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Years of business and investing experience, plus strong analysis skills. But judge these comments on their merits, not by reputation.
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  • Bringing balance to the stock market
    This article originally appeared on Bloomberg Business Week, but without the FAQ I've included at the end. Of course, most Seeking Alpha members are likely to dismiss this proposal out of hand, but if you offer a thoughtful critique, I will respond.


    From Bloomberg Business Week Online March 14, 2011

    business week bloomberg logo

    Viewpoint March 13, 2011, 10:37PM EST

    How to Turn Stock Speculators into Investors

    Tweaking circuit breakers or demanding further trading disclosures won't take the casino out of Wall Street. Instead, public stock ownership should be treated more like a private investment

    By Greg Blonder

    Imagine opening a bakery with your cousins. You work 18-hour days to build a loyal following of bread-and-pastry connoisseurs—only to discover that cousin Joey is treating his partnership shares like a roulette wheel. He pulls out cash when the bakery is under stress, instead of pulling together with the family to save the business. He pledges his shares to a competitor to buy a boat. Then Joey repurchases them in time to vote cousin Eddie out of the kitchen.

    No one in their right mind would tolerate this kind of behavior, even from your favorite aunt's son. But it's standard operating procedure in the public stock market, where far too many investors behave like cousin Joey, caring more about lining their own pockets than building valuable companies.

    How can we turn speculators back into investors?

    The wrong way is to impose additional market circuit breakers, as was recommended last month by the "Flash Crash" panel of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same goes for further trading-disclosure rules. And bonus restrictions and salary caps. These treat symptoms, not the root cause, which is an imbalance between stockholder and company financial-value systems. The solution can better be secured by treating public stock ownership more like a private investment.

    Companies Serve Three Vital Masters

    All companies serve three masters: their investors, their customers, and their employees. All are essential in their own way. Without customers, you have no revenue. Without employees, there are no products or future profits. Without shareholders, there's no capital or liquidity.

    Without a doubt, private shareholders deserve a seat at the table. Their cash, expertise, and patience provide companies with the time and resources to succeed. In the last few decades, however, the period for which the average public stockholder hangs on to shares has dropped from around seven years to just a few months. Like Joey, these "investors" aren't loyal to the company, its employees, or its customers. They care only about its stock price. They seek all the gain with none of the responsibilities. Why should they dominate our economic system?

    Even after the financial system meltdown, I still believe in open markets. But as a matter of public policy and wise economic stewardship there is no reason to treat drive-by investors any better, say, than we treat gamblers at the track. We must encourage investors to carefully evaluate the long-term prospects of a company—before they invest—so the stock price will reflect its true enterprise value, uncolored by speculation.

    Issue Long-Term and Speculative Stock

    How? Create two classes of shares for all listed public companies. Class A shares would have to be held for at least one year after purchase. Class B shares could be traded freely.

    Only Class A shares would qualify for long-term capital gains treatment. (Granted, active traders in B shares would rarely qualify for long-term gains, but this distinction would mark a bright line between the classes.) Since market cycles often run for five years, and companies value stable financing during hard times, I'd prorate the long-term capital gains tax from 20 percent (at one year) to 5 percent (if held five years or longer).

    Second, only Class A shares would qualify to receive dividends. If you're not investing in the long-term health of a company, you don't deserve a share of its long-term accumulated wealth.

    Third, only Class A shares could vote.

    Write Off "B" Losses as Gamblers Must

    Finally, Class B capital losses would be treated as gambling debts are—deductible only in the current year and only against other short-term Class B gains. If you are rolling the dice on stocks more frequently than once a year, you are gambling with the shares, not investing in the strength of the American economy.

    Given today's modern financial platforms, the exchange of stock into these two classes could be completed within three years. The changes would be minor, at best, if the body politic were willing. A simplified version of the existing Rule 144 applies to Class A restricted stock. And with the SEC's universal cost-basis tracking mandate (section 6045) phasing in starting this year, capital gains calculations will be nearly automatic. New listings might choose to issue only Class A shares, letting Class B shares wither away. I bet Google (GOOG)—among other big-name initial public offerings—would have joined the "A" camp.

    It's time for Joey to class up or get out of the kitchen.

    Greg Blonder, formerly chief technical advisor at AT&T, is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist in the New York area.

