Monday 28 June 2010

UK & US Banks: Profits Down while Staff Salaries Rise

BBC journalist Robert Peston's Will banks' medicine kill them (and us?) notes a link to the Bank of England report The resilience of UK banks which contains the troubling chart copied below.

Huh? Salaries on a steady and quite rapid rise as a percentage of revenue? It seems that UK bankers - the people not the institution - are avoiding the financial pain imposed upon the rest of the public from the crisis. The bankers, the individuals, the people at the banks who made the monumental errors of judgment, or who perhaps in some cases deliberately ignored the risks they took because it was a no-lose situation for them personally, are not suffering. They continue to power ahead, siphoning off an ever greater share of bank revenue.

It appears that it is much the same with US banks - this January 2010, NY Times story Ailing Banks Favor Salaries Over Shareholders finds the same pattern with a number of the major US banks.

Meantime, Canada's biggest bank RBC paid out 35% of revenue in 2007 on staff costs but only 31% in 2009. Without knowing exhaustively whether this pattern holds true for all Canadian banks over more years, one wonders if a reason Canadian banks fared so much better than UK and US banks also had something to do with bank "culture" where employees and managers think of themselves differently and act accordingly.

Unfortunately, the financial system reforms (bank taxes and increased capital requirements) the G20 / 8 countries are looking at seem unlikely to influence a change in the self-enriching, risk-taking behaviour of bankers in the UK and the USA. If the individuals don't get hammered when they screw up, why would they change their way of doing things? There is a great ad byline from Dofasco that goes "our product is steel, our strength is people." Sadly, for many banks, that thought instead is, "our product is lending, our weakness is people".

Friday 25 June 2010

Possible Effects of Global Imbalances on Investors

McKinsey & Company's Globalization's critical imbalances in the McKinsey Quarterly report provides a readable summary of those issues along with some implications that, though they are directed at a corporate audience, provide food for thought for individual investors.

Here are a few parts I think to be pertinent:
  • "it would be wise to be prepared for the high probability of future financial shocks. To do so, most companies need to become more adept at risk management and to err on the side of being overcapitalized, overliquid, and overprepared." By shocks they mean what is described in the next quote below. To me the implication is to hold a higher amount of fixed income with special regard to credit-worthiness. Canadian government debt seems to me to be a good bet, even better than US Treasury debt.
  • "... companies should engage in serious scenario planning around “unthinkables.” These might include the potential for significant, rapid shifts in currency values (for example, a 30 percent decline of the dollar versus emerging-market currencies); an exit from the euro by some nations; dramatic, rapid changes in commodity prices (for example, oil prices spiking to $200 a barrel); or defaults on debt by major nations." Hello major volatility in different parts of a portfolio. Currency exposure may well account for most of the variation in an internationally-diversified portfolio in future. If CAD remains strong because of Canada's production of commodities and because our government's fiscal situation is strong too (thanks again to Paul Martin and Jean Chretien who did the dirty work back in the 1990s that we benefit from today), there is a good possibility we Canadian investors won't gain much overall from such shifts, maybe even lose due to US and European holdings even though emerging markets holdings might rise even more strongly. Since emerging markets are typically a small (only 5% in my portfolio) portion, does that mean one should depart from the traditional backward-looking passive allocation according to current market value and increase the allocation looking forward. Or, an investor has two other choices - 1) try to avoid currency volatility by buying hedged funds but the question is whether such funds are effective given their typical high overhead cost and the tracking error; 2) stay exposed to currency, monitor the portfolio closely and be ready to do major rebalancing. Hmmm, what to do .... cannot say I've decided but just ignoring this stuff isn't smart.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Socially Responsible Investing: another Take from the Globe and Mail

A few months ago I had posted here and here about the difficulties and quirks encountered by investors interested in investing according to what are termed socially responsible principles. The Globe and Mail has come along and published another view in its Report on Corporate Social Responsibility based on research done by Corporate Knights. The approach taken differs fairly significantly from that of Jantzi Sustainalytics. Whereas Jantzi screens out "bad" companies in gambling, armaments etc and screens in "good" companies improving the environment etc, Corporate Knights seems to simply rate all companies according to quantifiable measures of environmental performance (4 indicators for energy consumption, carbon emissions, water usage, waste production), social performance (5 indicators for CEO to lowest paid ratio, employee safety, taxes paid, presence of a DB pension plan, funding adequacy of DB pension) and corporate governance (board committee on social responsibility, diversity of board membership, executive pay linked to social responsibility).

