Reading Economic Signs Of The 'Great Recession'
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
It's got a name now: The Great Recession, all three words capitalized. But if there's consensus on the title, there's little agreement on the expiration date and the prospects for recovery.
Some predict a strong bounce-back. Just yesterday, the Dow closed over 11,000 for the first time since 2008. Payroll numbers show some companies hiring again. Others see a long, slow slog that will strand millions of workers along the way.
In just a minute, two economists with different views of the picture. We want to hear from you with a snapshot of your industry or your town. Is business picking up? Who's hiring? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the investigators who hacked the Chinese cyber-spies. But first, Robert Reich joins us now from the studios at the University of California Berkeley, secretary of Labor under President Clinton, now professor of public policy at Berkeley. And Robert Reich, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Former Secretary ROBERT REICH (Department of Labor; Professor of Public Policy, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And you wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Jobs Picture Still Looks Bleak," and you don't see it getting any rosier.
Former Sec. REICH: Well, you know, I'm a cockeyed optimist at heart. I tend to look on the rosy side of almost everything, but when you look at the job situation, look closely at the number of jobs that have been lost so far in this Great Recession, acknowledge that consumers, who make up 70 percent of the economy, just are not going to have the ability to use their homes as cash machines any longer, because housing prices have fallen so much - unlike the so-called recovery between 2001 and 2007.
And many consumers, most consumers, are still under a big, big debt load. They have job worries. Most households need two income earners, and one of those income earners is likely, right now, to be underemployed or soon underemployed or having been underemployed.
Baby boomers have to start saving. They thought they had much more nest egg than they discovered they did after The Great Recession began - and you go on and on, Neal.
I mean, there are so many reasons to assume, and I mean, again, it's not a matter of wanting this to happen, but just to see that there's not going to be a vigorous recovery. It's going to be it's going to be a long slog.
CONAN: And even, you say, if the economy recovers to the point where you're generating 300,000 jobs a month, at that rate, it's still going to take a very long time before we're back where we started.
Former Sec. REICH: Exactly because just do the math. I mean, 6.4 million jobs have been lost, and then another, say, about 2.7 million have not been created for the jobs that a growing population needs. So, you have more than 11 million short, right there. And if you assume that in a vigorous recovery, that the economy is capable of creating maybe 300,000 net new jobs a month, well, that's five to eight years right there, given that you still have a growing population that's going to need jobs.
So this is not going to turn around fast, and many of the old jobs that have been lost are never coming back because there's been a lot of out-sourcing and also technical displacement of workers during this Great Recession.
One of the reasons that Wall Street is bouncing back is because corporate earnings are up, but corporate earnings are up, at least in part, because corporations have cut their payrolls so sharply, their costs are down, and they are doing well, but that's its hard to understand or even conceive of how they can continue to do that well if their consumers are not able to buy all that much.
CONAN: Well, let's get a different view now from Jeremy Siegel. He's a finance professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, contributed to a conversation on predictions for economic recovery entitled "The Shape of Things to Come," which ran at newsweek.com, and he joins us now from the studios at the University of Pennsylvania. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JEREMY SIEGEL (Finance Professor, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you, Neal, happy to be here.
CONAN: And you said, if I could put it in a nutshell, you think that, well, increased productivity and innovation are going to turn things around.
Mr. SIEGEL: I think we're going to be surprised that this recovery is going to be faster than many of us fear, or had feared, just a few short months ago. I see some very promising signs recently, even in the employment front, which is not usually the very first one to respond.
You know, we have the two surveys. We have the payroll survey, which is usually considered to be the one that Wall Street watches the most. And then there's the household survey. And although it did show, definitely, terrible losses through 2009, in the first quarter of 2010, it showed a gain of a million jobs. In fact, I think it's slightly north of 1.1 million jobs.
And, you know, some of that might be given back, but that's an important start at denting this huge unemployment surge that we've had over the last two years.
