LoopUp Profit Warning and Brexit Party Policy

Conference calling AIM company LoopUp (LOOP) issued a trading statement this morning which contained a profit warning. At the time of writing the share price is down 47% on the day but it has been falling sharply in recent days which suggests the bad news had already leaked out.

This is an example of what happens when lofty growth expectations are revised downwards. Revenue is now expected to be down 7% on the previous market consensus and EBITDA down 20%. The company blames the shortfall on “subdued revenue across its long-term customer base” driven by macro-economic factors and diversion of sales staff into training new ones.

LoopUp is presenting at the ShareSoc seminar event on the 10th July so it will be interesting to hear what they have to say about this – see https://www.sharesoc.org/events/sharesoc-growth-company-seminar-in-london-10-july-2019/ . This news comes only a month after LoopUp held a Capital Markets Day when there was no hint of these problems. I did a report on that here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/07/broker-charges-proven-vct-performance-fee-and-loopup-seminar/

I do hold a few shares in LoopUp but thankfully not many.

Brexit Party Policy

I mentioned in a recent blog post that the Brexit Party is looking for policy suggestions to enable them to develop a platform for any prospective General Election. Here’s what I sent them with respect to financial matters:

  1. The personal taxation system is way too complicated and needs drastically simplifying. At the lower end the tax credit system is wide open to fraud while those on low incomes are taxed when they should not be. The personal tax allowance, both the basic rates, and higher rates, need to be raised to take more people out of tax altogether.
  2. The taxation of capital gains is also now too complicated, while tax is paid on capital gains that simply arise from inflation, which are not real gains at all. They should revert to being indexed as they were some years ago. For almost anyone, calculating your own tax that is payable is now way too difficult and hence requiring the paid services of accountants using specialist software.
  3. Inheritance tax is another over-complex system that wealthy people avoid by taking expert advice while the middle class end up paying it. It certainly needs grossly simplifying, or scrapping altogether as a relatively small amount of tax is actually collected from it.
  4. The taxation of businesses is inequitable with the growth of the internet. Small businesses, particularly retailers, pay a disproportionate level of tax in business rates while their internet competitors often avoid VAT via imports. VAT is now wide open to fraud and other types of abuse such as under-declarations, partly because of the EU VAT arrangements. VAT is in principle a simple tax and the alternative of a sales tax would create anomalies but VAT does need to be reformed and simplified.
  5. All the above tax simplifications would enable HMRC to be reduced in size and the time wasted in form filling by individuals and businesses reduced. Everyone would be a winner, and wasted resources and expenditure reduced.
  6. The taxation of company dividends on shares is now an example of the same profits being taxed twice – once in Corporation Tax on the company, and then again when those profits are distributed to shareholders. This has been enormously damaging to those who receive dividends and the lack of tax credits has also undermined defined benefit pension funds. The taxation of dividends should revert to how it once was.
  7. The regulation of companies and financial institutions needs very substantial reform with much tougher laws against fraud on investors. Not only are the current laws weak but the enforcement of them by the FCA/FRC is too slow and ineffective. Although some reforms have recently been proposed, they do not go far enough. Individual directors and senior managers in companies are not held to account for gross errors or downright fraud, or when they are, they get off too lightly. We need a much more effective system like they have in the USA, and better laws.
  8. Shareholder rights as regards voting and the receipt of information have been undermined by the use of nominee accounts. This has made it difficult for individual shareholders to vote and that is one reason why investors have not been able to control the excesses in director pay recently. The system of shareholding and voting needs reform, with changes to the Companies Act to bring it into the modern electronic world.
  9. The pay of directors and senior managers in companies and other organisations has got wildly out of hand in recent years, thus generating a lot of criticism by the lower paid. This has created social divisions and led partly to the rise of extreme left socialist tendencies. This problem needs tackling.
  10. Governance of companies needs to be reformed to ensure that directors do not set their own pay, as happens at present, but that shareholders and other stakeholders do so. Likewise shareholders and other stakeholders should appoint the directors.
  11. Insolvency law needs reform to outlaw “pre-pack” administrations which have been very damaging to many small businesses. They are an abuse of insolvency law.
  12. All the EU Directives on financial regulation should be scrapped (i.e. there should be no “harmonization” with EU regulations after Brexit). The MIFID regulations have added enormous costs to financial institutions, which have passed on their costs to their customers, with no very obvious benefit to anyone. Likewise the Shareholder Rights Directive might have had good objectives but the implementation has been poor because of the lack of knowledge on how financial markets operate in the UK. Other examples are the UCITS regulations which have not stopped Neil Woodford from effectively bypassing them, or the PRIIPS regulations which have resulted in misleading information being provided to investors.

