In this episode of the VALUE: After Hours Podcast, Taylor, Brewster, and Carlisle chat about:
- The Fear & Greed Index
- Solitude & Leadership
- $SPR & Investor Behavior
- Your Favorite Buffett Deal
- The Opportunity Cost Of Buying Bitcoin
- Mauboussin – Process vs Outcomes
- Inevitable Businesses
- Bill Miller’s Early Calls
- Fading FANMAG’s
- Greenblatt – The Cost Of Assets To Produce Earnings
- It’s Easy To Fool Yourself
- The Best Time To Review Your Process Is When You Have A Good Year
- Writing Like Hemingway
You can find out more about the VALUE: After Hours Podcast here – VALUE: After Hours Podcast. You can also listen to the podcast on your favorite podcast platforms here:
Tobias: And we’re live. It’s 10:30 AM on the East Coast, 1:30 PM on the West Coast. Oh, no, I’ve kind of forget, I think it’s 6:30–
Tobias: -UTC. It’s 6:30 Australian Eastern Standard Time. Sorry, I don’t know what time it is in Perth, and I don’t think you’re calling in anyway. Maybe not. It’s probably like-
Bill: Shout out to Perth.
Tobias: –3:30 AM on the most remote big city in the world.
Bill: It’s West Coast, right?
Tobias: It is. Yeah. West Coast, Australia.
Bill: It’s kind of just over there. There’s nothing going on, on the West Coast other than that, right?
Tobias: It’s the highest concentration of millionaires per capita in Australia, at least. Lots of mining millionaires over there. Maybe not anymore, but that used to be the case.
Bill: I would think Byron Bay would be like per capita.
Tobias: Byron’s probably the highest per capita of like celebrities in Australia, something like that. They all love it down there. All the Hollywood types.
Bill: Byron, sick. Shoutout to Nimbin too. What up, Nimbin?[laughter]
Tobias: If you know you know. I’m not going to elaborate on that one.
Bill: That’s right.
Tobias: What’s happening, guys? We got people from everywhere. Kerava, Finland. Chai Town. Florianopolis, Brazil.
Tobias: Berlin. What’s good. North Carolina. [unintelligible [00:01:26] Hills.
Bill: Not much. I mean, this is Value: After Hours. I’m Bill Brewster with my cohosts, Jake Taylor, and Tobias Carlisle. Jake, what are you going to be talking about today?
Jake: I’ve got Solitude and Leadership.
Bill: Very nice. And Toby, what are you going to be going with?
Tobias: I think the market is very, very bold up at the moment. ValueStockGeek, friend of the podcast. Good Twitter follow, a little while ago alerted me the fact that the Fear & Greed indicator that CNN published, it’s kind of a useful indicator. So, I’m just going to talk about that a little bit.
Bill: Yeah, that was real high–
Jake: How about you, Billy?
Bill: –last week. I think it was like 87 or something like that.
Tobias: Got to 91. Topped out at 91. I don’t know where it is now, I’m just going to have quick look.
Bill: That’s big time.
Jake: Never go full, full– [crosstalk]
Tobias: Yeah. That’s as high it’s been.
Bill: I’m going to visit Spirit AeroSystems, an idea that I wrote up on my blog on October 26 and made exactly zero dollars from as it doubled.[laughter]
Jake: Ah, sounds right.
Bill: Yeah. Who wants to go first?
Fear & Greed Index
Tobias: I don’t mind, I’ll take it away because I’ve got a show on here. Fear & Greed. Got to give a shoutout to ValueStockGeek for this one, because he let me know about it. I’ve been aware of its existence but not really focused on it too much. It’s a funny indicator. It’s published by CNN, and it’s basically a– it looks like a speedo from the car, like there’s a red zone, which funnily enough is greed. Sorry, is fear is extreme fear, and that’s at zero. Then you get extreme greed at 100. I don’t know if there’s ever been a 100 rating on it. There’s probably never been a zero rating either, tends to be in the middle somewhere. But we can track it over time. Well, let me tell you what’s in it first.
It’s a weird combination of stuff, but it seems to be reasonably effective. Looks at stock price strength, stocks hitting their 52-week highs, safe-haven demand, which is stocks trading relative to bonds, put and call options over a five-day average. Price breadth, stock price breadth using a McClellan volume summation index, whatever that is. Market momentum. Just if it’s over– it’s over 200-day average, I think. Junk bond demand, market volatility. So, it’s this combination of things that indicate how everybody feels about the market, I guess, rather than looking at, traditionally, we might look at valuation or other indicators like that. I think is a reasonable short-term sort of indicator, just tells you. So, I think it’s useful. As a value guy, probably one of the hardest things to do is to just stay patient and just wait for your pitch. I think the last five years have really tested a lot of guys, a lot of people have drifted because it’s just too painful to sit waiting for these things to get cheap enough to just shift your hurdle rate down, just accept lower returns, or do you sit there and try and wait for that really fat pitch.
I honestly don’t have the good answer for it. I’ll give you my answer, but then you can have a look at my performance, and you can see what a good answer that’s been. I think you should wait, but that’s not been particularly helpful. The interesting thing about it– and this is what ValueStockGeek alerted me to, which I think is very useful. Basically, it trends between 0 and 100. But it never really gets to 0 and 100. So, you want to look at it in quintile. When it’s below 20, that’s a pretty good indicator of a short term– It’s pretty good buying in that zone. When it gets above 80, which is the top quintile, then it’s expensive, and it tracks the market reasonably well. At the beginning of this year, it got to the highest reading, it came right up on 100. It was like 97 or 98.
Jake: [crosstalk] –January.
Tobias: Yeah, right. It was right at the end of last year or at the beginning of this year, the absolute peak was right on the turn of the year, whatever day that was. And then, through March was one of the lowest we’ve seen. It was almost to zero. So, it’s a pretty good– it would have said to you sell something or buy some puts or sell some calls or something in January, which would have been a pretty good move. And then at the bottom in March, it was telling you to buy everything that wasn’t nailed down, which again, was a pretty good indicator. You can go back through time and see how it’s performed. It’s been very good. You get about one or two opportunities to buy and sell every year. From that perspective, I think it’s a reasonably helpful.
