The Ascent of Money - Book Notes

These are my notes and review for this book. For other reading notes see tag: books

Notes, quotes and reflections about Niall Ferguson's the Ascent of Money. The book covers the history and importance of financial instruments: money, bonds, stock and insurance.

This was a great book on the history of money, banking and finances. A big part of its contents were things I already knew about superficially, but better explained and connected to the bigger picture. Another part was completely new to me (like the history of bonds) and made me appreciate the complexities of the financial system.

The book is structured so that each chapter focuses on a different financial instrument. Thus we have a chapter about the history of money itself (and banking), one around bonds and the bond market, then stocks and then insurance. The order of the chapters matches the order in which the relevant instruments were invented. Then there is a chapter about the real estate market and the importance of home ownership for democracies, covering the real estate bubble from before the 2008 financial crisis.

The book covers a broad range of topics in enough depth to not be shallow, but not enough to be too detailed or burdensome, while showing world history through the lense of finances, nowhere more clear than in the sections about the first World War as seen through its financial impact, or the ones about renaissance period banking in Florence.

A good summary of the entire book’s topics can be found in the afterword.

From the thirteenth century onwards, government bonds introduced the securitization of streams of interest payments; while bond markets revealed the benefits of regulated public markets for trading and pricing securities. From the seventeenth century, equity in corporations could be bought and sold in similar ways. From the eighteenth century, insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. From the nineteenth, futures and options offered more specialized and sophisticated instruments: the first derivatives. And, from the twentieth, households were encouraged, for political reasons, to increase leverage and skew their portfolios in favour of real estate. Economies that combined all these institutional innovations - banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy - performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning.


“In 2006 the measured economic output of the entire world was around $47 trillion. The total market capitalization of the world’s stock markets was $51 trillion, 10 per cent larger. The total value of domestic and international bonds was $68 trillion, 50 per cent larger. The amount of derivatives outstanding was $473 trillion, more than ten times larger. Planet Finance is beginning to dwarf Planet Earth. And Planet Finance seems to spin faster too. Every day two trillion dollars change hands on foreign exchange markets. Every month seven trillion dollars change hands on global stock markets. Every minute of every hour of every day of every week, someone, somewhere, is trading. And all the time new financial life forms are evolving. In 2006, for example, the volume of leveraged buyouts (takeovers of firms financed by borrowing) surged to $753 billion. An explosion of ‘securitization’, whereby individual debts like mortgages are ‘tranched’ then bundled together and repackaged for sale, pushed the total annual issuance of mortgage backed securities, asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations above $3 trillion. The volume of derivatives - contracts derived from securities, such as interest rate swaps or credit default swaps (CDS) - has grown even faster, so that by the end of 2007 the notional value of all ‘over-the-counter’ derivatives (excluding those traded on public exchanges) was just under $600 trillion. Before the 1980s, such things were virtually unknown. ”

“According to one 2007 survey, four in ten American credit card holders do not pay the full amount due every month on the card they use most often, despite the punitively high interest rates charged by credit card companies. Nearly a third (29 per cent) said they had no idea what the interest rate on their card was. Another 30 per cent claimed that it was below 10 per cent, when in reality the overwhelming majority of card companies charge substantially in excess of 10 per cent.”

“Whether you are struggling to make ends meet or striving to be a master of the universe - it has never been more necessary to understand the ascent of money than it is today. If this book helps to break down that dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge, then I shall not have toiled in vain.”

“The fundamental difficulty with being a loan shark is that the business is too small-scale and risky to allow low interest rates. But the high rates make defaults so much more likely that only intimidation ensures that people keep paying. So how did moneylenders learn to overcome the fundamental conflict: if they were too generous, they made no money; if they were too hard-nosed, like Gerard Law, people eventually called in the police? The answer is by growing big - and growing powerful.”

“The earliest known coins date back as long ago as 600 BC and were found by archaeologists in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (near Izmir in modern-day Turkey).”

