CF Industries Holdings' CEO Presents at 2nd Annual BofA Merrill Lynch Global Agriculture Conference (Transcript)

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CF Industries Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:CF) 2nd Annual BofA Merrill Lynch Global Agriculture Conference February 27, 2013 3:00 PM ET


Stephen R. Wilson - Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President


Kevin W. McCarthy - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Kevin W. McCarthy - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Everybody, glad you can attend our Second Annual Global Agricultural Conference. So next presenting company we're very pleased to welcome CF Industries. CF, as many of you know, is the largest producer of nitrogen fertilizers in North America. And representing the company, we have Chief Executive Officer, Steve Wilson. So Steve, thank you for making a trip to Florida, and we look forward to your remarks.

Stephen R. Wilson

Thanks, Kevin. I'm delighted to be here in the center of the agricultural universe of North America. It reminds me of Omaha or Kansas City. And I was noticing, Mike Wilson and I frequently follow one another. The last time we're in the same conference, he followed me. So I guess, our names just lead to the order in which you put us on the program.

This is a great time to be a North American nitrogen producer and it's a great time to be CF Industries. A few of the things I'll say this afternoon will be in the order of introducing the company, because I assume there are few people here who don't know us. But by and large, I'll try to stick to our investment thesis and talk about some of the more specific things about our business model and our performance. It has been, I think, in the forefront of many people's minds.

Our investment thesis is quite simple. We think crop conditions and economics support strong fertilizer demand. There are tight stock-to-use ratios in the grains and we have very high expectations for planting of all crops this spring. Attractive returns are available to farmers and fertilizer costs are very affordable for farmers. We see tight ammonia and UAN market conditions with respect to urea. We think it's an improving situation, and the phosphate market is a bit weaker than it has been and seems to be in the stable period.

For us, our strategic and operational advantages are summarized on the slide here. We have a very tight, highly focused strategy. We are the beneficiary of low-cost natural gas in North America. We're probably the poster child for the advantage shale gas brings to industrial America. We think we have the best distribution and logistics infrastructure in North America. We have a strong record of effective capital stewardship. We have available to us, and we've begun to execute, 2 very high-return capital capacity addition opportunities. And I think our track record in terms of financial and operating performance speaks to the strength of our experienced management team.

Just by way of introduction, we are a global leader in the plant, nutrient manufacturing and distribution business. Our roots are in the Corn Belt. We are founded in 1946 as a cooperative. We took the company public in 2005. Our market cap at that point was just a little less than $900 million. Today, we -- I think, today, we round up to $13 billion. I'm not sure day-to-day at this point. We are the largest nitrogen producer in North America, second largest in the world. We're also a substantial phosphate producer with world-class assets in Central Florida. We're about 83% nitrogen and 17% phosphate on a revenue basis. And we serve our customers, I think, quite well through our mix of world-class assets.

2012 was a great year for us, for frankly everybody in this space. We have strong demand that was supplemented by our own very strong cost position and we had outstanding execution in our team throughout sales, manufacturing and distribution. We had a couple of challenges. The river system in particular, Mississippi River, had a record low levels. We took some actions to try to mitigate that and we did that successfully. And while our own logistics team were scrambling behind the scenes to deal with that, that event was essentially seamless for our customers, and that's, at the end of they day why we have the logistics team in place that we do. We have records on about every financial metric you can think of. I'll start from the bottom of this 3, our EBITDA increased by 11% over 2011. Net earnings by 20% and EPS by 30%. And that differential between the increase in earnings and the increase in EPS was driven by share repurchases that reduced our share count.

We have very clearly delineated our capital allocation plans that were put in place in 2012, and I'll talk about each of these a little bit later. We repurchased 3.1 million shares for $500 million in 2012. That completed a $1.5 billion program that was authorized in August of 2011. We announced another follow-on $3 billion share repurchase program that extends through December of 2016.

We have, under contract, a pending purchase of the 1/3 interest in the Canadian Fertilizer Limited nitrogen complex that we don't now own. We're awaiting regulatory approval in order to be able to close that. And importantly on the first of November, we announced $3.8 billion of nitrogen capacity expansions at 2 of our locations.

