CAKE (Patisserie), Foresight 4 VCT AGM, Payment Companies and Dunelm

More bad news from Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) today – well at least you can’t say the directors are not keeping you informed about their dire situation which is not always the case in such circumstances.

Yesterday the company announced that its major operating company had received a winding-up petition from HMRC, of which the directors had only recently become aware. Today the company said after further investigation the board has reached the conclusion that without an “immediate injection of capital, the Directors are of the view that there is no scope for the business to continue trading in its current form”.

The directors could possibly try to do a quick placing at a deep discount no doubt, borrow a pile of cash at extortionate rates or they could put it into administration. The big risk is that Exec Chairman Luke Johnson will put it through a pre-pack administration. I hope he does not because that won’t do his reputation any good at all. He needs to try and engineer some sensible solution if his reputation in the financial world is to remain intact. That is particularly so after he wrote an article for the Times in September on “a beginner’s guide to tried and tested swindles” suggesting how you can spot them. Clearly he was not taking his own advice. Whatever happens, the outlook for existing shareholders does not look good.

As another commentator said, the Treasury should not reduce the generous tax reliefs on AIM companies because they need to realise that it is a risky market.

But there was some good news on cake yesterday when the Supreme Court decided after all in an appeal from the lower courts that a cakemaker can refuse to bake cakes where the proposed wording in the icing is objectionable to them. A victory for common sense and liberty.

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Foresight 4 VCT (FTF). There is one advantage to owning VCT shares. They barely move when the stock market is otherwise in panic mode. They are one of the few “counter-cyclical” investments to public companies as they invest in private equity. There are some disadvantages of course. Illiquidity in the shares, and often disappointing long-term performance as in Foresight 4. But it may be improving.

I won’t cover the meeting in detail but there were a couple of interesting items in fund manager Russell Healey’s presentation. He mentioned they are still having problems with long delays on HMRC pre-approval of new qualifying investments – can still delay deals for a few months it seems. More representations are being made on this.

He also covered the performance of their top few investments. Datapath, the largest, was valued down because EBITDA fell but revenue is still growing and the fall in profits arose from more product development costs. Ixaris, the second largest, is growing strongly (I knew this because I have a direct holding in it and had just read the December 2017 accounts they filed at Companies House). From my recollection that’s the first year they have made a profit since founding 16 years ago. Russell couldn’t remember how many funding rounds the company had launched – was it 6 or 7, and me neither. That’s venture capital in early stage companies for you – you have to be very patient.

However, in response to a question from VCT shareholder Tim Grattan it was disclosed that VISA are tightening up on the rules regarding pre-payment cards. This might affect a significant part of Ixaris’s business. I suspect it will also affect many other pre-payment card offerings by payment companies, some of whom are listed. Particularly those that are using them to enable payments into gaming companies which Visa does not like.

It was another bad day in the market today, although Dunelm (DNLM) picked up after a very positive trading statement with good like-for-like figures. They are moving aggressively into on-line sales but their physical stores also seem to be producing positive figures so perhaps big retail sheds are still viable. They are not in the High Street of course.

While the market is gyrating I am doing the usual in such circumstances having been through past crashes. Will the market continue to go down, or bounce back up? Nobody knows. So I tend to follow the trend. But I also clear out the duds from my portfolio when the market declines – at least that way I can realise some capital gains losses and reinvest the cash in other shares that are now cheaper. I also look carefully at those stocks that seem to be wildly over-valued on fundamentals – those I sell. But those that suddenly have become cheap on fundamentals I buy, or buy more of. In essence I am not of the “hide under the sheets” mentality in the circumstances of a market rout as some are. But neither do I panic and dump shares wholesale. This looks like a short-term market correction to me at present, after shares (particularly in the USA) became adrift from fundamentals and ended up looking very expensive. But we shall no doubt see whether that is so in the new few days or weeks.

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

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Pay-outs from Labour’s Dividend Plans

I said in my last blog post that the Labour Party’s plans to take 10% of a company’s shares and pay the dividends into an employee trust did not make much sense. I have actually worked out what the implications of such a scheme would be on a few large UK public companies. These are the figures (after 10 years and assuming 10% of the total dividend is therefore paid to employees):

  • BP pays £6.15bn in dividends and has 74,000 employees: £8,310 per employee.
  • Shell pays $10.87bn in dividends and has 92,000 employees: £9,846 per employee.
  • M&S pays £304m in dividends and has 84,000 employees: £360 per employee.
  • Tesco pays £82m in dividends and has 448,000 employees: £18 per employee.

The latter two do of course have many part-time employees. How they might be treated is unknown so I have assumed they get an equal share. Tesco has also been paying a low dividend of late because of past financial difficulties but even if it returned to previous levels, the pay-out to each employee would be low – hardly sufficient to motivate them.

