Financial Stability It Ain’t

With the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor, we have now had four different Chancellors in a matter of a few months. What will overseas investors who dominate the markets make of this?

It will surely not instil confidence in the stability of the UK and its financial management. Liz Truss has not helped by apparently backing tax cuts and then now back-tracking on those commitments. Corporation tax will now rise as originally planned making the UK a less attractive place to invest. The Truss “high growth” strategy is floundering.

The gilt market is gyrating as the Bank of England planned to halt further QE and then changed its mind to stabilise the market while the FCA has allowed pension funds to pursue risky investment strategies which led them into panic selling of property funds and other assets.

Let us hope Mr Hunt can halt this merry-go-round. But what future is there for Ms Truss as Prime Minister? Not a long one in my view. She has not demonstrated confident leadership and her public statements have been quite dire. In a few months I think she will be gone.

I have decided to join the Conservative Party so I might get some say in who will lead the Party in future. I have supported the Party in the past – for example I helped Boris Johnson become Mayor of London although that turned out to be a questionable decision after London became the cycling capital of the world and the road network was severely damaged. But I never joined as a Member.

Roger Lawson (Twitter:  )

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Woke Inc and the Corruption of Capitalism

I have been reading the book Woke, Inc. by Vivek Ramaswamy. It’s not a very good book in my opinion so I will not do a detailed review but it does highlight how corporate profits are being diverted to social causes, good and bad, in the USA. It enables directors of public companies to espouse their favourite causes and signal their virtues while shareholders pay the cost of this munificence.

This largesse is also spreading to the UK. Recently Shell UK announced that “British Cycling has signed a long-term partnership that will bring wide-ranging support and investment from Shell UK as a new Official Partner. The agreement starts this month and runs to the end of 2030. This new partnership will see a shared commitment to; supporting Great Britain’s cyclists and para-cyclists through the sharing of world-class innovation and expertise; accelerating British Cycling’s path to net zero…..”. David Bunch, Shell UK Country Chair, said:  “The partnership reflects the shared ambitions of Shell UK and British Cycling to get to net zero in the UK as well as encouraging low and zero-carbon forms of transport such as cycling and electric vehicles”.

Some cyclists promptly accused the company of “greenwashing”, i.e. offsetting their oil/gas pollution by pretending that their profits are going to good causes. But as a shareholder in Shell I object to them redirecting their profits which should go to shareholders to other purposes. Particularly when the clear objective seems to be to reduce consumption of the company’s products.

But companies are now also interfering in politics. So Paypal has been closing the accounts of people and organisations that hold dissident political views. They even closed the account of a UK group that campaigns for free speech. They closed the account without warning, and companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been censoring users who espouse unpopular political views.  

The author of the aforementioned book has even launched two ETFs that explicitly aim to pressure companies to drop efforts to diversify their workforces and their focus on climate change according to an article in the FT. That’s contrary to the stance of many institutional investors such as Blackrock. Ramaswamy says: “In reality, companies like Blackrock, and in particular their leaders, are using social causes as a way of assuming their place in a moral pantheon. And in the process, they’re quietly dropping hints to consumers to take the bait and make purchasing decisions on the basis of moral quality rather than product attributes alone…. Woke consumerism is born when woke companies prey on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of their customers…..”.

Ramaswamy argues that capitalism is being corrupted and companies are abusing their public trust.

Businesses have now gone far beyond the promotion of the interests of stakeholders as well as shareholders (reference Section 172 of the Companies Act). Racing cyclists (the main focus of British Cycling) are hardly a stakeholder in Shell.

Yes they are “greenwashing” and they should not be wasting my money on such trivia.

Roger Lawson (Twitter:  )

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Preparing for Power Cuts

The Government seems to think we will be able to muddle through in the same old British fashion but I am getting prepared by thinking ahead. It’s not going to be as easy as it was 50 years ago when miners were striking in the 1970s as so much now depends on electricity.

National Grid have warned that power cuts may have to be imposed this winter for periods of hours because of a shortage of gas which is the largest source of electricity generation. If there is a very cold spell, supplies of gas are cut off from Russia which is already happening, and a combination of other negative factors occurs then we will be facing a bleak mid-winter.

