Nuremberg, 8 February 2013 – Europe is stuck in recession. However, experts believe that the crisis may have reached its lowest point in autumn last year. Consumers also seem to think it is now feasible that there will be an economic upswing at the end of 2013, possibly even earlier in some countries. In line with this, economic and income expectations increased slightly again in most of Europe, albeit still remaining at an extremely low level. In contrast, willingness to buy dropped in most countries at the end of the year as many consumers are generally suffering the effects of falling income, raised taxes and high unemployment. These are findings of the GfK Consumer Climate Europe and USA survey, which provides an overview of the development of economic and income expectations and willingness to buy among consumers in 12 European countries and the USA.
2012 was not a good year for Europe. The eurozone slipped back into recession for the first time in three years and a major divide emerged in Europe as a result. While Southern and Eastern Europe battled against in part extremely high unemployment and rising poverty, citizens in Northern countries continued to be in a relatively good position, despite the crisis. This deep rift is also reflected in the latest labor market figures. The unemployment rate, measured according to the international ILO standard, is comparably low in Austria, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands, at between 4.5 percent and 5.6 percent. However, in Spain and Greece a quarter of the population does not have a job. Overall, 18.8 million in the 17 eurozone countries are unemployed. In November, the unemployment rate increased for the fourth time in a row to reach 11.8 percent. The consequences are shocking. As a result of job losses, disposable incomes in periphery countries are falling rapidly. Greeks now have almost a fifth less money than in 2009. The decrease has been 8 percent in Spain and 7 percent in Cyprus. Experts predict that the crisis on the labor market will intensify further still this year, with unemployment rising to around 20 million in the second half of the year. This should, however, be the peak. Data from November already suggests that the downward trend will actually slow down. The rise in unemployment in the eurozone was more sluggish than in the previous two months and experts anticipate a slight decline to 19.6 million unemployed in 2014.
It is, however, essential that the economy in the monetary union gains momentum again. There are initial positive signs that this is already occurring. The Economic Sentiment Index (ESI) shows that the economic mood has improved for the second consecutive time. From November to December, the barometer saw a surprisingly strong increase of 1.3 points to reach 87 points – the highest level for almost half a year. According to economists, the reforms in the crisis countries are beginning to take effect. The economic strength of these regions has dropped markedly over the last five years. In Greece, for example, GDP has decreased by 21 percent since 2008, investments have halved and imports have fallen by a third. This is the worst depression experienced by a western country since the Second World War. The tough measures being taken mean that countries improve their competitiveness, reduce labor costs and improve their export outlook. Economic imbalances lessen as a result. A recovery of competitiveness is above all evident in Greece and Ireland, where labor costs have fallen significantly. Over the last four years, the difference in national balance of activities between Germany, with the highest surplus, and Greece, with the greatest deficit, has almost halved. These first tentative indications that the crisis can be overcome in the next few years are all subject to one condition: the crisis must not escalate again. Crisis countries cannot rest on the laurels of their initial success, but must continue to implement reforms. National budgets must continue to be consolidated in all European Union (EU) countries.
USA: discussion dominated by debt crisis and budget conflict
In the USA, the predominant topics in the fourth quarter were the presidential election and the subsequent economic development of the country as well as the budget conflict which was simmering until the end of the year. A compromise was only reached between the Democrats and Republicans at the eleventh hour. The parties already have to put their heads together again til May. Until then, a compromise is also required for government spending cuts. If Congress does not reach agreement, then the dreaded sequester may take effect, meaning automatic spending cuts of US$ 1.2 billion over the next ten years. The outcome of negotiations so far is that the richest Americans, around 2 percent of the population, have had to pay higher taxes since 1 January 2013. In addition, subsidies for around two million long-term unemployed will continue for another year. The compromise prevents automatic tax increases, which would have affected almost all U.S. citizens. This will by no means eliminate budget problems, but does keep concern at bay for the time being that the world’s largest economy will once again slip into recession. Nevertheless, it will be extremely difficult to reach agreement on the outstanding issues by March. Adding to this is the high level of government debt in the USA. The government urgently needs to cut spending and increase income in order to remain solvent. If the borrowing limit is not raised through a cross-party consensus, there is a risk to the solvency of the USA. This uncertainty is also quite clearly reflected in the current values of the indicators for economic and income expectations as well as willingness to buy.
