Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Main Street Small Business on the Precipice

Small businesses on the precipice need only one small shove to go over the edge, and there won't be replacements filling the fast-multiplying empty storefronts.
As a generality, the average employee (including financial pundits) has no real experience or understanding of what it takes to start and operate a small business in the U.S. Government employees in the agencies that oversee and enforce regulations on small businesses also generally lack any experience in the businesses they regulate.
A third generality is the endlessly promoted ethos of entrepreneurism cultivates the illusion that there is an essentially endless supply of entrepreneurs who are itching to start businesses and throw everything they have into the risky gamble.
All we ever hear when a restaurant owner is interviewed is how much they love their business, their work, their customers, their neighborhood, etc. etc. Sadly, enthusiasm isn't enough to pay the rent when belt-tightening reduces sales while costs notch ever higher.
The story plays out the same everywhere; the only variation is the relative scale of the costs that are squeezing small businesses and the limits on how much they can raise prices:
America’s Highest Minimum Wage Sparks Fight in Small California CityRestaurants in Emeryville say they can’t keep raising prices, but workers say $16.30 an hour is barely enough in the Bay Area.
For those of you who don't read the entire article: one cafe owner reports that she netted a whopping $5,000 in a good year, her entrepreneurial payoff for working insane hours and putting up with the ceaseless grind of keeping her business afloat.
The reality is very few people have the drive, risk appetite, capital and experience to start and operate a small business. Once this pool of people has been exhausted or bankrupted, the number of new small businesses plummets and does not recover.
Another reality is a great many bricks-and-mortar Main Street businesses are on the precipice of closing. There are two primary drivers of this systemic vulnerability:
1. Costs are rising far faster than enterprises' ability to raise prices for the goods and services they sell
2. Wages and salaries (earned income) has stagnated for the past 20 years for the lower 95% of households while costs of big-ticket expenses such as rent, healthcare, college, childcare and government services and taxes have risen sharply.
This leaves less discretionary income available to spend on non-essentials, i.e. "experience consumption."
Simply put, small business expenses are rising while their customers' stagnating income means there is little leeway to raise prices. Small business is in a vise.
There's another dynamic in bricks-and-mortar businesses that must rent commercial space. The bubble in real estate valuations has spread to commercial real estate in many if not most urban areas, but certainly to every urban area with a vibrant job market--exactly the sort of place that attracts those willing to start a new business.
If a retail building was worth $1 million a decade ago, and now it sold for $3 million, the new owners naturally expect rents to cover all expenses and yield a 5% return on their investment.
The new owners don't think of themselves as greedy; a 5% return on capital is conservative.
The higher price doesn't just increase the size of the mortgage and the monthly payments; it also increases the property taxes due. Since the fees charged for government services are soaring, business licenses, permits, etc. have also increased far faster than official inflation.
For the investment to pencil out for the new owner who paid $3 million for the building, the rent for each space has to triple from $1,000 a month to $3,000 a month.
How many small businesses can afford a doubling or tripling of rent? Since wages, healthcare, licenses, permits, etc. have increased dramatically while the ability to raise prices has been constrained, many small businesses can't afford even a 20% increase in rent, never mind 200%.
(Note on interest rates: even if the interest rate on the commercial-property mortgage declined a bit, that doesn't offset the much larger principal payment required since the mortgage tripled in size, nor does it reduce the property taxes or other fixed costs. In other words, the interest part of the owners' monthly expenses is not the key metric.)
Now let's factor in a recession or slowdown, a period of consumer belt-tightening that causes revenues to drop.
A great many Main Street businesses paying market rents are only making money in the very best of times. Any slowdown, however modest, pushes them into the red.
If they expect revenues to pick up in a month or two, small business owners will absorb losses, cut the hours of employees, work longer hours, etc. But if the revenues don't recover while expenses click higher, the entrepreneur eventually has no choice: either close down now or go broke via the drip of monthly losses.
Once the slowdown is undeniable, no one with any moxie is going to step up and pay market rent on the vacant space. The inexperienced souls who try their hand in the new space will be bankrupted in a matter of months by the high rent.
The building owners are loathe to drop the rent from $3,000 a month to $2,800, much less to $2,000 a month. Yet the reality is that no small business can afford more than $1,000 a month.
The building owners are caught in their own vise: they need rents close to $3,000/month to cover their expenses, and so dropping rents to what small businesses can afford will result in horrendous monthly losses. But leaving the spaces vacant generates losses, too.
The only way out is to default on the mortgage and abandon the building to the lender, who then faces enormous losses because the building is no longer worth $3 million since rents have crashed.
Neither the commercial building owners nor the small business tenants have any wiggle room. The only alternative to increasing losses each has is to close down the business / sell the building for a huge loss or default on the mortgage.
All the increasing costs are famously sticky: wages don't go down, healthcare costs don't go down, city fees don't go down, and rent goes down only grudgingly, in increments too small to save small businesses operating in the red.
And since the pool of experienced entrepreneurs is small (and shrinking as people burn out, go bankrupt, retire, etc.), the empty storefronts will stay empty for a long, long time-- until rents drop back to levels that enable small businesses to make a profit in recessionary times.
Nobody wants to see building valuations decline by 2/3 or more: cities, lenders and investors all want valuations to notch higher or at least remain stable. But bubble-era valuations lead to rents that are completely unaffordable, so small businesses will close, resulting in the rental income dropping to $0 per month.
Since all the costs are sticky and expectations are wildly unrealistic, there is no painless way forward.
Small businesses on the precipice need only one small shove to go over the edge, and there won't be replacements filling the fast-multiplying empty storefronts. The hurdles, costs and risks of starting a new enterprise notch ever higher while the rewards diminish. No wonder startups are in systemic decline: we've made it so difficult to start and operate a small business that few have the skills, stamina and capital to survive, much less thrive.
Blowing a real estate bubble that crushed small business may well be viewed in hindsight as the Federal Reserve's cruelest and most destructive policy error.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