In the case of the oil companies where they have relatively few employees in a capital- intensive business, the pay-out would exceed the £500 cap in year one, so it would be mainly the Government that benefited.

This seems a perverse result to say the least. Are M&S and Tesco employees so much less worthy than BP and Shell employees? Whether an employee got any worthwhile share of the dividends would much depend on the kind of company they worked for.

Another odd result is that the Government would collect a lot more in tax (the amount above the £500 cap) from capital intensive companies than from those with lots of employees.

The more one looks at this, the more perverse this scheme turns out to be.

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

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The Impact on Investors of the Labour Party’s Plans

I commented briefly yesterday on the plans by John McDonnell of the Labour Party to give employees shares and possible future nationalisations – see: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/24/labours-plans-for-confiscation-of-shares-and-rail-system-renationalisation/

More information is now available on the share scheme and the more one studies it the more one realises that whoever devised it does not understand much about business and the stock market. In other words they were typical politicians with no experience of the real world I would guess.

The scheme would apparently operate by companies with more than 250 employees being forced to hand over 10% of the shares in a company to an employee trust fund. That would be over a period of time – possibly ten years – and presumably that would be by the issuance of new shares rather than confiscating existing shares, but it still means 10% dilution for investors.

Shareholders normally get a vote on the issuance of new shares but presumably that could be legally subverted. Otherwise the scheme would cover about 11 million employees. However, foreign owned companies would not be covered so that excludes perhaps a third of the employees (the Labour Party apparently admits they would not be and it is difficult to see how legally any such law could be enforced on them).

One simple way for companies to avoid the scheme would be to move their country of registration elsewhere – no need to change where their shares are listed, just move domicile. We could see a host of companies re-registering in such places as Panama! An unintended consequence that I am sure the Labour Party would not like.

The shares accumulated in the trust fund would pay dividends to the individual shareholders out of the dividends paid to the fund by the company. But there would be a cap of £500 per employee. Any amount payable above that cap would revert to the Government. It is estimated this might generate £2 billion a year to the Government after 5 years – another large tax hike in addition to proposed increases in Corporation Tax the Shadow Chancellor is promising.

Employees could not buy or sell the shares held on their behalf, so presumably could not take them away when they leave or retire. So in practice those companies with high staff turnover would see the dividends accumulating for the benefit of the Government, particularly if the £500 cap remain fixed, i.e. unindexed.

But the company could avoid paying out this windfall to the Government simply by not paying dividends. Many companies don’t pay dividends anyway. Alternatively they could pay a dividend in shares (a “scrip” dividend), or offer to buy back shares occasionally via a tender offer or market share buy-backs– these would not be dividends and hence would be excluded.

Another problem with the scheme is that companies who had a few less than 250 employees could decide not to expand and hence become subject to this scheme, i.e. this would discourage companies from growing which is not what the Government wants. Alternatively they could create new separate companies owned by the same shareholders to expand their business and avoid it that way.

Apart from the 10% dilution that will hit not just direct investors but those investing via pension schemes, you can see that this scheme is not just daft because of its unintended consequences and likely avoidance, it’s an insidious way to raise taxes on companies and investors very substantially.

The only good aspect of the scheme is that it would help to give employees a stake (albeit indirect) and hence interest in the company they work for. It might also ensure some representation of their interests because the trust fund would be controlled by employees and could vote the shares. But there are much better ways to provide both those benefits.

In conclusion, the idea of an employee trust fund sounds attractive at first glance but it has not been properly thought through. A lot more consideration needs to be given to come up with a workable scheme that does not prejudice companies and their investors. Any foreign investor who saw such a scheme being imposed on his UK investment holdings would promptly run a mile – and don’t forget that most of the UK stock market is now owned by foreign investors. The impact on the Uk stock market, and the economic consequences of investors taking their businesses and investment money elsewhere beggars belief.

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

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Labour’s Plans For Confiscation of Shares and Rail System Renationalisation

Jeremy Corbyn made it clear in a speech last night that the rich will be under attack if Labour gets into power. John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, will present his plans today to give 10% of shares in all larger companies to employees over a period of years. The Daily Telegraph described it as a Marxist plot to control businesses while Carolyn Fairburn of the CBI attacked it as a “new tax that adds to the impression that Labour sees business as a bottomless pit of funding”. The proposal seems to be based on setting up a trust for employees into which the shares would be deposited and from where dividends would be paid to employees.