Economic expectations: Jan. 4.6 points – Average: 14.0 points
Income expectations: Jan. 4.7 points – Average: 18.7 points
Willingness to buy: Jan. -6 points – Average: -5.4 points
France: fundamental reforms necessary
The economic situation in France deteriorated further in the fourth quarter of 2012. As now also called for by many French experts, the country urgently needs reforms. The cash registers are empty and growth has stagnated. The European Commission is forecasting that France’s economy will only grow by 0.4 percent in 2013, following 0.2 percent last year. At the end of 2012, unemployment rose to almost 10 percent, which is the highest rate in 13 years. Of French workers aged 15 to 24, as many as one in four does not have a job. More foreign companies need to settle in France in order to change this and stimulate the labor market. Unfortunately the economic situation is not exactly inviting. According to experts, training is inadequate and the labor market is too inflexible. When it comes to the development of unit labor costs, France is now the worst-performing country in the eurozone, together with Italy. It also has a high rate of taxation and the biggest social security contributions in the eurozone. The government spending ratio is 57 percent and the trade deficit is 2 percent. With its budget deficit of 5 percent, France is also in a considerably worse position than the eurozone average. Overall government debt is currently 90 percent of GDP and may even rise to 93 percent this year. In light of these figures, there are fears that France will see a further downgrade of its rating by agencies and that it will have to pay significantly higher interest rates on any financing from the capital markets.
Economic expectations: -34.5 points
Income expectations: -47.2 points
Willingness to buy: -30.2 points
Italy: government must stick to path of reform
Italy, the third largest economy in the EU, has debts totaling €2 billion. Only Greece has a greater debt burden. At 11.1 percent, unemployment is the highest it has been for eight years. Further reforms are unavoidable, but important proposals ground to a halt several months ago. These include electoral reforms, anti-corruption legislation and proposed cost savings to parliamentary allowances. The recession is much worse than all forecasts predicted. The Christmas trade was disappointing. Poverty figures are shooting upwards. Consequently, the consumer mood is extremely negative. In his year in office to date, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has already got a number of reforms and austerity measures underway. However, before the Italian economy can once again be internationally competitive, a long, rocky road lies ahead for the country and its citizens. In autumn, ministers of the government coalition had already reached the end of their tether when it came to reforms, and therefore denied the Italian Prime Minister the necessary support for his austerity and reform measures. Monti subsequently stepped down and called for a general election on 24 and 25 February 2013. As a senator for life, he is not permitted to stand for election, but has stated he is prepared to be appointed Prime Minister again, if necessary. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also contemplating a return to politics, which is being met with great skepticism in other governments throughout Europe. If Italy wants to keep the euro in the longer term, then it must not ease up on its current reform and austerity measures. However, the Greek experience shows that time and again the length of time which such adjustment processes take is underestimated. Italians are facing a tough decade ahead. The country has significantly reduced its competitiveness. To improve this while undergoing a recession is a great deal harder than when the economy is flourishing. Italian salaries must stagnate, or even fall. The country needs high budget surpluses in order to reduce its debt ratio, and not just as a one-off, but over a longer period of time.
Economic expectations: -36.7 points
Income expectations: -55.2 points
Willingness to buy: -37.9 points
Portugal: government is sticking to austerity policy – praise from the Troika
Portugal is debt-ridden and its economy is shrinking. Nonetheless, according to international lenders, the country is on a good path. It passed the most recent inspection of its reforms carried out in November 2012 by the Troika, comprising the European Commission (EC), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the start of this year, it received the next tranche of €2.5 billion from the rescue package, which amounts to €78 billion overall. Despite fierce protests from the population, the government has been unrelenting as it continues to implement its savings and austerity policies. A new tough austerity package was approved by the ruling parties in parliament as recently as late autumn. Many taxes were substantially raised at the beginning of the year, while unemployment and sickness benefits were cut. Most employees are now forced to hand at least half of their income over to the state immediately. It is estimated that this will increase the state’s income by €5.3 billion overall in 2013. When the structural reforms launched in recent months will actually take effect remains to be seen, but only then will Portugal solve its greatest problem of extremely high unemployment. At present, almost 16 percent of the population does not have a job, and this figure looks set to rise this year. It is therefore not surprising that the mood among consumers is at rock bottom.
