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Archive for November, 2007

Blog Troubles

Friday, November 30th, 2007

This post is both blog news and a test. At present, the link system of my blog does not seem to be working right. I was doing a little work to improve my blog’s RSS feed when I accidentally deleted one critical file, which I did not have backed up. After a lot of head-scratching, I decided to upgrade my blog to WordPress 2.3.1 in order to fix the problem.

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WordPress 2.3.1 is nicer than the 2.1 that I was running, but in the upgrade process something messed up, because the internal links of my blog and my footer seem to be gone. I seem to be getting some other errors as well, but they’re complex to describe.

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My apologies to readers. I hope to have this fixed soon.

Book Review: The Trouble With Prosperity

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

In principle, I make a pittance off of any book sales from clicking on the links in any review that I write.  But I will write about books that are “out of print” as well (no money there); whether in print or out of print, my goal is to serve readers by bringing important investment ideas to their attention.

Presently, I am reading Money of the Mind, by James Grant, but I have also read The Trouble With Prosperity, which is important to understanding our present circumstances.  Both analyze monetary and other economic policies in the past, with an eye toward what it implies for us today.

In The Trouble With Prosperity,  Grant’s main theme is what happens when monetary policy is perverted from trying to preserve purchasing power, to trying to assure a perpetual prosperity.  He wrote this in 1996, when the US was recovering from the severe Fed tightening in 1994, which resulted from lax monetary policy 1991-1993, where the Fed funds rate was stuck at 3%.

As with most things, James Grant is right in direction, but early.  Back in 1996, he could not envision a 1% Fed funds rate, much less the mysterious hypothetical helicopters of Chairman Bernanke.  Capitalist economies are quite resilient, and can survive considerable mismanagement.  Today we are far closer to what he worried about eleven years ago.

A central bank trying to assure continued prosperity will always be biased toward inflation.  How the inflation manifests is a function of demographics.  With a younger population, goods inflation will be stronger (buy more, save less), and asset inflation for an older generation (buy less, save more).  At the same time, such a central bank will be biased against major losses in financial institutions.

The trouble is, the likelihood of the Federal Reserve rescuing troubled financial institutions raises the odds that the institutions will get into trouble.  It skews the payoff to financial executives, and makes them more willing to take risk, because the institution will not be under threat if they fail.

In The Trouble With Prosperity, Grant walks us through:

  • The puzzle of the markets in 1958, given the rise in interest rates and inflation
  • A tall building that characterized the troubles of the Depression.
  • The Japanese real estate and stock bubbles, and their deflation (still early in 1996)
  • The S&L crisis in the early 90s
  • Willingness to sponsor speculative ventures in the early 1990s, with a focus on gambling.

My opinion: low Fed funds rates foster speculation in healthy assets.  Lever them up more, because we can.  Ignore risk, and focus on the income one can generate today.  Of course, the eventual risk is that the US ends up in a liquidity trap similar to the which the Japanese have been in for the last 17 years.  Of course, the US economy is more flexible than that, but the risks are still significant.

Don’t view soft FOMC policy as a panacea.  Eventually we will have goods inflation as a result.  For now, the market is rejoicing in an accommodative Fed.  Enjoy it while it lasts, buy inflation is coming.

