AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, April 09, 2010

AN AMERICAN TALE

I bring to your attention one of the great criminal partnerships in America, qualified to stand alongside Frank and Jesse James, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and the Hunt brothers, Nelson Baker and Herbert. But would William Miller have achieved fame as a criminal mastermind if he had never fallen under the influence of Robert Ammon? I can assure you… You betcha!
William F. Miller was living proof of the ancient maxim that upon finding yourself in a hole, you should stop digging. In the late winter of 1898 he was a twenty-six year old, “small, pale young man” working out of space rented in a grocery on the corner of Marcy and Park Avenues in the wealthy Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. Every night William took the elevated train north along Marcy Avenue and then walked to his apartment at 144 Floyd Street, a three story tenement house in the Williamsburg neighborhood. Around him, wedged between factories and breweries, lived some 200,000 second generation German-Americans, each of them, like William, sharing what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.
William attended church regularly. He was the father of two 14 year old boys, John and Louis. He was a dreamer. He was a failure. His wife was ill. And if she had known the truth she would have been sicker. William had lost the family nest egg buying and selling stocks in an illegal “bucket” shop, where the profits were made by separating the original “day traders” from their cash. To mantain the image he had of himself, William told his friends that, in fact, he had recently made valuable business connections on Wall Street, and now had the inside “dope”and would soon be rich. The owner of the grocery William rented space from must have felt sorry for the lad, because on Wednesday, April 20th, he gave him all of $10 to invest. William wrote him the following receipt; “Received from Mr. Gus. Brandt; the sum of ten dollars ($10.00) for a one share interest in the “Franklin Syndicate”. Principal guarantied against loss, and may be withdrawn at any time. Dividends to be paid weekly in sums of one dollar and upwards per share until principal is withdrawn. Signed, William F. Miller.”
On Friday, Mr. Brandt handed him another “investment” of $10. And as Brandt nust have expected, William invested the money in food and rent for his family. But on Monday morning he was careful to pay Mr. Brandt $2, which he called a “dividend”. After this apparent success was made known to his fellow employees, and his neighborhood friends, William found himself swamped by small “investments”. And each Monday William would personally deliver the “dividends” to his “customers”. By June, even the practical, pragmatic businessman Mr. Brandt was convinced. He invested another $100 in William’s “Franklyn Syndicate”. In Brooklyn the boy was earning a reputation as a financial wizard. . He was overheard on the grocery store’s "pay" telephone arguing with J.P. Morgan, and other Wall Street magicians. Of course, these were imaginary conversations, play acting. But they hint that William was desperate to convince his peers of his success. That seems to have been William's real goal.
With growing confidence, and desperate to bring in enough money to meet his weekly dividend requirements, William began to make the rounds of the brokerage houses on “The Street” trying to sell his new investment plan to professionals. He found no takers until, eventually, his rounds led him to the offices of Robert “Bob” Ammon, a Wall Street lawyer with a reputation as advisor to swindlers and confidence men, of which there were on the Wall Street of 1898, no fewer than there are today. Bob Ammon towered over the shallow youth, physically as well as intellectually. He perceived instantly what William was actually selling. He had sold it himself a number of times. But Williams’s “Franklyn Syndicate” had one distinct advantage over all the others Bob had executed; it had William himself as front man.
Taking the boy in hand, Bob Ammon agreed to act as the lawyer and agent for his “Franklyn Syndicate”. He began by making up a list of 1,488 of his previous victims, er, customers, and sent each one the following telegram, collect; "To my Depositors: Owing to the enormous success of the Franklin Syndicate, and to the urgent request of a large majority of my depositors, I have decided to incorporate the Franklin Syndicate on December 2nd next, with a capital of $1,000,000….As all depositors are entitled to stock certificates in the corporation, it will be necessary to compare the receipts you now hold with my books, and just as soon as I receive your receipts I will immediately send you your stock certificate to which you are entitled…It is my belief that the Franklin Syndicate shares will be selling at $400 to $500 a share before March 1st next. (But) after December 2nd…I shall open no new accounts for less than $50. All accounts which I now have of less than $50, will have to deposit sufficient to make their account $50…Yours very truly, William F. Miller.