Economic expectations: -50.7 points
Income expectations: -49.7 points
Willingness to buy: -46.9 points
Germany: effects of crisis noticeable
The European crisis reached Germany in the second half of 2012. Consumers anticipate that the German economy will suffer a difficult period over the coming months. A number of eurozone countries recently clearly slipped into recession. This is bad news for export-oriented companies in particular and consequently exports from Germany suffered a noticeable decline recently. Until now, these losses could still be offset by good trade with other economic areas, such as Asia and the USA. Overall, however, experts currently predict that GDP will at best stagnate in the fourth quarter of the year, potentially even falling a little. For 2012, the central banks are predicting an overall increase in GDP of 0.7 percent. The central bank also significantly reduced its 2013 forecast from last summer, from 1.6 percent growth to 0.4 percent. Nonetheless, at 5.4 percent, unemployment is still stable at a very low level. As companies are likely to make use of short-time working again this year, a significant increase in unemployment is not currently expected.
Economic expectations: -17.9 points
Income expectations: 21.2 points
Willingness to buy: 20.1 points
Austria: collapse in exports
In Austria, the fourth quarter of 2012 continued to be dominated by the ongoing economic decline in the entire eurozone. Expectations of the economy are currently low. This is first and foremost attributable to the deterioration of exports. Austria’s key export partners (Germany, Italy and Switzerland) all saw a fall in consumption. According to the European Commission, the rate of unemployment in the small Alpine country is 4.5 percent, but it is on an upward trend. In light of these figures and the fact that the economy in Europe’s crisis countries will only return to growth at the end of 2013 at the earliest, many companies and consumers are being more cautious and tightening the hold on their purse strings.
Economic expectations: -23.8 points
Income expectations: -3.2 points
Willingness to buy: 16.7 points
Spain: praise for unswerving path of austerity
2012 was also a difficult year for Spain. Unemployment stood at around 25 percent, while less than half of young people aged 24 or under had a job. The government’s tough austerity measures demanded many sacrifices from its citizens. However, these efforts seem to be bearing fruit, as the Troika confirmed in its most recent inspection. For the first time since the summer, the number of Spanish registering as unemployed had fallen again by the end of 2012. Although this slight improvement is above all attributable to seasonal workers in the run up to Christmas, a small glimmer of hope remains. 2013 will also not be an easy year for the population. The European Commission expects GDP to drop slightly by 1.4 percent in 2012. It is also set to fall by a further 1.4 percent in the current year. The government will continue to implement its stringent austerity measures in 2013 too. The most important projects are still reducing high government debt and reforming the outdated labor market.
Economic expectations: -52.6 points
Income expectations: -53 points
Willingness to buy: -27 points
United Kingdom: new austerity package announced
Following solid growth of the UK economy in the summer, the wind left its sails as the year drew to a close. Instead of the predicted 0.8 percent growth in a year-on-year comparison, it is expected that the economy shrank by 0.3 percent overall in 2012. The British government has also had to revise its forecast for 2013. While it previously anticipated growth of 2 percent, it has now reduced this to just 1.1 percent. Added to this is the comparatively high inflation rate of 2.8 percent throughout 2012. This is significantly above the EU’s guideline of 2.0 percent, which means the government must extend its austerity drive further. In October, the Finance Minister announced further cuts to social security benefits in order to improve the budget. Rather than stimulating the economy with targeted investments, the government now needs to continue cutting spending and raising taxes. This will above all affect socially vulnerable citizens in the United Kingdom.
Economic expectations: -22.5 points
Income expectations: -21.1 points
Willingness to buy: -47.2 points
Greece: interest surplus generated for first time in years
As in all crisis countries, very little separates hope and disappointment in Greece. In December, credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s raised its rating by several notches to ‘B-’. The agencies are increasingly convinced that Europe will not drop Greece and that the euro will survive. The euro partners also transferred the next tranche of emergency credit amounting to €34.3 billion to Greece in December. Prior to this, Athens successfully launched a bond buyback program in order to reduce the Greek debt mountain. Overall, international lenders think there is a real chance that Greece will be saved, but predominantly consider there to still be major risks. In their report published in Brussels, the Troika, comprising the European Commission (EC), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), voiced doubts that Athens would actually be able to fulfill its obligations and implement the approved reforms. Problems may arise due to the fractious government coalition and political opposition to some proposals.