Now, it’s not giving you too many things to do. I’m not saying you buy or sell everything. I’m just saying it’s just worth knowing where you are in the cycle. If you’re getting the urge to buy something and you’re thinking about paying up, if you have a look at the fear and greed indicator, and it’s close to 100, you might want to consider the impact that’s having on your emotions too, that you’re getting tired of waiting and wanting to buy, and maybe you consider that stage not buying and waiting for an opportunity where it’s a little bit closer to the bottom. When we look at it now, it’s at 92 which is one of the highest ratings that it’s–
Tobias: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right. Almost there. Basically, this is the sell zone. Anytime you’re over 80, you’re in the sell or the don’t buy zone. Just stay cool like Fonzie, at this point. Just wait for the fat pitch. No idea when it’s going to come, but I would just say that it’s extremely optimistic, extremely greedy at the moment. And that’s literally what the indicator says. It’s extreme greed. For my two cents, I don’t think it’s a good time to be doing anything right now. Unless you got something that’s just screaming at you to buy it, you probably going to get a better opportunity in the not too distant future. You guys use anything like that, you ever think about that? Find that helpful?
Jake: I find it very interesting, the inner year movements of it. It’s surprising that it goes as high and as low as it does in the middle of a year.
Jake: Because it doesn’t feel that when you’re in that year, it feels a little bit more smoothed out for some reason, but– [crosstalk]
Tobias: Would you feel the extreme greed at the moment? Do you think it’s extreme? Do you feel that’s sort of FOMO at the moment?
Bill: I mean, dude, it’s inning three.
Tobias: [laughs] Does that mean no?
Jake: Well, I’m sure that you could correlate never-sell conversations with the fear and greed index. There was no one saying never sell in January of 2009. I don’t remember that conversation occurring at all.
Tobias: No, me neither, but we’ve achieved apparently high plateau. There’ll be no more gigantic mega bears. We’re only going to have these like mid-size mega bears. Well, not mega bears, mid-size bears where it’s down 20% golf ball off a concrete path, straight back to all-time highs.
Jake: I hear people talking about how it’s like we’re at the beginning of a new bull market right now.
Tobias: Your cohost– [crosstalk]
Bill: Inning three.
Jake: I know. I know.
Bill: Jesus. It’s like I don’t exist.[laughter]
Jake: No, real people, Bill.
Bill: Oh, okay, that’s great [crosstalk] podcast dweebs.
Jake: Yeah, exactly. But that doesn’t make sense to me from a– when I think about the classic setup for just a premium conditions that a bull market could sprout forth from, it would be high-interest rates, low-profit margins, low valuations, low sentiment, all these things are the ingredients that you need for a super bull market.
Tobias: I think we got zero– [chuckles]
Jake: [crosstalk] -from that, right? We’re in the exact opposite. Low rates, record-high profit margins, crazy sentiment high, never-sell conversations. I mean, I don’t know.
Tobias: I feel like that’s been the case for the last five years.
Jake: That’s fair.
Bill: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know that the margins are going to come in.
Tobias: You’re not margins are the most mean-reverting series and finance kind of guy?
Bill: I mean, they haven’t been lately.
Tobias: Well, that’s true.
Bill: I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that in more of an intellectual property world, maybe they’re less mean reverting than people maybe want them to be.
Tobias: Is it an IP world? Or is it the network? It’s just a winner takes all world rather than–
Jake: Returns– [crosstalk]
Bill: Yeah, intangibles, generally. That’s what I would say.
Jake: I think a big part of it is globalization and capital winning really against labor, as you’ve added a ton of labor into the corporate world, but we’re maybe heading in the other direction a little bit that way with more trade wars, and who knows what, little bit more protectionist policies. You might not see the same dynamic, I don’t know.
Tobias: That was more of the last administration, which has been thrown out, so the new administration, they’re kind of– do you think they’re going to continue with those policies?
Jake: I have no idea.
Bill: I think the narrative on China has changed pretty permanently, at least for the foreseeable future, but I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think that there’s euphoria everywhere, I guess, but I didn’t invest through ‘99, so I don’t have a sense of whether or not people that were sort of in the more value-y names and 99 were euphoric or not. Certainly– I mean, look, Puru, through my man 400% in like a year or whatever, year to date, he even admitted. He was like, “This has been a heck of a run and will probably never be done again.” You see returns like that– He even said that he thought it was in the nascent stages of a bubble. When Puru saying it–
Tobias: Just the beginning?
Jake: Nascent? What does full grown look like this?
Bill: I seriously feel like, I’m not even sitting in front of you guys. Inning three. Geez.[laughter]
Jake: You’re right, Billy, you’ve called it so far. I haven’t been wrong, other than some minor hiccup in March.
Tobias: That’s true. And that wasn’t because of overvaluation, that was for a different reason.
Bill: That’s right. The world had to stop.
Tobias: There was a specific reason for that one.
Bill: Stop the melt-up. It’s a strong melt-up.
Tobias: What a crazy time in the markets, geez.
Bill: I think it goes higher. I don’t know why. I don’t know why it wouldn’t. I don’t understand why it wouldn’t.
Tobias: Well, I think it’s untethered from fundamentals now. So, yeah, but it can go wherever it wants to go. As David Einhorn says, “Three times overvalue is no less silly than two times overvalue.” It’s just that silly.
Bill: Yeah. Well, and it’s just like when you’re putting– I mean, look, I know that everybody has a process that they have to justify to themselves, I get it. But when you’re valuing the cash flows that far out, you’re bound to be able to tell yourself stories you believe.
Tobias: I look at the FAMG just for fun over the weekend, I just pulled up.
Bill: Nah, they don’t count. They don’t count. They’re fine. It’s SaaS.
Tobias: Well, I pulled them up, and I was just looking at them, let’s assume that these things– because they’re all like their returns– Microsoft returned 40% plus on equity last year on $120 billion worth of equity. It’s just bonkers. And shows no sign of slowing down. Facebook, incredible. Google, incredible. They’re about 17.5%, but their return on capital is astronomically high because they’re sandbagging a little bit there. So then I looked at what kind of returns do you get out of these companies? I think the returns are somewhere, depending on which one you’re looking at.
They’re between 12% and 8% or 6%, depending on where you’re looking through those names. Do you want to lock in those kind of numbers at this point, and then assume no fade– I think that they reinvest a lot less than they look like they are because there’s no dividends. There’s none. The buybacks are basically miniscule. I don’t know where the money leaks away. I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s not all reinvested in the business, and it comes out somehow.
