Tuesday 27 January 2009

Book Review: Stock Market Superstars by Bob Thompson

Imagine sitting down one afternoon with a dozen hockey greats, a few beers on the table, chicken wings and peanuts at hand and letting the tape run. Stock Market Superstars is the equivalent for the investor. I never thought a book could be so fun, fascinating, educational and thought-provoking all in one.

Bob Thompson has managed a coup in getting these twelve guys (they are all men) first to sit down and talk. Likely it's because he's one of them himself as a portfolio manager at Canaccord and can speak their jargon. Thompson also obviously boned up a lot before talking to them - he seems to know all their big winners and prompts them, at which point, they gab away revealing all the insider stuff. So much so that Thompson in the transcribed interviews is shown to ask such questions as "yeah" or "laughs". Sounds stupid but it works. Of the twelve superstars, only the interview of Rohit Seghal somehow doesn't come off. However, the others - my favorite is Wayne Deans - just roll along and I was laughing along too.

They spill the beans on what they have done, how they do it and even where they think things are heading ... thus the subtitle Secrets of Canada's Top Stock Pickers (which should actually be principles, not secrets, as several of the Superstars tried to point out not much of it really is so secret).

They tell it like it is and the book is stuffed with great quotes - "there's a difference between patience and delusion" (Tim McElvaine), "don't believe what you read in a prospectus, it could be bullshit", or "assume the board is incompetent until proven otherwise". (Wayne Deans), "I think the U.S. is bankrupt" (Eric Sprott), "He (Greg Maffei, of eventually bankrupt 360 Networks) couldn't read a balance sheet because he came from Microsoft. He was the CFO of a company with no debt, and he didn't realize the situation changes." and "We all have our own personal views, but we don't want them to get in the way of us making money" (reference to oil and gas supply situation not to any moral dilemma) (John Thiessen).

There is lots of positive advice, easy and logical to understand, though hard to put in practice, which is really where the superstars set themselves apart. Perhaps a surprise, every one of them says a key to success is to remain humble, not to think they are smarter than everyone else. As several say and as Thompson himself says in his handy summary of their principles, they combine confidence in their judgment and in their approach with the humility to know they can and will be wrong at times. Tim McElvaine, a self-professed value manager says "value managers are much dumber than growth managers, but at least they know they're dumb".

There are a number of opinions thrown out by the superstars about future trends that are worth a thought or two: inflation is likely to return with a vengeance; the USD is over-valued and will fall; gold will rise since it is a store of value; diamonds are getting very scarce; alternative energy is a future good investing area since that is where capital spending is heading.

One subject seems to be completely irrelevant to the investing approach of the Superstars - taxes. The word almost doesn't appear in the text. It's as if they make so much on the capital gains of price appreciation of their successes that interest or dividends don't matter.

It is quite shocking to investors who subscribe to financial theory and asset allocation principles to see how much the superstars' opinions and methods diverge from orthodoxy:
  • they have mostly small, concentrated portfolios even with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake
  • risk reduction from deep knowledge and their own judgement rather than diversification and number of holdings
  • few international non-US holdings or maybe even only Canadian investments
  • little or no reference to the market, the focus is on companies and especially management (an insider edge difficult for individual investors to match)
  • all believe that markets are grossly inefficient
They do make it work however, by dint of focus, unrelenting hard work (constant insatiable reading to check and recheck their assumptions), judgement honed over years of mistakes (such mistakes being far more valuable for learning than successes apparently). I was asking myself, could I really do the same as them? A couple mention that the average investor is better off in index funds.

The fact that the superstar managers all run funds that diverge substantially from indices such as the TSX raises a couple of points:
  • first it proves the point in my rant about the infamous Brinson, Singer Beebower paper on asset allocation - if a fund chooses to mimic the index then the variability of its results will be "explained" by the index; the fact that most mutual and pension funds are "index huggers" as one of them put it means it is no surprise that studies will find such funds very similar to the index. If, on the other hand as in the case of these managers, they completely ignore the index in their choice of investments, there will be very low correlation with the index
  • second, maybe one or more of these funds can fit into an asset-allocated portfolio as another separate asset class; certainly they are offered to the public, though some have a very high minimum investment; author Thompson is apparently even proposing to create a "fund of funds" of the superstars, e.g. see the book's own website at http://www.stockmarketsuperstars.com/.
How the Superstars fared in 2008 ... not well
It seems that even the highly successful get caught in financial earthquakes. The table below (hat tip to Stokblog for the list of weblinks to the Superstars' funds) shows returns much worse than TSX and S&P500 markets average for 2008.