The Globe's effort is much better in my opinion - the ratings criteria are actually published unlike the vague Jantzi "we won't tell you because it is proprietary" message, the ratings criteria are clear and quantifiable and the criteria make sense. They even allow you to download the whole table of ratings for all the TSX 60 companies. Kudos to the Globe!

The Globe comes up with different results than Jantzi too. We previously noted that George Weston failed to make the grade in the Jantzi method (but we aren't told why) but in the Globe's ranking they are right up there in number 2 spot. Unfortunately, Tim Hortons is still a bad guy but now the Globe tells us why - they don't actually disclose any of the required data on the environmental factors. It's time to fess up Timmy.

FWIW, there are nine Canadian companies in the top Global 100 Corporate Sustainability ranking by Corporate Knights, a number far above Canada's economic weight (the US has only ten companies in the list). Take a pat on the back Canada for its corporate do-gooders. That is nowhere near the best country of all, the UK with 21 companies in the top 100 (no, BP is not amongst them).

For investors who want to take their socially responsible investing decisions seriously and not take the lazy "anything labeled socially responsible will do" route, the Globe's list is still not the final answer. Take Barrick Gold for instance - our previous post noted that there is controversy about the company's activities but it is ranked quite high at 19th best out of the TSX 60. Caveat emptor as always.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Proposed Federal Securities Regulator - Little Help for the Individual Investor

Worth reading:'s Proposed Canadian Securities Act and investor protection: a failing grade. The thoughtful, detailed analysis and judgment of the proposed move by the federal government to create a national securities regulator shows how little improvement there really is likely to be for the individual investor in solving key problems: high fees for mutual funds, costly access to government of Canada securities, lack of fiduciary responsibility by the industry towards investors, inadequate civil court recourse against misbehaving financial firms, priority given to financial system protection over investor interests.

Blog author Marc Ryan concludes by quoting Minister Flaherty saying that the intent of the federal move is to enhance investor protection!

The article casts new perspective on provincial opposition to the move, which seems to be a federal-provincial blanket-pulling contest. Of course, the provinces could hardly cut to the gist of the matter and say that the federal solution is poor when their own laws and regulation don't do a very good job.

I've previously written in favour of having a national securities regulator but it just doesn't seem to be worth it as formulated, so I'm changing my mind as a result of this article. Do it right or don't bother. (As for my flip-flop I'll only doing as the great economist John Maynard Keynes, who said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" from Wikiquotes which has a whole bunch of other wonderful Keynes quotes)

Monday 21 June 2010

CanadianFinancialDIY in Top Blog List

Fellow blogger published a list of favorite Canadian Financial blogs including this very one. It's nice to get noticed! BankNerd himself covers bank accounts, credit cards and insurance.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Pension Reform and What Retirees Need

Pension reform in Canada seems to be gathering steam, a too-rare and laudable case of government taking action before, instead of after, the crisis hits. (Those who look at the fact that today's pensioners are doing relatively ok and that therefore no need for action exists should read the June 10 TD Economics piece Retirement Income Security Reform in which they project how things will evolve if nothing changes.)