The only way you can sustain in this kind of levels is, there’s got to be some reinvestment and there’s got to be some fade. And I just don’t know how long do these things fade? Do you fade them over 25 years? Jake will be able to tell that base rate for maintaining those kind of returns over 25 years, it’s got to be a low probability event run, not saying it’s going to happen. You want to bet on it?
Jake: Well, I was reading back through Buffett’s letters again, and he’s talking about how– and this must have been around the 99-2000 timeframe because he’s talking a lot about tech businesses and how– He shared that there are some incredible businesses in there, but that he’s not sure how to tell which ones are which. He says that Warren and Charlie have been looking for decades for companies that they feel are inevitable, and they’ve only found a couple. These guys have probably kicked over every rock that was out there. They found a handful. At that point, it was like– might have been Coke and Gillette, I think at that time, like these are inevitably good businesses. They’re going to be better in 10 years, 20 years than they are today.
Well, I mean, that was true. They definitely make more money than they did. Anyway, 2 out of probably 10,000 that they looked at, and now it feels like all of these are–
Tobias: It’s all of them. [laughs]
Jake: They’re all inevitables. Everyone thinks that these are inevitable. I’m just a little bit skeptical that there are as many inevitables out there as currently deemed inevitable.
Tobias: One of the problems is when you dig these things up, and you look at that– There are lots of companies– there are lots of really good businesses out there that have sustained these high returns and equity for really long periods of time. They’re just still carrying an absolute ocean of debt. That’s the thing that kills me. Every time I look at something, it’s got just astronomical levels of debt. Clearly, the managers who are running it just know that you boost return on equity by carrying a whole lot of debt. You’ve just got to make it through your five-year tenure, without anything really bad happening. Cash a gigantic check at the end of that, like ruin your grandchildren’s lives.
Jake: Revenue’s flat. You’ve boosted EPS from buybacks and borrowing money to do it. And then, you catch the giant check.
Tobias: Yeah. And then hand it off to the next guy. He’s running the same gauntlet. He’s just going to get to the end of the five-year period without blowing the whole thing up. And then, the next guy, and finally somebody is going to catch that downturn, but none of these guys get any callbacks for the work that they did. Neutron Jack didn’t get any callbacks.
Bill: The guy that catches, it’s going to get a golden parachute.
Tobias: Yeah, that’s true.
Bill: He’s not actually going to care that much. That’s how you can own these things like a bunch of ETFs on. They’re just garbage voters. They’re going to vote yes. Losers.
Jake: [crosstalk] What was it? Is it NASDAQ, is going to delist any company that doesn’t have a diversified enough board?
Bill: What does that even mean? I mean, I know what it means. I’m bound to get myself in trouble with a comment like that. I think diversity of thought is more important in business than looks, and looks will lead to thought, so I’m sure there’s a correlation there, but seems like a recipe for pretty stupid incentives. But here I sit me, and people would say, “Well, what the hell do about diversity?” The answer is not much. So, moving on, and I’ve blown up my own spot.
Tobias: [laughs] Who wants to go next?
Bill: I guess I will after that.
Jake: All right. Go. You’re hot right now. Keep it going. [laughs]
$SPR & Investor Behavior
Bill: Yeah. I was just going to say that– I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about this Spirit AeroSystems thing and why I thought I saw it, I think I did see it, I didn’t profit from it. I guess the thing that I’ve realized is– I guess that I don’t have a tolerance to handle these CAPEX heavy businesses in the down cycles, is sort of like the thought that I came out of everything. I don’t know, I was sitting around thinking about it because I’ve been beating myself up for a couple of days about it. It wouldn’t have been like a big position, but every bit of money matters. I objectively saw it, and here I’d sit with none of the benefit. It sucks.
Tobias: It’s resulting a little bit though, isn’t it?
Bill: Yeah, I mean, when I think about it. I think that the problem with it is I didn’t know how to handicap what the actual downside was, but then again, I mean– I had a buddy from Boeing tell me like– it’s not like inside, I was talking to him. And he’s like, “We’ve supported them in the past. We’re going to support them again. I don’t see how we don’t, we need them. They’re integral to our manufacturing.” And I guess I just sort of got hung up on business quality and how long could this go, and who knows if it’s too cheap or too expensive now, but I think that’s something that is important is figuring out– for me. I mean, Dan McMurtrie said it when I talked to him. He said like, “It’s not just what you see, it’s what you’ll act on.”
I think that I’m learning a little bit more that– I’m starting to find the assets that I’m willing to bet on and hold more than I sort of knew in the past, which I guess is a function of experience. But it’s been a– cheap used to be enough, I think. I used to have a lot of like, sort of marginal businesses. I think going forward, I’ll probably have one or two at almost all times that are too cheap. I think I’ve got this bug that I’m never going to be able to kick.
I think Qurate’s probably as ugly as I want to get in the future if I can help it. I can’t buy some of these glamour-glamour things. But I’ve realized who I am a little bit through that. And it’s been a painful experience. But then I think, do I actually want to make those bets over and over again? I don’t think so in a discretionary portfolio for a lot of the reasons that I’ve articulated. I think that you sort of like saying– in that case, you’re almost saying, “I’m the one that can go in in front of the market, and I’m the one that’s willing to accept this risk.” And maybe in one individual scenario, I would be, but in five or whatever, probably not, and probably overestimates my emotional ability to handle pain.
Jake: I wonder if trading it more like that lower quadrant of the dartboard where pick a ETF– you might know someone who runs an ETF that specializes in really cheap companies, and letting them just own that– just own it as a little basket, and not try to take as much idiosyncratic risk with the assets.
Bill: Yeah. I guess, especially with Spirit, if you look at how it ripped, it definitely had– there’s correlation among those moves. It wasn’t simply that, like everything ripped. Now, that was really bombed out. I have these competing thoughts in my head of, that’s where you get the big moves from. The junky stuff that people don’t want to look at, that’s how value works, in my opinion. But then, you’ve also got this side of me that says, “Well, you also got to be able to execute it”. At the end of the day, I couldn’t have really owned it in any size, because I didn’t know how to underwrite the risks for real, but maybe I was requiring too much of myself. I’m not sure.
Tobias: But that’s a good thing. You don’t have to– whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. There are places where you just never going to be able to get safe with it in your own mind. So, just don’t worry about it and pass over in silence, let it go.
