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How the pursuit of shareholder value weakened the economy
Here is a funny example showing the forces of deregulation, financialization and pursuit of shareholder value at the expense of everything else has produced only benefits for shareholders, supported by Republicans. Everybody else is worse off. From Prospect:

Republicans Against Legroom
Harold Meyerson

April 14, 2016

Maximizing airline shareholder value means minimizing passenger comfort, and GOP senators vote to keep it that way.

The amendment was defeated, but no one actually rose to speak against it. That was because the measure’s opponents couldn’t come up with a defense of their position that didn’t sound absurd.

Last week, as it considered a bill that would re-authorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Senate defeated an amendment by Democrat Chuck Schumer, of New York, that would have blocked airlines from reducing the “size, width, padding, and pitch” of airline seats, the legroom between seats, and the width of the aisles. It would also have required the FAA to set minimum standards for the space airlines provide passengers to ensure their “safety, health, and comfort.”

Schumer’s amendment went down on a 42-to-54 vote, with every Republican voting against it except Maine’s Susan Collins, and every Democratic voting for it except a DLC-ish trio consisting of Delaware’s Tom Carper, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and Montana’s Jon Tester. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz were off somewhere running for president; John Cornyn and Dick Durbin were also absent.

It’s hard to imagine that there are any actual airline passengers who fly coach who would oppose Schumer’s amendment. In recent years, the average width of a seat in coach has shrunk from 18 to 16.5 inches, while the average pitch—the space between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front of it—has shrunk from 35 to 31 inches. To get a seat with more legroom—with a 35-inch pitch—you now have to pay extra for what used to be the standard. The collapse of oil prices may have fattened the airlines’ coffers, but those profits haven’t been invested in any fatter seats.

The descent of air travel into a form of jet-powered incarceration is the result of the warp-speed financialization of American capitalism and the soaring inequality it has produced. Last year, in an extraordinary op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Rick Schifter, an American Airlines board member and a onetime partner in a private equity firm, celebrated the stock performance of the leading U.S. airlines in recent years, which had landed American, Delta, and Southwest—three of the big four—in the top-ten list of Fortune 500 companies in the three preceding years. The soaring stock price, Schifter asserted, was the result of “consolidation and liquidation of some airlines” (that is, the rise in oligopoly pricing as competitors dropped by the wayside). It was also the result, he continued, of changes in airline practices after they were deregulated in 1978. In the bad old regulated days, “many airline executives were motivated by growth over profits—and were reluctant to shed inefficiencies which were vestiges of a regulated industry.”

Passengers of a certain age remember those “inefficiencies” fondly—legroom, hot meals, reclining seats, no extra charges for baggage, a modicum of decency in the companies’ regard for their passengers. But with the decline of competition compelling passengers to choose from a small group of airlines all under pressure to boost the share prices sought by major investors such as Schifter—who probably never fly coach but in their own private jets—those inefficiencies have become a thing of the past.

In most long-established American industries, maximizing shareholder value has meant reducing worker income and diminishing consumer choice. In the airline industry, maximizing shareholder value has also meant minimizing passenger comfort.

The elimination of comfortable airline travel is also one more instance of an industry adapting to the decline of the mass middle class. As coach has shrunk, first-class seating has expanded. Delta now provides flat beds for first-class passengers on New York to Los Angeles flights, Emirates Air offers top-dollar passengers compartments complete with minibars and showers, and Lufthansa employs humidifiers increasing the humidity in first-class to 25 percent. In coach, meanwhile, it remains an arid 5 to 10 percent. For years, JetBlue resisted this trend by not having a first-class section and thereby providing its median passengers with more legroom, but it finally succumbed to Wall Street analysts’ criticism that it was—oh, the horror—“overly brand-conscious and customer-focused by sacking its management team and installing a new one that put a first-class section in the front of its planes, reducing the space for everyone else.

Just as mass-market retail has polarized into Bergdorf Goodman for the elites and Walmart and dollar stores for the masses, so airline seating has been divided into peerage and steerage.

