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Mercenary Trader (www.mercenarytrader.com) was created by traders, for traders. We are aggressive swing traders who routinely combine fundamentals, technicals and sentiment with deep awareness of global macro and rigorous analysis of individual equities. See all of our content, including free... More
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  • Our Approach: Global Systematic Discretionary Hybrid

    We continue to develop the macro links.

    It will be excellent getting these up in the forum (among other things):

    But now I want to tell you more about the Mercenary vision, and how it relates to routines, deliberate practice, and other things. We can understand a lot of this through the evolved trading style that MT deploys.

    To understand the Mercenary approach to markets, it makes sense to start by considering the deep influences - the traders and investors we have studied and reverse engineered over a multi-decade period. These influences can be grouped into four broad categories:

    Global Macro Practitioners. From the very beginning, the global macro titans loomed large - guys like Soros and Druckenmiller and Bacon and Kovner and Jones. I remember reading "The Alchemy of Finance" in college. I underscored so many passages, my girlfriend at that time suggested it would be easier to underline the stuff I didn't think was important.

    Trend Followers. Early in my career I did a deep study of trend followers. I wound up making contributions to the book "Trend Following: How Great Traders Make Millions in Up or Down Markets" - you can find my name in the recognition credits. And I had some interesting experiences with Ed Seykota, during an overlap of years when we both lived in Lake Tahoe. Trend Followers were a strong influence from the earliest days.

    Value Investors. In the mid-2000′s commodities had expanded to fully encompass equities, which in turn led to an expansive study of value investors and value investing. This included the well known practitioners - Buffett, Munger, Klarman, Graham, Whitman, etc - and also lesser known guys and personal friends who were excellent value investors in their own right. Growth investing and activist investing were natural extensions.

    Quants. Finally there was the study of quantitative approaches… computerized modeling… broad classifications of fundamental factors, systematized rule sets and so on. Quant approaches lent new efficiency to market approaches and the possibility of increased scale and scope of trades within a portfolio.

    After many years of experience gathering, tinkering and seasoning, all these elements came together in what one might call a "Global Systematic Discretionary Hybrid" approach. That's a mouthful, but the traditional style boxes don't really apply. Let's break down the words in that description as to what they mean:

    Global. Willingness to go anywhere on the planet and trade any asset class, long or short. Stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities, up or down, you name it. No restrictions here - which turns out to be important for reasons of selectivity and a focus on best-in-class opportunities. The more beaches you can monitor, the better your chances of finding a great wave to surf…

    Systematic. This means logical rules and evolved best practices for trade parameters, pattern recognition, setup requirements and other things. Large aspects of the vetting process are systematized in the sense that very clear rules apply, and the rulesets are precise enough that a computer could understand and execute them. This systematic approach also allows for a "shared language" between traders, in the sense that our parameters are so well defined that other traders can learn to recognize and apply them. This also means a rule-based and somewhat computerized approach to position management, which allows for a larger portfolio of positions.

    Discretionary. This factors in the human element and the ability to vary position size by multiple orders of magnitude. The positions we take can be anywhere from tiny (less than 10 basis points of planned risk) to absolutely gargantuan (e.g. planned risk of half the open profits in the portfolio, with full position size representing high triple-digit leverage, properly safeguarded through limited risk options structures). True opportunities are outlier and fat tail oriented, which requires "courage to be a pig" when the time is right (and only when it is right). Discretion means ability to crank up the conviction dial and deploy capital aggressively, even super-aggressively, as conditions dictate.

    Hybrid. This means our style doesn't fit the traditional boxes. We have elements of all the components mentioned - global macro, trend following, value investing, quantitative - and also elements that are systematized (some things a computer should handle) and elements that are discretionary (it takes a human to know when to bet big). The synthesis of all these elements creates the Mercenary way of trading. We also think it is an approach Jesse Livermore would recognize - Livermore being, we would argue, one of the original go-anywhere macro guys. He would've traded currencies too along with everything else, if there had been liquid currencies to trade back then.

    The other factor here is community-based output. Mercenary has long had community in its blood - "a community of ruthless profiteers."