Bill: Yeah, this one pisses me off, man.
Bill: I’ve been watching and watching and watching and watching, and then it’s like the– I don’t know. It’s just annoying.
Tobias: You can’t beat up on yourself too much because there are reasons to be– there are lots of positions that you could have taken on that stock. You could have been short that stock too, which I was, which didn’t work out very well.
Bill: But we even talked about that offline. I was like I don’t know about that short, I think it’s pretty– I think I had that thing pegged, there’s something about it, I just couldn’t develop a view, and it upsets me now.
Tobias: There are any number of possible outcomes from where you were, and the one outcome that did occur, you can’t then say, well, that shows that I did the right thing or the wrong thing.
Bill: Yeah, no doubt.
Mauboussin – Process vs Outcomes
Tobias: I had this up from Mauboussin today. He talks about being in a casino with somebody hitting on 17. And everybody sort of stops and looks at the guy, even the dealer says, “You sure you want to hit on 17?” And he says, “Yes, I do.” And then, a 4 comes down, ice-cold, 21 blackjack baby!
Tobias: The dealer is like, “Congratulations, sir. Great,” all that sort of stuff. Everybody’s cheering this guy on. And he’s just done something utterly ridiculous and that makes everybody cheer because it worked out. That’s the definition of resulting. So, I’m always– you can’t worry too much in the near term about the outcome of the process, you’ve got to stick to the process. If you’re confident, that’s a good one, over the longer term.
Jake: How many hits on 17 are there right now?
Bill: I think what I’m reasonably good at is looking at downside risk. I think what I really need to work on is portfolio management at this point, because I’m at the point where now I’m running a portfolio which is different than building a portfolio, and that requires different skill sets. To your point, I think passing on something because I don’t know how to quantify the downside probably is the right decision. But now I’ve got other things I’ve got to work on. I have plenty of weaknesses, folks, don’t worry. I’ll have many to talk about in the future. Personality and investing.
Jake: Invert that. Would you ever say that betting on the risk that you didn’t understand was the right move? Ever?
Bill: Yeah, no, I don’t think so because you can’t price it, but still frustrating. I would like to talk to– I mean, obviously, “I would like to talk to Buffett.” Yeah, so would everybody, you idiot, but I’d be interested to–
Tobias: You know what he’d say.
Bill: Well, I just wonder how many of these he’s had in his career where he was like, “Yeah, I think it’s probably too cheap, but I’m going to let this ball pass because it’s not a fat pitch.”
Tobias: That’s the whole game. That’s entirely the game, not swinging at the dumb stuff. If you can fit–
Bill: But it was smart, it just wasn’t smart for me. But it’s frustrating.
Tobias: Well, sizing it properly, size it like an option position, you can do that too.
Bill: I think that where I’ve gotten on that, because I was thinking about that this morning, is I don’t want to get into that habit because then I think it’s easy. I’m the type of personality that if my wife has cookies around, I’ll just eat five, so I just better not eat one. And I think that’s the same thing with making option-size bets. I think if I started to do that regularly, I’ll do starter positions and I will churn the lower portion of my portfolio. But just having them to keep around, I don’t think is a very good habit for my personality type. I think I would run into the scenario.
Tobias: You want to eat all the cookies.
Bill: Yeah, I think I’d have too much just random stuff laying around, and I don’t think that that would help me much.
It’s Easy To Fool Yourself
Tobias: I think I put this in Deep Value, but Rory Sutherland who’s the chair of Ogilvy. The significance of Ogilvy as an advertising agency is they were the ones who started doing all of the market research, so they’d figure out the behaviors, and then they’d go and test the advertisements to see if they worked or not. Rory has this great line where he says something like, “It’s easy to fool yourself.” And so, he talks about, I forget which philosopher, but one of them, he limited himself to one pipe per day, but the pipe was enormous. And he said–
Tobias: –it’s much easier, over the course of a week, you’re allowed to have whatever say two drinks, five nights a week, you could have 10 drinks over the course of a week. And he said, it’s much easier to just have nights where you don’t drink at all, than to get into the third drink and say, I’m just going to limit myself to fewer drinks on the other nights of this week.
Behaviorally, there are things that you just can’t overcome. I think Taleb’s got a great line here as well where he says something like, you can’t rationalize your way into these things, and you can’t moralize your way into these things. All you can do to overcome your own behavior is to trick yourself. I think that’s a pretty good approach. When you’ve got the rational mind on, set up all these obstacles, trick the irrational mind when it comes, get a quote in 11th, that’s how I work. [chuckles]
Bill: Yeah. I think that makes sense. I can understand why you gravitated towards a quant strategy over time, because there are some behavioral biases. I don’t know, I was talking to Rick [unintelligible [00:28:20] yesterday. It’s clear to me that he’s got a much better process than I do in his portfolio. He’s much more quantitative about his qualitative approach. That said, I’ve had a pretty good year being me, and I don’t know whether or not– maybe someday there’s going to be a service or something that I can chart all this shit and then I can track myself.
The Best Time To Review Your Process Is When You Have A Good Year
Tobias: The best time to review your process is when you have a good year, and the worst time to do it is when you have a bad year. It sounds totally counterintuitive, but when you have a bad year, you’re just like, “Oh, fuck this, I want to go back and change everything that I did so that doesn’t happen again.” Might be that’s just the luck of the draw. If you do the right thing, you’re going to have bad outcomes. That’s just not what’s going to happen, sometimes they’re going to cluster together. What can you do?
Bill: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. Rick and I were talking about the Qurate thing. I was telling him how I sized it. He was like, “That’s aggressive.” I sort of agree, but then there’s the other side of me that’s like, yeah, but here you know, the guys that I study have always said, when you swing, swing big. I don’t know. I’m just like working through– I’m going to take like the next two months to figure out who I really am and how I’m really doing things and what I actually want to be going forward because one good year does not a career make, and I’m not trying to blow up.
Tobias: Part of the process to of– one of the nice things about investing, and this is a Buffett line, but the longer you’re in it, the more you get an idea of what a really good pitch looks like and what an ordinary pitch looks like. The more time you spend in the market– the first time you find something that sort of meets your criteria, you buy it. And then, you realize the mistakes that you made so the next then you get, you don’t buy that next time, you buy something that’s a little bit better until you get to the point where you’re Buffett, there’s two things in his career, it’s Coke and Gillette.