Notes on Fed Policy and Short-term Credit

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007
  1. I just did my usual review of my FOMC indicators.  The FOMC should cut 25 basis points at the December 11th meeting.  Whatever the formal “bias” is, the verbiage will be a little of this and the a little of that, something like:  “Yes, we are worried about the solvency of some financial institutions.  That’s why we cut.  But this cut very likely should be enough, so don’t expect anymore.  Now leave us alone.”
  2. So Goldman sees a 3% Fed funds rate in mid-2008So do I.  Small moves in FOMC policy don’t achieve the desired ends, either when policy is rising or falling.  Large cumulative moves are needed to affect the behavior of market participants.
  3. The TED [Treasury - Eurodollar] spread is at its largest one-year moving average since 1990.  That’s significant short-term credit stress to the large banks, and it is worth watching.  It’s not just a US phenomenon either; in the UK the banks are under stress as well.
  4. Residential housing is driving the decisions of the FOMC.  As prices fall, more houses become non-refinancable, and non-salable (except at a loss).  All it takes then is for a problem to happen… death, disability, divorce, unemployment, or casualty, and another house goes on the market because of insolvency.
  5. So, I agree with Accrued Interest (great blog, doesn’t everyone want to read about bonds?).  Many Fed governors talk between meetings, and they trot out their baseline scenario, but often it is the worry of avoiding a somewhat likely negative scenario that can drive policy.
  6. At some level though, if the dollar falls far enough, the FOMC will have to reverse course, as Caroline Baum has pointed out.  Remember, that’s what drove the FOMC to tighten in 1986-87.
  7. Of course, the credit stress in the short end of the market has led some money market fund sponsors to bail out their funds (Legg Mason, Wachovia and B of A, while GE lets a pseudo-money market fund take a hit.  Remember, with money market funds, it’s not wise to stretch for yield, particularly not in bear markets for credit.
  8. One more weak Commercial Paper [CP] funding structure: using it as part of a “super senior” tranche in CDOs.  Now in this case, the collateral is weak — subprime mortgage loans, but this could be true of any CDO where the collateral comes under stress in the future, including high yield corporate bonds.  I wrote about this three months ago, but this one is still unraveling.
  9. I haven’t talked about it, because I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to the discussion, but the M-LEC, or super-SIV, proposed by the major banks seems like hooey to me.  After all, if this shifting of assets from one pocket to another created value, why wasn’t it done before?  It doesn’t change the underlying asset prices, and for the banks as a whole, it is just a zero sum game, unless new parties enter, at which point, they will have to offer a discount to move the paper, which eliminates one of the reasons for doing the deal.
  10. Putting another nail in the coffin, HSBC takes their SIVs onto their own balance sheet, cleaning up their own financing, and making it more difficult for the other banks who want to do the Super-SIV.

What an interesting time in the short-term debt markets.  For now, prudence dictates staying high quality in what financial institutions you lend to short term.

Ten Chosen Items from the Current Market Troubles

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007
  1. Superstition is alive and well.  Google at $666?  Personally, I think it is all hooey.  There has always been a morbid fascination about the Antichrist in Western Culture.  Would that they had more concern about Christ.
  2. Longtime readers know I am no fan of FAS 157 or FAS 159.  From the Accounting Onion, here is a good demonstration of what could go wrong as FAS 157 is implemented.  In my opinion, the concept of fair market value allows managements too much flexibility.  For assets that have a liquid market bigger than the holdings of the company in question, fair market value is not a problem.  It is a misleading concept otherwise, because the ability to realize that asset value in a sale is questionable.
  3. This is an “uh-oh” moment on two levels.  Level one is defined benefit pension plans exiting US equities.  They are big holders, and a reallocation could hurt US stock prices.  Level two is that foreign markets have outperformed the US by a great deal over the last few years.  Perhaps the DB pension plans are late to the party?
  4. There are no “almosts” in investing.  I have owned Genlyte twice in my life.  Great company.  I had it on my candidate list in my last reshaping.  I didn’t buy it then.  Now it is being bought out by Philips Electronics.  Good move for Philips; the only way they could make it better would be to take the management team of Genlyte, and have it run Philips.  That won’t happen; it is more likely that Philips will ruin Genlyte.
  5. Activist hedge funds don’t always know best.  Smart managements and boards don’t get scared.  They calculate.  What’s the best thing for shareholders in the long run?  Do the hedge funds really have the willingness to fight?  Personally, I think it is usually best for managements to “call their bluff” and make the hedge funds work for control, rather than wave the white flag early.
  6. Higher US dollar oil prices are only partly a dollar phenomenon.  Oil prices are rising in almost every currency; there is a relative shortage of crude oil globally.
  7. Want an antidote to pessimism?  Read this post from VOX.  Personally, I think the lending issues are bigger than they think, but it is true that corporate balance sheets are in good shape.  Would that we could say the same for the consumer or the government.
  8. Appreciation of the Chinese Yuan versus the Dollar may be accelerating.  Alongside that, many of the Gulf States are re-evaluating their peg to the US Dollar.  Given the inflation, who can blame them?
  9. $300 Billion in losses from US residential mortgages?  That’s a believable figure to me.  Underwriting got progressively worse from 2003 to the first quarter of 2007.  Needless to say, that would kill a lot of non-bank mortgage lenders, and a few banks as well.
  10. Could Japan be the great countercyclical asset in this market phase?  There is more speculative fervor in Japan at present, and many Japanese investors are buying stocks and selling bonds, partly due to relative yield measures.

