Monday, March 3, 2014
China Backs Russia in Ukraine Dispute- No that it is a huge surprise that China would back Russia but it is a sign of support and escalation calling all paper tiger's bluffs and further emboldening our adversaries around the world.
Notes of interest - Like Al-Queda in Syria look here we are now - Savage Interview - US teaming with neo-Nazis in Ukraine
- David Stockman's site -Memo to Obama: This Was Their Red Line!*****************************************************
My thoughts - As events unfold in the Ukraine it is causing me a lot of discomfort and I think the Media is not focusing on the real issues here instead they are intent on just painting Putin as the bad guy. Please understand Putin is a Ex-KGB thug and a ruthless one at that; as evidenced by the way he treats his own citizens. What is causing me concern requires a bit of a history background and understanding of “the great game”. Travel back in time to pre WW1 Europe. Starting in the period of 1870 – 1914 the European powers were jealous of each other and competing for dominance. For example, Germany longed to compete with Britain’s industrial revolution and naval power so they worked feverishly to build out both industrial capacity and a navy that rivaled England’s, under Otto Von Bismark’s vision. In this time period all the countries of Europe as well as Central Asia and Russia entered in to various alliances with each other. By the time 1914 rolled around the countries were all interconnected by treaties to come to the aid of fellow countries should they be attacked. Through what historians refer to the process of escalation tensions continued to rise until an innocuous event occurred plunging Europe in to chaos. The event took place on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. This seemingly minor event set in motion a series of treaty dominoes that resulted in Europe descending in to World War 1.
How does this relate to today? Good question. So today we have the military movement of Russian forces in to the Ukrainian province of Crimea. Crimea is actually more aligned with Russia and much of the population there is of Russian descent and many are dual citizens as well as Russian speakers. Ukraine is a complicated country as the Western half of the country is Ukrainian and has more of a bias toward Western Europe while the Eastern side’s vision fits more with the Russian sphere. Sounds like a recipe for a mess but wait it gets even more complicated. The region of Crimea let alone Ukraine as a whole is of vital importance to Russia and Putin. The reason Putin is moving in to Crimea and will not be deterred by more hollow threats from Washington (a la Georgia 2008) is more than simply to protect Russian citizens who make up most of the population, instead it is strategic on many fronts. First, the Russian Navy has large fleet bases that they would not want to give up located in Crimea on the Black Sea. Second, the Eastern half of Ukraine is also known as Russia’s “bread basket” to feed their population. Third, Russia is dependent on heavy industry that is located in Ukraine for both economic and military needs. Fourth, Russia’s access to warm water ports outside of the Black Sea through Turkey could be blocked. Fourth, and most important to Putin is whoever controls Ukraine controls the last piece of the puzzle to the Natural Gas pipelines that are so vital to the EU.
Remember that not to long ago the US was almost involved in Syria because Putin was taking the other side’s position. One has to ask themselves what was Syria really about? Just like the Arab spring which was strictly pabulum for the masses so to was the narrative of what is happening in Syria. The conflict in Syria is an effort by the US to stop Putin from achieving his goal of a natural gas coop there by destabilizing the petro dollar. The US found itself in bed with Al Queada to try and deter the Russians from being able to put pipelines through the critical land link of Syria enroute to the EU; Ukraine also stands in that chain. Putin envisions himself as a kind of new Czar and is trying to reassemble a new version of the Russian Empire. This is a man who longs for the days of the KGB and the old Soviet Union.
Ironically, the Russians in the Crimea province know this and still would prefer to align with Putin than the EU. Moreover, it is unknown what the desire or fates of the roughly 35-40 percent of the population in Crimea that are not of Russian descent. What happens to them do they become like the tragedy of the American Indian or do they fight or flee? Enter the the Obama administration and yet more policy blunders. It is coming to light although the Western Mainstream Media (MSM) especially in the US is trying to suppress the story that the “rebellion” in Ukraine was a Washington concocted situation. Another fine mess created by the thought processes of our current crop of politicians that are either academics or nothing more than myopic political hacks (thank you very much Mr. Kerry & Mr. Hagel). A revelation leaked on the internet, highlights a call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, in which they discuss, which of the country’s opposition leaders they would like to see in government – and refer to getting the UN involved in the process to resolve the political crisis. So in essence Washington was coordinating this uprising to essentially be a thorn in Putin’s side knowing that it would strategically hurt him.