Just a few comments on the fundamentals that underpin the grain markets and our business in particular. Crop conditions are -- as you know, are very strong. We had historically low stocks-to-use ratios, particularly for corn. Corn is -- the corn ratio is about 5.5%, which you can see on the orange bar there, is quite low by historical standards. That persistently low stocks-to-use ratio has led to historically high corn prices that's been the driver of planted acres for corn, which you see on the right, the orange part of the bar is on the right. We are estimating 97 million of acreage of corn to be planted in 2013, essentially flat with 2012 and flat -- and I'm sorry, our view is consistent with the USDA view of planting intentions also.

At the farm level, economics are very attractive. Farmers came out of 2012 cash-rich with very strong balance sheets. Those farmers who didn't have a good corn crop, most of them had crop insurance that allowed them to be liquid. So they're in a great position to be planting this spring.

The graph on the left shows the returns that are available to farmers for planting corn in the normal rotation. The green bar next to the blue bar is the estimated economics for corn -- following corn and the light green bar on the right is the return over variable costs available for planting soybeans. So you can tell the economics for corn farming continue to be quite positive.

Sometimes you hear observers talk about the high cost of fertilizer. There are questions about whether the high cost of fertilizer is going to reduce application rates by farmers. The graph on the right is designed to address that particular question. You can see that revenue at the farm level has increased in recent years. Corn farmer -- an average corn farmer in the Corn Belt is looking at revenue approaching $1,000 an acre. The cost of fertilizer that is accounted for in that -- out of that revenue dollar is about 16% of the revenue dollar and you can see that, that's below the 20% that's been the historical norm. So fertilizer is very affordable. There's no excuse actually on the part of farmers to use less than the optimal amount of nutrients and it's unlikely that they would do that.

This is a summary of our internal view of nutrient demand for 2013. You can see our forecast for nitrogen is about 13.3 million nutrient tons. And while that's flat with 2012, 2012 was a very, very strong year. So -- and that represents the amount of nitrogen that was required to support 97 million acres of corn planted last year. So we see maybe a spike and uptick in that, but not enough to affect the rounding here.

Phosphate, we believe is going to increase about 1.5%. We've had good demand for phosphate. The issues in the phosphate business have principally been offshore weakness in demand but not domestic demand. There's plenty of acreage to be planted that will require phosphate. We expect domestic demand to be quite strong.

I'd like to put some of these into some perspective, because some of the observers have already assumed that we're going to plant 97 million acres, that we're going to have trend line yields of perhaps, 160 bushels an acre. The result of that would be a bumper crop, which would result in a crash in corn prices and a related crash in fertilizer prices.

We need actually 2 or 3 years of very strong production to get grain stocks back to where they have been historically on a percentage-of-use basis. And so a 1-year bumper crop, while it will be an event, is actually needed in the grain markets and is needed in order to feed the world. And particularly important is that today the price of nitrogen fertilizer is not being set as a function of corn price, rather it's being set as a function of the marginal cost of production in the highest cost region. So we believe that even lower corn prices perhaps, in the $5 or less range, would still have robust planting, robust demand and we would maintain a very strong pricing environment.

Looking specifically at ammonia, you can see on the left that we've had a couple of very strong ammonia years. These graphs are depicted on a fertilizer year basis from July 1 to June 30. And you can see fertilizer years 2011 and 2012 were quite strong by historical standards. We're expecting a repeat of that in 2013. The fall 2012 was a very strong application season. It actually taxed our own system in its ability to supply the marketplace. We came out of 2012 with low inventories on our own system. The industry came out with low inventories. You can see on the right side here of the producer inventories and at late in 2012 the reported producer inventory was at the low-end of the 5-year range and we believe that we ended the year actually below the low point of the 5-year range. So we're going in with a low inventory and we're expecting high demand that suggests, obviously, pricing strength and perhaps, some delivery challenges.

With respect to urea, this reflects the high level of import activity that occurred over the year. You can see on the right side that as opposed to the ammonia inventory, we're looking at an inventory situation that's closer to the high-end of the 5-year range as opposed to being on the low end for ammonia. The drop from November and December, because this is looking at producer inventory, I think this reflects the movement of product from the manufacturing level to the wholesale distribution level. It doesn't really reflect an overall change in the supply demand relationship. An important thing -- an important point coming into the spring season is to look at the 3 forms of nitrogen together. We're looking at a strong ammonia market. I'll be talking in a minute about a very strong UAN market. The urea that's in the pipeline and in that inventory is available to deal with any issues that we have with respect to those other 2 products. Those issues could be difficulty of getting the fully demanded amount of ammonia into the marketplace, That could spur increase in demand for urea.