CONAN: As you point out, employment, jobs is a lagging indicator, one of the as business picks up, it's one of the last things to show improvement, but where do you see this innovation coming from? What are these new industries and new kinds of products that are going to be generating work?
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, you know, I was speaking there to the long run. You know, there's two frameworks we economists look at, and first is the short run, which is the business cycle, you know, which is several, few years; and then longer run, which I see so much pessimism about.
You know, Bill Gross from PIMCO talks about the new normal, slow growth for five years, or some people are saying 10 years. And myself and academia, and I know Robert is also in academia, too, but I've seen some remarkable developments over the last five, 10 years.
So it's the globalization of research, the fact that we've really brought a billion people online from all countries in the world that are working jointly on some of the toughest problems that we have.
And what that makes me believe is we're going to get some important technological breakthroughs, around the world, on some of our thorniest problems in medicine and conservation and in energy and environment. And these are going to engender a lot of new jobs and a lot of new opportunities, and ultimately, I think, a increase in the standard of living that will rival what we had in the '60s and the '70s.
CONAN: Wow, it's more than glass half-full, glass filling up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SIEGEL: Overflowing.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. You're heard two views of the big picture. We'd like to hear what's happening in your town, your industry, or send us an email, email@example.com.
Let's start with Todd(ph). Todd's with us from Detroit.
TODD (Caller): Hey, how are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: I'm good.
TODD: Hey, you know, I'm a commercial real estate broker here in the state of Michigan, and the purpose of the call is just to outline what we've seen in our industry. And we've easily seen half of the brokers that we once saw out there in the '03s, '06s, you know, shrink, you know, half the size.
You know, we're not seeing the office users, the industrial users, the retail users, you know, just not seeing any growth, expansion. Properties are just all over the place. You can buy them for 15 cents, 25 cents on a dollar. So if -that other guy that was on the phone was saying that he's seeing jobs, you know, generally when somebody's saying job growth, they're seeing growth, within the businesses and within the properties that they have. So, you know, bring it on, because we're not seeing it here in Detroit.
CONAN: All right, Todd, thanks very much, and good luck to you. And Jeremy Siegel, well, yeah, location, location, location. Michigan has been particularly hard-hit. Nevertheless, Todd is not alone.
Mr. SIEGEL: No, certainly, and the real estate industry that Todd is in has absolutely been hurt hit the worst. Housing starts now he's in the commercial end but housing starts are running 500,000 a year. That's one-quarter of the amount that we had in 2003, '04, '05. And he's right. Those were boom times, and I actually will say it will be the housing industry will be sluggish for a long time, and that will not be a source of our new jobs going forward.
CONAN: And Robert Reich, the situation for people in Michigan, the car business is so important to them, and well, Detroit is now talking about contracting the size of the city back to a more manageable size.
Former Sec. REICH: Well, Detroit is the epicenter of a huge problem for the rust belt, and that problem, hopefully over the long term and Jeremy Siegel, I admire your optimism of long term, things will get better. I mean, as John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist said, but over the long term, we're all dead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Former Sec. REICH: I mean, the question is...
Mr. SIEGEL: But fortunately, at different times, Robert.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Former Sec. REICH: I mean, look. Here's a very important statistic. A reference was just made to the so-called boom of 2003, 2004, 2005. Actually, if you look closely, the median wage was declining at that time. Americans were not actually getting richer, and they were living off of a very artificial increase in housing prices that allowed them to use their houses as cash machines.
That was a phantom recovery. We're not going to go back there because that there's no going back there. That got us into the problem we are in right now.
CONAN: That bubble seems to be burst for quite some time to come, yes indeed. Let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to Andy(ph). Andy's with us from Toledo.
ANDY (Caller): Hi, how are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: I'm good, thanks.