That’s all for now.  More to come.

The Rising Disconnect between FOMC Policy and LIBOR

Monday, November 26th, 2007

The FOMC can loosen interest rate policy, but how much will unsecured interbank lending rates like LIBOR respond?  As it stands right now, the Treasury-Eurodollar spread [TED spread], is at 180 basis points, up from 96 basis points (or so — don’t have access to a Bloomberg Terminal).  17 basis points of that rise is a rise in LIBOR.  Not the usual response that you expect to loosening monetary policy, but these are unusual times, when credit spreads dominate over monetary policy, even on high quality lending and short term.

It feels like the major global banks don’t trust each other enough to lend to each other short term.  This has impacts on mortgage markets as well, such as the ability to refinance mortgages, and resetting mortgage payment rates even on prime mortgages.

Typically the TED spread does not stay this high for long.  If the FOMC cut the Fed funds rate to 3%, that might normalize things, but for now they will be content with half measures like temporary injections of liquidity.  Now, a 3% Fed funds rate will produce other problems (inflation, lower dollar), and it won’t really solve the overall mortgage credit problems in the short-run, but it is what the market expects by mid-2008.  It might help out in problems with the banks that are on the cusp of creditworthiness, and that is what may drive the FOMC to act.

More later.

What I am Thankful for

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

With all of my family and guests gone or asleep after a big Thanksgiving Day at my house (17 people), I reflect on what I am thankful for.

  • My relationship with my God, Jesus Christ.
  • My wife of 21 years (today).  What a good woman, and what a help she has been to me.  Among many other things, she helps me focus on what is truly important in our short mortal lives.  At the church that I met her at, she was regarded as the “prize” of all the young women there.  I can tell you that their opinions were right.
  • My eight children.  Some do better, some do worse, but in aggregate, they are all doing well.
  • My congregation; good friends all, and they are a real support.
  • My friends, including the readers of my blog.  We all need friends.


Now for the broader stuff:

  • Though our civil liberties have been degraded by the misguided “War on Terror,” we still have significant liberties in the personal, political, religious and economic spheres.
  • Our economy still prospers, even amid bad monetary and fiscal policy.
  • Development in the developing world is screaming ahead.  As (classical) liberal economic economic policies are embraced across the globe, poverty is being reduced globally, which is something dear to me.
  • I haven’t made a lot on investments this year, but I’m still doing adequately.
  • I have several possibilities for how I will work as I labor to support my family.  (Perhaps an announcement coming soon…)
  • I’m grateful that my views of the Fed, residential real estate, and the debt markets have largely proven correct.
  • I’m even grateful for my losses; they keep me humble, and teach me a lot about investing.

That’s what I am thankful for; I hope you have it as good, or better, than me.

Why Did I Name This Site “The Aleph Blog?”

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

I’ve been asked about the website name a number of times lately, so I want to explain the reasons behind the name.  Now, two of the reasons were listed on my first post:

Thanks for coming to the Aleph Blog. This is a work in progress, and suggestions are solicited for both style and content.