Some proposals seem to ignore what a pensioner really needs, so here is my list of qualities that retirement income should have. It is based on the simple principle that a base pension needs to support a continuation of basic lifestyle spending, the everyday needs that are constant, non-discretionary, fixed, lifetime and that consequently the pension should have similar characteristics.
  1. Guarantee / highest possible security - when it is your grocery money or your heating bill, it absolutely needs to be there. Retirement should be about peace of mind. So the question is, which organizational pension provider rates highest? Government might be that entity but can it keep its grubby hands off money set aside for the future if Canada goes back to the 1980s deficit and debt era? Is CPP and its associated investment body the CPPIB enough "arm-lengths" away to ensure no fast moves by future crimped governments? Are banks and insurance companies stable enough, even with guarantee funds in place?
  2. Fixed frequent automatic payment - the income needs to be constant to enable family budgeting and money management, it needs to be regular and frequent, ideally monthly, at worst quarterly, and ideally automatically deposited into a bank account to make financial life easier and simpler to manage. In the accumulation years prior to retirement the saving process should be just as easy, automatic and regular.
  3. Inflation-adjusted - this point is critical since the government policy rate of 2% inflation (actually 1-3% is the official range) will hugely undermine the purchasing power of a fixed amount over a 20-30 year retirement, which is the new norm due to rising life expectancy.
  4. 40-45% Income Replacement - this level is a trade-off. It is deliberately a bit below the usual minimum of 50% pre-retirement income replacement to maintain lifestyle. People will be squeezed a bit, not far from the 50% goal so that the goal can be easily achieved by either a bit more saving during pre-retirement or a bit of work during retirement. Giving an incentive for people to work during retirement is doing them a favour since they will be healthier and happier.
  5. Lifetime - ultimate peace of mind requires that people be assured of receiving the steady income for as long as they live, whether it is 65 or 105, and not have to worry (hope?!) about dying before the RRIF runs out.
The above list leads to a set of criteria and features needed in a pension scheme:
  1. Mandatory participation - everyone must be in it for several reasons. The sad reality is that, left to their own volition and devices, too many people do not save enough out of their income for their retirement. The automatic default enrolment, with people allowed to opt-out, has pretty well the same effect since few people bother to opt out. Buy why beat around the bush - in exchange for the guaranteed lifetime inflation-adjusted income it seems a fair trade to be obliged to participate? The other reason is,
  2. Large pool of participants for longevity risk sharing - a big challenge for individuals in financial planning of their retirement is not knowing how long they will live. Population averages, on the other hand, are known more or less to the decimal point of years. That allows much more precise planning and lower safety buffers for a fund than an individual must have. The "mortality credits" of those who die sooner allow higher payments for all than any cautious person could achieve using the commonly accepted 4% safe withdrawal rate from their own RRIF. The pension stops when the person dies. There is nothing to pass along to heirs. The purpose of the pension is not for a legacy, it is to fund lifetime living expenses. The people who die sooner than the average subsidize those who live longer. (Mandatory participation gets rid of the issue of adverse selection, whereby people opt out when they think they will die sooner than others.) But it is a fair exchange in my mind - give up the possibility of a legacy for certainty and the peace of mind of knowing the money will not run out. Families/children are saved the worry or actual burden of having to financially support parents in old age. As a result, big plans with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people enrolled, are better. Actuaries can figure out the exact scale required and then the feasibility of private pension schemes can be judged. A national program obviously has the largest scale.
  3. Low administrative cost - costs directly reduce money available to the pensioner, so a pension fund should max out at perhaps 0.2% of assets on the investment side - the CPPIB proves the investment side can be done cheaply as its overheads amount to under that figure. What costs are reasonable on the collection and payment side, I do not know. Can the private sector compete? Update 8 September2010 - It seems that the experience in other countries where mandatory enrolment retirement investment schemes have been set up, private sector fees are way too high, as FT reports in Why Proceeding with NEST is Crucial (hat tip to RetirementAction for the link)
  4. Fiduciary obligation - a pension fund must first and last put the direct and quite narrow financial interests of pensioners ahead of anything else. That means ahead of private sector profits or other government policy objectives like economic development. A very large pension fund will want to (and probably need to because of its scale) go beyond Canada's borders to invest. There should be a high degree of transparency in all regards for such a fund. Again, CPPIB is a good model.
  5. Long term investment view and perpetual investment horizon - individuals in retirement are critically aware (at least those who know what they are doing are aware) of their uncertain lifespan and their decreasing or expired ability to weather possible long periods of poor stock investment returns. As a result they must adopt a very safe portfolio, which in the long run means lower returns. A perpetual fund can be more ambitious and expect to ride out down periods of a decade or more. That will mean a higher allocation to equities and higher expected returns than an individual could do. It can also have access to, due to scale, to illiquid private equity and infrastructure type of investments, with the capacity to wait for fruition. Individual investors do not, and can never, have that capability.
  6. Professional management - properly trained and motivated (cf fiduciary duty) professional managers have the capability to find and exploit market inefficiencies (which of course is the very mechanism that brings markets to be generally quite efficient). Very few individuals have the knowledge and even fewer have the scale of funds required to do the same profitably. Professional management have the potential to be less susceptible to the errors indentified in behavioural finance if good control systems are put in place. Professional management can have the knowledge to apply finance theory for critical tasks like asset allocation.
  7. Portability - the pension should not be tied to a particular public, private or self- employer or province and should follow the person throughout their working life and through retirement. It should be a baseline pension, which individuals or companies can use to plan supplementary savings and investments.
In my next post, I will take a shot at rating how two pension options - the Canada Pension Plan vs a RRIF/LRIF - stack up against the above criteria.

