RIT Capital Partners, Foresight 4 VCT and Sepsis

RIT Capital Partners (RCP) is an investment trust that recently issued its interim report. As one of my longer standing holdings, first purchased in 2003 although I have reduced my holding of late, I read the report with interest. RCP has been a long-standing favourite of private investors having traditionally taken a somewhat defensive investment approach. But the portfolio is now most peculiar. It contains 8.8% of “quoted equities” but many of them are held as “swaps”, 27.7% in “long-only funds”, 19.7% in hedge funds and 0.6% in derivatives. There is 9.1% in direct private investments, 13.2% in private investment funds, 23.1% in “absolute return and credit funds”, 3.0% in “real assets” (which includes gold, silver, corn and soyabean futures) and 2.0% in Government bonds (with more swaps in there also). This is certainly an unusual portfolio to say the least.

Personally when I invest in a fund or an investment trust, I prefer them to invest directly – not pass the buck to some other fund manager. This trust has effectively become a “fund of funds” of late with a large proportion of its investments placed into other funds. Otherwise it appears to be hedging against armageddon.

The Chairman of the company is long-standing Lord Rothschild who is aged 82. When I have attended the AGM of this company I have never been very impressed by the way he handled the meeting or the responses to questions.

The total return net asset value performance in the half year was 3.2%, but 6.2% on share price. The current share price discount to NAV is actually at a premium of 6.8% according to the AIC and the dividend yield is 1.6%. Over ten years the total return (NAV) has been 103% when sector performance was 135%. So it’s not exactly been a great performer. I sold the remainder of my holding after reading the interim report.

Foresight 4 VCT

Another investment trust but of a very different nature is Foresight 4 VCT (FTF) which is of course a venture capital trust. It recently issued its Annual Report for the AGM due on the 11th October. I may attend it although my holding is very small.

The Annual Report does make interesting reading although it fails to mention a past complaint by some shareholders about the over-statement of reserves in the years 2013-2015 which resulted in an illegal dividend allegedly being paid. The auditor, KPMG, who still audits this company make no comment on this and neither do the directors in the Annual Report. But the Audit Committee report does mention that the company has received a letter from the FRC questioning the accounting policy for performance related incentive fees. The company has responded. Both issues are likely to be the subject of questions at the AGM no doubt.

This company has two very large holdings in its portfolio – Datapath and Ixaris. I have been very dubious about the valuations put on the latter company by this and other VCTs as I know quite a lot about the business. I used to be a director and still have a direct holding. This is particularly so after the disclosure by the Ixaris Chairman of the latest business challenges at the recent Oxford Technology VCT meeting.

I will be voting against the reappointment of KPMG as auditors at this company, against the sole director who is standing for re-election (is it not recommended that all directors of fully listed companies stand for re-election?), and against approval of the Report & Accounts.

But FTF did raise some more money this year and is investing in what appear to be interesting companies. One of their new investments has been in Mologic which is a medical diagnostic company. What sparked by particular interest was their product for rapid diagnosis of sepsis which I only narrowly survived a few years ago. Up to 50% of people who develop sepsis die from multiple organ failure, even though it can be treated with antibiotics. It is often misdiagnosed or treatment commenced too late, so a rapid diagnostic tool will be of great use.

Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter over the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock from sepsis but subsequently challenged being struck of the medical register. She won the latter legal case this week after a big campaign by doctors and a major crowdfunding exercise. Bearing in mind the other contributory factors, and the difficulty in spotting sepsis I consider the original conviction a gross miscarriage of justice. You can feel just slightly under the weather and next minute you are unconscious and in the intensive care unit as I know very well. Jack Adcock had other medical conditions that will not have helped.