P. S. …it is the intention of the Franklin Syndicate (Incorporated) to continue paying 10% a week.”
Now, none of those receiving this telegram had ever heard of the Franklyn Syndicate, nor of William Miller, before. Many who read it laughed at the impertinence, crumpled the telegram and threw it away. But several hundred were intrigued enough to wonder who was this man Miller, who claimed to be able to pay 10% interest a week – 520% interest in a year. And a few were so intrigued they immediately sent cash by return post to the offices of the Franklyn Syndicate. Others felt the need to deliver their money directly to 144 Floyd Street, Brooklyn.
Under Bob Ammon’s guidance, William had taken over the entire third floor of the building , and hired a staff of twenty-two to open the cash bearing envelopes, and greet the mobs of optimistic investors eager to hand over their meger wealth. The staff spent their time making bank deposits and writing dividend checks. Mr. Brandt was encouraged to write a letter detailing his previous profits from the Syndicate. Articles, which was  placed in 700 newspapers nationwide, under the headline, “Wall Street Astonished. Franklin Syndicate a Big Winner.” In the accompaning article William Miller was referred as “the Napoleon of Finance”. There was no mention of Bob Ammon. In a follow up letter to the investors, William explained, “"…you know there must be a way where one can double their money in a short time, or else there would be no Jay Gould, Vanderbllt…and other millionaires and syndicates who have made their fortune in Wall street starting with almost nothing….The equilibrata of Wall Street is maintained by the fluctuations between the vast army of losers and the privileged few who win…Our 'inside tips' are from the fountain head of speculative interests, and never fail us. This advantage we not only possess here, but over the Washington wire as well.” Of course William had merely signed the letter. It had been written by Bob Ammon.
By the end of October the Franklyn Syndicate was taking in something between $80,000 and $160,000 (today’s equivalent would be $1.5 million to $3.7 million) per week. But the business practices of the Syndicate were unusual enough that two banks closed their accounts, and most others simply refused to do business with them. The press were beginning to get suspicious, as well, identifying the entire project as a pyramid scheme. And Bob Ammon could sense that after a brief few weeks the scam had just about run its course. So one more telegram was issued over William’s name; “We have inside information of a big transaction, to begin Saturday or Monday morning. Big profits. Remit at once so as to receive the profits.” All that week more cash poured in to the offices.
The machinations and sudden growth of the syndicate had reduced William to a nervous wreck. Racked by guilt, followed by private detectives (who may have been real or in the employ of the lawyer Ammon), William was ready when, in late November, Bob suggested, “Billy, I think you'll have to make a run for it. The best thing for you is to go to Canada.” With William’s help, Bob saw that all the funds in the Syndicate’s accounts were now transferred to his own private bank account, "to protect them". The total amount was some $250,000 ($5 million today). Then William boarded a train for Canada under an assumed name, and disappeared.
To the investors, and to those outside the scheme, the collapse of the Franklyn Syndicate was sudden and precipitous. It resulted in injury to thousands of lives, Miller’s wife and children being just three more victims. William had left his family protected only by the promised kindness of Bob Ammon. Bob's kindness extended to only $5 a week, and he assured William’s wife that this pittance was all that he could afford. In fact the syndicate’s funds were safely hidden under Bob’s various nom-de—corporate disguises. And that is the way the story would have ended, except the Montreal police arrested William in December.
He was placed on trial in the spring, and convicted of grand larceny. And on April 30, 1900 William was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. And still Miller refused to believe that Bob had betrayed him. To maintain the fraud, Ammon had paid for William’s lawyers, had acted as one himself, and during the trial had increased payments to William’s wife to all of $40 a month. Once the trial was completem and William locked behind the granite walls of Sing Sing, the veil began to slip from poor Miller’s eyes; tuberculosis helped remove that fantasy.