And on the UAN side, we actually have less product falling into the markets than demand might indicate, and we can also have some weather and sort of condition issues that could lead to a shift in preference from ammonia to urea. So urea is poised actually to be the surge in the system to deal with any dislocations on other products. And I want to mention to those of you who don't know us well, we are the largest North American producer of all 3; ammonia, urea, UAN solutions. We obviously have preferences among the 3, but what we want is a strong nitrogen year overall, and we'll be able -- we're very willing to take what ever mix comes out of this demand pattern.

With respect to UAN, we expect a very brisk season in the Corn Belt and throughout agricultural America. You can see on the right side that while we're -- our inventory at the producer level is well within the 5-year range. It's substantially below where it was a year ago. And that's important because last year was a very strong nitrogen year. We needed all that UAN to meet demand. And so there are some possibilities that the market could be lacking enough UAN to meet demand. All though we're going to work as hard as we can to fill that gap. We produce and sell about 6.5 million tons of UAN. We're the largest UAN producer in the world. We are also known in addition to the producer inventory that's shown on the right, we've had a lower level of imports, so far, in this fertilizer year. So the supply of UAN could be a challenge for 2013.

I mentioned that the phosphate business overall is stable. It's stable, as historically, favorable level but it's certainly not as good as it was 1 year or 2 ago. We have very good domestic demand and we actually had that through the winter, that's a reflection of the 97 million acres of corn and strong planting of wheat and other grains. But offshore demand has been sluggish to slow. Everyone has been waiting for India to come back into the market to spur demand. And of course the U.S. is a major exporter of phosphates, so we depend upon a global supply demand situation to set the overall price. In addition to India, there's obviously a wafer activity in South America.

Shifting to the supply side of our business, this is at the heart of our own story. The shale gas phenomenon in North America has completely turned the profile of our industry upside down. For a number of years, the first -- or actually for the whole decade of the 2000 to 2008 or '09, we were the high cost producer, serving our own North American market for nitrogen, and of course, we struggled. And one of our strategic imperatives that we had 3 or 4 years ago was how are we going to diversify away from North American natural gas risk.

Now we looked at some projects that might have been enable us to do that. Fortunately, we didn't pull the trigger on those and we're in a position to take advantage of this phenomenon. We use about 3/4 of a BCF of natural gas a day in our business. I think we could be the largest industrial consumer of natural gas in North America. Nobody publishes statistics on that, but we think we might be.

I spent 3 or 4 days last month in Davos, and in addition to going to some ag meetings, I went to some energy meetings. And I was quite surprised to see the intense focus on shale gas in those discussions. People from other parts of the world are envious of the position that we have in North America. They recognize that what has been accomplished by American ingenuity and hard work, has given us a competitive advantage in the gas space industries. And there's quite a bit of feeling and support for the notion that North America has a big head start, and it has a head start because we've already exploited, but also a couple of embedded reasons that aren't obvious to many people, including me. I have a Marco Rubio moment. And I'm not embarrassed by it.

In the U.S., we have a very extensive history of geological mapping. So we know where the shale gas is, we knew where to go to exploit it and the companies that exploited it went about it very quickly. That's not the case in many parts of the world. While they're pretty sure they have shale gas because they have the kind of formation to support it, they don't have the mapping to know exactly where to go to drill it. And the second factor is that in North America, the mineral rights below the surface, come with the surface property rights. And that's not the case in every place in the world. So that the person who has title to the surface, for example, a farmer, may not own the mineral rights, in fact, the government may own the mineral rights. So when the economic interest of the surface owner and the mineral rights diverge, it's a lot harder to get the people to the table to come to a decision, to go at it and exploit the minerals below the surface. So we're very comfortable with the head start that we have here with shale gas and the sustainability of that cost advantage.

