policy we are seeing today has undoubtedly influenced asset prices via monetary debasement, CBDCs have the potential to create truly sustainable consumer price inflation. In doing so, central bankers would be altering the level of market functionality traditionally offered by a capitalist economy, all the while muting price signals for market participants entirely. Further inefficiencies, zombie corporations and lack to economic destruction would undoubtedly continue.

Whilst the benefits of a digital government money appear tempting at first glance, in reality, these purported benefits are likely illusory, and vastly outweighed by the consequences.

Potential for inflation

Central Bank Digital Currencies allow for limitless money creation in the truest sense. By removing the constrains of the banking sector, central banks can decide to increase the CBDC deposits on any or all individuals at their discretion, as I have discussed. The constraints on this ability of true money creation will ultimately befall to the inflationary repercussions.

In a recent podcast with Grant Williams conversing with the great Lacy Hunt, Lacy opined the following in regard to the potential introduction of CBDCs: "If a government digital currency is enforced, the government would be able to track and control everyone's financial record, it would be a great intrusion on private freedom. A US CBDC would put the Fed in the money printing business and constitute a major break within our system. Money would have no value as soon as the money illusion passed and Gresham's Law would prevail. CBDCs are part of the view that financial transactions create income and wealth, not hard work, creativity and saving of income, they would be a trump of the free lunch school of economics. The US at that point will have achieved banana republic status. To go along this path would lead to hyperinflation and widespread miserable conditions for the US household."

For me, this statement encapsulates the implications of CBDCs perfectly; inflation being front and center. I have commented a number of times in my recent writings on inflation and deflation the implications of the introduction of CBDCs. With a CBDC fulfilling the role of money, the unit of account almost becomes redundant as money is created and given to individuals on the basis of wants and needs. Such a system is incredibly susceptible for abuse. Money would have far less value, and as a result consumers would be far more willing to spend rather than save. "CBDCs have the potential to become an inflation game changer, and may open Pandora's box of unintended consequences."

Implications for the banking sector

Whether CBDCs are introduced as an additional form of money alongside bank deposits or as a means to entirely replace existing fiat currency, and given how CBDCs are an avenue for central banks to provide direct stimulus - which by default circumvents the banking system - one would expect there to be significant implications for the banking sector itself.

The most significant impact on the commercial banking sector would be in the scenario whereby CBDCs are set to replace existing fiat money. If consumers are fully on boarded to a CBDC system, then much of the deposits and liquidity within the banking sector would cease to exist. The implications here are twofold, the commercial banks would lose their deposit base, and the role of lending would fall to the public sector over the private sector. In the United States, whether it is from the lack of demand for new credit from the private sector or the unwillingness of commercial banks to lend to the broad public, commercial bank credit creation continues to be lackluster. In the current system, private sector credit creation remains the truest and most impactful means of money creation for the real economy.

https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/5edb072f48c9fd655031c59d/1629594548994-Q6S6KN0H89KQXYLN37YZ/Capture.PNG?format=1500w

Due to this lack of credit growth in the private sector, the commercial banking system is simply not in a position to contribute to economic growth at present and assist the Federal Reserve in stimulating the economy. We can see this trend by not only looking at the growth in commercial bank lending per the above chart, but also by looking at the commercial bank loan/deposit ratio, which has been in a decline for nearly two decades and with it the velocity of money.

Source: Hoisington Investment Management

Source: Hoisington Investment Management

This is an important point because the growth and supply of bank credit is the primary driver of productive economic growth today. If deposits flow out of the commercial banks and instead sit with the central banks under a CBDC system, it would be up the central banks and policy makers to lend and create credit. As it stands today, central banks have no experience in lending nor are they designed to perform such functions. However, by introducing a CBDC, it would be fully up to central bankers to reallocate liquidity, credit and money in a productive manner, which, ultimately leads us down the path toward a centrally planned economy. As well-meaning as they may attempt to be, policy makers in such a scenario would make their decisions via political agenda. For this to be a success, policy makers would need to be more efficient in their money creation and capital allocation than the private sector.

However, if CBDC's were introduced to exist alongside the existing commercial bank system of today, these negative implications for the banking sector and money creation process would be lessened, though other implications would remain.

Firstly, an interest bearing CBDC would directly compete with bank deposits. Depending on the rate offered, this would effectively create a floor for bank deposit rates as banks would need to offer a higher rate to attract deposits. If banks were to offer a rate below that of its competing CBDC, then we could see bank runs whereby consumers withdraw their monies from the commercial banks and deposit these within their CBDC account, creating potential for liquidity issues within the banking sector. For this to occur however, the CBDC and existing fiat money would need to be fungible, which as I have discussed is unlikely. If it were the case, this is where a cap on people's CBDC accounts would be beneficial. Regardless, CBDCs have the potential to completely upend in the banking system as we know it. CBDCs could give governments virtually complete control over the entire monetary system.

Privacy concerns & government power

Two major concerns associated with Central Bank Digital Currencies, which are perhaps more so philosophical, are the effects their introduction would have on personal privacy and enhancing government power.

Beginning with privacy concerns, an account-based or identity-based CBDC inherently connects individuals to money and removes the fungibility of money in order to enhance government's control of said money. By default, such a form of money requires individuals to give up their freedom and ability to transact anonymously.

By removing the fungibility and token-based nature of conventional currency, a version of a CBDC which does not embody these characteristics creates a vast array of ethical and philosophical responsibilities for its issuer. We as a society must decide who we entrust with our personal data. An account-based CBDC would allow its issuer to gain access to all of our spending habits; what we buy, how much we spend, what we invest in and what we save. Would we rather entrust this information to the government, a central authority who are notoriously successful at misallocating capital as political agenda is what drives decision making. Targeted stimulus based around such data would ultimately be conducted on a political basis, as it is done so today. With identity-based money, individuals and policy makers must consider how much monetary and personal information is attached to their CBDC, and, individuals must be able to trust their policy makers with such information and that it is used for the right reasons.