But move forward to today and as usual the best laid plans of academics and political hacks (who know nothing of history) have blown out of control. So on the one hand you have Russia massing the military and actually moving in to Crimea to protect their interests in what the MSM calls “uncontested arrival” so nice and politically correct. While the protests in Kiev and other places in the Western side of Ukraine went from being peaceful to violent. Why did they go violent? Once again out Political hacks don’t understand history in general or that of Russia a or the Ukraine in specific. Initially, the “hand picked” leaders that Nuland and others higher up in Washington’s ivory tower selected to “take over” Ukraine and found a new government were over taken by a very strong faction that has a long history in Ukraine. The Policy wonks that the US supported have been over run by a much more violent, organized and strong group that does not align with the US or Russia. To understand this one needs to look at history again. This time we need to go back to World War 2 and understand that Ukraine is located between Poland and Russia and to Poland’s left is Germany. Most people know that the Germans “Blitzkreiged” through Poland and occupied it, but Ukraine fearful of Russia actually had a large contingent that allied with the Nazis to fend off the Soviets. Before WW2 the Soviets had large scale “Progroms” in Ukraine and many people still refer to this period as the “Ukrainian Holocaust”. In fact the main reason that the Eastern side of Ukraine is mostly ethnically Russian is a result of the Soviet purification efforts on the mid 1930’s. So as a result when Hitler started in to Ukraine they were welcomed and had a collaborator.
The ancestors of those collaborators who are in essence modern Nazis see their opportunity to seize control, and they have with violence. In fact they now hold the main election office under armed guard with the excuse that they want to have the normal election cycle and this way they can prevent voter fraud. If one does an internet search you can see that reporting of who holds the government buildings in Kiev stops on 2/22 and articles about this topic written post that date have mysteriously disappeared. What this means is they are looking to perpetrate voter fraud in favor of themselves and make sure the peaceful up risers cannot get in to power. This is an old tactic used throughout history in coup situations and dictatorships and was in fact made fun of in Sahsa Barron Cohen's movie "The Dictator" in the ending sequence wher ethey show a long line of people ready to cast votes and the line shifts because breifly one sees a tank on the edge of the frame herding the people to the "correct:" voting booth.
Friday in another of those Yosemite Sam vs Bugs Bunny moments, Obama put forward another “I dare you to cross this line” speech. In response, Saturday the Russian Parliament approved Putin using military force in Ukraine, meaning that action would not necessarily be limited to Crimea. This reaction is what should be expected given this and prior US responses. I am sure that the leadership in China, Iran, North Korea and other of our foes has duly noted that the US is all bark and no bite. All this comes at a time where we are reducing forces and gutting the military all the while stretched across the world and having unsecured borders. While this is a concern it is not my immediate concern. Instead the modern day situation reminds me of the start of WW1. Today we have Ukraine positioned where it is taken over by this violent faction and Russia is on one side while Poland and the EU are on the other as a consortium of NATO states. Echoing pre- WW1, there is a situation, where an attack or incident in one state could cause a domino tumble because of all the treaties. Moreover, a confrontation with Russia in their back yard would not be a wise idea as learned by Napoleon and Hitler. I fear if the US were stupid enough to actually try and go up against Russia near their border a further escalation could result in use of nukes.
The reality is the US is still for now very powerful and what we need to be doing is standing with allies and moving carriers and other assets in to position around the region. Realistically, we don't want to get in to a war I understand that but as I stated earlier Putin is a thug and thugs only understand power. Playing the Yosemite Sam vs Bugs Bunny cross this line card will not work with Vlad; instead he needs to see we will back things up with action. Even if we don't want it to come to fighting, words are not going to convince Putin. Only a fear that we would overwhelm his navy and or military with air superiority might just be enough to get him to back down. If we don't act it further reenforces that the US has become a paper tiger and will further embolden Putin and other bad actors in the near future.
