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Archive for the ‘Inflation’ Category

During periods of economic weakness, governments often respond with “loose” monetary policy, which generally means that central banks will take actions that increase liquidity and artificially lower interest rates.

I’m not a big fan of this approach.

If an economy is suffering from bad fiscal policy or bad regulatory policy, why expect that an easy-money policy will be effective?

What if politicians use an easy-money policy as an excuse to postpone or avoid structural reforms that are needed to restore growth?

And shouldn’t we worry that an easy-money policy will cause economic damage by triggering systemic price hikes or bubbles?

Defenders of central banks and easy money generally respond to such questions by assuring us that QE-type policies are not a substitute or replacement for other reforms.

And they tell us the downside risk is overstated because central bankers will have the wisdom to soak up excess liquidity at the right time and raise interest rates at the right moment.

I hope they’re right, but my gut instinct is to worry that central bankers are not sufficiently vigilant about the downside risks of easy-money policies.

But not all central bankers. While I was in London last week to give a presentation to the State of the Economy conference, I got to hear a speech by Kristin Forbes, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

She was refreshingly candid about the possible dangers of the easy-money approach, particularly with regards to artificially low interest rates.

Here is one of the charts from her presentation.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s will be concerned about her first point. And this is important. It would be terrible to let the inflation genie out of the bottle, particularly since there may not be a Ronald Reagan-type leader in the future who will do what’s needed to solve such a mess.

But today I want to focus on her second, fourth, and fifth points.

So here are some of the details from her speech, starting with some analysis of the risk of bubbles.

…when interest rates are low, investors may “search for yield” and shift funds to riskier investments that are expected to earn a higher return – from equity markets to high-yield debt markets to emerging markets. This could drive up prices in these other markets and potentially create “bubbles”. This can not only lead to an inefficient allocation of capital, but leave certain investors with more risk than they appreciate. An adjustment in asset prices can bring about losses that are difficult to manage, especially if investments were supported by higher leverage possible due to low rates. If these losses were widespread across an economy, or affected systemically-important institutions, they could create substantial economic disruption. This tendency to assume greater risk when interest rates are low for a sustained period not only occurs for investors, but also within banks, corporations, and broader credit markets. Studies have shown that during periods of monetary expansion, banks tend to soften lending standards and experience an increase in their assessed “riskiness”. There is evidence that the longer an expansion lasts, the greater these effects. Companies also take advantage of periods of low borrowing costs to increase debt issuance. If this occurs during a period of low default rates – as in the past few years – this can further compress borrowing spreads and lead to levels of debt issuance that may be difficult to support when interest rates normalize. There is a lengthy academic literature showing that low interest rates often foster credit booms, an inefficient allocation of capital, banking collapses, and financial crises. This series of risks to the financial system from a period of low interest rates should be taken seriously and carefully monitored.

Her fourth and fifth points are particularly important since they show she appreciates the Austrian-school insight that bad monetary policy can distort market signals and lead to malinvestment.

Here’s some of what she shared about the fourth point.

…is there a chance that a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates is allowing less efficient companies to survive and curtailing the “creative destruction” that is critical to support productivity growth? Or even within existing, profitable companies – could a prolonged period of low borrowing costs reduce their incentive to carefully assess and evaluate investment projects – leading to a less efficient allocation of capital within companies? …For further evidence on this capital misallocation, one could estimate the rate of “scrappage” during the crisis and the level of capital relative to its optimal, steady-state level. Recent BoE work has found tentative evidence of a “capital overhang”, an excess of capital above that judged optimal given current conditions. Usually any such capital overhang falls quickly during a recession as inefficient factories and plants are shut down and new investment slows. The slower reallocation of capital since the crisis could partly be due to low interest rates.

And here is some of what she said about the fifth point.

A fifth possible cost of low interest rates is that it could shift the sources of demand in ways which make underlying growth less balanced, less resilient, and less sustainable. This could occur through increases in consumption and debt, and decreases in savings and possibly the current account. …if these shifts are too large – or vulnerabilities related to overconsumption, overborrowing, insufficient savings, or large current account deficits continue for too long – they could create economic challenges.