“Most important of all was Fibonacci’s introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals. He not only gave Europe the decimal system, which makes all kinds of calculation far easier than with Roman numerals; he also showed how it could be applied to commercial bookkeeping, to currency conversions and, crucially, to the calculation of interest. Significantly, many of the examples in the Liber Abaci are made more vivid by being expressed in terms of commodities like hides, peppers, cheese, oil and spices. This was to be the application of mathematics to making money and, in particular, to lending money. ”

“To avoid a repetition of this experience, the Jews petitioned the Venetian government to be allowed to remain free during any future war. They were fortunate to be represented by Daniel Rodriga, a Jewish merchant of Spanish origin who proved to be a highly effective negotiator. The charter he succeeded in obtaining in 1589 granted all Jews the status of Venetian subjects, permitted them to engage in the Levant trade - a valuable privilege - and allowed them to practise their religion openly. Nevertheless, important restrictions remained. They were not allowed to join guilds or to engage in retail trade, hence restricting them to financial services, and their privileges were subject to revocation at eighteen months’ notice.”

“The Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini observed: ‘He had a reputation such as probably no private citizen has ever enjoyed from the fall of Rome to our own day.’ One of Botticelli’s most popular portraits - of a strikingly handsome young man - was actually intended as a tribute to a dead banker. The face on the medal is that of Cosimo de’ Medici, and alongside it is the inscription pater patriae: ‘father of his country’.”

“The limitation on this system was simply that the Exchange Bank maintained something close to a 100 per cent ratio between its deposits and its reserves of precious metal and coin. As late as 1760, when its deposits stood at just under 19 million florins, its metallic reserve was over 16 million. A run on the bank was therefore a virtual impossibility, since it had enough cash on hand to satisfy nearly all of its depositors if, for some reason, they all wanted to liquidate their deposits at once. This made the bank secure, no doubt, but it prevented it performing what would now be seen as the defining characteristic of a bank, credit creation.”

“The limitation on this system was simply that the Exchange Bank maintained something close to a 100 per cent ratio between its deposits and its reserves of precious metal and coin. As late as 1760, when its deposits stood at just under 19 million florins, its metallic reserve was over 16 million. A run on the bank was therefore a virtual impossibility, since it had enough cash on hand to satisfy nearly all of its depositors if, for some reason, they all wanted to liquidate their deposits at once. This made the bank secure, no doubt, but it prevented it performing what would now be seen as the defining characteristic of a bank, credit creation.”

“At the heart of the German hyperinflation was a miscalculation. When the French cottoned on to the insincerity of official German pledges to fulfil their reparations commitments, they drew the conclusion that reparations would have to be collected by force and invaded the industrial Ruhr region. The Germans reacted by proclaiming a general strike (‘passive resistance’), which they financed with yet more paper money. The hyperinflationary endgame had now arrived. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon, as Milton Friedman said. But hyperinflation is always and everywhere a political phenomenon, in the sense that it cannot occur without a fundamental malfunction of a country’s political economy. There surely were less catastrophic ways to settle the conflicting claims of domestic and foreign creditors on the diminished national income of postwar Germany. But a combination of internal gridlock and external defiance - rooted in the refusal of many Germans to accept that their empire had been fairly beaten - led to the worst of all possible outcomes: a complete collapse of the currency and of the economy itself. By the end of 1923 there were approximately 4.97 × 10\^20 marks in circulation.”

“With success came ever greater wealth. When Nathan died in 1836, his personal fortune was equivalent to 0.62 per cent of British national income. Between 1818 and 1852, the combined capital of the five Rothschild ‘houses’ (Frankfurt, London, Naples, Paris and Vienna) rose from £1.8 million to £9.5 million. As early as 1825 their combined capital was nine times greater than that of Baring Brothers and the Banque de France. ”

“‘Inflation’, wrote Milton Friedman in a famous definition, ‘is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, in the sense that it cannot occur without a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.’ What happened in all the combatant states during and after the First World War illustrates this pretty well.”

