Secret History of the Credit Card
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interviews: bill janklow
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Bill Janklow was governor of South Dakota from 1979 to 1987 and from 1994 to 2003. He and his state played a key role in helping the credit card industry take off in the 1980s. In this interview, Janklow tells the story of how South Dakota lifted its cap on interest rates so it could draw capital and jobs, and how soon after, Citibank moved its credit card operation from New York, because by making South Dakota its home state, it could then charge higher interest rates. Many other credit card banks followed suit, moving to other states where the cap on rates were lifted. Today, however, Janklow has mixed feelings about making his state the first credit card capital of America. "It's unbelievable, the lack of sophistication that we have as a society to deal with what I'll call consumer credit," he says. "It really is unbelievable. Do I think I helped foster some of that? The answer is yes, I do." This interview was conducted on Aug. 24, 2004.

Do you remember how it is that credit cards came to your fair state? What happened?

Let me set the time for you, all right, because I think that puts it in perspective. Interest rates were going into orbit. They were climbing all the time. The cost of money was getting more and more expensive. South Dakota had laws -- when I came to the governor's office, South Dakota had very tight historical laws on what you could charge to borrow. In other words, there was one interest rate by law that they could charge for new cars, another one for used cars less than five years old, another one for used cars more than five years old. If you went to a bank, if you went to the consumer-loan department, they could by law charge you rates of interest that couldn't be charged by the mortgage department or another department at the bank, and it was highly regulated, what interest rates people could pay.

I was desperately looking for an opportunity for jobs for South Dakotans.  To me, this wasnt a credit card deal, it was a jobs deal.  It was an economic opportunity for the state.

The marketplace exceeded all of those numbers at that point in time, and what I'm trying to say is, we may have a law that said you could charge 9 percent, but money cost 11 percent, so banks weren't loaning money. It stopped credit. In this city, in Sioux Falls, there were only five houses, seven houses built in 1981. That's all. There were only seven housing permits, because nobody could afford the financing for a home. That's the context where we found ourselves.

I'd never heard of all this credit card stuff. I'd like to take credit for it, but I had nothing to do with it. I received four communications in one day. A former governor, Frank Farrar, who served as governor for two years and then went into banking interest and had a lot of banks that he was involved in, he called me, and he had been contacted through banking circles. The state Economic Development Department contacted me and told me they had been contacted by Citibank, and Citibank wanted to meet with me. I received contact from a guy employed in Citibank, a gentleman employed in Citibank who was from Aberdeen, S.D. He was the head of human resources for Citibank. He made a call to South Dakota, and I received a direct call from Citibank in my office, all in one day.

They wanted to know if I'd be willing to meet with them, and so I said sure. We had a phone conversation, and a couple of days later a couple of people came to South Dakota. One of them was a gentleman named Charlie Long [former vice chairman of Citicorp]. And they came, and they explained to me what condition their bank was in. I don't quite remember exactly the numbers, but it was something like the cost of money for them was like 15 percent. That's what they had to pay to get capital. There was a New York state law that said that if you bought goods and services, you could charge 15 or 18 percent, but if you had a cash advance, it was 12, so it cost the bank more money to borrow money to loan you money than you were paying in interest. ...

So why come to South Dakota?

Well, [the government] had passed a law in the '30s called [the Glass-Steagall Act and it] was an attempt to keep big national banks from taking over all the banking in America. The trustbusters were involved in a lot of that back in the '30s, and so they had passed legislation that said that a nationally chartered bank cannot go across state lines into another state and practice banking. You have to stay in the state where you have your charter.

We had exceptions to that in the Great Plains, because our money-center banks were really the Minneapolis banks. They were the monolithic giants in this region. In those days it was called Norwest Bank and First Bank. Norwest Bank and First Bank were actually in Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin. They were in all those states, and so they were grandfathered in.

So we were allowed to have a Minneapolis bank in South Dakota. They had lots of branches. Between those two banks, they owned 30, 40 banks in this state, in little old South Dakota. Then they passed an amendment to all that called the Douglas Amendment to the McFadden Act. The Douglas Amendment, 27 years earlier, said that you could go across state lines if the state invited you in. You had to be invited in. And no state had ever invited, because all the community bankers made sure that no one would pass legislation inviting an out-of-state bank in.