    Additional details, speculating on a possible implementation plan:

    Stock Proposal Mechanics Q&A

    If I hold Class A shares for under a year, and some news event (Mid-east unrest, a tsunami, competitive product announcements, etc.) affects the company’s apparent prospects, shouldn’t I be able to sell?

    • Well, the company, it’s customers and employees have to deal with these news events as they happen- they can’t run and hide after every wire story. Class A Investors should accept similar risks if they are true company partners.  And, relatively speaking, your shares are liquid by comparison.

    Class A shares are intended to reflect the company’s long term enterprise value. What do Class B shares reflect?

    • Class B shares will, like a mixture of options and derivatives, reflect shorter term and more speculative views of the company’s prospects. They may be used to hedge Class A risks. Class A investors may look to Class B trends as a signal to sell or buy, and vice versa.  Trading volume (on a percentage basis) will likely be higher for Class B than Class A shares.

    Do you expect the Class A and Class B share prices to diverge over time?

    • Yes. They reflect either long or short term viewpoints, and are likely to be held by different constituencies.

    Won’t the Class A restrictions make it harder for companies to raise capital?

    • Not really. The company  can always issue Class B shares, which will more or less satisfy those traders currently favoring short-term investments. And, longer term investors will value the potentially higher dividend rates, plus the potentially lower volatility, of Class A shares.

    Isn't this some kind of anti-day-trader witch hunt?

    • Day traders can still trade Class B shares. A free market does not mean a free-for-all. The point of the stock market is to support companies, not generate zero-sum trading profits for investors. Companies should be able to set the terms under which they offer their stock for sale- this gives them a second option. In fact, this system forces investor to more carefully analyze a company's prospects before purchasing Class A shares, while they can still buy Class B on a rumor or a hunch.

    Will Class B shares be converted into Class A after a year? What if I hold Class B shares for more than a year- why aren’t these shares eligible for dividends and longer term capital gains treatment?

    • The intent is to create a bright line between both classes. The company cannot plan accurately if shares may or may not convert, or may or may not receive dividends. The pricing of each stock class will reflect this difference with greater clarity, only if the shares offer distinctly different features.

    What happens if I sell a Class A share after bad news, then realize I should have held the stock for the long term?

    • Well, you may have lost the benefit of a lower capital gains rate. And, when you repurchase the shares, you will have to wait another year before selling. These disincentives to flipping Class A shares are intentional, and will encourage a purchaser to think before trading.

    When a company goes public, how are shares allocated?

    • The company can issue as many Class B shares as allowed by the board, and they are immediately tradable. Class A shares would be sold to the market over the course of a year, and would be tradable a year after purchase.

    When the company issues new shares, do they have to issue both share classes?

    • No, the company can choose to issue either class at any time

    Can the company buy back share classes selectively?

    • Yes, the company may, at its discretion,  choose to buy back only Class B or A shares. It might decide, as authorized by the board, to tender an offer to buy out (and thus close from public trading) either class.

    How will this affect mutual funds and ETFs?

    • We expect some funds will specialize in only one Class, for example, a Class A Russell 1000 mutual fund. This will provide investors with the ability to invest for the long or short term, without one class dragging the other class’s pricing in unexpected directions. It may, depending on resulting market dynamics, result in a Class A stock market with fewer wild swings and more systematic tracking between economic strength and share valuations.

    How will the transition occur?

    • A year after this plan is approved and back-office systems are readied, notice of the conversion date will be issued. This date would be at least 18 months into the future. Then, on that date any shares already held for at least one year would be converted to Class A, and the remainder to Class B. Class A shares, as they were already held for more than 12 months, would be immediately tradable. However, once sold and then repurchased, the 12 month holding period is re-attached.

    Mar 31 12:26 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Computing returns backwards

    Like most of you, I remain frustrated with the muddleheaded and banal advice spouted by so-called investment "advisers". This "advice" consists almost entirely of baseless platitudes, especially regarding expected returns and how to pick the next winning market segment.

    To help cut through the investment advice clutter, I've devised a new way to plot and compare returns across time and markets- which I call the "Back to the Future" chart (BTTF). With this technique, you are less likely to fall prey to selective plotting errors, data misinterpretation, or exaggerated claims based on atypical starting conditions. All it takes are a few lines of Excel code and access to historical stock/fund data. Or use the free tool at the bottom of this article.