On Tuesday , Secretary of State John Kerry, is going to travel to Ukraine and threaten sanctions which I am sure Putin will now disregard, as I am sure this was part of the reason for diversifying out of US Dollars in to tons of gold. Short of going in to the Ukraine what could we really do to stop this? Moreover, going in to Ukraine and taking on the Russians is not a good idea. The problem is our politicians have now created a situation where the likes of Putin and others view us as more impotent by the day. The world does not dance to the current philosophy of appeasement that the US has under taken a lesson learned many years ago by Neville Chamberlain but forgotten today. Increasingly we are viewed as weak and nothing more than a paper tiger. Mr. Kerry by his own actions has fostered this belief as well by denouncing the "Monroe Doctrine" a naive and dangerous precedent that further emboldened our adversaries. Now this man who has at best utopian view of how the world works s going to solve the problem in the Ukraine; I am sure Putin is just shaking in his boots, Russia is not Iran or Israel that can so easily be toyed with as in the past. Things have changed and while Russia is not a superpower each day that passes we are being drive more to their level than maintaining our position. Just look what has happened since Kerry made this asinine proclamation; Russia is in the process of opening bases not only in Asia but also right under our noses in Cuba , Nicaragua and Venezuela. What are we doing about it under the current Secretaries of Defense or State, very little. I find this unbelievable since under JFK we nearly went to nuclear with the Russians during the Cuban Missle Crisis starting on October 16th 1962.
There are those that argue it is good for the US to be knocked down a peg and that we spend to much on military and are therefore inclined to use it to often. I totally disagree with these utopian thinkers, the world is a dangerous and hostile place and a strong military is needed to provide a deterrent to any and all comers. To paraphrase the Emperor Tiberius " Let them hate us so long as they fear us" . Being a good global citizen does not mean cow towing and appeasing the world it means taking the moral high ground and standing from a position of strength to ensure that the torch of right and liberty remain lit. People want every one to like us well look around people the policies in place now are not winning us any friends, in fact I would argue that Americans were more globally liked at the zenith of our power by a wide margin vs today. We need a foreign policy that is consistent and based in reality vs what we have had under Bush and continuing under Obama; one that will recapture world respect.
Seems like so many in the US at all levels take for granted all the blood that was spilled to allow them to live and think the way they do currently. They disrespect the memories of those who built this country its foundation and don't realize (or perhaps they do) that they are not moving us forward but the whole world backwards. Its time to grow up America and live up to your heritage not toss it out the window for lollipops, EBT cards, democrats, republicans or the promise of rainbows and unicorns.
Friday, January 31, 2014
You see dear reader, if the US loses its reserve currency status then it is essentially game over for the FED, Government and sadly the populace. There is a lot at stake here and unfortunately confidence is being placed in people that generate policies like QE and Taper. The world is not pleased even just this morning there was a shot across the bow from India. The Indian Central Bank Chief Rajan is completely correct in pointing out that the economies of the globe are all interconnected, yet Washington and the FED act without consideration of the effect on others, a policy that will come home to roost in the near future. Rajan is not alone in pointing these issues out in fact Putin, the Chinese leadership and others are all singing form the same hymn book. The bottom line is the FED and the Government can lay blame all they want to keep doing as they wish but it will not stop reality form taking its toll.I know dear reader, you always hear about how the Dollar can not be supplanted because no currency is deep enough and so forth, but if trust is lost it matters not how deep the pool is only that the water is not toxic to your financial health. Furthermore, thru out history there have been currency paradigm shifts even so recently as the end of World War 2. It would be highly educational to have a time machine and travel back to1930's England and ask people in that time if they could ever see the Pound Sterling losing its primere reserve currency status. Just like today if you float the notion that the Dollar could be ousted people would have thought you a lunatic.
Friday, January 17, 2014
Yes Virginia there is such a thing as a free lunch…Or at least that is what economists want you to believe
First, we should point out that inflation is a monetary event and that rising prices are a symptom not a cause. It is no different than patient with diabetes that continually abuses sugar and ends up with foot problems but says the foot is causing the diabetes. The notion of “sterilized” QE is a wonderful invention of the Bernanke FED but the reality is that truly sterilized QE will only work on smaller scales for short periods of time.