In her speech, Ms. Forbes understandably focused on the current environment and speculated about possible future risks.

But the concerns about easy-money policies are not just theoretical.

Let’s look at some new research from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the University of California, and the University of Bonn.

In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they look at the connections between monetary policy and housing bubbles.

How do monetary and credit conditions affect housing booms and busts? Do low interest rates cause households to lever up on mortgages and bid up house prices, thus increasing the risk of financial crisis? And what, if anything, should central banks do about it? Can policy directed at housing and credit conditions, with monetary or macroprudential tools, lead a central bank astray and dangerously deflect it from single- or dual-mandate goals?

It appears the answer is yes.

This paper analyzes the link between monetary conditions, credit growth, and house prices using data spanning 140 years of modern economic history across 14 advanced economies. …We make three core contributions. First, we discuss long-run trends in mortgage lending, home ownership, and house prices and show that the 20th century has indeed been an era of increasing “bets on the house.” …Second, turning to the cyclical fluctuations of lending and house prices we use novel instrumental variable local projection methods to show that throughout history loose monetary conditions were closely associated with an upsurge in real estate lending and house prices. …Third, we also expose a close link between mortgage credit and house price booms on the one hand, and financial crises on the other. Over the past 140 years of modern macroeconomic history, mortgage booms and house price bubbles have been closely associated with a higher likelihood of a financial crisis. This association is more noticeable in the post-WW2 era, which was marked by the democratization of leverage through housing finance.

So what’s the bottom line?

The long-run historical evidence uncovered in this study clearly suggests that central banks have reasons to worry about the side-effects of loose monetary conditions. During the 20th century, real estate lending became the dominant business model of banks. As a result, the effects that low interest rates have on mortgage borrowing, house prices and ultimately financial instability risks have become considerably stronger. …these historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing byproducts of easy money must be taken seriously

In other words, we’re still dealing with some of the fallout of a housing bubble/financial crisis caused in part by the Fed’s easy-money policy last decade.

Yet we have people in Washington who haven’t learned a thing and want to repeat the mistakes that created that mess.

Even though we now have good evidence about the downside risk of easy money and bubbles!

Sort of makes you wonder whether the End-the-Fed people have a good point.

P.S. Central banks also can cause problems because of their regulatory powers.

P.P.S. Just as there are people in Washington who want to double down on failure, there are similar people in Europe who think a more-of-the-same approach is the right cure for the problems caused in part by a some-of-the-same approach.

P.P.P.S. For those interested in monetary policy, the good news is that the Cato Institute recently announced the formation of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives, led by former UGA economics professor George Selgin, which will focus on development of policy recommendations that will create a more free-market monetary system.

P.P.P.P.S. If you watch this video, you’ll see that George doesn’t give the Federal Reserve a very high grade.

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan.

He’s definitely the greatest president of my lifetime and, with one possible rival, he was the greatest President of the 20th century.

If his only accomplishment was ending malaise and restoring American prosperity thanks to lower tax rates and other pro-market reforms, he would be a great President.

He also restored America’s national defenses and reoriented foreign policy, both of which led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a stupendous achievement that makes Reagan worthy of Mount Rushmore.

But he also has another great achievement, one that doesn’t receive nearly the level of appreciation that it deserves. President Reagan demolished the economic cancer of inflation.

Even Paul Krugman has acknowledged that reining in double-digit inflation was a major positive achievement. Because of his anti-Reagan bias, though, he wants to deny the Gipper any credit.

Robert Samuelson, in a column for the Washington Post, corrects the historical record.

Krugman recently wrote a column arguing that the decline of double-digit inflation in the 1980s was the decade’s big economic event, not the cuts in tax rates usually touted by conservatives. Actually, I agree with Krugman on this. But then he asserted that Ronald Reagan had almost nothing to do with it. That’s historically incorrect. Reagan was crucial. …Krugman’s error is so glaring.