But I'm sure the people in New York understood what the law was, and the history of the law, but --

Why South Dakota?

Yeah. You weren't in very good shape yourself at that point.

Well, that's a good question. They told me because at that time there were only two or three states in the union where the legislature was still in session, where they felt they may be able to sit down and talk to people. There are some states that have year-round legislatures -- California, Michigan. There are states where the legislatures are virtually in session all the time as a practical matter. We weren't one of those states. Missouri was a state that there was a possibility, South Dakota, and there were one or two others, but they weren't sure that any state would let them come in, because no state ever had let any bank come in from the time they passed those laws 50 years earlier. And all they were doing -- they were really dying, and they were desperately looking for someplace where they could be rescued. They were in the water adrift; that's what they were.

But why South Dakota? You had your own economic problems.

I don't think they even thought of that. I mean, I don't know. I can't answer that. I just know that they wanted to contact me as governor, so much that I heard four different messages in one day from four different directions. That's never happened to me before or since.

What did they want from you when they got ahold of you?

They wanted to be able to come to South Dakota, and I said, "I don't understand what you're talking about." And so they briefly explained it on the telephone. I understood the interest problem, because we had it in our state. We had actually changed some of our laws in '79, and we had previously introduced legislation and passed legislation, or were passing legislation, to lift the ceilings on usury so we could free up and get capital in South Dakota. And we were doing that at the time, and that had nothing to do with Citibank.

Right. But objectively, because of the economic conditions, the fact that money cost more than what you could lend it out as, you were in the process of lifting the usury cap in South Dakota?

That's correct. In South Dakota, for South Dakotans. ... Out of the blue Citibank shows up. ...

And they said, "We want to come because you're already lifting the usury rates"?

No, no, no. They just wanted ... to know -- there had been another Supreme Court decision, OK? It was called the Marquette Bank decision [Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Services Corp. (1978)]. The Marquette Bank decision was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said forget where the bank is chartered; wherever the credit decision is made, in whatever state locality the credit decision is made -- the "lex loci" rule -- that's the place where you can apply interest wherever you make the loan. In other words, let's just say that if South Dakota had a 5 percent ceiling on interest, and that's where the decision was made, the bank couldn't charge more than 5 percent, even if they loaned the money to somebody in Florida. But if South Dakota had a 25 percent ceiling, then you could charge 25 percent, even to a loan in Florida.

And enforce it, collect it?

And collect it -- that's correct. The Marquette Bank decision is what I believe gave them the impetus to be looking around America to find help to keep their bank alive. Their bank, all those banks -- look, this isn't just a Citibank deal. It started out with Citibank ... but in a very short period of time, matter of a few months, I was meeting with the chairman of the board of Bank of America; with Seafirst; with First City of Houston, Texas; Michigan National Bank in Michigan; Continental Illinois: First Chicago of Illinois; Chase Manhattan Bank; Manufacturer's Hanover [Trust]; Chemical Bank; Bank of New York -- all the big banks in America -- because only South Dakota at that point in time appeared to be willing to move forward to invite people to come in. I saw it as an economic opportunity [for] the citizens of the state to get jobs, and to get good jobs.

I lived in a state where the economy was, at that time, dead. I was governor of South Dakota at the only time in this state's history when the economy shrunk from one year to the next. It actually was smaller in one year in the early '80s than the year before. Our sales-tax collections actually took in less total money one year than the previous year. That's how bad our economy was in South Dakota. I was desperately looking for an opportunity for jobs for South Dakotans. To me, this wasn't a credit card deal; it was a jobs deal. It was an economic opportunity for the state.

And I believe at that time you had a $6 million shortfall you couldn't make up?

After I cut everything that I could -- and we actually even increased taxes during that period of time, because we had to buy a railroad that went bankrupt -- we were just in the worst straits you could be in.

We had Homestake gold mine in South Dakota. It was the largest gold mine then in the Western Hemisphere absent some mines in South Africa and the Soviet Union. And so when all else failed, I actually came up with a proposed tax to raise the price of gold, raise the tax on gold by $6 million. The chairman of the board of Homestake came to South Dakota and met with me, Harry Conger from San Francisco. He flew in on behalf of Homestake. We had lunch, we talked, and [he] said, "Bill, what is it you really want?" I said: "Harry, I need $6 million to balance my budget. I can't cut any more. Education, children in need, elderly in need, the social things that government does, I just can't cut any more."

