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Merger mania: human and economic effects.

Merger Mania: Human and Economic Effects

The corporate takeover binge of the 1980's has proven again that mergers are powerful economic occurrences with the potential of having a devastating effect on employees and others affected by such transactions. For example, consider the following actual events:

"|Don't go down the cellar,' Chris' suicide note warned his family. That's where the 38-year old economist hanged himself four days after he lost his $63,000-a-year job when his company was acquired by another firm" (1) Fearful of the potential adverse effects on themselves and their community, employees of the Phillips Petroleum Company and others in Bartlettsville, Oklahoma, prayed for divine intervention for one minute every day for a period of time to stop the acquisition of their company by the T. Boone Pickens group. (2) After losing his life-time job to a takeover by Cooper Industries of his company, Gardner-Denver, one employee expressed his feelings and said, "When they told me my job was terminated, I went through some of the same mental and physical torment that had happened to me only once before, when my 13 year old son was killed in an accident. I can't describe the degree of trauma - the gut-wrenching thoughts, the ulcerous symptoms, and my loss of grasp on reality..." (3)

These disquieting events illustrate some of the problems people experienced as a result of the epidemic of mergers and acquisitions in the 1980's that changed the face of American business. For example, between 1979-1985, there were some 17,000 mergers and acquisitions totalling more than $500 billion. In 1986, there were more than 3,200 mergers or acquisitions recorded. The dollar amount of the 1,450 deals in which the value was disclosed totaled $147.3 billion. The proliferation continued in 1987, when a record 3,702 takeovers were recorded. Those deals in which value was disclosed totalled $167.7 billion.[4] The trend continued in pace and intensity in 1988 and into 1989, but the LBO party had almost ended by late 1989 when the favorable confluence of a strong economy, low interest rates, and low stock prices had evaporated. However, about $1.3 trillion was spent on shuffling assets while merger mania was underway, and no industry was exempted from the upheaval. The flurry of takeovers and efforts at takeovers prodded outrage from the public, infuriation in Congress, and a spate of studies by economists.

By any measure, many of the mergers and acquisitions of the 1980's were colossal transactions. (See Table 1.) The potential profits involved in such takeovers are so vast for skillful players that they encouraged dealmakers to cross the invisible line that separates prudent and reasonable conduct from anarchy. However, the negative effects of many of the takeovers heavily outweighed the benefits to American industry. In fact, they raised legitimate concerns about whether takeovers should be brought under control. The brazen tactics used in the takeovers exacerbated many of the complaints about corporate behavior. Some observers feel that such tactics help to undermine the very basis of our capitalistic system.[5]

Table : TABLE 1

Large Mergers of the 1980's

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts
 acquires RJR Nabisco $29.8 billion 1989
Time mergers with Warner 13.8 billion 1989
Chevron merges with Gulf 13.3 billion 1984
Phillip Morris acquires Kraft 12.9 billion 1988
Bristol-Meyers merges with Squibb 11.5 billion 1989
Texaco acquires Getty Oil 10.1 billion 1984
DuPont acquires Conoco 8.0 billion 1981
British Petroleum acquires Standard Oil 7.9 billion 1987

Beecham Group PLC merges
 with SmithKline Beckman 7.8 billion 1989
U.S. Steel acquires Marathon Oil 6.5 billion 1981

Sources: IDD Information Services and Fortune Magazine, as found in Joseph Nocera, "The Decade That Got Out Of Hand," Best of Business Quarterly, Winter, 1989-90, p. 13.

Nevertheless, there are many who still defend takeovers. They include free-market economists who insist that buyouts force corporations to focus on results rather than size, to redeploy their assets, and to reduce their stifling bureaucracies. Economists argue that mergers of businesses producing the same or a similar product may result in increasing returns to scale and a decline in unit costs as the number of units produced increases. In a competitive environment, production efficiency should cause a reduction (or slower rise) in the prices of consumer products. This may result in an enhancement of shareholder wealth as stock prices rise in anticipation of such benefits. Thus, many economists believe that mergers are not only useful but that they are, in fact, essential in a dynamic economy.[6]

