Image of a bank run in the Great Depression, a major event in this book about finance and economics

World War I French statesman Georges Clemenceau is said to have proclaimed that “War is too important to be left to the generals.” He never said exactly that, but close enough. Well, I’m convinced that money is too important to leave to bankers and economists. I recognize that politicians feel the same way, and not always for our benefit. But, in the face of fast-changing economic policies and the wildly clashing views of the pundits, the rest of us need to pierce through the fog of jargon and misdirection to understand how money works. And the books about finance and economics listed here have done that for me. They’ve helped me get a handle on why some people, and some countries, are so much richer than others and why markets keep going up and down—and sometimes collapse. 

This post was updated on July 13, 2022.

The titles you’ll find below don’t necessarily represent the best books written on this topic. In fact, I’m quite sure there must be dozens of others that are equally revealing. But they’re the ones I’ve found, read, and reviewed favorably over the past decade. (I’ve given them all ratings of four or five stars, and mostly five, in fact.) The books are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is followed by the headline of my review with a link to the text embedded within it. Many of these reviews are long. The snippets I’m including here merely hint at what I’ve learned.

Cover image of "Lords of Finance," one of the good books about finance

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (2009) 576 pages ★★★★★ – How the gold standard caused the Great Depression

Most of us Americans are taught in school that the stock market crash on Wall Street caused the Great Depression. Beginning on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, we’re told, the Depression didn’t properly end in the United States until the mobilization for World War II began in 1941 or ’42. But that’s true only up to a point. And the event was a global catastrophe. How, then, could a single day’s action on Wall Street be the cause of a decade of suffering throughout much of the world? In truth, the stock market crash was just one of several factors, as investment banker Liaquat Ahamed so eloquently explains in Lords of Finance. And the central culprit in the collapse of the world’s financial markets wasn’t speculation in stocks but the gold standard. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Lords of Creation," one of the good books about finance

The Lords of Creation: The History of America’s 1 Percent by Frederick Lewis Allen (1935) 442 pages ★★★★☆ – Why the Great Recession happened

Today, many Americans puzzle over why the Great Recession happened. Amazon lists more than 1,000 books on the subject. But readers today might benefit from taking a longer view. Because, as Frederick Lewis Allen told the tale in The Lords of Creation nearly ninety years ago, the conditions that arose in the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties and lay at the root of the Depression bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the current era beginning late in the 1970s. 

When Allen’s book appeared in 1935, the United States (and the world) was in the throes of the Great Depression. The previous year the nation’s economy had begun its long, slow climb out of the depths reached in 1933. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was beginning to pay off. But policymakers and the public alike yearned to understand how things had gotten so bad. And economists were almost without exception among those who celebrated the 1920s boom up until the day it went bust.

So, historians like Harper’s Magazine editor Frederick Lewis Allen took up the challenge to explain what lay behind the greatest economic catastrophe in American history. He found the roots of the crisis in the emergence of the trusts, the holding companies, and stock watering late in the nineteenth century. The Lords of Creation, one of the most enlightening books about finance that I’ve come across, makes the case in lively, readable prose. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Poor Economics," one of the good books about finance

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo ★★★★★ – Must reading about the contrasting approaches to ending global poverty

Public debate about the way to combat global poverty has ricocheted between two extremes. One was summed up in 2005 in The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist who spearheaded the UN Millennium Development Goals. The other was laid out by former World Bank economist William Easterly the following year in The White Man’s Burden. Sachs advocates massive government-to-government foreign aid. Easterly deplores foreign aid, convinced that it does more harm than good. In Poor Economics, Nobel Prize-winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo seek a path between these two extremes, emphasizing the Randomized Controlled Studies they and their colleagues had conducted to ascertain what works and what doesn’t. Read more . . .

Cover image of "A Farewell to Alms"

A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark (2008) 431 pages ★★★★☆ – Why is the Global North so much richer than the South?

Ten years after Jared Diamond’s blockbuster, Guns, Germs, and Steel, came Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, yet another effort to answer that same profound question Diamond addressed. Why, he asks, are some parts of the world so much richer than others? What explains the yawning gap between the Global North and Global South? 

Dismissing Diamond, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx alike and finding inspiration instead in Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on Population, Clark locates the answer in his own discipline of economic history. (Why is that not a surprise?) 