So you were in the poorhouse, basically?

... That's correct. We were in the poorhouse when Citibank called us. They didn't know the condition we were in. They were in the poorhouse when they called us. I wasn't going to go broke in months; they were. They were in bigger problems than we were. We could make it last. They couldn't make it last. I was slowly bleeding to death; they were gushing to death.

And [Chairman and CEO of Citibank/Citicorp] Walter Wriston himself showed up?

He came to South Dakota. One of the finest guys I ever met. He's an absolute gentleman. His word was as good as gold. I mean that. You know, I had this prairie chauvinism like other people that were afraid of all these ogres from the big corporations or big America or big world. I met some of the classiest people I ever met. And I genuinely mean that. Every deal they ever made with me, they kept. But Wriston showed up in my front room, yes, in Pierre, S.D.

And what did Walter Wriston promise you? What was the deal?

The deal we made was that if we would change our law to invite them to come to South Dakota -- that's what they wanted, the invitation -- if we would change our law to invite them to come to South Dakota, ... he would guarantee South Dakota 400 Citibank jobs. A guarantee was 400 jobs. People throw around other numbers, but it was 400. And then they actually sat in my front room and were discussing briefly, "Well, what could we bring?," because the cards may still not come. See, the Fed may not let them come. But if we passed our law, we were still guaranteed 400 jobs, irrespective of whether or not they brought cards.

But I want to get it clear. They said ... if you invited them in, which allowed you under federal law to let them come into South Dakota ... because that's what they really wanted.

We were taking the usury cap off. If you look back at our legislation, we were passing legislation taking the usury cap off. We were passing that, as a matter of fact.

Right. So that's what got their attention.

No, I don't know that it did. I can't tell you that, because I don't know that. ... We were passing legislation to lift the usury ceilings. At the same time, right during that period of time, Citibank contacted us, and when I told them that I was willing to go forward to try and do this, then Citibank and we worked together, and Citibank actually drafted the legislation that I then took to the Republican leadership, and the Democrat. Even though my party had a two-thirds majority, I took it to the Democrat leadership privately and to the South Dakota Bankers Association board of directors. This was all done in private. Once I had all those players together, then we introduced and passed legislation in one day. Literally we introduced it, and it passed our legislature in one day.

And it was one of the best things we ever did, [because] my state's made hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of millions in taxes that we've collected. We had a 5 percent tax on the profits from these companies at one time. They make $500 million, we get $25 million. That's a lot of money in South Dakota. To put it into perspective, one penny on our sales tax statewide raised about $60 million, and they paid the equivalent of over half of that at one time; just fell out of the sky for us. Plus, they put thousands of South Dakotans to work. The highest paid jobs for people in the white-collar industry was at Citibank ... [400] people making over $40,000 a year. That was a lot of money 25 years ago. That's a lot of money today for people.

How big has this industry become?

It's a huge industry in the state now. It's very, very big. At one time, in my last couple years in office, 16 percent of all the people in the state were employed in the financial services industry. We had a United Airlines back office in Rapid City, S.D. Michigan National Bank took its credit card operation to Rapid City. Green Tree Financial took a back office, had about 1,000 jobs in Rapid City. First National Bank of Nebraska has its credit card operation in Yankton, S.D. That's 500, 600 people. First Premier Bank has a credit card operation in Sioux Falls that has an outlying operation in Vermillion, S.D.; Watertown, S.D; and on the Black Hills in Spearfish, S.D. Household Finance came here. They ultimately were bought out by Citibank, but they still operate in an independent operation in Sioux Falls.

Sears came with a Novus card. They were actually going to bring the Sears Discover card here. This is the place where the Sears, Roebuck company bought the Farmers State Bank, the first state bank of Hurley, S.D. A little community of several hundred people in the state, their bank is still owned by Sears, Roebuck and Co. The Novus operation came here.