In 1903 William Miller shuffled his way to the witness stand one more time. He was skeletal. He suffered from a hacking cough. He seemed to be dieing. And when he pointed his finger at Bob, the jury believed him. It helped that William willingly confessed his own crimes, and had helped prosecutors locate $60,000 of the stolen cash that had somehow had slipped through Bob's hands. And it helped that Bob was only charged with receiving $35,000, which was all that could be conclusively proven. Convicted, Ammon got five years in Sing Sing. In exchange for his testimony, William Miller had his sentence commuted to time served.
William Miller did not die of tuberculosis. He never got rich, but he stopped trying to. He got a regular job, as a store clerk. And he dropped out of history. The Miller's became just another average American family, struggling to survive in a world that caters to millionaires. Bob Ammon served his time in Sing Sing, and then he too dropped out of history. He became just another average millionaire, living in nation that considers it impolite to inquire how its citizens attained their wealth, just how much.
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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

RUNNING AGAINST SOCIAL SECURITY

I would say that Bertrand Snell is a shinning example of the “Peter Principle”. Bertrand (above, with his ideological opponent, FDR) started out life as a bookkeeper. Then he successfully ran a cheese factory and then a lumber company in upstate New York. He was well qualified to fill a those positions. For awhile he was the president of a small college. This success led, in 1915, to Bertrand being elected to congress. In 1931 he became the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. That led, in 1932, to his being elected Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. And that made him one of the primary architects of the disaster that befell the Republican Party the first time they ran against the New Deal in 1936. In short, it was Bertrand Snell’s fault. Of course, he had some help.
Herbert Hoover had not only lost the 1932 Presidential Election, he lost it by almost 18 percentage points. His ineffectualness at dealing with the Great Depression (the stock market crash had occurred just 6 months after he first took office) was so obvious that Herbert won only 6 states – Pennsylvania, Delaware, R.I., Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. And yet Herbert still had hopes he could engineer a come back. Yes, FDR’s New Deal had already created six million jobs, and had doubled industrial production and sent corporate profits from a $2 billion loss under Hoover to a $5 billion profit under Roosevelt. But there were still 8 million Americans unemployed, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was charging that the new Social Security Administration was part of a facist/communist take over of the federal government.
On June the ninth, 1936, Herbert addressed the Republican National Convention in the Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, and did his very best to rally the faithful to his cause. As Time Magazine detailed, “After 15 minutes (of) yelling, shrieking (and) hooting, (Hoover) was allowed to begin. …
He warmed up quickly. Acording to Time, Hoover told the faithful, "Fundamental American liberties are at stake. Is the Republican Party ready…to cast your all upon the issue?" "Yes!" roared the crowd….".. have you determined to enter in a holy crusade for freedom which shall determine the future and the perpetuity of a nation of free men?" "Yes!" roared the crowd in ecstasy.” The faithful went on chanting “Hoo-ver, Hoo-ver, Hoo-ver,” long after Herbert had left the stage.
Noted Time; “The demonstration could not be stopped for half an hour, even when Speaker Snell tried to introduce a little old lady, surprisingly pert for her 77 years, the widow of President Benjamin Harrison.” Finally Bertrand banged his big gavel and informed the crowd that Herbert had already boarded a train for New York. Stunned, the floor demonstrations paused for a breath and in vague confusion the demonstrations petered out.
Except, Herbert had not left the building yet. He in fact was waiting just off stage to be recalled by the carefully prepared demonstrations, and proclaimed the nominee by acclamation. But Bertrand had already determined that the party nomine would be Governor Alf Landon, known affectionately to the faithful as “The Kansas Coolidge”. The party chairman had cut the ground out from under Hoover.
Alf, was the only Republican governor re-elected in 1934. He had a reputation as a fiscal conservative who cut taxes and balanced the state budget. That made him the Republican wonder-kid, the perfect man to oppose the “tax and spend” Roosevelt.
Alff's candidancy had a few problems, of course. First; Landon had balanced the Kansas budgets because he was required by law to balance them. And that had been possible only because the New Deal had kicked in millions of dollars to offset the state's deficits. Second; Alf publicly supported so many parts of the New Deal that publically he was at odds with the Republican party platform. Third; Alf was a terrible public speaker. He mumbled. And like any good mid-westerner, even when speaking clearly he didn’t blow his own horn very much. As H. L. Mencken noted, he "simply lacks the power to inflame the boobs."