So what were the Republicans and the “business Democrats” who defeated Schumer’s amendment supposed to say? That a level of basic comfort that was once the industry standard and the common experience of American travelers now had to be sacrificed to the gods of the market, and was rightly doled out in accordance with one’s wealth? That the government could not intervene to defend the interests and the knees of the traveling public? No wonder nobody spoke up.

Cornered by a reporter from The New York Times, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby said, “I don’t think we ought to be regulating people”—which would have been a devastating riposte to Schumer’s measure had it called for whacking off portions of people’s legs so they’d fit into their seats. But what Schumer’s measure actually called for was the regulation of companies with oligopolistic power so they would cease abusing the people who are compelled to patronize them when they need to travel. If Shelby’s comment was the best the Republicans could do—and apparently, it was—it was just as well they shut up.
Here is shareholder capitalism in action. Product prices up, through extensive lobbying. CEO pay up even more. Vulnerable consumer are the victims:

Quote:According to NBC, Heather Bresch, the CEO of Mylan, a pharmaceutical company that bought the rights to EpiPens in 2007, has raised the price of the pens, which are used in emergencies to treat severe allergic attacks, by 400 percent over the last eight years. (Bresch’s pay, in the meantime, has increased by 671 percent.) 

That means that EpiPens, whichused to cost around $94, now sell for an average of $608. Bad news for kids withlife-threatening allergies! Members of Congress are demanding more explanation from Mylan on the price increases.

Perhaps even more insidious is the fact that Mylan spent millions on lobbying over the past decade. In decisions that directly benefited Mylan, the FDA in 2010 recommended that EpiPens be prescribed not only to patients with confirmed allergies, but also those who are at risk. The agency also recommended packaging two pens together as opposed to selling single doses.

Martin Shkreli, who is one of the most hated men in America, weighed in on the matter this morning, stating that the price was actually “quite a bargain,” especially if you consider the much higher costs of going to a hospital for anaphylactic shock.
Meet the Martin Shkreli of allergies. | New Republic

There are minor mitigating circumstances, although this might just be for PR reasons:

Quote:Mylan has given away more than 700,000 free EpiPen’s to schools since 2012 under a program that allows them to receive four free auto-injectors, the company said in a statement. Yet schools have to use their own funds to purchase additional pens. Mylan declined to comment on the price increases coinciding with legislation to encourage EpiPen use.
The Senator’s Daughter Who Raised Prices on the EpiPen - Bloomberg Politics
Here is the usual right-wing whitewash:

Quote:Of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton has decided to make a federal case out of this, as has her primary rival, sometime Democrat and full-time socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, i.e., the usual bulls—t from the usual orifices. Mrs. Clinton demanded an immediate reversal of the price hike, and Senator Sanders produced the usual flatulence about greedy executives. You know how many treatments for anaphylaxis have been produced by politicians over the course of human history? Zero. Pardon my bluntness here, but screw these people. Nobody, anywhere, at any time, has ever in a moment of mortal terror cried out: “For God’s sake, is there a politician in the house?” Congress’s sole contribution to the existence of a handy device that keeps your children from dying from bee stings is the fact that Mylan CEO Heather Bresch is the daughter of a Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

If we were relying on the intelligence, work ethic, creativity, entrepreneurship, scientific prowess, and far-sightedness of the members of Congress to produce treatments for allergic reactions or any other medical problem, we’d still have a million people a year dying from smallpox and preventable infections. We’d also be starving to death. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have the first clue how an EpiPen works or what went into developing it, but he’s sure he knows what one should cost, and he’s sure who should decide — him. You know what Bernie Sanders is? He’s a bum.

Mrs. Clinton is a bum and a crook who used the State Department as a funnel to guide the money of favor-seeking business interests at home and abroad into the Clinton Foundation, a sham charity that exists to pay six-figure salaries to Clintons (Chelsea is full-time executive there) and their courtiers. These people are parasites. They make: nothing. They create: nothing. They produce: nothing. But they feel perfectly justified — they positively glow with moral frisson — standing between the people who create and build and the people who benefit from those creations. And they don’t just stand there: They stand there with their hands out. I don’t know how much Heather Bresch has in the bank, but without checking, I’ll bet you five dollars it is a good deal less than the Clintons have piled up in “public service.”
EpiPen -- Hillary Clinton Harasses Mylan for Selling a Life-Saving Product | National Review