A few questions pose themselves. Was this a case of an event whose nature and amplitude surpassed the knowledge and risk management capability of even the Superstars? After all, the stock-picking skill of the Superstars is only in the context of certain rules, mostly valuing companies and identifying cheap ones. Did the financial game switch from chess to checkers somehow and if so, will that continue? If things are starting to return to "chess rules" should we expect the Superstars to continue such poor performance? Or might this be the perfect moment to buy into their funds as undervalued assets? After all, in the book, they all emphasize that the most important factor in the success of the undervalued companies they select is management. And the Superstars are the managers in this case. Are they still good or not?

The websites of the Superstars have a lot of interesting market commentary and are worth a scan. Most are pretty upbeat for the future despite the horrors of 2008, except for Eric Sprott who seems to think gold is the investment of choice because a depression has started. For those who like investing in individual stocks, Irwin Michaels even publishes his list of value pick companies at a separate website called Value Investigator.

My rating for this book: 11 out of 12 (1 boring interview out of a dozen). It's a Strong Buy!

Questrade for my TFSA: the Sign-Up Experience

I've now signed up for my Tax Free Savings Account with discount broker Questrade and am happy to report so far almost everything is as good or better than I hoped.

  • Fully online account sign-up - For those who are out of the country a lot, as I am right now in the UK, it is a relief and a pleasure to be able to do online the whole sign-up, including form filling, "signing" agreements, providing ID by email (a scanned passport or driving license). No paper to send in Hooray!
  • Electronic money transfer from my bank account to Questrade via the Pay Biller service to make the $5k TFSA contribution (or if I was to need it, to move money back)
  • Rapid personal email confirmation from the the new account manager Emil Vojkollari, whose name and number I now have in case I need it!
  • Quick human contact to a rep through the 1-888 number when I had a question about the only negative below
  • Multiple named beneficiaries for the TFSA is not yet possible on the electronic form; you must post a letter in with instructions - names and proportions to each beneficiary. BTW, why is the province of Ontario lagging others like BC, AB, NS and PEI (according to accountant Dean Paley writing in Jonathan Chevreau's column on the Three Big TFSA Issues) in passing legislation allowing such named beneficiaries to be direct recipients of a TFSA proceeds upon death instead of having this pass through the will/estate and incurring probate taxes?
Why did I pick Questrade?
They are the only brokers who offer more or less complete ability to set up ETFs to automatically reinvest dividends/distributions and without extra commission as I wrote about in DRIPing ETFs in Canada. (Actually, Qtrade will also DRIP ETFs but they don't offer a TFSA) For me, the TFSA is not an emergency funds account, it is just another part of my investment portfolio which consists primarily of ETFs, and that's what I want to buy at Questrade. Given that the TFSA limit is only $5000, the distributions will be small and it would be too costly to buy a couple of shares at a time so the cash would just be sitting there idle without Questrade's unique free service.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Book Giveaway - No Hype: The Straight Goods on Investing Your Money by Gail Bebee

Gail Bebee has generously offered a copy of her fine book No Hype: The Straight Goods on Investing Your Money (which I reviewed here) as a giveaway to the readers of this blog. To get your name in for the random draw, simply leave a comment on this post by contest close end of the day (EST) Jan.28 with a name I can identify or email me.

The author is becoming a commentator and observer of current affairs as they affect investing. Below is her latest salvo. As part of your entry you may want to comment on this subject too?

Energy security and protectionism policies will be key determinants

Toronto, January 21 – As Americans celebrate the anointment of their 21st century saviour, Barack Obama, investors in Canadian stocks may not want to rejoice just yet according to independent investor and personal finance author Gail P. Bebee. “Obama’s choice of Canada for his first foreign visit is a positive for the Canadian economy. However, many senior members of Obama’s administration are proponents of action on climate change. New regulations designed to control greenhouse gas emissions could put a real damper on Canadian energy companies, particularly the energy intensive oil sands producers. Investors should closely track developments in U.S. energy policy as these will dictate the overall performance of the oil and gas heavy Toronto Stock Exchange.”