The Aleph Blog derives its name in two ways: first, Aleph is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Alpha. Alpha is what is desired out of investment managers — outperformance versus a client’s benchmark. I have my methods for doing so that I have described over at RealMoney, and will continue here at my blog. Second is that the Hebrew letter Aleph corresponds to the word for “Ox.” Well, what’s more bullish than an Ox?

I look forward to communicating with my readers, and building this site into something that a lot of people can learn from and enjoy.

Sincerely,

David

That was nine months ago.  The blog has come a long way since then.  There were several other reasons why I chose the name.  In the mid-90s, I wrote out a business plan for a fund that I called the Aleph Fund.  My goal was to create a Value investment shop called Aleph Investment Advisors, or something like that.  Why Aleph, though?  Why not Alpha?

Aside from the fact that “alpha” has been grabbed by others, I’m a little quirky.  Friends of mine call them “Merk Quirks.”  Because “alpha” is overused as an investment word, but the concept has validity, I decided to adopt the Hebrew version (aleph) in place of the Greek version.  My rationale involves my view of Western culture.  Given the influence that the Bible has had on Western culture, I view the Jewish impact to be as great as the Greek impact, but the Jewish part is underappreciated.  To most Christians, the part of the Bible written in Hebrew (Old Testament, Tenach) is more opaque than the part written in Greek (New Testament).

I’m a Reformed Presbyterian.  We view the Bible as a whole, and our pastors learn Hebrew (admittedly rudimentary), and Koine Greek.   It’s important that those who lead us be able to understand the original languages as best they can.  For me, I pick up on a bit here and there.  If it wasn’t enough for me to see an “aleph” as the beginning of Psalm 119, it might have been enough for me to see the mathematical “aleph-null” when I was a kid — an expression for the total number of integers.  Aleph is big, very big.

That’s why I called this “The Aleph Blog.”  It dovetails into my personality, and it sets my investment blog apart from blogs that have more conventional names.

With that, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

Sincerely,

David

Musings on the Fed and Yesterday’s Article

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

From Tuesday’s Columnist Conversation over at RealMoney.com:


David Merkel
Thinking About the Fed
11/20/2007 1:51 PM EST

One of my maxims of the Fed is that it is better to watch what they do, and pay less attention to what they say. The markets are saying that they expect Fed funds at 3% sometime in 2008. The Fed governors see that also, and are being dragged there, kicking and screaming. They don’t want to do it; there is real risk to the US Dollar, and there are inflation risks as well. As they measure it, the economy is growing adequately, and labor employment is fairly full. But as Cramer and others point out, the financial system is under stress, manifesting most sharply in mortgage lenders and insurers. Secondary stress is in the investment banks and financial guarantors.

But what exactly has the Fed done so far? Most of the monetary easing has not come through growth in the monetary base, but from continued relaxation of reserve requirements. Given that the Fed is loosening, I would have expected a permanent injection of liquidity by now. As it is, the last one was May 3rd, when there was no hint of the loosenings coming.

So what then for future FOMC policy? The banks are increasingly incapable of levering up more. The monetary base will have to grow. With the Treasury-Eurodollar spread at over 170 basis points, the big banks don’t trust each other. Again, this measure points to 3.00-3.25% Fed funds sometime in 2008.

I see them getting dragged to cuts, kicking and screaming, until a combination of inflation and the dollar force them to change. Then the real fun begins.

Fed minutes out soon. Watch them make a fool out of me.

Okay, the FOMC minutes did not make a fool out of me.  Neither did the market action.  I’m in the weird spot of thinking that nominal economic activity is higher than expected, on both an inflation and real GDP basis.  I don’t like the mortgage and depositary financial sectors at present, two areas that are dear to the FOMC.  That’s where I stand.

One reader asked, what do you mean by, “Then the real fun begins.”?  Maybe I have to do a book review on James Grant’s, “The Trouble with Prosperity.”  James Grant is very often correct, but usually way too early, which is why it is hard to make money off of his insights.  The “real fun” is watching FOMC policymakers squirm as they balance off costs of inflation and economic growth on the negative side, as it was in the late 70s and early 80s.  It is also the fun of watching policymakers at the Treasury Department squirm as they realize that the the fiscal wind is in their face and not at their backs anymore, as the demographic winds spin 180 degrees.

