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The factory by a Tuscan beach and the future of ESG investing



It is sometimes called the Italian Maldives. Rosignano is a Tuscan tourist destination that is home to 30,000 people and famous for its white beaches, which draw people from all over Europe.

The seemingly pristine sand contains a catch, however. It partly owes its colour to the limestone silt from a nearby factory owned by Solvay, the Belgian chemicals multinational. The plant is the company’s only soda ash and bicarbonate production facility in Europe where chemical waste is discharged directly at sea without being treated. 

Two decades ago, the World Health Organization described the area as “a priority pollution hotspot in the Mediterranean” and it has long been a source of conflict with local activists. But that controversy is now starting to intersect with a debate that goes to the heart of the future of the investment industry.

The plant in Tuscany is the subject of a campaign by a London-based hedge fund, Bluebell Capital Partners. Launched in 2019, the firm is starting a campaign focusing on one company a year which it believes has questionable practices on environmental, social and governance issues — or ESG as it is known in the investment sector. Solvay is its first target.

“This idyllic beach perfectly resembles that of a pristine Caribbean resort. But this apparent paradise is a mere illusion; the area is just an open landfill of Solvay’s industrial chemical waste,” Bluebell said in a letter to Solvay.

The Solvay site at Rosignano in Tuscany. Locals have long complained about the discharge from the plant that goes into the Mediterranean Sea © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty

Solvay rejects the accusation and says it adheres to strict environmental standards related to the discharge of effluent from the plant, which it says poses no risk to health or the environment. “We regret that occasional sensational and biased attacks continue to be made regarding our plant in Rosignano,” it says.

One of the reasons that Solvay is attracting attention from investors is that it has a triple A rating on ESG risks by MSCI, a London-based firm which provides assessments of a company’s record in these categories. MSCI certifies Solvay as a “sector leader” for chemical safety, water usage and clean tech opportunities.

“Solvay is rated very highly by companies specialising in providing an ESG ranking, which is quite revealing about the real relevance of those ratings,” says Giuseppe Bivona, one of the founders of Bluebell.

ESG has become one of the fastest growing areas of asset management as demand in recent years for sustainable investments has ballooned. Investors with more than $100tn in combined assets have signed a commitment, the Principles for Responsible Investment, to integrate ESG information into their investment decisions. 

To follow through on those commitments, investors are partly dependent on the new branch of rating agencies which assesses companies on their ESG performance. Yet there is little consensus on what criteria should be used to make such judgments. While Solvay has a triple A rating from MSCI, other agencies give it a lower score. Sustainalytics, another influential ratings provider, ranked it at medium risk from material ESG issues. 

A ditch from Solvay’s plant discharges waste into the sea. Solvay says that the discharge is not toxic and that it also helps mitigate the natural erosion of the coast © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty
Tourists walk next to a sign reading ‘prohibition of bathing and parking’ on the ‘Spiagge Bianche’ (white sand) beach in Rosignano © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty

For the asset management industry, the disagreements over these ratings increase the chances that ESG comes to be seen as a marketing exercise and ends up losing credibility among investors.

“It is important the financial community does not treat ESG as a new fashionable buzzword to direct investments,” says Bluebell’s Mr Bivona.

This month Mairead McGuinness, the EU’s financial services commissioner, told an asset management conference that Brussels would probe ESG ratings when it launches its renewed sustainable finance strategy in 2021.

“We’ve heard some concerns from the asset management industry about the level of concentration in the market for ESG ratings and data, and possible conflicts of interest,” she said.

Waste management

There has been a chemicals plant at Rosignano in Tuscany since 1913. Solvay’s presence was so instrumental to the economic development of the local community, that the district where the plant is based has been renamed “Rosignano Solvay”. In the first half of the 1900s, the Belgian company built housing, schools, a church and a football stadium for the local community.

During the time the plant has been there, a total of 13m tons of solids flowed into the sea from the chemicals factory, according to the Tuscan environmental agency.