Bebee adds that, although unlikely, Obama might reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. This would rekindle protectionist sentiments, a major negative for the many Canadian companies exporting to the U.S.

Here are some Canadian stocks Bebee thinks might benefit from Obama administration policies:

· Canadian infrastructure companies (bricks and mortar and digital) serving the U.S.

· Alternative energy companies (solar panels, wind turbines etc.) ready to sell in the U.S.

· Oil and gas stocks, if energy security trumps the climate change lobbyists.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Gail Bebee

Personal finance speaker and author of No Hype - The Straight Goods on Investing Your Money

All the investing basics for Canadians from a savvy financial industry outsider

Tel: 416-733-0221



I think the Canadian government's stimulus intentions tend to reinforce the likely winners Gail mentions.

Book Winner ... UPDATE Jan.29 ... It's Toenail Guy who has one of most unique and specialized blogs I've come across. Thanks to everyone for entering and best success in your investing.

Monday 19 January 2009

Asset Allocation Fallacies: on Average ≠ All, Is ≠ Should

Wander through a few web sites or read a few books on personal investing and you are sure to come across references to the 1986 study Gary P.Brinson, L. Randolph Hood, and Gilbert L. Beebower, Determinants of Portfolio Performance, The Financial Analysts Journal, July/August 1986 (henceforth BHB) or to its later update Gary P. Brinson, Brian D. Singer, and Gilbert L. Beebower, Determinants of Portfolio Performance II: An Update, The Financial Analysts Journal, 47, 3 (1991) (which I have unfortunately been unable to find posted online ... perhaps its lack of wide availability itself contributes to the misuse?).

The studies are typically summarized something like this: "asset allocation accounts for 90% of a portfolio's return" or "asset allocation decisions are the most important factor affecting portfolio returns". This is then used to justify things like the need to develop an asset allocation plan, to invest based on passive index investing, to buy ETFs and not mutual funds, to not worry about which mutual fund to buy as long as it fits into the right asset class. Wrong!! Much as I subscribe to many of these ideas, the study provides no such support as subsequent follow-up studies have pointed out.

Let's do a myth vs reality rundown to disentangle truth from lore or illogic.

Myth: BHB says asset allocation, aka the choice amongst asset classes of stocks, bonds or cash in the portfolios they looked at, determined the level or amount of return achieved e.g. 8% vs 10% return in a year

Reality: BHB looked only at the variability over time, in crude terms the amount of up and down, of individual portfolios relative to the benchmark for the type of asset;

Researchers Ronald Surz, Dale Stevens and Mark Wimer in Investment Policy Explains All also examined investment policy or asset allocation at mutual and pension funds and came to this conclusion: "... investment policy, on average, accounted for 104% of the total return for mutual funds and 99% of the pension fund results." Then there was Roger Ibbotson and Paul Kaplan's (IK) Does Asset Allocation Policy Explain 40, 90, or 100% of Performance? in which they conclude yes to all three depending on the precise question being asked.

As Surz et all show with a brilliant simple example, if a portfolio moves in perfect lockstep with its index year after year consistently returning either 2% above or 2% below the index, it would have the exact same performance in BHB terms; BHB says nothing about the absolute level of returns; as Surz et al put it, "... their study tells us only that the average plan in the sample adhered very closely to its policy targets and used broad diversification within asset classes."

Myth: for every fund (or the bulk of, or the typical fund) asset allocation determined variability of returns

Reality: BHB took an average of many funds; to understand the logical fallacy, think of the old joke, if your feet are in the oven and your head is in the freezer, on average you will be comfortable; IK found a wide dispersion amongst balanced mutual funds - only 40% of the variability of their results arose from differences in asset allocation policy: "... the remaining 60 percent is explained by other factors, such as asset-class timing, style within asset classes, security selection, and fees.", in other words "... the relatively low R2 of 40 percent must be the result of a large degree of active management". If a fund chooses to be aggressive and deviate from the index it can easily do so and its results will vary much more. A big deviation isn't necessarily good or bad - results can be way above or below the index.