Dear reader, think of when you were a kid at the beach and built a sand castle at low tide. I am sure you labored diligently shaping the castle building a moat and then a wall around it to protect it from the incoming tide. We have all experienced what happens to the castle as the walls can no longer resist the on rushing tide; they become overwhelmed collapse and the castle gets wiped out. Now Imagine QE is that on rushing tide and the banking system and economy are behind that sand wall, at some point it will get overwhelmed. At the moment the vastness and complexity of the US economy along with the fact that the US Dollar is the world’s reserve currency has given us a “bye” if you will, but this will not last forever. Do I know when the QE tide overwhelms the system? As Yogi Berra once said “Predictions are very difficult especially regarding the future”. Is that a cop out? Perhaps. It seems that every mile marker event is taking 5 to 10 miles to get to, or much longer than one can imagine. Rest assured that it will happen.
But they are tapering you forget! While it is true that the FED for whatever reason decided that they were able to safely cut $120B from the QE program, but they are still monetizing $900B a year. While the mainstream media (MSM) and sell side economists continually cheer-lead every positive data point and downplay reality,eventually reality catches up; remember the years of 2nd half recovery and “Green Shoots”. For example, there was much made over this past quarter’s GDP report clocking in at 4% growth, however, some 2.5% of that figure was inventory growth. Now given the latest UPS report and retailer reports (think Best Buy) are pointing to sluggish sales and given the US economy is 70% consumer driven this does not paint a picture of an expanding economy. Even today the rise in inventories, which is usually a harbinger of recession, is being spun as a positive see the article “US business inventories rise, will support Q4 GDP".
At some point in the not too distant future the economy will slip again and the FED will be forced to tuck their tail between their legs and up QE at least to previous levels, which will probably sacrifice whatever credibility they have left. History is replete with examples of schemes where countries tried to manipulate their way out of a bad economy yet none of them succeeded. The current situation reminds me of the French Assignat period and the reason I believe the FED will have to continue QE is as demonstrated in that period. You see, dear reader, in the late 1700’s the French economy was struggling so they started on a QE program of their own and each time they printed money the economy seemed better, then they would stop and things would revert back until they printed even more money. This money printing went on in greater quantities until things just finally collapsed ushering in Napoleon who promised sound money.
So today we have a twist on the money printing AKA QE. The idea behind QE is that the Federal Reserve uses freshly printed money and buys bonds from Member Banks (JPM, GS, MS etc..) only then these banks deposit the proceeds (or about 80% of them) as excess reserves to be held on account at the FED. The FED entices this behavior by paying interest on the excess reserves there by allowing the banks to “risklessly” re-liquify their balance sheets and keeping the excess money out of the fractional reserve system, which would stoke inflation and create more potential bubbles. In some respects this idea is quite clever, but it is still monetization regardless. So now the member banks would rather collect interest at the FED than loan to a business that may have some risk associated with it so the bank makes money as the economy is choked off of credit. This situation is a catch 22. In order to get out of the current environment the economy needs to grow and firm which would benefit the banks, instead we have the banks on the FED’s iron lung while the body economy atrophies and shrivels.
We are told over and over that this QE scheme is not inflationary and is the “ultimate free lunch” but the reality that while the FED has succeeded in lowering rates and keeping them down by crowding out buyers of Treasuries and Mortgage Backed Securities they have in essence become the bond market. Currently they admit to buying $75B a month but we suspect that they are buying much more utilizing various entities (like the exchange stabilization fund etc..) probably on the order of double or even triple the reported figures, of course we will never know as no audits are allowed. The reality is that QE is a direct monetization of US Debt made to appear indirect and while the FED’s dollars go to the member banks the government has to keep selling debt and someone has to keep buying it. This means that while we have seen foreigners pull back from buying our debt someone is stepping up to the plate in a large manner. There is really only one player that would be able or willing to do this and that is the FED itself. The best blatant example of this hypothesis harkens back to June when Zero Hedge questioned who was the buyer of last resort as depicted in this graph. (Click link for full size)
What economists fail to see is that if the FED is buying all or most of the USTs whether directly or via member banks it is directly monetizing. At one point there were reports that the FED was purchasing 80% of treasuries but since 2012 no figures have been available, however, I get reports daily of FED purchases and they run between 20-50% of what is offered on a given day.