In a volume riddled with charts, graphs, and “simple” equations only an economist could love, Clark reduces the bigger question to one that’s far more focused: why did the Industrial Revolution occur in Europe, and specifically England, and not somewhere else in the world? His answer is intriguing but seems simplistic. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Portfolios of the Poor," one of the good books about finance

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, Orlanda Ruthven (2009) 315 pages ★★★★☆ – Understanding the reality of global poverty

This book makes a major contribution to our understanding of global poverty.

Portfolios of the Poor reports the findings of a series of detailed, year-long studies of the day-to-day financial practices of some 250 families in India, Bangladesh, and South Africa, including both city-dwellers and villagers. The authors conducted monthly, face-to-face interviews with each family, focusing on money management and recording every penny spent, earned, or borrowed in “diaries” that formed the principal source for their observations. 

In the process, the authors made discoveries that will surely be surprising to some readers. For example, the poor rarely live from hand to mouth. And, rather than helpless victims of their poverty, the authors found, the poor are remarkably sophisticated about the financial circumstances of their lives. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Summit"

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway (2015) 497 pages ★★★★☆ – Bretton Woods: clashing personalities determined our economic history

It’s unlikely that a general reader would pick up a book on economic history, and this one—with a bland main title and not one but two off-putting subtitles—would appear to be a work that only an economist could love. It’s not. The dramatic interplay of personalities that Ed Conway brings to light in The Summit is entertaining enough to please any devotee of historical fiction.

At its core, The Summit relates the stormy relationship between two towering personalities, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. Representing the UK, Keynes was the world’s most famous economist and a certified celebrity to boot. He is still widely regarded as the most important economist of the 20th Century. White, little known to the public before Bretton Woods and not much more so afterwards, was his counterpart heading up the US delegation on behalf of the Treasury. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Tyranny of Experts," one of the good books about finance

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly (2014) 418 pages ★★★★★ – Why economic development happens (or doesn’t)

“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich,” William Easterly writes, “is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty—the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.” Instead, former World Bank economist maintains, the fundamental pre-condition for successful development is democracy paired with deep understanding of local history. He calls the establishment of the World Bank “the moment of original sin . . . in which the Bank disavowed the ideals of freedom . . .” Read more . . .

Cover image of "Falling Behind," one of the good books about finance

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class by Robert H. Frank ★★★★☆ – Robert Frank examines income inequality

In Falling Behind, Frank goes far beyond the superficial coverage of income inequality in much of the media, which is largely limited to dramatizing just how far and fast the gap has grown between the haves and have-nots. That’s old hat now (though it wasn’t before Occupy Wall Street). 

Making use of homey thought experiments and references to behavioral psychology, Frank explains how income inequality forces people of lower or middle income to spend more than they can afford on housing, clothing, and sometimes even food—and how the policies that foster inequality worsen the “tragedy of the commons,” saddling society with inadequate public transportation, polluted air and water, crumbling infrastructure, and other frequently neglected problems. The discussion is eye-opening and well worth the few hours needed to read this short but powerful book. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Man Who Broke Capitalism"

The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America—and How to Undo His Legacy by David Gelles—He set the course for Big Business in America today

A decade before Welch was named CEO, University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman had gained fame by insisting that the true purpose of any business was to make money for its shareholders. He dismissed talk of “the social responsibility of business” as “taxation without representation” for shareholders. Throughout the 1970s, other conservative economists and business school professors built on Friedman’s thesis. Putting shareholders first became a byword in conservative business circles. But in 1981 few if any large US corporations had put policies in place consistent with Friedman’s mandate. Jack Welch changed all that. He became the poster boy for shareholder primacy in the 1980s. And that misguided doctrine has dominated Big Business in America for the past four decades. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Janesville," one of the good books about finance

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein (2017) 369 pages ★★★★★ – The human cost of the Great Recession

Amy Goldstein frames her insightful new book, Janesville, as An American Story. By following the fortunes of a half-dozen families in Janesville, Wisconsin, Goldstein dramatizes the impact of the Great Recession of 2008 in the years following the closure of a large Chevrolet factory. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but Goldstein eloquently shows that the pain it inflicted on the people of Janesville has lasted to this day. 

This is, indeed, an American story. Particulars aside, what took place in Janesville beginning in 2008 happened throughout much of the United States. Goldstein doesn’t write as an economist or a pundit. She writes with empathy and understanding about the plight of individual human beings. The result is an intimate look at the painful choices the recession (and globalization) have forced on so many of the families of a once-prosperous town. Read more . . .