There are 44,000 deaths from sepsis every year in the UK, and children are particularly at risk. It appears that cases of sepsis are rapidly rising although that might be due to better diagnosis. Even surviving it can mean life changing injuries. See https://sepsistrust.org/ for more information or if you wish to support a charity that is raising awareness of this deadly disease.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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House of Fraser Pre-Pack – More Details Disclosed

The Financial Times disclosed more details of the pre-pack administration of House of Fraser this morning which I previously commented on here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/08/12/house-of-fraser-pre-pack-is-it-such-a-great-deal/

The FT makes it clear that there was at least one other serious bidder for the company who was willing to purchase the business as a “going concern”. That bidder was Philip Day. How much he was willing to pay is not totally clear, but EY, the administrators are quoted as saying “For the avoidance of doubt, this was the only available offer to save the business, and in comparison to the alternatives represented by far the best recovery for the creditors of House of Fraser”.

The first part of that statement conflicts directly with the other information obtained by the FT. My conclusion is simply that the administrators preferred one bidder rather than another, probably at the behest of the secured lenders (i.e. the banks). There can be a number of reasons for doing so but in essence it’s very typical of what happens with pre-packs where the rush to complete the deal prejudices obtaining the best outcome other than for the secured creditors. So stuff the pensioners, stuff the trade creditors who have supplied goods they won’t now be paid for, stuff the property owners and stuff everyone else so long as the banks get paid.

The administrators can always claim in such circumstances that other offers were not available because very few bidders are likely to make an offer without some information about the business they may be buying and they may need time to put in place the funding required. At least some minimal due diligence is essential. But the administrator can delay or hold back information to thwart other bidders than their favourite candidate. So they can claim that there was only one firm offer on the table when the business was placed into administration.

This is a corruption of the administration process when there should be open marketing and time allowed for reasonable offers to be made so as to obtain the best solution for all stakeholders.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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House of Fraser Pre-Pack – Is It Such a Great Deal?

The acquisition of House of Fraser by Sports Direct is a typical “pre-pack” administration. In administration one minute, sold the next. The national media promptly welcomed it as the rescue of everyone’s favourite department store, the protection of 17,000 jobs and just what is needed to help save Britain’s High Streets.

Mike Ashley of Sports Direct trumpeted this as a great deal. All the stores and stock were purchased for £90 million when gross assets were £946 million and the company made a profit last year of £14.7 million – more on the financial numbers below. He plans to turn House of Fraser into the “Harrods of the High Street”.

But is it such a great deal? I have written many times in the past about the iniquities of pre-pack administrations. How creditors and shareholders are dumped, and pension schemes likewise. The administrators save themselves the hassle of winding up the business or looking for a buyer of the business as a “going concern” while collecting large fees for little work. I think the insolvency regime should be reformed.

The figure of £946 million of gross assets given by Sports Direct is from the last published accounts of the parent company House of Fraser (UK & Ireland) Ltd for the year ending January 2017, which is the last set of accounts filed at Companies House. The truth is that the company had net assets of £111 million with trade creditors of £365 million and long-term borrowings of £284 million. Debts including short terms borrowings probably grew substantially since then. Although Mr Ashley is paying the administrators £90 million for the assets, it would appear that both the trade creditors and the lenders will be very substantially out of pocket.

That’s not to mention the property companies who are the store landlords who face a default on their leases. Mr Ashley is unlikely to want to keep half the stores, so many of the jobs will be lost and he will no doubt want to renegotiate the leases on other stores downwards. So any property companies you may have invested may be damaged.

The company will have got shot of its defined pension schemes (approximately 10,000 members) which will be taken on by the Pension Protection Fund. That’s a public body that is funded by a levy on all pension schemes, so basically someone else will be paying if there is any shortfall. Although the pension scheme may be in surplus at this time, in such circumstances pensioners usually face a substantial cut in their future income as there will be no more contributions from the company.

Now House of Fraser might have been a retailing basket case with excessive debt, but surely a more equitable solution was possible? Indeed the Mail on Sunday today called it a “Fix” because there was an alternative offer on the table from retail billionaire Philip Day who allegedly offered £100 million for the company including taking on the pension obligations. The Mail suggested that the bankers and bondholders forced acceptance of the Ashley proposal in their interests. This is not unusual in pre-packs.

