Fiscal Monitor Press Briefing Transcript
October 16, 2019
Vitor Gaspar, Director, Fiscal Affairs Department
Cathy Pattillo, Assistant Director, Fiscal Affairs Department
Paolo Mauro, Deputy Director, Fiscal Affairs Department
Keiko Utsunomiya, Senior Communications Officer
Ms. UTSUNOMIYA: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the press conference on the Fiscal Monitor. This is Keiko Utsunomiya from IMF’s Media Relations Office. With me today is Mr. Vitor Gaspar, the Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department; Mr. Paolo Mauro, the Deputy Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department; and Ms. Cathy Pattillo, who is the Assistant Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department. We will have Mr. Gaspar giving brief opening remarks, and then we will take questions from you, from the floor and online.
Mr. GASPAR: That is a lot, Keiko.
Thank you all for coming to this press conference and for your interest in fiscal policy issues around the world today.
Fiscal policy is at the center of economic policy debates today. In fact, fiscal policy plays a central role in, for example, managing the synchronized slowdown in the global economy, preparing for downside risks, contributing to financial stability, financing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and, finally, in addressing climate change, which is the topic of the Fiscal Monitor this time.
Major economies should be prepared for coordinated action in case of a downturn. Moreover, inflation and inflation expectations are drifting below target, and interest rates are negative in many advanced economies. Hence, the time is now for countries with budgetary room to use it to support aggregate demand.
In most other economies, however, monetary policy is not constrained. Public debt and interest‑to‑tax ratios are high and rising. Therefore, we advise policymakers to follow prudent fiscal policies, anchored by a medium‑term framework. Otherwise, as often happened in the past, complacency, fueled by low interest rates, will lead to over‑borrowing, followed by investors’ panic and financial markets’ disruptions.
Sovereign bond yields are negative across the maturity spectrum in most advanced economies. We are now deep into zero or negative territory. Further decreases in policy interest rates are limited. This contrasts with the situation just before the global financial crisis. In emerging markets and low‑income developing countries, public debt ratios are high and rising. The cost of servicing debt is also increasing, unlike advanced economies, where low interest rates have compensated for high debt levels.
Some countries are vulnerable to exchange and interest rate shocks. In China, the largest emerging market economy, we expect the economic slowdown and fiscal stimulus to widen the deficit. We recommend that fiscal policy helps dampen the negative impact on growth from trade disputes and that it supports the long‑term rebalancing of the Chinese economy.
Fiscal policy has an important role to play in the development agendas of many countries, which need to substantially raise spending to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, particularly low‑income developing economies. The spending must be framed in the context of a comprehensive growth and development strategy. Building tax capacity is necessary to enable the state to deliver on its functions for inclusive and sustainable development. Efficiency in spending is a crucial aspect of good governance. It is also necessary to ensure complementarities between public finance, private investment, and Official Development Assistance.
Let me now turn your attention to the Fiscal Monitor on climate change. By simply looking at me, you can notice a very important thing. I am holding a leaflet. Why is it that I am holding a leaflet? Because the Fiscal Monitor is now fully digital. It is fully paperless. And so it contributes to limiting global warming.
It is important to realize that current pledges under the Paris Agreement are not enough. They will limit global warming to three degrees Celsius. This is well above the safe level. To limit global warming to two degrees Celsius or less, the level deemed safe by scientists, fiscal policy must be mobilized, and governments and Finance Ministers need to take further substantial action.
How much more? Each country would have to take measures that are as ambitious as our carbon tax implemented now and rising to $75 per ton by 2030. Countries may choose to take other options. We discuss various possible combinations of measures in the Monitor. Nevertheless, the $75 carbon tax provides one measure of the degree of ambition which is required to deliver on the Paris goals.
What would this entail? If the carbon tax of $75 per ton were implemented globally, China and India would account for almost 70 percent of CO2 reductions among G20 economies, compared with a no‑action scenario. This reflects the dominant role of coal in the production of energy in China and India.