The waste contains high levels of mercury, arsenic, ammonia, nitrogen and boron, according to the Italian environmental agency, Arpa. Data from the agency published in 2020 shows the levels of these heavy metals, which can be toxic for humans and alter plant growth, are above the legal limit in the waters surrounding the white beaches.

Solvay says that the water in the area is safe and in line with the rest of the Tuscan coast. It points to data from the Tuscan branch of the environmental agency which shows that the water quality was good when tested for bacteria and other elements.

Bathers in the cloudy waters of the Mediterranean at Rosignano. Last year, Italian television programme Rai Report aired footage showing poor visibility in the sea due to a thick white floating residue © Fabio Muzzi/EPA-EFE

The environmental agency’s study also states water pollution has caused Posidonia oceanica, an aquatic plant of the Mediterranean Sea commonly know as Neptune grass, to disappear from the seabed in front of Rosignano’s white beaches. 

Last year, Italian television programme Rai Report aired footage showing poor visibility in the waters in front of the beaches due to a thick white residue floating in the sea.

According to a 2014 report produced by Arpa, the regional environmental agency, Solvay dumped more than 120,000 tons of toxic substances a year into the sea from 2005 to 2013.

Solvay says “it adheres to strict environmental standards related to our discharge effluent, operating safely, without impact on health or environment and in full compliance with all existing laws and regulations”.

The company has been under pressure for its record at Rosignano for decades. In 2003, Solvay agreed with Italian institutions to slash waste levels from 200,000 tons a year to 60,000 by 2008 but later said the task was impossible.

Solvay said that “over the years and after significant investments, it became clear that the level of 60,000 tons [per year] was not technically achievable [and] the threshold was therefore revisited at a higher level”.

In 2015, after an EU water directive was adapted into national law, the Italian authorities increased the limit from 60,000 to 250,000 tons a year.

A spokesperson for Italy’s environment ministry said authorities had decided the amount of solid waste would have to be “proportional to production levels” and that the company would be responsible for monitoring activities.

Solvay chemicals plant. The Belgian multinational’s presence has been so important to the economic development of the local community, that the district where the plant is based has been renamed Rosignano Solvay © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty
The beach at Rosignano. The colour of the sand is partly a result of limestone silt from the nearby chemicals factory © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty

According to Solvay the discharge is not toxic and it also helps mitigate the natural erosion of the coast. “Limestone naturally contains traces of heavy metals, but those remain imprisoned in the solid state of the limestone and cannot, in any event, be absorbed by living organisms, including people and fish,” Solvay says.

“The cloudiness of the seawater close to the coast slows down the growth of seaweed, however, this level [of visibility] is considered ‘sufficient’ by the ecological classification of the sea in front of Solvay’s Rosignano site, according to the EU directive 200/60/CE and the Tuscany environmental agency,” a Solvay spokesperson said.

However, an EU official told the Financial Times that the “Italian authorities are looking into the situation [and they] should establish whether the current practice is in conformity with EU and national law [and] the Commission is monitoring the issue.”

The EU official said the directive clearly mentions water transparency as a key parameter and “our checks indicate that the most relevant water bodies [in the Rosignano area] fail to achieve good chemical status (apparently because of mercury and tributyltin).”

Extraction rights

The pollution around the white beaches is not the only controversy involving Solvay in the region.

Under a 1997 agreement between Solvay and the Italian government, the company can also extract up to 2m tons a year of salt from the nearby salt pans of Volterra for its soda bicarbonate production.

The company’s salt extraction has long been a source of dispute with local activists, who worry that the area will be destroyed.

“Everybody knows what happens at the plant, that Volterra is being wiped out, that high levels of carbon dioxide and other substances are being released into the air,” says Maurizio Marchi, a member of Medicina Democratica, a group which has challenged Solvay on its environmental record. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes for as long as I can remember, anyone can see it, it’s visible, but nobody has ever done anything.” 

Mr Marchi says “there was a time when the company employed over 2,500 people in Rosignano, no questions were asked, and institutions turned a blind eye”. However, the 72-year-old activist adds: “But now it only employs 300 people, and companies and institutions fill their mouths with ESG strategy announcements, so they should know better.”