You might have gas central heating but your boiler won’t operate without an electricity supply. Are you working from home? Forget it because your PC or laptop will shut down along with your wifi router. Even your 4G phone signal may fail as phone masts only have a few hours back-up battery supply.

I have checked out our two old oil lamps (photo of one above which I have polished) to see if they still worked and they do, with some oil remaining in them. Can be lit with a few matches.

We also have a gas fire in our living room that can be lit manually with a match which will suffice – it’s rare for a domestic gas supply to be cut off because, so far as I recall, to do so creates problems when the supply is reconnected requiring a visit to every household in case a pilot light needs lighting. Industrial users would no doubt be cut off first.

But I probably should not have thrown out a paraffin room heater a few years ago – however they are still available and cheap.

As regards electronic communication, my broadband supplier (BT) provides auto switchover to a 4G connection if the broadband goes down but I don’t think that will help if the router loses power. I had a quick look at UPS systems but these are mainly of help in providing a gentle power-down. They typically only provide a few minutes battery time unless you spend a large amount of money. If you want hours of back-up you need a diesel generator. I doubt the expense of that is worthwhile.

A mobile phone like my iPhone 13PRO will operate for two days without a recharge so that should cope with lengthy power cuts. But if your phone has a shorter life then you need a “powerbank” which can give you many hours of power. They are readily available and not expensive. It could also support notepads as well as phones but laptops and PCs are another matter.

In extremis I could power my laptop in my car because I have a converter that plugs into the car auxiliary socket and supplies a 230-volt normal 3 pin socket. I can then probably tether my laptop to a 4G signal via my phone.

This might enable me to continue trading my stock market portfolio one way or another but will the stockbroking platforms and the LSE continue to function? I have no idea. I hope they are thinking ahead at the moment on how they can operate if power cuts are widespread.

A diesel or petrol car can supply many days of power but those folks who have bought plug-in electric vehicles might have difficulties if there are lengthy power cuts.

The above covers my personal “resilience” on power supply but nationally we seem to be in a really dangerous position. The Nord Stream gas pipeline was apparently easily damaged by some malicious act – probably Russian, but electricity interconnectors which we rely on for power from the continent are vulnerable. Similarly internet/phone cables could be easily damaged (as happened in January to a link from Norway to Svalbard).  In the modern world we are extremely open to all kinds of malicious acts from foreign powers and Russia now seems intent on using its capabilities to cause mischief on a global scale. All off-shore installations are vulnerable in essence so we need to crack-on with fracking.

It’s a far cry from when my father ran a coal-fired power station in the 2nd world war – he never ran out of coal. The Government has clearly got to take a good look at energy security in the UK. Even if the hot war in Ukraine cools down we might have an energy cold war for some years. It’s going to be long time before anyone trusts Russia again and certainly not while Putin is in power.

I have also been adapting my stock market portfolio to the new world of energy insecurity in the last few weeks by buying shares in oil//gas companies such as BP, Shell, Serica Energy and Woodside Energy. The dividend yields on such companies are now sufficient to offset the capital risks. I am normally prejudiced against commodity stocks but when times change I decided it was time to reconsider. But I still will not be looking at small exploration oil companies.

I have also been buying alternative energy suppliers such as Gore St Energy Storage, Greencoat UK Wind, Gresham House Energy Storage, Octopus Renewables Infrastructure and The Renewables Infrastructure Group although even those have dipped recently after a good run up since the start of the year. Whether this is due to the general stock market malaise or doubts about the new regulatory regime for electricity is not clear. As in any bear market, there is nowhere to hide as everything falls.

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Interest Rate Sanity and Chancellor’s Announcements

The Bank of England’s announcement of an increase in base rate to 2.25% was just one step in a return to sanity. With inflation nearing 10% why would any idiot lend money at 5% or less as many mortgage providers have been doing. In reality the last few years have seen lower interest rates than have been available for the last 5,000 years.