Chapter 3: Blowing Bubbles (Stock Markets)

No stock market has out-performed the American over the long run. One estimate of long-term real stock market returns showed an average return for the US market of 4.73 per cent per year between the 1920s and the 1990s. Sweden came next (3.71), followed by Switzerland (3.03), with Britain barely in the top ten on 2.28 per cent. Six out of the twenty-seven markets studied suffered at least one major interruption, usually as a result of war or revolution. Ten markets suffered negative long-term real returns, of which the worst were Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and, at the very bottom, Argentina (-5.36 per cent)

The commercial payoffs of this aggressive strategy were substantial. By the 1650s, the VOC had established an effective and highly lucrative monopoly on the export of cloves, mace and nutmeg (the production of pepper was too widely dispersed for it to be monopolized) and was becoming a major conduit for Indian textile exports from Coromandel. It was also acting as a hub for intra-Asian trade, exchanging Japanese silver and copper for Indian textiles and Chinese gold and silk. In turn, Indian textiles could be traded for pepper and spices from the Pacific islands, which could be used to purchase precious metals from the Middle East. Later, the Company provided financial services to other Europeans in Asia, not least Robert Clive, who transferred a large part of the fortune he had made from conquering Bengal back to London via Batavia and Amsterdam. As the world’s first big corporation, the VOC was able to combine economies of scale with reduced transaction costs and what economists call network externalities, the benefit of pooling information between multiple employees and agents.

Law was also puzzled by the conservatism of the Amsterdam Exchange Bank. Its own ‘bank money’ had proved a success, but it largely took the form of columns of figures in the bank’s ledgers. Apart from receipts issued to merchants who deposited coin with the bank, the money had no physical existence.

the Federal Reserve Board in Washington came to dominate monetary policy, with disastrous results. First, too little was done to counteract the credit contraction caused by banking failures. This problem had already surfaced several months before the stock market crash, when commercial banks with deposits of more than $80 million suspended payments. However, it reached critical mass in November and December 1930, when 608 banks failed, with deposits totalling $550 million, among them the Bank of United States, which accounted for more than a third of the total deposits lost. The failure of merger talks that might have saved the Bank was a critical moment in the history of the Depression. Secondly, under the pre-1913 system, before the Fed had been created, a crisis of this sort would have triggered a restriction of convertibility of bank deposits into gold. However, the Fed made matters worse by reducing the amount of credit outstanding (December 1930-April 1931). This forced more and more banks to sell assets in a frantic dash for liquidity, driving down bond prices and worsening the general position. The next wave of bank failures, between February and August 1931, saw commercial bank deposits fall by $2.7 billion, 9 per cent of the total. Thirdly, when Britain abandoned the gold standard in September 1931, precipitating a rush by foreign banks to convert dollar holdings into gold, the Fed raised its discount rate in two steps to 3.5 per cent. This halted the external drain, but drove yet more US banks over the edge: the period August 1931 to January 1932 saw 1,860 banks fail with deposits of $1.45 billion. Yet the Fed was in no danger of running out of gold. On the eve of the pound’s departure the US gold stock was at an all-time high of $4.7 billion - 40 per cent of the world’s total. Even at its lowest point that October, the Fed’s gold reserves exceeded its legal requirements for cover by more than $1 billion. Fourthly, only in April 1932, as a result of massive political pressure, did the Fed attempt large-scale open market operations, the first serious step it had taken to counter the liquidity crisis. Even this did not suffice to avert a final wave of bank failures in the last quarter of 1932, which precipitated the first state-wide ‘bank holidays’, temporary closures of all banks. Fifthly, when rumours that the new Roosevelt administration would devalue the dollar led to a renewed domestic and foreign flight from dollars into gold, the Fed once again raised the discount rate, setting the scene for the nationwide bank holiday proclaimed by Roosevelt on 6 March 1933, two days after his inauguration - a holiday from which 2,000 banks never returned. The Fed’s inability to avert a total of around 10,000 bank failures was crucial not just because of the shock to consumers whose deposits were lost or to shareholders whose equity was lost, but because of the broader effect on the money supply and the volume of credit. Between 1929 and 1933, the public succeeded in increasing its cash holdings by 31 per cent; commercial bank reserves were scarcely altered (indeed, surviving banks built up excess reserves); but commercial bank deposits decreased by 37 per cent and loans by 47 per cent. The absolute numbers reveal the lethal dynamic of the ‘great contraction’. An increase of cash in public hands of $1.2 billion was achieved at the cost of a decline in bank deposits of $15.6 billion and a decline in bank loans of $19.6 billion, equivalent to 19 per cent of 1929 GDP

Greenspan’s response to the Black Monday crash was swift and effective. His terse statement on 20 October, affirming the Fed’s ‘readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economic and financial system’, sent a signal to the markets, and particularly the New York banks, that if things got really bad he stood ready to bail them out. Aggressively buying government bonds in the open market, the Fed injected badly needed cash into the system, pushing down the cost of borrowing from the Fed by nearly 2 per cent in the space of sixteen days. Wall Street breathed again. What Minsky called ‘It’ had not happened.