Here is what's wrong with it (if you hadn't already noticed)
  • Leaving out inconvenient facts (like the pens experienced a 400 percent price increase over the last eight years. (Bresch’s pay, in the meantime, has increased by 671 percent.)
  • Accusing politicians of producing nothing, the usual anti-government stuff. Why is it that almost any nation has a government?
  • One of the task of politicians is to make sure the companies don't abuse monopoly power, so the politicians are doing exactly what they're supposed to do
  • The host of the usual unsubstantiated stuff about the Clinton Foundation
You might also want to keep this in mind:

Quote:The company turned a profit of $847.6 million in 2015 on $9.44 billion in revenue, representing a net profit margin of 8.9%. To be sure, however, Mylan is profiting more heavily off of EpiPen than it does other drugs. The company's operating margin on EpiPen is about 55%according to at least one analyst, and its overall operating profit margin is 20%.
Ex-pharma CEO Martin Shkreli defends EpiPen price increase
More deflection, coupons and patient-'assistance' programs are simply a device to keep prices high.

Quote:A package of two EpiPens cost $100 in 2007 but is now about $600 — an increase of around 500%. That increase has angered Washington and sent the company's stock plummeting. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) has requested a hearing on the matter in September. But hey, there are new discounts, right? Ideally, with a discount people will get the help they need, as well as institutions like schools that stock EpiPens. And maybe that's true to a certain extent, but that's not by any means the whole story here. In a press release after the announcement, Cummings called these discounts a "PR stunt" to "distract from their exorbitant price increases" — but they're more insidious than that. Coupons and patient-assistance programs don't just distract from high prices — they preserve them.

Drug companies and their patient-assistance programs really became a part of the American conversation about healthcare thanks to Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who jacked up the price of the lifesaving drug Daraprim by around 5,000%. Surely you remember Martin. Screenshot/Bloomberg TV In a congressional hearing in January, the former CCO of Turing said she was comfortable with the pricing because of Turing's patient-assistance programs. Shkreli tweeted about it as well. They argued that the low co-pays facilitated by the programs gave every patient access.

Of course, they also keep prices high for insurers, which often filters down to higher costs for patients. Internal documents subpoenaed by the government show that the programs were part of the company's strategy to keep the price of the drug high. And it's also important to point out that as prices rose, the co-pays patients had to pay became more onerous. The company knew it, too. "We may need to make some updates based on co-pay amounts we've been seeing since the price change ... there are patients waiting now for product who have a $6,000 co-pay," Tina Ghorban, director of business analytics and consumer insights at Turing, wrote in an internal email in August.

Another user of this tactic is Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which came under fire last year for raising the price of Isuprel and Nitropress, two cardiac drugs whose prices it raised by 525% and 212%, respectively. Valeant also pointed to its patient-assistance programs as a cost-saving mechanism after Hillary Clinton criticized the company in March. At a February congressional hearing, Mark Merritt, resident and CEO at the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents pharmacy benefit managers (the gatekeepers between the drug companies and the insurers/payers), testified that Valeant's patient-assistance programs are designed to reduce "resistance to higher prices" from payers and patients.

And then in April, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) had this to say to Valeant executives: "You double the price, even if you get a waiver to the customer, you make a lot of money," Warren said. "What is the return on investment to Valeant on the money you're currently putting into the patient-assistance programs?" No one could answer. This made Warren noticeably upset. "Don't tell me you've never done the analysis," she said. "By doing this you ... keep the patient on the more expensive drug and then you ... recoup whatever from the insurance company." "You're making more money," Warren said. "You haven't done that analysis?" It's worth asking the CEO of Mylan the same question.
Mylan subsidizes price of EpiPen to keep the price high - Business Insider
Mind you, Democrats are not entirely without blame either:

Quote:That's why it's distressing to see the egregious price-gouging effort that has surrounded the product over the past few years. It has drawn the attention of presidential candidates, with Hillary Clinton calling the price explosion "outrageous." Epinephrine, the actual medicine in EpiPens, is cheap. According to public health non-profit Management Sciences for Health, epinephrine's 2014 price in some parts of the developing world was less than $1 per milliliter. One EpiPen auto-injector from Mylan contains about one-third of a milliliter. When Mylan acquired the auto injectors as part of a 2007 deal, they were priced at about $57, according to Truven Health Analytics. Today, the list price for a two-pack is $608. What happened?

