FINRA Investor Education Modules: Key Investment Concepts
Key Investment Concepts
Virtually every investor has the same basic goal to achieve the maximum amount of investment growth at a tolerable level of risk.
Accomplishing that balance means knowing yourself as an investor. What level of risk are you comfortable taking? Are you a conservative investor who does not want to risk losing any or most of your principal? Are you a moderate investor who wants to protect your assets while increasing the value of your portfolio? Or, are you an aggressive investor who is willing to take calculated risks with the expectation of achieving greater-than-average returns?
As your goals and priorities change over time, you may find that you need to modify your approach to investing. For instance, if you take on additional financial responsibilities or expect to retire in the near future, you may find it’s time to shift to a more conservative investment strategy.
Whether you’re a new or more experienced investor, and whether you’re investing in a modest or substantial portfolio, it’s important to understand key financial principles like risk and reward, the time value of money, diversification and volatility that are the foundation of a sound investment strategy.
2. Return and Rate of Return
Investment return is what you get back on an investment you make. Ideally, the return will be positive, your initial investment or principal will remain intact and you will end up with more than you invested. But because investing typically involves risk especially if you invest in securities such as stocks and bonds, or mutual funds that invest in stocks and bonds your returns can be negative, and you can wind up with less money than you initially invested.
For example, let’s say you buy a stock for $30 a share and sell it for $35 a share. Your return is $5 a share minus any commission or other fees you paid when you bought and sold the stock. If the stock had paid a dividend of $1 per share while you owned it, your total return would be a gain of $6 a share before expenses. However, if you bought at $35 and sold at $30, you would have lost $5 on your investment, not counting expenses. If you earned a dividend of $1 per share, your actual loss would be reduced to $4 a share.
Total return = Gain or loss in value + Investment earnings
Be aware that total return is a measure of your profit or capital appreciation before taxes and commissions or fees. When you evaluate your return on an investment, you should separately assess the impact of those costs. In the example above, if the commissions you paid both to buy and to sell the stock plus any taxes you must pay on net capital gains totaled more than $5, then you would have lost money. If you are investing in mutual funds, you will find both total annual returns and after-tax annual returns in the fee table in the prospectus.
Rate of Return
Having determined the return on an investment, you will want to be able to compare that return to returns on other investments. The dollar amount by itself doesn’t tell you the whole story. To see why, compare a return of $5 per share on a $30 investment with a return of $5 per share on a $60 investment. In both cases, your dollar return is the same. But your rate of return, which you figure by dividing the gain by the amount you invest, is different.
In this comparison, the rate of return, also called the percent return, on the $30 investment is 16.67 percent ($5 ÷ $30 = 16.666) while the rate of return on the $60 investment is 8.33 percent ($5 ÷ $60 = 8.333) just half.
rate of return = total return ÷ investment amount
You can evaluate the return on savings accounts, bonds, mutual funds and the entire range of investment alternatives in much the same way. The more you invest to get the same dollar return, the smaller your rate of return will actually be.
The other factor that you have to take into account in evaluating your return is the number of years you own the investment. There’s a big difference in realizing a return of 16.67 percent on an investment you own for just one year, or what’s called an annual return, and realizing the same return on an investment you own for five years. Your annualized return over a five-year period is only 3.13 percent. This is derived by (1+.1667)(1/5) – 1 = 3.13%.
Return can be a useful tool in evaluating whether the investments you own are performing the way you expect, especially when you compare their return to that of similar investments or an appropriate benchmark, such as a market index that tracks the return of a group of similar investments. Specifically, you might compare the annual percent return on a large company stock or the return on a large-company stock fund to the annual return of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500).
You can also use historical returns to compare the average annual return over time of different categories of investments, known as asset classes. In the context of investing, the most common asset classes include stocks (equities), bonds (fixed-income securities) and cash or cash equivalents. The research firms that track historical returns have found that, both over the past century and during shorter 10-year cycles, stock has had the strongest return among the major asset classes, bonds the next strongest and cash equivalents the most stable but the lowest.
While the annual return for any asset class, or mutual fund investing in that asset class, may surpass its historical average in a given year or series of years, the return may underperform the average as well. There’s always a risk in assuming that your return on an investment will be substantially higher than the average return on that investment over time. In fact, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be lower.