    When the world is your hunting ground there is great value in having extra eyes and ears. The ultimate would be having a sort of market "God's Eye" - the hypothetical technology in a recent action movie (Furious 7) that allowed the user to "see" through the lens of any smart phone or surveillance cam. With global scanning technology and the right flagging signatures, you could spot far-flung opportunities as they develop anywhere.

    The Mercenary approach - Global Systematic Discretionary Hybrid - is well suited to this "God's Eye" overlay. We trade liquid instruments, and prefer trends of weeks to months if not longer. This allows for community-based awareness of good trading ideas, with time to vet or research or a trade before the window of opportunity closes. Shorter term time frames would be harder to share or replicate in a timely manner. (And as Ed Seykota has observed, short-term trading can bear unfortunate resemblance to short-term flying - traveling coast-to-coast is much easier with one or zero stopovers than with ten, and so on.)

    Our "God's Eye" view of all the worthwhile trends that are developing, and potentially exciting trades that are happening, is first leveraged with the creation of highly efficient monitoring tools. We have begun this legwork with our early "Trend Tracker" tools, now covering dozens of ETFs as well as various major equity, commodity and currency groupings. The Trend Trackers will soon evolve into GATS - our Global Alerts Targeting System which acts as a monitoring overlay for all potential trading vehicles.

    Then, too, it will be important for the community to have a standardized "language" - especially in the forums - as such that a common body of knowledge and best practices are shared. The reason poker players who just met each other can have engaging conversations immediately, much of the time, is because they speak the language of a shared pursuit. Certain terms or ideas, or even advanced versions of the same, are simply implied and understood. This greatly enhances the ef efficiency of communication.

    Within the MT community (and the upcoming Forum) we can do the same thing - create a shared language through the widespread teaching of the Mercenary methodology, along with basic guidelines as to what to look for in attractive trade setups. There can also be feedback ranking of trade submission quality and even reward systems or recognition for excellent idea submissions.

    To further clarify:

    The purpose of the MT "machine" is to generate excellent trading ideas at scale. We want excellent, timely ideas, checking the boxes on all key parameters, with the capability of handling large amounts of capital. This scalability factor is key, and is one of the reasons we show less interest in short-term trading. We want ideas that can "move the needle" on tens to hundreds of millions without running into highly restrictive capacity.

    The secondary purpose of the MT machine is to matriculate Master Traders, and future hedge fund managers, to deploy the excellent trading ideas generated (while adding value themselves). The community aspect of the Mercenary model also has a very strong "core team" emphasis - indeed, it is our plan to expand our roster of Mercenary analysts, and traders and portfolio managers, possibly into the dozens as we rapidly expand. This means a precise vetting process in which potential hires progress through various levels, with the highest level being full-fledged hedge fund manager, backed with MT's blessing, capital and full operational support.

    The purpose of deep dive fundamental research and discussion of general conditions is knowing when to bet big. Again, as we have emphasized over and over, market opportunity is fat tail oriented and follows a power law distribution. The biggest and best trades are not evenly distributed throughout time frames or market environments. They come in clusters and bunches, or sometimes come one at a time in isolated fashion. As such, the ability to bet big at the right time is crucial - and deep awareness of suitability as to general conditions, coupled with knowledge of the trade on all fronts, is what enables this.

    The MT community can act as a collective "God's Eye" - an extension of the Mercenary Mind - by fully understanding the mechanics and subtleties of the Global Systematic Discretionary Hybrid approach and generating idea flow, for all to make potential use of within the community itself. The problem with so many collaborative environments, especially in respect to trading or investing, is lack of well distributed knowledge or even time frames and methodologies working at cross purposes. If one trader is looking for trends that can be exploited for weeks or months, or investment ideas that can absorb large amounts of capital, and other traders are focused on taking 30 cents out of an options trade or two handles off the mini S&P, there will simply be a disconnect. Shared purpose, focus and vision are required, with shared educational levels and knowledge access tremendously helpful.

    This is where ideas come into play like:

    • standardized parameters for trade idea submission
    • social ranking of excellent ideas or contributions
    • creating an environment of open discussion and mental enrichment

    This also helps us see the deeper purpose of the MT Driver's Manual:

    The core purpose of the DM is to help facilitate "Deliberate Practice." We wrote fairly extensively about the different areas of deliberate practice and the importance of engaging those. Proper engagement of Deliberate Practice in the areas of behavior modification, routine proficiency, pattern recognition and mental model building will require access to countless "workbook examples" - possibly hundreds of them - along with valuable in-depth materials that do far more than just present information on a surface level (the thing that most trading books do). The DM is the vehicle for this: A means of adding greatly to breadth and depth of knowledge in all core areas on the path to trading mastery.