This has been possible because of Quantitative Easing (QE) to keep the economy afloat. A misguided policy that has resulted in horrendous side effects. It has resulted in property price bubbles and stock market bubbles. When you can borrow money at 2% and use it to buy houses which have been rising in price at 8% or more (as they have done in 2022), people will buy houses as an investment – and the bigger the better. This is one key reason why house prices have been rising to levels that make them unaffordable to those not yet on the bandwagon.

Yes it will mean the cost of mortgages will rise thus making some people poorer for a while. But it is a necessary step to return the UK economy to a rational position.

It is still some distance from enabling savings rates to return to a situation where savers can obtain a real return. This has encouraged speculation in alternative investments that might promise a higher return. This was one reason why small cap AIM shares have been popular in the last few years. But that bubble is now bursting – the AIM index is down 31% so far this year.

In summary, I welcome the rise in bank rate and it should preferably go further to match inflation rates or more.

Chancellor’s Announcements

Kwasi Kwarteng has today announced a number of things including tax cuts.

The 45% top rate of income tax is scrapped and base rate reduced by 1% earlier than planned. The planned increase in National Insurance is scrapped and stamp duty reduced, while the planned increase in Corporation Tax is also cancelled.

The chancellor confirmed that the scheme to protect households and businesses from rising energy prices is expected to cost £60bn for the first six months. With the aforementioned tax cuts, the resulting likely increase in Government debt has caused a sharp drop in the price of gilts (and rise in their yield).  

It has also meant a falling pound which will not help the cost of living but will help exporting companies and those with revenues in dollars. By making imports more expensive it should stimulate UK production – for example of food and make us less reliant on imports.

A surprise announcement is the winding down of the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) and revision of the IR35 rules. These are sensible moves as the OTS has been totally ineffective in simplifying the tax system which is horribly complex while IR35 rules have been incomprehensible and impractical to apply in the real world without adding massively to bureaucracy.

More reforms to planning laws are promised to stimulate infrastructure building and aid the Government’s growth agenda but we have heard that before. Unfortunately planners just love complex regulations as they generate work for planners and there will be resistance from nimbies so I expect this will see major objections and delays.

There will be new anti-strike laws for essential services and there will be encouragement for 120,000 people on universal credit benefits to “take active steps to take more active work or face having their benefits reduced” (the number of inactive people in the workforce has been rising while jobs go unfilled).

In summary, my personal opinion is that that these are positive moves on the whole. In the short-term, we might all be poorer but some of these reforms were well overdue.  

Roger Lawson (Twitter:  )

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Queen Elizabeth, Energy Caps, Verici DX, Equals and Paypoint

The sad death of Queen Elizabeth reminds me of my own mother’s death at the age of 100. They looked similar in later life. Both managed to die in their own home which is the best place from which to leave. Will Charles III make a good king? We will have to wait and see but his name is not propitious bearing in mind the track record of the previous two. As I am not a monarchist I will say no more.

It was interesting to see an open coal fire in use in the photographs of Liz Truss with the Queen. Balmoral does not have central heating apparently while Buckingham Palace does have a CHP plant. But the bill to run the later was about half a million pounds per annum before the projected price increases. So King Charles might welcome Truss’s announcement to cap the maximum price of gas and electricity.

This is a cap on prices, not on overall cost so people with big houses with large gas consumption will still pay more. But at least it will replace the OFGEM price cap which was an irrational policy that would not encourage people to reduce energy consumption. Fracking is also being permitted to boost local gas production.

Truss did not give in to calls for this largess to be funded through a windfall tax. She said this would undermine the national interest by discouraging the very investment we need to secure home-grown energy supplies. You can’t tax your way to growth she said. So it will be funded by more Government debt in essence.

Is this wise? I believe it is the lesser of evils as it will help to bring inflation under control which is essential to keep the economy healthy and avoid a severe recession. These decisions by Truss and her new cabinet are positive in my view and should help the stock market.

But she is still committed to net zero by 2050 which is simply an unrealistic and unachievable objective.

I attended a couple of interesting results webinars this week. The first was from Verici DX (VRCI) who provide pre and post diagnostic technology for kidney transplants to avoid rejection. This is a subject in which I have a strong interest as a transplant patient and I do hold the shares which were acquired free as a scrip dividend when they spun off from EKF. The company is making progress but revenue is some way off and profits impossible to forecast so I would not purchase the shares at this time.

