[Classics] Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

3. Finance Capital & the Financial Oligarchy

Hilferding writes:

A steadily increasing proportion of capital in industry ceases to belong to the industrialists who employ it. They obtain the use of it only through the medium of the banks which, in relation to them, represent the owners of the capital. On the other hand, the bank is forced to sink an increasing share of its funds in industry. Thus, to an ever-greater degree the banker is being transformed into an industrial capitalist. This bank capital, i.e., capital in money form, which is thus actually transformed into industrial capital, I call ‘finance capital’… Finance capital is capital controlled by banks and employed by industrialists. (R. Hilferding, Finance Capital, Moscow, 1912 [in Russian], pp. 338-39.)

This definition is incomplete insofar as it is silent on one extremely important fact – on the increase of concentration of production and of capital to such an extent that concentration is leading, and has led, to monopoly. But throughout the whole of his work, and particularly in the two chapters preceding the one from which this definition is taken, Hilferding stresses the part played by capitalist monopolies.

The concentration of production; the monopolies arising therefrom; the merging or coalescence of the banks with industry – such is the history of the rise of finance capital and such is the content of that concept.

We now have to describe how, under the general conditions of commodity production and private property, the ‘business operations’ of capitalist monopolies inevitably lead to the domination of a financial oligarchy. It should be noted that German – and not only German – bourgeois scholars, like Riesser, Schulze-Gaevernitz, Liefmann and others, are all apologists of imperialism and of finance capital. Instead of revealing the ‘mechanics’ of the formation of an oligarchy, its methods, the size of its revenues ‘impeccable and peccable’, its connections with parliaments etc., etc., they obscure or gloss over them. They evade these ‘vexed questions’ by pompous and vague phrases, appeals to the ‘sense of responsibility’ of bank directors, by praising ‘the sense of duty’ of Prussian officials, giving serious study to the petty details of absolutely ridiculous parliamentary bills for the ‘supervision’ and ‘regulation’ of monopolies, playing spillikins with theories, like, for example, the following ‘scholarly’ definition, arrived at by Professor Liefmann: “Commerce is an occupation having for its object the collection, storage and supply of goods.” (R. Liefmann, op. cit., p. 476.) (The Professor’s bold-face italics.) … From this it would follow that commerce existed in the time of primitive man, who knew nothing about exchange, and that it will exist under socialism!

But the monstrous facts concerning the monstrous rule of the financial oligarchy are so glaring that in all capitalist countries, in America, France and Germany, a whole literature has sprung up, written from the bourgeois point of view, but which, nevertheless, gives a fairly truthful picture and criticism – petty-bourgeois, naturally – of this oligarchy.

Paramount importance attaches to the ‘holding system’, already briefly referred to above. The German economist, Heymann, probably the first to call attention to this matter, describes the essence of it in this way:

The head of the concern controls the principal company (literally: the ‘mother company’); the latter reigns over the subsidiary companies (‘daughter companies’) which in their turn control still other subsidiaries (‘grandchild companies’), etc. In this way, it is possible with a comparatively small capital to dominate immense spheres of production. Indeed, if holding 50 per cent of the capital is always sufficient to control a company, the head of the concern needs only one million to control eight million in the second subsidiaries. And if this ‘interlocking’ is extended, it is possible with one million to control sixteen million, thirty-two million, etc. (H.G. Heymann, Die gemischten Werke im deutschen Grosseisengewerbe, Stuttgart, 1904, pp. 268-69.)

As a matter of fact, experience shows that it is sufficient to own 40 per cent of the shares of a company in order to direct its affairs, (Liefmann, Beteiligungsgesellschaften, 1st Ed., p. 258.) since in practice a certain number of small, scattered shareholders find it impossible to attend general meetings, etc. The ‘democratisation’ of the ownership of shares, from which the bourgeois sophists and opportunist so-called ‘Social-Democrats’ expect (or say that they expect) the ‘democratisation of capital’, the strengthening of the role and significance of small scale production, etc., is, in fact, one of the ways of increasing the power of the financial oligarchy. Incidentally, this is why, in the more advanced, or in the older and more ‘experienced’ capitalist countries, the law allows the issue of shares of smaller denomination. In Germany, the law does not permit the issue of shares of less than one thousand marks denomination, and the magnates of German finance look with an envious eye at Britain, where the issue of one-pound shares (20 marks, about 10 roubles) is permitted. Siemens, one of the biggest industrialists and ‘financial kings’ in Germany, told the Reichstag on 7 June, 1900, that “the one-pound share is the basis of British imperialism”. (Schulze-Gaevernitz, Grundriss der Sozialökonomik, p. 110.) This merchant has a much deeper and more ‘Marxist’ understanding of imperialism than a certain disreputable writer who is held to be one of the founders of Russian Marxism[1] and believes that imperialism is a bad habit of a certain nation…

