Why Stocks Soared While America Struggled

You would never know how terrible the past year has been for many Americans by looking at Wall Street, which has been going gangbusters since the early days of the pandemic.

“On the streets, there are chants of ‘Stop killing Black people!’ and ‘No justice, no peace!’ Meanwhile, behind a computer, one of the millions of new day traders buys a stock because the chart is quickly moving higher,” wrote Chris Brown, the founder and managing member of the Ohio-based hedge fund Aristides Capital in a letter to investors in June 2020. “The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming at times.”

The market was temporarily shaken in March 2020, as stocks plunged for about a month at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak, but then something strange happened. Even as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, millions of people were laid off and businesses shuttered, protests against police violence erupted across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the outgoing president refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election — supposedly the market’s nightmare scenario — for weeks, the stock market soared. After the jobs report from April 2021 revealed a much shakier labor recovery might be on the horizon, major indexes hit new highs.

The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street, between corporate CEOs and the working class, has perhaps never felt so stark. How can it be that food banks are overwhelmed while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits an all-time high? For a year that’s been so bad, it’s been hard not to wonder how the stock market could be so good.

To the extent that there can ever be an explanation for what’s going on with the stock market, there are some straightforward financial answers here. The Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures to support financial markets and reassure investors it wouldn’t let major corporations fall apart.

Congress did its part as well, pumping trillions of dollars into the economy across multiple relief bills. Turns out giving people money is good for markets, too. Tech stocks, which make up a significant portion of the S&P 500, soared. And with bond yields so low, investors didn’t really have a more lucrative place to put their money.

To put it plainly, the stock market is not representative of the whole economy, much less American society. And what it is representative of did fine.“No matter how many times we keep on saying the stock market is not the economy, people won’t believe it, but it isn’t,” said Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist. “The stock market is about one piece of the economy — corporate profits — and it’s not even about the current or near-future level of corporate profits, it’s about corporate profits over a somewhat longish horizon.”

Still, those explanations, to many people, don’t feel fair. Investors seem to have remained inconceivably optimistic throughout real turmoil and uncertainty. If the answer to why the stock market was fine is basically that’s how the system works, the follow-up question is: Should it?

“Talking about the prosperous nature of the stock market in the face of people still dying from Covid-19, still trying to get health care, struggling to get food, stay employed, it’s an affront to people’s actual lived experience,” said Solana Rice, the co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, which pushes for economic policies that reduce racial disparities. “The stock market is not representative of the makeup of this country.”

Inequality is not a new theme in the American economy. But the pandemic exposed and reinforced the way the wealthy and powerful experience what’s happening so much differently than those with less power and fewer means — and force the question of how the prosperity of those at the top could be better shared with those at the bottom. There are certainly ideas out there, though Wall Street might not like them.

How the stock market boomed when American life soured

Many on Wall Street, like many people in America, were in denial about the realities of Covid-19 when it first began to take hold internationally in early 2020. In an interview with Vox last April, CNBC host Jim Cramer recalled wondering whether “another shoe will drop on this coronavirus outbreak” in early February, only to see stocks keep rising steadily. “But nothing happened. The market kept quiet,” Cramer told Vox. Indeed, stocks continued to reach record highs.

While stocks often rise slowly, they also fall fast. And once Wall Street caught on to the realities Covid-19 might bring, the market tumbled, wiping off some 30 percent of its value from mid-February to mid-March. “No one had any idea of what the future was going to be, how deep this is, how long it would be, how wide it would be,” said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

The S&P 500 bottomed out on March 23, just a week into New York’s shutdown, and after that, it made a remarkably strong recovery, month after month.

Most analysts and experts point to the Fed as the most important factor in supporting market confidence. The central bank announced a series of big measures to help support the economy and markets in March 2020, including saying that it would buy both investment-grade and high-yield corporate bonds (basically, debt that is risky and debt that is not).