    The problem with most stock comparison curves is the projected return depends critically on the starting date.

    For example, when investing 10 years ago, the Vanguard mid cap fund "VIMSX" handily beat the Fidelity fund "FMCSX". It appeared to do so every year when plotted this way by Google or Yahoo finance, and most people would conclude Vanguard is consistently the superior fund, at least if past performance is any guide.


    But had you invested 5 years ago, it’s a tie, which is odd since the ten year chart apparently indicated Vanguard generated the highest returns in every period, including 2005.

    And at 1 year, the roles are reversed.


    What's going on here? Why are these charts so inconsistent? Well, if one fund was unusually high or low on the exact day five years ago this chart was plotted, that atypical number is used to calculate the relative return on every date into the future. It can "slide" a weak return curve above its alternative, even if the alternate fund outperformed during the rest of those five years. Also, we tend to believe that any curve going "up and to the right" is on a positive trajectory. But as we will see, this impression is exactly contrary to the message such a plot should communicate.

    The conventional chart tells you only one thing- if you had purchased the fund on that one particular day in the past, each datapoint on the curve indicates what gain to expect if you sold that fund on a future day indicated on the bottom axis. But that's not a very useful statistic when trying to decide between two new possible investments- its a single point projection from the past. More likely, you want to know- on an average investing day- if one stock is likely to yield a higher return going forward.

    I approach the problem from the opposite perspective, by comparing the gain I would receive today if I had invested on any day in the past- not just at 1,3 or 5 years. For example, let's compare AT&T ("T") and 3M ("MMM").

    Plotted conventionally, with a starting point of four years ago, AT&T looks like it always "beats" 3M. At least it's tempting to think so based on this graph. Here, a single investment date of Jan 1 2006 is chosen four years in the past, to anchor all gains into the future:

    T vs 3M


    But what if we plot "backwards"? That is, plot the return you would receive TODAY, based on potentially investing on any date in the past? Here is exactly the same information, plotted backwards to the future:

    T v 3M

    To read this chart, this means had I invested in 3M during July of 2006, my gain would be nearly 20% if I'd sold "today" (October 15, 2010, the date the chart was plotted). It would have been zero if I had invested in AT&T during June of 2007. And so on. Note if you had invested on almost any random day in the last five years, 3M would have exceeded AT&T's return.

    Since an investor can't always know whether TODAY is at the 10, 5 or 1 year point, (i.e. comparing when you invest vs when you intend to liquidate in the future), normal comparisons are of little help when choosing a new fund. You need to know, on an average day when you might purchase this asset, if one stock will outperform the other going forward. Which a conventional plot can't reveal. But financial advisers constantly offer exactly these kind of 1, 3, 5 year historical returns as guidance! As do the funds themselves in ads or their prospectus.

    Here is IBM vs HPQ plotted conventionally over a five year period:

    HPQ v IBM


    Note the returns, roughly speaking, are similar for both stocks- although HP seems to be ahead on average, except in the most recent half year. But this is an optical illusion and a misleading analysis. Notice the red IBM curve started lower and ended higher, which implies a sustained gain over time. When plotted with the BTTF approach, the difference emerges:



    The BTTF chart screams out- IBM was a much better choice in almost every week for the past five years. A fact easily overlooked in a conventional plot.

    The technique is valuable even when comparing between winning investments, for example Amazon ("AMZN") and a Gold Fund ("GLD"). In a conventional five year time series plot,

    Amazon vs Gold

    they seem about evenly matched, though Amazon pulled ahead in the last quarter. But using the BTTF approach,

    Amazon Gold BTTF

    Clearly Amazon shines more brightly than gold.....

    You can also combine the BTTF technique with "dollar cost averaging". This is a way to hedge your bets against selecting the optimal time to invest, by not choosing a particular date, but instead investing a little bit every day (or week or month) from the time you first choose to buy the stock.

    For example, in the above plot it's clear practically any single bet on Amazon yielded more than any single bet on gold. We can ameliorate the hazards of choosing a less auspicious single date on more volatile funds, by imagining purchasing $100 of both stocks every week, and then calculating the average return from investment date to sale:

    Dollar Average
    Dollar Cost Average BTTF chart

    So buying $100 of stock every day for five years and selling at the end of five years would yield around 165% return for Amazon vs 65% for Gold. Beginning a dollar-cost-averaging investment program more recently yields less, and indicated by the two smooth curves.