    With proper execution, and the inherent leverage of the Mercenary community, our "God's Eye" factor becomes real as the Global Systematic Discretionary Hybrid approach goes truly global. We will hunt for groundbreaking new ways - through technology and tools and social structures and other things - to build collaborative value, in result creating a "whole more than the sum of its parts" with a power and scope never seen before.

    Aug 21 9:30 AM | Link | Comment!
  • Google (Or Rather Alphabet) Is The Future; Berkshire Hathaway Is The Past; And Berkshire's Core Model May Be Doomed

    Google has undergone a major restructuring. There is a new parent company, Alphabet, which splits out all of Larry and Sergey's various moonshot ventures - Google X, Nest, Calico, and so on - which focus on crazy big bets like self-driving cars and human life extension. Google is now a subsidiary of Alphabet.

    The most amusing perspective on this came via @tsrandall on Twitter: "The new parent company will be able to pursue new areas of interest that had previously been off-limits to Google."

    Joking aside, there are multiple reasons why the split-out makes sense. The new structure allows for more CEO spots, rewarding talented executives. Google itself (now a subsidiary) can get back to focusing solely on search under its new CEO (Sundar Pichai) and protecting the company's near-insurmountable lead in search. Google's original founders, Larry and Sergey, can now focus more on the crazy stuff that holds their attention. And it will now become easier to spin off any subsidiary into its own entity (including the original Google) fairly quickly if need be.

    Some have compared the new Google structure to Berkshire Hathaway, even suggesting this new entity is "molded after" Berkshire:

    The new structure takes a page from Buffett, 84, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is a holding company for disparate businesses ranging from insurance and railroads to running shoes and ice cream. In the past five decades, he's built one of the largest businesses in the world by eschewing fads, buying when others sell, and taking a long-term approach to investing. Through 2014, Berkshire averaged annual returns of almost 22 percent, more than double the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

    "They look at Warren as a hero and Berkshire as a template," said Steve Wallman, a Middleton, Wisconsin-based money manager who has invested in Berkshire since 1982 and bought stock in Apple Inc. in late 2003. He's not a Google shareholder, but says he wishes he were.

    Fellow executives in the technology industry also noted the similarities to Berkshire.

    "Google's Alphabet sounds like a 21st-century Berkshire Hathaway, but with a lot of very large venture bets," Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn Corp., said on Twitter.

    ~ BloombergBusiness, 'B Is for Buffett' in Page's Plan to Mold Google After Berkshire

    There were old references from Google's founders too:

    In a letter to potential shareholders in 2004 ahead of Google's initial public offering, Page and co-founder Sergey Brin quoted Buffett when outlining the company's long-term focus.

    "Much of this was inspired by Warren Buffett's essays in his annual reports and his 'An Owner's Manual' to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders," the letter said, in the lone footnote at the bottom of the statement…

    The comparison is amusing because the two entities could hardly be more opposite.

    Yes there are similarities in structure between Alphabet and Berkshire. But so what? Saying that decentralized conglomerates are similar just because of their organization chart is like talking about hedge funds as an asset class. It doesn't make sense. (Hedge funds come in countless shapes, sizes, and areas of focus - the only thing that unites them is performance based manager compensation.)

    We concede that it's possible the organizational structure of Alphabet was inspired by a Berkshire flowchart. But that's about as far as it goes in terms of useful comparisons. The interesting thing in our view is that Alphabet is the future; Berkshire is the past; and their core models are radically different. One has a future. The other may not.

    As the WSJ reports, Google had $66 billion in revenue in 2014, 89% of which came from advertising on YouTube and search. Alphabet is driven by a gigantic, hugely profitable advertising machine.

    This hugely profitable advertising machine supports what we would call a "Quantum Evolution" model:

    • Use cash flow from a central source to fund speculative projects on the periphery.
    • Let rapid evolution take place at the margins (small experiments all around the periphery).
    • Eventually, one or more of the experiments experiences quantum evolution…
    • And becomes a cash flow juggernaut in its own right, overwhelming the original center.

