Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest

Merryn talks to Barry Norris of Argonaut capital about the parallels between now and the 1970s; the transition to “green” energy; and the one sector where “it’s going to be difficult not to make a lot of money”.

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Transcript

Merryn Somerset Webb: Hello and welcome to the MoneyWeek magazine podcast. I am Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of the magazine, and with me today I have Barry Norris, who we have heard from before. Barry is the founder of Argonaut in what, 2005, Barry?

Barry Norris: Correct.

Merryn: Yes, I remember you launching. He’s the CEO and the CIO of the company and the manager of the Argonaut Absolute Return Fund. Now, we are talking, Barry and I, on May 18th, which is the day on which we have learnt that UK’s CPI is running at 9% and RPI, which maybe some people feel reflects our experience more exactly, is running at over 11%. So, we are going to, I think, get into some of this over the next half an hour or so. Barry, thank you so much for joining us.

Barry: A pleasure.

Merryn: I have just been watching on YouTube a rather fabulous little video, not that little actually, video that you have made explaining what it is that happened in markets in the 1970s, why it happened, and how that is relevant to what is happening today.

Now, we’re hearing an awful lot of how this is the 1970s redux, how we’re going to have exactly the same experience this time round as we had that time round. I wonder if we could just start, if you could, because I think a lot of people say 1970s. They don’t really know what happened in the 1970s. Could you explain to us what is was that happened in the 1970s to produce the inflation that we saw and the volatility that we saw during the decade?

Barry: To explain what happened in the 70s, we have to go back to the 60s, which was a period of globalisation, low interest rates, high growth, economic expansion, which was deflationary. Then, that got to a stage where trade deficits, fiscal deficits in the US were causing a strain on particularly the US ability to meet redemptions of gold, redemptions of the dollar with gold payments, because gold was fixed at $35 an ounce.

So, in 1971 Nixon came off gold and that was the end of Bretton Woods which had fixed exchange ranges, brought financial stability, and that was really the start of this inflationary era that we saw from the early 70s which eventually culminated in Reagan and Thatcher being elected and very high interest rates to finally kill inflation but very high interest rates. Also, with a supply side response in the form of, for example, North Sea oil or the US drilling for oil in Alaska.

And the whole decade, if you like, was one which saw high and persistent inflation and it saw terrible real returns for most asset classes including equities, but nominal returns were actually OK and actual nominal economic and nominal profit growth in the 70s was also OK.

Merryn: Can I interrupt you and take you back a little bit. I want to go back to coming off gold. I think to a lot of particularly younger people today it will sound unbelievably bizarre that currencies were ever in any way tied to the price of gold or backed by gold and when you just said that is when we came off gold, you sounded slightly disapproving. Was there another option at the time? There really wasn’t, was there?

Barry: Well, the problem was that the US had built up such big trade and fiscal deficits that it didn’t have enough gold to meet those redemptions from other holders of dollars worldwide, like foreign central banks.

Merryn: So, there was no option but to come off gold and that put us in a position where we, for the first time ever, had currencies around the world floating connected to absolutely nothing except for confidence.

Barry: Correct. So, the leading global power before 1971 had always fixed their fiat currency to gold or silver and only suspended that during times of war. So, this was the first time that the leading global power had resolved to have a permanent fiat currency and that had no historical parallel and that still exists today.

Merryn: Although, you could argue – off topic – you could argue that that’s what ended the Roman empire. I had a great guest a while back who was explaining that it really was lack of currency, integrity and effective fiat currency that brought the Roman Empire down.

Barry: Indeed.

Merryn: We can go back and listen to that one another time.

Barry: Ray Dalio has done some very interesting work on this as well where the end of empire, if you like, nearly always comes with currency debasement, although obviously that argument is slightly circular because the currency may be debasing because the empire can no longer afford to sustain its political power.

Merryn: So, at the beginning of the 70s, we effectively lost gold being at a fixed price, currencies being fixed and also the oil price effectively being fixed, yes?

Barry: Yes. So, in October 1973 we had the Yom Kippur War, where Egypt and Syria invaded Israel and as part of the political pressure on the West during that period Opec, which had taken over the supply and the pricing of oil because bizarrely before this time actually the oil price was fixed by the Western producers and you didn’t have such a sophisticated commodities market as you have today. You kind of had a monthly fix.