Two years later, there was another seismic event — President Barack Obama signed a law that aimed to increase the availability of epinephrine in schools. I wrote about, and cheered, the passage of that law, which encourages schools to stock emergency epinephrine in order to receive certain grants. The development of that bill was a bit more complicated than meets the eye.

Bresch is the daughter of US Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia. Mylan, along with patient groups, pushed Congress to pass the legislationwhich, along with pushing schools to stock up on life-saving devices, provided the company latitude to again rise the price of the EpiPen by increasing demand for its product.

For various reasons, Mylan has had virtually no competition in the arena. One competing product was recalled last fall, and another, Adrenaclick, is cheaper but uses a more difficult injection system and is not a favorite of doctors (mine included).

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked Wednesday whether Obama had any "regret" over signing the bill. And while he dismissed any notion of remorse, as well as the suggestion of a correlation between the Manchin family and the bill's passage, Earnest acknowledged concern over the EpiPen's price explosion. "I'm not going to second-guess the specific pricing decisions of companies. They'll obviously have to make those kinds of decisions on their own," he said. "But there have been other pharmaceutical companies that have gotten a lot of unwanted attention for their pricing practices, and it certainly degrades their efforts to build a reputation for themselves as an organization that's committed to developing and providing lifesaving medicine."

Manchin's office declined to make the senator available for an interview. But it provided a statement in which the senator expressed shared concern over the company's price increases without mentioning its CEO. "I am aware of the questions my colleagues and many parents are asking and frankly I share their concerns about the skyrocketing prices of prescription drugs," he said in the statement. "Today I heard Mylan's initial response, and I am sure Mylan will have a more comprehensive and formal response to those questions."
EpiPen cost increase shows worst parts of US government, healthcare - Business Insider

While the law that obliges schools to stockpile EpiPens is good in and by itself (it saves lives), more attention should have been paid to the price updriving practices, even if that might very well have been met with right-wing critics arguing the government was messing in something it has no business in and markets are perfectly able to set prices..
Shareholder capitalism and market fundamentalism wreak havoc in health care as well. The US is basically the only country which doesn't regulate drug prices. Free market rules even in the face of a captive buy side:

Quote:A handful of high-profile, expensive drugs have caused similar outrages to the current Mylan backlash. But drug companies have largely weathered those controversies unscathed, trading a few months of bad press for blockbuster returns.

Consider the case of Sovaldi, a new hepatitis C drug that came on the market in 2012 at the price of $1,000 per pill. Its maker, Gilead, faced fierce backlash over the price; for an entire course of treatment that lasted three months, the drug would cost $84,000.

Drugmakers — and particularly the makers of Sovaldi — could do this for two reasons that also apply to the EpiPen case. First, there's no regulatory body to tell them not to. Second, and perhaps more importantly, consumers don't have any leverage to not buy their product. Sovaldi was, when it came on the market, the only drug that cured hepatitis C. And EpiPen is, right now, the best treatment available for an emergent allergy attack. Other pharmaceutical companies have tried to launch competing drugs but so far failed; one drug was recalled last year after due to problems with its injector.

When Sovaldi hit the market, coalitions sprang up to denounce the high price. Congress launched an investigation into the issue in July. Sovaldi, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said in a rare bipartisan press release, raises "serious questions about the extent to which the market for this drug is operating efficiently and rationally."

All these actions were meant to send a signal: It's unacceptable for drugmakers to price their products so high. Pharmaceutical companies will be made to answer for these actions.


It didn't work: While Sovaldi became a poster child for pharmaceutical greed, it has brought Gilead and its shareholders a hefty profit. The drug "catapulted Gilead Sciences into the ranks of the top-selling pharmaceutical companies," the Wall Street Journal reported this summer. Gilead has sold more than 280,000 Sovaldi prescriptions this year, according to a CitiGroup analysis. The company earned$3.5 billion in Sovaldi sales in 2014's second quarter (sales fell to $2.8 billion the quarter after).