    If you imagine a giant circle, Google (the original Google) is at the center of that circle, throwing off huge amounts of cash. That cash is re-invested in all these speculative areas - self-driving cars, smart thermostats, life extension, and so on. Over time, some of these aggressive "quantum evolution" bets - attempts to fast-forward the future - could pay off to the tune of hundreds of billions, or even trillions.

    Doubters think huge innovation bets are a waste of effort. But when a quantum evolution bet pays off, the results can be incredible. Consider Amazon.com, which spent most of its life as a cash-burning e-commerce business. Now, thanks to the stunning profitability of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon is viewed as a cloud computing business with a marginal breakeven e-commerce business attached. It's not inconceivable that, 10 or 15 years from now, Alphabet could be viewed as a self-driving car business or life extension medical technology business, with a modestly profitable search engine attached.

    This "quantum evolution" model (focused on accelerating the future) is robust to the degree that the central cash source is robust (and the Google search engine cash cow appears quite robust, mainly because Google's engineers maintain a pace of innovation and improvement faster than any competitor could realistically match). And the quantum evolution model is failure resistant due to the fact that such a model expects routine failure, and allows for routine disappointment, in exchange for cultivating that opportunity to ultimately score with a moonshot that works. The ability to fail is built into the system, as a form of flexibility and resiliency.

    This is the exact opposite of the Berkshire Hathaway model, which can roughly be summed up as "Leverage insurance float and buy stuff that stays the same." To point out more differences:

    Berkshire says "never lose money." Alphabet is willing to lose significant sums via calculated risks.

    Berkshire focuses on businesses that stay static and don't change. Alphabet drives change.

    Berkshire focuses on past stability. Alphabet focuses on future possibility.

    Berkshire intrinsically fears uncertainty and change. Alphabet embraces uncertainty and change.

    Here is an interesting thought experiment. If you had to put your net worth in a blind trust 100% invested in one of these two conglomerates - Berkshire Hathaway or Alphabet - for the next 20 years, which would you choose?

    Alphabet seems the no-brainer choice. Alphabet has dozens of ways to invent the future, and only needs one or two moonshots to pay off. Berkshire, meanwhile, faces peril at every turn. Some of Berkshire's core drivers, in fact, are under direct assault from Alphabet itself. For example:

    Car insurance. Berkshire derives huge revenue, and "float," from its various insurance businesses, with GEICO the crown jewel. It is not implausible that self-driving cars could completely gut the car insurance business.

    Soft drinks, fast food, and unhealthy consumer goods. Coca-cola, Dairy Queen, Kraft macaroni and cheese… Berkshire is heavily invested in food that can barely be considered food. Tastes are changing here as nutritional science reveals just how awful most of this stuff is, and technology better enables production of healthy stuff (with consumer tastes shifting).

    Railroads. The health of the railroads is tied to physical transport, and especially the transport of energy resources like oil and coal. 3D printing and localized manufacturing are a big threat here. And solar phasing out fossil fuel use.

    Utilities and related "old school" energy bets. Big, hulking, heavily regulated status quo players are subject to the threat of alternative energy inroads. Investments in old established cash flow generators like Exxon and Suncor (oil sands) are further exposed to pressure from alternative upstarts (whose valuations are too speculative for Berkshire to touch) and major transition away from traditional energy sources.

    Gigantic financial institutions. Silicon Valley is coming for the megabanks. Many of their services will be undercut by rapidly improving technology. Mortgages, life insurance, basic services - all ripe for technology upgrades that hammer legacy players by squeezing profit margins, giving greater benefit to consumers at lower cost.

    Antiquated technology. In one of his classic worldly wisdom speeches some years ago, Charlie Munger specifically referenced IBM as a good example of a company Berkshire would not buy because they don't understand the vagaries of the technology landscape and don't want to mess with it. Many years on, what does Berkshire do? They buy $10 billion worth of IBM… and wander into the middle of the cloud wars (which IBM is losing badly). Say what?

    Generational preference shifts. How many millennials give a rip about American Express?