The party platform that Alf was going to have to stand on had been engineered by Chairman Bertrand and forty-four year old John Daniel Miller Hamilton, the “crinkly haired” “jut-jawed” G.O.P. general counsel, who reeked of “animal vigor.” Hamilton was paid $15,000 a year to be the parties’ attack dog. He was described by one fellow Republican as having, “…a seven-devil lust to live and shine under the blessings of the rich”. Both Bertrand and Hamilton were front men for the party power brokers, even though, at the convention,Hamilton was nominally Alf’s front man, and made his nominating speech. And to seal the deal, Hamilton read a telegram from Governer Landon promising to support the anti-New Deal platform.
Said the Republican platform; “For three long years the New Deal Administration has dishonored American traditions…has been guilty of frightful waste and extravagance, …has created a vast multitude of new offices, …set up a centralized bureaucracy, and sent out swarms of inspectors to harass our people. It has bred fear and hesitation in commerce and industry, thus discouraging new enterprises, preventing employment and prolonging the depression….We pledge ourselves: To preserve the American system of free enterprise, private competition, and equality of opportunity.. We advocate: Abandonment of all New Deal policies that raise production costs, increase the cost of living, and thereby restrict buying, reduce volume and prevent reemployment. …”.
But the platform saved its most vicious critisim for that newest New Deal program, Social Security. It was Social Security that "engergized the base". As it was initially passed the program did not cover farm workers, the self employed, state, federal or local government workers, railroad workers, or domestics. There was no aid for the disabled, and there were no cost of living alliances. Still,the Republcan platform for 1936 charged, "The New Deal policies, while purporting to provide social security, have, in fact, endangered it", and claimed that "the fund will contain nothing but the government's promise to pay" and is "unworkable".
Bertrand had a master plan for victory, funded by a $14 million war chest ($207.5 million in 2010 dollars), with over a million of that coming from just three families – DuPont, Pew and Rockefeller – and the rest almost entirely from business leaders anxious to prevent further Federal regulations of their business.
And then there was “The Liberty League,” described by one historian as “…the best-financed and the most professionally run…anti-big-government organization ever to come down the pike.” The League was the original "Astro-turf" grassroots organization. It raised and spent as much cash as the two established parties combined (30% of it coming from the DuPont family alone). Its national headquarters occupied 31 rooms in the National Press Building, and there were 20 state branches. Hamilton confessed later, "Without Liberty League money we (the GOP) wouldn't have had a national headquarters."
The campaign that followed saw the constant repetition of attack. The New Deal became “The Raw Deal”. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt became “Stalin Delano Roosevelt”. William Randolph Hearst asserted in a pro-Landon editorial, “The Bolshevist tyranny in Russian has ordered all bolshevists, communists and revolutionaries in the Untied States to support Roosevelt!" It all sounds so familar in the post-health care bill world of 2010.
In late October 1936 the Republican National Committee sent checks for $5.00 to 400 black pastors in Maryland, along with a letter, which began, “Dear Brother,” and then argued that the G.O.P. had always done more to help blacks than the Democrats had.
The Young Republicans organization was founded during this election to get out the "youth" vote. And to encourage women to vote Republican, fashion shows were staged.  Every show would start with a woman wearing a wooden barrel on suspenders, marked, “If The New Deal Wins”, followed by lovely models in Paris designs, marked “If Landon Wins." Women were expected to be swayed by such "fashion politics".
A few weeks before the election, thousands of workers opened their paychecks to find what looked like an offical government notice. In fact it was from their bosses and the Republican Party warning them that if Roosevelt were re-elected, as of January they would all suffer a 1% pay reduction. This prompted the head of the Social Security Board, a life long Republican, to issue an immeidate response, asserting that
""Any political message in a worker's pay envelope is coercion. It is a new form of the old threat to shut down the mill if the employer's candidate isn't elected. We're supposed to be beyond that in this country."