Yes, dear reader, this money is making it in to the economy in the form of government spending, it could be in a defense contract , EBT card, Social Security check, Welfare Check, Government worker salary, the list is virtually endless. So those that argue the money supply is not growing are incorrect, it is and it is being spent driving costs of items like food. Moreover, that money is now in circulation not being drawn back and destroyed as far as we can tell. The reason inflation is not out of control is simply because of the transmission mechanism for this freshly printed money. We have inflation and in some areas strong inflation but since the banks are not in the act the freshly printed money is not being "fractionalized". So instead of the money going thru the fractional reserve system and having a multiplier effect of 9 – 10 times it is passing as is and resulting in much slower velocity. Said another way it takes much longer to overflow a glass filling it only using the drip of a faucet rather than turning the faucet on.
We don’t believe that the FED will be able to taper long term as there is no fiscal restraint in Washington as every budget deal or debt ceiling raise either puts off any cuts that will be wiped out by a future congress or uses bogus math for justification. For example last year we were told the deficit was ONLY $681B and there was much chest thumping as strutting about like male peacocks but it’s a deception in itself. Instead we prefer to look at the numbers directly from the US Treasury website. Dear Reader, we are sure you can recall the shutdown of 2013 as it was in your face 24 x 7 in the MSM until it concluded on the evening of 10/16/2013. Well the evening of the end the shutdown vote the debt stood at $16,747,478,675,335.10 but the day the government reopened and the debt was tabulated that evening it had jumped to $17,075,590,107,963.50 an increase of $328,111,432,628.40. The true debt for last year was more like $900B if you factor in that the FY ended on 9/30 yet this figure is thru 10/17. The $681B number is derived by only factoring from 9/30/2012 to 9/30/2013 and during the last few months of that period the debt was being altered by extraordinary measures taken by Jack Lew at the US Treasury to avoid running out of money. It was simply amazing that the US could stay consistently $25B under the debt limit while all of this Kabuki Theater was taking place. Worse yet as part of the agreement that reopened the government there is no debt limit in force at until February when Congress votes on it and as a result the debt has gone from the above 10/16 figure to $17,286,874,322,095.90 as of last night or an increase of $539,395,646.760.80. This means that in 100 days since the government has reopened it spent just under $5.4B per day or an annualized rate of $1.97T. Even if one were to give the government a pass and start from the 10/17 figure you have a deficit of 211, 284,214132.40 or 2.1B per day which tallies to $771B annualized. What is not made clear is how much of the debt between 9/30 and the 10/17 jump is a result of FY 2013. Yet we are told about fiscal restraint and budget deals, but the real numbers do not bear this out. There is no way we can grow or tax enough to finance this or even half this pace and why we believe the FED is outright monetizing at a much higher level than we are being told and probably keeping it off balance sheet.
Is it any wonder that countries like China and Russia are striking trade deals left and right, snapping up every available ounce of gold all while calling for the abandonment of the Dollar system. Countries outside the US have dealt with currency debacles in their recent histories while the US has been fortunate that in generational memory there have been no currency disasters here; so as part of a conditioning very few believe it could happen here. We believe they are wrong just because something has not happened does not mean it cannot happen. For example, by this logic one can acknowledge that a huge meteor destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago but because a huge meteor has not struck the Earth since then it cannot happen.
The bottom line is we believe that the FED can only taper so long before the addicted patient will need its fix again and that numbers reported by the FED and government are suspect at this point. No one wants the party to end and will do whatever it takes to keep it going even if it means crushing savers and much larger problems down the road as confidence in the US Dollar and by extension the US Treasuries are eroded, which will be a tipping point. No Fiat currency has gone the distance eventually they all end up in trouble and the dust bin of history. In fact Zero Hedge had a great article featuring the chart below of of prior reserve currencies since the 1400’s.
So dear reader, the idea that QE is a free lunch with no repercussions is a true economic fallacy.
Friday, January 10, 2014
Sometimes investment Ideas come from strange places. For example, the other night I was channel surfing as there was not much on so I was watching an episode of Family Guy. In this episode, "Stewie" was playing homage to the classic 1982 film "Tootsie" starring Dustin Hoffman as an out of work actor who dresses as a woman to find acting work. The specific item that caught my attention was when "Stewie" dressed as a woman is walking down a Manhattan street trying to hail a cab as Dustin Hoffman's character did. Just like the original "Stewie" tries to call the cab as a demure woman but resorts to shouting "TAXI!" in a booming male voice, which does result in a cab stopping. So dear reader you maybe wondering where I am going with this and what does this have to do with investments. Great questions! So this episode got me thinking about a variety of things like how crowded city streets are, which lead me to think of recent articles about demographic shift. You see dear reader part of investing is looking for trends are or will be playing out in the future. One such trend is the desire of the Millennials to live in cities although many will be forced in to the suburbs. Moreover, these same Millennials prefer to be carless and utilize other modes of transport. Knowledge of these factors got me thinking as to what could be a profitable way to participate in the trend.