Solvay CEO Ilham Kadri became the first female chief executive of a major global chemical company in 2019. In February she said: ‘We are setting bolder objectives to solve key environmental and societal challenges through science and innovation.’ © Thierry Roge/BELGA MAG/AFP/Getty
The Volterra salt pans. Under a 1997 agreement between Solvay and the Italian government, the company can extract up to 2m tons a year of salt from Volterra © Roberto Nencini/Alamy

Solvay says Italian authorities have done environmental assessments and approved the company’s usage of rock salt at Volterra. It says that while it understands concerns about “the visible nature of Solvay’s discharge effluent in Rosignano”, data about the safety of the area is regularly published by the local authorities.

A 2017 study by a group of US-Italian researchers published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, using data collected between 2001 and 2014, concluded that “an excess of mortality for chronic-degenerative diseases in the area” of Rosignano associated with “environmental pollution particularly due to heavy metals’ contamination of water”. It said that compared with the rest of Tuscany, the Rosignano area showed “significantly higher standardised mortality rates” for heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system.

The Belgian group points out that the study concluded it was “not possible to establish a causal link between environmental pollution and increased mortality”. It says the discharge pumped into the sea is “non-dangerous, non-toxic and [composed of] inert natural materials” and that “heavy metals are neither deliberately introduced nor used in the soda ash process” at the Rosignano plant.

Solvay is “a science company with ESG at our core”, it says.

Record scrutinised

Rosignano is one of 115 sites that Solvay operates in 64 countries. But the plant in Tuscany has now become fodder for a new activist investment fund.

Bluebell was set up in 2019 by Francesco Trapani, the former chief executive of Italian jewellery company Bulgari, and two former traders at Lehman Brothers and other investment banks, Giuseppe Bivona and Marco Taricco.

At the end of September, Bluebell’s management wrote a letter to Solvay’s board of directors demanding it undertake a review of its ESG record and to immediately halt the discharge of waste directly into the sea in Tuscany.

The Rosignano facility was “responsible for what we consider to be an ongoing, and without precedent, environmental disaster due to the contamination of several kilometres of Italian beaches, by chemical waste discharged directly from Solvay’s factory, into the sea,” the letter said.

Mr Bivona told the Financial Times that Bluebell asked Solvay for a full decontamination of the shores “as well as to implement the same technical solutions which clearly exist and Solvay already implemented at its other factories to discharge its waste”.

The letter also demanded Solvay’s board link part of the Solvay chief executive’s remuneration to such clean-up efforts and to the technical upgrade of the Rosignano site. 

In February, Solvay’s Ilham Kadri, who in 2019 became the first female chief executive of a major global chemical company, announced a step change in the company’s environmental plans by launching a programme called Solvay One Planet, a 10-year-long strategy aimed at promoting sustainability across the company’s portfolio. “We are setting bolder objectives to solve key environmental and societal challenges through science and innovation,” Ms Kadri said at the time.

Solvay says the management’s compensation “already include sustainability targets in their short and long term incentives”. The company says its senior officials met Bluebell’s management and “corrected many of [their] inaccuracies and selective use of information”. Bluebell denies that it altered its criticisms of the company.

Bluebell Capital is a one-year old fund with only €60m in assets but it has quickly established itself in Italy through several controversial campaigns against the managements of large Italian employers such as Mediobanca and Leonardo. It has also tried to put pressure on the managements of companies such as Lufthansa, Hugo Boss and asset manager GAM.

“Nowadays ESG has become a great marketing tool, everyone talks about their great deeds in these spaces but is it always the case?” said Mr Bivona.

Ratings role

As demand for sustainable investing has ballooned in recent years, fund managers have been keen to show how they incorporate ESG issues into their investment decision. 

Although many asset managers have hired specialists and developed bespoke systems in a bid to develop an advantage in sustainable investing, the first stop for portfolio managers is often the ESG rating issued by agencies. A recent study by the CFA Institute, the group for investment professionals, found that 73 per cent of UK investment professionals used ESG ratings in company analysis.

In response, big groups such as MSCI and S&P have invested heavily in their ESG ratings businesses, including buying up rivals, in a bid to cement their position as a trusted provider.