And Opec took over the price of oil and in 1973 they imposed this embargo on the West which, is if you like, the reverse. It was a producers’ embargo rather than the buyers’ embargo that the West has imposed on Russia today.

As a result of that, the price of oil rose dramatically and oil and gold over the decade would rise some 15 times in nominal terms, and if you think that the dollar devalued by around about 50% over the decade, oil and gold still rose 7.5 times over the decade in real terms.

So, effectively, the two most important global commodities, gold and oil, rose 15 times in nominal terms over the decade and during that decade commodities were really the only asset class which gave real returns.

Merryn: One of the key things about the 1970s is not just this sharp rise in inflation and this sharp rise in the prices of gold and oil it was, as you say, this nominal fluctuation in the stockmarket. So, we ended the decade, maybe a little under in nominal terms but that doesn’t reflect the action during the decade, right, whipsaw all over the place.

Barry: Absolutely. If you think, the pound in real terms fell by 70% over the decade, so £1 in 1970 was worth 30p by 1980 and $1 fell to 50 cents, so the dollar devalued by 50%. That’s just by taking the annual inflation rate and discounting it from the purchasing power of the currency at the start of the year.

If you compare that, for example, to the 30s, which saw deflation, the value of your fiat currency actually went up because it went further because of deflation and I think this is a really important thing for all investors to try to understand, that there is a big difference between a deflationary bust and an inflationary bust.

And if you think that most of the economy works in nominal terms, that people are interested in what they get paid, they’re interested in how much prices go up and profits are also nominal, you could have a real economic recession where the real economic growth declines but still have nominal growth, and this what you had in the 70s where, actually, you never had a year where you had nominal GDP fall.

And that’s very important because that means, by and large, there was not a huge unemployment problem, wages rose pretty much every year. So, actually, if you weren’t in the stockmarket the 70s was actually not so bad.

One of the reasons why I mentioned that is if you bought the market in the UK at the worst possible time in 1972 and then you bought the US market at the worst possible time in 1973 and then you bought the US market at the worst possible time in 1929, you actually would have had worse real returns in the UK from 1972 to 1982 than what you’d have had buying the US market in 1929-39 and similar returns on the US market in 1973-83.

Nominal returns from the Wall Street Crash to 1939 were much worse, but in real returns the experience was different. To kind of explain, when I was researching this I would look at what books had been written on the 1973-74 crash if it was actually the second great crash, which effectively it was for investors. There’s almost nothing and, yet, you go back to the 1929 Wall Street, thousands of books.

Therefore, the impact, if you like, on society and economies obviously was traumatic in the 30s because it was deflationary but in the 70s it wasn’t so traumatic for everybody in society, apart from the investor that was focused on real returns.

Merryn: That’s interesting. If we were to have a similar experience, it might actually have way more of an impact on economies because so many more people are exposed to the stockmarket, so the wealth effect could be very much more dramatic than it was in the 1970s. For example, in the 1970s only maybe 5% of the population had direct stockmarket exposure, whereas now some 80% of people who are employed in the UK have direct stockmarket exposure, whether they know they do or not, by the way. So, that could bring a difference.

Barry: Yes, absolutely. But, look, I think that even now explaining to people the difference between nominal and real is not that obvious to people. People are still measuring returns in nominal ways and, of course, the attractiveness of a high inflationary era versus a deflationary era for governments is tremendous because if you go for the monetary tightening that will extinguish inflation from the financial system, it will inevitably result in a deflationary bust and high unemployment and governments losing power.

If you pretend that you’re going to kill inflation but in fact don’t have the stomach to raise rates high enough to do that and, of course, in any case central banks can’t do anything about the supply side of the economy so, in many ways, a hard economic landing will be pretty futile.

If you pretend that but actually don’t go through with it then your chances of being elected because there is still full employment, there’s still wage rises and, in fact, on the stockmarket corporate profits don’t fall so corporates keep investing, they don’t cut back as dramatically.

This is way, actually, as Milton Friedman pointed out, inflation is like alcoholism in that it’s difficult to ween the inflationary economy away from monetary stimulus because it’s actually more enjoyable than the alternative, which is the deflationary bust. So, this is one of the reasons why inflation will be a lot more sticky than is commonly appreciated.