Contradictory to this, in the first 11 months of 2012, Greece’s income was higher than its spending, but this does exclude the interest due on debt. The country has generated a primary surplus of €2.3 billion. By comparison, from January to November 2011, Greece had a deficit of €3.6 billion. It is, however, still a long way from from having a truly balanced budget when debt servicing is taken into account. A further mini victory for the government is the new tax legislation, which was approved by parliament in December. This aims to distribute the burden of the austerity measures more fairly among the population. It is part of the agreement with international lenders to generate savings of €13.5 billion by the end of 2014. Through this, Athens hopes to raise income by €2.3 billion in this year alone. It is also a prerequisite for receiving the further rescue funds of €9.2 billion this January. Without this tax reform, the government would have been forced to cut pensions and salaries to generate the €2.3 billion in savings.
Economic expectations: -41 points
Income expectations: -50.1 points
Willingness to buy: -37.4 points
Czech Republic: protests against austerity package
In November 2012, the government in the Czech Republic was close to collapse. For weeks uncertainty prevailed as to whether the liberal three-party coalition led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas would survive the autumn. Disputes between coalition partners or new corruption allegations against government ministers were not to blame this time. Instead protests were aimed at the austerity package prepared by the government. Through this, the Czech Republic aims to push the budget deficit below the Maastricht threshold of 3 percent. Despite this, the law was adopted, although the margin was very close. One result of these measures is that the government adopted a tax package which stipulates the increase of value added tax by 1 percentage point to 15 percent and 21 percent respectively. The taxes were increased from 14 percent to 15 percent and from 20 percent to 21 percent. In addition, high earners are being forced to go without some of their tax reliefs. At present, the household deficit is around 5 percent below GDP. Excluding the one-off effect of the church restitution law, it would have been around 3.5 percent of GDP, therefore within the target range set by the finance ministry. In 2013, the Czech Republic intends to stay below the Maastricht threshold of 3 percent. The church restitution law required the church to make compensation payments for all property seized under the communist regime. This amounted to around €2.36 billion overall.
Economic expectations: -38.2 points
Income expectations: -21.7 points
Willingness to buy: -30.1 points
Romania: new government plans constitutional amendment
In Romania, the fourth quarter of 2012 was dominated by the upcoming parliamentary elections in December. The incumbent Prime Minister Victor Ponta fought a tough election campaign against rival candidate President Traian Băsescu. As polls predicted, Victor Ponta won the election. The greatest project for his government this year is to carry out a constitutional amendment. Only then will it be possible to reform administration in Romania more easily. There is also a great deal of work to do in relation to the economy. Like many other European countries, Romania is currently on the brink of recession. In the third quarter, GDP dropped by 0.5 percent, in comparison with the previous year. However, economists are predicting slight growth of 0.8 percent for 2012 as a whole, and even forecast 2.2 percent for the current year.
Economic expectations: -8.7 points
Income expectations: -7.7 points
Willingness to buy: -24.2 points
Bulgaria: good underlying data gives consumers hope of economic upswing in the medium term
Although Bulgaria has been recording high growth rates for many years, at times exceeding 6 percent, it is still Europe’s poorest country. In some areas, the average income is less than €2 per day. The labor market is still extremely weak and unemployment levels are high, currently at around 12 percent. Since the opening of the Eastern Bloc, around 1.2 million Bulgarians have moved abroad in search of better fortunes. As a result of the crisis, however, life has become more difficult in Southern EU states in particular, and many have had to return to their homeland. Stringent budget discipline has been the government’s response. Salaries and pensions were reduced, spending was cut. The effect is plain to see. Bulgaria has the lowest debt in Europe, only 16 percent of annual output. The government budget is almost balanced. In order to make life a little easier for companies and employees, all income and profit is only subject to 10 percent taxation. The government hopes that this will help put the economy on a good track in the medium term. Only then can more jobs be created allowing Bulgaria to work itself out of the position as Europe’s poorest country.