Sir Vince Cable suggested an investigation by the BEIS Department is required followed by reform of the pre-pack system. I agree with him. There are better solutions to how to deal with companies that run out of cash or become insolvent due to excessive debt which could protect the interests of trade creditors, employees and pensioners.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Charles Stanley Direct Increase Platform Charges

Stockbroker Charles Stanley Direct are increasing their platform charges. Their platform fee will rise from 0.25% per annum to 0.35% per annum. That might sound a large increase but in practice many clients will not pay any more. The overall annual cap of £240 per annum remains on those holding shares rather than funds and even that disappears if you trade once per month. On funds the charge of 0.35% reduces on larger portfolios to as low as zero on those over £2 million. Transaction charges remain at £11.50 per trade on shares and zero on funds.

That’s a brief summary of the new charges, but as with any platform you need to work out exactly what you will pay based on the composition of your investments, the size of your portfolio and the frequency you trade.

It would appear that these changes will mainly impact the smaller investor and Charles Stanley put the reason for the change down to the need to maintain investment in the platform when they face complex and evolving changes. Mention is made of the need for more cyber security but all brokers have been hit by increasing regulation and the requirement to change their systems as a result.

As we saw from the results from The Share Centre last week, who reported a statutory loss of £280k for the half year, it’s not easy to make money in the “platform” business at present. Charles Stanley Direct lost money in the last full year also, although the rest of Charles Stanley made a profit. Only Hargreaves Lansdown, the gorilla in the market place, seem to be making real profits on their capital invested although it will be interesting to see the financial figures from A.J.Bell Youinvest if they go public soon as forecast.

Part of the problem is the exceptionally low interest rates brokers obtain on their holdings of client cash from which historically stockbrokers made a large proportion of their profits. Bank of England base rate increases will assist but they have been waiting a long time for that to improve and rates are not rising rapidly.

As I said before in my comments on the recent FRC Report on the Platforms Market, “informed investors can no doubt finesse their way through the complexities of the pricing structure and service levels of different platform operators. I can only encourage you to do so and if an operator increases their charges to your disadvantage then MOVE!”.

Incidentally my submission to the FRC on their Report is now present on my web site here: https://www.roliscon.com/Investment-Platforms-Market-Study.pdf

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Shareholder Voting and Financial Times Generosity

Anyone using an on-line investment platform will be aware that your shares are normally held in a nominee account (i.e. you do not own them, your broker does – you are only the “beneficial owner”). ShareSoc has long campaigned for reform of this system because it usually results in you not being able to vote your shares at General Meetings, and you are unlikely to be sent information such as Annual Reports. You are effectively disenfranchised and the lack of voting by private shareholders undermines good corporate governance. Platforms can enable you to vote by submitting proxy votes on your behalf, but many do not offer this facility.

Last week the Association of Investment Companies (AIC) published some information that helps you to get a vote. They showed which platforms provide such voting facilities. See https://www.theaic.co.uk/aic/news/press-releases/aic-releases-information-to-help-shareholders-vote-on-platforms for the details. Note though that some may permit it but often without providing an easy to use system of voting.

Ian Sayers of the AIC had this to say: “We need all platforms to offer a simple, online solution that means that shareholders get the information they need on resolutions affecting the company and can exercise their democratic rights at a click of a button. In the meantime, investors should consider whether and how they can vote their shares as part of their decision over which platform to use.”

One can only agree with his sentiment on this. The solution is to reform the laws and regulations in this area, and ideally have all shareholders on the share register of companies. But in the meantime, it’s worth reviewing the AIC list when choosing a platform to use.

Another item of news last week was a report from Reuters that a group of Financial Times journalists have complained about the pay of their CEO John Ridding. He earned £2.55 million pounds in 2017. The group led by an NUJ representative have written to their colleagues around the world saying the pay was absurdly high and that he should give some of it back to lowly paid staff.

Comment: Pay is escalating all over in the business world and this is just another example of outrageous pay inflation among senior management. The journalists’ initiative is to be applauded. As a daily reader of the Financial Times, I also have concerns that the CEO is not doing a great job either than might justify these gazillions. In the last couple of years, since the acquisition of the FT by Nikkei, the content of the paper has substantially changed.

