December 14—Chief Investment Officer Tony Roth and Harvard Law Professor Robert Sitkoff discuss ESG (environmental, social, governance) investing principles and how trustees may—or must—incorporate them into portfolios. Then, Portfolio Manager Steven Norcini weighs in on our ESG strategy.
Robert Sitkoff, John L. Gray Professor of Law at Harvard University
Please listen to important disclosures at the end of the podcast.
Wilmington WealthWise with Tony Roth
Episode 26: Capital Markets Forecast 2021ESG Investing Strategies-Are they right for your portfolio?
Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc.
Robert Sitkoff, John L. Gray Professor of Law at Harvard University
Steve Norcini, Senior Portfolio Manager, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc.
Tony Roth: Welcome to our 2021 capital markets forecast special series of Wilmington WealthWise, the podcast dedicated to making podcast economic and investment concepts accessible to everyone. I’m your host, Tony Roth, chief investment officer of Wilmington Trust.
Today, we’re exploring ESG investing strategies, which incorporate environmental, social, and governance principles. We’ve highlighted ESG as an important way to navigate the new market, one of the key themes from our 2021 Capital Markets Forecast. My first guest today is Harvard Law School professor, Robert Sitkoff, an expert on wills, trusts, states, and fiduciary principles including fiduciary investment. Professor Sitkoff previously taught at New York University School of Law and at Northwestern University School of Law before joining Harvard Law School as the youngest tenured professor to hold a chair in the history of the school. I also want to welcome Steve Norcini, portfolio manager on our ESG equity strategy who will be talking to later in the podcast. Professor Sitkoff and Steve, to both of you, thank you for being here today.
Robert Sitkoff: Well, thank you for having me, happy to answer to Rob.
Tony Roth: Thank Before we jump in, I do want to remind our listeners that Wilmington WealthWise is not partisan and takes no political position one way or the other. With that, let’s jump in. Professor Sitkoff, we’ll start with you. ESG investing has been front and center recently in conversations about trends and investment management, but the broader term of socially conscious investing, and the term SRI, which stands for socially responsible investing, has been with us for quite some time. I thought perhaps with this mix of acronyms it may be smart to start with a bit of an overview on the idea of socially responsible investing and how we’ve gotten to where we are today.
Robert Sitkoff: So, the issue is that ESG investing, that phrase resists a precise definition. Roughly speaking, we use it today to mean any investment strategy that emphasizes the governance structure, the firm, or the environmental and social impacts of the firm’s products and practices. But it finds its roots, as you said, in SRI, the socially responsible investment movement, that really gained a lot of salience or prominence in the 1980s as part of a divestment campaign aimed at South Africa’s apartheid regime. So, the idea, the basic concept has a lot of labels: ethical investing, economically targeted investments, sustainable or responsible investing, impact investing. Today, it’s largely under the rubric of ESG, which reflects a kind of modernization and refocus of the topic.
Tony Roth: And one of the ways that I’ve thought about it—tell me if you think I have it right—is that socially responsible investing has always been what I would describe perhaps as an exclusionary approach to investing. In other words, don’t invest in firearms manufacturers. Don’t invest in tobacco companies. Don’t invest in companies that pollute the world through hydrocarbons. Whereas ESG, on the other hand, are—denotes an investing approach that’s inclusive, that tries to identify companies that engage in positive behaviors rather than just ones that have negative characteristics.
Robert Sitkoff: I think what I hear you suggesting is a distinction between methods that ESG is a different set of methods, and I would add to that motives also, and let me explain what I mean. So SRI, in the ‘70s with the Vietnam War and in the ‘80s into the South African apartheid, the motive for SRI was this idea of influencing behavior by using our investment program to change the behavior of others for positive social good. As SRI morphed into ESG, there became a greater emphasis on ESG as investment factors on their own right, in other words, use of ESG factors to improve risk-adjusted returns. So, there are some folks who argue you can use ESG factors to improve returns through exclusionary approaches, but more commonly today we see ESG implemented through inclusionary or for targeted, what securities to pursue, or through active shareholding kind of engagement with management. So, I guess my kind of punch line on that would be that it’s both the motives and methods evolution in the principle.