Economic expectations: -20.8 points
Income expectations: -32.7 points
Willingness to buy: 5.7 points
Poland: major structural reforms planned
Poland is also continuing to battle against the effects of the financial crisis. Nonetheless GDP is currently still registering considerable growth. Experts are predicting 2.4 percent for 2012 and 1.8 percent this year. Unemployment, however, has been rising significantly for months. At present, it is more than 10.6 percent. The government wants to reform the labor market and plans to make it possible for companies to have more flexible working hours. The new guidelines should allow employers to increase the efficiency of their staff.
Economic expectations: -27.5 points
Income expectations: -32.1 points
Willingness to buy: -16.6 points
Economic expectations: cautious hope for improvement
The low point of the financial crisis appears to have been overcome. Consumers in most European countries seem to share this expert opinion. Although there are still many uncertainties and risks, hope does seem to be gradually spreading throughout Europe that the situation will soon start to pick up again. In most countries in the survey, economic expectations largely remained stable or improved slightly in the final quarter of 2012, albeit at a low level in general. In a comparison, the most positive outlook on the economy is in Romania (-8.7 points), followed by Germany (-17.6 points) and Bulgaria (-20.8 points). The likelihood of economic recovery over the coming months is considered lowest in Spain (-52.6 points). Portuguese consumers are also quite negative in their economic assessment (-50.7 points), as are Greeks (-50.0 points). The indicator values did, however, improve slightly in both countries.
Although Austria is generally in a good economic position, crises in other European countries are increasingly having a negative effect on this export-oriented country. Above all, the extreme consumption restraint of Italian consumers, who are the main buyers of Austria’s products, is impacting the economy. Consumers share this view. They continue to expect poor economic development. However, they too hold hope that the worst of the crisis is behind them, which is reflected by the economic expectations indicator. From -38.7 points in September, the lowest level of the year, it increased to -23.8 points in December.
Although the British government still has much work ahead, the economic situation of the United Kingdom improved as 2012 drew to a close. After a surprisingly strong decrease of -0.9 percent in GDP in the second quarter, GDP improved again marginally in the third quarter by 0.1 percent. Unemployment also decreased and is currently at 4.5 percent. These positive developments are also reflected in economic expectations. In November, the indicator increased by around 20 points. This was shortly after the positive Q3 results had been published. For the first time in six months, consumers felt that things were moving upwards again and that an end to the crisis was in sight. However, the situation soon reverted as the effect of these positive figures was not evident in everyday life. As a result, the value quickly dropped again in December by almost 13 points. This development highlights the fragility of the consumer mood in the UK.
Although Germany is still seen as the top country in Europe, the financial crisis has started to have an impact. According to estimates from the German Bundesbank, the German economy will only see minimal growth in 2013 of 0.4 percent, down from 1.6 percent in the summer. For 2012, the bank is expecting overall growth to be 0.7 percent. To avoid redundancies among highly skilled employees, companies will most likely have to implement proven methods such as short-time working once again. German consumers are well aware of this gloomier economic situation. Economic expectations have been negative for many months and the indicator is currently at -17.9 points.
Income expectations: consumers anticipate further austerity measures
As part of slightly improved economic expectations, income expectations of Europeans were also marginally up in the final quarter of 2012. Rising or relatively stable income is anticipated by Germans (21.2 points), Austrians (-3.2 points) and Romanians (-7.7 points). In contrast, considerable decreases are expected by Greeks (-50.1 points), Spaniards (-52.7 points) and Italians (-55.2 points).
Following a period of recovery, income expectations in Portugal plummeted in the third quarter, but they improved again slightly in the fourth quarter. The indicator is currently at -49.7 points. The Troika, comprising the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, has attested to progress in the country in tackling the crisis and carrying out major reform projects. Despite this, Portugal is still deep in recession. Experts from the central bank predict that positive growth figures for GDP will not emerge before 2014 and expect a contraction of 2 percent in 2013. With unemployment at more than 16 percent, falling income and pensions, as well as rising taxes, consumers do not see any opportunity for an improvement in the economic, and therefore also personal financial situation, anytime soon. Although the indicator recovered slightly over the last three months of 2012, it is still at an extremely low level of -49.7 points.