“Not dissimilar to the global financial crisis, the Fed stepped in, and that was really a catalyst for a stock market recovery,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “The Fed can be very, very powerful, almost omnipotent, when it comes to the stock market.”

Throughout the crisis, the Fed and Chair Jay Powell have made clear they will support markets and use every tool in their toolkit to do it. Powell has taken an extremely dovish tone and repeatedly said the Fed won’t raise interest rates — which would presumably slow down the economy and markets — preemptively. Basically, the markets let the Fed take the wheel.

Even if it didn’t buy bonds itself, the knowledge that it would if necessary reinforced the markets — private investors swept in to take up corporate bond offerings from companies such as Boeing and Nike. Continued confidence in a dovish Fed has only reinforced market bullishness; while a bad jobs report may be bad for businesses and workers, to investors, it’s also more reassurance that low interest rates aren’t going anywhere.

The issue is, the Fed is a much more powerful force on Wall Street than it is Main Street. Its programs to help small and midsize businesses and states and cities have been far less effective than those set up to help corporations and asset prices.

“It now feels like policy, be it the Fed or something else, that the stock market should really never go down,” said Dan Egan, vice president of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment.

To be sure, the Fed’s role is monetary policy, and it would have been bad if markets were allowed to crash or a litany of major corporations went bankrupt. And luckily for many struggling people and businesses, Congress stepped in with fiscal policy that could be more effective in helping the broader economy — a move that, no doubt, also helped markets. It’s good for corporations that people have money to spend.

Still, some wonder whether the Fed couldn’t have tried to go further to make sure its programs to support corporations flow to people other than shareholders. “Obviously it was good, the Fed needed to do something,” said Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform. “But the criticism I would weigh was that there were no real conditions that workers were protected or rehired, that all the gains just didn’t go to the top.”

Goldstein pointed to a September report from the House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that found the Fed bought corporate bonds from at least 95 companies that issued dividends to shareholders while also laying off workers. “Surely the Fed is also so powerful that it can say, look, we need you all to prioritize rehiring your workers or we’re not necessarily going to rescue you, we’re going to rescue other companies, and that should be impactful,” Goldstein said.

Companies have been ruled by the mantra of shareholder primacy, where maximizing profits for investors is the end-all, be-all, for decades. Worker pay has severely lagged gains in productivity. Those trends were unlikely to change during a pandemic.

“Shareholder primacy means the job of corporations is to increase their share prices for this very small elite, and that means downward pressure on costs, including workers, where possible,” said Lenore Palladino, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The fact that the stock market is booming is because of the financialization of our goods- and services-producing companies, not because the real economy is doing so well.”

The market felt better about the pandemic than you probably did

Jack Ablin, the founding partner of Cresset Capital, recalls calling clients in the spring of 2020 and telling them they didn’t know how long the lockdowns and virus would last, but they were “confident” that within a year, it would be done. “Of course, it wasn’t,” he told Vox. But the general attitude remains: The markets figured things would get better, sooner or later. “Part of it was saying, look, this is temporary, we will eventually get back to business. So we were trying to look past the valley to the other side of normality.”

Not everything had to break in Wall Street’s favor for the market rally to continue — as mentioned, between the Fed and the future promise of corporate profits, investors had plenty of reasons to be confident — but it doesn’t hurt that it kind of did. The vaccine, which at the outset of the pandemic some experts warned might be years away, appeared by the end of 2020. Donald Trump did not want to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, which some investors feared would spark chaos before voting day, but by and large, the US saw a peaceful transfer of power (with the exception of a riot at the Capitol, that, while disturbing, didn’t have anything to do with the Dow).

Investors also seemed confident that Congress would come through with more fiscal support for the economy. This, too, was not a given. The $900 billion package passed in the lame-duck session in December for months seemed highly unlikely. Had Democrats not taken both US Senate seats in Georgia, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, would not have happened. While neither provided direct support to the markets, they did support the broader economy that the markets have for months been bullish on. Putting money in people’s pockets means they’ll spend it. It’s good for Wall Street that Main Street America doesn’t fail.