Merryn: Let’s go then to what’s happening right now and you are obviously seeing fairly serious parallels between the 1970s and now, so let’s talk about what those are.

Barry: One, you came off an era which was great for growth stocks, which there was a lot of investment in disruptive technology, where there was a lot of confidence in long duration assets. Then, that went into a very different macro environment with higher inflation, higher interest rates where in fact long duration assets or growth stocks in the equity market performed extraordinarily badly for the next decade.

I think your heroic growth investor in the 60s, frankly, was a disaster in the 70s and vice versa. And I think this, from an investment point of view, is one of the things to bear in mind, that there is a capital cycle and if you go for a decade where all of the capital in the public and private markets get allocated to disruptive tech, trying to find the next Amazon or the next something else, inevitably it gets taken away from what we term the old economy.

That means that you have a period where supply is very constrained in the old economy but it’s not in the new economy and therefore that competition in the new economy means that actually it’s very, very difficult to find the new Amazon because, in fact, it’s very competitive and most of those investments will fail.

Then, you contrast that with the old economy and you have a period where nobody has added any capacity. Nobody has built a new mine, nobody has built a new steel plant, nobody in the West has invested in fossil fuels. And you compound that by ESG and you compound that by deglobalisation, the fact that we’ve decided that we don’t want to buy Russian oil, gas and coal anymore and you have a period where commodity prices are going to stay very high for a very long period of time, and there will be a bull market in commodities and there will be a bear market in everything else.

Merryn: Interesting because, what are we, into this bear market six months or so and we’re already seeing people saying oil is going to peak and growth stocks are looking cheap. They’ve effectively compressed this cycle into a tiny amount of time and you’re already hearing people saying we’re practically at the end, coming out the other side, time to buy growth, sell your oil, going up a lot.

Barry: One of the reasons why I did the video is to say, look, don’t think that this is just a short-term blip. This is going to go on for nearly a decade and people that understand that now can do well. People who have got their heads in the sand and keep buying the growth stocks that did well over the previous decade are going to continue to average Dow and destroy capital.

Merryn: If you’re looking at that, as far as I can see is there is almost nothing to invest in at the moment. You could argue that over time some of the growth turns into value but, generally speaking, it’s oil stocks, mining stocks, strategic metals, etc.

Barry: Yes. I’m incredibly bullish about commodities. We did fantastically well in the previous commodity cycle.

Merryn: I remember.

Barry: 2000-2008. But I think this one is going to be even better because you didn’t have ESG constraining investment back then, you didn’t have the so-called energy transition which is going to be actually very commodity-intensive. Example, an electric car takes five times as much metals to produce than an internal combustion engine car and the fact that when all these electric cars have been built, when the wind turbines have been built, people think it’s a one-off cost.

They don’t really understand that wind turbines only last 10-20 years. They’ve got to be replaced. The electric cars have to be replaced. You’re going into a much more intensive economic environment for metals demand.

Merryn: Do you think that the transition is environmentally friendly?

Barry: No, absolutely not. We talked about electric cars. Let’s talk about wind power. It’s very easy for fund managers just to tick a box and say we’re environmentally friendly because we’re investing in wind turbines.

Wind turbines are incredibly metal-intensive to manufacture. They need to be replaced over 10-20 years. We’ve decided we don’t want them to be built on land, so we’re building them offshore where nobody can see them but, of course, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re destroying birdlife offshore.

Then, you get to the situation where we’ve also researched and documented where when wind gets to a certain share of power produced, adding incremental capacity adds no economic value.

Again, research is on our website that people don’t really understand the intermittency of wind power. Last year, for example, there were seven days when variable renewable energy, which in the UK is predominantly wind with a bit of solar, contributed more than 50% of grid power but there were also 16 days when it contributed less than 10%. So, that’s the scale of the intermittency problem.

Merryn: Isn’t that just a challenge to battery producers to produce better storage facilities?

Barry: That is a challenge to battery producers which they may not ever overcome. Let’s talk about the cost of storing power in batteries. At current battery prices, £1bn would buy you 11 minutes of battery storage for the whole UK grid.

Let’s suppose money was no object, because that’s quite fashionable nowadays. If we could exclusively source the world’s annual lithium production, that would be enough to store 312 gigawatts per hour and that’s the equivalent of the entire UK electricity demand for just eight hours.