Note that the above does not address health risk, which even in socialized medicine Canada, can have appreciable negative financial impact in retirement. A significant portion of retirees will end up needing to spend a lot more all of a sudden in a lumpy amount for a critical illness or for long term care.

Monday 14 June 2010

Financial Literacy Proposals - You Gotta Be Kidding!

Amongst the less-than-sensible ideas floating around these days is the notion that the general population can be sufficiently trained to successfully manage on their own all their finances, investments, pensions and the like. There's even a national task force doing the rounds of consultation to come up with a strategy.

There are two big reasons that proposals to improve financial literacy don't make sense:
  1. It's not knowledge, it's behaviour that is the key problem people have - not saving enough and taking too much debt results more from lack of judgment and self-control not from knowing the difference between simple and compound interest. The large and growing body of research on behavioural finance shows that the main impediment to financial and investing success is the irrational decisions we are all too prone to make. I do believe it is possible to train people to a certain degree - some people being more naturally capable of being trained, just like some people learn to play golf faster than others, even with lessons. However, I seriously doubt that the task force will be going down that path (unless somehow the "skill" they define as being part of financial literacy means the ability to manage their own reactions, impulses, fear, greed, over-confidence, framing errors and all the other quirks, foibles and thinking errors identified in behavioural finance).
  2. It is rocket science - whenever people give out simplistic financial advice it reminds me of simple instructions for playing the clarinet "just blow in the top and run your fingers up and down the holes". Modern finance is not simple. Part of the cause of the credit crunch and financial crisis is apparently that the executives of the banks did not themselves understand the models and products concocted by the math and physics PhDs. Look at the random page below from the book The Calculus of Retirement Income by Moshe Milevsky one of the few dozen people on this planet who properly understand how pensions work. I don't know about you but I have an MBA in Finance, I have spent the last three and half years reading and blogging about investments and personal finance and I estimate it would take me about another two years of hard work to relearn math sufficiently to really understand what he has written.

Noted author William Bernstein writes in his latest book The Investor's Manifesto: "I have come to the sad conclusion that only a tiny minority will ever succeed in managing their money even tolerably well." By managing their money, he means the ground-up type of DIY investing that is assumed when the leaders of our society foist defined contribution retirement plans and RRSPs upon us and pretend that we will be fine with a little "financial literacy" i.e. technical knowledge of finance. Bernstein does propose some relatively simple methods, imperfect but much better than what happens now, but I doubt they could be adopted as public policy education goals due to their bias in favour of some specific industry products like index funds and against others like actively managed mutual funds that are perfectly legal though harmful to the investor.

So what could and should be done? First, I believe the government should undertake public behaviour modification in favour of saving more and borrowing less. A societal attitude change is necessary - like anti-smoking and anti-drink driving. Second, proper retirement income reform that considers first and foremost the income needs of retirees along with the risks they face in retirement needs to happen. I'll post more about that tomorrow.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Cap-Weight vs Fundamental: Live Realistic Portfolio Showdown

In recent months I've converted my passive index portfolio strategy from one based on capitalization-weighted ETFs to fundamentally-weighted ETFs in the expectation that this will pay off with higher returns and lower volatility. The theory and the back-tested data notwithstanding, the proof is in the pudding so I've constructed two parallel portfolios which are permanently posted at the bottom of this blog. I'll hopefully see how my new portfolio fares in comparison to what might have been - it's either public embarrassment or triumph that is in store for me down the road.

Since pudding is something you can actually eat, the portfolio will be as realistic as possible, what an actual investor will experience, as opposed to so-called index returns one typically sees in the financial press, which exclude various MERs, commissions, tracking errors, currency exchange fees, taxes etc.