Bill: And American Express, Geico, whatever, but yeah.
Tobias: I’m riffing on what Jake said before, not necessarily on– Yeah, those are good decisions, too.
Bill: The interesting thing about those is like– I don’t know, I think when you go through his career, and shout out to Kyler Hasson because he gave me this thought today. If you look at like Geico, it’s not clear that when he bought that it was the inevitable thing that it looks like today. But it is somewhat clear that it had a potential path. It’s almost like he has done a very good job at betting in situations where there’s a big right tail, but the price mitigates the left. He really saves himself for that sort of setup, I think.
Tobias: That’s a good example. AMEX is another good example of exactly that, where he was really leaning on the business quality there. He is really leaning on the fact that Geico did have the low-cost advantage, even though the balance sheet had been blown up a little bit. And under it, they’ve done some dumb underwriting there as well. And he was sort of saying, they can go back to being good underwriters. And true also with AMEX, they were like, well, we’re going to have a gigantic fine here. And the risk is that the little merchants don’t take because the little merchants worry about getting paid, the restaurants don’t take AMEX. That’s the risk. And so, he has Harry Bottle go and sit beside the cash register in some restaurants, and he does the same thing. Like, “No, no, there’s still accepting AMEX, we’re good to go.”
Bill: Same with Buffalo News. Buffalo News, I don’t think was a clear winner.
Tobias: That’s a good point. Yeah.
Bill: But they were like, “Okay, if we win this battle right now, it’s going to be worth the riches.” So, they were willing to go to the mat, but I think to look at a lot of the–
Tobias: Do you think they will plan to win it? Do you think that they thought we can still make money in a two-paper town?
Bill: Oh, I think that they were going for the kill. And I think that they knew that if they successfully pulled off the kill, it was worth the bet. But I think that they sort of understood that there was a chance that they would lose on, and I’m not sure.
Tobias: They both lamented it for a long time writing the letters that were– I mean, Munger at least said it was a mistake for a long time in there.
Tobias: This was while that was going on. I don’t know how they feel about it after the fact. But while it was going on, they’re upset about it saying they’re losing a lot of money.
Bill: I’m sure they liked it after. I bet that they liked it more while they were doing it than they let on, but they probably– they’re very good at setting low expectations and overdelivering.
Tobias: That’s true.
Jake: Very true.
Tobias: I like that chat. That was a good one. Let’s do JT.
Bill: Yeah. Sometimes, we get some nuggets.
Bill: [crosstalk] –half hour to talk to people. They never know [crosstalk] coming.
Tobias: It’s like standing in the riverbed, you’ve got to sift a lot of mud to find the gold in there.
Bill: That’s right.
Solitude & Leadership
Jake: Yeah. All right. So, this veggie segment is called Solitude and Leadership, and that’s the name of a paper and a talk actually, that William Deresiewicz, I believe is how he says it. I don’t know. It’s one of those tough Czech-looking names. But he gave in 2009 a speech to the class at West Point, and turned this into an article on the American scholar, I think it’s called– Anyway, so this guy, William, he’s an essayist and an author and he teaches English at Yale, or he did. He has all these students who come in at Yale, and they’re like world-class hoop jumpers. They know how to play the game. He calls them Excellent Sheep in another book later. But they know how to ace all the tests and jump through all the hoops, all the extracurriculars, to get into Harvard Business School or Johns Hopkins Medical, or get the job at Goldman or McKinsey. They just know how to climb in a hierarchy.
He then brings it back to Heart of Darkness, which is a book by Joseph Conrad that you might be more familiar with as the movie, Apocalypse Now. And in the book, the main character meets this central station boss, and this guy is just a pure bureaucrat. He says that he’s unremarkable, commonplace, ordinary, he’s obeyed, but he’s not respected or admired, or even feared. He originates nothing, all he does is keep a process going. He’s able to keep a routine going. He can thrive in a bureaucracy. He doesn’t take any stupid risks to question authority, it’s always just about keeping– like, the environment totally rewards conformity.
He’s talking about how there’s a crisis of leadership in America, even in 2009 due to the fact that no one wants to really like go against the grain that way. We’re training all of our kids to be these hoop jumpers, and not really to think for themselves. A lot of that has to do with complacency and just keeping the little wheel turning that that keeps you from getting crushed as a member of this giant bureaucracy. Whether it was the military or corporate America, or the government, wherever, any level of leadership has been bureaucratized to a way that it attracts sort of the wrong element.
So then, he pivots to talking about multitasking and shows how terrible we are at it. The opposite of multitasking, he says, is concentration, and really thinking about something and only that one thing for a long period of time. He talks about how his first thoughts when he approaches a subject are always someone else’s thoughts. They’re there. It’s their common sense, like common conventional wisdom about it. It takes a long time to sit there, you can’t be in a hurry to let everyone else’s conventional wisdom thoughts wash away, and then you can actually hear your own voice about it. You’re talking about not being in a hurry, and apparently James Joyce wrote Ulysses, which was arguably the best book of a century. He wrote it an average of 100–
Tobias: Oof. I don’t know about that. [chuckles]
Jake: Well, I know, I’ve tried to read it before.
Tobias: It’s impossible.
Jake: Totally impenetrable. But he wrote it 100 words a day on average, that’s how long it took him to write.
Tobias: It’s taken a long time. That’s about how fast I can read it.
Jake: Yeah, exactly. Under a 100. Then, he talks about how media, especially social media, but also even newspapers, TV, radio, whatever it is, those are all other people’s thoughts. It’s all an elaborate excuse to really run away from yourself and run away from your own voice inside your head. We’re continuously bombarding ourselves with other people’s thoughts. You could spend five minutes on Twitter, and it is just an absolute cacophony of other people’s thoughts just jammed right into your neocortex. It can be rough. I know I said last week that I was thankful for it, and I do think that it’s true from a meeting-other-people standpoint and learning some new good ideas, but you really do have to sift through a lot to get to it.
Anyway, he does say that books are a better version of this media, in that they represent someone else’s solitude, them sitting with their own thoughts. At least you’re getting a little bit of a touch of the solitude. And then, he also makes that common Lindy argument about books that they’re– if they’ve been around for a long time, they must be decent.
