Maitland 60% rate rise possible

MAITLAND rates bills could jump by close to 60 per cent over the next seven years, options in a Maitland City Council report have revealed.

The council is seeking public feedback on potential rate rises in a campaign that has flagged increases that would eclipse Lake Macquarie’s 55per cent rate hike over seven years.

Maitland council’s general manager David Evans said the figures included in the report were only guides to how much maintaining, improving or reducing services would hit ratepayers and no final proposals were ready yet.

But all three scenarios, including a cut to services, would involve rates going up by some margin.

A 7.25per cent or $89 bump for the average ratepayer every year for seven years would allow services to stay at their existing levels, the report showed, while a $35 rise every year would require service cuts.

An 8.95per cent rise, adding $116 to the average annual rates bill, would allow for expanded services.

If that option was approved, the Maitland rate rise would eclipse Lake Macquarie’s controversial 55per cent rates jump over seven years, introduced in June last year.

Mr Evans emphasised the report’s figures were not firm plans.

He said the council would develop more detailed plans after gauging ratepayer sentiment.

‘‘These figures have no formal status,’’ Mr Evans said.

‘‘We are asking people to have a look at what [maintaining or growing services] means.’’

A Maitland City Council document on the potential rate application shows the city’s rates are the second-

lowest in the Lower Hunter at an average $986 this financial year.

This compares to Newcastle $1051, Lake Macquarie $1141 and Cessnock $1064. Only Port Stephens ($950) is cheaper.

Mayor Peter Blackmore said the consultation, which would be assessed in any bid to raise rates above the state-imposed cap, would clarify exactly what ratepayers wanted.

‘‘It’s a genuine attempt to reach out and ask the community and gauge their reaction,’’ he said.

Cr Blackmore said he expected most councils would be under pressure and seeking relief through rates in the next few years.

‘‘I have no doubt whatsoever that almost all local government areas are going to be making an application [for higher rate rises],’’ Cr Blackmore said.

The engagement program will assess residents’ sentiments about the council’s funding options, service levels and provide information on its financial state.

Deputy mayor Brian Burke said a 12-page Funding Our Future brochure would go to all residents detailing how each option would change the city and advising them how they could contribute their opinions.

Cr Burke said he believed it would give residents a clear insight into pressures on Maitland due to ongoing growth and cost-shifting.

‘‘All these costs associated with running the city are rising along with everyone’s household ones,’’ Cr Burke said.

‘‘It’s a bit of a reality check and what we’re saying is sit down, read it and tell us what you want.’’

Councillors will discuss the consultation at tonight’s meeting.

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Coalition to combine local environment programs with Landcare

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Local environment programs would be merged into a single National Landcare Network, with guaranteed funding, the Coalition announced on Monday.

The decision, which would roll the “Caring for Country” environment initiative into the Landcare program, would mean local volunteer groups would have easier access to funding for tree planting, restoring rundown land and rivers, and controlling pest animals and weeds.

“The Coalition will give Landcare significantly greater access to the Caring for Country pool of funds, as well as the current Landcare funding,” the Coalition’s environment spokesman, Greg Hunt, said in a statement.

“We have listened to local communities and we will put Landcare at the heart of our land conservation programs.”

There are about 2500 local Landcare groups in NSW. Their work is diverse but includes restoring degraded farmland, reviving pockets of bushland in suburban Sydney, sustainable farming, stopping erosion, and clearing polluted rivers of invasive species.

Mr Hunt also announced $1 million in new funding per year to support the operating costs of running the national network which co-ordinated local groups.

The chair of the national Landcare organisation, David Walker, warmly welcomed the announcement, and said it would have a material effect on enhancing local environment work.

“The commitment to no more funding cuts from the existing budget is a relief, and so I’m really pleased,” Mr Walker said.

“We are still hopeful we’ll get some good policy announcements from the federal government, but we haven’t heard anything yet.

“Likewise, the Greens have talked about the environment a lot, but we haven’t seen anything from them yet.”

The Coalition’s spokesman for agriculture and food security, John Cobb, said the policy change would mean there was more money available to volunteers, even though the total funding pool had not changed.