Tony Roth: So now you’ve brought in a topic that gets us very close to what I think of as the central problematic of the whole ESG universe, you’ve talked about motives so let me follow that line of thought, Rob, which is that in my experience when our clients think about investing in an ESG manner, their initial motive is not actually that they want to do well by an investment standard or metric but rather that they’re worried about the world and they want to do good. They want to invest in companies that, in some value-based sense, are going to do good for the world.
And then that puts us as an investment shop a bit on our heels because we have to then ask ourselves, our responsibility to this investor is to advise them so that they can maximize the risk-adjusted returns so they can do well as an investor, not necessarily do good. And the central question is can doing good in the world be tantamount to doing well? You’re an expert on fiduciary law, and fiduciaries have to always think about their beneficiary in doing well. So, you’ve written copiously on this. You have a very important article that you wrote in the Stanford Law Review. Could you take what I’ve laid out and take it where you’d like to go with it in the sense of framing for us how you think about this question around what the approach should be in thinking about doing well and doing good with these kinds of ESG investments?
Robert Sitkoff: Well, sure. It’s always dangerous to ask a professor an open-ended question and say take this where you want, so let me say a couple of quick things, and then we can see where you’d like to go from there. So, there are really two pieces I think to what you’re asking here. One is about this idea of doing well while doing good. Can I have improved risk-adjusted returns while also doing good for the world? And then you layer over that the fiduciary frame, which is the scholarly work that I’ve done. The article you referenced is to what extent can a fiduciary, can a trustee engage in ESG investing given the background fiduciary law of pushes towards a focus on risk-adjusted returns.
So, there’s today a debate about the extent to which fiduciaries can engage in ESG investing. There are some folks who argue that ESG investing is prohibited for trustees and other fiduciaries because trustees and other fiduciaries have a fiduciary duty of loyalty. They have to act in the sole and exclusive interest of their beneficiaries, and that means thinking about what’s good for the beneficiaries without regard for collateral benefits to the world or otherwise. There are other folks though who argue that ESG investing is a good kind of investment program that will yield improved risk-adjusted returns. And since a fiduciary is a duty of prudence, to act prudently, to pursue returns, these folks argue that fiduciaries always have to use ESG investing, and it will be illegal not to use ESG. The thesis of the article you mentioned is that they’re all wrong, that the short answer is maybe.
If your motive, if the reason you’re using ESG investing is to pursue risk-adjusted returns, then ESG investing is just like any other kind of active investing strategy. If, as a fiduciary, you have a reasonable basis for thinking that this is a sound investment program and you document it, you periodically review, then you can use this like any other form of active investing. On the other hand, if your motive is to provide collateral third event-party benefits, well, just like you couldn’t take your fiduciary funds and just hand it to some third party, you can’t invest it for the benefit of a third party. So, the it-depends is a both – a motive test, you acting for the beneficiaries, and then a prudence test. Is this a prudent particular mode of investment that you’ve chosen?
Tony Roth: And so, I say this somewhat tongue and cheek but maybe not entirely, when you think about what’s good for the beneficiary, can you take into account the health of their conscience?
Robert Sitkoff: Yeah, that’s a great question. This often comes up. If I have to act exclusively for my beneficiaries and the way I improve my beneficiaries’ welfare is by some other third-party benefit, can I do that? And so, I think the answer there varies by fiduciary relationship, and so let me do a one-minute little sideline on fiduciary. We all say fiduciary, but fiduciary is a big word that means a lot of different things in different contexts, so what do I mean by that? So, we’re talking about pension plans, for example, pension retirement accounts. That’s governed by federal law, ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Federal law, that statute as interpreted by the Supreme Court, has a really strict duty of loyalty, meaning you must act for the exclusive benefit of the beneficiaries and for their financial interests.
The court has rejected looking at anything other than their financial returns, and there’s a public policy there that, until you reach retirement age, that money is there to be grown for consumption in the future. But what about a private trust? I create a trust for my kids. Well, there’s a little more flexibility in a personal trust in defining what is the purpose of the trust? What is the objective of the trust? There would be a little bit more leeway there, and this would be distinct from, say, a charity. If I create a charity that’s for the benefit of the environment, then I can use my investments as an alternative to distributions and really consider third-party benefits because that’s the purpose of the fiduciary account, the fiduciary relationship. It is to benefit the third-party purposes of the charity.