The carbon tax would lead to higher prices for consumers. For retail electricity, for example, price increases would vary from 2 percent in France to 89 percent in South Africa. The average increase would be 45 percent. The differences largely reflect the role of coal in generating energy in each country. The goal is to reshape the tax system and fiscal policy more generally to discourage emissions. It is crucial that the additional revenues from carbon taxation are used appropriately to reduce burdens and make the reform more politically acceptable. The Fiscal Monitor presents several options involving, for example, labor tax cuts, payments to households, and public investment. And for a further discussion, please do not forget to consult the Fiscal Monitor.
To wrap up, fiscal policy is at the center of the economic policy debate today. In fact, fiscal policy plays a central role in, for example, managing the synchronized slowdown in the global economy, preparing for downside risks, contributing to financial stability, financing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and, finally, in addressing climate change.
My colleagues and I will be happy to answer your questions. Thank you.
Ms. UTSUNOMIYA: Thank you, Vitor.
We will now take questions from the floor. Please identify your name and your affiliation first, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I am from Japan.
Mr. Gaspar, I am not going to ask you about climate change because I think the debt is the more important issue. I think the debt‑to‑global GDP is more than 220 percent. Do you have any update about the figures?
The second question would be, for the government, a low interest environment is better because they have cheaper service costs, but do you think the central banks will have a challenging moment in terms of their independence? I will not give you an example because it is obvious. Some countries are facing a very harsh attack on their central banks. Do you think it is going to happen in other countries as well? Thank you very much.
Mr. GASPAR: Thank you for your very good two questions. The Managing Director, whom you indirectly quoted, did refer to the fact that we do have preliminary estimates of the global debt for 2018. And the headline number is above 226 percent of global GDP. And that corresponds to a small increase, relative to 2017, when the value was 225, but a much more expressive increase, relative to what prevailed before the start of the global financial crisis. So debt levels in the world have continued to increase.
In order to get the details that we have in our global debt database, you will have to stay tuned for the presentation of the complete results from the database that is scheduled for December. We will be updating the global debt database yearly.
At this point in time, we already have some preliminary estimates. Specifically, we have the aggregates for the world, for the G20, for the G20 advanced, and for the G20 emerging markets. And that will give you already a good picture of debt trends around the world. For example, you will see that, for the G20 emerging markets, the number in 2007 was still below 100 percent of these countries’ GDP, with 99.8. And according to our preliminary estimates for 2018, we have now a number which is 190.1, so almost a doubling in percentage of GDP in only slightly more than 10 years.
We also have the breakdown between public debt and nonfinancial private sector debt. And what you see is that, while the nonfinancial private sector debt has been flat or mostly flat during this period, public debts have accumulated quite substantially for all country groups that I referred to. And I believe that our COM department is in a position to provide you with a table, with the numbers that I am quoting from in real time. So you can get it right away.
I believe that these numbers are very relevant from a policy viewpoint, as you were pointing to. On the one hand, because one has to be aware of high levels of public debt. As I said in my introductory remarks, for most countries around the world, where interest rates are positive and significant, where debt levels are rising, and interest payments are increasing as well, it is very important to conduct fiscal policy in a prudent way and in the context of a medium‑ to long‑term fiscal framework to guarantee that public finances are kept sound.
There is a link with a theme of the GFSR, which has to do with the accumulation of nonfinancial corporate debt. And debt, we have shown in the Fiscal Monitor some years ago, is a source of fiscal risks. In order for countries to be able to manage appropriately fiscal crises, it is important to have accumulated fiscal buffers.
I will not comment on your second question, on central bank independence. But I have already said that the simple fact that interest rates are low is not a good reason for complacency when it comes to public debt. Public finance risks still have to be managed. And many times in the past, risks associated with the accumulation of public debt have been underestimated, and that has led to sharp reactions in the markets and disruptive adjustment processes in many countries.
QUESTION: Hi. I am from India.
Mr. Gaspar, in your comments, you mentioned about India and China, with respect to the carbon tax that can be imposed to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions. You also said that, in effect, this would lead to the end customer seeing an increase in the tariffs that they would end up paying for this power.
With respect to India, there are some structural issues with the pay the power sector is structured in the country which does not allow, say, a pass‑through of tariffs to the end customer. There are also issues with respect to the distribution of power across the country.
You are advocating a higher carbon tax in your comments, but how would that play out? And if not that, if you could throw some light on what other measures could be taken to sort of reduce the carbon dioxide emissions
Mr. MAURO: Maybe I can take that question.