“Over the last six years, Landcare has increasingly been excluded from the decision-making processes in both Canberra and the regional bodies,” Mr Cobb said in a statement. “Volunteers spend hours filling in grant applications only to find they don’t meet the criteria set by bureaucrats or must reapply every 12 months.”

The Coalition also pledged $1.4 million in funding for local community heritage grants on Monday, part of a trickle of small policy announcements during the election campaign.

On the weekend it promised $9 million to the National Climate Change and Adaptation Research Facility, based on the Gold Coast, and on Friday it pledged $2 million for whale and dolphin protection, including a plan to develop a “national whale trail” along the east coast to encourage tourism.

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Specialty Fashion lifts web profile

Gary Perlstein is moving away from bricks and mortar to a stronger online presence. Photo: Dom LorrimerSpecialty Fashion Group, which owns a portfolio of women’s fashion banners such as Millers and Katies, is prepared to incur little or no immediate return on its investment in expanding its online presence to prepare for the once-in-a-generation revolution in retail.

Chief executive Gary Perlstein said the company was committed to closing up to 120 of its stores over the next three years – it closed 47 in 2012-13 – as it recalibrates its business away from expensive leases in shopping centres in favour of higher-margin online sales.

Specialty Fashion had made large investments in its IT infrastructure and staff over the past two years to build its omni-channel platform, he said, as well as employing in-house design and sourcing teams that would protect margins in the face of cut-throat competition in the discretionary retail sector. ”All the investments in IT and the online strategy, we won’t see all the benefits we want for now but it’s important to be made,” Mr Perlstein said.

”We have embraced digitisation, we are making the investment not just for today but the future. There is a cost to be borne for that but when you’re facing a change that is once-in-a-generation you have to ensure you don’t crawl into a hole, but make those investments even if you can’t see the return tomorrow.”

Specialty Fashion unveiled a full-year net profit of $13 million despite choppy conditions marked by low consumer confidence and industry-wide discounting.

The retailer’s burgeoning websites were again a standout performer within the group, with online sales up 50 per cent to $21.9 million, against $15 million the year before.

Its online sales now represent 3.8 per cent of total revenue. Stripping out its Millers chain, which appeals to an older demographic, its online sales made up 6 per cent of total group sales.

The retailer actually recorded a loss for the June half of $5 million, but strong momentum from the first half of fiscal 2013 helped push the company into profit territory. It posted a $2.8 million loss in 2011-12.

Revenue for the year was $569.5 million, down 0.5 per cent.

A final dividend of 2¢ per share was declared, taking the total payout for the year to 4¢ per share.

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No value in fuelling discount debate

Illustration: John Spooner.Surprise, surprise – the political combatants chose not to buy into the debate raised by independent grocers this week around the potential threat to competition stemming from the big supermarket chains’ use of discount shopper dockets on fuel.

Not a word from Coles, Woolworths, Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd. Its a no-fly zone in the lead-up to an election.

Even a government with a clear majority and a full term ahead of it would be reticent to pop its head above the parapet on this issue.

The big supermarket chains are desperate to stay off the radar and for politicians there is nothing to be gained by telling consumers that they will inhibit the flow of cheap petrol.

The custodian of competition regulation, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has already made it clear that this is an area within its purview but it won’t be releasing any determinations for another couple of months.

The use by big supermarkets of loyalty shopper dockets reared its head this week for two reasons. The first is that independent grocers instigated an advertising campaign in major newspapers in an attempt to force it on to the political agenda – a move that fell fairly flat.

The second was the release of Caltex’s half-year earnings. The company operates as a supplier to a slew of co-branded fuel outlets with Woolworths.

Caltex did not want to dwell on the shopper docket issue either – other than to point out Coles started the price war and that as a wholesaler it suffered some collateral market share damage until Woolworths stepped in to match its supermarket rival on discounts. In other words Caltex as a wholesale supplier to Woolworths shares none of the pain of discounting, but only suffers if Woolworths loses market share.