The yield on an investment is the amount of money you collect in interest or dividends, calculated as a percentage of either the current price of the investment or the price you paid to buy it. For example, if a stock pays annual dividends of $1 per share when the price is $35, the current yield is 2.9 percent ($1 ÷ $35 = 0.02857). However, if you bought the stock for $25, that same $1 dividend would be 4 percent ($1 ÷ $25 = 0.04).
While yield is just one of the factors you typically use to evaluate stock performance, it figures much more prominently in evaluating bonds and other interest-paying investments where current income is often of primary importance. In fact, with fixed-income investments, yield is measured in different ways depending on what you want to know about the income you’re receiving:
3. The Risk-Return Relationship
In investing, as in many other things, risk and reward are inextricably linked. The greater the potential for an investment to gain substantially in value, the greater the risk it might drop substantially as well.
For example, if Investor A puts all of the money she has to invest into a promising young company, she could make a great deal of money if the company succeeds or she could lose everything if the company fails to get off the ground. By contrast, if Investor B puts his money into a broadly diversified stock mutual fund, he may not make a fortune, but he’s also far less likely to end up losing everything.
If you want to reap the financial rewards of investing successfully, you have to be willing to take some risk. But risk doesn’t mean taking every opportunity that comes along or putting all of your assets on the line in a few highly speculative investments. In fact, many of the investment risks you face can be managed with some foresight, knowledge and good planning.
As an investor, you have more control over some risks than over others. Let’s say that the company in which Investor A bought stock failed because of poor management decisions. This is called a nonsystematic risk, because the risk lies with the individual investment rather than with shifts in the investment market or asset class as a whole.
As a careful investor, you may have a certain amount of control over your exposure to nonsystematic risk. For example, by thoroughly researching potential investments before committing your money, you may be able to avoid companies whose disappointing sales and earnings records suggest they aren’t poised for long-term success. Research will also help you uncover companies with higher than average debt, which could limit their growth potential.
In addition, you can help insulate yourself from many of the effects of nonsystematic risk by diversifying your portfolio, or spreading your invested assets among a number of individual investments that are similar in some ways say they’re all stocks but different in others. That way, if one of your investments drops in value, those losses may be offset by gains in some of the others.
For example, if Investor A had some of her assets in large and mid-sized company stocks, as well as in start-up company stocks, some of those investments might increase in value or pay dividends, or both. She might further diversify by choosing to invest in two or more small companies in a fast-growing area of the economy. If one was better managed than the others, or had more financial backing and so succeeded even though the others failed, she would have moderated her risk.
One reason that some investors find mutual funds and exchange-traded funds attractive is that many of them hold broadly diversified portfolios. By purchasing a small number of bond funds, each investing in a different type of bonds, for example, you could achieve more diversification than by selecting individual bonds and so more risk protection.
Risks that you can predict will occur though not when they will happen are known as systematic risks. These risks are part and parcel of investing in the financial markets. While learning to accept risk as a normal part of investing is necessary to your success as an investor, there are ways to minimize the impact of systematic risks on your portfolio:
Type of systematic risk
Allocating your portfolio across a broad spectrum of asset classes is a primary way to reduce systematic risk. For instance, you might invest a percentage of your portfolio in bonds and bond funds, another percentage in a variety of stock and stock mutual funds including international stock as well as small-, medium-, and large-company domestic stock and another percentage in cash equivalents, such as CDs and U.S. Treasury bills. Some investors also include real estate, precious metals and other products in their portfolios, often by choosing funds that invest in those products.
There are also certain market conditions when you may be able to find competitive investment returns with comparatively less risk. For instance, when interest rates rise, bonds may offer returns that are on par with some stock returns but with less risk to principal. That’s the case, in part, because they are less volatile.
One of the biggest risks you may fall prey to, however, is trying to avoid risk altogether. If you invest very conservatively or don’t invest at all because you’re afraid of losing your principal, you become vulnerable to inflation, which can erode the value of your interest-bearing savings and investments over the long-term.
Volatility, or the tendency of some investments to fluctuate rather quickly in value, is another type of investment risk. The more volatile an investment is, the more it can potentially lose or gain value in the short-term.