So, actually battery storage of variable renewable energy is just a complete canard. It’s never going to work. That’s why even the people that are positive on alternative energy have turned to hydrogen as the latest fad to justify wind overbuild and, of course, this again is deeply flawed because if you think what would be the capacity utilisation of these hydrogen industrial electrolysers? They would only really work on those seven days a year where there was enough wind to have excess electricity production.

It’s incredibly energy intensive to transfer hydrogen from a gas back to a liquid. Hydrogen has got to be chilled at -253 Celsius and then, obviously, because it’s highly combustible and it’s difficult to store as a gas, you’ve got to keep it as a liquid and then, when you want to use it again, you’ve got to put it back into a gas.

Then, if you sum up the energy cost of doing all that then frankly it was better not to have bothered in the first place. So, all of this stuff is just trying to justify the overbuild of wind power in the UK and when I say overbuild, we’ve just got to understand here that wind capacity is not the constraining factor, weather is.

So, you could double, triple, quadruple wind capacity in the UK and you would have the same outcome as what you’ve got now, which is an abundance of cheap wind power when the wind blows, which can’t be stored, and an energy crisis when the wind doesn’t blow. In other words, adding more wind is utterly useless. It has no economic value.

If you’re an environmentalist, obviously you’re thinking no economic value but detrimental to the environment. So, even if you’re an environmentalist, you shouldn’t be advocating wind power. It’s already reached its optimal market share in the UK. We already had, during the days the wind blew last year, in the middle of a power crisis, two days when the power price in the UK was negative because the wind blew a lot.

Merryn: So, how do we manage a transition away from fossil fuels or do we not?

Barry: The UK has already halved its carbon emissions by replacing coal with gas and, of course, building some alternative energy.

Merryn: And by outsourcing most of our manufacturing to other countries.

Barry: Correct. And we’re just working out now that actually energy security is pretty important and you can’t outsource all of this stuff to people that are not politically reliable. And if we want to have any blue-collar jobs left in the UK, we’ve got to have cheap energy.

So, you’ve got to start drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea, you’ve got to do fracking on land in UK and actually fracking could be like the North Sea oil industry was to the UK in the early 80s where the pound actually went up because we started to be an exporter of oil, rather than an importer of oil.

I think this is the biggest opportunity for the UK economy at the moment, in that if we can access cheap gas, like they’ve got in the US, where Europe is doing its own thing in deindustrialising, you can have a lot of blue-collar jobs, you can have proper economic growth and actually it could very well save the UK economy.

But what’s the response of the UK government to the energy crisis? Let’s build more offshore wind. Let��s build nuclear power. Forget about building more offshore wind because it has got no economic value. Nuclear power, great but we’re using technology from the 60s and 70s. It’s expensive capital cost and, again, it’s only going to contribute in ten years’ time.

The problem is you can’t switch on and off a nuclear power station. You have to have something that switches on and off when the wind doesn’t blow to compensate for the unreliability of wind and that is gas. So, you will never replace gas as a contributor to the UK grid and if you try to replace gas it’s economic suicide.

So, I think, frankly, we’ve just got to say in the UK we’ve halved our carbon emissions and in the same time global carbon emissions have gone up threefold, predominantly because China and India carbon emissions have gone up tenfold.

Frankly, what does success look like for zero carbon? And the answer to that is success for zero carbon is effectively cutting our carbon emissions but we’ve got no way of measuring whether that has any impact on global climate and, of course, we won’t have any way of measuring that because the whole of the developing world doesn’t share our zeal for zero carbon.

So, it’s a little bit like a doctor measuring success by the amount of medicine he gives to the patient and the doctor can never actually work out whether the patient is responding, and inevitably when the patient doesn’t respond the doctor just gives more of the same medicine without questioning whether it was the right medicine in the first place.

Merryn: Let’s move back then to how we invest. Your fund can go both long and short, so what kind of stocks are you expecting to be shorting over the next couple of years?

Barry: The shorts are pretty well-diversified. I would say that the sort of environment that we’re in is going to be very similar to the 70s and the 1973-74 crash is the downside that we’ve got to look at, at the moment. So, it’s not going to be like 2008. It’s not going to be like 1929. It might be a little bit like 2000.