Samuelson first provides the historical context.

For those too young to remember, here’s background. From 1960 to 1980, inflation — the general rise of retail prices — marched relentlessly upward. It went from 1.4 percent in 1960 to 5.9 percent in 1969 to 13.3 percent in 1979. The higher it rose, the more unpopular it became. …Worse, government seemed powerless to defeat it. Presidents deployed complex wage and price controls and guidelines. They didn’t work. The Federal Reserve — custodian of credit policies — veered between easy money and tight money, striving both to subdue inflation and to maintain “full employment” (taken as a 4 percent to 5 percent unemployment rate). It achieved neither. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, there were four recessions. Inflation became a monster, destabilizing the economy.

The column then explains that there was a dramatic turnaround in the early 1980s, as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker adopted a tight-money policy and inflation was squeezed out of the system much faster than almost anybody thought was possible.

But Krugman wants his readers to think that Reagan played no role in this dramatic and positive development.

Samuelson says this is nonsense. Vanquishing inflation would have been impossible without Reagan’s involvement.

What Reagan provided was political protection. The Fed’s previous failures to stifle inflation reflected its unwillingness to maintain tight-money policies long enough… Successive presidents preferred a different approach: the wage-price policies built on the pleasing (but unrealistic) premise that these could quell inflation without jeopardizing full employment. Reagan rejected this futile path. As the gruesome social costs of Volcker’s policies mounted — the monthly unemployment rate would ultimately rise to a post-World War II high of 10.8 percent — Reagan’s approval ratings plunged. In May 1981, they were at 68 percent; by January 1983, 35 percent. Still, he supported the Fed. …It’s doubtful that any other plausible presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, would have been so forbearing.

What’s the bottom line?

What Volcker and Reagan accomplished was an economic and political triumph. Economically, ending double-digit inflation set the stage for a quarter-century of near-automatic expansion… Politically, Reagan and Volcker showed that leaders can take actions that, though initially painful and unpopular, served the country’s long-term interests. …There was no explicit bargain between them. They had what I’ve called a “compact of conviction.”

By the way, Krugman then put forth a rather lame response to Samuelson, including the rather amazing claim that “[t]he 1980s were a triumph of Keynesian economics.”

Here’s what Samuelson wrote in a follow-up column debunking Krugman.

As preached and practiced since the 1960s, Keynesian economics promised to stabilize the economy at levels of low inflation and high employment. By the early 1980s, this vision was in tatters, and many economists were fatalistic about controlling high inflation. Maybe it could be contained. It couldn’t be eliminated, because the social costs (high unemployment, lost output) would be too great. …This was a clever rationale for tolerating high inflation, and the Volcker-Reagan monetary onslaught demolished it. High inflation was not an intrinsic condition of wealthy democracies. It was the product of bad economic policies. This was the 1980s’ true lesson, not the contrived triumph of Keynesianism.

If anything, Samuelson is being too kind.

One of the key tenets of Keynesian economics is that there’s a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve).

Yet in the 1970s we had rising inflation and rising unemployment.

While in the 1980s, we had falling inflation and falling unemployment.

But if you’re Paul Krugman and you already have a very long list of mistakes (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples), then why not go for the gold and try to give Keynes credit for the supply-side boom of the 1980s

P.S. Since today’s topic is Reagan, it’s a good opportunity to share my favorite poll of the past five years.

P.P.S. Here are some great videos of Reagan in action. And here’s one more if you need another Reagan fix.

P.P.P.S. And let’s close with some mildly risqué Reagan humor that was sent to me by a former member of Congress.

Reagan Clinton Joke

If you want more Reagan humor, click here, here, and here.

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I’ve written a couple of serious posts about the death panels at the VA’s government-run health facilities.

I think it’s particularly important to understand that the problem has nothing to do with funding levels. Instead, it’s about the chronic inefficiency of government.

But sometimes mockery is more effective than analysis, and this Remy video, produced by Reason TV, is definitely worth sharing.