But the ‘holding system’ not only serves enormously to increase the power of the monopolists; it also enables them to resort with impunity to all sorts of shady and dirty tricks to cheat the public, because formally the directors of the ‘mother company’ are not legally responsible for the ‘daughter company’, which is supposed to be ‘independent’, and through the medium of which they can ‘pull off’ anything. Here is an example taken from the German review, Die Bank, for May 1914:

The Spring Steel Company of Kassel was regarded some years ago as being one of the most profitable enterprises in Germany. Through bad management its dividends fell from 15 per cent to nil. It appears that the Board, without consulting the shareholders, had loaned six million marks to one of its ‘daughter companies’, the Hassia Company, which had a nominal capital of only some hundreds of thousands of marks. This commitment, amounting to nearly treble the capital of the ‘mother company’, was never mentioned in its balance sheets. This omission was quite legal and could be hushed up for two whole years because it did not violate any point of company law. The chairman of the Supervisory Board, who as the responsible head had signed the false balance sheets, was, and still is, the president of the Kassel Chamber of Commerce. The shareholders only heard of the loan to the Hassia Company long afterwards, when it had been proved to be a mistake… [the writer should put this word in inverted commas] and when Spring Steel shares dropped nearly 100 per cent, because those in the know were getting rid of them…

This typical example of balance-sheet jugglery, quite common in joint-stock companies, explains why their Boards of Directors are willing to undertake risky transactions with a far lighter heart than individual businessmen. Modern methods of drawing up balance-sheets not only make it possible to conceal doubtful undertakings from the ordinary shareholder, but also allow the people most concerned to escape the consequence of unsuccessful speculation by selling their shares in time when the individual businessman risks his own skin in everything he does…

The balance sheets of many joint-stock companies put us in mind of the palimpsests of the Middle Ages from which the visible inscription had first to be erased in order to discover beneath it another inscription giving the real meaning of the document. [Palimpsests are parchment documents from which the original inscription has been erased and another inscription imposed.]

The simplest and, therefore, most common procedure for making balance sheets indecipherable is to divide a single business into several parts by setting up ‘daughter companies’ – or by annexing them. The advantages of this system for various purposes – legal and illegal – are so evident that big companies which do not employ it are quite the exception. (L. Eschwege, ‘Tochtergesellschaften’ in Die Bank, 1914, p. 545.)

As an example of a huge monopolist company that extensively employs this system, the author quotes the famous General Electric Company (the A.E.G., to which I shall refer again later on). In 1912, it was calculated that this company held shares in 175 to 200 other companies, dominating them, of course, and thus controlling a total capital of about 1,500 million marks. (K. Heinig, ‘Der Weg des Elecktrotrusts’ in Die Neue Zeit, 1912, p. 484.)

None of the rules of control, the publication of balance sheets, the drawing up of balance sheets according to a definite form, the public auditing of accounts, etc., the things about which well-intentioned professors and officials – that is, those imbued with the good intention of defending and prettifying capitalism – discourse to the public, are of any avail; for private property is sacred, and no one can be prohibited from buying, selling, exchanging or hypothecating shares, etc.