To give Greenspan his due, his ‘just-in-time monetary policy’ certainly averted a stock market crash. Not only were the 1930s averted; so too was a repeat of the Japanese experience, when a conscious effort by the central bank to prick an asset bubble ended up triggering an 80 per cent stock market sell-off and a decade of economic stagnation.

Since the middle of January 2000, however, the US stock market had been plummeting, belatedly vindicating Greenspan’s earlier warnings about irrational exuberance. There was no one Black Day, as in 1987. Indeed, as the Fed slashed rates, from 6.5 per cent down in steps to 3.5 per cent by August 2001, the economy looked like having a soft landing; at worst a very short recession. And then, quite without warning, a Black Day did dawn in New York - in the form not of a financial crash but of two deliberate plane crashes. Amid talk of war and fears of a 1914-style market shutdown, Greenspan slashed rates again, from 3.5 per cent to 3 per cent and then on down - and down - to an all-time low of 1 per cent in June 2003.

A crucial role, however, is nearly always played by central bankers, who are supposed to be the cowboys in control of the herd. Clearly, without his Banque Royale, Law could never have achieved what he did. Equally clearly, without the loose money policy of the Federal Reserve in the 1990s, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling would have struggled to crank up the price of Enron stock to $90. By contrast, the Great Depression offers a searing lesson in the dangers of excessively restrictive monetary policy during a stock market crash.

Chapter 4: The Return of Risk (Insurance Funds)

the hazards inhabitants of Edinburgh faced in the mid eighteenth century. Average life expectancy at birth is unlikely to have been better than it was in England, where it was just 37 until the 1800s. It may even have been as bad as in London, where it was 23 in the late eighteenth century - perhaps even worse, given the Scottish capital’s notoriously bad hygiene.

What no one anticipated back in the 1740s was that by constantly increasing the number of people paying premiums, insurance companies and their close relatives the pension funds would rise to become some of the biggest investors in the world - the so-called institutional investors who today dominate global financial markets. When, after the Second World War, insurance companies were allowed to start investing in the stock market, they quickly snapped up huge chunks of the British economy, owning around a third of major UK.

Insurance premiums have risen steadily as a proportion of gross domestic product in developed economies, from around 2 per cent on the eve of the First World War to just under 10 per cent today.

We tend to think of the welfare state as a British invention. We also tend to think of it as a socialist or at least liberal invention. In fact, the first system of compulsory state health insurance and old age pensions was introduced not in Britain but in Germany, and it was an example the British took more than twenty years to follow. Nor was it a creation of the Left; rather the opposite. The aim of Otto von Bismarck’s social insurance legislation, as he himself put it in 1880, was ‘to engender in the great mass of the unpropertied the conservative state of mind that springs from the feeling of entitlement to a pension.’ In Bismarck’s view, ‘A man who has a pension for his old age is . . . much easier to deal with than a man without that prospect.’ To the surprise of his liberal opponents, Bismarck openly acknowledged that this was ‘a state-socialist idea! “The generality must undertake to assist the unpropertied.

Meanwhile, marginal tax rates in excess of 100 per cent on higher incomes and capital gains discouraged traditional forms of saving and investment. The British welfare state, it seemed, had removed the incentives without which a capitalist economy simply could not function: the carrot of serious money for those who strove, the stick of hardship for those who slacked. The result was ‘stagflation’: stagnant growth plus high inflation. Similar problems were afflicting the US economy, where expenditure on health, Medicare, income security and social security had risen from 4 per cent of GDP in 1959 to 9 per cent in 1975, outstripping defence spending for the first time.