ANDY: I was just calling to give you a little information about the I actually work for Chrysler at the Jeep plant here. We build the Jeep Wrangler in Toledo, and as of this time last year, we were coming, you know, out of bankruptcy just pretty much barely making it. At that point, when we came out, we were lucky to sell I think maybe 100 cars a day, to turn around to today, and now we're looking at maybe 900 to 1,000 orders a day, and we can't even keep up, and we're adding an hour to two hours of overtime each shift now.
CONAN: So it's looking it's looking much better.
ANDY: Much better than last year, yes. Luckily, I think the Wrangler is kind of a niche market as far as the car goes, kind of like a Harley-Davidson, but people seem to be buying lots and lots of them.
CONAN: And Robert Reich, I guess you should take good signs where they come.
Former Sec. REICH: Absolutely. I think if you are in the top 10 percent of income earners, and your major assets are tied up in the stock market right now, you're feeling pretty good. There is something that economists call the wealth effect. You feel richer because your assets are going up, and therefore you spend more.
But most people dont have very much in the stock market. In fact, most people, even including their 401(k)s, are holding a very little amount of stocks. Their biggest asset is their home, and home prices are still 30 to 40 percent below what they were in 2007.
So again, I don't want to I dont like to be the voice of doom and gloom here. I am normally the voice of optimism. But I try to be realistic, and I just again, I think that people are in a real, real hard place right now. It's not going to get easy.
CONAN: Andy, thanks very much for your call, continued good luck to you there in Toledo. More than 160,000 people were hired last month. We saw the Dow close above 11,000 yesterday. It's still above 11,000 today. So are we headed for an economic boom?
Well, we're talking with two economists with different views, Robert Reich and Jeremy Siegel. Give us a snapshot of what's going on in your industry and your town, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
The Great Recession started December, 2007. Officially, it has yet to end. The overall economy started growing again in mid-2009, but the seven-member committee that's responsible to declare the beginning and end of recessions said yesterday said it wasn't quite ready to make that call.
Today, we're talking about the outlook for jobs and where the economy is headed. We want to hear from you. Give us an economic report on your industry and your town. Is business picking up? Who's hiring? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor under President Clinton, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, "The Jobs Picture Still Looks Bleak." Also with us, Jeremy Siegel, who teaches finance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who takes a more optimistic view.
And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Kelly(ph), Kelly with us from Valdosta, Georgia.
KELLY (Caller): Hi. I'm a public educator, and I would like to think that things are going to be better sooner rather than later, but all points everything seems to point the opposite direction.
Across the board, basically, in our state, there's furlough days not only for educators but for, like, social services and stuff, and we're being told that will extend through next year. So that's money coming out of people's paychecks, and I don't know how the recession can end when people have less money but the same debt to pay off, the same bills to pay and less money to work with.
And I'm also concerned because, like, just in my grade level department, we're going from six teachers from three teachers. And I don't know that our the kids that graduate from my high school in the next few years, that they're going to be prepared to be hired for jobs because they're being crunched by economic factors.
CONAN: Kelly, I'm sorry to hear that report, but thanks for the phone call.
CONAN: Thank you. And Jeremy Siegel, she is talking about a situation, well, state and local governments are facing terrible budget problems across the board, across the country, and her situation is not unusual at all.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah, and that is definitely right, and the deficits are caused by the recession, and even most of our federal deficit is caused by a recession. Once we start improving, as I believe we have and in fact, there were some early reports I was just reading, some surprising collections of tax revenue in just this last month when the economy improves, these budget deficits will improve.
Now, it doesn't mean balance for a lot of state. I mean, you know, states like California and several others, we know have very bad structural problems. They're going to have to cut back. But I think some of the hardest pinch is going to be gone, and clearly, I mean, you know, education is the key, and you know, we've got to do a better job. We've got to do the best job we can there because we've got to prepare our young people for the type of jobs that are ahead. So, you know, it is this is important to get right.
CONAN: Here's an email from Ron(ph) in Detroit. I'm a person who trains automotive workers. My work has been off significantly in the last two years. However, General Motors called us back in December and have called us back every month since, including yesterday.