We have a very tightly focused strategy. Our core strengths are as a nitrogen producer and a phosphate producer. We run 7 nitrogen facilities and they're located of course on top of low-cost feedstock and near our customer base. We're vertically integrated in phosphate. We have a phosphate rock mine that is matched with our chemical plant. We have about 12 years of fully permitted reserves. We're 2/3 of the way down the road to permitting another 10 years worth of our phosphate reserves.

We have a very strong safety and operational excellence culture. Safety is first in everything we do. We are very proud of this. It's part of every visit that I make to a plant. I was at -- in central Florida yesterday, making a plant visit, and I had a one-hour briefing on the safety initiatives that have been going on there with very good results. We believe that our focus on safety benefits not just the affected employees but management and certainly, shareholders because the long-term consequences of poort operating and safety performance come back to haunt -- companies who don't do it well.

We have a fully integrated logistic system. We have access to pipeline, waterways, rail, and truck, transportation. I'll show you our network in a minute and we're in 70 end-markets terminals and warehouses in a 20 state region in the heart of agriculture North America.

Our sales presence is strong. Our heritage as a co-op has helped us develop and maintain relationships that have served us very well through the years. I believe we have a very prudent record of financial management. We're driven by cash flow, EBITDA is the metric that we focus on. Our principal measure for our annual cash incentive program is EBITDA over net assets. And I think that's a very appropriate mechanism. We have an investment-grade credit ratings, access to the credit markets if necessary and we have a very strong record of stewardship of investors capital. This is our footprint.

The manufacturing facilities are the green diamonds they're all nitrogen facilities in central Florida where our phosphate operation is. The blue dots, are our distribution facilities, not surprisingly focused in the Corn Belt and you can see the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois River systems, which are important to us. And the 2 ammonia pipelines, which help us get our ammonia into the Corn Belt in a very, very efficient and cost-effective way.

Capital deployment, we announced back in the summer that we have contracted by -- for CAD 900 million, the 1/3 of the Medicine Hat complex that we don't own. Medicine Hat has 2 ammonia plants and 1 urea plant. It's a very efficient facility. We have been the operator of that facility since its inception in the mid-1970s. It's history, again, was as a co-op, and we are looking forward to the day when our minority partners are bought out and we have full operational control and we have access to all of the output of that facility. We've authorized a $3 billion share repurchase program through 2016 and 2 nitrogen projects, which I'll take you through on the next slide.

$3.8 billion split between Donaldsonville, Louisiana and Port Neal, Iowa, 2 locations where we have operations now. We're taking advantage of existing infrastructure, existing relationships with vendors and other service providers, and we have good relationships with the communities and the state authorities in those locations. That will bring about 2.1 million tons of additional ammonia production between 2 million and 2.7 million tons of urea and up to 1.8 million additional tons of UAN. The reason for that range is that at Donaldsonville, we will have the ability and the expansion to run at either 100% dedicated to UAN or 100% dedicated to urea. We have an arrangement with Uhde for the technology. We have a long relationship with them. They're one of 2 or 3 first-class developers of technology in ammonia production. We recently filed for the air permits in Louisiana and Iowa, that's the gating item, to allow us to get onto the site and to begin to drive piles and do the construction itself.

Through the middle of February, we had spent about $120 million and committed about $360 million, so this is a serious committed undertaking. These 2 projects will happen, while I can't say that we'll be the very first in this new wave of North American capacity, I'm quite confident that we will be near the front-end and we'll be doing this in the first-class way.

This graph is a little obtuse and I want to take a minute and describe what the left-hand graph is designed to show. This shows our growth to date in nutrient tons in nitrogen and that's -- those are bars and a reference to the left side. The line is our share count. And so by doing a little math, you can figure out how much leverage there is in a share on a nitrogen-nutrient-ton basis. And the bottom line here is we made the Terra acquisition. We had more than a doubling of our nitrogen nutrient tons and far less than a doubling in our share count, and we have since bought shares back to reduce our share count to about 62 million to 63 million shares. We are now contemplating and actually we stated of executing the strategy to increase our nitrogen nutrient tons from 6.3 million to 8.5 million, including Medicine Hat and the 2 expansion projects. So that's 8.5 million nutrient tons today on the same share base and you can do whatever math you want in terms of estimating how many shares we can buyback with $3 billion, but clearly when we do that program on top of doing the expansion program, there's going to be an even more astounding amount of leverage to nitrogen and owning a share of CF Industries stock.