Clearly, the buyer of a call option expects the price of the commodity or underlying instrument to rise in the future. When the price passes the agreed strike price, the option is ‘in the money’ - and so is the smart guy who bought it. A put option is just the opposite: the buyer has the right, but not the obligation, to sell an agreed quantity of something to the seller of the option. A third kind of derivative is the swap, which is effectively a bet between two parties on, for example, the future path of interest rates. A pure interest rate swap allows two parties already receiving interest payments literally to swap them, allowing someone receiving a variable rate of interest to exchange it for a fixed rate, in case interest rates decline. A credit default swap, meanwhile, offers protection against a company’s defaulting on its bonds. Perhaps the most intriguing kind of derivative, however, are the weather derivatives like natural catastrophe bonds, which allow insurance companies and others to offset the effects of extreme temperatures or natural disasters by selling the so-called tail risk to hedge funds like Fermat Capital. In effect, the buyer of a ‘cat bond’ is selling insurance; if the disaster specified in the bond happens, the buyer has to pay out an agreed sum or forfeit his principal. In return, the seller pays an attractive rate of interest. In 2006 the total notional value of weather-risk derivatives was around $45 billion. There was a time when most such derivatives were standardized instruments produced by exchanges like the Chicago Mercantile, which has pioneered the market for weather derivatives. Now, however, the vast proportion are custom-made and sold ‘over-the-counter’ (OTC), often by banks which charge attractive commissions for their services. According to the Bank for International Settlements, the total notional amounts outstanding of OTC derivative contracts - arranged on an ad hoc basis between two parties - reached a staggering $596 trillion in December 2007, with a gross market value of just over $14.5 trillion.ak Though they have famously been called financial weapons of mass destruction by more traditional investors like Warren Buffett (who has, nonetheless, made use of them), the view in Chicago is that the world’s economic system has never been better protected against the unexpected.

Chapter 5: Safe as Houses (The Real Estate Market and Bubble)

The game we know today as Monopoly was first devised in 1903 by an American woman, Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Phillips, a devotee of the radical economist Henry George. Her Utopian dream was of a world in which the only tax would be a levy on land values. The game’s intended purpose was to expose the iniquity of a social system in which a small minority of landlords profited from the rents they collected from tenants.

In rural England before 1832, according to statutes passed in the fifteenth century, only men who owned freehold property worth at least forty shillings a year in a particular county were entitled to vote there. That meant, at most, 435,000 people in England and Wales - the majority of whom were bound to the wealthiest landowners by an intricate web of patronage. Of the 514 Members of Parliament representing England and Wales in the House of Commons in the early 1800s, about 370 were selected by nearly 180 land-owning patrons.

At the time, the sellers of these ‘structured products’ boasted that securitization was having the effect of allocating risk ‘to those best able to bear it’. Only later did it turn out that risk was being allocated to those least able to understand it.

A large part of the trouble is that it is so bureaucratically difficult to establish legal title to property in places like South America. In Argentina today, according to the World Bank, it takes around thirty days to register a property, but it used to be much longer. In some countries - Bangladesh and Haiti are the worst - it can take closer to three hundred days. When de Soto and his researchers tried to secure legal authorization to build a house on state-owned land in Peru, it took six years and eleven months, during which they had to deal with fifty-two different government offices. In the Philippines, formalizing home ownership was until recently a 168-step process involving fifty-three public and private agencies and taking between thirteen and twenty-five years. In the English-speaking world, by contrast, it can take as little as two days and seldom more than three weeks.

Moreover, excluding the poor from the pale of legitimate property ownership ensures that they operate at least partially in a grey or black economic zone, beyond the reach of the state’s dead hand. This is doubly damaging. It prevents effective taxation. And it reduces the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the populace.

Poor countries are poor, in other words, because they lack secure property rights, the ‘hidden architecture’ of a successful economy.

Real security comes from having a steady income, as the Duke of Buckingham found out in the 1840s, and as Detroit homeowners are finding out today. For that reason, it may not be necessary for every entrepreneur in the developing world to raise money by mortgaging his house. Or her house. In fact, home ownership may not be the key to wealth generation at all.