I started to dig into transportation related issues but was not happy with what I was finding until I started to look outside the box. I am sure dear reader at some point you have traveled to a city or even a large suburban area that had multiple modes of transit. One of the most convenient and omnipresent modes of transport is the Taxi cab. In many areas of the country there are regulatory bodies that issue 'Medallions" for cabs to be authorized to operate in their jurisdiction. For example in the Boston Area where I reside the City of Boston requires a Medallion to operate a cab and currently there are just over 1,800 of them; given the population this makes each medallion very valuable. A Medallion for a New York cab can cost a million dollars which is quite a chunk of change especially for a cabbie and even many cab companies. In fact recently a new NYC record was set for a pair of medallions going for $1.259M each. Taxi commissions control the industries growth by limiting supply allowing demand to drive cost; although their goal is more safety. This control of supply opens the door for a company that is a niche player with experience in the industry giving it somewhat of a moat.
There is a company out there that provides financing to those interested in obtaining the medallion for a cab. The symbol of the company appropriately enough is NASDAQ:TAXI and its Company name is Medallion Financial Corporation. The way the company operates is that TAXI finances the medallion as a secured loan making a vig on the deal clocking in between 6.5 to 7% per loan. Moreover, these loans are very secure with near zero losses on any taxi loans. Additionally, the medallion loan portfolio has grown by 10% year over year since 1996 to almost $700,000,000. The company is adequately funded and has access to credit, in fact they just renewed their $150M credit facility and sold about $45M worth of stock. Moreover, TAXI is trading at 11.9X forward earnings and 1.35X book value which is reasonable. They have thick margins at 72% profit margin and 59.23% operating margins. Taxi is organized as a BDC (Business Development Company) and therefore it is required to pay out 90% of its earnings as dividends which results in a current yield of 6.59%.
TAXI is not sitting still and they are growing their business via their Medallion Bank moving in to the consumer loan area (RVs, Boats etc..), a Venture Capital lending business, Commercial lending, Outdoor advertising and even loans against fine art(note the inflation in collectable prices). So while TAXI is diversifying the biggest part of their business is still the Cab Medallion lending and as such there is a danger here since over 75% of the medallion portfolio is in the NYC market and they expect on the order of 1500 more to be auctioned off in the near future. Chicago expects to auction off 50 Medallions in 2014.
While TAXI saw growth in Medallions in Chicago and elsewhere there is a concentration risk. What happens if Medallion prices fall in NYC? Will a fall kill their business? It could slow their growth but the reality is that lower medallion prices may In fact draw in more medallions to fill the gap in New York even if it means that they make less on each medallion but finance many more of them. Moreover, management sees the need to diversify and they have been doing so at a less than blistering pace but they are doing it in what appears to be a methodical manner showing an extremely low loss ratio.
TAXI currently is trading at just under $14 mostly as a result of their stock offering resulting dilution fears. Moreover, the street hates the stock with 2 analysts calling it a sell, 3 neutral and only 1 outperform in the universe of those that follow the issue. Personally I do not put much faith in "sell side" analyst calls although it does feel more comfortable when they are on your side. I believe the recent sell off in TAXI is overblown and I believe that we can see TAXI work on a new base here at the $13.95 level given that the stock is oversold; while we wait we can collect the 6.59% dividend. In my opinion TAXI is worth a shot at current levels and position size should be no more than 2% of your portfolio. Use a mental stop loss or trade stops with a maximum downside sell at 10% below your entry but preferably only 8% below. Never put your stops in to the market as that is a sure way to get taken out! This will give the shares some room to build the base it needs to resume its rise. Given TAXIs move toward diversification and NYC's continued need to increase its cab supply I think the company is a fair gamble. TAXI!
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