Finally, Landon himself was coaxed into joining the anti-Social Security bandwagon. In a Milwaukee speech, he called the program ""unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed."  It was socialism, communism, and an attempt at the resdistrubution of wealth.
However, it appears that most Americans saw all of this Republican effort in the same light as that expressed by the voter,  who said that Roosevelt was "the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a (expletive.)"  In 1936 the Democrats came out swinging, inc;uding FDR, as illustrated in a speech he delivered in Boston, and which he wrote himself. “In the summer of 1933 a nice old gentleman fell off a pier. He was unable to swim. A friend ran down the pier, dived overboard and pulled him out. But his silk hat floated away with the tide. After the old gentleman was revived he was effusive in his thanks. He praised his friend for saving his life. Today, three years later, the old man is berating his friend because the silk hat was lost.”
The election of November 3, 1936 was the most lopsided since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820. Eighty-three percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls and Roosevelt won almost 61% of their vote. He carried every state in the union except Vermont and Maine, giving rise to the Democratic twist on the old adage, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont”.
Roosevelt won 532 electoral votes to Landon’s 8. Seventy-one percent of Black Americans voted Democratic, as well as 57% of women, 63% of men, 76% of low income voters, 80% of Catholics and 86% of Jewish voters. After the election the Democrats held the Senate, 75-16, and the House, 332 to just 88 Republicans.
Landon would admit that his attack upon Social Security had been a mistake, and henchforth he publically opposed any attempt to dismantle this New Deal program. John D. Hamilton would say after the election, "The Lord himself couldn't have beaten Roosevelt in 1936, much less the Liberty League." Maybe; but the election was the death knell of the Liberty League. They lingered into 1940, when the DuPont family finally pulled their funding, and the group then quietly died. Long before that John Hamilton had his own reactionary reckoning.
In 1937 Hamilton's wife sued him for divorce, on the grounds of “gross neglect of duty, abandonment and extreme cruelty.” That same year Alf Landon had Hamilton removed as Party Chairman, as Landon tried to rebuild the party in his own Midwestern less reactionary less-idelogical image.
Under Landon's non-red baiting non-FDR hating guidance the party stopped trying to overturn the New Deal and began to climb its way back. The Republicans would gain strength until 1948 when it looked like they were certain to regain the White House. But late in that campaign they gloated too publically about finally overturning the New Deal, and that public gloating handed Harry Truman his turn around re-election. It was not until Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaguration speech that the G.O.P again openly call for overturning the New Deal programs.
And Bertrand Snell, the Minority Leader of House of Represenatives? He had been one of the few Republicans re-elected in 1936. But he did not run again in 1938. Instead, he went into the newspaper business. He published the "Potsdam, New York Courier-Freeman" and ran it until 1949. He also became the owner of the New York State Oil Company. He was ably qualified for both of those jobs. He died in 1958, while a Republican occupied the White House. That Republican was Dwight D. Eisenhower, He was a national hero, and a product of the Landon influence. But the conservative wing of the GOP charged that "Ike"was a Republican In Name Only, and his administration was nothing better than a "little New Deal" administration.
It seemed that with time, the Republicans managed to forget the lesson Alf had sacrificed himself to teach them.
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Sunday, April 04, 2010

AMAZING RACE; PART IV: WINDY CITY

I believe it was with apprehension that Cal Rogers set his “Vin Fiz” down in Cicero airfield on the afternoon of October 8th, 1911, rather than with a sense of accomplishment. Cal was now officially 21 days out of New York City. He had flown just 1/3 of the distance to California. He had crashed (using a most generous definition of the term) six times, or about once every 166 miles. At this rate he had to assume he would crash another six times before he reached the foot of the Rockies at Denver, Colorado. And he would either be spending Christmas somewhere in Utah, or dead. The Pony Express was proving faster than the" Vin Fiz Flyer". Upon landing in Chicago Cal immediately telegraphed William Randolph Hearst to request an extension of the time limit for the $50,000 prize offered by his newspapers. But Cal could not have known that W.R., as Mr. Hearst liked to be called, had no intention of letting anybody actually win the prize money.