I did attend a two-hour seminar at Guys Hospital recently for pre-transplant patients as I need another. It was apparent that transplant procedures have not changed much in the last 25 years. Back then there was hope of xeno-transplantation but that faded away. More recently a bioartificial kidney has been developed (see ) but that could be years away from clinical use.

The other webinar I attended was that of Equals Group (EQLS) which I have held in the past. Financial figures are improving and a focus on the SME sector has clearly helped. It’s a complex payment business though and the webinar only helped in some degree to understand it. It might be another UK technology business vulnerable to being acquired by a trade buyer who understands the technology and regulatory environment. The company has been tipped recently by Simon Thompson in Investors Chronicle.

One company I do hold which is also looking cheap in the payments world is Paypoint (PAY) – probably because it operates in the retail sector and has been around a long time. There is a good write-up on the company in the latest Techinvest newsletter. But like Equals it is a complex business providing a number of different services. Both Equals and Paypoint could do with better communications on their business activities.

All of Verici DX, Equals and Paypoint have one advantage – they are not affected by the price of energy except very indirectly!

Roger Lawson (Twitter:  )

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Truss Victory – But Do We Trust Her to Deliver?

Liz Truss has won the election for Conservative Party Leader and therefore will be our next Prime Minister. She won by the expected large majority although she would not have been my personal choice. Lacks charisma. Her acceptance speech was a lacklustre bunch of pedantic soundbites.

She has promised to cut taxes and tackle the energy crisis. But how is she going to control energy prices? It’s easy to impose price controls or subsidise consumption but who is going to pay for it and where is the money coming from are the key questions. She has promised quick answers to those questions but do we trust her to deliver?

Having a surname that is a homophone of trust should have helped her political career but now she faces real problems in the UK economy and social unrest over the cost of living. This will not be helped by the latest news that Russia has turned off the Nord Stream gas pipeline and has no intention of reopening it while sanctions persist. This will drive gas prices even higher.

It was a good morning to release negative news. Abrdn UK Smaller Companies Growth Trust (AUSC) which I hold announced that long-serving manager Harry Nimmo is to retire at the end of the year. This has long been expected and after 19 years of service is probably overdue. There comes a time when even the most respected managers need to be refreshed.

It’s bad news for staff of the FRC after the FT reported that a decision has been made to locate the new ARGA body which will take over their role in Birmingham. Well at least they might find cheaper housing and shorter commutes so they might view it as a positive move.

The new ARGA body is sorely required as the FT reports yet another “brazen $400mn accounting fraud” in a Chinese biotech company (China Medical Technologies). KPMG is being sued in a Hong Kong court for $830 million. The report says that four audit firm failed to ask “obvious” questions that would have “easily” exposed the fraud. These included not questioning a large related-party transaction by the group in 2006, when it acquired a Chinese diagnostics business worth $155,000 for $176mn, according to the liquidator.

These kinds of events are way too common all over the world including the UK. Implementing ARGA is taking way too long but I suspect that it will not be one of Truss’s priorities.

Roger Lawson (Twitter:  )

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The Productivity Puzzle and Fixing the Energy Crisis

There was an interesting article by Arthur Sants in last weeks Investors Chronicle. He highlighted the productivity problem in the big tech companies such as Apple, Meta, Alphabet and Microsoft. Part of the reason is that their workforces have been increasing and revenue per employee has been falling.

It is suggested that part of the problem is that to develop new products and services requires a lot of staff hacking code. Automation of manufacturing processes is relatively simple in comparison with developing programs that can write other programs – they are an order of magnitude more difficult to create.

This has been the Achilles heel of the software industry for the last 50 years. It remains a very labour-intensive industry when it need not be. The technology of software development has changed little since my era when I was involved in it – there are still too many people writing code.

Is this one reason why productivity in the UK and other developed countries has not been improving as it should have been? It’s been too easy to hire bright young things to write code because labour has been cheap. We need to make it more expensive to ensure tools to automate their work are developed with a concentration on the development of standards to assist. Teaching children to write code in schools is not the answer.