Secretary Reich, you helped Ford workers 15 years in Cobo Hall. It took 15 years for them to listen to you, but look at them, too. And he then writes, in capital letters: Detroit will rise again.
Former Sec. REICH: Well, I certainly hope Detroit rises again. It is possible. Certainly if the Chinese appreciate the currency, the yuan, against the dollar, and everything that we buy from them costs more and everything they buy from us costs less, that's going to help.
Also, if we get our education house in order, that is if we get more skilled workers, and we have people who can do the work that the new global economy requires, just going back to Kelly's call a moment ago, we'll be in better shape.
But frankly, Neal, I'm worried about a larger question, and Kelly and Ron kind of bring it up together. And that is we bailed out Wall Street. We are very centered, in this economy right now, on finance, on financial capital.
CONAN: Bailed out our car companies, too.
Former Sec. REICH: Well, and car companies, but our future depends on human capital, the skills of our people. And why are we not, why is the federal government not bailing out our schools, out public school system, our public institutions of higher education? That seems to me more important than bailing out Wall Street, frankly.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Mirali(ph), Mirali with us from San Jose.
MIRALI (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call, Neal. I work in the solar industry. I'm in a small start-up. We are at 60, growing to 100 by the end of the year, and things are looking very good. It has been my observation, and I work all around the world, that the American workers are the most productive in the world and probably amongst the most generative.
If we can align government policy to utilizing this machine, we can definitely take on China, Inc. But, at least in my sector, I can tell you that the policies that there's a unity that the policy statements have in China with the patchwork that we have in the U.S., is definitely hampering us as we bring across new technologies.
CONAN: And Mirali, just let me ask you: What part of the solar industry are you is this on the industrial scale, or is this for homes?
MIRALI: It's industrial scale.
CONAN: Industrial scale. All right, so that business is picking up, and Robert Reich, these are the kinds of businesses, the innovations, that Jeremy Siegel is talking about.
Former Sec. REICH: Absolutely, and I think that the caller's absolutely right. We have enormous innovation and innovative potential in the United States, great resiliency, a lot of inventiveness. But when you talk about China, and you see the degrees of research and development they are that the amount of research and development that they're doing and new solar technologies, biomass, wind, alternative-to-carbon technologies, and you see that a lot of American companies, who have been investing in and developing many of the alternative, non-carbon-based energy technologies of the future, they are now going to China.
They're setting up shop in China. They are helping the Chinese. That's where the research is. That's where the money is. We need to wake up to the fact that we have a dearth of R&D and a dearth of public support for these very technologies that China is now developing.
CONAN: Jeremy Siegel, I wanted to go back. Robert Reich, speaking a moment ago, saying we shouldn't perhaps our money should have gone to schools instead of Wall Street. As I recall from a piece you wrote, you suggested that, in fact, the Fed and the government did the right thing, that in fact, they prevented what could have been not just a great recession but another great depression.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah, and absolutely, and I think the good news there was a recent article just in today's New York Times about the fact that the bailouts of the Wall Street firms and I'm excluding here Fannie and Freddie may be a wash, in other words cost the taxpayer nothing.
And that's quite remarkable because, you know, we were all talking about $300, $400, $500 billion, but it's looking very much very much better. They're going to make a profit on many of them. AIG might be a loss. Unfortunately, General Motors, GMAC, there are losses there, and then the biggest losses are in the government-sponsored area.
So one thing is that it's not going to be as bad, bottom line, at all in terms of what the taxpayers going to take the hit, but more importantly and that's my specialty is monetary policy and theory. Bernanke stepping in and making sure money funds were safe, that your deposits were safe and stabilizing the system, making sure the banks didn't all fail at that time I think are absolutely critical in preventing The Great Recession from becoming The Great Depression.
CONAN: Robert Reich?