This is an overview of the layout at Donaldsonville. It's the biggest nitrogen complex in North America and perhaps, the biggest in the world not owned by a government. The green A's are ammonia plants, we have 5 ammonia plants today. We are going to be building ammonia 6. We have 4 urea plants, 2 UAN plants today and you can see where the expansion will go, we end up with 5 ammonia plants, 5 urea plants and 3 UAN plants all in 1 location, 5 docks to which we have Deepwater access and all of the kinds of transportation we could ever want served by today, 5 natural gas pipelines and we have others who are interested in connecting to us in association with the capital projects.

And I'd like to close by showing a few graphs that we haven't done before, but given where our stock trades on a multiple basis, we thought it was important to point out some of these metrics. We have a history as a public company of excellent execution and we've depicted 5 operating return metrics here. Gross margin as a percentage of sales, EBITDA as a percent of sales, return on invested capital and return on equity. And if you can't read the small print, there appears our aggregate Mosaic, Potash Corp and Yara. No one -- no 2 companies on here are pure peers but we do compete for capital with each other. And I think it's reasonable for me to point out that our performance has been better than most of these and certainly the equal of Potash Corp. over quarter over the 2011 and '12 period, 2010 is tainted by all the acquisition cost associated with Terra, but we put it in that order to be complete. We're very proud of this record. We work hard to try to generate higher returns on what ever denominator or may you want to put underneath the return.

And we're proud of the graph on the left here, which shows the huge gap in stock price performance. This is indexed to the beginning of 2009. We're proud of all that white space between CF Industries and the next in line but we're frankly frustrated by what shows up in the box on the right. Looking at this on an enterprise value to EBITDA basis using the last 12 months of EBITDA at 3.7. We're doing well what we can do on the operating side. We think we're doing a reasonable job of telling our story. Those of you are investors in CF and have some suggestions for us on frankly how to get this great operating story told in a better way. We're anxious for any input. We're proud of where we are. We have more to do. Our strategy is absolutely focused.

And I'll just close by taking you through our history in terms of value creation. IPO at $16 a share. We looked at Peru and Petroleum Coke Gasification, and we said no to these projects and these aren't because sometimes the best decisions you can make are decisions not to do something. We didn't do either of those. We did a $500 million share repurchase program in 2008, average price in the 50s. We bid for Terra in 2009, we finally got Terra in 2010. Our share repurchase program in 2011 and 2012, $1.5 billion, average price $157. We've announced the capital deployment initiatives that I described. We have a very tightly focused strategy. We make our decisions based upon thorough study and analysis. We're a cash-flow driven company. Our decisions we're all made of BCF basis. I think we have a very good tracker terms of execution. As well as the quality of our strategic decisions.

So thanks for bearing with me here and I'm happy to take questions

Question-and-Answer Session

Unknown Analyst

My question would be how much of the total cost of -- or the price of product is the cost of transportation? And how do you compare against your competitors in that kind of metric?

Stephen R. Wilson

Well the cost of transportation that's delivered to our customers, it really depends upon where the customer is, how close it is to the plant. What drives the competitiveness in this business is what the raw material cost is. But, for example, you can move 1 ton of urea almost everywhere in the world on a ship for $30. You got a product value that could be $350 a metric ton, $400, $450 or more. So it's a meaningful amount at the margin, but it's not a large component.

Unknown Analyst

My question is more on the future price of nitrogen. If everybody's building to basically replace imported urea and ammonia into North America, do you think the price that will be used to set what that marginal price will be will come lower because everybody has access to cheap gas?

Stephen R. Wilson

Well, everybody doesn't have access to cheap gas and that's why we're moving in the direction that we're moving. The amount of nitrogen that's imported into the U.S. today is about 50% of demand. So there's a huge amount of production that can be done domestically before we even displace all of the imports. So that's a huge buffer. But perhaps, more importantly, there's no magic about the U.S. being a net importer or being a neutral between importing and exporting. If we're a low-cost producer, and we are and we continue to be a low-cost producer, there's no proposition upon for the U.S. to become a nitrogen exporter. The U.S. is an exporter in many commodities and given the cost profile -- in our particular case, given our location in Louisiana with access to global markets, we will be around to exploit that particular opportunity should it come. I don't predict that we're going to become an exporter any time soon. It would have to be a lot of plants built in order for that to happen. The final point is that the world price is determined by the high cost producer in the world. The high-cost producers today are in places like the Ukraine and Romania and China, not the U.S..