    Dollar-cost averaging also benefits stocks with less stellar performance, for example, in the AT&T vs 3M comparison:

    Dollar average 3M vs ATT
    Dollar Cost Average BTTF chart

    You may also find it helpful to supplement TOTAL RETURN with an effective straightline ANNUAL RETURN. This makes it easier to compare an interest bearing account or bond, which advertises a yearly return, to holding stocks over a longer period. For example, holding a stock for three years that generated a 30% total return, is equivalent to a 10% annual return (ignoring compounding, reinvesting dividends, taxes, etc.). This plot compares the annual and total return for HPQ and IBM:

    HP vs IBM average
    BTTF chart, annual and total returns

    Note IBM generated a pretty consistent 10% to 15% annual return over this period.

    To reiterate, conventional returns- measured by throwing a dart at the past and plotting returns up to the present day- are misleadingly sensitive to the choice of starting date. My approach- the "back to the future chart" BTTF- captures the entirety of past returns for all possible starting dates. It allows you to estimate variability in returns, to compare ostensibly "similar" financial instruments, and to estimate future success more accurately. It avoids errors comparing 1, 3, 5 and YTD numbers when selecting between funds (since the rank order depends on the EXACT date, sometime the exact minute, the table is created).

    You still have to research the stock, be sensitive to recent market moves, and factor in the macro-economy. But compared to traditional returns tables, BTTF is a better way, and should become the new "gold" standard.

    If you want to try the Back to the Future analysis technique, click here to use our free online tool.


    NEXT-->> Knowing when to buy and sell.


    Oh, and which mutual fund was superior? Well, applying the BTTF technique over the last ten years, its clear Vanguard beat Fidelity until 2005, but since then, it's pretty much been a tie. Perhaps they hired there new managers, or the investment criteria changed. But into the future, go for the fund with the lowest management fee.





    Note added Dec 29, 2010:

    A friend asked me to analyze the FAIRX fund (Morningstar five star rated, more than $15B under managment), which has performed admirably. But how does it compare to QQQQ?

    Here is a conventional five year comparison:


    Note FAIRX seems to outperform QQQQ across all five years, by around 5-10%.

    Or, examining a conventional load adjusted returns table:

    1 yr 20.4% 19.4%
    3 yr 3.8% 1%
    5 yr 8.2% 5.2%

    which implies FAIRX is superior. But this is an artifact based on initial starting dates. The numbers will squirm around next month, and next quarter, ...

    Here is the BTTF chart:

    FAIRX v QQQQ using BTTF technique

    Note the returns for both funds are eerily similar, although QQQQ is essentially a passive tracker, and FAIRX is heavily managed. Tells you how correlated the market is these days.

    Over the last half decade, BTTF analysis demonstrates they are really equivalent investments.

    Critically, FAIRX's turnover ratio is 70% vs 1% for QQQQ, which has significant tax implications.

    And the expense ratio is 1% vs 0.2%. On general principles, we should all support lower expense ratio funds. I'd pick QQQQ.


    Dec 12 2:24 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Know when to hold-em

    (Updated 1/2/2010)

    There are three steps in any investment cycle:

    • First, identify a target stock or fund.
    • Second, decide when to buy.
    • Third, decide when to sell.

    You shouldn't plan on buying if you don't also have a plan of when to sell.

    The Back-To-The-Future technique addresses the first step, by improving fund comparison transparency. It highlights those assets with a consistent record of sustained, superior returns. And consistent returns directly moderates the urgency of a buy/sell decision.

    Yet timing remains the biggest challenge for most investors. Everyone recalls a time when "had I just sold that morning", or "gotten in on the ground floor", they'd be rich. Trading more frequently feels like more opportunity. Many day traders, for example, buy and sell stocks every few minutes. They play a never-ending game of chicken, trying to outguess their fellow gamblers, while navigating through a fog of rumors and financial innuendo (although, as the market becomes more efficient and homogeneous, opportunities to generate a profit day-trading are thinning).