The extent to which this ‘holding system’ has developed in the big Russian banks may be judged by the figures given by E. Agahd, who for fifteen years was an official of the Russo-Chinese Bank and who, in May 1914, published a book, not altogether correctly entitled Big Banks and the World Market. (E. Agahd, Grossbanken und Weltmarkt. Die wirstschaftliche und politische Bedeutung der Grossbanken im Weltmarkt unter Berüchsichtigung ihres Einflusses auf Russlands Volkswirtscahft und die deutsche-russichen Beziehungen, Berlin, 1914.) The author divides the big Russian banks into two main groups: (a) banks that come under the ‘holding system’, and (b) ‘independent’ banks – ‘independence’ however, being arbitrarily taken to mean independence of foreign banks. The author divides the first group into three subgroups: (1) German holdings, (2) British holdings, and (3) French holdings, having in view the ‘holdings’ and domination of the big foreign banks of the particular country mentioned. The author divides the capital of the banks into ‘productively’ invested capital (industrial and commercial undertakings), and ‘speculatively’ invested capital (in Stock Exchange and financial operations), assuming, from his petty-bourgeois reformist point of view, that it is possible, under capitalism, to separate the first form of investment from the second and to abolish the second form. Here are the figures he supplies. (See table 3.1.)

(3.1) Bank Assets (According to Reports for October-November 1913) 000,000 roubles


Capital Invested

Groups of Russian Banks




a 1) 4 banks: Siberian Commercial, Russian, International & Discount Bank




a 2) 2 banks: Commercial and Industrial, and Russo-British




a 3) 5 banks: Russian-Asiatic, St. Petersburg Private, Azov-Don, Union Moscow, Russo-French Commercial




(11 banks) Total a)




b) 8 banks: Moscow Merchants, Volga-Kama, Junker & Co., St Petersburg Commercial (formerly Wawelberg), Bank of Moscow (formerly Ryabushinsky), Moscow Discount, Moscow Commercial, Moscow Private




(19 banks) Total




According to these figures, of the approximately 4,000 million roubles making up the ‘working’ capital of the big banks, more than three-quarters, more than 3,000 million, belonged to banks which in reality were only ‘daughter companies’ of foreign banks, and chiefly of Paris banks (the famous trio: Union Parisienne, Paris et Pays-Bas and Société Générale), and of Berlin banks (particularly the Deutsche Bank and Disconto-Gesellschaft). Two of the biggest Russian banks, the Russian (Russian Bank for Foreign Trade) and the International (St. Petersburg International Commercial Bank), between 1906 and 1912 increased their capital from 44 to 98 million roubles, and their reserves from 15 million to 39 million “employing three-quarters German capital”. The first bank belongs to the Berlin Deutsche Bank ‘concern’ and the second to the Berlin Disconto-Gesellschaft. The worthy Agahd is deeply indignant at the majority of the shares being held by the Berlin banks, so that the Russian shareholders are, therefore, powerless. Naturally, the country which exports capital skims the cream; for example, the Berlin Deutsche Bank, before placing the shares of the Siberian Commercial Bank on the Berlin market, kept them in its portfolio for a whole year, and then sold them at the rate of 193 for 100, that is, at nearly twice their nominal value, ‘earning’ a profit of nearly six million roubles, which Hilferding calls “promoter’s profits”.

Our author puts the total ‘capacity’ of the principal St. Petersburg banks at 8,235 million roubles, well over 8,000 million, and the ‘holdings’, or rather, the extent to which foreign banks dominated them, he estimates as follows: French banks, 55 per cent; British, 10 per cent; German, 35 per cent. The author calculates that of the total of 8,235 million roubles of functioning capital, 3,687 million roubles, or over 40 per cent, fall to the share of the Produgol and Prodamet syndicates[2] and the syndicates in the oil, metallurgical and cement industries. Thus, owing to the formation of capitalist monopolies, the merging of bank and industrial capital has also made enormous strides in Russia.

Finance capital, concentrated in a few hands and exercising a virtual monopoly, exacts enormous and ever-increasing profits from the floating of companies, issue of stock, state loans, etc., strengthens the domination of the financial oligarchy and levies tribute upon the whole of society for the benefit of monopolists. Here is an example, taken from a multitude of others, of the ‘business’ methods of the American trusts, quoted by Hilferding. In 1887, Havemeyer founded the Sugar Trust by amalgamating fifteen small firms, whose total capital amounted to 6,500,000 dollars. Suitably ‘watered’, as the Americans say, the capital of the trust was declared to be 50 million dollars. This ‘overcapitalisation’ anticipated the monopoly profits, in the same way as the United States Steel Corporation anticipates its monopoly profits in buying up as many iron ore fields as possible. In fact, the Sugar Trust set up monopoly prices, which secured it such profits that it could pay 10 per cent dividend on capital ‘watered’ sevenfold, or about 70 per cent on the capital actually invested at the time the trust was formed! In 1909, the capital of the Sugar Trust amounted to 90 million dollars. In twenty-two years, it had increased its capital more than tenfold.