Tony Roth: This is an unfair question because you’re not the investment specialist on the line. But you spend a lot of time in this space, so I’m going to ask you anyway, and you can feel free to decline to answer, but the question is, empirically, when you observe the ESG space, from your perspective, have you found that these ESG criteria or factors, if you will, can be reliably used by good money managers to help increase their risk-adjusted returns, or do you not really have a point of view on that question?
Robert Sitkoff: I do, and we took a position of this in the article, and it—there are really two pieces to the answer. So, the first is that, as a theoretical matter, there’s good theory that would connect E, S, and G factors to firm value, and there’s also some theory for why you could use that relationship to—investment strategies for profit. What is complicated is empirical investigation of whether or not this bears out over time. in part because of the fluidity of what do we mean by ESG, so let me give you an example. Within any one factor, take environmental, how do you score nuclear energy? It’s pretty clean compared to carbon, but you could have a catastrophic kind of a meltdown. And then when do you do with a nuclear power company that has great governance and has really strong social factors or a fossil fuel company that’s maybe poor on environmental but strong social or governance?
Where I’m going with this is that there’s a lot of subjectivity in both identifying E, S, and G factors, determining which way they point, and then weighing those factors across a company, which provides a real challenge for empirical scrutiny because you could have two investment strategies that are completely opposite and yet both could qualify as ESG and have opposite kinds of returns. Our punch line in the paper was that there is some evidence that in certain instances ESG factors can produce risk-adjusted returns, but in a fiduciary space we would always take that back down to show me your investment strategy as trustee and your documented reasoned analysis behind it.
Tony Roth: One of the things that you’ve said that I find to be really fascinating is this idea that two people can look at the same investment and have very diametric conclusions as to whether that particular investment is a strong or a weak ESG investment. And we see today as investors, in many cases, people will take a position in a company, and then they’ll become active. What role does that play, that active shareholding in your mind in the ESG space, and is it something that investors should be focused on in evaluating whether or not a company would be a good ESG investment?
Robert Sitkoff: It’s a good question. So, one of the challenges in evaluating ESG strategies is that there are so many different ways to take these factors and deploy them in investment programs. So you identify, for example, maybe I find a firm that’s got really poor ESG scores, invest in that firm, and then engage with management through proxy voting or by direct engagement in order to encourage the firm to adopt more positive ESG approaches if I think that’s going to improve firm value. That’s a strong form of the active approach. I would say, and I think this is not uniquely due to us, there’s a lot of sense out there that active shareholding is the future of ESG investing instead of using ESG factors to pick and choose securities. Picking and choosing securities is hard. Markets are relatively efficient. It’s hard to make money in the long run by looking for misevaluations.
But active shareholding doesn’t require a misevaluation. You can have a firm that’s—for which the pricing in the market is exactly right because it has poor governance or poor E or poor S, but through active engagement with the firm, improve firm value, or by the same token you have a high ESG firm and have active engagement to protect that value through ESG active shareholding, and I’ll just wrap that up by saying I think there’s your explanation for why we see passive index fund managers talking ESG also. The ESG talk in passive investors is, particularly if you have to hold the whole market, is what you can do to protect your value is engage with management to hold up and improve firm value.
Tony Roth: How ubiquitous is that today in your assessment of the industry? Is that something that’s more on the margin, or do you see it happening with most Fortune 500 companies pretty broadly in a way that management is actually responsive to that kind of engagement?
Robert Sitkoff: Well, on one side, on the investor side, it’s a really big deal. I mean first you’d be hard pressed to find a mutual fund that doesn’t have G factor in its proxy voting guidelines. So, if you take G seriously as part of ESG, every mutual fund is an ESG fund because it considers firm governance as part of proxy engagement. But the big funds, Vanguard and BlackRock and the like, if you look at their proxy voting and engagement guidelines, they’ve got E, S, and G in there, and that’s a lot of money, and those are market index funds. So that’s a lot of money touching every company with guidelines for engagement. Now, how good any—those firms are at doing it and how seriously they take it that’s a harder question.
On the other end of it you’re asking about management of the company. You would imagine that’s going to vary from firm to firm and whether—and also how much of this responsiveness is real versus green-washing and kind of talk is cheap. But it certainly seems like the—if you take money movement and reactions in the market as a revealed preference, it’s a big deal. It’s a lot of activity now on the engagement side with ESG factors.