Comment: It will certainly dilute existing shareholders so readers of this blog might find they and the pension funds that invest in shares are proportionally poorer. Although it sets a bad principle, if the numbers being proposed are enacted it might not have a major impact on companies or investors. Enabling employees to have a financial interest in the profits of a company is quite a sensible idea in many ways. But it might simply encourage companies to take their business elsewhere. If they are registered in another country, how will the UK Government enforce such legislation?

Last week Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced a review of the privatised rail system. That follows the recent problems with new timetables where the regulator concluded that “nobody took charge”. John McDonnell said that he could renationalise the railways within five years if Labour wins the next election – it’s already a manifesto commitment. Perhaps he thinks he can solve the railway’s problems by doing so but this writer suggests the problem is technology rather than management, although cost also comes into the equation.

The basic problem is that the railways are built on inflexible and expensive old technology. There has never been a “timetable” problem on the roads because there are no fixed timetables – folks just do their own thing and travel when they want to do so.

Consider the rail signalling system – an enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure trains don’t run into each other and to give signals to train drivers. We do of course have a similar system at junctions on roads – they are called traffic lights. But they operate automatically and are relatively cheap. Most are not even linked in a network as train signals are required to be.

Trains run on tracks so they are extremely vulnerable to breakdowns of trains and damage to tracks – even snow, ice or leaves on the line cause disruption – who ever heard of road vehicles being delayed by leaves? A minor problem on a train track, often to signals, can quickly cause the whole line or network to come to a halt. Failing traffic signals on roads typically cause only slight delays and vehicles can drive around any broken-down cars or lorries.

The cost of changes to a rail line are simply enormous, and the cost of building them also. For example, the latest estimate for HS2 – the line from London to Birmingham is more than £80 billion. The original M1 was completed in 1999 at a cost of £26 million. Even allowing for inflation, and some widening and upgrading since then the total cost is probably less than £1 billion.

Changes to railway lines can be enormously expensive. For example, the cost of rebuilding London Bridge station to accommodate more trains was about £1 billion. These astronomic figures simply do not arise when motorways are revised or new service stations constructed.

Why invest more in a railway network when roads are cheaper to build and maintain, and a lot more flexible in use? At present the railways have to be massively subsidised by the Government out of taxation – about £4 billion per annum according to Wikipedia, or about 7.5p per mile of every train journey you take according to the BBC. Meanwhile road transport more than pays for itself and contributes billions to general taxation in addition from taxes on vehicle users.

So here’s a suggestion: scrap using this old technology for transport and invest more in roads. Let the railways shrink in size to where they are justifiable, or let them disappear as trams did for similar reasons – inflexible and expensive in comparison with buses.

No need to renationalise them at great expense. Spend the money instead on building a decent road network which is certainly not what we have at present.

Do you think that railways are more environmentally friendly? Electric trains may be but with electric road vehicles now becoming commonplace, that justification will no longer apply in a few years’ time, if not already.

Just like some people love old transport modes – just think canals and steam trains – the attachment to old technology in transport is simply irrational as well as being very expensive. Road vehicles take you from door-to-door at lower cost, with no “changing trains” or waiting for the next one to arrive. No disruption caused by striking guards or drivers as London commuters have seen so frequently.

In summary building and managing a road network is cheaper and simpler. It just needs a change of mindset to see the advantages of road over rail. But John McDonnell wants to take us back to 1948 when the railways were last nationalised. Better to invest in the roads than the railways.

It has been suggested that John McDonnell is a Marxist but at times he has denied it. Those not aware of the impact of Marxism on political thought would do well to read a book I recently perused which covered the impact of the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1919. In Tashkent they nationalised all pianos as owning a piano was considered “bourgeois”. They were confiscated and given to schools. One man who had his piano nationalised lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to goal and then shot (from the book Mission to Tashkent by Col. F.M. Bailey).

Sometimes history can be very revealing. The same mentality that wishes to spend money on public transport such as railways as opposed to private transport systems, or renationalising the utility companies such as National Grid which is also on the agenda, shows the same defects.

The above might be controversial, but I have not even mentioned Brexit yet. Will the Labour Party support another referendum as some hope and Corbyn is still hedging his bets over? I hope not because I think the electorate is mightily fed up with the subject. In politics, as in business, you should take decisions and then move on. Going back and refighting old battles is not the way to succeed. All we should be debating is the form of Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit.

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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Book Review: Debtonator by Andrew McNally

Now here’s a book well worth reading on your summer holidays. It’s called Debtonator by Andrew McNally. Indeed if you are taking a long-haul flight to your holiday destination, you might be able to read it in one sitting. Like all good books it is short at only 98 pages excluding notes and index, and the format is small as well. But there is an enormous amount of information embodied in there.