Bank First has about 1,000 people employed here. Norwest Bank is expanding right now; they brought the old Dial Finance here and the Dial credit cards. They're expanding, adding about 500 to 800 jobs right now as we talk in the community. Retailers National Bank is here. Retailers National Bank, if you had a Dayton Hudson card or a Marshall Field's card or a Target card, you sent your payment to Sioux Falls, S.D. ...

To get this done, you declared a state of emergency?

No. Let me explain. ... In the South Dakota state constitution, we have a provision that says that when a law passes the legislature and is signed by the governor, you can put into the law on what date it goes into effect, but if you don't put any date into effect, then it goes into effect the following July 1.

In other words, there's a period of time in there for the public to look it over and decide, "Is this something that we want to accept or take steps to reject?" If you put an emergency clause on it, then you can make it go into effect immediately upon signature or any date thereafter. This had an emergency clause to it. We declared it to be a shortage of financial capital in South Dakota, the inability of our people to get more and better jobs. The inability of our people to get the capital they need at a price they could afford to pay, or at any price, made it so that this was an emergency situation. And so that had an emergency clause on it.

Were you afraid that they would go somewhere else?

Only once. They got down to the point [where] they were looking at Missouri and South Dakota. Now, they'd asked us to keep all this confidential, because they told me -- and I believed them -- they had several thousand people employed, and the last thing they wanted was several thousand people that were handling billions of dollars of their money to become concerned that they may, until they knew the facts, wake up and find out they didn't have a job. You can do funny things to all that technology at that point in time.

And so they wanted it kept confidential. When I met with all our bankers, with the Republican leaders, the Democrat leaders, before we went public, all of the people I involved, I asked them to give me their word they'd keep it private, and they did.

At the same time Citibank was talking to us, they were talking to Missouri, and a legislator in Missouri publicly announced that he was going to a city -- I don't know if it was Jefferson City or where -- because he was bringing home all these new jobs for Citibank on this credit card operation. Citibank then quit talking to Missouri, and I believe we were the only state that [they] talked to, but we moved very, very quickly. From the time I met them until we passed our legislation, it was just several weeks. We really moved. That was a good deal for us. It was a hell of a deal for them. ...

Now, there was another state that actually did get into the action.

Yeah. Well, actually, the first state to follow was Delaware. On Citibank's board of directors were all these corporate titans, and one of them was Irving Shapiro. Irving Shapiro was the CEO of DuPont Company, headquartered in Delaware. And Shapiro, when we were doing our Citibank deal, went back to Delaware and said to Pete du Pont, who was then the governor of Delaware: "Pete, this is crazy. Delaware has got this long history of being kind of the corporate locus for America. This financial services industry, it's all going to go to South Dakota. Let's get the law changed in Delaware." And so Delaware actually changed their law in the following year.

By that time, we'd captured a lot, but we were going to get them all. Honestly, Chase, Manufacturer's Hanover, Chemical, they all went to Delaware. They were coming here. Bank of America bought a building in Rapid City, S.D., invested a couple million dollars in it fixing it up to move 1,000 workers.

And then the comptroller of the currency wouldn't let them move. Seafirst and another, People's Bank out in the state of Washington, were moving to South Dakota, and the feds wouldn't let them move. They were in such dire straits, they said: "You just stay here and get your affairs in order. Quit trying to expand and move your operation around." So they weren't allowed to move. But the eastern banks went to Delaware, because Delaware copied our legislation. It was a smart move. As a matter of fact, in some of the stuff they passed, they had the words "South Dakota" in it. They even passed our state's name in some of their legislation.

Were you going to sleep at night early in this process thinking of South Dakota becoming the new Hong Kong, the new London, the new Frankfurt [Germany]?

Not early, but there came a time when I was going to sleep at night thinking that we were the new financial center of America. I was just praying that we could go about one more year -- about six more months is all we needed -- where other states would really not make this move. I mean, Alaska made the move. Even Alaska changed its laws. California changed its laws. But if they'd have waited just five or six more months, we'd have had 20,000 more jobs in this state. We would have had to import workers. Seriously, we would have had to import workers. [South] Dakotans would have come home.