Not all investments are equally volatile. For instance, stock and stock mutual funds tend to change price more quickly than bonds. And the prices of smaller or newer company stocks may fluctuate faster and more dramatically than those of larger, well-established companies sometimes known as blue chips. By the same token, high-yield bonds, which may be called high-risk bonds or junk bonds, are much more volatile than highly rated investment-grade bonds. In fact, high-yield bonds may change price just as quickly as some stocks.
Stock analysts measure the relative volatility of a particular stock by comparing changes in its price to the overall market. This measurement is called the stock’s beta and it has a base, or co-efficient, of 1. This means a stock with a beta of 1 is about as volatile as the average for all stocks. The higher the beta, the more volatile the stock is. For example, a stock with a beta of 1.5 is 50 percent more volatile than an average stock. That means it will have the tendency to change price more rapidly and more extremely than a stock with a beta of 1. On the other hand, a stock with a beta of 0.5 is 50 percent less volatile than the average stock, and will tend to change price more slowly and less dramatically than an average stock.
Stock analysts use beta to predict how much a particular stock will rise and fall in certain markets. For instance, analysts anticipate that a stock with a beta of 1.7 will rise 17 percent if the overall market goes up 10 percent, and will fall 17 percent if the market goes down 10 percent.
Individual investors can also use beta to help them select appropriate investments in light of their risk tolerance. For instance, more moderate investors may want to avoid investments with higher betas. But more aggressive investors may be comfortable seeking companies with higher betas since more volatile investments may have the potential for higher returns. You can determine a stock’s beta using stock screening tools on financial websites or by using data from FINRA’s Market Data Center at www.finra.org/marketdata.
Managing Volatility in Your Portfolio
Some degree of volatility is a fact of investing. Even if you don’t consider yourself a risk taker, you needn’t avoid volatility at all costs. A thoughtful, long-term investment outlook, combined with a well-diversified portfolio, can let you take advantage of some of the upside of volatility.
For example, during a strong market with rising prices, you can sell any riskier investments you own to lock in your earnings and you can then use your gains to make other investments. Or, if the opposite occurs and volatility drives prices down, you might be able to avoid losses by waiting until the financial markets rebound as they have historically done. Price swings that may seem dramatic in the short run tend to smooth out over time even though it may take a while for prices to return to, and ideally pass, a previous high.
Liquidity, from your perspective as an individual investor, is the ease with which you can convert an investment into cash without losing value. The most liquid investments are the money in savings accounts and money market accounts, which you can withdraw on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Most bank certificates of deposit (CDs) are also highly liquid since you can always redeem them, though you might sacrifice some or all of the interest you expected to receive if you withdraw money before the end of the term. There are certain long-term CDs, however, that don’t permit early withdrawal, so you should be certain of any restrictions before you purchase one.
Similarly, U.S. Treasury bills are highly liquid since you can always sell them readily and their market value changes very little because the terms are so short. U.S. savings bonds are also highly liquid, though there is a penalty for selling them also known as liquidating within the first five years of purchase.
At the other end of the spectrum, collectibles and most real estate are considered illiquid, which means they could be hard to sell for the price you want at the time you want. Certain other investments, such as private equity investments and hedge funds, are almost entirely illiquid during what is known as the lock-up period since the managers of these investments count on having the money to invest over the long term in order to provide the returns they anticipate. That lack of liquidity is one of the reasons that they’re not appropriate choices for most people.
Between these extremes are investments such as stocks and bonds, which you can almost always sell, though there’s no guarantee you can sell them for as much as or more than you paid to purchase them. Stock in some very small companies, especially those that trade over-the-counter (OTC) or in the “pink sheets,” is often less liquid than stock in larger, well-known companies because the stock may not trade very often so finding a buyer may take time. In fact, they’re sometimes described as thinly traded.
The Liquidity Tradeoff
The more liquid an investment, the less you will generally earn by holding it. For example, the return on a savings account, which is highly liquid, almost always pays a lower interest rate than other bank accounts or other fixed-income investments, such as CDs or bonds. (There may be exceptions when banks are competing to attract customers.) Many highly liquid investments are also insured, which increases their attraction to people who are more comfortable with limited investment risk.
Although gaining liquidity may require you to sacrifice some return, it’s often a good idea to include some highly liquid investments in your portfolio. That way, you’ll have money available if you need it for emergencies, or to make new investments, without having to sell off the investments you hold. In addition, in years when more volatile investments provide disappointing returns, the interest you earn on a CD or Treasury bill can help cushion those losses.