The Solvay plant in Saint-Fons Belle Etoile in France, one of the 115 sites it operates in 64 countries © Soudan Alpaca/Andia/UIG/Getty

In some cases, these ratings form the cornerstone of how a fund invests. Many asset managers sell funds that track, for example, MSCI indices that focus on stocks with good ESG ratings or exclude those with bad scores. More than 30 ESG funds that track an MSCI index hold Solvay, according to data provider Morningstar. In total, more than 170 funds that focus on sustainable or ESG investing hold Solvay.

But there are growing concerns about the quality of ESG ratings. Earlier this year, MSCI came under scrutiny after it emerged it had given fast-fashion retailer Boohoo an AA score, despite years of media reports alleging that workers in its supply chain were being treated unfairly.

In other cases, it is possible for a company to score well overall even if there are concerns about some aspects of the business. MSCI scored Solvay below the industry average for toxic emissions and waste, but because it ranked above its peers on issues from carbon emission to chemical safety it received the top rating overall.

MSCI says “concerns over environmental impact are prevalent in the industry in which Solvay operates in”. The ratings are meant to provide an outlook and assess a company’s performance relative to the standards and performance of industry peers, it adds.

“MSCI ESG Ratings are based on the assessment of thousands of data points in relation to 35 ESG issues which are most likely to affect the long-term financial resilience of a company and the strength of a company’s efforts to manage those risks.” 

“While MSCI ESG Ratings take into account company involvement in controversies, a company’s legacy issues may not be reflective of future material ESG risks,” said the spokesperson.

ESG ratings providers, however, use different methodologies to develop their rankings. A study this year by academics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Zurich found the correlation among scores from six providers was on average just 0.54 — which suggests only a moderate similarity in the ratings. “The ambiguity around ESG ratings represents a challenge for decision makers trying to contribute to an environmentally sustainable and socially just economy,” the academics said. 

This ambiguity is apparent in the case of Solvay, where MSCI gave it a top score, while Sustainalytics, another influential ratings provider, ranked it as at medium risk from material ESG issues. 

Sustainalytics says Solvay’s “overall [ESG] risk is higher” because the group was “materially exposed to more ESG issues than most companies in our universe”. This includes the business’s production process potentially generating “air or water emissions and hazardous waste, exposing the company to the risk of accidental spills or violations of environmental regulations”.

It adds: “Solvay’s products contain substances that may have harmful effects on the environment and human health.” However, it also gave the group a strong score for management of material ESG issues.

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US stocks rise as investors weigh strong earnings against spread of Delta variant




Equities updates

Stocks on Wall Street edged higher on Tuesday as strong company earnings and economic data offset worries about the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant and fears over another regulatory clampdown from Beijing.

The blue-chip S&P 500 was up 0.7 per cent by mid-afternoon in New York, its best performance in more than a week. The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite climbed 0.3 per cent.

Investor sentiment was lifted by June data for US factory orders, which typically feed into estimates of gross domestic product. New orders for goods rose 1.5 per cent on the month before, well above the consensus estimate of 1 per cent.

In Europe, another wave of strong earnings results helped propel the continent’s stocks to a fresh record. The region-wide Stoxx 600 index rose 0.2 per cent after Paris-based bank Société Générale and London-listed lender Standard Chartered reported profits that beat analysts’ expectations.

London’s energy-leaning FTSE 100 index rose 0.4 per cent, aided by oil major BP, which rallied after announcing a $1.4bn share buyback programme and an increase in its dividend.

Line chart of Stoxx Europe 600 index showing Strong earnings help propel European shares to record high

On both sides of the Atlantic, earnings have been strong. More than halfway through the US reporting season, 86 per cent of companies have topped expectations on profits, while in Europe 55 per cent have outperformed so far, according to data from FactSet and Morgan Stanley.

“The continued healthy earnings outlook is a key driver of our view that the equity bull market remains on solid footing,” analysts at UBS Wealth Management wrote in a note. Such a growth rate is, however, “flattered by depressed levels in the year-ago period,” they said. “But the results are still impressive compared with pre-pandemic earnings.”