See, one of the things that always haunted me -- you have to understand where I'm from. I'm from a remote, rural, Midwestern/Western state. Citibank, the second year they were in operation, had 24,000 applications for work on file. Twelve thousand of them were former South Dakotans that live out there in the universe someplace who wanted to come home. That always bothered me. I'm not one person to think kids shouldn't leave home, and it doesn't bother me that they leave my state and go live someplace else. There's a world out there, and you've got to look at both sides of the mountain in your lifetime. That's OK. But no one should have to go climb over the mountain because they feel they have to. They should do it because they want to. So people ought to be free to leave here, but there ought to be opportunity for them to come home. My objective was to try to build an opportunity for them to stay here if they wanted to or to come home if they wanted to. That's the big challenge in rural states. That is the challenge for everybody in rural states.

But for you, it meant that you could balance the budget; you could --

I could provide jobs, and --

And you could get reelected.

Oh, I wasn't worried about that. My friend, if you saw the stuff I did, this was a minor thing. Citibank was a minor thing in South Dakota when I did it. If you go back and look at the old news reports from the media, from the politicians of all persuasion -- liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, the right, the left, the old, the young -- the number of people complaining were about that many. There was just nobody complaining about it.

I bought a railroad during this period of time. That was very unpopular in an awful lot of places. It was very controversial. The kinds of stuff that we were doing in those areas, I never worried about elections. I mean, it's easy for me to say that. All politicians say that. All you've got to do is look at the stuff I did and know I never -- I believed that the best politics is good government, and I tried to manage problems. That's what I honestly tried to do, and I never worried about all that other crap.

Citibank had nothing to do with getting reelected. As a matter of fact, I got reelected in 1982 by the largest margin in the history of South Dakota. Citibank wasn't even really up and running. They only came here in '81. They were just gearing up. Their building wasn't even built by that time. They built three buildings out here; they only had one of them that had been constructed by that point in time. It wasn't that big a deal in 1982. So it did, and I couldn't run after that. You're limited to two terms. So no, it had nothing to do with election. ...

South Dakota became an enabler, if you will, for the credit card industry to expand, to prosper, to become, in fact, the most prosperous sector in the financial community.

The answer is "yes, but." And the "but" is it was going to happen. It may not have happened then, but it was going to happen. I didn't know all that then; I'm giving you hindsight, but we became the enabler. The answer is yes, it's because of us the process really speeded up, and I would have to agree with that, just like Delaware racing to pass its legislation, Alaska racing to pass its legislation, once they realized the significance of what was happening.

Do you ever reflect on the fact that this great success, which has been a great benefit to your state, at the same time has helped create a way of borrowing money, spending money, that may have gotten out of control?

I think the answer to that is yes. I [think that given the] opportunity as human beings, we will always exploit our weaknesses. I think it's almost human nature. But the answer to your question is yes. I say that because the example I give, millions, if not tens of millions of people over the last couple years have refinanced their homes from 8.5 percent or 9 percent or 7.2 percent down to something lesser, picking up anywhere from half a percentage point to one and a half, let's say, percentage points for long-term financing.

Yet most of those same people will run around with one or more credit cards that are charging anywhere from 18 to 20 some percent per annum and not even be thinking about [it], and plus, in addition to that, if you miss your payment by a day, you're going to pay some huge double-digit penalty figure in addition to the interest.

It's unbelievable, the lack of sophistication that we have as a society to deal with what I'll call consumer credit. It really is unbelievable. Do I think I helped foster some of that? The answer is yes, I do, because the whole -- I mean, how many times a day, how many times a week do any of us get a circular offering us another credit card? "You've already been preapproved for so much money," or "We will approve you within 24 hours." ...

How many banks advertise their trust services? When is the last time you saw an ad about the trust services of a bank? When is the last time you saw an ad about, "We also sell insurance," or "We run a brokerage firm"? They're pushing credit cards. They don't take Visa, but they do take American Express, or they don't take this one, but they take that one, or you'd better bring this one, or if you forget who you are, look on your credit card; it will be there.

And we've become a plastic society. We've become a plastic society. A lot of times, you want to give people cash, they look at you. Cash? Cash? ... The rest of the world wants our cash; we like plastic. People pay with a credit [card]. ... You stick a credit card in a machine, and you pay $3 or whatever it is to get cash -- your own money. Folks can't carry around money in their pocket. They've got to go to an ATM machine, and they've got to pay a few dollars to get their own dollars out of the machine. Who ever thought you'd pay cash to get cash? That's where we've gotten to.