Myth: the results of these studies say that no one can beat the market and therefore index, passive investing is the only way to go and
Myth: the asset allocation decision is the only one that matters

Reality: though I subscribe heartily to passive index investing based on an asset allocation policy, such studies imply nothing of the sort; the leap from description of what actually happens to saying that is what one should do, or that it is inevitable, doesn't make sense - if most countries of the world have corrupt, despotic governments does that imply we should aim for the same or that it is not or cannot be otherwise?

The various studies conclude that as a whole (i.e. on average) mutual funds detract from the total return compared to an index - when it is said that policy accounted for 104% of total returns, it means the mutual fund managers detracted 4% due to market timing, security selection and costs. That doesn't say no one can beat the market, it says not everyone has, few have and most have not.

It is very dangerous to take a sentence such as this in Surz et al out of context: "Manager selection matters, but not to any great extent." The proper expansion of the sentence would be: "Manager selection has not mattered to any great extent over the average of the many funds we looked at, so do not be surprised if it proves not to be so for any specific fund you choose, and considering that the sum of investors as whole ARE the market, it should be no surprise either that such is the case; however, manager selection has mattered greatly in certain cases." The authors are somewhat culpable in leading us down the slippery slope from description to prescription by the use of the present tense 'matters' as if to say it cannot be otherwise and by omitting the word 'average' as if to imply that statement is true in every case.

Here is what I think the prescriptive statement should be: If you are picking amongst actively managed mutual funds, then manager selection is your critical task. You should not just pick a fund at random in an asset class since you probably will get a fund that does worse than the index of that asset class.

IK say it this way: "An investor who has the ability to select superior managers before committing funds can earn above-average returns." Going with an actively-managed fund means you are swapping the challenge of picking the best stocks or bonds with that of picking the best manager.

Myth: the 90% figure matters or suggests that an investor should pay attention to asset allocation

Reality: though an investor should pay attention and implement an asset allocation, it is for other reasons, not because of these studies; the 90% figure means nothing more than the fact that a portfolio was invested in the markets. Meir Statman's The 93.6% Question of Financial Advisors (Spring 2000, Journal of Investing) models a hypothetical US portfolio which assumes perfect foresight and uses extreme asset switching going 100% from stocks to bonds or to cash each year with perfect predictive ability of the highest yielding asset class; this portfolio still has 89.4% of its returns accounted for by a balanced portfolio with a constant asset proportion policy, i.e. asset allocation could be thought to be the determining factor but the high correlation is deceiving. IK noted the same thing and concluded: "Hence, the high R2 in the time-series regressions result primarily from the funds’ participation in the capital markets in general, not from the specific asset allocation policies of each fund". Statman's artificial portfolio did achieve hugely greater total or absolute returns - 9% per year more compounded, indicating the value of perfect foresight!

Friday 16 January 2009

Income Trusts - Worth a Look Now?

Is this the time to look again at income trusts for income as well as potential capital gain? It has been hard to love them since the feds announced that they would tax them as corporations in October 2006, knocking 17% off their market value in one day, and even harder since the start of the credit crunch meltdown, during which (Sept08-Jan09) they've slid about 7% more than the TSX Composite.

Consider this:
  • the TSX Income Trust Index as a whole yields over 14%
  • there's another two years till the 2011 date when trusts have to pay corporate tax rates; some trusts have tax deferral credits that can allow them to last even longer without having any income that will be taxed and so can continue to operate as a trust without harm ( e.g. Bell-Aliant symbol: BA.UN, says it can go till 2012 and I think EPCOR, symbol: EP. UN, says 2013)
  • even if one removes 30% tax from present distributions (it's actually scheduled to be 28% by 2011), that leaves 70% x 14% return = 9.8%, which will be considered eligible dividends but after tax the taxable investor gets about the same amount as now (see PricewaterhouseCoopers Planning for 2011 and Beyond written around May 2008)
  • for taxable accounts, income trusts start to look like an interesting possibility, though of course, business conditions of the recession are likely also to cause a number of reductions in distributions. (For RRSP / registered accounts, PricewaterhouseCoopers show that the new tax will cut the net after-tax amount by about 28%)
  • notable quote from PwC: "Given the reaction to the SIFT tax by the markets to date, it appears that the markets do not fully consider tax issues." If that was the situation back in May and things have got relatively much worse since, isn't that saying BUY! There's a good chance prices of trusts will rise. After all Income Trusts are just various types of business in the cloak of a certain legal structure. They are not just tax artefacts like Labour-sponsored Funds were.
  • I found one Closed-End Fund Investment Trust - Citadel Diversified Investment Trust (CTD.UN) that itself holds a bunch of Income Trusts and has been trading at a huge discount around 20% from Net Asset Value, boosting the distribution yield to almost 17%. That's a lot of downside protection.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Some Media, Politicians, Businessmen Hard at Work Making the Recession Worse