Let me know if you have other suggestions, and of course the above policies might be good for adoption by other political parties in addition.

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

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Worldwide Healthcare Trust and Investor Voting

I recently received the Annual Report of Worldwide Healthcare Trust (WWH). This is one of those companies that has stopped sending out proxy voting forms for their AGM. The Registrar is Link Asset Services who seem to be making it as difficult as possible for shareholders on the register to vote. You either have to contact them to request a proxy voting form, or register for their on-line portal. I don’t want to register (and the last time I tried it was not easy), I just want to vote!

But as I have mentioned before, I have provided a form that anyone can use to submit as a proxy instruction – see here: https://www.roliscon.com/proxy-voting.html. There is an option you can use if you are not on the share register but in a nominee account.

As regards WWH, performance last year was OK with net asset value total return up 13.7% although that’s less than their benchmark which managed 21.1%. Relative underperformance was mainly attributed to being underweight in the global pharmaceutical sector. The fund manager (OrbiMed Capital) believes there are better opportunities elsewhere such as in emerging markets and biotechnology. We will no doubt see in due course whether those bets are right.

But I do have some concerns about corporate governance at this trust. Not only are the directors highly paid, but two of them have been on the board for over 9 years, including the Chairman Sir Martin Smith. He also has a “number of other directorships and business interests” without them being spelled out. The UK Corporate Governance Code spells out quite rightly that directors who have served on the board for more than 9 years cannot be considered “independent”.

In addition Director Sven Borho is a Managing Partner of OrbiMed so he is clearly not independent either. So 3 of the 6 directors cannot be considered independent. I therefore give you my personal recommendations for how to vote on the resolutions at the AGM (or by proxy of course) of the following:

Vote AGAINST resolutions 2, 3, 7, 9, 14 and 15. Vote FOR all the others.

This is not “box ticking”, it’s about ensuring directors of trust companies do not become stale, not too sympathetic to the fund managers and not too geriatric. The excuses given for the directors I am voting against to remain do not hold water.

Nominee Accounts and Voting

As regards the difficulty of voting if you hold your shares in a nominee account (as most do now for ISAs etc), ShareSoc has some positive news after years of campaigning on this issue (including a lot of personal effort from me).

The Government BEIS Department have commissioned a review of “intermediated securities” by the Law Commission. See this ShareSoc blog post for more information: https://tinyurl.com/y4wk4edz . Please do support the ShareSoc campaign on this issue.

It is important that all shareholders can vote, whether you are in a nominee account or on the register, and you need to be able to vote easily. Bearing in mind the furore over the proposed requirement for voters in general elections to at least show some id before voting, which has been criticised, wrongly in my view, for possibly deterring voting, it is odd that this issue of disenfranchising shareholders has not been tackled sooner.

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

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Paying Illegal Dividends, Burford Capital, Woodford Patient Capital Trust and Zero Carbon Objective

A group of investors including Sarasin, Legal & General, Hermes and the UK Shareholders Association (UKSA) has written to Sir Donald Brydon who is undertaking a review of the audit market. They have yet again raised the question of whether the International Financial Accounting Standards (IFRS) are consistent with UK company law. In particular they question whether profits are sometimes being recognised, thus allowing the payment of illegal dividends. The particular issue is whether profits can arise on certain transactions under IFRS from transactions between parent and subsidiary companies or by the use of “mark to market” accounting. The problem is “unrealised profits” that might turn into cash in the future, but may not.