Oil slipped in a choppy session as the global benchmark Brent crude fell 0.7 per cent to $72.37 a barrel on fears that the spread of the Delta variant could depress demand for fuel.

The seven-day rolling average for new coronavirus cases in the US, the world’s largest economy, have hit nearly 85,000 from about 13,000 a month ago, according to the Financial Times coronavirus tracker. Similar trends have taken hold in other countries as well as authorities race to vaccinate larger swaths of their populations.

A log-scale line chart of seven-day rolling average of newcases showing that US coronavirus case counts rise from just over 10,000 in mid-June to nearly 100,000 by early August

In Asia, investors were again focused on regulation after Chinese state media criticised the online video gaming industry, calling it “spiritual opium”. Shares in Tencent, the Chinese internet group, fell 6 per cent before announcing it would implement new restrictions for minors on its gaming platform. NetEase and XD, two rivals, dropped 7.8 per cent and 8.1 per cent, respectively.

The Hang Seng Tech index, which includes Tencent and its peers, dropped 1.5 per cent, lagging behind the wider Hong Kong bourse, which slipped 0.2 per cent. The CSI 300 index of large Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed stocks was flat.

Unhedged — Markets, finance and strong opinion

Robert Armstrong dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday

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Why it might be good for China if foreign investors are wary




Chinese economy updates

The writer is a finance professor at Peking University and a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

The chaos in Chinese stock markets last week was exacerbated by foreign investors selling Chinese shares, leaving Beijing’s regulators scrambling to regain their confidence while they tried to stabilise domestic markets. But if foreign funds become more cautious about investing in Chinese stocks, this may in fact be a good thing for China.

In the past two years, inflows into China have soared by more than $30bn a month. This is partly because of a $10bn-a-month increase in the country’s monthly trade surplus and a $20bn-a-month rise in financial inflows. The trend is expected to continue. Although Beijing has an excess of domestic savings, it has opened up its financial markets in recent years to unfettered foreign inflows. This is mainly to gain international prestige for those markets and to promote global use of the renminbi.

But there is a price for this prestige. As long as it refuses to reimpose capital controls — something that would undermine many years of gradual opening up — Beijing can only adjust to these inflows in three ways. Each brings its own cost that is magnified as foreign inflows increase.

One way is to allow rising foreign demand for the renminbi to push up its value. The problem, of course, is that this would undermine China’s export sector and would encourage further inflows, which would in turn push China’s huge trade surplus into deficit. If this happened, China would have to reduce the total amount of stuff it produces (and so reduce gross domestic product growth).

The second way is for China to intervene to stabilise the renminbi’s value. During the past four years China’s currency intervention has occurred not directly through the People’s Bank of China but indirectly through the state banks. They have accumulated more than $1tn of net foreign assets, mostly in the past two years.

Huge currency intervention, however, is incompatible with domestic monetary control because China must create the renminbi with which it purchases foreign currency. The consequence, as the PBoC has already warned several times this year, would be a too-rapid expansion of domestic credit and the worsening of domestic asset bubbles. 

Many readers will recognise that these are simply versions of the central bank trilemma: if China wants open capital markets, it must give up control either of the currency or of the domestic money supply. There is, however, a third way Beijing can react to these inflows, and that is by encouraging Chinese to invest more abroad, so that net inflows are reduced by higher outflows.

And this is exactly what the regulators have been trying to do. Since October of last year they have implemented a series of policies to encourage Chinese to invest more abroad, not just institutional investors and businesses but also households.

But even if these policies were successful (and so far they haven’t been), this would bring its own set of risks. In this case, foreign institutional investors bringing hot money into liquid Chinese securities are balanced by various Chinese entities investing abroad in a variety of assets for a range of purposes.

This would leave China with a classic developing-country problem: a mismatched international balance sheet. This raises the risk that foreign investors in China could suddenly exit at a time when Chinese investors are unwilling — or unable — to repatriate their foreign investments quickly enough. We’ve seen this many times before: a rickety financial system held together by the moral hazard of state support is forced to adjust to a surge in hot-money inflows, but cannot adjust quickly enough when these turn into outflows.