Here is how these portfolios will operate:
  • $100,000 Initial Capital - though most people must gradually build up a portfolio, I've started with a lump sum to invest; to convert my own portfolio I've actually had to pay an extra 7 trading commissions ($70) to sell off the cap-weight ETFs that no longer fit but I have ignored this cost.
  • Trading Commission - $10 each trade, so the initial total value of the portfolio has lost $120 for the 12 trades to establish each portfolio
  • Asset Allocation - both portfolios have the same basic percentages allocated by geography and asset class (see the breakdown in the tab AssetAllocation-ETFs) with one prime difference - the cap-weight portfolio includes Value ETFs for USA Small-Cap equity (VBR) and for Global Developed equity (EFV) following the cap-weight view of the world that one adds Value stocks as a tilt. Meanwhile, the Fundamental portfolio simply includes Smaller company ETFs, according to the fundamental metrics NOT cap-weight, for the same USA and Global geographies. In the Canadian REIT class, I have chosen the brand new BMO ETF (ZRE) which equally weights its holdings, since equal weighting also breaks the over-investment in growth stocks that corrupts cap-weighting. In several asset classes no fundamental ETFs are available so we are restricted to using cap-weight ETFs, like XMD (Canadian Small), RWX (Global REIT) and DJP (Commodities). This asset allocation difference is the essence of the divergent approaches.
  • Real Prices - I used actual market quotes during the day yesterday June 9th as my buy prices. Note how the real investor cannot buy exactly the number of shares to place the exact amount allocated to each asset class. Through the magic of GoogleFinance and Google Docs, I have created a spreadsheet that automatically and continually retrieves current market prices so that a very realistic picture of the portfolios can be seen at any time.
  • Rebalancing - will be reviewed once a year in mid July after semi-annual distributions have been received and rebalanced if holdings are more than 1/4 from their target value e.g. for RWX whose allocation is 2%, that is a 0.5% up or down deviation. Even with a fairly big $100k portfolio, it is not desirable to rebalance too often with too small buy-sell amounts - even 0.5% of the initial $2000 allocation is $500, so a $10 trade is a 2% cost. For 12 annual rebalancing trades or $120, the cost to the $100k portfolio is a 120/100000 = 0.1% extra annual cost. Such seemingly small differences do matter over the long run.
  • Taxes - I am assuming the portfolios are within registered accounts that qualify as retirement accounts under US rules (RRSP, RIF, LRIF, LIRA but not TFSA or RESP) so that there is no 15% withholding tax deducted from distributions received from US ETFs
  • Distributions - I will add cash distributions to the portfolios as they are received. To keep things a bit simpler I will assume that USD cash will remain as USD and not be converted into CAD (thus avoiding the attendant built-in currency exchange fee). This is in keeping with the slow trend by discount brokers (Questrade, RBC and some others do so today) to enable USD to be kept as USD in registered accounts.
  • Foreign Currency - the value in Canadian dollars (CAD) is what counts to me and to most Canadians so the net value of USD-traded ETFs is converted back into CAD automatically through the use of the ETF CurrencyShares Canadian Dollar Trust (FXC), which tracks the value of CAD in USD pretty closely. None of the foreign holdings in either portfolio are hedged since I believe the costs of hedging and the tracking error of hedged ETFs outweigh the benefits in the long run. Conversion of CAD with USD is assumed to cost 0.9% (about what I seem to pay with my broker).
  • DRIP - CRQ, ZRE and ZRB offer automatic free reinvestment of distributions so I will calculate that; for the others, the cash balance will accumulate for a year until rebalancing is done. Since I cannot figure out how much interest the cash would collect - a minimal amount if any these days - I won't include any interest for now but if interest rates start to shoot up, I'll try to do an estimate based on rates I see in my own account.
  • Tracking Through the Months and Years - to get an idea of the relative volatility of the two portfolios (I don't expect too much difference since the fundamental indexers themselves have figured out that there is a high correlation between the ups and downs of the funds ... but we shall see), I'll take a month-end snapshot of the portfolio totals and begin graphing them. In ten years, it should be interesting! (If that seems too long, maybe we can take comfort in the fact that Charles Darwin took twenty years to continue his research before publishing his book after he had developed the theory of natural selection).
Over time, the Fundamental Weight ETFs should all sooner or later establish a lead over the Cap-weight ETFs - shown in Red numbers in the middle column of Fund-vs-CapWt-MktValue spreadsheet - that will eventually be large enough never to be overcome. That is my expectation, hope and prayer! Go Reds, go!