Why Is What Was Once Affordable to Many Now Only Affordable to the Wealthy?

With these speculative and risk management skills accessible only to the wealthy, no wonder only the wealthy have gained purchasing power in the 21st century.
Let's start with an excerpt from a recent personal account by the insightful energy/systems analyst Ugo Bardi, who is Italian but writes his blog Cassandra's Legacy in English: Becoming Poor in Italy. The Effects of the Twilight of the Age of Oil.
"I am not poor. As a middle class, state employee in Italy, I am probably richer than some 90% of the people living on this planet. But wealth and poverty are mainly relative perceptions and the feeling I have is that I am becoming poorer every year, just like the majority of Italians, nowadays.
I know that the various economic indexes say that we are not becoming poorer and that, worldwide, the GDP keeps growing, even in Italy it sort of restarted growing after a period of decline. But something must be wrong with those indexes because we are becoming poorer. It is unmistakable, GDP or not. To explain that, let me tell you the story of the house that my father and my mother built in the 1960s and how I am now forced to leave it because I can't just afford it anymore.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was going through what was called the "Economic Miracle" at the time. After the disaster of the war, the age of cheap oil had created a booming economy everywhere in the world. In Italy, people enjoyed a wealth that never ever had been seen or even imagined before. Private cars, health care for everybody, vacations at the seaside, the real possibility for most Italians to own a house, and more.
My father and my mother were both high school teachers. They could supplement their salary with their work as architects and by giving private lessons, but surely they were typical middle-class people. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, they could afford the home of their dreams. Large, a true mansion, it was more than 300 square meters, with an ample living room, terraces, a patio, and a big garden.
My parents lived in that house for some 50 years and they both got old and died in there. Then, I inherited it in 2014. As you can imagine, a house that had been inhabited for some years by old people with health problems was not in the best condition.
we started doing just that. But, after a couple of years, we looked into each other's eyes and we said, 'this will never work.'
We had spent enough money to make a significant dent in our finances but the effect was barely visible: the house was just too big. To that, you must add the cost of heating and air conditioning of such a large space: in the 1960s, there was no need for air conditioning in Florence, now it is vital to have it. Also, the cost of transportation is a killer. In an American style suburb, you have to rely on private cars and, in the 1960s, it seemed normal to do that. But not anymore: cars have become awfully expensive, traffic jams are everywhere, a disaster. Ah.... and I forgot about taxes: that too is rapidly becoming an impossible burden.
And so we decided to sell the house. We discovered that the value of these suburban mansions had plummeted considerably during the past years, but it was still possible to find buyers.
What's most impressive is how things changed in 50 years. Theoretically, as a university teacher, my salary is higher than that of my parents, who were both high school teachers. My wife, too, has a pretty decent salary. But there is no way that we could even have dreamed to build or buy the kind of house that I inherited from my parents.
Something has changed and the change is deep in the very fabric of the Italian society. And the change has a name: it is the twilight of the age of oil. Wealth and energy are two faces of the same medal: with less net energy available, what Italians could afford 50 years ago, they can't afford anymore.
But saying that depletion is at the basis of our troubles is politically incorrect and unspeakable in the public debate. So, most Italians don't understand the reasons for what's going on. They only perceive that their life is becoming harder and harder, despite what they are being told on TV."
To resource depletion I would add lower returns on both capital and labor--what is known as diminishing returns: the same investment yields less output.