Cover image of "A First-Class Catastrophe," one of the good books about finance

A First-Class Catastrophe: The Road to Black Monday, the Worst Day in Wall Street History by Diana B. Henriques (2017) 394 pages ★★★★★ – A lucid and thoroughly researched account of whats wrong on Wall Street

On Black Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average collapsed, falling a record 508 points. By 21st-century standards, that number is indeed modest. From 1998 to 2018, at least twenty days saw larger point declines. However, in the 1980s, 508 points represented the largest percentage decline in the history of the average. On that single day, the most widely-watched financial indicator in the world dropped a staggering 22.6%. Thirty-four years after the event, it’s easy to question why anyone would write a nearly 400-page book about that day, “the worst day ever” notwithstanding. However, Henriques explains in vivid terms just how important it is to understand what went awry in October 1987, since the problems that caused Black Monday are essentially the same as those at the root of the Great Recession triggered by the stock market crash of 2008. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Black Edge"

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar (2017) 370 pages ★★★★★ – Hedge funds, insider trading, and the most wanted man on Wall Street

If you want to understand the depth of corruption that prevails on Wall Street, a good place to start is New Yorker staff writer Sheelah Kolhatkar‘s admirable new book, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street.

The central character is this superb piece of investigative journalism is Steven A. Cohen, the founder of a hedge fund named SAC Capital Advisors. Cohen is clearly a loathsome human being—obsessed with greed, contemptuous of the law, and ruthless beyond compare. 

For example, here is an eyewitness account of a statement he made to the traders at his fund while in the midst of ugly divorce proceedings with his first wife. “‘I just got ripped off by my wife,’ he said . . . ‘I’m going to make it all back by cutting your payouts.'” This was not bluster: he actually did it.” Read more . . .

Cover image of "Transaction Man," one of the good books about finance

Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann (2019) 322 pages ★★★★★ – Economic inequality deconstructed in a brilliant historical study

As the Progressive Era unfolded in the opening years of the twentieth century with the entry of Theodore Roosevelt into the White House, the battle over the role of the corporation in American society rose to the top of the political agenda, and it remained there for decades to come. The debate swirling around that question early in the 20th century is the subject in the early chapters of Transaction Man by the eminent journalist Nicholas Lemann. The book is a brilliant inquiry into the big economic ideas that have dominated the American political process over the past century—and resulted in today’s extreme economic inequality. Lemann traces the evolution of the three “big ideas” that have guided economic policymakers in the decades since World War I. He characterizes them as institutions, transactions, and networksRead more . . .

Cover image of "The Lords of Easy Money"

The Lords of Easy Money: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy by Christopher Leonard (2022) 384 pages ★★★★☆—How did the US economy get to be in such a mess?

When I first became aware of the stock market in 1960, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 679. By the beginning of 2022, the index had topped 36,000. Even discounting inflation, today’s Dow Jones average is five and a half times as high as it was just over 60 years ago. Of course, economic growth accounts for a substantial portion of that increase. But the government’s easy money policies over the past decade have been even more important. The years since the Great Recession of 2007-9 have seen nearly two-thirds of the increase. But, as Christopher Leonard takes pains to point out in The Lords of Easy Money, the central question to ask about this explosive rise is what lawyers are taught to ask: Who benefits? And, unless you have substantial holdings in the stock market or real estate, the answer to that question is, Not us.

Leonard sketches out the historical circumstances that led to the Great Recession. Focusing on the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, he describes the draconian measures Fed Chairman Paul Volcker (1927-2019) used to break the back of inflation in the early 1980s. He then follows Volcker’s successor, Alan Greenspan (1926-), through the two decades of his chairmanship (1987-2006). Greenspan’s policies, as the man himself admitted, lay the groundwork for the Great Recession. But the focus in The Lords of Easy Money is squarely on developments within the Fed after the Great Recession. Among the central figures in the book are Greenspan’s three immediate successors: Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and Jerome Powell. But the hero, if that word isn’t too much of a stretch, is a retired member of the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), Thomas Hoenig. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Flash Boys"

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis (2014) 323 pages ★★★★★ – “The market is rigged!”