4. Time and Your Portfolio
Time can be an investor’s ally in several important ways:
Compounding is what happens when your investment earnings or income are reinvested and added to your principal, forming a larger base on which earnings can accumulate. The larger your investment base, or principal, grows, the greater the earnings your investment can potentially generate. So the longer you have to invest, the more you can potentially benefit from compounding.
For example, compare what happens to the investment accounts of Investors A and B:
Average annual rate of return
9%, not compounded
9%, compounded yearly
Total dollars generated by investment after 20 years
Total dollars generated by investment after 40 years
Both Investor A and Investor B invest the same amount of money and get the same average annual rate of return of 9 percent. That’s a realistic average annual pretax return for a diversified stock portfolio. The difference is that Investor A chooses to withdraw, rather than reinvest, the return. At the end of 20 years, Investor B’s investment will be worth more than twice as much as Investor A’s, and at the end of 40 years, that difference will have grown to almost seven times as much.
In this second example, you’ll see that the effect that time has for two investors who have both chosen compounding:
Average annual rate of return, compounded yearly
Length of investment
Total value of account
After 40 years:
After 20 years:
Again, both Investors C and D invest the same amount of money $96,000 at a 9 percent average annual rate of return, this time compounded yearly for both. But while Investor C puts away $200 a month for 40 years, Investor D puts away $400 a month, for only 20 years. At the end of the investment period, however, Investor C’s account is worth more than three times Investor D’s account. That’s because Investor C’s account benefited from 20 extra years of compound growth.
It’s worth noting that while you can accurately determine the value of compounding on an investment or savings account offering a fixed rate of return, you can only estimate the return you will receive on investments that fluctuate, such as stock or mutual fund investments. All other things being equal, though, the investor who starts earlier and reinvests returns is going to be much better off than the one who starts later and does not reinvest those returns.
A Matter of Time
If you have long-term financial goals, such as achieving a comfortable retirement or paying for your children’s college education, the time you have to meet these goals can give you a decided advantage.
Long-term goals, such as retirement, seem the most daunting because they’re often the most expensive. For example, by most estimates, you can expect to spend at least 30 years in retirement, and you’ll need about 80 percent or more of what you currently earn annually to maintain the lifestyle you’re accustomed to once you retire. To accumulate such a sum over a short period of time would be virtually impossible for most people.
But having time on your side together with a long-term investing strategy can put even challenging financial goals within reach. Even modest but regular contributions to a tax-deferred account that emphasizes growth investments, such as stock and stock mutual funds, can grow substantially over 25, 30 or 40 years. That’s because time lets you take the calculated risks that you may not be comfortable taking over the short term. Plus, the more time you have to invest, the more your investments stand to benefit from compounding.
This potential for growth is sometimes called the time value of money, which means that money you invest today to accumulate earnings can be worth more in the future.
Investment growth is also the best way to combat the long-term effects of inflation. Depending on how you look at it, you can define inflation as either:
Many conditions can affect the inflation rate, which varies from year to year, but it has averaged about 3 percent annually since 1926. Low unemployment rates can fuel inflation, since employees can demand higher salaries, driving prices up. Consumer spending can also set inflation in motion when demand for goods and services outstrips available supply. Economic conditions and Federal Reserve Board monetary policy, which helps determine interest rates, can also have a major impact on inflation.
Regardless of its causes, inflation can significantly erode the value of your financial assets over the long term if you don’t have a strategy to combat it.
For example, compare what happens to the portfolios of Investors E and F. Investor E is a conservative investor, and rather than risk his assets in the stock market, he puts $15,000 in an insured money market account earning 3.25 percent a year for 20 years. Investor F, on the other hand, is a moderate investor, and invests the same amount of money in a large-company stock index fund earning an average annual return of 8 percent.
Annual investment return
Length of investment
Average annual rate of inflation
Real rate of return
Value after adjusting for inflation
After 20 years, Investor E’s money market account would hold $28,438, which sounds like a reasonable outcome for a risk-free investment. But after adjusting for annual inflation of 3 percent, the value of Investor E’s savings, in terms of buying power, is actually $15,745 in today’s dollars. That’s just $745 more than the original deposit.