Unknown Analyst

So you're not afraid that there could be a discount in North America just as what was seen in Brent and WTI?

Stephen R. Wilson

Well, it's a commodity. Commodities trade basically on the value of the world commodity. I'm not suggesting there'd be no impact but the likelihood of some kind of a diversion I think is pretty low.

Unknown Analyst

Are you concerned about rising natural gas prices in the United States?

Stephen R. Wilson

We watch natural gas prices closely. Obviously, it's our lifeblood. It used to be 90% of our cash cost, today it's about 70% of our cash costs. We look at natural gas in the range of let's say, $3 to $5. We use to look at it $8 to $10, then we looked at it $6 to $8. Today we view it as being in a sustainable $3 to $5 range. Why do we pick that range? Well, we tested the low end of the range a year ago and got below it. But we got below it because we had no winter in 2011 and '12 and I think that was an anomaly. So we think $3 is about the floor because the dry gas drilling goes away when you get that low. On the other side, we believe that when you get above $4 approaching $4.50 and $5, that brings the incentive back in for the drillers to go after dry gas. We haven't yet tested that but we've got plenty of supply of $3.50 and price seems to have stabilized but we're -- we look at it in a $3 to $5 range, we think it is sustainable and we're very comfortable operating our plants in that range.

Unknown Analyst

Yes. I've got a question. You've got an impressive list of accomplishments up on the slide, up on the wall currently about your capital allocations. I'm curious if you're frustrated with your valuation today, why aren't you buying back your stock and putting that $3 billion to work?

Stephen R. Wilson

Well, we've announced the $3 billion share repurchase program. It's a program. It was not announced as an event but a program that's got a 4-plus year time horizon. I feel quite confident that when we complete that program, we will looked backup of we would be proud as of that accomplishment as we are of the other 2 programs at we've already executed.

Kevin W. McCarthy - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Steve, you showed a few charts that illustrate the fact that ammonia and UAN are tighter than urea right now. Can you speak to why that's the case today? And whether or not that differential will be durable or structural? Or is it something that could easily be the opposite post harvest, for example?

Stephen R. Wilson

Well, what the inventory situation will be, let's say, post application, which is actually a key measuring point, that's going to be a function of weather patterns and what ultimate demand is by product. Part of the inventory situation has obviously been driven by the 7 million tons plus or minus that China exported in 2012. That surprised, I think, every observer -- I think it might have actually surprised the Chinese government also and whether that is -- it's physically sustainable, if that's what they decided to do, but I don't think the government really would use that as a sensible policy. So the positive in all of that is that we, apparently had 7 million tons of Chinese urea on the market and the price stayed at a what's historically a very attractive level. So I think, actually, the fundamentals on urea, let's say, in the intermediate term basis are pretty good, and we'll have these periods -- assuming we have low inventories last year and we got up to $750 a ton. That's not healthy either. So I think we'll have the excursions up and down, but overall, I think supply and demand have moved along pretty well together for urea over a sustained period of time.

Kevin W. McCarthy - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

It seems we have time for one more and very quick one, if we can.

Unknown Analyst

At Donaldson, you talked about the flexibility of your expansion between urea and UAN. As you know these prices can move around weekly quite dramatically. Will you be able cap -- seamlessly do that? Will that be a shut down to do that? I was trying to get a sense your ability to capture on a real-time basis.

Stephen R. Wilson

Today we have the ability of switching a couple of hundred thousand tons a year between urea and UAN and that's something we can do in hours. It doesn't require a shut down. It doesn't require loss in production. It's redirecting streams and I am sure it's complicated for the guys doing the operations, but I know it to be an easy thing to do, and we do it frequently.

Kevin W. McCarthy - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Very good. I'm afraid we're at the end of our allotted time. So Steve, thank you for your attendance and the remarks today. I appreciate it.

Stephen R. Wilson

Thank you.

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