It still publishes very good in-depth analyses of financial issues – for example, the review of accounting and audit standards headlined “Setting Flawed Standards” on Thursday which is well worth reading. But it has taken a very pro-EU and pro-Remainer political stance with numerous articles and published letters with a highly political slant. At the weekends we have to suffer from ex-sports journalist Simon Kuper’s views on that subject. He may know a lot about football but his views on UK politics and those who support Brexit seem very ill-informed.

Coverage of hard news on companies is also now very patchy, with more on the politics of foreign nations and on social issues. The FT needs to get back to reporting on financial matters and cut back on the political polemics.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Lax Regulation (Globo, GRG) and Japanese Trust AGM

Globo was one of those AIM companies that turned out to be a complete fraud. Back in December 2015 the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) announced an investigation into the audits of the company by Grant Thornton (GT). Even the cash reported on the balance sheet in the consolidated accounts of the parent company proved to be non-existent (or had been stolen perhaps). I have previously complained about the slow progress and the lack of any information on this investigation.

But former shareholders need no longer hold their breath – the FRC have announced that they have dropped the investigation on the basis that there is no realistic prospect of a finding of “misconduct” by Grant Thornton UK. It would seem that GT relied on the audits of the subsidiary companies in Greece and elsewhere over which the UK authorities have no jurisdiction.

There may be on-going investigations by other bodies including a review of the activities of GT in Greece but this makes it appear that the chance of action is fading away. Not that shareholders were ever likely to recover their losses. It is disappointing that the FRC have not taken a tougher line on this matter as questions about the accounts of Globo were publicly raised a long time before it went bust, and I even spoke to some staff of Grant Thornton UK at a Globo meeting telling them they needed to examine their accounts carefully. One would have thought that they would have done a very thorough examination of the subsidiary audits, but it seems not so.

I was about to submit my comments on the Kingman “Review of the Financial Reporting Council” – all ten pages of it – but will now have to amend it to include more criticism. I’ll publish it on the Roliscon web site a.s.a.p.

Another example of regulatory inaction is the announcement that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will not be doing anything about the past activities of the Global Restructuring Group (GRG) at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). After a review they found no evidence that RBS artificially distressed firms for their benefit (that’s not what the complainants say) although they did find inappropriate treatment of customers. But the FCA decided they could do nothing because some parts of the activities of GRG were unregulated and action against the senior management had little hope of success. So the perpetrators are off the hook.

I received an interesting newsletter from White & Case, one of the leading commercial law firms, which summarized the latest report from the FCA on their enforcement activities. It was headlined “FCA Enforcement – More cases, increased costs, fewer fines” which put the report in context. The number of “open cases” has doubled in two years while the number of staff has remained the same, i.e. more work but no more resources. Enforcement action has slowed down, probably for that reason, and fines have also dropped. Only 16 fines were imposed in the last year.

JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust

Yesterday I attended the AGM of JPMorgan Japan Smaller Companies Trust (JPS) which turned out to be a more interesting meeting than I anticipated. This is one of my Brexit hedges – pound falling means any overseas investment is likely to be a good one, and I always like small cap funds.

This trust has a good track record – NAV up 27.8%, 20.8% and 12.2% in the last three years so it is well ahead of its benchmark. Not knowing much about the Japanese market the presentation from the fund managers (via video from Japan) was particularly interesting. Equity markets in Japan have been buoyed by QE activities from the Bank of Japan – apparently they have not just been buying bonds but also equities in the stock market! But the economy is facing major structural challenges from an ageing and declining population. This was one slide they presented:

Japan's Structural Challenge

However, the managers are not too concerned because they ignore “macro” trends when investing anyway. They clearly think they can still achieve good results because of a focus on specific areas of the market, e.g. healthcare, employee benefits (staff are being paid more as they become in short supply), robot appliances, etc. Also corporate governance is improving, albeit slowly, which is of benefit to minority shareholders.