You raised the question of India, China. These are major players by now. Obviously, they have grown spectacularly over the past two to three decades. So they are really key players not just in the global economy; but, also, they are key players in the fight against climate change. Indeed, it is important that one recognizes where they are coming from, to think about how we can make progress.
I think the first thing that I will say is that, in the Fiscal Monitor, we suggest that one way of increasing global ambition in the fight against climate change is exactly to try to have an agreement among the key players ‑‑ and you have seen that chart that identifies India, China, the United States, and others. An agreement starting with the countries that have the largest emissions would be a way of kick‑starting more ambition in the Paris process. Of course, there was a conference in 2015. There is going to be another conference in 2020. As Vitor pointed out, a lot more ambition is needed.
I think it is also important to think about the implications of climate change for the individual countries. India, in particular, is very vulnerable to climate change, both because a lot of its population is in coastal areas, with cities on the coast. It has a very important agricultural sector. It s very exposed to extreme weather events.
The other thing to note is that a lot of people are dying today because of local air pollution. There are some estimates, in the area of 400,000 to 500,000 people per year die because of local air pollution. This is from respiratory diseases, heart disease, stroke, and so on. The World Health Organization documents these facts. So there is an incentive for these countries to make a transition away from coal and away from other polluting fossil fuels, toward green energy, not just for the next 20, 30 years but also immediately. It is immediately relevant to save lives. We have some numbers on the number of lives that will be saved in the report. I will just say that 90 percent of these deaths that I mentioned are from the coal sector. So that is something that, clearly, has to be looked at.
In the case of India, in particular, I will note that coal is actually not especially cheap there. It is as cheap as it is in other emerging economies. We have seen in other countries that solar, wind has now become as cheap as coal. The trick there is to increase scale. The more solar panels we produce, the more economies of scale, the cheaper it becomes. And both India and China have very clever, very experienced engineers who can certainly work on that transition. So I am really hopeful that a change can be made.
In terms of the policies, we go through the policies in the report. There is carbon taxation, but there is also emissions trading, permits systems. There are feebate. There are regulations. So there are a whole range of measures that can be taken. In the case of India, I think about the excise tax on coal which already exists; and if one were to scale that up, that would be a very good starting point. But, of course, one has to do a package of measures. It is not just a matter of introducing one measure. One can introduce a tax, take the revenue from there, and redeploy the revenues to transfers. And we know that, in India, those are very much used already. Public works programs, the clean‑up of mines, building new hospitals. There is a whole range of ways in which those resources can be redeployed to have a package of measures that is both economically efficient and politically and socially fair.
So I will stop at that point, but this is a very, very good beginning of a conversation.
QUESTION: I was wondering if the IMF is concerned that some administrations nowadays deny climate change as a big issue or, in some cases, as any issue at all and if that could impact the discussion about carbon pricing and what message the Fund would send to these administrations.
Mr. MAURO: Well, I think everybody has to play their part. And it is important that one thinks about ways of coming to an agreement, both domestically and internationally on how we make that transition.
I have mentioned already that, in the domestic arena, there are ways of having packages that dissuade people and firms from using coal and other polluting fossil fuels, reduce the use of energy. And at the same time, we can support those communities that are mostly impacted by the transition. For example, governments can take some revenues and redeploy them to support coal mining communities, cut other taxes, provide transfers to the lower‑income segments of the population. So there are ways of helping the domestic process.
Internationally, again, I think a good way of starting the process is to have the big players talk amongst themselves. If some countries are reluctant to come to the table, there are proposals out there in the public debate. Right now, there is a lot of discussion about border tax adjustments. There are some countries or groups of countries that say, well, if I introduce a carbon tax and you do not introduce a carbon tax, then I am going to impose an adjustment on the taxation of imports from your country so that businesses compete on an equal footing within my economy. So there are ways for the international community to come together, and we are very hopeful that this process can get started.
QUESTION: Hello, Paolo, Cathy, Vitor, and Keiko. I work in the state television in Cameroon. I have two questions.
Cameroon does not have a strong culture of monitoring economic growth alongside its financial policies. Now, the question I want to know is: What do you do to encourage governments like mine to continue monitoring its fiscal policies? And if this can ultimately help sustain growth? Because, since the 80s, we have the feeling that all indicators are down.