Some people in the industry point to a certain level of faith in America, like the type legendary investor Warren Buffett channeled during the financial crisis and Great Recession when he told people to “buy American.”

“You have to have an existential faith in America in order to be in stocks over the long term,” said Nick Colas, the co-founder of DataTrek Research.

“What has happened in the last 14 months or so is we’re believing in America again, we’re believing in our companies,” said Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets. “From every bear market and every depression, we transition from despair to hope, and the hope was defined by American companies.”

It does look like the US is poised to emerge from the pandemic much before the rest of the world and spend its way to an economic recovery that many other countries could not. Now, it’s the investors who sold out of the market when it was falling last year who have been left out.

“There are two lessons to be learned over the past year. The first is that economic headlines are lagging and not leading indicators of the market; and second, market timing is a losers’ game,” said Saira Malik, chief investment officer of global equities at Nuveen, an asset manager.

Nuveen is currently interested in emerging markets for potential investment possibilities on the horizon — including countries such as Brazil, which continues to be ravaged by the pandemic. “We do feel like in the near term they are going to struggle. But the vaccines are becoming more and more available, and while they’re lagging a bit behind, we do think they’ll catch up, and they’ve tended to have the cheaper valuations to go with that,” Malik said.

At this point, it’s hard to wonder what, if anything, will truly unnerve investors.

There are still plenty of risks to the market, including that in the US, President Joe Biden and Democrats may take steps to raise taxes that would mean a hit for the bottom lines of corporations and investors. When chatter of the president’s capital gains tax proposal kicked up in late April, the markets took a small dip, but it was hardly catastrophic.

“We have an administration that clearly has ambitions and wants to pay for them by taxing capital, taxing corporate profits, now taxing capital gains. The resilience of the market in the face of all that is kind of interesting,” Krugman said. “There may be a little bit of determined resilience; there may be some element of when people are determined to be optimistic, facts don’t matter.”

Hooper, from Invesco, offered up the explanation of the Fed. “I do think on a short-term basis, we could see a sell-off if there is a risk that appears imminent, but we have to recognize that all current risks are being cushioned by this incredibly accommodative Fed, which does have an impact. It’s a powerful upward force on stocks that can counteract the downward forces.”

What the stock market does and doesn’t represent

How the stock market does matters to a lot of people. A little over half of all Americans report owning stocks, including in their retirement or pension plans. And during the pandemic, plenty of people got into day trading, for better and for worse. But some groups have much higher stakes in the market than others. More than 80 percent of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, meaning when markets go up, they’re the ones who reap the most gains. White people are also the overwhelming majority of market beneficiaries — by Palladino’s estimates, 92 percent of corporate equity and mutual fund value is owned by white households, compared to less than 2 percent each by Black and Hispanic households.

“People often forget how concentrated corporate equity holdings are,” Palladino said. “They’re held mainly by wealthy white households.” Those are the people who disproportionately reaped the benefits of the stock market’s pandemic run, while people of color disproportionately suffered the health and economic consequences of the disease.

If the US wants to create a fairer, less extractive economy where corporations and shareholders aren’t living a very different reality than people trying to pay their rent or find a job, there are ways to do it. The federal government could raise corporate taxes and tax income from investments in the same way it does income from labor and seek to rein in CEO pay.

It could also clamp down on shareholder primacy and make sure companies base their decisions not only on making their investors rich but also on the well-being of their workers, customers, communities, and suppliers. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, a major business lobbying group, issued a statement that it would redefine the “purpose of a corporation” as one that fosters “an economy that serves all Americans.” The government and the public could find ways to hold them to it. Palladino, in her work, has outlined a number of proposals that would curb shareholder primacy, including requiring corporate boards to have worker representatives, banning stock buybacks, and boosting unions.