Effectively, I think that we’re not going to have a nominal recession. We are not going to really see a huge profits recession but you’ll get this big derating of the market. In 1973-74, the S&P fell 50% because the P/E ratio went from 18 to 9 in 18 months.

So, you want to have a low duration equity portfolio, stocks that are already cheap today and those are basically found largely in the commodities sector already. Commodities are going to be in a big bull market. You want to be long commodities.

There are two aspects of commodities I like the most. One is soft commodities. There is going to be a long cycle of high agricultural prices, partly as a result of what’s being going on in Russia/Ukraine but partly because inventories are very low, there hasn’t been enough investment and, of course, eating is non-discretionary.

So, these are stocks, people that make fertilisers, companies that trade agricultural commodities. In Brazil you can find some companies, big commercial farmers of both crops and meat.

Then, I think the best opportunity at the moment is just in oil services, fossil fuels. If you look and I was talking about at the moment investors are pretty obsessed with six-month mean reversion because they don’t understand why tech is doing so badly and they think that suddenly tech is about to take off again.

Oil services today, the index has more than doubled off its low but is still at the same price as in 2003, otherwise it has gone nowhere for 20 years. And we’re just at the time where the only ability that we have to ramp up oil and gas production at the moment, assuming the Saudis aren’t going to help, is in North America. Onshore in North America, shale oil and gas could be ramped up within six months.

But the biggest constraining factor, apart from ESG, is there are no rigs, no sand, no workers, no export infrastructure and this is just going to be the best place to invest over the next five to ten years. I suspect, if you just invest in the oil services index in the US, you’re going to make five to ten times your money over the next ten years.

Merryn: What is your top company holding in that space?

Barry: Well, to be honest, I’m pretty well-diversified in oil services simply because it’s going to be difficult not to make a lot of money. Just like it has been difficult not to make a lot of money investing in tech stocks over the last ten years, it’s going to be difficult not to make a lot of money investing in oil services over the next ten. So, I’m pretty well-diversified in that space because you simply don’t have to take the stock-specific risk to do well.

But, then, if you look all around the energy industry at the moment, that’s not the only opportunity. If we’re not going to import oil and gas from Russia to Europe by pipe, we’ve got to get it in by ship. So, it’s really good for tankers, for crude tankers but also product tankers because Russia actually exported quite a lot of refined product like diesel and jet oil. Actually, the refiners are making more money at the moment than the oil producers, so they’re another great place to be at the moment, oil refining.

There’s obviously issues about demand destruction and you’ve got that across the commodities complex. I fully accept that if Powell hiked interest rates to 10% tomorrow then commodity prices will fall, but my point would be, one, he’s not going to do that because there’s a pinch point where there’s so much pain in other parts of the economy that the hiking cycle will stop, just as it did in 1974-75.

Secondly, let’s suppose you have a hard landing in the economy. The central banks will then try and reflate and the bits of the market that will perform the most will be where the supply constraints are, which is not food delivery but it’s commodities.

So, I think what a lot of people aren’t getting at the moment is they’re thinking as soon as the market starts going up again because that nasty Mr Powell stops talking about hiking, tech will go up. I fundamentally disagree with that.

The leadership in the stockmarket has fundamentally changed from tech to commodities and therefore commodities will outperform whatever happens from a macro perspective because if there is more liquidity commodities will go up, if there’s less liquidity it will hit those areas where the most speculation has occurred and where there is most overcapacity.

Merryn: But would you short tech stocks now? You look at some of the big stocks that are 50%-plus off their peaks. Would look at those and go, well, maybe they’ll just be flat for would you actively say these are going to fall further?

BN I think they’ll steadily derate in the high inflationary environment. We’ve still got about a third of our short book in profitless tech because obviously if ratings come down in general, then if you’re not making a profit and you’re reliant on the equity market to fund your business and then you’re not growing those profitless sales as fast as you used to, then you’ve sadly got no chance.

A good example of this is Beyond Meat. We’ve been short Beyond Meat for nearly two years now. We must have made 70-80% and obviously as the share price goes down, when you’re short, you automatically take profits because it becomes a smaller position as a proportion of your overall portfolio.