When we also talk about sustainable development growth, can efficient fiscal policies help us to attain this ultimately, given the fact that the SDGs ‑‑ most countries could not make it?
Ms. PATTILLO: Thank you. Your question focuses on the need for strong fiscal policy and strong institutions then that can help your country and other developing countries then achieve their Sustainable Development Goals. It is something that we have been working very much now with countries on.
The first thing I would point out is that, for countries to achieve their development goals, they really need to have full ownership of the development strategy, of their development strategy. And that could include then setting these development goals as part of government objectives. And that would speak to your point about the importance of monitoring. Only if you include objectives then in your policy do you have then an incentive then to monitor progress towards them.
At the heart of achieving these development goals is strong and sustainable inclusive growth. And there, there is really a need for financing, and that is both on the public side and the private side. We have done work on looking at the costing then for countries to achieve their Sustainable Development Goals. And the estimates are around 15 percent of GDP, higher in sub‑Saharan Africa because of the younger populations and the need for a lot of education spending. So to make that complementarity work between the public financing and the private, you really need comprehensive governance reforms, a strengthening of the business environment. There are a lot of things that could help. In sub‑Saharan Africa, there is the G20 Compact with Africa that could be a catalyst.
And then back to fiscal. Really, at the heart is the imperative of raising the capacity for domestic revenues, for domestic tax. And that goes hand in hand then with building the capacity of the government overall. And that means then broadening the tax base, enhancing tax administration. I know these are priorities, particularly in Cameroon, where increasing non‑oil revenue is a priority then of the government.
In addition to the tax side, also, there is a real need to strengthen public financial management, transparency, accountability, the composition of the budget. These are all, again, steps that are going to help with the monitoring then of these development objectives that the government has. And, of course, then cooperation across all stakeholders ‑‑ donors, private sector, governments, us ‑‑ is important.
Mr. GASPAR: Telegraphically from me. I want to add two things very briefly.
One, I will call your attention to slide No. 4 of my presentation, where the results from the costing exercise that Cathy referred to are presented and displayed in a way which I find visually very appealing. Look it up and see if it works for you.
The other thing, I want to amplify something that Cathy said, which is the following:
When we are talking about a country like Cameroon, where, indeed, the tax‑to‑GDP ratio is very low, it is important, it is crucial, it is decisive to build up tax capacity in order to enable the state to fully play its role in sustainable inclusive growth. This is just a repetition, but I believe it is an important repetition.
QUESTION: I am from the China media group. As we know, for fighting climate change, the Chinese Government already took a lot of measures and got some good results. So from your view, what can China do to fight against climate change further? And what is your assessment of China’s fiscal policy? Thank you.
Mr. MAURO: Well, I think that, like other countries, China has made a very important start and has some commitments that were taken in 2015 in Paris. We have the numbers in the Monitor. I think, like for many other countries, the issue is just stepping up, doing more. And I am sorry that we always ask for more; but I think in this case, it is truly needed. China is really a key global player. It can really lead the way.
As you saw in the exercise that we did, not surprisingly being the second ‑‑ or one of the two largest economies globally, China has a huge role in this endeavor. Again, we have this example. If there was an increase globally of the carbon tax to $75 per ton by 2030, then more than half of the reduction in emissions would come from China. And that tells us that it is so important to have leadership from China, together with other major players. We are hoping that there can be an agreement among the countries with the largest emissions at this point.
So great work. And we all need to do more.
Ms. UTSUNOMIYA: The assessment of fiscal policies in China. That was your second question.
Mr. GASPAR: On the Chinese fiscal policy, I also interpret your question as focusing on fiscal for climate change. I covered that in my initial remarks by saying that we at the Fund believe that fiscal relaxation, which was followed by China in the recent months is appropriate to smooth the impact from trade disputes. We very much welcome the rebalancing of fiscal policy ‑‑ better said ‑‑ the contribution that fiscal policy makes to the rebalancing of the economic growth model of China, especially where, by increasing the purchasing power of consumers, it fosters the move from exports to domestic demand and from investment to consumption, which is part of the transition of the growth model in China. So we are basically saying, in a nutshell, that we do see that fiscal policy can play a role in stabilizing the growth path of the Chinese economy in the short run; but it should, at the same time, contribute to a sustainable, inclusive growth model for China. And that implies that fiscal policy should be contributing to the transformation of the Chinese economy and society.