The other interesting issue that arose at this AGM was the proposed new dividend policy. They changed the Articles at the meeting to allow the company to pay dividends out of capital and also proposed a resolution to adopt a new dividend policy of 1% of assets per quarter, i.e. 4% dividend yield per annum when it was nil last year. This prompted a vigorous debate among shareholder attendees with complaints about it meaning shareholders will be paying more tax, often on unwanted dividends. The retiring Chairman, Alan Clifton, said the board had proposed this because they were advised that this would help to make the company’s shares more attractive to investors. The shares are currently on a persistent wide discount of about 11% and it was hoped this would close the discount. Also as most private shareholders now hold their shares in ISAs and SIPPs, there would be no tax impact on them. I pointed out direct shareholders could always sell a few shares if they wished to receive an “income” but there are obviously many small shareholders who do not understand this point or prefer to see a regular dividend payment. At least the above summarized the key points in the debate.

When it came to the show of hands vote on the resolution, it looked to me as though there were more votes AGAINST than FOR. The Chairman seemed to acknowledge this (I did not catch his exact words), but said that the proxy votes were overwhelmingly in favour. He then moved on to the other resolutions. I suggested he needed to call a poll, which of course nobody fancied because of the time required even though it would be legally the correct thing to do. So instead it was suggested that perhaps the count of hands was wrong so that vote was taken again – and narrowly passed this time. My rating as a trouble maker has no doubt risen further.

Anyway, I actually abstained on the vote on that resolution because I am in two minds on the benefit. As Alan Clifton pointed out, the impact of a similar change at International Biotechnology Trust (IBT) where he was also Chairman was very positive. My only comment to him was I thought 4% was a bit high. The board will no doubt review the impact in due course, but it seems likely that it will have a positive impact on the discount as the shares will immediately look more attractive to private investors.

In conclusion, what I expected to be a somewhat boring event turned out to be quite interesting. That is true of many AGMs. Japan might have more difficult “structural” challenges even than the UK, with or without Brexit. As regards the regulatory environment covered in the first part of this article I suggest the laws and regulations are too lax with too many loopholes. I think they need rewriting to be more focused on the customers or investors interests.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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RedstoneConnect (Smartspace Software) AGM and Branding

Today (30/7/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of RedstoneConnect Plc (REDS) which was promptly renamed Smartspace Software Plc at the meeting.

Although there were only a few ordinary shareholders present, this proved to be an informative meeting. It was chaired by new Chairman Guy van Zwanenberg. With former CEO Mark Braund having departed recently after major disposals leaving the company to focus on the remaining software business, the new CEO is Frank Beechinor who was the former Chairman. Frank is also Chairman of DotDigital which I also own shares in (a lot more than in RedstoneConnect which has had a mixed history – the focus on software alone makes it more attractive to me and I fully supported the disposals).

I asked whether Frank’s appointment was a permanent one. The answer was effectively “yes” as he is committed to it for 2 or 3 years. This is despite the fact that he promised his wife that he would not take another full-time job back in 2011 (he is only aged 54 according to Companies House though). He is apparently involved with 5 businesses and is stepping back from 3 of them, but remaining Chairman of DotDigital. He hopes to develop the company into a business with a market cap of £300 to £400 million in a few years.

The disposals meant the company now has substantial cash after paying off some debt but they are clearly not going to use it on share buy-backs in the short term. They are looking for acquisitions and would only return cash to shareholders if they don’t use it within the next couple of years. Acquisition will be focused on three areas: 1) Complementary to existing activities where they may pay 1 to 1.5 times revenue; 2) Analytics and 3) Visitor management solutions where their existing offering is quite weak. At present they have too large a focus on big deals (which can be lumpy) and are keen to move into the low-end, entry-level where sales can be automated web-based ones.

They have reduced staff down from 360 to 67 and now only have three buildings – in Luton, Mildenhall and Bristol with no “head office”. There are no overseas offices and they are likely to use partners to expand there.

It’s difficult to determine likely financial forecasts (Cantor have recently issued a positive note on them) – it rather depends on the success of any acquisitions, how much they pay for them, and controlling the overheads. But there are apparently no tax issues from the disposals.