Mylan, in a way, took a page from the Sovaldi playbook: The company sees that it's possible to charge much higher prices for a drug and weather the ensuing storm — with plenty of profit made at the other end.
EpiPen’s 400 percent price hike tells us a lot about what’s wrong with American health care - Vox
Hmm, those share price targets..

Quote:Are Mylan’s financial incentive plans to blame for its recent EpiPen price hike? That’s what Ronny Gal, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., suggested in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

In 2014, Mylan announced it would reward some 100 employees and executives for not only hitting, but exceeding aggressive profit targets. The company’s top five executives could earn as much as $82 million, according to the WSJ. But in order to reap that reward, Mylan’s stock price had to hit $73.33 by the end of 2018 on adjusted earnings per share (EPS) of at least $6—more than double the firm’s EPS in 2013. If Mylan fell short, employees could still earn 50% of those rewards if the company announced both a $5.40 EPS and at least a $53.33 stock price by the end of 2018.

Considering 90% of Mylan’s revenue came from mature medicines at the time, those targets would have been hard to hit. (The EpiPen represents roughly 10% of Mylan’s revenue, and 20% of its operating profits.) “Mylan realized that their EPS targets will be tougher to reach and decided to raise prices on EpiPen to make that target more achievable,” Gal told the Journal.
Mylan Executives May Have Raised EpiPen Prices to Hit Company Targets
Useful reminder, liberal policies can have unintended consequences..

Quote:The Mylan case is an example of how performance-based pay can end up hurting customers while fattening executives’ wallets. For the last two decades, the government has encouraged these kinds of schemes through a lucrative tax break that gave corporations incentives to focus on their firms’ stock price rather than their core business. A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) shows how companies continue to exploit this loophole, costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars and undermining the economy

The policy goes back to Bill Clinton, who campaigned for president on rolling back excessive CEO pay, which according to the Economic Policy Institute jumped from an average of $1.49 million in 1988 to $4.9 million in 1992 (adjusted for inflation). At the time, companies could deduct all of their compensation from their corporate taxes, as a normal business expense. Clinton’s idea was to cap that: No corporation could write off an executive’s salary above the first $1 million. This measure passed in Clinton’s first budget in 1993, and became section 162(m) of the IRS tax code.

But there was one exception. Companies would still be allowed to deduct compensation for high-earning executives if it was deemed “performance” pay. So if you paid a CEO with a bonus, then you could deduct it all. And that bonus could be composed of stock options, so that the executive’s compensation rose along with the stock price.

Predictably, base salaries for CEOs and top executives froze, and bonuses took off. Overall compensation soared. If the idea was to reduce executive pay, it failed. In 1992, total compensation for CEOs at the top 350 firms was $4.9 million, according to the IPS study. By 2000, the end of the Clinton administration, it was up to $20.3 million, an increase of over 400 percent.

And this has only gotten worse. According to the Joint Economic Committee, this exception for performance pay costs taxpayers $50 billion over a ten-year budget window. And that could be growing, as companies shift CEO pay into stock options and performance-based measures. By 2010, “performance pay” comprised 55 percent of deductible executive pay.

The policy didn’t work to make companies any better or boost the economy, either. Clinton’s idea was to tie executive pay to performance, so CEOs would only be rewarded if their companies did well. But basing performance on the stock price created perverse incentives because stocks don’t necessarily correspond to the actual success of a business, or the creation of jobs and investment.

You can use various schemes to artificially boost the stock price, like offering shareholders dividends or buying back millions of shares of stock. Shareholders will reward companies that cut labor costs to increase profit margins, or those that hoard cash instead of engaging in capital investment. Some of this behavior can even be reckless. In reaching for short-term profits, companies often turn to skirting the law or hurting consumers.
Bill Clinton Created This Terrible Corporate Loophole. Will Hillary Close It? | New Republic
Quote:Meanwhile, one needs to qualify CEO Cook’s last bullet point from his 2013 Senate testimony, where he says that Apple doesn’t “borrow money from our foreign subsidiaries to fund our U.S. business in order to skirt the repatriation tax.”