In France the domination of the ‘financial oligarchy’ (Against the Financial Oligarchy in France, the title of the well-known book by Lysis, the fifth edition of which was published in 1908) assumed a form that was only slightly different. Four of the most powerful banks enjoy, not a relative, but an “absolute monopoly” in the issue of bonds. In reality, this is a “trust of big banks”. And monopoly ensures monopoly profits from bond issues. Usually a borrowing country does not get more than 90 per cent of the sum of the loan, the remaining 10 per cent goes to the banks and other middlemen. The profit made by the banks out of the Russo-Chinese loan of 400 million francs amounted to 8 per cent; out of the Russian (1904) loan of 800 million francs the profit amounted to 10 per cent; and out of the Moroccan (1904) loan of 62,500,000 francs it amounted to 18.75 per cent. Capitalism, which began its development with petty usury capital, is ending its development with gigantic usury capital. “The French,” says Lysis, “are the usurers of Europe.” All the conditions of economic life are being profoundly modified by this transformation of capitalism. With a stationary population, and stagnant industry, commerce and shipping, the ‘country’ can grow rich by usury. “Fifty persons, representing a capital of eight million francs, can control 2,000 million francs deposited in four banks.” The ‘holding system’, with which we are already familiar, leads to the same result. One of the biggest banks, the Société Générale for instance, issues 64,000 bonds for its ‘daughter company’, the Egyptian Sugar Refineries. The bonds are issued at 150 per cent, i.e., the bank gains 50 centimes on the franc. The dividends of the new company were found to be fictitious, the ‘public’ lost from 90 to 100 million francs. “One of the directors of the Société Générale was a member of the board of directors of the Sugar Refineries.” It is not surprising that the author is driven to the conclusion that “the French Republic is a financial monarchy”; “it is the complete domination of the financial oligarchy; the latter dominates over the press and the government.” (Lysis, Contre l’oligarchie financière en France, 5th Ed. Paris, 1908, pp. 11, 12, 26, 39, 40, 48.)

The extraordinarily high rate of profit obtained from the issue of bonds, which is one of the principal functions of finance capital, plays a very important part in the development and consolidation of the financial oligarchy. “There is not a single business of this type within the country that brings in profits even approximately equal to those obtained from the floatation of foreign loans,” says Die Bank. (1913, No. 7, p. 630.)

“No banking operation brings in profits comparable with those obtained from the issue of securities!” According to the German Economist, the average annual profits made on the issue of industrial stock were as follows. (See table 3.2.)

(3.2) Average Annual Profits on the Issue of Industrial Stock


Per Cent













“In the ten years from 1891 to 1900, more than a thousand million marks were ‘earned’ by issuing German industrial stock.” (Stillich, op. cit., p. 143, also W. Sombart, Die deutsche Volkswirtschaft im 19. Jahrhundert, 2. Aufl., 1909, p. 526, Anlage 8.)

During periods of industrial boom, the profits of finance capital are immense, but during periods of depression, small and unsound businesses go out of existence, and the big banks acquire ‘holdings’ in them by buying them up for a mere song or participate in profitable schemes for their ‘reconstruction’ and ‘reorganisation’. In the ‘reconstruction’ of undertakings which have been running at a loss, “the share capital is written down, that is, profits are distributed on a smaller capital and continue to be calculated on this smaller basis. Or, if the income has fallen to zero, new capital is called in, which, combined with the old and less remunerative capital, will bring in an adequate return.” “Incidentally,” adds Hilferding, “all these reorganisations and reconstructions have a twofold significance for the banks: first, as profitable transactions; and secondly, as opportunities for securing control of the companies in difficulties.” (Finance Capital, p. 172.)

Here is an instance. The Union Mining Company of Dortmund was founded in 1872. Share capital was issued to the amount of nearly 40 million marks and the market price of the shares rose to 170 after it had paid a 12 per cent dividend for its first year. Finance capital skimmed the cream and earned a trifle of something like 28 million marks. The principal sponsor of this company was that very big German Disconto-Gesellschaft which so successfully attained a capital of 300 million marks. Later, the dividends of the Union declined to nil; the shareholders had to consent to a ‘writing down’ of capital, that is, to losing some of it in order not to lose it all. By a series of ‘reconstructions’, more than 73 million marks were written off the books of the Union in the course of thirty years. “At the present time, the original shareholders of the company possess only 5 per cent of the nominal value of their shares” (Stillich, op. cit., p. 138 and Liefmann, p. 51.) but the banks “earned something” out of every “reconstruction”.