You were instrumental in making this happen?

Well, I can't make the guilt trip too big. I'm a --

At least half [responsible]?

I'll be a robot; I'll accept my responsibly as one of the performers, OK? I didn't think of any of this when it happened, and I still like what we did, and I still think it was a huge opportunity for my state. If you knew the upward mobility that South Dakota's kids have gotten from the opportunity to intern and to work and to be employed and to have upward mobility in that company and move on, it's been phenomenal for South Dakota. I mean it when I tell you what they've done in charity leadership, what they've done in civic leadership and responsibility -- I used to tell people, I don't know what they were like in New York. I don't have a clue. I don't know what Citibank was like anyplace else. I know what Citibank was like in South Dakota, [and] it was a good deal.

Now, all the human side of it aside, if we're talking about the industry and 18, 19, 20-plus percent interest, do I think that's a healthy thing for human beings? The answer is no, I don't think that's healthy at all. And to the extent I played a role in that, I understand that. ...

You said it was a hell of a deal for Citibank. What did they get out of this?

What Citibank got out of it? They got to stay alive, because Citibank was losing millions, millions of dollars a day. And once they could raise what they chose -- look, when this all started, Citibank has what, 50, 60 million credit cards [now]? I don't know what it is. At the time this started, they had three and a half million total cards, and [more than two] million of them were in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but they had rolled out a national program and were mailing credit cards all over the country.

What did Citibank get out of it? It got the ability to reverse the arbitrage. Actually, what they got was the ability to give themselves a profit, and that saved the bank. I mean that really. Credit cards saved Citibank, and I've heard the most senior people at Citibank say that over and over and over publicly and privately, that it was credit cards that carried Citibank through the early '80s and through the '80s into the '90s, and gave them the opportunity to survive. They never made any bones about that, in any place that I ever attended, anything I ever heard them say. Walt Wriston said that in Fortune magazine, Forbes magazine. All of their senior people used to say it, that South Dakota saved Citibank. I believe it did.

And what they got fundamentally was a friendly business atmosphere and an ability to raise interest rates in relationship to what they had to pay for money, and actually keep those rates as high as they could whenever the market would bear it, once interest rates went down.

That is correct. And then once the cost for capital goes down, then they are only regulated by what the competitive environment is. And that's the thing that bothers me, because when people, I believe -- and I really am a person who pays their credit cards off every month; I'm fortunate that I can do that. I haven't had to go to this monthly borrowing, but I do believe that the average person is more impressed with, "I could put all my debt onto this card from all my other cards; I have no interest to pay for X amount of time, or I can pay $40 a month, and for that I can quit paying on my credit card at any time." All of these other things -- "And then I get points; I get one point per dollar towards miles on an airplane, or to buy a coffeemaker, or take a trip to Brazil," or Lord knows what. They advertise everything but what you're paying for the cost, what you're paying for the money you're borrowing from them. It bothers me that the average consumer is more interested in how many miles they'll get towards a frequent-flyer trip than what they're paying in interest for what it is that they're buying. ...

Why did Citibank need to leave New York, where they all lived, where their headquarters is?

Because New York wouldn't change the law. New York had the usury ceilings and wouldn't change them, and so Citibank was going to ultimately go out of business very quickly. They were going to become insolvent, and they were going to have to go out of business. As a matter of fact, based on the number of employees we had in Sioux Falls, based on Sioux Falls' population, Citibank would have needed almost 300,000 in the city of New York to equal in New York City the financial impact they had out of Sioux Falls, S.D. That's the best way I can explain this to you. Those 3,000 jobs in Sioux Falls, based on our population back then in Sioux Falls, would have taken 300,000 jobs in New York City to equal it at Citibank.

But I understand the huge impact on Sioux Falls. The question is, why weren't -- I assume you didn't pick up the phone and call the governor of New York and say, "Hey, your guys [Citibank] are trying to move here."

I didn't want him to even know. They didn't want him to know. Actually, they went to New York and tried to get New York to change it, [and] New York turned them down. That's what they told me.

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posted nov. 23, 2004

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