This decay of return on investment manifests as an S-Curve, which is a constant reference point in my work: an investment that earns a large output at first yields less and less, until the yield (output) stagnates and then declines. Increasing the investment no longer reverses the decline, and often accelerates the decline into a crash.
The 1960s "Economic Miracle" (called Les Trente Glorieuses in France, the thirty years of growth from 1945 to 1975) wasn't just the result of cheap oil/fuel; credit/investment-starved economies generated outsized returns as capital investments expanded production and productivity, raising wages which then increased consumption and production in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Labor was relatively cheap, and capital investments in equipment, social investments in infrastructure and human capital investments in education all boosted the productivity of labor while boosting wages and consumption.
Compare this to the present: ordinary financial capital earns 2% at best and zero or even less than zero in developed economies. Owners of capital have a hard time finding any high-yield investment that isn't a speculative gamble based on financialized leverage or debt.
This is why corporations are pouring trillions of dollars of capital into stock buybacks that generate no new goods and services: they can't find any productive use for the capital, so they use buybacks to boost the value of their shares.
Professor Bardi labors in higher education. Back when university credentials were relatively scarce, and higher education actually boosted the productivity of the graduates, the labor of professors generated substantial economic value.
Now that college diplomas have lost their scarcity value, and developed-world work forces are over-credentialed, the value of higher education credentials and those who issue them has declined accordingly. In a global economy with an abundance of over-credentialed workers, the claim that more education creates more value is no longer valid.
If there is an oversupply of chemistry graduates, graduating another 10,000 chemistry majors doesn't boost productivity at all; rather, it misallocated vast amounts of financial and human capital.
The net result is that the return on ordinary capital and labor, even that of college professors, has declined while the cost structure of increasingly complex societies has soared.
If we consider higher resource costs and higher costs of systemic complexity, and declining returns on capital and labor as inputs, we can see that the only possible output of such a system is declining purchasing power, which we experience as becoming poorer: our labor buys less and our savings earn next to nothing unless we have the specialized knowledge and risk appetite to engage in speculative gambles.
With these speculative and risk management skills accessible only to the wealthy, no wonder only the wealthy have gained purchasing power in the 21st century. The result is only the wealthy can afford what was once affordable to the middle class.
The decline in the value of conventional labor and purchasing power is visible in this chart of labor's share of the national income.
Ownership of speculative capital is concentrated in the top 5% of households, guaranteeing that speculative gains from asset bubbles are also concentrated in the top 5%-- roughly 6 million households, with the majority of the gains concentrated in the top few hundred thousand households.
Outsized gains are now only available to the few with the skills and experience required to gamble high-risk assets successfully, and this is becoming more difficult; even the professional class of money managers are increasingly unable to beat passive index funds.
The top 5% are riding high now that central banks have inflated stupendous bubbles in stocks, housing and other assets, but these gains are speculative.These gains are often viewed as permanent entitlements (i.e. bubbles never deflate), but if history is any guide, those holding speculative gains as if they were a form of savings are in for a rude awakening in the next few years.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, Daniel E. ($4), for your most generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Once "Prosperity" Falters, the Legitimacy of the Status Quo Evaporates