Enjoy.

By the way, if you like the Remy videos from Reason TV, here’s one about Sandra Fluke and the birth control mandate, one about the TSA Hokey Pokey, and two more Christmas-themed songs about the TSA (here and here).

But I want to spend the rest of today’s column celebrating the fact that America is not Venezuela. No matter how much we complain about the inefficiency, waste, and corruption in Washington, things could be worse.

Much worse.

Here are three stories to give you an idea what total statism produces.

First, I’ve written about how government intervention is causing toilet paper shortages and food shortages in Venezuela (also in Cuba). Well, there’s also a shortage of water, as reported by Bloomberg.

The rationing of tap water amid a drought and a shortage of bottles because of currency controls are forcing people to form long lines at grocery stores and bottle shops as soon as deliveries are made. …a government-mandated water rationing plan in Caracas and hot weather are fueling demand as supply shrinks. “I haven’t been able to find 5-liter bottles of water in the supermarket for the past two weeks, and there haven’t been half-liter bottles this week,” Maria Hernandez, a 36-year-old secretary, said in an interview in Caracas today. “I have four at home, but I’m afraid that they’ll run out and that I won’t be able to find more. They ration water at my house on Wednesdays.”

Though maybe water rationing is a good thing. At least when you live in a nation where the water that does (sporadically) materialize is contaminated.

Some areas of the city receive water service only three days a week, with most neighborhoods going without water at least one day a week. When water does flow, few residents dare to drink it because of contamination.

So why is there a problem? Because the government doesn’t let the market operate.

Regulated prices for bottled water have not been raised since November 2011, industry association Anber said in a May 19 statement. Since then, consumer prices have risen 110 percent, according to central bank data, while the bolivar has lost 87 percent of its value on the black market, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the value on the Colombian border.

Our second story also comes from Bloomberg. It’s about the one thriving sector of the Venezuelan economy.

The arrival of a Liberian-flagged freighter with Ukrainian, Arab and Filipino sailors spells one thing for Elena — dollars. And greenbacks are king in Venezuela, the 32-year-old prostitute says. …Prostitutes more than double their earnings by moonlighting as currency traders in Puerto Cabello. They are the foreign exchange counter for sailors in a country where buying and selling dollars in the streets is a crime — and prostitution isn’t. Greenbacks in the black market are worth 11 times more than the official rate as dollars become more scarce.

Indeed, some women may be turning to prostitution because the government is doing so much damage to the economy.

Prostitution has become the only boom industry in Venezuela’s biggest port. …“Before I was working to support my kid and my mom; now I support my entire family,” said Paola, a prostitute who like Elena comes from Zulia and declines to give her real name. “Dollars are the only way to get by. The bolivar wages of my uncles and cousins barely mean anything now.” …“We can make more in two hours here than working in a shop in a month,” said a prostitute who calls herself Giselle. …For women like Giselle, Elena and Paola, prostitution for dollars has become a lifeline keeping them from poverty. “We haven’t studied, we have no education. What would we do now if we stopped?” said Giselle. “Work for a minimum wage that doesn’t even pay for food? If we wouldn’t be here working the scene, we would be living on the streets.”

Amazing. Venezuelan women are famous for their beauty, but the economy is such a mess that they earn twice as much money by trading currency. Way to go, big government!

Last but not least, our third story shows that government intervention is even making death more difficult. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Guardian.

…even in death, Venezuelans are afflicted by shortages. Coffin production has dropped between 20% and 30% this year for lack of materials, forcing funeral and burial delays… Pedro Navarro, former president of Venezuela’s funeral parlor association, has blamed lagging production at the state-run foundry Sidor. …Demand for coffins has grown in recent years. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates. People have been coping with shortages since 2006, long before the death from cancer last year of the pro-socialist president, Hugo Chávez.

The moral of the story is that government interventions such as price controls and government policy mistakes such as inflation have very negative consequences for ordinary people. It’s not just shortages of water and a prostitution-encouraging desire to escape the local currency.