Beyond policy fixes, there’s also just the reality that the market measures very one specific thing — how investors think (rightly or wrongly) corporate profits are going to be in the future. And for many people, that measure is meaningless. “If you can assess that the economy is good when we’re in one of the worst economic moments of American history, then it’s a useless measure,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.

The past year has been a truly wild ride in America and for the stock market, though in different directions. Investors are reaching almost exuberant levels, from the GameStop saga to the crypto craze. Stocks are continuing their bull run, with no clear end in sight. There are plenty of warnings that investors are out over their skis, but then again, there always are.

It’s a far cry from a little over a year ago, when billionaire hedge funder Bill Ackman went on TV to warn that “hell is coming” because of Covid-19. Or maybe it did — just not for Wall Street.

Source: Why the stock market went up during the Covid-19 pandemic and high unemployment – Vox

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References

 

Saefong, Myra P.; Watts, William (28 February 2020). “U.S. oil futures suffer largest weekly percentage loss in over a decade”. MarketWatch. Dow Jones & Company. Archived from the original on 1 March 2020. Retrieved 15 March 2020.

College Funding Changes In The Pandemic Relief Bill

There are several student financial aid provisions in the pandemic relief package that was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that passed the House and Senate on Monday, December 21, 2020.

Student Loan Relief

Student loan borrowers are disappointed that the legislation did not include an extension to the student loan payment pause and interest waiver, nor did it provide any student loan forgiveness.

The payment pause and interest waiver is set to expire on January 31, 2021. President-elect Joe Biden will be able to extend it further after he takes office on January 20, 2021. Several possible extension dates have been floated, including April 1, April 30 and September 30, but Joe Biden has not yet said anything specific about the extension, just that it is needed.

Nevertheless, there are some changes in the legislation that affect student loan borrowers. In particular, the tax-free status of employer-paid student loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs), which was set to expired on December 31, 2020, has been extended for five years through the end of 2025. Such LRAPs will be exempt from income and FICA taxes for both the employee and the employer.

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SULA, a complicated set of limits on subsidized Federal Direct Stafford loans, has been repealed. SULA mostly affected students who transferred from a 4-year college to a 2-year college.

In addition, there have been a few changes concerning the U.S. Department of Education’s Next Generation Processing and Servicing Environment (NextGen) for federal student loans.

  • New student loan borrower accounts must be allocated to loan servicers based on their past performance and servicing capacity.
  • Borrower accounts must be reallocated from servicers for “recurring non-compliance with FSA guidelines, contractual requirements, and applicable laws, including for failure to sufficiently inform borrowers of available repayment options.” Applicable laws include consumer protection laws.
  • NextGen must allow for multiple student loan servicers that contract directly with the U.S. Department of Education.
  • NextGen must incentivize more support to borrowers at risk of delinquency or default.
  • Borrowers must be allowed to choose their loan servicer when they consolidate their federal loans.
  • The U.S. Department of Education must improve transparency through expanded publication of aggregate data concerning student loan servicer performance.

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Changes in College Tuition Tax Breaks

The legislation changes the income phaseouts for the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit (LLTC) to be the same as the income phaseouts for the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), starting with tax years that begin after December 31, 2020.

The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit will start phasing out at $80,000 for single filers and $160,000 for taxpayers who file as married filing jointly. The tax credit is fully phased out at $90,000 (single) and $180,000 (married filing jointly). Married taxpayers who file separate returns are not eligible.

For comparison, the 2020 income phaseouts for the LLTC were $59,000 to $68,000 (single) and $118,000 to $136,000 (married filing jointly).

The new income phaseouts will not be adjusted for inflation.

In addition, the legislation repeals the Tuition and Fees Deduction, effective with tax years that begin in 2021. This is a permanent repeal, so the Tuition and Fees Deduction will not be resurrected by the next tax extenders bill.