    In any case, most investors lack the skill, knowledge or stomach to trade on a twitch. And most investors are best served by choosing low cost, total market tracking funds and holding them for decades. Or dollar cost averaging. Yet it's still possible to make money investing tactically, by adopting a buy-and-hold strategy. Properly executed, a buy-and-hold strategy offers the dual advantages of solid returns and sector flexibility. But when to buy, and when to sell?

    It turns out stocks exhibit relatively consistent behavior over short and long time scales. Think of it like the weather, where the temperature on any single November day might exceed that in July, yet measured over a year, the summer is consistently warmer than winter. Similarly, over a period of days and even months, stocks appear to wander around aimlessly, but over quarters and years, grow or wither on fundamental news.

    Take Google as an example. The graph below plots Google's stock performance for the last six years (GOOG is the blue curve, which I've arbitrarily normalized and baseline shifted to fit on the same graph with the more important red curve. The stock price is included just as a guide to the eye).

    What does the red curve measure? Basically, the red curve tracks a series of buy-hold-sell transactions. For each date, it calculates the percentage return assuming you'd bought GOOG six months (26 weeks) earlier, and then sold. In other words, had you purchased Google on June 1st, 2007 and sold on Nov 30th, 2007 that period return would be plotted on Nov 30th of 2007 as a gain of ~50%. You can observe this particular 26 week holding period coincided with a stiff upward swing in Google stock (the blue curve), and thus the significant gain. I call this sequence of buy-hold-sell transactions a "Moving Holding Period"- MHP plot1.


    GOOG haf year

    This graph demonstrates a simple point- had you bought GOOG at almost any time during the last six years, and held the stock for six months- you would have made a profit. Not always, but most of the time.

    On the other hand, if you hold a stock for only four weeks, it's more likely random events are driving the stock price, and your return will drop. The next plot, based on a moving four week holding period, demonstrates this effect quite clearly:

    GOOG one month

    As you can plainly see, the red MHP return curve bounces around an average of zero, with a slight positive bias. The little black arrows indicate the reason- a one month holding period sometimes intercepts a minor upward bounce, but equally likely, catches a downward movement. On average, a single investment only yielded around a 2% absolute return..

    So you can eek out a small gain by trading this frequently, but just barely. More likely you'd lose money when short-term capital gains and trading costs are subtracted. And, with a short holding period the best trading days bob up and down almost weekly, turning trading into a game of "whack-a-mole". With a 26 month holding period, you can make a profit investing on any day, for stretches as long as a year. Leaving time to make a sound decision...

    Of course, the evening news and financial web sites all claim to explain the ultimate driving forces behind these minor excursions, and perhaps one could make a living taking their advice into account. But on average?...

    Thus it generally pays to buy and hold for a period longer than a month. What if you buy and hold for a year, instead of 4 weeks or even six months?

    GOOG One Year

    The gains (and losses) are now higher. With a longer holding period, a one-year bet on Google pays off handsomely, and you don't have to settle on a particular day, week or year to make a profit.

    But isn't there some way to avoid that nasty dip in late 2008? Certainly, even a naive investor would know enough to exit the market in the midst of a historic decline, cutting short their initial, planned holding period?

    Be warned! The key to a successful buy and hold strategy is discipline. You are overwhelmingly likely to misinterpret a temporary decline as a major rout, and sell at a loss just as the stock is about to zoom skyward. Look carefully at the blue curve, and notice how often a large decline presages a bigger gain, and vice-versa. If you think you are smart enough to outguess the market, well, good luck. For the rest of us mortals, accept the fact that the road to long term gains are paved with shallow potholes.

    Timing the market is problematical. Consider GLD- this precious metal has risen steadily for the last decade, and one might believe any holding period would do. So instead of the bank, GLD might offer a safe haven to park a bit of excess cash. But is it really that safe?

    GLD gains two periods

    Note how the MHP plot immediately highlights the wide swings in GLD's return over the course of a year. In this particular example, both holding periods generated about the same annualized return2. But using GLD as a short-term savings account? Notice you can lose money betting on gold if held for only half a year! In fact, return volatility (the technical sounding "normalized perimeter3") is twice as large for the smaller holding period. In other words, the risk of missing the average is much higher for the shorter holding periods.