This may appear a somewhat technical question, but it can in practice lead to over-optimistic reporting of profits, leading to excessive bonus payments to managers, and the general misleading of investors. Actually calculating when a dividend can be paid as dividends are not supposed to be paid out of capital is not easy and is not self-evident to investors. The published accounts do not make it obvious. Regular mistakes are made by companies requiring later “whitewash” resolutions to be passed by shareholders. The ICAEW has previously rejected complaints on this issue but it is surely an area that requires more examination.

Incidentally I was reading a book yesterday entitled “White Collar Crime in Modern England” (from 1845-1929) which is most enlightening on common frauds that arose when limited companies became popular – many of the frauds still persist. In the “railway mania” of the 1840s it was common to set up companies and raise the capital to build a railway when the chance of it operating profitably was low. To keep the share price high, and the directors in jobs, dividends were paid out of capital. To quote from the book: “unscrupulous directors could easily pay dividends out of capital undetected – projecting a false image of profitability and enticing further investment in their lines”. That was an era when auditors did not have to be accountants and were often simply the directors’ cronies. Standards and regulations have improved since then, but there are still problems in this area that need solving.

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter recently on Burford Capital (BUR) with regard to their accounting methods. Not that I am an expert on the company as I do not hold shares in it, it but as I understand it they recognise the likely future settlements from the litigation funding cases they take on. In other words, they estimate future cash flows based on projections of likely winning the case and the possible settlements. As I said on Twitter, lawyers will often tell you a case is winnable but they will also tell you the outcome of any legal case is uncertain.

It’s interesting to read what Burford say in their Annual Report under accounting policies where it spells it out: “Owing to the illiquid nature of these investments, the assessment of fair valuation is highly subjective and requires a number of significant and complex judgements to be made by management. The exit value will be determined for each investment by the contractual entitlement, the underlying risk profile of the litigation, a trial or an appellate outcome or other case events, any other agreements in respect of settlement discussions or negotiations as well as the credit risk associated with the investment value and any relevant secondary market activity”.

The auditors no doubt scrutinise the reasonableness of the estimates but any outside investor in the shares of the company will have great difficulty in doing so.

Neil Woodford’s Equity Income Fund has a big holding in Burford Capital. I commented on the Woodford Patient Capital Trust yesterday here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/06/11/woodford-patient-capital-trust-is-it-an-opportunity/ and suggested the Trust made a mistake in naming the Trust after him. It makes it more difficult to fire the manager for example. But the FT reported this morning that the Trust has indeed had conversations about doing just that. Woodford’s firm has a contract that only requires 3 months’ notice which is a good thing. At least they can keep the “Patient Capital” moniker because investors in this trust have already had to wait a long time for much return and it could take even longer to improve its performance under a new manager. But as Lex in the FT said, “patience is now in short supply” so far as investors are concerned.

Another major item of news yesterday was soon to be ex-Prime Minister May’s commitment to enshrine in law a target for net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2050. This is surely a quite suicidal path for the UK to follow when most other major countries, including all the big polluters, will be very unlikely to follow suit. Even Chancellor Philip Hammond has said it will cost about £1 trillion. It will effectively make the UK completely uncompetitive in many products with production and jobs shifting to other countries. We might become the first really “de-industrialised” country which is not a lead that many will follow, and it will actually be practically very difficult to achieve if you bother to study what is required to achieve zero emissions. It will completely change the way we live with the transport network being a particular problem (trains, planes and road vehicles).

As I have said before, if we really want to cut air pollution and CO2 emissions, then we need to reduce the population as well as rely on such wheezes as electrification of the transport and energy systems. Mrs May’s last act as Prime Minister might be to commit the UK to economic suicide. It might not be a good time to invest in UK manufacturing companies.

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

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Broker Charges, Proven VCT Performance Fee and LoopUp Seminar

The Share Centre are the latest stockbroker to increase their fees. Monthly fee for an ISA account is going up by 4.2% to £5.00 per month with increases on ordinary share accounts and SIPPs also. This is the latest of a number of fee increases among stockbrokers and retail investor platforms. The Share Centre blame the required investment in technology development and “an increasing burden of financial regulation”. The latter is undoubtedly the result of such regulations as MIFID II imposed by the EU which has proven to be of minimal benefit to investors. As I was explaining to my sister over the weekend, this is one reason why I voted to leave the EU – their financial regulations are often misconceived and often aimed at solving problems we never had in the UK.