He says solitude is really three different things. It’s introspection, it’s concentration on focused work, and it’s also sustained reading of books typically. And then, there’s one other element to it, it’s paradoxical, but he says it’s deep friendship and an intimate conversation is actually a form of solitude. You’re almost thinking out loud often when you’re talking to somebody in a very intimate setting. That rings true for me.
Tobias: Yeah, all that rings true for me. I love those four. Those are great.
Jake: He’s talking about how the position of a leader is a very solitary place to be, because you’re often having to make the tough decision by yourself, like the buck stops with you. So, you have to be able to block out a lot of the noise and really focus on your own inner voice really. He’s telling them that they need to prepare now, similar to how you’d have to learn– you need to learn how to shoot your gun before you get into the first firefight if you’re a cadet. People don’t spend enough time sort of finding themselves– finding yourself has become this a cliche of liberal arts, like Eat Pray Love or something a trip. But the finding yourself in solitude and what are your deep core values that are important to you, people just don’t do that work and they hide from it via social media and TV or Netflix streaming or whatever.
Tobias: Could you even do it in college now? College, when I was there was– not that there was so much work, but there’s a lot of work that you got to get through. There’s no possibility for trying to figure out what you’re doing. That’s what I thought anyway. I didn’t have any thoughts until I got out, until I started working.
Jake: Yeah, I don’t know. I think it probably depends on what kind of– I could imagine if you were doing– St. John’s has the classic literature track. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this.
Jake: What’s all the best books, and you read the original sources, and it builds upon itself over history.
Tobias: That’s a good one.
Jake: Rather than taking someone else’s interpretation of it, you get back to the source material. Like you read Beowulf, all of these classics, I think there’s something to that maybe–
Jake: Yeah. [chuckles] Ulysses in your junior year, I think. I don’t know.
Tobias: The Odyssey is great, but Ulysses is just impenetrable.
Jake: I have one more thing on here, and this is someone recommended to read. Montaigne has a section on solitude, I think it’s called “Of Solitude”. I read that this morning, and I pulled out this one really good quote that I’ll read you guys.
“Who is it that does not voluntarily exchange his health, his repose, and his very life for reputation and glory, the most useless, frivolous, and false coin that passes current among us?”
Tobias: Well, I love Montaigne. I had a firm named after Montaigne for a little while there. You’re talking about my man there.
Jake: I knew that, was lobbing you on there.
Tobias: [chuckles] Yeah, I love Montaigne. I don’t know how much of a philosophy– he just quotes everybody else, and then puts it all together and sort of– In some ways, he’s like a 500-year-old version of the guy who wrote The 48 Laws of Power. It’s like just quoting–
Jake: Oh, Robert Greene.
Tobias: Robert Greene. It’s going back through a lot of us older– just seeing what other people said. He’s got some hilarious– He’s an interesting thinker. Yeah.
Jake: Yeah, he’s almost like doing book reports from 400 years ago–
Tobias: He just quote after quote after quote. And then, he compares them and then he discusses them, and he says, here’s what he thinks about each. When you’re defending a fort, should you go out to parlay? No, because sometimes they’ll just run around you and going into your fort. So, you’ll be outside to talk and the enemy’s in your fort. Good advice. You can use that any day of the week.
Bill: I’m not sure how, but I like it.[crosstalk]
Jake: The investment implications of all this are hopefully relatively obvious. Being able to just sit and think for yourself, not having to worry about what the crowd is thinking as much. All these things that we’ve heard in other contexts, I thought this was a nice way of saying the same story, but in a different way.
Bill: I more meant Toby guarding– Toby’s anecdote about guarding the fort. That’s what I don’t know, how to utilize. The only thing that I would push back on that about is, I have never actually had success on my own, and all of my success is usually due to the people that I’ve surrounded myself with. So, I actually think that for me dealing with a group, usually it’s three people just seems to be the right amount that works for me, that are truly there to debate issues. I really came into this in law school, where it was about not being right, but the debate to get to the answer, that has been a very helpful exercise to me. Now, whether or not– I don’t always walk away with the same takeaway that the person that I was talking to had, and a lot of the world is very gray. But I think sometimes if I sit and I think, I can get myself locked in a thought pattern that’s not true. Sometimes talking to others will help jog me out of my own brain because I’m pretty flawed, as I said now twice.[laughter]
Jake: We have the self-flagellation box checked for this episode.
Bill: It’s good. That’s good. That’s what you need. But you know what I mean, I just think there’s a way to do it. It’s not about proving somebody wrong or right or whatever. But truly interested conversation with other people that are interested in similar topics has usually turned me into a smarter individual. So, I agree with you and then I would maybe add that as an addendum. Unlike when you were thankful for free trading in which I just disagree with you.[laughter]
Jake: Full stop.
Bill: Yes, that is not an addendum. We just have a difference of opinion.
Tobias: Yeah. I had the same experience at law school. For most decisions, there’s so much– it’s been argued so many different ways to get to that point. And it’s just hard to do all the research to get yourself to know all of it by the time you come to have the way that you discuss through an issue, to work out how you should be deciding one way or the other. It’s good to have–
Bill: I’m sorry to cut you off. I know that people hate it when I do that. I don’t even like that about myself. I’m sorry, folks.[chuckles]
Bill: But [chuckles] dude, my Twitter followers, shoutout to you guys. I floated a question about bitcoin, which I don’t know shit about, I don’t know why any of you want me to opine on it. I’m another idiot that has no opinion that’s worth listening to. But I guess I want to learn. But I got directed in the right way right now. Or like, I floated something about semiconductors and people shot me a couple of things. It’s amazing today if you use the tool the right way, how quickly your acceleration– you don’t have to be on an island anymore. Now, you’ve got to figure out who’s got a motivation to pitch you something or send you something or whatever like that, you sort of have to be smart about. But it really is an incredible tool, despite not leading to solitude, which is why I have moved close to the beach, and I go sit there and read.
Tobias: You could do both. You just need to limit the firehose from Twitter. Just control the firehose.
Bill: Dude, this weekend, my brain because I reinstalled it on the phone for marketing purposes, I could feel on, Sunday night, I was like, “My brain needs to just like relax.”
Tobias: Yeah, I switch it off over the weekend.
Bill: [crosstalk] –how it’ll do that.
Tobias: Take it off the home screen.