The entire economy is a mess.

Empty shelves in shops and long queues have become a fixture of the daily hunt for staples such as milk, cooking oil and flour. Pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are also scarce. The anti-government street protests that began in February by an emboldened opposition have grown with the shortages.

So when someone tells you that big government is good for people, ask them for an example of successful statism.

And if they’re open to rational evidence, show them this chart. It shows that Venezuela used to be twice as prosperous as Chile.

But Venezuela has stagnated because of statism and Chile has boomed because of free markets. Kind of hard to argue with these facts (though Chile’s current crop of politicians apparently don’t like success and are seeking to expand the burden of government).

Let’s close with some very accurate humor. This poster nicely summarizes the difference between capitalism and statism.

Or the parable of the two cows also does the job.

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This is an easy question for me to answer. To be honest, I have no idea.

If I knew such things, I could time the market and I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams and relaxing on the beach in the Cayman Islands instead of sitting in my kitchen in chilly Virginia.

Heck, I don’t even know whether the Fed’s policy is wrong or just worrisome. It’s possible, after all, that the central bank has provided appropriate liquidity and it will soak it up at the right time.

I don’t think that’s the case. I fear Bernanke is in over his head and that the Fed is engaging in the monetary version of Keynesian economics.

And if that’s true, something bad will happen at some point. If there’s too much liquidity out there, it presumably will show up at some point as either rising prices or an asset bubble.

Then again, we know banks are keeping more than $1 trillion of excess reserves parked at the Fed and maybe it will stay that way forever. In which case the private sector is inadvertently protecting us from bad monetary policy. Thomas Sowell has suggested that something like this is happening.

I can say for sure is that we wouldn’t have to worry if we were in a libertarian fantasy world and the private sector was responsible for money.

You may think that sounds crazy, but that’s the way it used to be, as explained in this short video.

John Stossel has made the same point about competing market-based currencies.

And if you want to see how well money has maintained its value since the Federal Reserve took over, this link has an excellent video.

P.S. I often get asked about the gold standard. It’s good in theory, but the real issue is whether governments can be trusted to operate it prudently and honestly.

P.P.S. Since Christmas is just two days away, we can all wonder whether we will get this present from Ben Bernanke. And if you still have some last-minute shopping to do, here’s a Bernanke t-shirt for your liberal friends.

P.P.P.S. For some laughs, check out Ben Bernanke’s Facebook page.

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I’ve been worried for quite some time that the European Central Bank was losing its independence, thus undermining the long-run prospects of the euro.

Well, yesterday’s announcement that the ECB would buy the dodgy debt of nations such as Spain didn’t make me feel any better.

Central banks should not be bullied into creating too much money simply because politicians are too corrupt, venal, and short-sighted to control spending.

Here is some of what Allister Heath of City A.M. wrote earlier today. He begins with a wise warning about moral hazard.

There is nothing markets love more than a good dose of monetary activism, especially when they detect a hidden bailout, so it is no wonder that traders and investors reacted so positively to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan. …Yet generally speaking these days, the more the markets like a central bank intervention, the more I worry. This is because all too often investors are trying to get central banks – and ultimately, the taxpayer – to monetise debt to protect themselves, or because they believe that there are monetary solutions to real, structural problems. I disagree on both counts: excessive debt needs to be written off, with the cost born by the creditors, not redistributed to the taxpayers of more prudent countries or inflated away. It is right that investors should be able to make a fortune if they make a correct bet – but it is equally right that they should lose their shirt when their investment goes sour. This habit of quietly enjoying the former but loudly refusing the latter is one of the main reasons why the City’s reputation is at such a low ebb.

He then explains that the ECB shouldn’t try to mask reality.

…there is a perfectly good reason why the yields of peripheral Eurozone nations have shot up over the past year. It is because the markets have finally started to price risk properly. Higher yields on Spanish or Greek debt reflect the reality of deeply troubled, structurally uncompetitive nations… The market is sending a clear and precise signal, and warning the world that there is a major problem that needs resolution; buying vast amounts of bonds to try and distort or even entirely eliminate that signal and pretend that nothing is wrong with Europe’s weaker economies would be an absurd act of delusion.