As long as Beijing wants to maintain open capital markets, it can only respond to inflows with some combination of the three: a disruptive appreciation in the currency, a too-rapid rise in domestic money and credit, or a risky international balance sheet. There are no other options.

That is why the current stock market turmoil may be a blessing in disguise. To the extent that it makes foreign investors more cautious about rushing into Chinese securities, it will reduce foreign hot-money inflows and so relieve pressure on the financial authorities to choose among these three bad options.

Until it substantially cleans up and transforms its financial system, in other words, China’s regulators should be more worried by too much foreign buying of its stocks and bonds than by too little.

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Square to acquire Afterpay for $29bn as ‘buy now, pay later’ booms




Square Inc updates

Payments company Square has reached a deal to acquire Australian “buy now, pay later” provider Afterpay in a $29bn all-stock transaction that would be the largest takeover in Australian history.

Square, whose chief executive Jack Dorsey is also Twitter’s CEO, is offering Afterpay shareholders 0.375 shares of Square stock for every share they own — a 30 per cent premium based on the most recent closing prices for both companies.

Melbourne-based Afterpay allows retailers to offer customers the option of paying for products in four instalments without interest if the payments are made on time.

The deal’s size would exceed the record set by Unibail-Rodamco’s takeover of shopping centre group Westfield at an enterprise value of $24.7bn in 2017.

The transaction, which was announced in a joint statement from the companies on Monday, is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2022.

Afterpay said its 16m users regard the service as a more responsible way to borrow than using a credit card. Merchants pay Afterpay a fixed fee, plus a percentage of each order.

The deal underscored the huge appetite for buy now, pay later providers, which have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Square and Afterpay have a shared purpose,” said Dorsey. “We built our business to make the financial system more fair, accessible, and inclusive, and Afterpay has built a trusted brand aligned with those principles.”

Adoption of buy now, pay later services had tripled by early this year compared with pre-pandemic volumes, according to data from Adobe Analytics, and were particularly popular with younger consumers.

Rivalling Afterpay is Sweden’s Klarna, which doubled its valuation in three months to $45.6bn, after receiving investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 in June. PayPal offers its own service, Pay in 4, while it was reported last month that Apple was looking to partner with Goldman Sachs to offer buy now, pay later facilities to Apple Pay users.

Steven Ng, a portfolio manager at Afterpay investor Ophir Asset Management, said the deal validated the buy, now pay later business model and could be the catalyst for mergers activity in the sector. “Given the tie-up with Square, it could kick off a round of consolidation with other payment providers where buy now, pay later becomes another payment method offered to their customers,” he said.

Over the past two years Afterpay has expanded rapidly in the US and Europe, which now account for more than three-quarters of its 16.3m active customers and a third of merchants on its platform. Afterpay said its services are used by more than 100,000 merchants across the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as in the UK, France, Italy and Spain, where it is known as Clearpay.

Square intends to offer the facility to its merchants and users of its Cash App, a fast money transfer service popular with small businesses and a competitor to PayPal’s Venmo.

“It’s an expensive purchase, but the buy now, pay later market is growing very rapidly and it makes a lot of sense for Square to have a solid stake in it,” said retail analyst Neil Saunders.

“For some, especially younger generations, buy now, pay later is a favoured form of credit. Afterpay has already had some success with its US expansion, but Square will be able to accelerate that by integrating it into its platforms and payment infrastructure — that’s probably one of the justifications for the relatively toppy price tag of the deal.”

Square handled $42.8bn in payments in the second quarter, with Cash App transactions making up about 10 per cent, according to figures released on Sunday. The company posted a $204m profit on revenues of $4.7bn.

Once the acquisition is completed, Afterpay shareholders will own about 18.5 per cent of Square, the companies said. The deal has been approved by both companies’ boards of directors but will also need to be backed by Afterpay shareholders.

As part of the deal, Square will establish a secondary listing on the Australian Securities Exchange to provide Afterpay shareholders with an option to receive Square shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange or the ASX. Square may elect to pay 1 per cent of the purchase price in cash.

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