Bill: It’s on the back, but I had a lot of stuff going on. I can’t imagine. I know we try not to talk about it that much. Trump must be crazy. Trump must go to bed and just have all these sensors just firing on him. I don’t know how anyone could be that aggressive on a social media platform and ever go to bed, which he doesn’t if you look at the times that he tweets. But it’s wild, what it does to my brain sometimes. I’d be like, “Man, I got to get off this thing.”
Writing Like Hemingway
Tobias: It’s hard to get into that deep strategic thought if you’re on Twitter, you have to get off and go and do something for a period of time, like 15 minutes to an hour, so you can get back into that. I’ve got a new book that I’m working on at the moment, about 40% of the way through the first draft of it. And so, I just can’t be on Twitter. If I’m on Twitter, it just blows my brains for trying to write because you’ve got to put all this stuff in, then write the 100 or so– squeeze the 100 or so words.
Jake: Hundred words. Yeah. [chuckles]
Tobias: It’s an hour to get everything loaded up so you know what you’re going to say, squeeze in 100 words and then realize that it’s garbage and go and do something else. But that process is like– Hemingway used to do this. Hemingway first thing in the morning, and this is a pretty good process, I got little kids, so it doesn’t work that well. First thing I get to the computer, just start writing then. So, you read through what you’ve previously written, realize that it’s total shit, edit it while you’re going through what you’ve previously written. And then, you’ve got a little bit that you can write, so you got, like, 20% of the time is creative, 80% of the time, it’s like editing what you’ve previously written. So, that’s quite a useful process.
And then, the stuff that you wrote previously gets slightly better, and then you have something new on the page for tomorrow, so you can go back and edit it again. Writing is not about writing. Writing is about editing. It’s really, really hard to write the first draft. It’s really easy to edit something and make it good. But you’ve got to start with something.
Jake: Do you leave midsentence hanging off like Hemingway did? That way you have that thread to pick up on the next day?
Tobias: I didn’t know that he did that. I like that, that’s smart.
Bill: Or your brain works on, and you go to bed.
Tobias: 100% that happens. I can’t figure out how to write something and it just comes to me in the middle of the night all the time. That’s the only way to do it. You just sit there–
Bill: Or you end up leaving the room and then you’ll just be like, “I’ve got to go write this down.”
Tobias: Yeah, [crosstalk] if I don’t, I may go back to sleep. I got a pad beside my bed.
Bill: Oh, do you?
Jake: Scratch it out.
Bill: I tell my wife, like mid-conversation, I’ll be like, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to leave. I’ve got to write this down.” And then she’d be like, “Were you listening to anything that I was saying?” “Honestly, probably not. I don’t even know what you just ask me.”
Tobias: Throw your questions in, guys. Sorry, we went a little bit, we got 10 minutes.
Bill: Oh, somebody was asking about ROE. Sorry, Jake.
Jake: Go ahead.
Bill: Somebody was just saying regarding ROE, can you correct for debt and look at some ROIC, whatever. When they have negative equity, how do you measure it? I normally try– if I get into ROE stuff, I try to adjust for buybacks or I just go to return on assets. You have the same problem with cigarette companies. If you look at the equity, the return on equity gets crazy. So, I think Greenwald would probably say, do a theoretical replacement cost and try to embed a cost to capital on that, figure out what you’re– I mean, figure that out that way. Most of those businesses are what he would deem franchise businesses. So, you just need to get yourself comfortable with the DCF and roll with it, I think.
Tobias: I’ve got a good question here. Sorry–
Greenblatt – The Cost Of Assets To Produce Earnings
Jake: Yeah, I’d like to think about it [crosstalk] I think Greenblatt has talked this before, but really just trying to take a business person’s approach to figuring out– don’t just look at like, “Well, here’s a number that’s in a spreadsheet,” but what are the actual assets that are required? Whatever it is, I don’t care how you categorize it on a balance sheet, but what are the assets required to create this flow? And then, work through that and not be so dogmatic on, “Well, what’s the right accounting treatment?”
Bill: Yeah. Roger Dodger.
Your Favorite Buffett Deal
Tobias: So, here’s the question, favorite Buffett deal?
Jake: Love it. This is quality.
Tobias: Chris Bloomstran needs the credit for this one. There’s so many, but, yeah, this is just to show you what a great operator Buffett is. When he buys General Re, am I getting this right, JT? You’ll probably tell this better than I do. You want to do it?
Jake: Go ahead. You’re doing great.
Tobias: Just correct me as I go along. Late 1990s, early 2000s, he knows that he’s had this gigantic brand in everything that he holds, and he’s got this book that’s overvalued. But he doesn’t want to sell anything because that’s not what he does. So, he finds General Re, that’s basically an insurer stuffed full of bonds. How big was it relative to Berkshire? It was like, 40% of the size of Berkshire?
Jake: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sure what that is.
Tobias: It was big, it was material–
Jake: But it was a good size acquisition. Yeah.
Tobias: He does a script-for-script acquisition of General Re, so they don’t have to spend any money and they change this– the asset mix inside Berkshire from being basically 100% overvalued equities, to being about two-thirds overvalued equities, about one-third bonds, and then he goes into the big slump, and he’s got firepower there to do it. But he doesn’t sell it that way. He doesn’t tell anybody that that’s what he’s actually doing. And that’s why I just think it’s one of the all-time great stock market operator chess moves that– I wouldn’t have known about it if Chris Bloomstran and you hadn’t told me about it.
Jake: Yeah, that one’s really good. When you hear that one, you’re like, “Oh, he’s playing this game [crosstalk] to–
Tobias: There’s another dimension. Yeah.
Jake: –a different level. Yeah.
Tobias: There’s at least one dimension rule missing. I think that’s another– he really is playing it like, it is a– I hate to say dominance power game, but it is more like that than it’s just– it’s not just stock picking. He’s slinging that big industrial around.
Bill: Yeah, I mean, I think some of those Warren deals that he structured in ‘08, those are pretty impressive. I do think I’m–
Tobias: The Goldman Press?
Bill: Yeah, or Bank of America. I’m probably partial to the Buffalo News. Just because when I read that story, it was the first time that I realized what a savage killer he can be, or he could be.
Tobias: Which one is that?
Bill: When they were just like, “Alright, we’re going to go out and we’re going to win this market because it is winner take all, and then once the competition is dead, we’re going to have monopoly profits in this area.” When was that? Was it in the 60s? People are going to be like, “You don’t even know the year that it was, dummy.” Whatever. Get a life, don’t come at me.