QUESTION: Good morning. I will speak in French.
Good morning, everyone. I am from Tunisia. And coming back to our continent after Cameroon, I heard Cathy talk about the concretization of fiscal measures, in particular, and about how to improve the fiscal capacity of emerging economies.
Today, the case of Tunisia is that we have been having problems since 2011, since the Arab Spring. And we were wondering, what can we do in concrete terms to reduce debt, in particular, public debt in Tunisia, which is going to reach 89 percent of GDP, with a budget deficit of more than 5 percent versus 9 percent, which was expected for 2019. So how can you help Tunisia deal with all of these difficulties?
Mr. MAURO: ‑‑ that is on the debt. And I am going to try to say a few words about the developments in the debt, in the deficit, as you mentioned, and also to give a sense of what we see as the main fiscal priorities. And, of course, the Fund is supporting Tunisia through an Extended Fund Facility (EFF). So, certainly, we are very close to that discussion of policies.
You pointed out the high debt. Indeed, the key priority is to stabilize it and to gradually reduce it. We are not at 80 percent this year. We are a little lower. The forecast for end‑2019 is 74 or 75 percent of GDP. Personally, for the purpose of this discussion, I do not focus so much on the changes from year to year in Tunisia because so much of the debt is in foreign currency; and, therefore, changes in the dinar have a big impact on the debt‑to‑GDP ratio. But I focus on the deficit. And I note that the deficit, which used to be almost 6 percent in 2017, is projected to be 4.4 percent of GDP for this year. So there is a decline, and that is in the right direction. The objective is to make sure that, as you started from, we let the debt‑to‑GDP ratio gradually decline over time, in the next few years.
The way that the improvement in the deficit, the reduction in the deficit has occurred has been to reduce the wage bill in the public sector, to reduce some subsidies very gradually, and revenue mobilization, in particular.
Going forward, the challenge is to continue reducing the deficit while increasing social spending and increasing infrastructure. We also look at a potential continuation of the process of pension reform. That is important. And the state‑owned enterprises are another priority to make sure that there are no fiscal risks coming from that area. So those would be the broad priorities for the country.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question. My name is Simon from Today News Africa Washington, DC.
First, in sub‑Saharan Africa, could you throw more light on the fiscal policy situation or recommendations on some of the big countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia?
And finally, climate change is one of the biggest issues facing Africa right now. We see the situation around the Lake Chad Basin, where we have 60 million people at risk of starvation. What recommendations do you have for fighting climate change? And what type of cooperation do you have with the African countries that say that the biggest polluters are actually in the west and Africa suffers the consequences? Thank you.
Ms. PATTILLO: Since you mentioned a number of countries, I am going to be very telegraphic then on points. And, of course, those countries are large countries and then with a lot of potential then of leadership then in the continent. So the policies there are very important.
On Nigeria, the priority is a comprehensive reform to durably increase non‑oil tax revenue, again, that Vitor underscored. And there are a number of reasons. Of course, this will contribute to providing then space for important spending on infrastructure and on human development spending, social spending. And for Nigeria, that is very important for a couple of reasons. One, because right now, interest payments as a share of tax are very, very high, around a third for overall and two‑thirds for the Federal Government. And that is not because interest payments are particularly high. It is because the denominator is incredibly low. Nigeria has one of the lowest tax ratios in the world. And it is not then because Nigeria does not have big development problems, development challenges. Nigeria also will have a lot of needs then for education and health spending. It has some very low indicators in that area. And with the demographic projections, Nigeria is actually projected to be, by 2050, the third most populous country in the world. So addressing those challenges is really important.
For Ghana, similarly, the priority is sustained fiscal adjustment and transparent financing to reduce large financing needs and anchor the debt dynamics. So right now, Ghana is in the process of getting ready for the 2020 budget. And we welcome then that they are committed to the budget deficit of 5 percent. This is going to be an election year in Ghana. So meeting that budget target in 2020 will really send a strong signal to all, including investors, of the government’s commitment to fiscal discipline.