The great revelation of the microfinance movement in countries like Bolivia is that women are actually a better credit risk than men, with or without a house as security for their loans.

The founder of the microfinance movement, the Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus, came to understand the potential of making small loans to women when studying rural poverty in his native Bangladesh. His mutually owned Grameen (‘Village’) Bank, founded in the village of Jobra in 1983, has made microloans to nearly seven and a half million borrowers, nearly all of them women who have no collateral. Virtually all the borrowers take out their loans as members of a five-member group (koota), which meets on a weekly basis and informally shares responsibility for loan repayments.

Chapter 6: From Empire to Chimerica (About Hedge Funds, and the Growing Trade between China and America)

In 1913, 25 per cent of the world’s stock of foreign capital was invested in countries with per capita incomes of a fifth or less of US per capita GDP; in 1997 the proportion was just 5 per cent.

The Victorians imposed a distinctive set of institutions on their colonies that was very likely to enhance their appeal to investors. These extended beyond the Gladstonian trinity of sound money, balanced budgets and free trade to include the rule of law (specifically, British-style property rights) and relatively non-corrupt administration.

In 1898 Bloch published a massive six-volume work entitled The Future of War which argued that, because of technological advances in the destructiveness of weaponry, war essentially had no future. Any attempt to wage it on a large scale would end in ‘the bankruptcy of nations’. In 1910, the same year that Carnegie established his Endowment for International Peace, the left-leaning British journalist Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, in which he argued that a war between the great powers had become an economic impossibility precisely because of ‘the delicate interdependence of our credit-built finance’. In the spring of 1914 an international commission published its report into the outrages committed during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Despite the evidence he and his colleagues confronted of wars waged à l’outrance between entire populations, the commission’s chairman noted in his introduction that the great powers of Europe (unlike the petty Balkan states) ‘had discovered the obvious truth that the richest country has the most to lose by war, and each country wishes for peace above all things’

At Bretton Woods, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the soon-to-be-victorious Allies met in July 1944 to devise a new financial architecture for the post-war world. In this new order, trade would be progressively liberalized, but restrictions on capital movements would remain in place. Exchange rates would be fixed, as under the gold standard, but now the anchor - the international reserve currency - would be the dollar rather than gold (though the dollar itself would notionally remain convertible into gold, vast quantities of which sat, immobile but totemic, in Fort Knox).

governments resolve the so-called ‘trilemma’, according to which a country can choose any two out of three policy options:
1. full freedom of cross-border capital movements;
2. a fixed exchange rate;
3. an independent monetary policy oriented towards domestic objectives.

In 1990, according to Hedge Fund Research, there were just over 600 hedge funds managing some $39 billion in assets. By 2000 there were 3,873 funds with $490 billion in assets. The latest figures (for the first quarter of 2008) put the total at 7,601 funds with $1.9 trillion in assets. Since 1998 there has been a veritable stampede to invest in hedge funds (and in the ‘funds of funds’ that aggregate the performance of multiple firms). Where once they were the preserve of ‘high net worth’ individuals and investment banks, hedge funds are now attracting growing numbers of pension funds and university endowments. This trend is all the more striking given that the attrition rate remains high; only a quarter of the 600 funds reporting in 1996 still existed at the end of 2004. In 2006, 717 ceased to trade; in the first nine months of 2007, 409. It is not widely recognized that large numbers of hedge funds simply fizzle out, having failed to meet investors’ expectations.

Today around 390 funds have assets under management in excess of $1 billion. The top hundred now account for 75 per cent of all hedge fund assets; and the top ten alone manage $324 billion.

When the Chinese wanted to attract foreign capital, they insisted that it take the form of direct investment. That meant that instead of borrowing from Western banks to finance their industrial development, as many other emerging markets did, they got foreigners to build factories in Chinese enterprise zones - large, lumpy assets that could not easily be withdrawn in a crisis.

Even more important was the growth of sovereign wealth funds, entities created by countries running large trade surpluses to manage their accumulating wealth. By the end of 2007 sovereign wealth funds had around $2.6 trillion under management, more than all the world’s hedge funds, and not far behind government pension funds and central bank reserves.

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08 Oct 2022 - importance: 6