In the last months of 2012, Romania was largely paralyzed in a political sense as a result of the elections in December. The party of Prime Minister Victor Ponta won an absolute majority in parliament and in the senate. The new government intends to carry out an amendment to the constitution this year to improve the flexibility of the economy and allow reforms to be implemented more effectively. In the wake of the Europe-wide financial crisis, Romania is however also struggling to stimulate economic growth. For 2012, economists are predicting overall GDP growth of 0.8 percent. The European Commission is only forecasting around 2.2 percent for the current year, therefore anticipating stagnation rather than growth in the economy. Unemployment is also increasing slightly. All in all, these are not the best prerequisites for Romanian consumers to expect income growth. Given that they still anticipated wages and salaries to rise slightly last summer, as well as positive development in the economy, the indicator value fell again in the fourth quarter. It is now at -7.7 points.
The economic situation of France is increasingly worsening. The quality of products and services has fallen in recent months and years due to a lack of innovation. According to the CESE (Comparative Education Society in Europe) report on the situation of the country, education and schooling are not good enough, the labor market is inflexible and national debt is too high. The country failed to develop and expand promising business sectors. Instead, business needs to be modernized, taxes have to be raised and public spending must be reduced. The first tough austerity measures were already announced at the end of 2012. The French population is slowly becoming aware that things cannot continue as they have in the past. They expect higher taxes and contributions, as well as potential salary reductions, not least because unemployment has increased to 9.9 percent at present. The poor mood is also apparent in income expectations, with the indicator at -47.2 points in December.
Willingness to buy: high unemployment means spending mood is rock bottom
Although economic and income expectations of European consumers have improved slightly over the last few months, they are not yet willing to invest their money in more expensive purchases. This is hardly surprising. In the crisis countries, unemployment is exceptionally high and in some regions still rising. Money is often lacking to pay for just the everyday essentials. As many European countries are battling against recessions, the desire to go shopping is somewhat limited. Germans continue to be the highest spenders, because the labor market is for now still extremely stable. In December, willingness to buy was 20.1 points in Germany. The indicator was also recording a positive figure in Austria (16.7 points) and Bulgaria (5.7 points). In contrast, money was only really available for just the essentials among consumers in Italy (-38.0 points), Portugal (-46.9 points) and the United Kingdom (-47.2 points).
Christmas 2012 was quite possibly the last for many Greek companies. As a result of the terrible economic and labor market situation, as well as severe austerity measures, Greeks quite simply do not have any money left to go shopping. Just how much they have had to tighten their belts is apparent from a large-scale comparison study conducted by consultancy firm Deloitte. According to this, spending on Christmas dropped by a further 16 percent year-on-year in 2012. On average, each household had a budget of €407, which was not just for spending on presents, but also included travel and meals over the festive period. Since 2007, private consumption in Greece has plummeted by 18 percent. The retail sector is of course particularly affected by this consumer restraint. Overall, 68,000 shops have closed over the last two and a half years, which is a third of all Greek retailers. From July 2012, Greek consumers were gradually beginning to feel greater hope that the crisis could be overcome in the medium term and that the economic situation would improve. This cautious optimism was reflected in the indicator for willingness to buy. In July, it reached a record low of -56.9 points, by November it had crept up to -25.4 points. However, the prospect of an austere Christmas and another difficult year ahead meant the indicator dropped again. In December it was at -37.4 points.
The Czech economy has so far not been able to put an end to recession. According to the Czech statistical office, in a year-on-year comparison, the economy declined by 1.3 percent in the third quarter. This is the third consecutive decrease. For 2012 as a whole, the European Commission is expecting GDP to drop by a total of 1.3 percent. Only in this year does the economy look set to grow again slightly by 0.2 percent. This also has an impact on the labor market. At present, 7.4 percent of the working age population does not have a job. In order to put the state budget in order and limit the budget deficit long term, the Czech government launched a number of tax increases at the end of 2012, as well as cutting some tax benefits. VAT was raised to 15 percent and 21 percent, a surtax of 7 percent was introduced for high earners and the tax relief for self-employed and pensioners was cut. The Czech population therefore needs to forcope with reduced income and rising prices. The response to this is logical. Consumers are keeping a tighter hold on their money than before. The willingness to buy indicator was at -30.1 points in December.
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