All we're doing is waiting for the fake "prosperity" to crumble, and the resulting loss of credibility and legitimacy will follow like night follows day.
The citizenry of corrupt regimes ruled by self-serving elites tolerate this oppressive misrule for one reason and only one reason: increasing prosperity,which we can define as continual improvement in material well-being and financial security.
The legitimacy of every corrupt regime ruled by self-serving elites hangs on this single thread: once prosperity fades, the legitimacy of the regime evaporates, as the citizenry have no reason to tolerate their rapacious, predatory overlords.
A broken, unfair system will be tolerated as long as every participant feels they're getting a few shreds of improvement. This is why there is such an enormous push of propaganda touting "growth"; if the citizenry can be conned into believing that their deteriorating well-being and security are actually "prosperity," then they will continue to grant the status quo some measure of credibility and legitimacy.
When the gap between the propaganda and reality widens to the breaking point, the regime loses its credibility and legitimacy. This manifests in a number of ways:
1. Nobody believes anything the state or its agencies reports as "fact": since it misreported economic well-being and security to benefit the few at the expense of the many, why believe anything official?
2. Increased lawlessness: since the Ruling Elites get away with virtually everything, why we should we obey the laws?
3. Opting out: rather than become a target for the state's oppressive organs of security, the safer path is to opt out: quit supporting a parasitic and predatory Status Quo of corporations and the state with your labor, slip into the shadows of the economy, avoid debt like the plague, get by on a fraction of your former income.
4. Breakdown of Status Quo political parties: since all parties are bands of self-serving thieves, what's the point of even nominal membership?
5. Increasing reliance on anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications, more self-medication/drug use, and other manifestations of social stress and breakdown.
6. Those who can move away from crumbling high-tax cities, essentially giving up civic hope for fair, affordable solutions to rising inequality and social disorder.
7. Increasing defaults and bankruptcies as households and enterprises no longer see any other way out.
8. Increasing mockery of financial/corporate media parroting the propaganda that "prosperity" is real and rising-- S&P 500 hits 3,000, we're all getting better in every way, every day, etc.
Truth is the most essential form of capital, and once it has been squandered to serve insiders, vested interests and Ruling Elites, the nation is morally, spiritually, politically and financially bankrupt. All we're doing is waiting for the fake "prosperity" to crumble, and the resulting loss of credibility and legitimacy will follow like night follows day.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, Thomas S. ($50), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.
 

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

It's Not Just the News That's Fake--Everything's Fake

That we fall for the fakes and cons is understandable, given that's all we have left in the public sphere.
What do we mean when we say corporate media is fake? We mean it's a carefully crafted con, a set of narratives, cherry-picked data and heavily massaged statistics (the unemployment rate, etc.) designed to instill the reader's confidence in a narrative that serves the interests not of the citizenry but of a select few pillaging the citizenry.
Once upon a time in America, no adult could survive without a finely tuned BS detector. Herman Melville masterfully captured America's culture of cons and con artists in his 1857 classic The Confidence-Man, which I discussed in The Con in Confidence (October 4, 2006).
An essential component of the American ethos is: don't be a chump. Don't fall for the con. And if you do, it's your own fault. America in 1857 was a simmering stew of con artists, flim-flammers and grifters exploiting the naive, the trusting and the credulous, and that remains the case in 2019.
We now inhabit a world where virtually everything is a con. That "organic" produce from some other country--did anyone test the soil the produce grew in? It could be loaded with heavy metals and be certified "organic" because no pesticides were used during production. Are there any nutrients left in the soil or has it been depleted? What's in the water used to irrigate the crops?
The point of the con in offshored "organic" is the higher prices fetched. This is why it's critical to ask of every narrative, story, product and data set: cui bono, to whose benefit?
The employment/unemployment statistics are obviously a con. 93 million people aren't even counted any more--they're statistical zombies, no longer among the living workforce. If the unemployment rate were calculated on the number of full-time jobs and the true workforce (everyone ages 18 - 70 that isn't institutionalized or in prison), the unemployment rate would not be the absurdly delusional 3.7% claimed by the bureaucratic con artists.
"Healthy choice" snacks: fake: loaded with the same low-quality ingredients and high salt content as junk food.
Social media privacy: fake: we really really really keep all your data private, except for what we sell to marketers for immense profits, which is, well, all of it.
Democracy: fake: the live entertainment of elections sells a lot of ads and enriches the corporate media, but nothing actually changes: the Deep State runs the federal government and Deep Pockets run state and local government.
Prosperity: fake: trillions of dollars in new currency and credit have inflated assets to absurd levels, all to create the illusion that everything's getting better in every way, every day. (See chart below of the "everything bubble": $1 million decaying bungalows, stocks at all time highs, etc. )
Melville understood that we want to be conned: we want to believe the elixir will make our aches and pains go away, that the new face in politics will clear out the rot of corruption, that rising prices for everything means we're getting richer and so on.
Orson Welles' weird and wonderful documentary F for Fake reminds us that a successful fake is essentially identical with the real thing: so the S&P 500 hitting 3,000 means we're all getting more prosperous, right?
Despite all the craftsmanship, though, fake is still fake. And today virtually everything is fake, a con designed to trick or distract the marks (us) from the looting, plundering and predation of those running the con for their own self-interest.
That we fall for the fakes and cons is understandable, given that's all we have left in the public sphere.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, David S. ($5/month), for your splendidly generous pledge to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.
 