Speculation in land situated in the suburbs of rapidly growing big towns is a particularly profitable operation for finance capital. The monopoly of the banks merges here with the monopoly of ground rent and with monopoly of the means of communication, since the rise in the price of land and the possibility of selling it profitably in lots, etc., is mainly dependent on good means of communication with the centre of the town; and these means of communication are in the hands of large companies which are connected with these same banks through the holding system and the distribution of seats on the boards. As a result, we get what the German writer, L. Eschwege, a contributor to Die Bank who has made a special study of real estate business and mortgages, etc., calls a ‘bog’. Frantic speculation in suburban building lots; collapse of building enterprises like the Berlin firm of Boswau and Knauer, which acquired as much as 100 million marks with the help of the ‘sound and solid’ Deutsche Bank – the latter, of course, acting through the holding system, i.e., secretly, behind the scenes – and got out of it with a loss of ‘only’ 12 million marks, then the ruin of small proprietors and of workers who get nothing from the fictitious building firms, fraudulent deals with the ‘honest’ Berlin police and administration for the purpose of gaining control of the issue of cadastral certificates, building licences, etc., etc. (Die Bank, 1913, p. 952, L. Eschwege, Der Sumpf; Ibid., 1912, 1, p. 223 et seq.)

‘American ethics’, which the European professors and well-meaning bourgeois so hypocritically deplore, have, in the age of finance capital, become the ethics of literally every large city in any country.

At the beginning of 1914, there was talk in Berlin of the formation of a ‘transport trust’, i.e., of establishing ‘community of interests’ between the three Berlin transport undertakings: the city electric railway, the tramway company and the omnibus company. Die Bank writes:

We have been aware that this plan was contemplated ever since it became known that the majority of the shares in the bus company had been acquired by the other two transport companies… We may fully believe those who are pursuing this aim when they say that by uniting the transport services, they will secure economies, part of which will in time benefit the public. But the question is complicated by the fact that behind the transport trust that is being formed are the banks, which, if they desire, can subordinate the means of transportation, which they have monopolised, to the interests of their real estate business. To be convinced of the reasonableness of such a conjecture, we need only recall that the interests of the big banks that encouraged the formation of the Electric Railway Company were already involved in it at the time the company was formed. That is to say: the interests of this transport undertaking were interlocked with the real estate interests. The point is that the eastern line of this railway was to run across land which this bank sold at an enormous profit for itself and for several partners in the transactions when it became certain the line was to be laid down. (‘Verkehrstrust’ in Die Bank, 1914, 1, p. 89.)

A monopoly, once it is formed and controls thousands of millions, inevitably penetrates into every sphere of public life, regardless of the form of government and all other ‘details’. In German economic literature one usually comes across obsequious praise of the integrity of the Prussian bureaucracy, and allusions to the French Panama scandal[3] and to political corruption in America. But the fact is that even bourgeois literature devoted to German banking matters constantly has to go far beyond the field of purely banking operations; it speaks, for instance, about “the attraction of the banks” in reference to the increasing frequency with which public officials take employment with the banks, as follows: “How about the integrity of a state official who in his innermost heart is aspiring to a soft job in the Behrenstrasse?”[4] (‘Der Zug zur Bank’ in Die Bank, 1909, 1, p. 79.) In 1909, the publisher of Die Bank, Alfred Lansburgh, wrote an article entitled ‘The Economic Significance of Byzantinism’, in which he incidentally referred to Wilhelm II’s tour of Palestine, and to “the immediate result of this journey, the construction of the Baghdad railway, that fatal ‘great product of German enterprise’, which is more responsible for the ‘encirclement’ than all our political blunders put together”. (ibid., p. 301.) (By encirclement is meant the policy of Edward VII to isolate Germany and surround her with an imperialist anti-German alliance.) In 1911, Eschwege, the contributor to this same magazine to whom I have already referred, wrote an article entitled ‘Plutocracy and Bureaucracy’, in which he exposed, for example, the case of a German official named Völker, who was a zealous member of the Cartel Committee and who, it turned out some time later, obtained a lucrative post in the biggest cartel, the Steel Syndicate. Similar cases, by no means casual, forced this bourgeois author to admit that “the economic liberty guaranteed by the German Constitution has become in many departments of economic life, a meaningless phrase” and that under the existing rule of the plutocracy, “even the widest political liberty cannot save us from being converted into a nation of unfree people”. (ibid., 1911, 2, p. 825; 1913, 2, p. 962.)