I received the Annual Report of Proven VCT (PVN) this morning – a Venture Capital Trust. Total return to shareholders was 10.3% last year, but the fund manager did even better. Of the overall profits of the company of £18.6 million, they received £7.7 million in management fees (i.e. they received 41% of the profits this year). That includes £5.6 million in performance fees.

Studying the management fee (base 2.0%) and the performance fee, I find the latter particularly incomprehensible. I will therefore be attending the AGM on the 3rd July to ask some pointed questions and I would encourage other shareholders to do the same. I am likely to vote against all the directors at this company.

I also received an Annual Report for Proven Growth & Income VCT (PGOO) and note that of the 4 directors, 2 have served more than 9 years and one is employed by the fund manager. So that’s three out of four that cannot be considered “independent” so I have voted against them. I would attend their AGM on the same day but the time is 9.30 which is not a good choice and would waste a whole day.

Yesterday I attended the “Capital Markets Day” of LoopUp (LOOP). This is an AIM listed company whose primary product is an audio conference call service. It’s just a “better mousetrap” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson as 68% of the world are still using simple dial-in services rather than more sophisticated software products such as Zoom and WebEx. There are lots of other competitors in this field including Microsoft’s Skype which I find an appallingly bad product from past experience. Reliability and simplicity of use is key and LoopUp claimed to have solved this with no learning required, no software downloads or other complexities and high-quality calls aimed at the corporate market.

I have seen the company present before and do hold a few shares. This event was again a very professional sales pitch for the company and its product with no financial information provided. Yesterday they also covered the addition of video to their basic conference call service which was announced on the day, plus a new service for managed events/meetings. Video addition is probably an essential competitive advantage that was previously missing. They covered how their service is differentiated from the main competitors which was good to understand.

Last year they acquired a company called MeetingZone which has increased their customer base and revenue substantially and are transitioning the customers to the LoopUp product. Revenue doubled last year and is forecast to rise by about 50% in the current year. Needless to say the company is rated highly on conventional financial metrics and return on capital has been depressed by the cost of the acquisition. But one reason I like this company is that it’s very easy to understand what they do and what the “USP” is that they are promoting, plus their competitive position (many company presentations omit any discussion of competitors).

They also have an exceedingly good sales operation based on groups of people organised in “pods” which was covered in depth in the presentation. These only have team bonuses and the key apparently is to recruit “empathetic” people rather than “individualists”. Perhaps that is one reason 60% of them are female. As I said to their joint CEO, I wish I had seen their presentation some 30 or more years ago when I had some responsibility for a software sales function.

The latter part of this 3-hour event was an explanation of how the software/service is used by major international law firm Clifford Chance with some glowing comments on the company from one of their managers. Customer references always help to sell services.

In conclusion a useful meeting, but lack of financial information was an omission although “Capital Market” days are sometimes like that. But the positive was that they had both institutional investors and private investors whereas some companies deliberately discourage the latter from attending such events which I find most objectionable.

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

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Woodford Equity Income Fund Suspension – Analysis and Solutions

The business media is awash with analysis and comment on the closure of the Woodford Equity Income Fund to redemptions – meaning investors cannot take their money out, much to their dismay. I write as an innocent bystander as I have never held any of the Woodford managed funds.

But I have not been totally unaffected by the problem of investors taking their money out, which has led to the suspension, because it has resulted in Woodford needing to sell some of the fund holdings. One of the few companies in his portfolio I hold, and have done for a long time, is Paypoint (PAY). The share price of that company fell in the last 2 days probably because Woodford has been selling it – about 1% of the company yesterday for example reported in an RNS announcement. Paypoint share price has been rising recently so this looks like a case of selling a winner rather than a loser, which is never a good investment strategy.