Others who see merit in takeovers are arbitrageurs, raiders, greenmailers, investment bankers who play chaperone or matchmaker, lawyers, speculators and short-term shareholders. These groups sometimes help to turn merger or acquisition ordeals into feeding frenzies from which they, because of their privileged position or expertise, stand to realize handsome profits or fees. Many consultants and others accumulated massive fortunes due to takeovers in the 1980's. In spite of their support, the public and their political representatives became outraged about the practices of warring bidders and their tactics as well as the resultant impact on the economy and people in general. There is widespread concern about whether unbridled dealmaking and manipulation of assets in the future would be good for either the economy or the nation's workforce.[7]

Economic Impact

In general, the concern for the economic impact of the current buyout binge was inspired by the stunning revelations of widespread fraud and ethical abuse on Wall Street. The following were considered to be encouraging factors to the takeover frenzies and reflect serious concerns:

(1) Accounting procedures and tax laws appear to favor corporate acquirers and pare tax revenues. The American public underwrites buyouts because interest payments on borrowing are tax-deductible. Many economists have begun to question the wisdom of taxing corporate dividends twice while permitting corporations to deduct interest on traditional debt instruments as well as new instruments. These include high-yield and high-risk junk bonds (a market that crumbled in 1989) that are used to finance takeovers. Of course, the reduced tax revenue intake contributes to the nagging national debt problem.[8]

(2) The "greedfest" takeover battles of recent merger mania brought takeover practices under greater scrutiny in Washington. Many members of the congressional leadership feel that our entire financial system is riddled with flagrant abuses and that U.S. tax laws encouraged the "casino atmosphere" of takeovers in the 1980's. As a result, influential congressional leaders have expressed strong support for legislation that would end the shifting of the cost of acquisitions to taxpayers through the deductibility of interest payments.[9]

(3) Since the majority of takeovers involve speculative frenzies that require high-leverage financing, the risk of survival for the purchasing firm becomes problematic when the economy slows down. For obvious reasons, the shifting balance between debt and equity is dangerous for both the individual firm and the economy. Some acquiring firms from the 1980's mergers are now saddled with debt and must devote much of their cash flow to pay off debt service costs. In such firms, management has less margin for error and the company has less capacity to weather a slump. Some companies have already been brought to ruin. Many economists are concerned about the potential long-run impact of massive corporate capital restructuring, since the Treasury and taxpayer will be forced to absorb any losses if the purchasing corporation fails.[10]

(4) Though the takeovers in the 1980's were generally profitable to takeover-minded companies and individuals, takeovers do not always contribute positively to the economy. The ripple effects of many of the 1980's takeovers were reflected in the pressure to drain off equity and put the company into debt. As a result, money was used to pay off debt instead of being spent on product leadership, market development, and capital equipment that could be used to create further employment. Though awash in debt, many firms in the 1980's seemed bent on finding the next good deal rather than concentrating on long-term research and development or investment. They appeared to operate on the principle of cashing in without considering the ultimate effect of the merger on current stockholders or bondholders or its impact on the firm's operating efficiency or its workers.[11]

(5) For many workers, takeovers have created economic upheaval in their communities. Workforce cuts that were intended to enhance the benefits of an acquisition have disrupted lives and caused a financial drain on local communities because of the loss of leadership and the lucrative tax base which purchased companies provided.[12] In other words, many takeovers were self-serving; they were consummated in a capricious, less-than-humane fashion with apparent disregard for employees and the communities where they lived.

Human Impact

The results of the takeover mania have raised questions about the value of the "organizational man" model.[13] The major ingredients of this archetypal model were employee loyalty and commitment, pride in the company, and hard work. There was a lasting compact between employer and employee. This was largely displaced in the 1980's by the spirit of "corporate Darwinism." That is, a new kind of independence and personal entrepreneurship emerged that placed little value on employee welfare. This attitude tapped a vein of revulsion in workers and resulted in defects from the workforce, cynicism, low morale, and decreased productivity.[14] Some of the kinds of "people trauma" produced by these turnovers are listed below:

(1) Studies reveal that the real and poignant issues that affect workers were given scant attention during and after the acquisition process in many of the most recent mergers. As a result, many employees felt that the "psychological contract" they counted on throughout their career had been broken by corporate takeovers and the human dislocation which followed it. The psychological contract provides a semblance of order and direction and is essential to the maintenance of quality and productivity in organizations. Failure to take this factor into account during the merger process resulted in workforce backlash and led to a variety of unfavorable human consequences. The problem was often compounded when the acquiring firm did not provide programs for outplacement, job-hunting assistance, and skill retraining for redundant workers.[15]