Like most self described “self made” millionaires (such as Donald Trump), William Randolph Hearst was the son of a millionaire. When W.R. was kicked out of Harvard, where the boy had struggled to survive on a $500 a month allowance (the equivalence of $11,000 a month today), it seemed he was destined for failure – well, as only the pampered only son of a millionaire could fail, because the only thing bigger than the fortune which W.R. would eventually gain control of, was his ego.
In 1887 W.R. took over the “San Francisco Examiner”, which Daddy had won in a gambling bet. W.R. then sank part of daddies’ fortune into making it the “Monarch of the Dailies”. He hired the best writers and editors that daddies’ money could buy, (such as Mark Twain and later Harriet Quimby) and built a publishing edifice based on the formula of sex plus rumor plus jingoism plus comic strips equals sales. The first of the Sunday comics printed in color was “The Yellow Kid”; thus the origin of the description of W.R.'s style of newspaper as “yellow journalism”. And what was yellow journalism? A. J. Pegler, a Hearst writer, described it this way: “A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Think, Fox News.
When daddy, George Hearstn, died in 1891, W.R. convinced his mother to sell off the mining properties on which the family fortune had been built, to finance his acquisition of the “New York Morning Journal”, where W.R. repeated his recipe of success - which he had learned, by the way, during a summer internship under Joseph Pulitzer. It makes journalisms "Pulitzer Prize" seem like a mea culpa, doesn't it?  And then W.R. began to buy newspapers and magazines, (eventually 42 newspapers with 30 million plus readers) where he could syndicate his well paid writers and increase his advertising revenues, which he used to promote and publicize his runs for congress (two terms) and as governor and mayor of N.Y.C. (three tries and no wins). Everything W.R. did was ultimately to promote and publicize W.R., including the Hearst Prize.
W.R.’s interest in flying was typically mercenary. When his editors had approached him with the idea of offering a $50,000 prize for the first transcontinental flight, experts like Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur Wright, warned  that aviation was too young to achieve such a lofty goal, which piqued W.R. interest. In 1910, when the prize was originally offered, no plane could stay airborne longer than two hours at a time, and none could travel faster than fifty miles an hour. Airplanes were still made out of wood and wire, for crying out loud. But, on the plus side, offering the prize would fill his newspapers day after day, with articles about how it could it be done, who could do it, who didn’t think it could be done, and how many would die trying to do it.
And speaking of publicity, W.R. was awarded a medal from the Aeronautical Society of America for even offering the prize. And W.R. loved to get medals. On the negative side; here's what paying the prize would buy W.R.' selling papers for one day only. And that was why the Hearst Prize had contained a time limit in the first place. The prize was set to expire on October 17, 1911. And when Cal Rogers’ telegram arrived begging for an extension, W.R. was in no rush to respond. Cal waited in Chicago for two days for the telegram from Hearst, and he began to suspect he had been had. Then, on October 10th he flew across the flatlands to Springfield, Illinois, then on to Marshall, Missouri. As he arrived in Marshall, far away from any Hearst newspapers, Cal found a telegram from Hearst waiting for him, letting him know there would be no extension. Cal had now flown 1,398 miles since leaving New York, which gave him the record for longest continuous flight. But there would be no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, just a bottle of Vin Fiz - yuck.
A mercenary element now influenced Cal’s romantic quest. When the city of St. Louis withdrew its offer of a thousand dollars for landing there, Cal sinply bypassed the town, and its Hearst newspaper. Instead he flew on to Kansas City, landing in Swope Park.
Experience was teaching Cal how to handle his plane. His decision to turn south, to avoid taking on the  Rocky Mountains head on, indicated how much he had already learned. There were far fewer trees to run into on the Great Plains, which reduced certain dramatic elements in Cal’s journey, and also increased his average speed. There were fewer crashes, fewer late night repairs; everbody on the crew was happy. About 9 A.M. on October 19, 1911 the “Vin Fiz Flyer” crossed the Red River into Texas.
And on that same day, the race that was no longer a race, became a again.
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NEXT: THE OTHER MAN RETURNS.

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