Standing back and looking at the Woodford Equity Income Fund, even its name seems quite inappropriate. Income funds tend to be stacked up with high dividend paying, defensive stocks. But many of the holdings in the portfolio look very speculative and many pay no dividends. These are the top ten holdings last reported:

Barratt Developments (7.5%), Burford Capital (5.8%), Taylor Wimpey (5.4%), Provident Financial (4.8%), Theravance Biopharma (4.7%), Benevolent AI (4.5%), IP Group (3.3%), Autolus (3.1%), Countryside Properties (3.1%) and Oxford Nanopore (2.6%). Other holdings are Kier (recent profit warning dropped the share price by 40%), NewRiver Reit (I sold it from my portfolio in early 2018 as I could not see how it could avoid the fall out on the High Street), Purplebricks (a speculation which I held briefly but concluded it was unlikely to succeed and was grossly overvalued) and Imperial Brands (a bet on a product which kills people). He is also stacked up with house building companies and estate agents – a sector that many people have exited from including me as house prices look unsustainable with the threat of higher interest rates. However you look at it, the Woodford portfolio is contrarian in the extreme. It even includes some unlisted companies which are totally illiquid and not good holdings for an open-ended fund where investor redemptions force share sales.

The last time big funds closed to redemptions were in the property sector where owning buildings in a downturn showed that the structure of open-funded funds was simply inappropriate for certain types of holdings. Much better to have those in an investment trust where fund investor sales do not force portfolio sales on the manager.

Note that another reason I prefer Investment Trusts to Open-Ended Funds is that they have independent directors who can, and do occasionally, fire the fund manager if things are obviously going wrong.

Part of the problem has been that despite the poor performance of the Woodford Equity Income Fund over the last 3 years (minus 17% versus plus 23% for the IA UK All Companies Index, and ranked 248 out of 248!), platforms such as Hargreaves Lansdown and wealth advisors were still promoting the fund based on Woodford’s historic reputation at Invesco. So investors have been sucked in, or stayed in on the promise of the fund’s investment bets coming good in due course.

What should be done about the problem now? That’s undoubtedly the key concern for investors in the fund. Even if the fund re-opens to redemptions, folks will still want out because they will have lost confidence in Woodford as a fund manager.

It has been suggested in the media that investors might be pacified if fund management fees were waived for a period of time. But that’s just a token gesture to my mind.

I would suggest some other alternatives: 1) That Neil Woodford appoint someone else to manage the fund – either an external fund management firm or a new fund management team and leader. Neil Woodford needs to withdraw from acting as fund manager and preferably remove his name from the fund; 2) Alternatively that a fund wind-up is announced in a planned manner; 3) Or a takeover/merger with another fund be organised – but that would not be easy as the current portfolio is not one that anyone else would want.

One difficulty though is that with such large funds (and it’s still relatively large even after having shrunk considerably), changing the direction and holdings in the fund takes time. So there is unlikely to be any short-term pain relief for investors. Smaller investors should probably get out as soon as they can, but the big institutional investors may not find it so easy.

If readers have any other solutions, please comment.

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

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GoGompare AGM and a Generous Remuneration Scheme

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of GoCompare.com Group (GOCO) which was actually renamed GoCo Group at the meeting. This was held in the City of London at 3.00 pm but even so there were still very few ordinary shareholders present – less than ten I would guess.

The company’s main business is a price comparison web service, particularly focused on car insurance, but also covering utilities and other products. It is of course fronted by Italian opera singer Gio Compario in TV advertisements. They also have a “Rewards” business providing discount vouchers which they recently acquired and a new business called WeFlip that automates utility switching. The company is chaired by Sir Peter Wood, founder of Esure and Directline insurance companies and he recently purchased about 4% of the business.

Sir Peter introduced the board and then invited questions. I was the only shareholder who asked any questions and I focused on the remuneration. For some background it’s worth noting that the CEO, Matthew Crummock, received a total (single figure) remuneration of £1.59 million in 2018. This is for a company that had revenue of £152 million and pre-tax profits of £33.8 million last year. For 2019 his basic pay will be increased by 12.5% to £450,000 and his maximum opportunity on an LTIP from 200% of salary to 230%. He also gets an annual bonus and “PSP” awards. A typically very complex scheme which results in a 19-page Remuneration Report!