(2) In any business consolidation, the potential for wrenching operational change and a collision of organizational cultures between two previously separate and autonomous organizations is very strong. Any conflict between the purchasing firm and the purchased firm can have a serious negative human capital impact and detrimental organizational implications. This is true because organizational culture shapes management styles, attitudes, operating philosophies and policies, organizational perceptions by employees, and values. Consequently, during the recent merger mania, a clash of cultures sometimes resulted in a "blood-bath" of restructuring, organization malaise, shattered morale for both retained and departed workers, sagging productivity, and declining profitability.[16]

(3) The threat of takeovers over the past decade caused the management of many companies to devise strategies to ward off potential raiders. This put many companies in a sluggish, reactive mode because it meant more time being spent with lawyers, investment bankers, and public relations firms. Some of the strategies used by the management of takeover targets were characterized by their emphasis on short-term, protective, and very parochial thinking. The strategies included cutting labor costs and overhead by downsizing the workforce; writing off unproductive facilities; selling marginal businesses; reducing expenditures on capital equipment, research, and product development; and mounting huge debts. Obviously, such strategies took time away from the development of new products and the improvement of productive efficiency and often represented a serious handicap toward the achievement of future goals. They also had a debilitating effect in the long run on America's competitive posture in international trade.[17]

(4) An acquisition can imperil not only jobs but also the future security of those who stay. For example, many of the purchasers in the 1980's tried to trim overhead, increase productivity, and enhance profitability so that the company could meet payments on its swollen debt. This required not only a reduction in the workforce and the paring of operations in marginal divisions, but it also frequently resulted in cuts in wages and salaries, raids on pension funds, and reductions of other employee benefits to help finance the takeover. Importantly, from a human relations viewpoint, it often meant the destruction of seniority for workers when the identity of the employer changed.[18]

(5) Organizations are social institutions where many people interact and spend most of their lives. For many target companies, with the news of the takeover of their company looming over their head, a negative tone pervades the organization. The ordeal of a takeover can distract managers and leave workers disgusted and feeling betrayed. In the 1980's, this helped to create a paralysis in the workforce of many target companies and strained relationships among co-workers at all levels of the company. With decades of service, many of them became fearful of being dumped on short notice or became apprehensive about the destruction of the potential for career advancement. Continued speculation in the company eventually affected management's ability to retain and motivate employees. Even when the raid was defeated, other vexing problems often arose due to post-raid anxiety among employees that another takeover attempt might materialize.

(6) Workers who fear a takeover or who are involved in a takeover may waste huge amounts of time in defensive and negative emotions. At the height of the 1980's takeover binge, many workers experienced feelings of powerlessness, loss, and sadness followed by feelings of anger, resentment, and even depression. They sometimes reported undergoing a loss of self-confidence and personal worth and began to question their ability to deal with events. Some workers responded by pushing themselves very hard to prove their value to the company, even to the point of foregoing vacations and not taking sick leave when they needed to do so. Others became dysfunctional and acted in jaundiced ways or exhibited sporadic and unpredictable attendance. Still others came to work but provided only half-hearted support and commitment. For these reasons, perceptive human resource planning is vital throughout the merger process.(19)

Recent Legislation

Over 30 states (including Delaware) passed laws in the latter half of the 1980's to thwart the takeover efforts of corporate raiders. Many have modelled their takeover laws after the Indiana takeover law, the first in the country. The Indiana law has a "control-share" rule which compels raiders who purchase a specified percentage of stock, usually 20 percent, to get the consent of remaining shareholders who are not officers or directors before they get the right to vote their stock. Other states have a "bust-up" rule which prevents those who buy corporations from selling off assets or divisions for a given period of time. A few states have given legislative approval of poison-pill defenses and golden parachute provisions and expanded the latitude that boards of directors have to reject unsolicited offers. All of these provisions should help to deter takeovers and mitigate the impact of wrenching takeover battles by making them more time-consuming and prohibitively expensive. The provisions provide defenses for the company and its shareholders before the raider can put them at a disadvantage.(20)