I’m not as optimistic as Allister is in this next section, largely because the supposed conditionality will lead to the kind of fiscal gimmicks and moving goal posts that we see in Greece.

…while there are many problems with Draghi’s plans, he is actually being relatively sensible. He will not help Portugal, Ireland and Greece until they are able to access bond markets; even more importantly, Spain and Italy will need to ask for European bailout fund support, and accept the ensuing conditionality, before ECB bond-buying starts. It will theoretically be unlimited in scale but Draghi only wants to “do whatever it takes” as long as politicians toe the line. Given that they won’t, and that many countries will soon be borrowing even more, the crisis will soon flare up again. The simple reality is that the Eurozone in its current form is doomed. Draghi’s plan will buy some time, and his next one even more, as will the one after that. But eventually the size of the fiscal and competitiveness crisis, combined with voter anger in both Northern and Southern countries, will overwhelm all of his attempts at papering over the cracks. It’s just a matter of time.

But I obviously agree with his conclusion. Unless European politicians decide to reduce the burden of government spending, the continent is in deep trouble.

Last but not least, the problem in Europe is not the euro. It is the welfare state. I’m not a huge fan of the single currency, but it is way down on my list of reasons that nations such as Spain, Italy, and Greece are in trouble.

P.S. America will be in the same boat at some point in the future if we don’t reform entitlements.

P.P.S. Allister is the author of this great article explaining why tax competition and tax havens are so important and valuable in the global economy.

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To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

One of the challenges in this field is that opponents of the Fed often are portrayed as cranks. Defenders of the status quo may not have a good defense of the Fed, but they are rather effect in marginalizing critics. Congressman Ron Paul and others are either summarily dismissed or completely ignored.

The implicit assumption in monetary circles is that there is no alternative to central banking and fiat money. Anybody who criticizes the current system therefore is a know-nothing who wants to create some sort of libertarian dystopia featuring banking panics and economic chaos.

To be fair, it certainly might be possible to create a monetary regime that is worse than the Fed. That is why the next videos in this series will offer a careful look at the costs and benefits of possible alternatives.

As they say, stay tuned.

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I have a column in today’s New York Post, where I pull no punches as I comment on how the rest of the world is increasingly worried about Obama’s policies of easy money and deficit spending. I note that other nations often are guilty of the same mistakes, but that’s no excuse for America sinking to that level.

Along with countries such as Germany, Brazil and South Africa, China’s worried that President Obama and Bernanke will destabilize the global economy by dumping too much money into the system. This distorts trade, creates bubbles and may prompt other nations to engage in similar devaluations. The fact that China is probably guilty of the same thing doesn’t change the fact that America is on the wrong path. …The monetary move is isn’t the only Obama policy causing unease around the globe. Having seen the destructive impact of too much deficit spending in nations such as Greece, Ireland and Spain, policymakers worldwide increasingly recognize that countries need to reduce the burden of government spending to prevent a spread of sovereign-debt crises. Nations such as Germany and the United Kingdom haven’t approached this issue in the best way. Too often, they’re using the fiscal crisis as an excuse to raise taxes rather than make long-overdue reductions in bloated budgets. But at least they recognize that the time has come to back away from the abyss of too much red ink. The United States, by contrast, is on a spending binge of historic proportions. …Some of these fears are overblown. Yes, the Bush-Obama years have dramatically boosted the burden of government, and one obvious symptom of this fiscal excess is a much bigger national debt. But America’s red ink, as a share of GDP, is lower than the comparable levels in many European nations, as well as Japan. But that’s hardly an excuse. We all tell our kids that their friends’ misbehavior is no excuse for them to the wrong thing as well. This is a good rule for the global economy. If China is keeping its currency artificially weak, that doesn’t mean we should do the same thing. If European nations have bigger governments and more debt, that doesn’t mean we should copy their mistakes.

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