But Beyond Meat actually has quite a lot of debt. Its sales aren’t growing anymore and it makes less than a 1% gross margin and it’s never made/generated any EBITDA. So, it’s burning cash on declining sales and a lot of debt.

What’s the low point in Beyond Meat? Obviously, other people have worked out how to make a vegan burger, so there’s no competitive moat. So, a lot of this profitless tech, the most speculative parts of the market, the stuff that has done the best is just going to zero. It may not go to zero in a straight line but it’s going to zero.

Another example of this, Rivian, which is a would-be truck manufacturer, post-IPO actually it had $100bn market cap, which was just crazy because it didn’t even make 24,000 trucks. It had an aspiration to make 24,000 trucks, and making 24,000 trucks this year, it will lose 4.5 billion of EBITDA.

What does that work in loss per truck? And it’s not as if EV manufacturing doesn’t have any competition. Everybody is trying to do it and they’re finding that, even if there was demand, there isn’t enough supply of commodities, of semiconductors to make these trucks. So, actually, unless governments decide to subsidise them, the price of an EV vehicle will be too high for most people to actually buy one of these. Then, if you actually want to play that you’re far better off buying a nickel miner trading at three times earnings with no debt and that’s the way that we’re playing this.

Merryn: I like the sound of the nickel trade, I’ve got to say. Barry, I think we have to end it there, but thank you so much. That was absolutely fascinating and I suspect MoneyWeek readers will all be rushing to buy units in your fund.

Barry: Can I just add one more thing, Merryn?

Merryn: Yes, you can. Absolutely.

Barry: Obviously, we had the interest rates and inflation data today in the UK where CPI was 9% and RPI was 11%. Since CPI was only invented in 1988, we have to go back and look at RPI in the 70s. Now, at the end of 1973, RPI was actually only 10.3%. This was after the Yom Kippur War had started in October we actually had lower inflation at the end of 1973 than we had today and interest rates at the end of 1973 were 13% compared to 1% today.

The reason why I mentioned that is it has become a myth for most investors today that inflation was out of control in the 70s because we didn’t have high enough interest rates. For most of the 70s we had positive real interest rates. Today, we’ve got negative 8% or 9% or 10% interest rates in the UK. They didn’t do quantitative easing in the 70s and they had no ESG in the 70s.

So, I think that’s quite important to hit home, that people say, oh, is there a danger of us going back to the 1970s? We are already in the 1970s. Inflation is higher today than what it was in 1973.

Merryn: Where do you think it will peak, Barry?

Barry: It depends on a lot of factors. I think the consensus in the market is obviously that we’ve already peaked in terms of inflation and it’s just a question of how quickly it falls and inevitably people think that we’re going to be back in a deflationary environment.

So, if I were to say to you it’s going to peak at 15% or 20% that’s a possibility but, frankly, to invest in my fund or to think about the need to have a hedge against a 70s redux, I don’t have to make that argument. I just have to say it’s going to stay over 5% for the entire decade.

Merryn: Fair enough. Can I finish the podcast? Have you got anything else you want to say?

Barry: I’ve got a lot but we can leave it for my record-breaking third appearance later on in the year.

Merryn: Brilliant. We’ll do that. There will be a third appearance. I’m pretty sure there will be because either you’re going to be very right or you’re going to be very wrong and, either way, we’re going to want to hear about it. I’ve a feeling you might be very right. Barry, thank you so much for joining us today. That is Barry Norris. Barry, what’s your website?

Barry: Argonautcapital.co.uk.

Merryn: OK. You can find various bits of research there and then you must go to YouTube and you must watch Barry’s video about the 1970s, which I will put a link to underneath this podcast. So, go and look there if you can’t see it.

Otherwise, if you want to hear more from MoneyWeek, you know where we are, MoneyWeek.com. You can go there to sign up for our daily newsletter written by the wonderful John Stepek, Money Morning. You can follow us on Twitter @MoneyWeek, also on Instagram. You can follow me on Twitter, @MerrynSW, and John, @John_Stepek. Thank you very much. Thank you, Barry. Talk to you again soon, and thank you everybody for listening.

Listen to Barry’s previous appearance on the MoneyWeek Podcast here:

• Barry Norris: investing for a post-pandemic world

Watch Barry’s video on the 1970s here:

• Argonaut 1970s Redux Stockumentary

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