State anti-takeover legislation has drawn opposition from free-market economists, regulatory officials, constitutional theorist who argue that state anti-takeover statutes violate the commerce clause of the constitution, and those interested in buying companies. One of their arguments is that strict regulation may empower management to erect obstacles to a potential takeover that may be to the advantage of and is supported by a majority of shareholders. Oddly enough, management and labor, who so often are at odds with each other on other issues, find themselves as political bedfellows on this issue. Labor's clout is very important since potential jobs are at stake in every takeover effort. State legislators are more prone to vote for anti-takeover legislation when they know they must face the potential specter of lost jobs and disgruntled voters back home if they do not.(21)

It seems unlikely that additional anti-takeover legislation will be passed by a significant number of other states in the near future. Public and state legislative attention has been diverted as the merger wave seems to be receding. It is equally unlikely that comprehensive, uniform legislation will be passed at the federal level to preempt the state laws empower the federal government to manage takeovers. However, the Secretary of the Treasury has indicated interest in seeing legislation passed that would help control debt-financed takeovers and leverage buyouts.(22) Also, the Federal Reserve System has placed increased restrictions on member banks that financed LBO activity and asked members to more carefully monitor loans for debt-funded takeovers.(23) Given the widespread interest in the subject, a relevant question is, what rules should be used to govern takeovers?

Guidelines For Managing Takeovers

Despite the media attention and glamour which characterized the recent takeover flurry, the evidence suggests that the high hopes of corporate acquirers were not always realized. Many did not result in greater efficiency of operation or in the creation of new jobs at a larger-than-average rate. In fact, according to the consultant McKinsey & Company, as many as two out of every three buyouts either failed or produced disappointing results.(24) Furthermore, the practice of cost-cutting in the budgets of important departments such as product development often left acquired companies poorly positioned for the future. Research and development activities were often dampened. In addition, while takeovers may have made management more cost conscious and their companies more lean and competitive, this favorable result must be weighed against the effect of uprooting people and economically ruining communities.

The public and its political representatives became alarmed at the greed and rapaciousness which characterized so many takeover efforts of the 1980's. They became dismayed by the deleterious effects that takeovers had on the economy and on employees. These concerns could be dealt with through the following guidelines:

(1) End tax breaks for the acquiring corporation. It is generally agreed that the deductibility of interest was a major factor which fueled the recent takeover frenzy by giving debt an advantage over equity in financing businesses. Therefore, ending tax breaks for some takeovers - and changing the tax system to encourage the growth of equity - should help produce corporate restraints, help reduce the amount of foregone taxes, and ultimately lead to a healthier economic environment.

(2) Extend current antitrust laws or pass new antitrust laws to encompass unfriendly takeovers which result in excessive concentration of business and financial assets and are judged to be in restraint of trade.

(3) Require a two or three month moratorium after the announcement of the intention of making an offer and the offer itself. This "cooling off" period would probably have been sufficient in many recent merger situations to dampen speculative fever and allow reason to prevail. As noted previously, some states have already enacted antitakeover laws, and the Supreme Court has sanctioned this practice in at least one case.

(4) Permit workers - the group most likely to be directly affected by a takeover - to have some voice in hostile takeover attempts. For example, in some western European countries employees are granted an unofficial but de facto power which effectively controls unfriendly takeovers.

(5) Establish a government-sponsored takeover panel to review takeovers. For example, in Great Britain this type of board exists and has been effective in tackling the problem in spite of its lack of legal power.

(6) Empower the Comptroller of the Currency to restrict or to monitor commercial bank lending for unfriendly takeovers.

(7) Legislatively prohibit the acquiring corporation from raiding the pension fund of the acquired corporation of all assets in excess of legal obligations. Events surrounding the mergers and acquisitions of the 1980's proved that such actions are ill-advised, since they often deprived employees of retirement incomes in later years. A sound argument can be made that the surplus pension funds belong to the employees of the acquired corporation, not the acquiring one.

(8) Statutorily provide current stockholders the right to vote on any buyout involving more than a given percentage of the outstanding share of stock. This would provide stockholders, the owners of the corporation, with the prerogative of determining whether a merger was in their best interest.