Flash Boys tells the tale of the arcane and long-secret phenomenon known as high-frequency trading (HFT). The book reads like a thriller, showcasing the author’s legendary writing talent. Like the best fiction, it’s centered on people, not abstract processes or institutions, and the prose sings. 

As Lewis discovered, HFT is one of the ways that Wall Street cheats investors—and not just small-time investors like you and me, but also the elite folks who manage multi-billion-dollar pension funds and mutual funds (and thus, indirectly, us as well). Initially, the practice was limited to a handful of traders working in small, independent shops, many of them Russian immigrants with advanced degrees in math or science. 

However, in the course of Lewis’ exploration of this complex and clever technique to game the system, he learned that many of the big Wall Street banks bought into the process as well and gained enormous profits as a result. All together, Lewis assets, HFT has robbed the investing public of billions of dollars. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Big Short," one of the good books about finance

The Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010) 287 pages ★★★★★ – The clever investors who made fortunes from the Great Recession

If you’ve heard of Michael Burry, Steve Eisman, Charlie Ledley, Jamie Mai, or Ben Hockett, there may be something wrong with you. Knowing one or more of these characters might suggest you’ve spent far too much time on the fringes of Wall Street, because it’s unlikely you would have encountered any of them unless you were tightly wrapped up in the subprime mortgage crisis that practically overturned the global economy in 2008.

It’s these marginal players who populate the pages of Michael Lewis’ masterful study of the decline and fall of Wall Street, not their much better-known counterparts who played such leading roles in making the mess that has been troubling us all ever since. This delightfully entertaining book explains how that handful of marginal actors in the financial markets anticipated the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and its dire consequences—and walked away with tens of millions of dollars each while the rest of us were counting our losses. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Glass Hotel," a novel about a Wall Street scandal

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (2020) 320 pages ★★★★☆ – A Wall Street scandal at the heart of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel

As you may recall, a Wall Street investment advisor named Bernard Madoff was arrested in December 2008 for having operated the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Prosecutors estimated the fraud amounted to $64.8 billion, the sum of the accounts of his 4,800 clients. As of 2020, the account-holders (and their lawyers) had received just $14.4 billion in settlements—about 22 cents on the dollar, though more than a decade later. The scandal generated massive publicity and a flood of articles and books on the scandal. More recently, the Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel offered a story about the consequences of a lookalike Ponzi scheme in The Glass Hotel. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Money: The Unauthorized Biography"

Money: The Unauthorized Biography—From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies by Felix Martin (2014) 338 pages ★★★★☆ – Misunderstanding money helped cause the Great Recession

You get what you pay for with Money. Yes, this book really does tell the story of money from its origins in Mesopotamia and Greece thousands of years ago to today’s endlessly complex international economy. At times, the book is rough going. It appears to have been written by a PhD in economics who may presume a little too much about the ability of the general reader to engage in the sort of mental gymnastics necessary to understand the money market.

Still, the storyline is clear: this is the tale of how philosophers, businesspeople, financiers, and politicians have engaged in a debate over the centuries about the nature of money—with the wrong definition emerging as orthodoxy, according to the author, Felix Martin. That misunderstanding of what money is and isn’t has had doleful consequences, he asserts—including the Great Recession sparked in 2008. Read more . . .

Cover image of "All the Devils Are Here," one of the good books about finance

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (2011) 557 pages ★★★★★ – Who’s to blame for the financial crisis?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, really—it was 1999—there was a group of three exceedingly smart men whom Time Magazine called The Committee to Save the World. In fact, these three men—Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin—seemed to think they were the smartest people in the whole wide world. Together, they had put in place the economic policies of the Clinton Administration, and, boy, did things look rosy then, back in 1999, with a big budget surplus and the Dow Jones averages heading for Neptune!

So, here we are, a decade after the end of the Great Recession their policies brought into being. It’s a good time to reassess those three men in light of later events. The result, of course, is that they don’t look so smart anymore. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Idealist"

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk (2013) 274 pages ★★★★★ – The quest to end poverty: Jeffrey Sachs unmasked

It’s difficult even to dip your toes into the field of poverty without tripping over the Millennium Villages Project. So extensive has been the coverage of this ambitious—some would say hubristic—endeavor that scholars may spend years sifting through the documented record. But anyone curious about the Millennium Villages need only read The Idealist, financial journalist Nina Munk’s eminently readable and extensively researched account of the Project and the extraordinarily gifted man who conceived and forced it on the world’s consciousness. Munk’s first-hand account should stand for years as the authoritative judgment on this ill-considered venture.