New Funding for Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund

The $81.88 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund includes

  • $54.3 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund
  • $22.7 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF)
  • $4.05 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, of which $2.75 billion has been earmarked for Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund previously received $16 billion as part of the CARES Act.

The allocation formula for the HEERF funding is more complicated than the one in the CARES Act, but the allowable uses are similar. Public and private non-profit colleges are required to use at least half of the money for financial aid grants to students. Private for-profit colleges are required to use all of the money for financial aid grants to students. Colleges must provide at least the same amount of emergency financial aid grants to students as they did under the CARES Act provisions, even if their total allocation is lower.

The emergency financial aid grants to students can be used for any element of the student’s cost of attendance or for emergency costs related to the pandemic, such as “tuition, food, housing, health care (including mental health care), or child care.”

The grants must be prioritized to students with exception financial need, such as Pell Grant recipients.

The emergency financial aid grants to students are tax-free.

Most College Students Remain Ineligible for Stimulus Checks

Most college students will remain ineligible for the recovery rebate checks, also known as the stimulus checks.

The legislation includes the same restriction that limits the $600 per qualifying child to children age 16 and younger. Only 0.1% of undergraduate students are age 16 or younger.

College students who are under age 24 are also ineligible, because they can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s federal income tax return. The remain ineligible even if they are not claimed on someone else’s tax return.

A college student might qualify if they are married and file a joint return with their spouse or if they provide more than half of their own support. About 15% of undergraduate students are married. College students who are 24 years old or older may also qualify. More than 40% of undergraduate students are 24 years old or older.

College students can still claim the $1,200 stimulus checks from the CARES Act in addition to the new $600 stimulus checks, if they are eligible.

Increase in the Maximum Pell Grant

The maximum Federal Pell Grant has been increased to $6,495 for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Eligibility criteria will be pegged to a multiple of the poverty line starting with the 2023-2024 academic year. Students will be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant if they and their parents/spouse, as applicable, are not required to file a federal income tax return or if their adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than 175% to 225% of the poverty line. The higher threshold is reserved for households involving a single parent.

FAFSA Simplification

The legislation simplifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting with the 2023-2024 academic year. The new FAFSA reduces the number of questions on the form by two-thirds, from 108 questions to about three dozen questions. Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here

Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz

I am Publisher of PrivateStudentLoans.guru, a free web site about borrowing to pay for college. I am an expert on student financial aid, the FAFSA, scholarships, 529 plans, education tax benefits and student loans. I have been quoted in more than 10,000 newspaper and magazine articles about college admissions and financial aid. I am the author of five bestselling books about paying for college and have seven patents. I serve on the editorial board of the Journal of Student Financial Aid, the editorial advisory board of Bottom Line/Personal, and am a member of the board of trustees of the Center for Excellence in Education. I have previously served as publisher of Savingforcollege.com, Cappex, Edvisors, Fastweb and FinAid. I have two Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master’s degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)

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University of California Television (UCTV)

How to pay for college is a pressing question for all applicants from the class of 2020. COVID-19 has caused financial uncertainty and many are having to rethink their plans. Jodi Okun, an expert in financial aid, joins Steven Mercer to talk about how the pandemic is impacting financial aid awards, what to do if your family’s financial situation has changed, and how to plan for the future in uncertain times. [Show ID: 35963] More from: STEAM Channel (https://www.uctv.tv/steam) UCTV is the broadcast and online media platform of the University of California, featuring programming from its ten campuses, three national labs and affiliated research institutions. UCTV explores a broad spectrum of subjects for a general audience, including science, health and medicine, public affairs, humanities, arts and music, business, education, and agriculture. Launched in January 2000, UCTV embraces the core missions of the University of California — teaching, research, and public service – by providing quality, in-depth television far beyond the campus borders to inquisitive viewers around the world. (https://www.uctv.tv)

Small Businesses Are Closing At A Rapid Pace, With Restaurants And Retailers On The West Coast Among The Hardest Hit

A new report released Wednesday by Yelp bears bad news for small businesses in the U.S. trying to weather the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Yelp Economic Impact report, which tracks business closures through Yelp customer review listings, found that an estimated 163,735 businesses have closed in the U.S. since March 1. The numbers represent an increase of 23% since July 10, when the count of closures sat at 132,580.