Other readers e-mailed, asking the practical question of how to invest in such an environment.  First, don’t overdo it.  Invest for a normal market scenario, and then tweak it to add more short bonds, TIPS, Commodities, Foreign bonds, and stocks with good inflation pass-through.

I got a few questions asking me to justify my bearish view on the US Dollar.  On, a purchasing power parity basis, the US Dollar is fairly valued now.  (What goods can the Dollar buy versus other currencies?) Unfortunately, currencies react more to forward covered interest parity in the short run. (What will I be able to earn by investing my money in dollar denominated debt, instead of another currency?)  Low intermediate term interest rates in the US portend bad returns from investing in US Dollar denominated debt, so the US Dollar declines.  The rest of the world seems to be bracing for more inflation and more growth.  Because US policy is headed the other way, the US Dollar is weakening.

As for my longer-run negative view on US Bonds, US government policies are designed to undermine bonds.  They have made more future promises than they can keep.  Who will they renege on their promises?  Bond investors are the easiest target; they don’t vote in large numbers.  It will be harder to turn their backs to those receiving social insurance payments, at least in nominal terms.  They have a lot of votes.

That’s all for now.  More tomorrow.

The US Dollar and the Five Stages of Grieving

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Recently I had dinner with a college friend of my oldest son.  It surprised me, but he was interested in how the US dollar was doing.  I likened the current situation to the five stages of grieving.

The first stage is denial.  As it respects the US Dollar, in the initial phases in the decline of the US Dollar, most foreign  finance ministers and central bankers are pretty happy.  After all, foreign exchange reserves are at an all time high.  Export industries are booming.  The government loves the exchange rate policy that keep the US Dollar artificially rich against the foreign currency.  The banks are flush, credit is booming… what could be better?  After all, you can’t have too much in the way of US Dollar reserves, can you?  (They never have to worry about a currency crisis again!)  The government is happy with them, especially since they are supported by the exporters.

Anger is the second stage.  The dollar reserves are worth less and less on a relative basis, and they keep coming in.  The wisdom of having a fixed rate, crawling peg, or dirty float against the dollar is questioned.  Goods inflation is rising in the foreign market, and credit creation is getting out of control.  The finance minister or central banker face the hard choice of revaluing the currency up versus the US Dollar, which slows the economy, particularly exports, or let the situation continue, and build up more US Dollar reserves.  (“What will we ever use all these Dollar reserves for?” they might ask in a moment of lucidity. “What if the US Dollar fell a lot further?  That would reduce the value backing our currency…  Why is the Fed loosening so much?  Don’t they care about the Dollar?”)

So, some of them revalue their currency upward versus the US Dollar, some reduce the basket weight of the Dollar, some let the peg crawl faster, and some do nothing… and the US Dollar predominantly falls in value.  Some finance ministers complain about the Dollar, and net exports to the US begin to decline.  This is where we are now, and I don’t know how long it will take to get to the next stage.

The third stage is bargaining.  The foreign finance ministers and central bankers are stuck.  They are getting pressure to lower the value of the currency against the dollar from exporters, and the politicians that they support.  They wonder if an intervention on the foreign exchange market might do it.  They call their opposite numbers around the globe, proposing an intervention to raise the value of the dollar.  Enough agree to do it, and the coalition of the willing does what they don’t want to do.  They sell their own foreign currencies, and buy more dollars.  The surprise works!  They caught the FX traders leaning the wrong way, on a day when economic news was going their way, they cooperated, and they did it BIG!  The US Dollar rises a full five percent. (“See you at the party tonight!”)

Only one problem, which is clear the next day to Finance ministers, Central bankers and FX traders alike.  (“What are we going to do with all the new US Dollar reserves that we bought?  We already have too much of that…”)  The FX traders pounce, and take the opposite side of the trade, and push the US Dollar lower.