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Canadian TaxPayers' Ombudsman Office

Fellow blogger Michael James' post today about his hassles with the Canada Revenue Agency reminded me that I received an email recently from a relatively new government service for aggrieved Canadian taxpayers - the Office of the Taxpayers' Ombudsman.

Here is a chunk of their email to me:
"Canada’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights was expanded in 2007 to include eight service rights. Mr. J. Paul Dubé was appointed as Canada’s first Taxpayers' Ombudsman in February 2008 to uphold these eight service rights by ensuring that taxpayers get professional service and fair treatment from the CRA.

In that light, the Office of the Taxpayers' Ombudsman plays an important new role by providing independent and impartial reviews of complaints about how the CRA serves and treats taxpayers. The Office also addresses systemic problems that affect large numbers of taxpayers.

Attached is an electronic version of our Interim Report as well as our first Annual Report. As they demonstrate, the activities of the Office of the Taxpayers' Ombudsman have already resulted in a number of disputes between taxpayers and the CRA being resolved. It provides a few examples of the types of cases in which we have made a difference in the lives of taxpayers. As a result of our intervention, the CRA has:

* issued apologies;
* released bank accounts they had seized;
* cancelled penalties and interest they were charging;
* reviewed some of its internal policies and procedures; and
* in some instances, ended collection activities.
Additional information is available at:" The complaint form can be downloaded here.

Monday 7 June 2010

Two of the New BMO ETFs Worth a Look

Amongst BMO Financial Group's latest batch of new ETFs announced May 26th, are two that look pretty good - BMO Equal Weight REITs Index ETF (ZRE) and BMO Real Return Bond Index ETF (ZRR).

Why ZRE? First, real estate is considered (by most people and by me) to be a separate asset class, so unlike the growing number of sub-sector ETFs there is justification for a separate holding of a REIT ETF such as ZRE. ZRE competes with the well-established iShares REIT index ETF (XRE). Second, both have the same 0.55% MER but the crucial difference is that BMO will equally weight the REITs held within ZRE, instead of the traditional cap-weighting within XRE. For those who accept the evidence that cap-weighting is inferior to equal weighting (or fundamental weighting, as I said March 8th), ZRE becomes the best choice. (Disclosure: I've already sold off my XRE and replaced it with ZRE in my portfolio.)

And ZRR? For an investor who uses real return bonds as an asset class (see various links on the Real Return Bond page by Bylo Selhi) and wants to be able to rebalance easily, ZRR is better than iShares' real return bond ETF (XRR) on two important measures - lower MER of 0.25% vs 0.35% and the ability to reinvest interest received automatically at no cost - the BMO DRIP program which applies to all its ETFs. For more comparison, see HowToInvestOnline's Which Way is Best to Invest in Real Return Bonds - Direct, ETF or Mutual Fund?

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Guest Post: Money Advice by a Six Year Old

Grandson Jack has been over visiting lately and we got to discussing my blogging. He offered to help me write up some financial advice and here is what he came up with:

"Put lots of pounds [Jack lives in Scotland] in the bank to have money for holidays, for a car, for a big castle house, for a laptop, for a football, for a caravan. If you have money you can buy a telly.

If you do not have money, you can't buy anything. You need money to get a radio.

You can't get a house if you don't have any money. If you don't have any money you will have a tough life, my mom says. You can't get a book like this popular book if you don't have any money.

If you don't have any money you would be poor. If you are poor you could ask somebody to help you in your life. A job would be a good way to earn money.

If you would like money you would have to stick in at school.

Chapter 6 if you would like money and you would like to earn money.

You would have to get a very good job. If your job was very good you would have loads and loads of hundreds of pounds. If you would like hundreds of pounds you would have to work very very very very very very hard at school."
This eminently sensible advice leaves me with these thoughts:
  • if a six year old knows the basic realities of money, probably most people do too - the basic problem is motivation and getting yourself to do the right thing
  • keep your ears and mind open when kids are around - they can come up with good ideas too

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