Investor F, on the other hand, would have an account balance of $69,914 after 20 years and buying power of almost $39,000 after accounting for inflation. That’s more than two and half times the original deposit.
You should note, too, that this simplified example does not adjust for taxes that might be due on account earnings.
Inflation is the reason that many investors measure the progress they’re making towards their financial goals in terms of real return, which is inflation-adjusted return, rather than in terms of total return. While total return measures your total investment gain and loss, plus any dividend or interest income, real return measures your investment return after taking inflation into account. In the example above, Investor E’s annual total return is 3.25 percent, but his real return, after inflation, is 0.25 percent. Investor F’s percent return is 8 percent, but her real return, after inflation, is 5 percent.
For your portfolio to grow, you’ll typically need to invest a substantial part of it in investments (such as stock and stock funds) that have good chance of significantly outpacing inflation.
5. Allocating Your Portfolio
Possibly no decisions you make have a greater impact on the investment return you achieve than how you choose to allocate your portfolio.
When you use asset allocation as an investment strategy, you decide how much of your principal to invest in each of the different asset classes, or investment categories. For example, you might decide to put 80 percent of your assets in stock, 10 percent in bonds and 10 percent in cash equivalents. Or you may decide to put 60 percent in stock, 35 percent in bonds and 5 percent in cash.
Asset allocation can make a major difference in both your investment return and level of investment risk. Because each asset class has its own unique characteristics and risks, the performance of your overall portfolio will partly reflect the asset mix you choose.
For example, compared to bonds, cash and real estate, stock is the most volatile asset class in the short run, but over longer periods has outperformed those other asset classes. So a portfolio heavily allocated in stock is likely to be volatile in the short term, but has the best chance of providing strong returns over 15 years or more. On the other hand, a portfolio heavily weighted in bonds will tend to provide predictable income but considerably more modest returns over a similar term though there may be some years when the return on bonds is stronger than the return on stock.
The Right Mix
One of the chief benefits of asset allocation is that you can offset some of the characteristics of one asset class with those of another. For instance, a portfolio that includes a substantial percentage of stock, but also some bonds, may have the potential to provide much of the robust growth associated with stock while reducing some of the risk of volatility. Similarly, a more conservative investor might be able to boost returns in a portfolio heavily allocated in bonds, without necessarily increasing volatility, by including a percentage of stock in the asset mix as well.
Asset allocation can also provide a buffer to broader economic conditions, since various asset classes can react in different ways to changes in the financial markets. One example is that, historically, stocks have tended to provide strong returns in periods when interest rates are low, and bonds have tended to slump in those periods. The opposite has been true when interest rates increase.
When asset classes react in a similar way to particular economic environments, providing similar returns over a period of time, they are described as highly correlated. But when classes react differently or to different degrees to the same situations, they are said to have a low correlation. As the example of response to interest rates illustrates, stocks and bonds generally tend to have a low correlation.
In some instances, assets also can be negatively correlated, which means that their returns tend to move in different directions in response to similar situations. For example, during times of rising interest rates, real estate historically has held up well, while stocks have provided disappointing returns.
By spreading your principal across different asset classes, taking care to include those with low correlations and negative correlations, if possible, and leaving that allocation more-or-less in place over a number of years, you are in a position to benefit from whichever asset class happens to be outperforming the others. That means you can offset potential losses in an underperforming asset class with values or gains in another.
Your Investing Style
How you decide to allocate your assets whether you choose a conservative, moderate or aggressive allocation mix based on your tolerance for risk is sometimes called your investing style, or profile.
Your investing style reflects your personality, but it is also influenced by other factors like your age, financial circumstances, investment goals and experience. For example, if you are approaching retirement or have lived through a period of major economic upheaval, such as a recession, you may be inclined to invest more conservatively. That might also be the case if you run a small business or are the sole provider for your family.
On the other hand if you’re still early in your career, have few financial responsibilities or own substantial assets, you may be willing to take more risk in your portfolio because you don’t need all of your current assets to meet your financial obligations.
Conservative Investing Style
Conservative investors make capital preservation, or safeguarding the assets they already have, their priority. Because they normally aren’t willing to put any of their principal at risk, conservative investors usually have to settle for modest returns.