Tony Roth: So, Rob, thank you for that. I have described ESG for many years to clients and even my colleagues at the company as this wave that’s been crossing the ocean. Crisscrossing the ocean is probably a better way to say it and waiting for it to hit the shore. And 2020 I can honestly say is the year that that wave really hit the shore, I wonder whether or not the tide will go back out or whether it’s going to stay with us for a long time. I feel like you’re going to say the answer is, well, Tony, that will just depend on whether ESG criteria proves successful in helping investors maximize risk-adjusted return. How would you answer that question? What are your expectations for ESG as we move forward?
Robert Sitkoff: It’s certainly the trend that is here. What makes this really hard is though that, first of all, E, S, and G is a weird pairing to have governance along with environmental and social. And second, it’s just really hard to know that when you say ESG and when I say ESG we’re talking about the same thing. And so, because it’s such a—the concept is so fluid and so capacious and covers so many items so much, I think it’s here for a while. Let me just give you an anecdote on this. So, the example I like is Tesla. There’s—FTSE ranks Tesla last in the auto industry, lower even than Exxon. MSCI ranks Tesla as the top. So you have two different rating agencies looking at the same company giving one a really high and one a really low, so I’m kind of resisting the question in the sense that ESG is here, but ESG is kind of like beauty in the eye of the beholder how you score these things because of the subjectivity in what qualifies as a factor and which way the factor points in a given case.
Tony Roth: Very interesting. So, let me bring Steve into the conversation. Steve, you’re a portfolio manager, and I know you have a passion for ESG, and I know that you feel that these ESG criteria can, in fact, be quite important in identifying companies that are likely to succeed. One of the ideas that, in thinking about the enterprise and the company I know you’ve thought a lot about recently, is—and it’s sort of a dimension that runs perhaps parallel to ESG—is the idea of stakeholder capitalism versus shareholder capitalism. I learned in law school a long time ago that when a company is created, essentially, it’s created for a single purpose.
It’s created for the benefit of the stockholder, to make money for the stockholder. But this idea of stakeholder capitalism is a new concept that brings in additional constituents. Take us through what that transition is and what is meant.
Steve Norcini: So, shareholder capitalism or the focus purely on the shareholder in maximizing their returns is something that’s been with us for quite a while, sort of made famous in the early 1970s by Milton Friedman with his famous New York Times article. The purpose of the corporation is to make money for the shareholder. We ran that experiment for about 40 or 50 years to present day, and what we’ve seen is some structural flaws in that model. The shareholders have different incentives and different payoffs relative to other stakeholders and certainly society at large. Just as an example, shareholders can diversify their risk. They have limited liability. They can only lose their initial capital investment, and they oftentimes have shorter time horizons than what you might think.
This is opposed to broader society-at-large and certainly the company’s employees, the communities in which they operate in, their suppliers. These stakeholders have unlimited liability. They can’t sell their position. They cannot diversify away their risk, so they have much more skin in the game. And what stakeholder capitalism attempts to do is by incorporating the interests of those stakeholders you’re essentially extending your investment time horizon or the time horizon of the company. And when you do that, you’re certainly improving the outcomes for stakeholders, but the argument is for stakeholder capitalism is that it’s actually also better for shareholders as well over the long term.
And you can look at a number of different companies that have openly practiced this. M&T Bank certainly comes to mind where the financial returns for shareholders also benefit from this approach, and the main key here being that long-term time horizon, and it’s a word I’ll introduce here which is sustainability. That’s something we talk about quite a bit.
Tony Roth: So again, the idea being that instead of just worrying about the shareholder, you’re worried about the employee. You’re worried about the client. You’re worried about the community, and all that comes together to a longer perspective on adding value and adding value to a broader set of constituents. So how does that relate to ESG, and how does ESG come into the picture?
Steve Norcini: So, I’ll just explain our view of ESG and how this fits in. So that presents a pretty big problem for management teams, right? How do you balance all these competing interests of the employees, the shareholders, the community-at-large? How do you do that? And what we’ve found is ESG principles and ESG criteria can provide a fairly robust roadmap for these management teams, for these companies to pursue basically the benefits of all stakeholders. Now, whether it’s E, which is the environmental impact of course of the companies, but also the S, so that’s where you’re explicitly accounting for the impact on employees or your suppliers or even your competitors to be totally honest, certainly regulators.