    Instead of timing the market down to an optimal day, the right holding period identifies stocks with track records where investing on any day during months or years resulted in positive gain. More precisely, the MHP technique identifies the natural periodicity of a stock. A holding period a few times longer than this natural period will deliver higher returns, more consistently, and with less risk. A holding period much longer may return only average results.

    The MHP technique also discovers trends the eye might overlook. In the case of VEURX, the Vanguard European Stock Index mutual fund, the MHP technique quickly identifies a less visible return periodicity, for 3 month buy/sell holding windows. A longer holding period is likely to yield higher returns, on average...

    VEURX one year holding period

    Many stock comparison engines produce a less informative version of this continually moving holding period technique. They plot a discretized "rolling return", on say every quarter, or on every year. But, as we demonstrated in the Back-To-The-Future article, such discretized returns swing wildly, depending on the intersection between fixed quarter boundaries and the natural rhythm of the stock.

    Overlaying one quarter wide green bands on the earlier GLD chart demonstrates the return within either quarter can vary by almost half, depending on exactly when you initiated a 26 week buy/sell period. But this important fact is lost in a table of quarterly prices.

    Gold two averages

    The apparent simplicity of a quarterly returns bar graph hides a multitude of sins. Continuous curves are superior.

    The takeaway- There are two reasons to adopt a buy and hold strategy over a reliance on a broad market basket of securities. First, you may require liquidity and cannot commit to an open-ended investment period. Or, you hope to generate above average returns by investing in a "hot" market sector.

    The MHP technique cannot identify those outperforming sectors in advance, but can provide guidance (based on past performance) when choosing a holding period within that sector.

    The BTTF and MHP techniques transparently reveal past gain performance and risk. They highlight any natural rhythms to that sector's growth, and suggest a minimum holding period to maximize returns while minimizing risk. Longer holding periods generally produce greater returns with less risk, but there are exceptions. Always run the numbers first. Then, research the market segment and the macro economic conditions. And most importantly, stay true to your buy and hold strategy, even during the panic of bad times and the giddiness of prosperity.

    Click here to compare two holding periods with our free, online tool.


    1 While far from standard, other analysts have devised similar techniques. For example, a few stock comparison sites (e.g. Morningstar) can be adjusted to generate an "MHP-like" plot with their rolling returns option, but not as easily or for all asset classes. You can even employ the same approach to analyze the entire history of the stock market. See Ed Easterling's plot in the NYTimes. While his actual numbers are open to debate (there are more than six valid ways to adjust for inflation, and no consistent method to adjust for taxes and fees), the general approach is very sound and revealing.

    2 A technical aside regarding "average total return": The average total return is the arithmetic mean calculated by summing the percentage gain recorded on each trading week after holding a stock for the prescribed period, and dividing by the number of weeks. If you only invest once during the five years, the average return is more of an expected value. That is, on average you would receive that return, but if the return variation is high, the likelihood is small.

    Because you have money in the market only during the holding period, an annualized rather than a total return is most appropriate when comparing two holding periods. For example, in the GLD case, the 78 week average total return is 33%, versus 11% for a 26 week holding period. When annualized, both investments generated a 22% annual gain.

    Also note, while in these examples the annualized returns are independent of holding period, that is not always the case. Try inserting "S" and holding periods of 12 and 52 into the online tool for a counterexample.

    3 High volatility is a signal to avoid buy-and-hold investing. Even though an average investment might generate a positive return, the chance of buying on the worst possible day is too high. But how do you compare volatility between funds? There are as many volatility metrics as there are analysts. Some offer mathematical convenience (e.g. a Gaussian metric), while other arise from connections to physics (e.g. a random walk metric). Each choice is appropriate in some circumstances, and misleading in others.

    I've designed a simple but robust metric- the "normalized perimeter". Basically, the perimeter is the length of the return curve, measured as if it were a shoreline and you keep track of the distance travelled on a walk along the craggy return curve. A smooth return curve is a short walk, while a return curve that bounces around wildly has a longer perimeter. I normalize the length by dividing the perimeter by the number of weeks in five years, and annualizing the return. Looking at the GLD plot above, it's clear by eye that the red curve is more volatile than the longer holding period yellow curve, and this is reflected in the normalized perimeter values of 10 and 5.6


    Dec 04 10:07 AM | Link | Comment!
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