Stage four is depression.  (“There’s no way out, and we got snookered by the neo-mercantilist exporters who got us to keep the currency too low versus the US Dollar.”)  The US Dollar is below the earlier intervention level, and there have been a few additional failed interventions, where the FX traders ate the central banks for lunch.  The US Dollar continues to fall.

Finally, stage five, acceptance.  The foreign currencies rise to sustainable levels versus the US dollar.  Inflation and real economic activity decline in the foreign countries.  They begin buying more goods and services from the US, and dollar claims are redeemed.  Inflation and interest rates rise in the US, as we have to produce more to pay off the dollar reserves now being redeemed by foreigners.  (Send us goods and it will pay off your debts!  Amazing how the US got good terms on both sides of the transaction.”)

Well, maybe.  It will take a while before all major trading parties in the world float/adjust their currencies to fair levels.  At  the time that happens, though, it will be obvious that the US is less important to the global economy.  The relative value of all US assets will be a smaller proportion of global assets, though it will still likely be the largest share in the world.  My view is this process to get to stage five will take no more than 10 years.  By that point, the hopelessness of Federal social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare, plus underfunded Federal and state retirement plans, will force benefit reductions and tax increases on the US, and crimp borrowing capacity, unless they borrow in a currency other than dollars.  There are five stages of grieving for US social welfare programs as well, but I am afraid we are only in the first stage now, denial.

That is a topic for another day, and not one that I am excited to talk about.

Seven Observations From Barron’s

Saturday, November 17th, 2007
  1. Kinda weird, and it makes you wonder, but on the WSJ main page, I could not find a link to Barron’s. I know I’ve seen a link to Barron’s in the past there; I have used it, which is why I noticed its absence today.
  2. I found it amusing that the mutual fund that Barron’s would mention on their Blackrock interview, underperformed the Lehman Aggregate over 1, 3 and 5 years. Don’t get me wrong, Blackrock is a great shop, and I would work there if they offered me employment that didn’t change my location. Why did Barron’s pick that fund?
  3. I’m not worried about the effect of a financial guarantor downgrade on the creditworthiness of the muni market. Munis rarely fail. Most of those that do fail lacked a real economic purpose. What would be lost in a guarantor downgrade is liquidity. Muni bond insurance is a substitute for analysis. “AAA insured, I’ll buy that.” Truth, an index fund of uninsured munis would beat an index of insured munis, because default rates are so low. But the presence of insurance makes the bonds a lot more liquid, which makes portfolio management easier.
  4. I’ve been a US dollar bear for the last five years, and most of the last fifteen years. Though we have had a little bounce recently, the dollar has of late been at record lows against currencies that trade freely against the dollar. I expect the current bounce to persist in the short term and fail in the intermediate term. The path of the dollar is lower, unless the Fed decides to not loosen more. Balance needs to be restored in the global economy, such that the rest of the world purchases more goods and services, and fewer assets from the US.
  5. I don’t talk about it often, but when it comes up, I have to mention that municipal pensions in the US are generally in horrid shape. The Barron’s article focuses on teachers, but other municipal worker groups are equally bad off. The article comments on perverse incentives in teacher retirement, which leads older teachers to retire when it is feasible to do so. For older teachers, I would not begrudge them; they weren’t paid that well at the start, and the pension is their reward. Younger teachers have been paid pretty well. I would not expect them to get the same pension promises.
  6. I like Japan. I own shares in the Japan Smaller Capitalization Fund [JOF]; it’s my second-largest position.

    Japan is cheap, and small cap Japan is even cheaper. I would expect a modest bounce on Monday.

  7. We still need a 15-20% decline in housing prices to bring the system back to normal. There might be an undershoot in price from the sales that forced sellers must do. Hopefully it doesn’t turn into a self-reinforcing decline, but who can be sure about that? At that level of housing prices, man recent conforming loans will be in trouble, much less non-conforming loans.


Full disclosure: long JOF

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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