Fuel is one of those products economists like to call inelastic – consumers don’t really alter their volume of consumption in response to price. The issue for Coles, Woolworths, suppliers like Caltex and the independent grocers is that discounts move market shares.

The conundrum for the ACCC is that the shopper dockets have been embraced by consumers as a means of lowering their petrol spend, and so to limit them would be extremely unpopular. But to allow unfettered use of discount petrol shopper dockets is to potentially inhibit competition in the longer term from unaligned petrol outlets or independent grocery retailers that may go out of business because they can’t furnish the same discount offers.

The regulator’s determination will address the where-to for Labor. Abbott has already announced the Coalition will undertake a root-and-branch review of competition policy if it wins government. This presumably will include shopper dockets.

No one other than the independent grocers appears to want to give the debate too much air.

For Caltex this issue was a bit of an aside in a result that was influenced by other factors, the largest of which was the Australian dollar.

The sudden fall in the local currency had a bigger effect on what is still (in part) a manufacturer in Australia. It still refines crude oil into various products for industrial and retailer end-users.

A decision to exit part of the refining process (the transition of the Kurnell Refinery into a storage facility) is Caltex’s strategic move away from engaging in the risks associated with local manufacturing.

By the end of next year Kurnell won’t be operating as a refiner.

The effects of this will be, firstly, to increases its earnings dependence on marketing and distribution. The second will be to free up capital that will be either returned to shareholders or reinvested in distribution. Thus in future Caltex will rely more heavily on the market share in retail fuel distribution and its commercial customers.

There are plenty of mini-Caltex operators across the country that have distribution and storage facilities that can fill in some of the geographical gaps and provide opportunities for the company’s incremental growth.

Its success is now tied into broader refiner margins and increasingly on improving the margins on specialist and value-add product. Already the trend by consumers to move away from commoditised unleaded fuel and towards towards premium products is clear.

Sales of unleaded product and E10 fuel were down 5 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

In the commercial space where price competition is also heating up, Caltex says delivering value-added product in partnership with its customers is the strategy for retaining or stealing market share.

Perhaps more importantly the health of the economic environment plays into future performance. Caltex says it does not feel the effects of the fall off in capital spend in mining – instead it gets the upside from the increased volume of commodities that are produced.

Perversely, the fall in the local currency that cost Caltex’s earnings dearly in the the half it just reported will be recouped in future earnings.

Bottom line, operating as a distributor is a far more reliable earnings future than manufacturing in Australia. And it poses the ultimate question of whether there is a future for refining crude oil in Australia.

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More jobs to go as Boart outlook worsens

The speed and depth of the downturn surprised Boart Longyear management.After axing more than 3500 jobs worldwide last year and another 2300 in the first six months of the year, drill contractor Boart Longyear has flagged further cuts amid the ongoing contraction in mining activity.

In the June half it posted a net loss of $US329 million, a reversal from the net profit of $US98 million earned a year earlier, largely due to heavy write-offs and provisions. Revenue slumped to $US719 million from $US1.1 billion.

Putting the restructuring provisions of $US315.5 million to one side, the company said second-half earnings were likely to be worse than the first half, amid declining drill utilisation.

Additionally, price declines across the industry are only now starting to be felt, which will put further pressure on earnings.

Earlier, Boart Longyear had guided analysts to a full-year net profit of between $US116 million and $US159 million, although it warned on Monday that even the lower end of this range could be optimistic. ”Significant industry volatility in the second half could materially impact performance,” it said, opening the door to even weaker results.

”Operating conditions and key performance indicators have continued to deteriorate early in the second half of the year.

”The company expects its second-half 2013 result to be lower than the adjusted result for the first half despite the benefit of restructuring initiatives.”

Investors may not be fully aware of the ”risk of price erosion in the second half and may assume larger benefits in 2013 from the company’s cost reduction efforts than are likely to be achieved”, it warned investors.

”Although I have 30-plus years in the commodity and mining markets, it has surprised me,” the company’s president and chief executive, Richard O’Brien, said of the speed and depth of the downturn.