For Ethiopia, Ethiopia has challenges relating to debt sustainability, but they have just released a new homegrown economic reform program that we very much welcome. And we are looking forward to working with the authorities on that reform program that will, again, then provide the space for social spending and maintaining good quality infrastructure spending.
Finally, on South Africa. In South Africa, there is really a need to move beyond business as usual to boost growth. So there is a need for urgent reforms to stop the decline in per capita GDP and to build jobs. There is also a need to overhaul the power utility ESCOM. And there, really a gradual but sizable consolidation is needed to stabilize debt at lower levels. This would reduce financing costs. In South Africa, the public debt has doubled over the last decade, and it is set to increase over the next 20 years or so on business as usual. So this gradual fiscal consolidation should really prioritize growth‑friendly and inclusive measures.
Mr. MAURO: Maybe I could complement from the perspective of climate change.
As you correctly pointed out, the African continent is very exposed to the effects of climate change. On the other hand, it is not yet a contributor. When you look at some of the numbers in the Fiscal Monitor, the emissions are not really coming much from Africa. That may be the case later on in this century but not yet.
There are a few instances ‑‑ Cathy mentioned the case of South Africa. You will remember the number that Vitor gave. An 89 percent increase in electricity prices in South Africa, if we were to have a large carbon tax ‑‑ well, again, part of the reason is that there is a lot of coal used in South Africa.
So, yes, everybody has to do their part. There are some countries that can contribute to reducing carbon emissions significantly. But I do not think at the global level, this is where the real action is going to take place.
That said, there are important decisions to be made today for which kinds of infrastructure are the continent going to choose. And decisions that are made today will have implications for decades to come. So it is important that as African countries choose the mix of infrastructure projects, they choose green types of energy. And in the transportation area, again, they can maybe choose rail, as opposed to roads. But I think it is not sort of crucial at this moment.
The other aspect I would like to draw your attention to is, there is an annex in the Fiscal Monitor that looks at the revenues from natural resources. And you will notice, when you go through that annex, that global prices of oil, gas, and so on, have major implications for whether some African countries are going to be able to develop new fields. So the future revenues are impacted by the developments of global prices which, in turn, are related to whether there is a big change in how we use power globally. So there are implications, again, for African countries that are important.
Ms. UTSUNOMIYA: You get the last question.
QUESTION: Vitor Gaspar, allow me to do a question about Brazil as far as fiscal numbers, if you will allow me.
According to the statistical annex from the Fiscal Monitor, the primary surplus of Brazil is just going to [wrap] in 2023, not 2022, as was estimated in April.
Also, that kind of stabilization of the public debt, growth of the public debt in 2022, even though the net public debt increases, even though in a slower way. What are the factors? What are the assumptions behind those numbers? For instance, the social security reform, what are the variables behind that? Thanks so much.
Mr. GASPAR: I would be quite happy to engage with you bilaterally on the details. At this point in time, we are slightly over time already, so details are not in the order of the day, but let me give you a general answer.
I think that when we look at Brazil right now, there are a number of very promising developments. You have been following economic evolution in Brazil very closely for many years. In how many of those years could you say inflation is coming significantly below target? That is a very promising development in Brazil, and it does have ‑‑ potentially, at least ‑‑ far‑reaching fiscal implications in terms of public debt management and other important variables.
The other aspect is that I believe ‑‑ you will correct me if I am wrong ‑‑ that every time that we had a press conference like this one, you would ask me about social security reform in Brazil, and the prospects would be always uncertain.
As you well know, at this point in time, it does look like the social security reform in Brazil is in train to pass. If you look at the quality of public finances in Brazil, that is a very important contribution. And as in other countries ‑‑ and Cathy referred to that repeatedly ‑‑ the structure of the budget makes a tremendous difference for sustainable inclusive growth, and that is the case in Brazil as well. But in the case of the path for the deficit, the primary deficit and public debt, the spending ceiling in the constitution is the driving force. The social security reform that you referred to is very important for the composition of the spending and the other factors that I referred to.
Let’s pursue this conversation bilaterally.
Ms. UTSUNOMIYA: Thank you very much for your participation. This will conclude today’s Fiscal Monitor press conference. Thank you, and see you next time.
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