Former Sec. REICH: I think that Jeremy's right on that, basically. But here's what worries me. Having bailed out the big banks once, those big banks are assuming they have to be assuming - their investors, the lenders to them are assuming that they will be bailed out again if they get into a similar problem.
And simply looking at the cost of the bailout and not looking at the cost to the economy overall of the risky behavior of Wall Street, I think, doesn't really put the fundamental problem in context.
If they think they're going to be bailed out again, and they engage in similarly risky behavior with money that, right now, the Fed is pumping out at almost-zero interest rates, you have to worry about the stability of the economy overall and the likelihood that we're going to be back in the soup.
CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Mary Ann(ph), Maryann from Charlotte.
MARY ANN (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
MARY ANN: Hi, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yup, you're on the air.
MARY ANN: Okay, thank you for taking my call. Yes, we are restaurant owners in Charlotte, and I'm concerned about the effects of the health care bill on small-business owners, in particular the restaurant business.
I was reading in the Restaurant News, the national it's kind of like the national trade magazine for the restaurant business and they were saying, and this is true: in a restaurant, 12 to 15 percent, you usually make 12 to 15 percent profit. Of that, six to eight percent goes toward your debt, you know, paying the bills on properties and what have you, and then they're going to they're telling us the plans for at least three to four percent more for the health care bill. So we will have to, you know, insure all our part-time employees.
CONAN: How many workers do you have at the restaurant?
MARY ANN: Well, over 50.
CONAN: Over 50, so that's a critical number there.
MARY ANN: Over 50, yes. And so, now when you add all that up, I mean, that's got the potential to get to 12 percent.
CONAN: Uh-huh. Weren't your health care costs going up pretty fast anyway?
MARY ANN: Yes, but, I mean, this is something different. This is something different. We do not insure all employees.
CONAN: Ah. And now you're going to have to.
MARY ANN: And now we're going to have to. And - but it's going to leave us very little profit, and sometimes we have more than one partner. We work 80, 90 hours a week sometimes to make, you know, two percent profit is going to be difficult. And that's assuming that you have - you continue that profit. I mean, you can have bumps in the economy where the profit is not that much. So...
CONAN: Okay. Can you tell us...
MARY ANN: Sometimes I feel like we're like forgotten people here.
CONAN: I understand. We'll address you questions. Tell us a little bit more about your restaurant. What kind of restaurant is it?
MARY ANN: Just a fast food, family kind of restaurant.
CONAN: Okay. Robert Reich, is the health care bill going to cost people like Mary Ann a big bite in their profits?
Prof. REICH: Well, I don't think so. And certainly, the administration hopes not, because even if small businesses have more than 50 employees and, therefore, have got to provide their employees with health insurance, there is a new innovation in that bill called a health exchange, which will allow small businesses to essentially team up with other small businesses and get very good deals from health insurers, much better deals hopefully than they are getting right now.
So, Mary Ann, I hope that you come out ahead. You say you're insuring some of your employees right now. And if that insurance bill goes down, if you have to insure all of them, maybe your total health care bill will go down.
CONAN: Well, do the exchanges come into effect at the same time the obligations do?
Prof. REICH: That's the idea. Now, all of this is going to HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services right now for putting into practice the specific regulations. Neal, I was talking to a bunch of doctors a few days ago and they are hoping that those regulations really do provide comparative data, enable not only small businesses to get together with other small businesses and use economies of scale to get good deals, but also enable purchasers, including small businesses, to get better information on the real costs and the real outcomes from various hospitals and insurance plans such that they don't have now.
CONAN: Mary Ann, good luck to you. We wish you the best.
MARY ANN: Thank you. Thanks. Bye.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call as well.
We're talking about jobs in the economy with Robert Reich and Jeremy Siegel.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Jeremy Siegel, have you had a chance to look at the economic impact of the health care bill - well, law now that's just passed Congress?
Prof. SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, yes in part. It's very complex, as we know.