Yesterday, UK government minister Vadera in an ITV news interview said that a few green shoots of economic recovery were appearing. Welcome news one would think, that would be played up positively. Not a bit. With opposition politicians weighing in with criticism that this was "insensitive" to the many being put out of work and at least one business association leader saying he couldn't see any positives, the minister later apologised. Unbelievable!

If there is anything that is most needed now, it is a dose of positivism instead of the doom and gloom that now pervades business and economic reporting. Half the problem these days is one of confidence, for banks to lend to business, for consumers to spend. We need more commentary like Sir David Tang's Optimism is the Cure for the Downturn (kudos to BBC for posting something positive).

As for being insensitive, someone who has been laid off (I claim some credibility from having been through that twice) would much rather hear that things are starting to get better to give hope and confidence in the job search.

In economic terms, it is now January, we are in proverbial frozen-over hell and a person looking outside might believe that spring and warm summer will not come again. It will be a while before it happens but it will.

The current pessimism means opportunity - now is the time for investors to be looking for the best bargains in the stock market.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Why a Bureaucratic Bunfight on Securities Regulation Matters

I've previously expressed my support for having a single national securities regulator in Canada so I'm glad that the just-released Hockin report also supports this long-overdue idea.

Why should individual investors care about a matter that might seem only to be a power struggle between the federal government and the provinces, especially Alberta and Québec?

Gail Bebee, author of No Hype Investing, has an even better answer than I could come up with, so here it is, with her permission.


Promising proposals could deliver a fairer system for small investors

Toronto, January 13 – Help may be at hand for Canadian investors long served poorly by a mishmash of provincial securities regulations, if the government acts on a new report from The Expert Panel on Securities Regulation in Canada. Independent investor and personal finance author Gail P. Bebee believes that the report’s recommendations, which include a national securities regulator, investor panel and investor compensation fund could benefit small investors in several ways:

· Increase the choice of investing products, especially in smaller provinces

· Improve the process for handling complaints about financial products and services

· Provide better compensation to victims of financial industry misconduct

· Improve government oversight and enforcement and reduce financial industry fraud

· Give investors a voice in regulatory policy making

· Facilitate more timely government policy decisions on securities industry issues.

· Lower industry administrative costs which will hopefully be passed on to retail investors.

Bebee offers a word of caution: “I am hopeful that Minister Flaherty’s commitment to changing the securities regulatory system will prevail. However, a national securities regulator has been under consideration for years without action. This report could end up on the heap of great ideas that were never adopted.”

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Gail Bebee

Personal finance speaker and author of No Hype - The Straight Goods on Investing Your Money

All the investing basics for Canadians from a savvy financial industry outsider

Tel: 416-733-0221



Friday 9 January 2009

2008 Confirms Value of Portfolio Diversification

Just finished crunching the numbers to see how my portfolio performed in 2008 and was pleased to see that the diversified portfolio strategy that I adopted back in May 2007 (the structure of which is shown at the bottom of this blog though it doesn't show complete returns since cash dividends and interest from bonds do not show up) paid off by significantly limiting my losses in 2008.