Richard Tice on the Energy Crisis

I watched a webinar presented by Richard Tice of the Reform Party this morning. He pointed out the energy crisis the country is facing and what his Party would do about it. He argues that this is not a short-term problem but that we face a long-term global energy war so vigorous action is required – in effect putting our energy economy on a wartime basis.

He presented some interesting data to support his arguments and made more sense than many politicians on the issue in my view.

You can watch in on the Reform Party’s Facebook page:

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Rain and Other Good News

Rain, rain don’t go away, and come again another day. After three months of no rain in the London area we certainly need more rain.

The news from BHP Group (BHP) this morning was also good with record profits, a raised dividend and a positive outlook for the future. The share price is up 4.8% today at the time of writing. I continue to hold the shares.

Meanwhile ill-educated politicians continue to call for a rise in the energy price cap as it looks like the typical household will face a doubling or more in their bills over the next winter. But there is a very good article published by the Financial Times by Cat Rutter Pooley headlined “The energy price cap is a relic of another era”. She explains that when it was first introduced, the UK energy price cap aimed to solve the problem of the “loyalty penalty” — higher prices for people who didn’t regularly shop around for a new supplier. What it wasn’t designed for is the conundrum we now face: unaffordable energy prices.

Government attempts to control prices ultimately never work. The suppliers of goods such as energy will not sell at prices that mean they lose money, or can earn less than they can earn selling the same goods elsewhere. It’s a world economy and it’s the world market price of gas that is inflating energy prices. We have already seen multiple energy supply companies going bust with the largest being bailed out by the Government (i.e. by us taxpayers).

What is Cat’s solution to the problem? She says: “The price cap as it stands isn’t a sustainable solution to problems in the energy market that are likely to endure for some years to come. Some households will have to adapt to higher prices. Extra efficiency measures will need to be introduced. It is hard to argue against introducing some form of social tariff for the poorest consumers akin to that which exists in the broadband market. In the short-term, some kind of assistance with bridging the affordability gap will be required given the price shock consumers already face. In the longer term, the price cap needs to go back to being a market backstop, not its primary feature”. I completely agree.

On another subject, it’s not often that one wakes up in the morning to find that medical research has found a solution that might help to keep one alive. That happened to me yesterday with the news reports that a way has been found to change the blood type of a donated kidney (see ). Differing blood types can prevent kidney transplants from volunteers and is a particular problem for black and other minority groups which mean they typically have to wait a long time for a transplant when transplants are a key to providing a normal lifestyle and a longer life by avoiding dialysis treatment.

I have had a kidney transplant for over 20 years now but I need another one soon. I have a volunteer donor but he is the wrong blood type. There is a way around that by a pooled matching system but being able to change the blood type of a kidney would be a great step forward. It will need some clinical trials before it can be widely used but it could be a real game-changer. The research has been funded by charity Kidney Research UK – please support them – see

Back to financial matters. The AIC have issued a press release on the subject of the cost of graduate student debt which apparently is as high as £45,800. This high figure is putting off people from attending university and those already attending are not optimistic they will ever be able to repay the debts they incur.

More grandparents are helping to take the strain apparently which I can quite understand. With one grandson already at university and two more possibly needing to do so in a few years’ time, this is something to consider. Discretionary trusts and Junior ISA contributions are two ways we have tackled the problem but the AIC does of course suggest that investing in investment trusts is worth considering. They point out that a monthly investment of £100 in the average investment company over 18 years would have generated £59,018.

The message is to start saving for your offspring at an early age. See for more information.

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Chocolat Melting, Fevertree Losing Fizz, Paypoint Results and PM Choice

The share price of Hotel Chocolat (HOTC) collapsed yesterday after posting a trading update. It was not that chocolate sales had fallen in the heat wave as one might expect. The temperature nudged 40 degrees C in the leafy Chislehurst suburbs yesterday and I cancelled a trip into the City which was probably a wise move.