(9) Prohibit or limit the practice of using "greenmail," which involves a corporate buyback of the raider's stock at inflated prices. If the raiders of the 1980's had been unable to use greenmail, they could not have sold acquired stock at a premium if the raid failed. Given such a restriction, they would probably have been very reluctant in many cases to initiate the buyout.(25)


Mergers had an enormous impact on American business in the 1980's. Proponents contend that mergers reduce stifling bureaucracies and promote efficiency in the allocation of resources and in the production of goods and services. Critics insist that mergers amount to no more than a shuffling of assets that nakedly display the greed of raiders, speculators, arbitrageurs, and others. Both proponents and critics often fail to take into account the human dislocation which inevitably follows a merger.

There is no question that mergers have great impact on the workers involved. Careers are sometimes shattered, normal job patterns disrupted, and future security endangered. Even the threat of a takeover may have negative impact on the morale and productivity of the targeted workforce. Ambiguous expectations and feelings of job insecurity may induce employees to seek work elsewhere or to withdraw from their job psychologically as changes due to a merger unfold.

The merger wave of the 1980's had begun to recede by the end of the decade. However, the havoc it created will not be quickly forgotten by those whom it touched. It changed forever the lives of many American workers and the communities where they live. States should consider legislation which does not discourage economically-justified takeovers but which does provide guidelines that reduce their negative human capital impact.


[1.] John M. Ivancevich, David M. Schweiger, and Frank R. Power, "Strategies

for Managing Human Resources During Mergers and Acquisitions,"

Human Resource Planning, 10:1, p. 23. [2.] "Are Mergers Hurting U.S. Economy?" U.S. News and World Report,

July 22, 1985, p. 57. [3.] Myron Magnet, "Help! My Company Has Just Been Taken Over,"

Fortune, July 9, 1984, p. 45. [4.] Abbie Smith, "The Effects of Leverage Buyouts," Business Economics,

April 1990, pp. 19-25; Jeanete A. Davy,, "After the Merger:

Dealing With People's Uncertainty," Training and Development Journal,

November, 1988, p. 57; Clemens P. Work and Jack Seamonds,

"What Are Mergers Doing to America?" U.S. News and World Report,

July 22, 1985, pp. 48-50; and Jane Ciabattari, Winning Moves: How to

Come Out A head in A Corporate Shakeup, (New York: Rawson Associates,

1988), p.xvii. [5.] Lois Therrien, "The Best and Worst Deals of the |80's," Business Week,

January 15, 1990, pp. 52-57; Christopher Knowlton, "Deals of the

Year," Fortune, January 29, 1990, p, 136; Work and Seamonds, "What

Are Mergers Doing to America?" pp. 48-50; "Are Mergers Hurting U.S.

Economy?" p. 57; and Howard Gleckman, "How Congress May Try to

Break Buyout Fever," Business Week, December 12, 1988, p. 34. [6.] Work and Seamonds, "What Are Mergers Doing to America?" pp. 48-50;

T. Boone Pickens, Jr., "Takeovers: A Purge of Poor Managements,"

Management Review, January, 1988, pp. 52-54; and George Anders,

"With Leveraged Buy-Outs in Spotlight, Here Are Answers to Common

Questions," Wall Street Journal, October 28, 1988, p.B-1. [7.] Pickens, "Takeovers: A Purge of Poor Managements," pp. 52-54; Work

and Seamonds, "What Are Mergers Doing to America?" p. 48; and

"LBO's: The Stars, The Strugglers, The Flops," Business Week, January

15, 1990, p. 58. [8.] Margaret Mendenhall Blair, "A Surprising Culprit Behind the Rush to

Leverage," The Brookings Review, Winter 1989-90, pp. 19-26; Nathaniel

Gilbert, "Living on Leverage: Can U.S. Business Survive Its

Passion for Debt?" Management Review, April 1990, pp. 50-55; and

Norman Jonas, et. al., "How the Tax Code is Feeding The Merger

Mania," Business Week, May 27, 1985, pp. 62-64. [9.] Joseph Nocera, "The Decade That Got Out of Hand," Best of Business

Quarterly, Winter, 1989-90, pp. 10-18, and "How Congress May Try to

Break Buyout Fever," p. 34. [10.] "ITT Chief Foresees End to LBS'S and M&A's," Management Review,