The New Name

I spoke to Frank Beechinor before the AGM and advised him that I thought the new name was a bad choice. This is because I did a search of the UK/Euro trade mark register and found over 500 possible conflicting registrations – although some may be in different “classes” of goods and can be ignored. If you also use Google to search the internet for “smartspace” there are lots of matches. There is even a company listed at Companies House named “Smartspace Software Ltd”. So I think it is very likely they will get a lawyer’s letter sooner or later asking them to desist from trade mark infringement and even registering the change of name at Companies House might be difficult. Here’s a quick lesson in branding and trade mark law taken from my book “Beware the Zombies” (currently under revision):

Brand names for products or companies should be unique What are the key things to remember when inventing a new name? These are:

  1. It should be memorable.
  2. It should have the right, positive connotations with the product/service.
  3. It should be legally capable of being protected by appropriate trademark registrations.
  4. It should be usable as an Internet domain name in the chosen form(s).
  5. It should be unique, original, and not confusing with any existing trademark or brand name, and particularly not with competing or potentially competitive products.

A product or company name that cannot be registered as a trademark should never be considered. Registration of trademarks is relatively low cost and gives you much stronger legal protection (and easier enforcement of your legal rights) than an unregistered mark. Even more to the point, if you infringe someone else’s mark they can pursue a very simple and low cost legal action to force you to stop using the name – the result being that all your web site, sales literature, etc, will need revising and reissuing.

You should apply to register trademarks in all the main legal jurisdictions in which you are likely to trade. There are some differences between the different jurisdictions as to what is legally possible to register, and also as to what would be seen as a conflict with existing registrations, but the following is a good starting point:

  1. Do not use a purely descriptive or superlative mark.
  2. Make sure it is unique, distinctive and is not similar, even phonetically, with existing registered marks. You can search the main trademark registers on-line to do some basic checking.
  3. Try to think up something new and original, which is more difficult than you may imagine. Anyone new to the game of brand name creation tends to come up with the same old names that have already been thought of and previously used. Like “Smartspace”!
  4. Note that you can sometimes take a name that is already in use on other types of goods (trademark registers are based around “classes” of goods). But you need to take care with names that are in widespread use on more than one type of product.
  5. Do not fall in love with your chosen name before you have had it thoroughly researched by a trademark lawyer.

So often I have seen start-up ventures select a name which they think is original—but often it is some half-remembered echo of an existing product name or has been used before because it is so obviously appropriate. They name the business after it, start using it in sales literature and with prospective customers, and yet it turns out to be legally very questionable. You need to come up with several possible names before you go through the full legal search and registration procedure.

You probably also need to check that the chosen name is not already in use as an unregistered trademark (searching the internet can help here) and is not already in use as a corporate name (you can search company name registers also).

One of the big issues is that you will also want to protect the product name as a domain name on the internet, under the “.com” suffix, under any of the common national suffixes such as “.co.uk”, and also possibly with other newer suffixes as “.biz”. Finding a name that is free in all those domains and the relevant trademark registers and is not already in use as an unregistered trademark or corporate name is exceedingly difficult! Note that www.smart-space.com is already in use by another business so endless confusion will undoubtedly result.

Finally don’t start using a new trademark until you are sure it can be registered and is protectable. Having to change the name after a few months of usage will destroy your investment in marketing, product literature, web site design and other activities.

The resolution to change the name of RedstoneConnect to Smartspace Software was of course voted through. The directors said they had committed to change the name and had consulted legal advisors on it and might consider changing it again if necessary. I had offered some advice on the subject from my past experience in this field of inventing and registering marks but it was too late to reconsider in essence.

When I look at investing in small listed or unlisted companies, this is one area I look at because it tells you whether they have got the basics right. Hence my comments on “GB Group” naming in a previous post, and my dislike of “Tungsten” for the name of another AIM company. Unmemorable and unprotectable in both cases.

Registered trade marks are low cost and important to ensure brand recognition and legal protection but few people realize how important they are. The importance of branding is another very key area on which many books have been written but technology companies are often inept in this area.

So I just hope the directors of Smartspace Software have not fallen in love with the new name, or if they do choose to change it again that they do it properly next time.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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