Here are the numbers compared to a few benchmarks (I've done a bit of rounding and used a couple of ETFs that track the benchmarks so my numbers may be off a percent or so but the big effects are what I am after):
  • -21% My portfolio in Canadian dollars
  • -35% TSX in Canadian dollars
  • 6% DEX Canadian Bond Index
  • -37% S&P 500 (US stock index) in US dollars
  • 6% US Aggregate Bond Index in US dollars
  • -42% MSCI EAFE (Europe, Australasia, Far East) Index - various foreign currencies
The benefit to my portfolio is explained by two factors:
  1. the 19% decline in the value of the Canadian dollar against the USD, which boosted the value, or more precisely limited the losses of US holdings in CAD terms
  2. the presence of bonds whose gains offset some of the huge equity losses
The moral of the story is that diversification works. Assets that work in different directions in different years bring stability. That also means that during 2009, when I expect equity markets to recover, my portfolio won't go up as much as another invested only in equities.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

The Future: Even the Wise Can Pull a Gigantic Blooper

Mr "Stocks for the Long Run" Jeremy Siegel peered into the future in the CFA webcast The Impact of an Aging Population on the World Economy recorded on May 1, 2007.

The talk presents some fascinating projections of how the world is likely to look based on demographics and possible economic growth in the USA (and by extension other western countries with similar characteristics) and developing countries, especially China.

The future according to Siegel includes such dramatic possibilities as:
  • people in the west will have to work substantially longer - over 11 years more than today - in their lifetime assuming even healthy 4% p.a. world economic growth
  • the US, Europe and Japan will see their share of economic output fall by 2050 from 46% today to 19%, to be equalled by China alone
  • globalisation is a good, necessary process to allow the transfer of capital from western countries to developing countries, i.e. to enable the Chinese and others to buy up our assets (and we use the money to fund retirement)
However, Siegel utters one monumental blooper in the webcast, which I am sure he regrets and was probably more a quick comment than the result of deep analysis. It does show the hazards of forecasting and estimating. Caveat lector and auditor, always!

Around the 50 minute mark, he says: "I don't believe we're over leveraged. I don't believe there's too much debt."

Maybe he (and we) can laugh a bit at our fallible attempts to forecast in these witticisms.

Monday 5 January 2009

Book Review: She Inc. by Kelley Keehn

She Inc. is part of the Kelley Keehn Inc. product line, a complement to the public speaking product line of the author. Think of the multitude of Disney products that reinforce and add to the profit of the movies.

The "Inc." of the title refers to the central piece of advice from Keehn - one that has oft been proffered in the modern career management world - that one should consider oneself to be a mini corporation to be planned and run professionally. In this book she tells how to do that successfully. To imitate Keehn's own constant device of using quotations from famous people to illustrate and introduce a point, "Eighty percent of success is showing up" (Woody Allen). Keehn tells us how to "show up".

What is most interesting about the book is not the advice she imparts, which is quite standard, nor the way she does it, which is also very straightforward, but that Keehn herself is an exemplar of what can be achieved from ordinary roots and no initial advantages in life. The essential value of this book is the inspirational message "you too can be like me, drive a Mercedes, carry Louis Vitton handbags and stay in the best hotels if you do as I say". Keehn obviously gained her success by unrelenting years of hard work, calculating and focused attention to improvement and ironhard self-management and discipline. In addition, Keehn Inc. follows the money and is not shy to shift careers/market from banking to financial planning to media personality accordingly. Check out Articles on her website to see how her self-description has evolved over the years.

The book's subtitle "A woman's guide to maximizing her career potential" more accurately describes the content than the Disclaimer's broader objective that "This book, in part, is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information on the subject of personal finances". It is mostly about how to generate money from work earnings and only a little about how to keep and grow that money.

There is no reason to limit the audience to women since the methods advocated apply perfectly well to men as well. I find this to be an artificial limit resulting probably from Keehn Inc. deciding to target the "women" market niche.

Most of the personal finance content is about credit/debt, providing a basic introduction to various types of loans, credit cards, credit scores. There is simple advice along the lines of "don't have too much and pay up on time". The very little provided on savings and investment is woefully weak and presents loose mildly inaccurate description of things like stocks, bonds and GICs, the most egregious example being the use of the word principle when principal is meant in reference to a GIC on page 236. It is disappointing to read on the same page that one can find "recommended advanced reading" on her website www.kelleykeehn.com. Well, I looked and could find nothing like that.

Having tried to apply the Me Inc. method several times during my career with the beginnings of success, only to backslide and stop following the method, I can vouch for how hard it is to sustain. In fact, no knock on this particular book but sometimes I wonder about the value of advice books in general. If you have the problem the book tells you how to solve, then likely your habits, motivation and capabilities prevent you from succeeding.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

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