May, 1990, pp. 8-9, and Work and Seamonds, "What Are Mergers

Doing to America?" p. 50. [11.] "Takeover Mania is Under Fire," USA Today, November 10, 1988, p. 1-8;

Tim Smart, "A Backlash Against Business," Business Week, February

16, 1989, p. 31; B. Hall, "The Impact of Corporate Restructuring on

Industrial Research and Development," Working Paper # 89-129,

University of California, Berkeley, December, 1989; Robert A. Taggart,

Jr., "Corporate Leverage and The Restructuring Movement of the

1980's," Business Economics, April, 1990, pp. 12-18; and Philip

Coggan, "Buy-Out Burn-Out," Business, February, 1990, pp. 65-69. [12.] Kenneth Lehn, "Public Policy Towards Corporate Restructuring,"

Business Economics, April, 1990, p. 30; Kenneth R. Sheets, "People Pay

The Highest Price in A Tumover," U.S. News and World Report, July 22,

1985, p. 51; and "Merger Review: The Ripple Effects," Mergers and

Acquisitions, July-August, 1987, p. 7. [13.] Amanda Bennett, The Death of the Organization Man (N.Y.: William

Morrow & Company, 1990). [14.] Marsha Sinetar, "Mergers, Morale, and Productivity," Personnel Journal,

November, 1981, pp. 863-66. [15.] John E. Panos, "Taking the Humane Approach to Postacquisition

Layoffs," Mergers and Acquisitions, March-April, 1989, pp. 44-47, and

Steven E. Prokesch, "|People Trauma' in Mergers," New York Times,

November, 1985, p. D-1. [16.] Thierrien, "The Best and Worst Deals of the 80's," pp. 52-57; Magnet,

"Help! My Company Has Just Been Taken Over," p. 44; Sinetar,

"Mergers, Morale, and Productivity," pp. 863-66; and Work and Seamonds,

"What Are Mergers Doing to America?" p. 49. [17.] Harold M. Williams, "It's Time for A Takeover Moratorium," Fortune,

July 22, 1985, pp. 133-34, and Work and Seamonds, "What Are

Mergers Doing to America?" p. 49. [18.] Caleb Solomon, "Takeover Raids Leave Phillips Employees Facing

New Assaults," Wall Street Journal, February 1, 1989, p. 1. [19.] "Merger Review: The Ripple Effects," p. 7, and Tim Smart,, "More

States Are Telling Raiders: Not Here, You Don't," Business Week,

February 13, 1988, p. 28. [20.] Lehn, "Public Policy Towards Corporate Restructuring," p. 28;

"Merger Review: The Ripple Effects," p. 7; and "More States are Telling

Raiders: Not Here, You Don't," p. 28. [21.] "Merger Review: The Ripple Effects," p. 7, and "More States are

Telling Raiders: Not Here, You Don't," p. 28. [22.] Tim Smart, "A Backlash Against Business," Business Week, February

6, 1989, pp. 30-31. [23.] Peter Brucker, "Curbing Unfriendly Takeovers," Wall Street Journal,

January 5, 1983, p. 20; Gleckman, "How Congress May Try to Break

Buyout Fever," p. 34; and "ITT Chief Foresees End to LBO's and

M&A's," pp. 8-9. [24.] Work and Seamonds, "What Are Mergers Doing to America?" p. 50,

and Joseph E. McCann and Roderick Gilkey, Joining Forces; Creating

and Managing Successful Mergers and Acquisitions (Englewood

Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1988), p.xv. [25.] Jones, et. al., "How The Tax Code is Feeding The Merger Mania," pp.

62-64; Williams, "It's Time for A Takeover Moratorium," pp. 133-134;

Drucker, "Curbing Unfriendly Takeovers," p. 20; "Merger Review:

The Ripple Effects," p. 7; Smart, "A Backlash Against Business," pp.

30-31; Gleckman, "How Congress May Try to Break Buyout Fever," p.

34; Taggart, "Corporate Leverage and the Restructuring Movement of

the 1980's," pp. 12-18; and Lehn, "Public Policy Toward Corporate

Restructuring," p. 27.
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Title Annotation:effects of mergers
Author:Abbasi, Sami M.; Hollman, Kenneth W.; Murrey, Joe H., Jr.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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