”We’re fighting against a decline which is unprecedented in a lot of ways. The market will come back, I can’t predict when, but I can tell you it will.”

Boart told investors that it was battening down the hatches for a sustained downturn.

”We are not assuming that the market will come back in the near term, and we are prepared for a difficult rest of 2013 and 2014,” Alan Sides, the group’s drilling division head, told analysts.

The company has become embroiled in a tax dispute with the Canadian government, which alleges transfer pricing, with a claim of $C69 million ($73 million), which could rise further.

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Coal & Allied $45,000 pollution fine 

COAL & Allied has been fined $45,000 for allowing 6 megalitres of polluted water from its Mt Thorley-Warkworth mine to run into a Hunter River tributary

The incident occurred on February 1 and 2 last year (2012) when sediment-laden water was discharged from the mine’s western boundary, adjacent to Charlton Road.

The water then entered a drainage channel, which ran into Salt Pan Creek, Newport Lagoon, Wollombi Brook and then the Hunter River.

The company pleaded guilty in the Land and Environment Court and was convicted of breaching section 120 (1) of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.

In addition to the fine, it was ordered to pay legal costs of $51,000.

A Coal & Allied spokesman said sediment and erosion controls were in place at the time of the event but were unable to contain all the water deposited during the rainfall event.

‘‘Coal & Allied regrets that during a heavy rainfall event in early February 2012, non-mine affected water containing soil from civil works associated with the erection of a visual bund (as required under Mt Thorley’s Approvals), exited Mount Thorley Operations’ western boundary and flowed into land owned by Coal & Allied,’’ he said.

“Coal & Allied has undertaken further works to improve its erosion and sediment control measures at Mount Thorley with more than $500,000 invested in measures such as water channels, sediment controls barriers and enhanced monitoring.”

Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association spokesman John Krey said the fine was appropriate.

‘‘This was a major pollution incident and it’s good to see they have been held to account,’’ he said.

‘‘Mines have to pay more attention to their controls; they are too slack when it comes to dust and noise and now we have seen a serious water pollution incident as well.’’

The Land and Environment Court also ordered Coal and Allied to advertise the breach in newspapers today (Tues, Aug 26).

Coal & Allied’s Mt Thorley-Warkworth mine.

Keeping an eye on the pennies

Not even the children of the nation’s rich and powerful are safe from the powerful money Hoover operated by the cash-hungry Rudd government.

A pair of bank accounts held in the names of AFL boss Andrew Demetriou’s twin daughters have been emptied out into the Commonwealth consolidated revenue fund, a government gazette released on Friday shows.

The gazette names two unclaimed bank accounts, each of $2471.43, belonging to Alexandra Demetriou and her sister Zoe, care of Andrew Demetriou’s $6.8 million home in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Toorak.

Bank accounts from which there are no deposits or withdrawals are transferred to the government after three years – reduced from seven years in December in a move that has so far netted $450 million.

To get the money back, punters need to apply to their banks.

Demetriou is pretty busy right now – finals are fast approaching and on Monday he was sitting at an AFL Commission hearing of charges against the Essendon Football Club over the supplements scandal that has gripped the code.

But, while the AFL boss brought home $1.88 million last year, it appears he is determined to recover the relatively small amount of missing money.

”Yes, he is aware of it with both his daughters and is in the process of reclaiming their money,” AFL spokesman Patrick Keane said.Win for Twiggy

He may have lost on the mining tax, but his investment in biotech Allied Healthcare Group has proved healthy for Fortescue founder Andrew Forrest.

Twiggy quietly increased his stake in Allied to 17.05 per cent on July 30, paying almost $1 million to buy about 20.8 million shares.

That’s a price of about 4.8¢ a share. But the stock’s been on a run since, culminating in a speeding ticket issued by the ASX last week after its price surged from 5.8¢ on August 12 to a peak of 7.6¢ on August 19.

On Monday the company said its cardiovascular patch, CardioCel, had passed European safety rules. Allied closed at 7.9¢, meaning Twiggy has made a quick paper profit of $644,000 on his latest purchase. His entire stake – some 176 million-odd shares – is worth close to $14 million.Rough swells

Management wipeouts at troubled surfwear group Billabong have left the company without a big kahuna to unveil its annual results on Tuesday morning.