And then corporate governance is, of course, the rules and processes in place for the company to execute successfully on this plan. So ESG is sort a new tool in the toolbox for companies to pursue the competing interests of all stakeholders with the end goal in mind and just to bring this back to Professor Sitkoff’s point of maximizing firm value over the long term, and again, this term of sustainability you’ll hear a lot. That is, the value of the company is really the sum of its future cash flows, and if the company is not going to be around for a long time, it’s a permanently impaired asset. So that’s how we view ESG and how this sort of all ties together.
Tony Roth: And Steve, what percentage of firms in the Fortune 500, let’s say, are doing this? And I ask that question with an eye to wondering at what point does this become so prevalent that it ceases to be a useful distinction among companies because they all purport to be doing it?
Steve Norcini: I’m of the view that five years, ten years from now we’re all going to be ESG investors because it’s in all of our interest to continue to operate a more sustainable model. To answer your question specifically, I would think almost all S&P 500 companies now have some type of sustainability/corporate responsibility/ESG effort underway. Essentially once you’ve reached a certain size in investors, certainly it started in Europe, but even in the United States now, investors are starting to demand this.
Tony Roth: So, let’s talk about performance, Steve. I’ve highlighted a lot through the conversation with Rob the doing good versus doing well. What we found actually is that the ESG strategies have done really well recently. Is that just to acquit the basic concept that ESG are, in fact, criteria that promote long-term firm value, or is there something else going on here?
Steve Norcini: So, we definitely view ESG as another form of quality just like balance sheet leverage or stability of earning stream, how robust your employee base is, your environmental footprint, your relationship with your suppliers, basically your relationship with all your stakeholders. These companies we believe are much more resilient to some of the shocks that we’ve experienced over the last few years. So, in the case of the pandemic, you did see high-quality ESG companies outperform. Did they outperform purely because of ESG factors? We’ll never know, but certainly as more time rolls by and these strategies do well, it at least challenges the notion, which is what we run into a lot, which is ESG is automatically going to have harm returns.
Tony Roth: And one of the questions that I ask myself is when one scores companies from an ESG lens, certainly there is a rank order within the S&P 500 let’s say, and it’s very popular, so a lot of money is chasing and trying to get into the ESG investing space. So, the price at which a security clears in the market is a function of supply and demand. Because there’s a lot of demand now for these securities, you have sort of a transition period where ESG is hitting the wave, the wave is hitting the shore, and that’s causing a lot of upward pressure from a demand standpoint and then therefore on the prices of these securities. But eventually you’ll reach an equilibrium where you won’t have that tail wind anymore. Is that going on here?
Steve Norcini: So, I don’t think so for a number of different reasons. First is, as Professor Sitkoff pointed out, ESG is sort of in the eye of the beholder. You can have one company that scores very well, another company that doesn’t score so well. So, I definitely don’t think there’s a uniform application of ESG principles that would actually impact asset prices.
I think much more likely is the market is recognizing the durability of some of these ESG qualities as well as the opportunities, as well. So, during the selloff, coming out of the selloff in March, companies that had this growth path, just to pick environmental. So, if you’re a utility company transitioning off of your coal plants into alternative energy and lower carbon-intensity natural gas, that’s actually a pretty attractive going-forward business model for that company, so that company has done well. These future prospects looking brighter than happen to fall into ESG sort of packaging, I think that’s what the market is responding to. These are forward-looking companies, more robust, higher quality, and they’re being granted a higher premium in the stock market.
Tony Roth: And last question for you, Steve, and then I have one final question for Rob. When you think about the current opportunity set, is there an area that you think is most interesting, potentially remunerative if you will for investors right now when you look over a 6- or 12-month horizon within ESG. What is it that you’re most tickled by right now as a portfolio manager?
Steve Norcini: So, I will give you the trade, and I will say this isn’t a six months or a year-long outlook. This is certainly a 20- to 40-year outlook, and it has to do with de-carbonization. So, it’s something in kind of half tongue and cheek refer to as the next great decoupling. So, since the industrial revolution, our economic growth has been tied to burning fossil fuels with the advent of the internal combustion engine. Going forward, that close relationship between economic growth and fossil fuels is not going to be sustainable. So, we’re going to have to decouple economic growth from our carbon emissions.