It covers the problems caused by excessive debt in the modern world. The author explains how the balance of company finance has moved from equity to debt which has had many negative effects. He links the rise in income inequality, a major social concern in leading economies, to the excessive use of debt and the discouragement of investment in equities by Governments and pension regulators. The housing market is another example of the distortion created by too much debt at very low cost, engineered by Government and central banks.

The author suggests we need to move to an equity financed, rather than a debt financed economy and proposes how that could be achieved. Reform of the tax system is one aspect of achieving that.

He is also scathing about the current costs of equity investment for retail investors due to high “intermediation” with too many people taking a cut of the real investment returns before they arrive in the hands of the beneficial owners. That’s despite his apparent long career in the investment industry.

The book is a very good summary of what is wrong with the modern financial system. But it also gives the reader some tips on how to become one of the wealthy few rather than the impecunious many. You need to take a direct stake in the real economy where companies are generating real returns, and minimize the costs imposed by advisors, brokers, platform operators and all the other gougers who erode the returns.

In summary one of the best books I have read lately on the defects in the modern financial world. A little gem of erudite analysis.

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

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Savings Income Tax Review

In addition to the review of Inheritance Tax previously covered, the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) are also undertaking a review of ways to simplify the taxation of income from interest on savings and dividends. Although 95% of the population pay no tax on such income as they have relatively little, the complexities of calculating the tax due on those with higher levels are mind boggling. Here’s a couple of quotations from the OTS Report (see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/simplifying-the-taxation-of-savings-income ) which explain why:

“Many of the issues have arisen because of a series of changes, each working well enough taken by itself but which together create significant complexity that is not easily resolved”; and:

“The starting rate for savings (SRS), personal savings allowance (PSA), dividend allowance and other allowances and features of the tax system mean that most people pay no tax on their savings, but the interactions between the rates and allowances is sufficiently complex at the margins that HMRC’s self-assessment computer software has sometimes failed to get it right. It is proving to be very difficult to create an algorithm that calculates the tax correctly in all circumstances and HMRC does not expect to bring the complete calculation online until 2018-19.”

For those with complex tax affairs, or significant levels of dividend income who are probably some of the readers of this blog, this is not a trivial problem. Even my large firm of accountants who do my personal tax returns seem to be having problems with the software they use of late. I would certainly hate to try and do my own tax returns now.

One of the past simplifications which has been very damaging to stock market investors was the introduction of a “dividend allowance” of £2,000 to replace the dividend tax credit system. Although investors can put money into an ISA where dividends are not taxed (and could be paid out), there are severe limits on the amounts that can be invested in an ISA. That limit is £20,000 in the current tax year but has been much lower in the past and may get reduced again. For those shareholdings not in an ISA or SIPP, the removal of the dividend tax credit system means that the Government is collecting tax twice on the same company profits. Once when corporation tax is paid by the company and again when dividends are paid to investors out of those profits. This is surely iniquitous even with the current relatively low level of corporation tax. This change was allegedly made to prevent small incorporated businesses from avoiding income tax by paying profits out via dividends instead of via salaries subject to PAYE, but there were other simple rule changes that could have prevented that.

What does the OTS propose to do to simplify the calculation of savings tax? They wish to introduce a “personal tax roadmap” incorporating a plan for consolidation of the savings income tax rates and allowance. Also they wish to improve guidance because it is clear that people have difficulty in understanding the existing system. More flexibility in ISAs might also be considered to allow partial transfers of money and simplify the rules.

One specific threat in the document is this: “A more radical option would be to end the differential tax rates for dividend income. If all taxable income was taxed at the same rates, it would not matter how the personal allowance was used. Making this change would have the effect of increasing the amount of tax due from those who receive amounts of dividend income above the allowance. It would also impact on the taxation of profit extracted as a salary or as a dividend, from family owned companies.”

Investors receiving substantial dividends directly have already suffered a major tax increase from the removal of the tax credit system (the £2,000 tax free allowance is trivial in comparison with the income likely receivable by a portfolio large enough to fund a retirement for example). The new suggestion that dividends should be taxed the same as earned income would be another damaging imposition (the former are currently taxed at somewhat lower rates, although Trust rates are higher – another anomaly that is difficult to explain).

You can send your own comments to the OTS via email to: ots@ots.gsi.gov.uk .

As I said in the Inheritance Tax Review you might suggest to them that the present arrangements seem to generate work for tax accountants while baffling the general public. Like IHT, income tax is certainly a tax that requires simplification. A more fundamental review is surely required. However it’s worth bearing in mind that individuals have often planned their financial affairs based on existing tax rules. Abrupt changes to tax rules and allowance should be avoided, but that’s all we have had for the past few years, driven by political imperatives. The result has been the unintended consequence of a very complex tax system that few people understand and which makes tax calculations only possible by experts.

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

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