Retailers, bars and restaurants continue to be among the hardest-hit businesses. Some 32,000 restaurants have shuttered since the start of the pandemic, with 61% expecting closures to be permanent. Nightclubs and bars, a smaller market, have lost about 6,451 businesses, over half permanently, while retailers have seen 30,374 closures. 

Small businesses on the West Coast have been hit particularly hard. High rates of Covid-related closures in the Las Vegas and Honolulu metro areas, likely exacerbated by a slowdown in tourism, have put Nevada and Hawaii alongside California for the highest rates of closures per capita. Meanwhile, six of the eight worst-hit metro areas have been in the Golden State. 

Some sectors, however, have seen small businesses remain robust. Healthcare companies, like hospitals and clinics, have unsurprisingly remained healthy, as have professional services firms like law, real estate and accounting businesses. Home and auto services have also remained strong, with plumbers and contractors making up a minuscule fraction of closures. 

The Yelp data puts a slight damper on the optimistic jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this month, which found the unemployment rate had fallen from 10.2% to 8.4% in August. The most notable increase in jobs was attributed to federal hiring for the 2020 Census. Retail and hospitality jobs saw slight increases as well, but remain far short of the pre-coronavirus norm. In effect, while the retail, dining and hospitality industries may be slowly recovering, the most vulnerable businesses in these sectors are continuing to fail. 

The news comes amid continued deadlock in Congress over passing a new stimulus bill. Republicans and Democrats remained frozen over the details of renewed relief. Last week, Senate Republicans’ “skinny” relief bill—which would’ve allocated an extra $300 for unemployment benefits and expanded PPP funding, while giving businesses significant liability protections—died on the floor after receiving insufficient votes to break the Democratic filibuster. A new $1.5 trillion bipartisan relief bill faces an unclear fate. Without the relief of PPP loans or increased demand from stimulus spending, it’s likely that more small businesses will continue to fold as coronavirus restrictions persist.

While the Yelp data focuses primarily on small businesses (and thereby small employers), large businesses, which may have more cash on hand, are also making painful cuts, even if they aren’t closing. Just this week, Citigroup announced that it would be making layoffs, despite promises earlier in the year that it would refrain from doing so through 2020. The airline industry is similarly pressed. Earlier this summer, thousands of Delta and Southwest employees reportedly opted into voluntary retirement plans, while United has warned that without significant relief, it could lay off some 36,000 employees this fall. Send me a secure tip

Christian Kreznar

Christian Kreznar

I previously worked in tax and economic development policy, now I write for Forbes Magazine and Forbes.com.

Some businesses, many mom and pop shops may never recover from the coronavirus pandemic. A group of business owners who made the tough decision to permanently shut their doors speak out about their struggles. » Subscribe to NBC News: http://nbcnews.to/SubscribeToNBC » Watch more NBC video: http://bit.ly/MoreNBCNews NBC News Digital is a collection of innovative and powerful news brands that deliver compelling, diverse and engaging news stories. NBC News Digital features NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, TODAY.com, Nightly News, Meet the Press, Dateline, and the existing apps and digital extensions of these respective properties. We deliver the best in breaking news, live video coverage, original journalism and segments from your favorite NBC News Shows. Connect with NBC News Online! NBC News App: https://apps.nbcnews.com/mobile Breaking News Alerts: https://link.nbcnews.com/join/5cj/bre… Visit NBCNews.Com: http://nbcnews.to/ReadNBC Find NBC News on Facebook: http://nbcnews.to/LikeNBC Follow NBC News on Twitter: http://nbcnews.to/FollowNBC Follow NBC News on Instagram: http://nbcnews.to/InstaNBC

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