The companies that are working to help us do that, whether it’s that utility company example I explained or maybe it’s a software company that’s helping firms get more efficient in their supply chain. It could be an industrial company that’s increasing the energy efficiency of our existing engines and fleets, these types of trades. And it’s all over the market. You can find opportunities like this in every single sector in the S&P 500, and we like to think our ESG strategy and other ESG strategies, in general, will be pursuing these companies as where the best sort of long-term risk-adjusted returns are going to come from.
Tony Roth: Okay, great. Thank you so much, and Rob, I realized as I was listening to yourself and to Steve today that there’s another term that we often use within this space that we haven’t talked about, and I feel we would be somewhat remiss to have not introduced it in the conversation in some way, which is impact investing. And I think of impact investing as much like ESG. Maybe it’s even the same thing. Maybe they’re substitutes for one another, but impact investing for me often involves some form of private investing or writing a check as opposed to buying a share of stock, and I’m wondering if impact investing, where it fits in your mind in this universe. Are there any distinctions around impact investing that would be helpful for us to be thinking about?
Robert Sitkoff: So, what’s neat about that question is it kind of brings us full circle to the start of the podcast with thinking about what is ESG investing, and where did it come from. I mean these are all labels that are imprecise and inexact because they evolve over time, and different people use them in different ways. So, you described what, for you, impact investing evokes. If you ask other folks in the industry, for some they’ll say impact investing, that’s just socially responsible investing and SRI, or they might say impact investing, that’s what ESG is and so on. If we were operating on a clean slate, we would come up with clear terms for all these different ideas. In other words, we would have one term, maybe ESG investing for use of ESG factors for risk-adjusted returns, and then we would say impact investing or SRI or something when our motive is these third-party benefits and the like.
So it’s not really ducking the question as much as what I’m trying to say is that ESG has become today the umbrella term for all of these concepts for use of these factors either to pursue risk-adjusted returns or because of the beneficial effects they have, macro or micro, and that a lot of the reason why we have to have these kind of conversations, the reason it’s got confusion among investors and others and interests by regulators is that these concepts—the vocabulary is not settled, and what people mean, what they’re doing by these words is not at all consistent.
Tony Roth: That’s very helpful. Thank you. What I would like to do, as I always do, is summarize our three key takeaways from our conversation. And the first I would say is that ESG investing, when applied in the right way, is entirely consistent—can be entirely consistent with fiduciary principles. And so an investor who has their fiduciary duty should not in any way shy away from looking at ESG just because it is potentially benefiting others beside the beneficiary as long as the ESG approach and criteria can be found to be central or integral to benefiting the core beneficiary.
The second takeaway is that we certainly are seeing empirical evidence that companies that score well from a conventional ESG scoring system, can outperform. We’ve seen it happen a lot in the last couple years, and there’s good reason, as Rob articulated for us, to think that these ESG characteristics of a company could in fact create firm value. And so, there’s theoretical underpinnings for the reality of doing good actually also resulting in doing well from an investing standpoint.
And then, lastly, we would say that looking forward there’s a lot of opportunity in ESG. ESG is probably going to continue to be more broadly used as an approach to investing rather than less so, and specifically one of the areas that we see the most opportunity is focusing on companies that are really understanding how they can set up their business and their enterprise to minimize their carbon footprint as the world inevitably, over the next number of decades, increasingly moves away from carbon emissions. So, with that, I want to thank Professor Sitkoff and Steve for your terrific insights and joining us today.
Steve Norcini: Thanks Tony.
Robert Sitkoff: Thanks for having me.
Tony Roth: It’s great to have you both, and I want to remind our listeners how important it is to have your portfolio and wealth plan stress tested to see how they stack up given the various risks that we will confront going forward whether it be inflation, hopefully not a recession for quite some time after we are still recovering from our last COVID-induced recession. But we spent a lot of time looking at portfolios on a customized basis and understanding how various shocks could impact portfolios, and we find that it really conduces to better outcomes for our clients. So, if that’s something of interest please reach out to your investment advisor, and don’t forget to check out wilmingtontrust.com/cmf to see our entire forecast for the 2021 calendar year. Thank you for joining today.
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