HOTC said “While the Board anticipates underlying FY22 profit before tax will be in line with market consensus, statutory reported profit for FY22 is
expected to be a loss, being affected by the outcomes of an internal business review, predominantly as a result of non-cash impairment provisions and costs arising from discontinued activities including the closure of retail stores in the USA”. It’s a loss however you look at it.

The share price of HOTC peaked at about 530p last November and it’s now about 130p. Investors who signed up for the placing at 355p last July must be kicking themselves.

I must admit to a certain scepticism about “comfort” food sellers particularly those targeting the luxury end of the market. The history of chocolate and ice cream sellers is very poor and I would extend that to premium alcohol brands such as gin and wine. Likewise premium mixer seller Fevertree (FEVR) whose shares fell by 30% last Friday after warning on margin erosion due to higher glass and freight costs combined with labour shortages. These kinds of companies depend on aggressive marketing to grow sales but their products and marketing can be imitated. When consumers become price sensitive they may quickly switch to cheaper brands.

Needless to say, I do not hold the stocks mentioned above.

One share I do hold is Paypoint (PAY) who issued a positive trading statement this morning. It included this statement:

“Q1 Progress: Good progress against our ESG programme, including commitment to ensure all employees are paid a minimum of the Real Living Wage delivered in July 2022; and Inaugural Pride Month programme launched in June 2022, as part of our ‘Welcoming Everyone’ activities, providing educational content, further meetings of our LBGTQ+ network and events to bring colleagues together, building on our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion and supporting our vision to create a dynamic place to work”.

They have clearly become enamoured of the need to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals but I am not personally convinced that this is an area in which companies should be interfering. Next thing we know they’ll be promoting religion and holding prayer meetings.

One of the last three candidates for Prime Minister, Penny Mordaunt, has been criticised for calling that old TV series of “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” as being misogynistic and homophobic. It certainly was but it was also comic as the characters were true of their era. Likewise in Dad’s Army written by the same authors which could also be criticised for being prejudiced. But as my father served in the Home Guard and kept a diary during the war years, I think it was a good representation of reality. He skived off a lot apparently and considered it a waste of his time.

Will Penny Mordaunt beat Liz Truss to make the final poll? I hope so as I don’t think Truss could win a General Election for the Conservatives. Simply not enough charisma.  I still think Rishi Sunak is the best candidate.

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How to Choose the Next Prime Minister

I have watched the debates of the candidates for the next leader of the Conservative Party, and hence for the position of Prime Minister. I am not a Conservative Party member so will not get a vote but for such an important job it is worth stating how I might decide who I would prefer.

I do not think it is worth deciding on the basis of their stated policies. They all believe in tax cuts, but some sooner than later. None of them talked about how they would cut Government expenditure to maintain a balanced budget and allow room for tax cuts. They all believe in the net zero carbon emissions policy although within what is affordable and achievable.

But policies advocated by politicians tend to change after they get elected and get faced with the realities of advice from civil servants, the Bank of England and opinion polls.

There is a simple way to decide who to support. Who would you wish to work for if offered a job as a cabinet member in their administration? Who is a leader you could follow and have some trust in? Who appears confident and decisive, requirements for any natural leader? Who has the charisma to win over colleagues in your party to your adopted policies and in due course the general public so you can win the next general election?

On that basis I think there are only two candidates who pass those hurdles – Rishi Sunak and Tom Tugendhat. But Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss seem less confident while Kemi Badenoch is an unknown quantity to many voters. Unfortunately ladies who wish to get elected need to be forceful and exude confidence like Margaret Thatcher always did but the three now standing do not. They are not obviously born leaders who could unite a divided Conservative Party which always has a tendency to fragment.

Boris Johnson had the required profile which is why he was successful at winning elections, but fell down on other personal qualities and clearly won’t be invited to join the next administration as he is now a political liability.

As between Rishi and Tom, the former has more ministerial experience and should have a stronger financial background so I would tend to go for the former. Wealthy people tend to be a political liability in the UK where the politics of envy is so pervasive but I think Rishi has the personal charisma to overcome such prejudices and he certainly delivers good speeches.

How Conservative Party Members and MPs view these issues will soon be revealed but I hope they follow the same chain of thought.

Roger Lawson (Twitter:  )

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