As for Russia, I shall confine myself to one example. Some years ago, all the newspapers announced that Davydov, the director of the Credit Department of the Treasury, had resigned his post to take employment with a certain big bank at a salary which, according to the contract, would total over one million roubles in the course of several years. The Credit Department is an institution, the function of which is to “co-ordinate the activities of all the credit institutions of the country” and which grants subsidies to banks in St. Petersburg and Moscow amounting to between 800 and 1,000 million roubles. (E. Agahd, op. cit., p. 202.)

It is characteristic of capitalism in general that the ownership of capital is separated from the application of capital to production, that money capital is separated from industrial or productive capital, and that the rentier who lives entirely on income obtained from money capital, is separated from the entrepreneur and from all who are directly concerned in the management of capital. Imperialism, or the domination of finance capital, is that highest stage of capitalism in which this separation reaches vast proportions. The supremacy of finance capital over all other forms of capital means the predominance of the rentier and of the financial oligarchy; it means that a small number of financially ‘powerful’ states stand out among all the rest. The extent to which this process is going on may be judged from the statistics on emissions, i.e., the issue of all kinds of securities.

In the Bulletin of the International Statistical Institute, A. Neymarck has published very comprehensive, complete and comparative figures covering the issue of securities all over the world, which have been repeatedly quoted in part in economic literature. The following are the totals he gives for four decades. (See table 3.3.[5])

(3.3) Total Issues in Francs per Decade (000,000,000)









In the 1870s the total amount of issues for the whole world was high, owing particularly to the loans floated in connection with, the Franco-Prussian War, and the company-promotion boom which set in in Germany after the war. On the whole, the increase was relatively not very rapid during the three last decades of the nineteenth century, and only in the first ten years of the twentieth century is an enormous increase of almost 100 per cent to be observed. Thus, the beginning of the twentieth century marks the turning point, not only in the growth of monopolies (cartels, syndicates, trusts), of which we have already spoken, but also in the growth of finance capital.

Neymarck estimates the total amount of issued securities current in the world in 1910 at about 815,000 million francs. Deducting from this sum amounts which might have been duplicated, he reduces the total to 575,000-600,000 million, which is distributed among the various countries as follows (I take 600,000 million). (See table 3.4.)

(3.4) Financial Securities Current 1910 (100 million francs)

Great Britain


United States
























Sweden, Norway, Romania, etc.




From these figures we at once see standing out in sharp relief four of the richest capitalist countries, each of which holds securities to amounts ranging approximately from 100,000 to 150,000 million francs. Of these four countries, two, Britain and France, are the oldest capitalist countries, and, as we shall see, possess the most colonies; the other two, the United States and Germany, are capitalist countries leading in the rapidity of development and the degree of extension of capitalist monopolies in industry. Together, these four countries own 479,000 million francs, that is, nearly 80 per cent of the world’s finance capital. In one way or another, nearly the whole of the rest of the world is more or less the debtor to and tributary of these international banker countries, these four ‘pillars’ of world finance capital.

It is particularly important to examine the part which the export of capital plays in creating the international network of dependence on and connections of finance capital.


[1] The reference here is to G.V. Plekhanov.–Ed.

[2] Produgal is an abbreviation for the Russian Society for Trade in Mineral Fuel of the Donets Basin, founded in 1906. Prodament is an abbreviation for Society for Marketing Russian Metallurgical Goods.–Ed.

[3] The exposure in France in 1892-93 of incredible abuses, corruption of politicians, officials and the press bribed by the French Panama Canal Company.–Ed.

[4] The Berlin street where the head office of the Deutsche Bank is situated.–Ed.

[5] Data concerning small states, second column, are estimated by adding twenty per cent to the 1902 figures.–Lenin.

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