Apple has not borrowed money from foreign subsidiaries. But beginning in 2013, and ramping up just as Cook was speaking to the Subcommittee, Apple started spending tens of billions of dollars per year buying back its own stock, for a total of $127 billion through the third quarter of 2016. Over this period, Apple – possibly the most cash-rich company in the world – took on debt from external sources of $66 billion to finance stock buybacks rather than repatriate foreign profits and pay U.S. taxes on them.

With Apple’s corporate executives incentivized by stock-based pay and with corporate predators such as David Einhorn and Carl Icahn looking for the best opportunity to cash in on their holdings of Apple’s shares, the only purpose of these buybacks has been to give manipulative boosts to Apple’s stock price.

As demonstrated by my colleagues and I at the 
Academic-industry Research Network (with funding support from INET), whether at Apple or other companies, stock buybacks contribute to unstable employment, inequitable income distribution, and stifled innovation – and should be banned
European Ruling Highlights Apple's Corrupted Business Model
Shareholder capitalism is now weakening emerging markets. Not only did they go on a borrowing spree, the money was largely wasted because of, well, shareholder capitalism..

Quote:Much of the money was wasted, skewed towards "highly cyclical and rent-based sectors of limited strategic importance for catching up," it said. Worse yet, these countries have imported the deformities of western finance before they are ready to cope with the consequences. This has undermined what UNCTAD calls the "profit-investment nexus" that ultimately drives growth and prosperity.

Is the world about to get another financial kicking? The extraordinary result is that some countries are slipping backwards, victims of "premature deindustrialisation". Many of them have fallen further behind the rich world than they were in 1980 despite opening up their economies and following the global policy script diligently. The middle income trap closed in on Latin America and the non-oil states of the Middle East a long time ago, but now it is beginning to close in such countries as Malaysia and Thailand, and in some respects China.

"The benefits of a rushed integration into international financial markets post-2008 are fast evaporating," it said. If policymakers fail to mitigate the negative impacts of unchecked global market forces, then a turn to protectionism could trigger a vicious downward spiral for everyone. Yet the suffocating liabilities built up over the QE years remain. UNCTAD says corporate debt in emerging markets has risen from 57pc to 104pc of GDP since the end of 2008, and much of this may have to written off unless there is a world policy revolution.

"If the global economy were to slow down more sharply, a significant share of developing-country debt incurred since 2008 could become unpayable and exert considerable pressure on the financial system," it said. "There remains a risk of deflationary spirals in which capital flight, currency devaluations and collapsing asset prices would stymie growth and shrink government revenues. As capital begins to flow out, there is now a real danger of entering a third phase of the financial crisis which began in the US housing market in late 2007 before spreading to the European bond market," it said.

The UN's diagnosis is that "shareholder primacy" and the entire edifice of liberal market finance are among the key culprits, all made worse by stringent fiscal austerity that has starved the global economy of sufficient demand.

Its prescription is radical. The world must jettison neo-liberal ideology, and launch a "global new deal" with a blitz of investment on strategic sectors. It wants a return of the "developmental state", commanding a potent industrial policy, and backed by severe controls on capital flows.

"If policymakers fail to mitigate the negative impacts of unchecked global market forces, then a turn to protectionism could trigger a vicious downward spiral for everyone," it said.

The UNCTAD critique - controversial to be sure - is that activist funds have acquired a stranglehold over the corporate management, leading to a culture of share-buybacks and the relentless extraction of profit. "Corporations are not reinvesting their profits into production capacity, jobs, or self-sustaining growth," it says.

While the profit share of GDP has risen to an historic high of 36pc of GDP from 30pc in 1980, private investment has slumped to 17pc from 21pc. This accumulation of unused savings is itself a major cause of the deflationary malaise.

It also explains the conundrum of collapsing productivity. There is no need for the grim pessimism of Professor Robert Gordon, who
 thinks the great the spurt of human progress over the last 250 years is largely exhausted, supposedly because we have already made most of the great advances. Falling investment explains it well enough.
UN fears third leg of the global financial crisis - with prospect of epic debt defaults

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