    Broadly speaking, we would argue that Berkshire Hathaway was a brilliant creation, ideal for its time - a conglomerate vehicle leveraged to the powerhouse growth of the United States economy all throughout the 20th century. Buffett's central insight was being a value investor when value investors hardly existed… with willingness to make huge bets when the time and price was right… while brilliantly leveraging the power of insurance "float" through exposure to the longest and strongest economic tailwind (the growth of the US economy) that the world had ever experienced.

    But now Berkshire's core philosophy is deeply exposed. If your game plan is to buy into safe, stable businesses that don't change… then what happens when the whole landscape is rapidly shifting?

    Everything about Berky seems to make a virtue of sameness and stagnation. That's great when you truly have the "moats" to defend your franchises, and when the pace of technological change is a friendly dawdle. But happens when your moats are breached, your whales are beached, and you don't know what to do?

    Berkshire Hathaway, like Saudi Arabia, will be around for quite a long time. But the aversion to innovation, and embrace of stagnation and sameness as antidote to risk, could become huge liabilities in the not too distant future. Google - or rather Alphabet - is working hard to make the self-driving car revolution happen in five to ten years time. Wall Street houses are already talking about it.

    Maybe a multi-decade spread trade is in order: Long Alphabet, short Berkshire…

    Tags: short-ideas
    Aug 11 1:35 PM | Link | 1 Comment
  • Yelp And Twitter Are In Trouble, And Gig Economy Unicorns Ain't Feeling So Hot

    Silicon Valley is the new Wall Street. Learning to code is the new ticket to riches… Google is the new Goldman Sachs… and tech startups with stock options are the new hedge funds (where you might fizzle out but also might hit it big).

    Demand is highest in San Francisco but it's happening in a lot of places:

    For now, at least, it is a seller's market for those who can master new technology tools for lowering a business's costs, reaching its customers and automating decision-making - notably, cloud computing, mobile apps and data analytics.

    Companies cannot hire fast enough. Glassdoor, an employment site, lists more than 7,300 openings for software engineers, ahead of job openings for nurses, who are chronically in short supply. For the smaller category of data scientists, there are more than 1,200 job openings. Demand is highest in San Francisco. Nationally, the average base salary for software engineers is $100,000, and $112,000 for data scientists.

    ~ As Tech Booms, Workers Turn to Coding for Career Change (NYSE:NYT)

    An average base salary of 100K nationwide? That is really something. According to the 2013 census, the per capita income in San Francisco was $42,695. For the US on the whole it was $28,184.

    Some of this goes back to our "Digital Feudalism" theme - the basic idea that, in the knowledge economy you can either be a lord, a knight or a serf. The lords are the wielders of capital (i.e. investors and owners). The knights (i.e. knowledge workers) work for the lords while steadily amassing personal capital - and broadly aspire to become lords themselves. The serfs, meanwhile, are everyone else who gets left behind.

    Software engineering and data science count as tickets to knighthood… but they also have a self-discipline barrier built in. Learning to be a decent programmer, let alone a great one, is tough. This is intriguing because of the implied meritocracy aspect. Great coders are so in demand that the Silicon Valley giants will take them from anywhere, under any circumstance. But becoming a great coder is not like falling off a log. And if you are rich but lazy, you can't use your dad's alumni network to get a cushy connect (a disgusting feature of the old Wall Street), because once you show up on the job your skills (or lack thereof) become immediately apparent - either you can code or you can't.

    San Francisco is already a towering monument to inequality, thanks to the high compensation for tech workers versus more normal comp for everyone else. What if the rest of the country becomes more like San Francisco - pockets of digital wealth amid growing seas of serfdom?

    A recent Economist cover (see above) lamented the plight of the blue collar American male lacking knowledge work skills (he is basically hosed). But now it turns out weak tech companies are being hurt by the programmer shortage too - like Yelp. Enter the "Unicorn Bubble:"

    Yelp Inc. is struggling with a problem analysts call the "unicorn bubble" as the local search and advertising company competes with big startups for young employees who are vital to its growth.

    Shares in Yelp fell 25% Wednesday after the San Francisco-based company lowered its revenue outlook for the year. The stock is now valued at roughly one-quarter of its record high, reached just last year.