Under almost any CBDC design, the central bankers and policy makers would gain extraordinary power. Without these powers, the benefits of CBDCs for the economy in most developed nations are likely to be limited. To be beneficial, or at least attempt to be beneficial in democratic countries, CBDCs will place more and more responsibility in the hands of the state at the expense the private sector. As this would only serve to give more power to the central banks, their political "independence" would become more important than ever. I can't imagine it wise to give entities such as the central banks whose independence is already in question greater responsibility.

This is particularly prevalent for the banking sector, as I have touched on. Depending on how much CBDCs were to disintermediate the commercial banking sector, the credit creation process would be at the discretion of policy makers. The money creation process will largely become a function of the state, reinforcing the central banks power over the economy. In this scenario, CBDCs effectively introduce state banking.

It is important to remember however these concerns over privacy and enhanced government power will vary for state to state. For example, the Chinese digital yuan (or "DCEP") is likely being developed by the People's Bank of China as a mean to further their authoritarian control over their people, whereas in more democratic states like the United States where there are far more checks and balances to contend with such issues, these concerns are likely to be less valid. However, if used incorrectly, the introduction of CBDCs could be a historic blow to personal liberty and privacy. Perhaps the biggest risk of CBDCs are they end up being surveillance disguised as currency, thus creating a link between money and social agenda.

Whilst there are societal benefits offered by Central Bank Digital Currencies, unfortunately, the privacy one would have to renounce will not likely be understood by the majority. The ease of use and "free-money" appeal will likely be welcomed at first. Think of smart phones tracking your viewing history and targeting advertising based on this information; people will be blinded by the purported benefits and not see the consequences until it is too late.

Chinese digital yuan

The worst case scenario for individual liberty is not hard to imagine. In fact, China's version of a CBCD, known as the Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP), or digital yuan, is exactly that. The PBOC is most likely doing exactly what a CBDC allows; leverage the power and individual data capabilities of a CBDC to further their political agenda.

The authoritarian ambitions of China's digital yuan is likely to be one of the biggest changes to the financial system in some time. Out of all the governments and central banks who are beginning to realize the potential and power of fully digital currencies, China has thus far been the one taking it the most seriously in both development and implementation. For China, having the enormously powerful data associated with an identity-based CBDC can be used to further their dominance over their people. The following excerpt from a paper released by the Bank Policy Institute does an excellent job summarizing a worst-case Chinese CBDC:

Source: Central Bank Digital Currencies: Costs, Benefits and Major Implications for the U.S. Economic System

Source: Central Bank Digital Currencies: Costs, Benefits and Major Implications for the U.S. Economic System

History tells us authoritarian governments tend not to want to shed power, but instead continue to accumulate it. Indeed, whilst the PBOC have stated their development of the digital yuan is to enhance monetary policy and illegal activity, officials have also said the DCEP will have value as a tool for enforcing party discipline, as per the above. The CCP can decide who gets punished for being a bad citizen, and who gets rewarded for being a good citizen via the creation and destruction of the money supply a CBDC would allow.

However, it is not just through the means of furthering their political agenda leading China to develop their digital yuan at a pace far quicker than any other central bank, but it is also through a desire to bypass the dollar dominance and its influence within the world's financial system.

It is undoubtedly true that many of the central banks developing Central Bank Digital Currencies are doing so as a means to bypass the dollar hegemony and its role as the world's global reserve currency. China's digital yuan is absolutely case and point in this regard. CBDC's could offer an avenue of escape for many countries, if designed and implemented in such a way whereby their reliance on the dollar is somehow reduced. It is no secret that many countries do not necessarily favor a dollar based financial system. Recently, the Bank of England's Mark Carney spoke of this very thing.

China's digital yuan is being designed in part as a viable alternative to the dollar for the world's economies. For example, in order to entrench and promote adoption of their digital yuan, China could impose requirements on foreign businesses who wish to operate in China to do so solely in their digital yuan. This means opening a CBDC account with the Chinese central bank. Recently, financial plumbing expert James Aitken discussed how significant this development is, opining how the United States and other western government officials are shocked at how advanced China is in the development of their digital yuan. The penny has certainly dropped for the powers at be as to how game-changing a digital yuan could be and the dangers associated with China being at the forefront of Central Bank Digital Currency adoption. However, it must be stated the authoritarian ambitions associated with China's digital yuan are likely to reduce its viability as a global alternative to the dollar. Whilst it is unlikely to be the digital yuan that supplants the dollar hegemony, the entire dollar based system will eventually give way to a digital based currency system, of which CBDCs as a whole are likely to play a key role.

Conclusion & Final Thoughts

Central Bank Digital Currencies are clearly significant in scope and in consequence. People are yet to come to terms with how money itself is going to be reengineered. CBDCs have the potential to change the financial system and money as we know it. From digital surveillance to unlimited direct stimulus, the introduction CBDCs appear inevitable and game changing.

Whilst it is most likely the case the introduction of CBDCs would in the end be a negative outcome for the citizens of the countries who adopt them, these considerations of intrusion of privacy are most likely to be lost or unforeseen by individuals until it is too late.

This article was written by

Editor and publisher of AcheronInsights.com.My investment philosophy is centered around a "jack of all trades" approach, focusing on fundamentals, technicals, sentiment, macro themes and market structure.I am a CFA charterholder with a background in financial planning and investment analysis.

Disclosure: I/we have no stock, option or similar derivative position in any of the companies mentioned, and no plans to initiate any such positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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