The Millennium Villages Project grew from a newfound concern with poverty in the mind of Jeffrey Sachs. Then a celebrated professor of economics at Columbia University and head of its Earth Institute, Sachs fastened on the idea of investing large sums of money in a dozen selected villages around sub-Saharan Africa to perform a sort of “shock therapy” that would lift the lucky residents out of poverty in five years with gifts of $120 per year and demonstrate to the world how anti-poverty work should be done. 

If you have any field experience in developing nations working with people who live on, say, $2 a day or less, you’re not likely to find any surprises in The Idealist. The Millennium Villages Project failed in ways that were entirely predictable. But you may well enjoy the tale nonetheless. The author lays it out in devastating detail. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Grand Pursuit," one of the good books about finance

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2011) 578 pages ★★★★☆ – Economic history through the lens of personality

It’s well known that Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century British historian, is credited with first calling economics “the dismal science.” What’s much less widely appreciated is that this derogatory label was well justified when he set the phrase down on paper in 1849. In Grand Pursuit, author Sylvia Nasar brilliantly traces the development of economic ideas through the lives and thoughts of the great economists, from Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and Karl Marx to Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, and the Austrian School in the twentieth century. Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Money Makers"

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway (2015) 338 pages ★★★★★ – FDR, the gold standard, and the Great Depression

Call it selective memory: we tend to forget that the survival of our democratic system was by no means assured on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president. With the country paralyzed by twenty-five percent unemployment, shuttered factories, insolvent banks, and rapidly falling prices for farm commodities and consumer goods alike, both Communism on the Left and fascism on the Right were rapidly gaining adherents.

It was far from clear that a catastrophic clash of the extremes could be prevented. Contemporary events in Europe suggested that even the best-educated and most sophisticated societies could all too easily turn dangerously radical: barely more than a month earlier, Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany. In The Money Makers, one of the newer books about finance and economics that I’ve read in recent years, historian Eric Rauchway reviews the economic policies that FDR deployed to rescue the nation from a similar fate, steering the country on a moderate course through the years of the Depression and the world war that followed. Read more . . .

Cover image of "Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic," one of the good books about finance

Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor by Hugh Sinclair ★★★★★ – The truth about microfinance: microcredit doesn’t end poverty

“Some microfinance is extremely beneficial to the poor, but it is not the miracle cure that its publicists would have you believe. Microfinance has been hijacked by profiteers, and we need to reclaim it for the poor. The problem is not with a few rogue operators, alas, but with systemic flaws that permeate the sector.”

Thus does Hugh Sinclair lay out the thesis he pursues in Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic. If you skip over this statement in the opening pages of the book, you could easily conclude that Sinclair can see no good at all in the $70 billion industry that has grown up under the impetus of Muhammad Yunus’ 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. After all, Sinclair writes—at least twice—that he wouldn’t invest a single dollar in microfinance today. Nonetheless, he insists that the “debate is not whether microfinance works, but how the inherent conflicts of interest can be managed.” Read more . . .

Cover image of "The Devil's Casino," one of the good books about finance

The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers by Vicky Ward (2010) 297 pages ★★★★☆ – Greed, jealousy, and betrayal at the heart of the Wall Street collapse

Following Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail and arriving on bookshelves the same month as Michael Lewis’ The Big ShortVanity Fair writer Vicky Ward faced an uphill slog with the publication of The Devil’s Casino. Thousands of readers no doubt assumed the book was one more of the dozens of volumes that purported to offer explanations for the biggest financial collapse in 70 years of world history. That assumption was wrong.

As Ward herself takes pains to note, The Devil’s Casino is an intimate, inside look at the people of Lehman Brothers, the venerable Wall Street investment bank whose record-setting bankruptcy is widely credited with triggering the meltdown of 2008. Like the close-up portraits of the rich and famous that often appear in the pages of her magazine, this book is nothing more, and nothing less, than a character study of homo sapiens wallstreetianus. The characters here were employed by Wall Street, or bound to the firm through marriage, but it’s difficult to believe that a similar book about the people of any of the other Wall Street behemoths would read much differently. Read more . . .

For more reading

For another, flawed analysis of finance and economics in the contemporary era, see Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World by Peter S. Goodman (The men behind the world’s widening economic inequality).

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