    So-called unicorns, or later-stage startups scooping up money in private financing rounds valuing them at $1 billion or more, are flush with venture-capital money, which they are spending to hire workers in the Bay Area. As a result, Yelp is having to spend more to hire salespeople, and it is adding them at a slower rate than previously expected, it said Tuesday.

    ~ Yelp Struggles, as Competition for Talent Impedes Growth (WSJ)

    Is this a sign of how the Silicon Valley madness ends? Maybe there is some kind of extinction event, where the profitable giants - Facebook, Google, Apple and so on - preside over a bloodbath of valuation implosion and burn rate destruction for all the small players strangled by operational costs, allowing them to sift through the carrion like distressed asset vultures.

    It already seems clear there are tech "winners and losers" shaping up. Winners include the dominators of mobile advertising, like Facebook and Google again… whereas losers include also-rans like Yelp, whose hiring predicament is doubly painful because they are, in some ways, an old-economy company in disguise (dependent on armies of human salespeople to push the equivalent of 21st century yellow pages on the web). Nor is Yelp helped by the fact that its entire business model could be gutted by an elbow jab from Google, who also offers ratings on local stores and restaurants.

    We wouldn't be surprised, in fact, to see YELP and TWTR trend much lower over time - due to the nutty valuations built in - and investors are already losing faith:

    (click to enlarge)Twitter and Yelp have each built unique Internet services used by millions, and each generates most of their revenue from advertising. Investors have been pinning high hopes for stratospheric growth at both companies. Before Wednesday's rout, Twitter's stock was fetching about 72 times forward earnings, while Yelp was on 107 times.

    ~ The Tweets and Yelps of an Overvalued Market (WSJ)

    There is hope that Jack Dorsey, a returning founder, will be a "new Steve Jobs" for Twitter (turning around the company he helped create). In its recent tough love earnings call, Dorsey was praised for his clear vision of the hard work Twitter has left to do in order to fulfill its vision and potential - stressing patience and the need for time in letting this vision play out.

    We suspect Twitter is in as much stock price trouble as Yelp though - because it's being valued on a mass market vision, when really it has more of a niche product offering.

    Facebook is truly for "the masses" because you use it to connect with friends and family. Apple products are for the masses because most people listen to music and have a smartphone. But Twitter is mainly a communication device for people who have something to say… and how many people have interesting things to say? There is no preexisting human need or sociobiological itch that gets scratched by 140-character messaging. That makes Twitter a kind of news channel and entertainment medium… which puts it in competition with zillions of other media outlets. Forced admission that Twitter is destined to be a much smaller company than hoped - relative to the mass market vision - could mean a painful valuation haircut.

    Meanwhile the old economy is striking back against the "gig economy," aka sharing economy, by making loose labor arrangements illegal:

    Hundreds of startups that rely on freelancers to clean houses, run errands, deliver food and ferry people are under siege.

    Lawsuits are threatening to reclassify their contractors as employees, which could drive up labor costs an estimated 20% to 40%. That has put an investment chill over these startups and prompted some founders to switch their business models.

    In the biggest jolt to date, housecleaning service Homejoy Inc. said it will shut down on Friday, in part because four lawsuits hurt the company's chances of raising more money. Homejoy previously had raised about $40 million from prominent venture-capital firms.

    ~ Startups Scramble to Define 'Employee' (WSJ)

    This goes back to the Digital Feudalism thing from the angle of "how many rights should the serfs have." It's really tricky too because you can't tell who the victims are - or the heroes. Is it the Silicon Valley companies using technology to create jobs where none existed? Or is it the state and local labor advocates fighting the exploitation of workers and the gutting of local employee-based services? These labor law fights are interesting too because, if there is a sense the sharing economy gets stopped in its tracks by employment legislation, that could be the tipping point moment when magical unicorn pixie dust starts to wear off…

    What seems clear regardless is that Western World inequality is going to keep on rising, as skill gaps make the problem more pronounced - as a smaller pool of knowledge-oriented "haves" prospers in contrast to an increasingly larger pool of "have nots." This in turn leads to heightened odds of political turbulence ahead. San Francisco, where activists have railed against wifi-equipped Google shuttle buses, could once again be a harbinger…

    Jul 31 2:13 PM | Link | 1 Comment
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