Prof. SIEGEL: I think one thing that might be a little bit of comfort for Mary Ann is that all firms are going to be facing this, which means that you're probably going to have to raise your prices and that will restore some of your margin. If everyone faces the same cost and it gets built into the prices, and we all are obviously going to pay for universal coverage and part of it is going to be through taxes and part of it is going to be through higher prices of the goods that we buy, including restaurant food.
CONAN: Well, let's go next to John(ph). John with us from Tulsa.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking the call. A self-employed photographer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I know that last year, 2008, the bottom fell out. My total sales volume was half of what it was in '07. This year, I've already got more contracts on the book for weddings than I did all of last year. So this year is definitely looking up. People are beginning to loosen up a little bit with their money. But I have noticed that they're wanting the most value that they can possibly get. People are quicker to ask for a deal, a bargain, extra product, extra time, something to make it more attractive. And I've had to work harder for the contracts that I have this year than I ever have before in 10 years I've been doing this.
CONAN: Well, economists look at that - you look at it as hard work, John, and they say productivity.
JOHN: Yeah, productivity. Exactly. But it's definitely looking up. Tulsa, I think, has about a 8 1/2 percent unemployment rate right now. It's a little bit lower than the national average. But things are looking up. I think people are just a little bit more optimistic than they were in the past 18 months, and they're beginning to spend again.
CONAN: And psychology, confidence has a lot to do with all of this, John.
JOHN: It sure does.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can get another caller in. Kelly(ph), Kelly with us from Tucson.
KELLY (Caller): Hi, there. I'm a broadcaster here on the Southwest, and I've been working around the country as a political reporter and...
KELLY: ...came home to my community about 15 - well, now, 20 years ago, but it was 15 years when I returned. And I did this to take care of a seriously ill parent. A few years here, I worked until I received a few journalism honors, including a national award, felt Id built up my career enough to take a break and take care of my mom. My father fell ill with leukemia. Had a kid, came back to the industry thinking that I would be able to return, and it was a third of what I made.
KELLY: So we're in a position where we're in foreclosure.
CONAN: Oh, I'm so sorry to hear all that trouble, Kelly.
KELLY: Well, you know, it's interesting because I've listened to other people talk about how people got wrapped up into the housing industry here in the Arizona market. And they're very quick to say, you know, in a kind of a black and white way that you got yourself into this situation. And I don't think a lot of people understand that a lot of the people who are in our industry are hitting their ceilings. And I'm noticing that a lot of my colleagues are also in the same position of not having work or being underemployed and not being in the broadcasting industry.
CONAN: Kelly, we wish you the best of luck and certainly hope things do well for your father. But - and...
KELLY: Well, my father passed. And I don't mean to cut you off, but I'm just saying is the industry of broadcasting has slid backwards and nobody's talking about it because you, of course, can't talk about your own employer on your stations. And so, it's the same story around the country.
CONAN: Well, the broadcast news industry is in very much the condition as the newspaper industry, and it's not doing particularly well.
CONAN: But that may be for reasons that go beyond the simple problems of the recession. But Robert Reich, we just a few seconds left. If there was one thing that you could look at and say, well, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe things will pick up quicker. What would it be?
Prof. REICH: Well, business cycles do tend to follow the adverse of Isaac Newton's law, what goes down comes up. So people have to replace their cars and their appliances. And that's - you know, there will be some activity and that's cause for positive feeling. Kelly - although that story was extraordinarily sad, Kelly is in a job. People are going to get jobs back. The problem is, many of the new jobs they get will not be paying as much as the old jobs, as Kelly experienced.
CONAN: And Robert Reich wrote about that in a piece called "The Jobs Picture Still Looks Bleak" at the Wall Street Journal. There's a link to that at our Web site at npr.org. Thanks very much for your time today.
Prof. REICH: Thanks very much, Neal.
CONAN: Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the Golden School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley. Jeremy Siegel, thanks to you too.
Prof. SIEGEL: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
CONAN: And Jeremy Siegel is a finance professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. This is NPR NEWS.
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