The portfolios of conservative investors are typically heavily allocated in bonds, such as U.S. Treasury bills, notes and bonds, highly rated municipal bonds, and insured investments, such as certificates of deposit (CDs) and money market accounts. While conservative investors tend to avoid stock because of its volatility, they may allocate a small portion of their portfolios to large-company stocks, which sometimes pay dividends and tend to be more stable in price than other types of stock.
The Risks of a No-Risk Portfolio
As counterintuitive as it may sound, avoiding risk altogether can make conservative investors vulnerable to other types of risk notably inflation risk. If you invest so conservatively that your invested assets barely keep pace with the rate of inflation (which has averaged 3 percent annually since 1926, but can sometimes spike higher), then your invested assets may barely be growing at all in terms of real buying power. If you’re also paying taxes on those assets, then they may in fact be shrinking compared to inflation. That’s why a conservative investment strategy can make it difficult to meet long-term investment goals, such as a comfortable retirement.
When a Conservative Approach Makes Sense
There are some circumstances, however, when a conservative approach to investing may be appropriate. If you’re investing to meet shorter-term goals for instance, you plan to make a down payment on a house in the next two or three years then you may not want to put those assets at risk by investing in volatile securities, since your portfolio may not have time to recover if there’s a market downturn. Similarly, if you have substantial amounts of money invested in your own business or have other major financial responsibilities, you may be more comfortable taking a more conservative approach with your investment portfolio.
Moderate Investing Style
Moderate investors seek a middle course between protecting the assets they already have and achieving long-term growth. They strive to offset the volatility of growth investments, like stocks and stock funds, by allocating a portion of their portfolios to stable, income-producing investments, such as highly rated bonds. While moderate investors may favor large-company domestic and international stocks, they may also diversify their portfolios by investing in some more volatile small-company or emerging-market stocks, to take advantage of the potential for higher returns.
There is no hard and fast rule about exactly what mix of assets is appropriate for someone striving to achieve a moderate asset mix, since that mix depends to some extent on individual circumstances and tolerance for risk. For instance, a portfolio that is invested 35 percent in large cap domestic stocks, 15 percent in small-company and international securities, and 50 percent in bonds, might be considered very moderate even conservative for someone with 30 or 40 years until retirement. However, this same asset mix would carry more risk for someone with only a few years until he or she retires.
If you’re not a risk taker by nature, a moderate investing approach may make sense in almost all circumstances. In broadest terms, a moderate approach means finding the mix of assets that gives you both the potential for long-term growth yet adequate protection for your assets given your age and financial circumstances.
Aggressive Investing Style
Aggressive investors focus on investments that have the potential to offer significant growth, even if it means putting some of their principal at risk. That means they may allocate 75 percent to 95 percent of their portfolios in stock and stock mutual funds, including substantial holdings in more speculative investments, such as emerging market and small-company stock and stock funds. Aggressive investors with large portfolios may also allocate some of their assets to private equity funds, derivatives, direct investments and other alternative investment products.
Aggressive investors tend to keep only a percentage of their assets in cash and cash equivalents so they maximize their potential returns but have cash available when new investing opportunities arise.
An aggressive approach is best suited to people with 15 years or more to invest to meet a financial goal, and who have adequate resources, so that they can absorb potential losses without jeopardizing their financial security. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, history demonstrates that an aggressive investing style coupled with a well-diversified portfolio, combined with the patience to follow through on a long-term strategy, can be very rewarding in the long run.
Contrarian Investing Style
A contrarian investor’s approach is to flout conventional wisdom. Contrarians buy investments that are currently out of favor with the market and avoid investments that are currently popular. But contrarians aren’t just trying to be different there is a method to their being contrary. Specifically, they believe that stocks that are undervalued by the market may be poised for a rebound, while stocks that are currently popular may be overvalued, have already peaked or may not be able to meet investor expectations.
A contrarian strategy isn’t for everyone. You need experience and the willingness to do lots of research to be able to discriminate between companies that may be undervalued and those that are simply performing poorly. You also need patience, since it can take time before a stock makes a turnaround. Consistent with having a well-diversified portfolio, you may want to use this approach with only a portion of your portfolio perhaps by choosing a mutual fund with a contrarian style.
 The standard formula for computing annualized return is AR = (1+return)1/years - 1
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