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Our Ruling Elites Have No Idea How Much We Want to See Them All in Prison Jumpsuits

Even the most distracted, fragmented tribe of the peasantry eventually notices that they're not in the top 1%, or the top 0.1%.
Let's posit that America will confront a Great Crisis in the next decade. This is the presumption of The Fourth Turning, a 4-generational cycle of 80 years that correlates rather neatly with the Great Crises of the past: 1781 (Revolutionary War, constitutional crisis); 1861 (Civil War) and 1941 (World War II, global war).
What will be the next Great Crisis? Some anticipate another great-power war, others foresee another civil war, still others reckon a military coup is likely, and some view a collapse of the economy and U.S. dollar as inevitable.
While anything's possible, I propose a novel crisis unlike any in the past, a Moral Crisis in which the people challenge the power of the nation's corrupt Ruling Elites: not just elected officials, but the technocrats of the Deep State, the vested interests pillaging the nation, the New Overlords of Big Tech, the financier New Nobility, the Corporate Media and the self-serving state/corporate technocrat Nomenklatura who do the dirty work of the Ruling Elites.
Divide-and-Conquer has been the absurdly easy strategy of the Ruling Elites to fragment and disempower the citizenry. It's child's play for the Ruling Elites to ceaselessly promote a baker's dozen of divisive issues via the corporate media, and then watch the resulting conflicts split the citizenry into fragmented camps which subdivide further with every new toxic injection.
The one issue that could unite the fragmented citizenry is moral revulsion: As the Epstein case promises to reveal, there is literally no limit on the excesses and exploitations of the privileged few in America, no limit on what our Ruling Elites can do with absolute impunity.
The Nobility of the feudal era had some reciprocal obligation to its serfs; our New Nobility has no obligation to anyone but themselves. It is painfully obvious that there are two sets of laws in America: bankers can rip off billions and never serve time, and members of the Protected Class who sexually exploit children get a wrist-slap, if that.
Here's the sad reality: everybody in the Ruling Elites looked the other way: all the self-described "patriots" in the Intelligence services, all the technocrats in the Departments of Justice, State, etc., the Pentagon, and on and on. Everybody with any power knows the whole class of Ruling Elites is completely corrupt, by definition: to secure power in the U.S., you have to sell your soul to the Devil, one way or the other.
Like all Ruling Elites, America's Elites are absolutely confident in their power:this is hubris taken to new heights.
That the citizenry could finally have enough of their corrupt, self-serving Overlords does not seem in the realm of possibility to the Protected Few.There's always a way to lawyer-up and plea-bargain for a wrist-slap, a way to bend another "patriot" (barf), a way to offer a bribe cloaked as a plum position in a philanthro-capitalist NGO (non-governmental organization), and so on.
The possibility that moral outrage could spark a revolt seems improbable in such a distracted culture, but consider the chart below: even the most distracted, fragmented tribe of the peasantry eventually notices that they're not in the top 1%, or the top 0.1%, and that the Ruling Elites have overseen an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the few at the expense of the many:
Our Ruling Elites have no idea how many of us already want to see them all in prison jumpsuits, and they also have no idea how fast the moral revulsion with their corrupt "leadership" might spread. Scanning the distracted, consumerist rabble from the great heights of their wealth and power, they reckon the capacity for moral outrage is limited, leaving them safe from any domestic crusade.
They also trust that the citizenry can be further fragmented, further distracted, and so they will continue to be invulnerable. Or worst case scenario, a few especially venal villains will need to be sacrificed, and then all will return to the bliss of Neofeudal exploitation.
But they may have misread the American citizenry, just as they've misread history.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, David S. ($5/month), for your splendidly generous pledge to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.
 

Read more...

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