I asked why awards under the “Foundation” bonus scheme were made when the performance targets were not met. It was stated that they were only £1 million short on revenue so the remuneration committee decided to award the bonus and the board supported it.

I also asked about the non-specific Bonus and PSP targets for 2019 given on page 57. What were the “Selection of people and cultural measures” and the “Customer centric measures”? At this point the Chairman suggested that these questions be handled after the meeting but I insisted they should be answered then which he conceded. Some reasonable answers were then given. But I advised the Chairman that I would be voting against the Remuneration Report as I considered it too generous.

Voting was then taken on a poll. But the Chairman advised there were substantial votes against the Remuneration Report on the proxy counts. In fact there were 25% of votes against the Remuneration Report and 15% of votes against Angela Seymour-Jackson who chairs the Remuneration Committee. There were also 11% of votes against Non-Exec Zillah Byng-Thorne perhaps because she is also CEO of Future Plc and also a non-exec at Paddy Power Betfair – too many jobs I suggest.

I spoke to Angela Seymour-Jackson after the formal meeting. She said she was disappointed that institutional shareholders voted against the Remuneration Report. She mentioned the payment of a bonus when the performance target was not met was one reason. I said a bonus target is a target that should be met, otherwise the bonus should not be paid. There will likely be more consultation with investors.

I also explained that I dislike LTIPs because they have been one reason why executive pay has ratcheted up in the last few years, and I particularly dislike those that pay out more than 100% of salary. I told her that bonus schemes need to pay out quickly if they are to provide real incentives, i.e. within months not years. She said they were constrained by the guidance in the Corporate Governance Code. Comment: in fact the latest version of the code does not mandate LTIPs and in any case the Code is always a “comply or explain” system. Companies can adopt better systems if they choose to do so and explain why.

This company is a typical example of why executive pay is out of hand and there is no sign that the directors of such companies are likely to change their ways. The widespread public concern over excessive pay and over-complex remuneration schemes that might pay out very large sums has not yet resulted in any change of policy and remuneration committees are still a soft touch. Change is needed.

Otherwise this was a poor quality meeting – no trading statement issued on the day, no presentation, and minimal shareholder attendance. But I did pick up from talking to one of the directors that the WeFlip business, in which the company is investing millions this year, is ahead of internal targets. But the company will win no prizes for its corporate governance.

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

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Changes Proposed at Companies House

The Government BEIS Department have recently proposed a number of important changes to the way Companies House operates in a public consultation entitled “Corporate Transparency and Register Reform” (see https://tinyurl.com/yysf9gdn ). Here’s a brief summary of the main points:

This consultation will be of interest to anyone who is a director of a private or a public company, or a major shareholder in such a company (i.e. those People with Significant Control). Even directors of the smallest companies could be affected.

A major proposal is to verify the identity of directors and to collect more information on them (although not their email address apparently, which I have suggested be added). This can now be done very quickly and at minimal cost electronically using various verification services (e.g. listed GB Group in which I hold shares). This will help to prevent fraud and they even hope to be able to link all directorships in various companies together. For example, this might make it easier to track the past activities and record of directors which even in small listed companies can be very informative as to their competence and reliability.

They propose to continue to retain the records of dissolved companies for 20 years which many investors consider important and is useful for investigators of all kinds.

They also plan some changes to improve the protection of personal information held at Companies House. Bearing in mind that there are well over 6 million records of directorships, with significant personal information, this is clearly important.

For public company investors there are two significant proposals:

1 – Improved digital tagging standards for accounts, which might make it simply to provide information services based on them.

2 – A possible cap on the number of directorships any one person can hold. There are common complaints about “overboarding” where directors take on too many roles. I have suggested a maximum of 5 in public companies, with some possible exemptions, should be imposed.

In general the proposals seem eminently sensible and I suggest they be supported on the whole. You can see my detailed comments in a response submitted to the consultation here: https://tinyurl.com/y6j9u4do 

But you should of course submit your own comments on those points of interest to you.

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

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