Tobias: I don’t know. I think it’s early 70s. I don’t know.
Bill: I just don’t know how many people were thinking in the same way that he was thinking and I don’t know how obvious it was to everybody that newspapers were winner take all at the time. And he went up against a pretty well-capitalized competitor as I understand it. They were willing to lose to invest for the future. There’s just a lot in that whole story that I really like about him. I know for a fact I would not have run the same playbook, and his was right. So, I respect that quite a bit.
Jake: That’s good.
Tobias: That’s sort of the subject of the new book that I want to work on. It’s not the investment stuff so much as it is the other moves on the chessboard. And it’s not necessarily focused on Buffett, but it’s clearly– I’ve learned from Buffett. All of the ideas are his, just filtered through a different filter.
The Opportunity Cost Of Buying Bitcoin
Jake: Can we talk bitcoin because that’s been–? [crosstalk]
Tobias: Yeah, all right, let’s do bitcoin.
Bill: Oh, yeah.
Jake: Much requested.
Bill: You know, it’s funny. I didn’t even realize when I tweeted that out that it’s at its all-time high. I was just like, “All right, I’m having these discussions with people. I’d like to talk to somebody about bitcoin that’s sort of interested in it,” like a true analyst. I don’t have anything to share, what do I know? I don’t know anything about this.
Tobias: He said it’s all-time high. An all-time high was 20 something, wasn’t it, in 2017?
Bill: That’s how much I know.
Tobias: I think it’s close. It’s back. It’s close. It’s like 18 or 19, it’s almost there.
Bill: Yeah. I’m partial to gold. I’m one of those guys. If you’re going to go down this route, I’d probably rather have some gold and silver. Silver to buy my food and gold to cross borders. I don’t know that I really want to carry around bitcoin for real.
Tobias: But you want to carry around gold? You’re not going to those trigger ends over the border?
Bill: No, I’m going to have to pay somebody so– [crosstalk]
Jake: Where are you going to put them?[laughter]
Bill: They will be a darker color gold, thank you very much.
Tobias: In the prison [unintelligible [00:56:40] [chuckles]
Bill: This has been a real winner episode, guys.[laughter]
Jake: I jokingly on Twitter just said, what’s the P/E of gold at now with it running up, just to stir the pot a little bit. And of course, I got lambasted for it with.
Bill: Sorry, it was gold or bitcoin? Because you just said gold.
Jake: Oh, did I say gold? Sorry.
Jake: Well, yeah, either way, but bitcoin. Let me preface what I’m about to say with that I have anarchist capitalist, libertarian leanings. And so, I’m actually very sympathetic towards bitcoin as an idea. I just am not in love with it as an investment. I don’t think you could call it an investment. Maybe it’s a very good speculation. In January of 2018, which was right after the like– if you guys remember the Thanksgiving of 2017, everyone was talking about bitcoin. They went to their family gatherings, they got infected by–
Tobias: That’s right. [laughs]
Jake: –bitcoin bug, and then they left, and everyone was buying it. A lot of people asking me about it, so I was like, “Well, I better write something in the letter about Bitcoin.” And so, I did. I went back and looked at it actually this morning. At the time, I used a common Buffett ploy, which is to ask yourself, what else could you buy with that same amount of money if you were to buy it? I looked at– so at that time, the top 10 cryptocurrencies, the market cap of them in January of 2018 was about $560 billion. And I then said, “Okay, well, what could I buy with $560 billion that might be less sterile of an asset base, but in the same world a little bit? I looked, and I could buy Intel, AMD, Nvidia, Micron, Seagate, Duke Energy to power this giant computer rig, and American Express–
Tobias: How did that turn out?
Jake: [crosstalk] –financial layer.
Tobias: That would have been pretty good bet. There’s some big winners in that.
Jake: Yeah, so $552 billion is the price tag of that in January of 2018. So, I came in under the top 10 cryptocurrencies. So, then I updated the numbers this morning looking at it, and I looked at the top 10 cryptocurrencies and they added up– and I’m not even sure if it’s the same 10 that were in the top 10 in 2017. I didn’t look that closely. So, maybe there’s one that went to zero and has been replaced, but whatever.
Tobias: Dentacoin, probably still going, I don’t know.
Jake: Yeah. 493 billion for that top 10 market cap. And so, that’s a minus 12% over that time period. I added up the numbers– and this is just market cap only. This doesn’t include the dividends that I’m sure that you’ve got from a bunch of these companies. But I added them all up, and it’s 906 billion now versus my 552. So, that’s a 64% gain from buying all the computer stuff in the world in a way, as opposed to buying a digital currency that is in the computer world. So, I thought that was an interesting update.
Tobias: Yeah. Good trade.
Bill: [crosstalk] –and Bill Miller is early on it. Shoutout to Bill Miller.
Tobias: So is Cathie Wood.
Bill: [crosstalk] –know I love you. Thanks for listening
Tobias: So is Cathie Wood, props to Cathie Wood.
Bill: Yeah. I don’t have the same crush on Cathie.
Tobias: I heard Cathie got the message she had sell that right at the very top of the last bitcoin run and so cashed out some checks then. Cashed some chips.
Jake: [crosstalk] –what’s your takeaway from that whole thing? [laughter]
Tobias: That was great.
Bill Miller’s Early Calls
Jake: Shoutout to Bill Miller?
Bill: Yeah, that was pretty much, and buy productive assets. But when he bought it, dude, he bought it way early. He had funds flow thesis. So, I like him, man. He’s a creative dude.
Tobias: Funds flow thesis.
Bill: [crosstalk] –his letters. What’s the funds flow thesis?
Jake: More idiots coming behind the current ones.[laughter]
Bill: I don’t know that it’s idiots, man.
Jake: I’m just teasing.
Bill: Market cap was so low when he bought in. This is why I think he’s so creative. He bought Restoration Hardware when it was in the dumps. He bought airlines when they had just consolidated. He bought bitcoin super early. He bought Farfetch before everybody was talking about it. This dude sees stuff early. I think that that’s a really interesting thing to study. And it’s not often associated with value investors, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Jake: Fair enough.
Tobias: How’d the Kodak position go?
Bill: Everybody’s got some losers.
Tobias: That’s time, amigos. Thanks so much. I think we’re here next week. Yeah, we’re going to be here next week.
Jake: I think so.
Bill: Why not?
Tobias: We’ll see you then. Peace.
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