Former Target managing director Launa Inman got caught in the rip on August 5, standing down as chief executive when the company agreed to a rescue package with the Altamont consortium.

Former Oakley chief executive Scott Olivet was set to surf into the top job, subject to Takeovers Panel approval – a process the company said ”may take a week or more”.

It’s yet to happen, with the tide turning after the Takeovers Panel forced the Altamont crew to tone down some of its more obnoxious demands and the rival Oaktree-Centerbridge consortium dropping in with a fresh offer.

So who will be head grommet at Tuesday’s dial-in? Apparently the show is to be run by finance chief and acting chief executive Peter Myers, who came from APN in January.

Chairman Ian Pollard will also be on hand.Within Range

Being suspended from the exchange won’t stop Cape Range steaming ahead with its deal to become the listing vehicle for brown coal treatment outfit Exergen, chairman Wayne Johnson insists.

He told CBD Cape Range would pay its ASX fees by August 29 and would be lodging a prospectus this week to raise up to $5 million.

Asked when Cape Range would be back trading on the bourse, he said: ”The timetable we’re targeting is the end of October.”

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Shopper dockets put dent in Caltex result


Oil refiner and marketer Caltex suffered a loss of petrol sales during the June half as Coles ramped up price discounting with its ”shopper dockets”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been reviewing the petrol discount scheme operated by the big supermarket chains, Woolworths and Coles, amid industry-wide criticism it gives them an unfair competitive advantage.

Caltex supplies Woolworths with its petroleum products, giving it a prime exposure to the supermarket wars.

Caltex made the disclosure when unveiling a profit for the June half of $195 million, up from $167 million a year earlier, as it benefited from inventory gains on the oil price movement. Revenue totalled $11.5 billion, down from $11.8 billion a year earlier.

Inventory gains flattered earnings by $24 million in the half, compared with losses of $30 million in the year earlier period.

A steady interim dividend of 17¢ a share was declared. Earnings per share in the half rose to 72.2¢ from 61.8¢ a year earlier.

Stripping out the impact of oil price movements and profits fell to $171 million on a so-called replacement cost basis from $197 million a year earlier, coming in at the upper end of its recent guidance of $160 million to $175 million.

Supply disruptions at the Lytton refinery in Brisbane and to premium product supplies in Sydney, along with the slide in the Australian dollar, wiped an estimated $20 million off earnings, it said.

The currency alone cost $39 million, which would have been $85 million but for a group policy of hedging 50 per cent of its foreign exchange exposure.

In the supermarket wars, Caltex said Woolworths had been slow in responding to the discounting by Coles, which had pressured deliveries for a time.

By the end of the June half, the discounting had stabilised, with volumes returning to usual levels.

Caltex has consistently refused to signal the extent of the supplies made to Woolworths, only pointing out that while it is an important outlet it acts as a wholesaler, so the margins are modest.

Sales volumes of unleaded fuel and ethanol mix fuels remained soft, Caltex said, although it was continuing to benefit from a shift to sales of premium product for both petroleum and diesel product lines.

Sales of premium petrol rose 4 per cent, and would have topped 5 per cent but for supply disruptions in the Sydney market.

Despite concerns over a slowdown in resource sector activity, Caltex said it was continuing to ship rising volumes to the sector, where it is benefiting from the need to tap deeper ore bodies in both the coal and iron ore sectors as shallower reserves are mined out.

As the ratio of overburden being shifted rises, this is flowing through to rising diesel volumes, it said.

This could lift volumes by as much as 30 per cent.

Analysts were wary of recommending Caltex shares due to ”execution risks” in closing Kurnell, earnings volatility from the Lytton refinery and potential for increased marketing competition from rivals.

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Billabong to unveil huge losses

Billabong’s core markets have reflected sales and earnings collapses. Photo: Glenn HuntStruggling surfwear group Billabong is expected to unveil huge write-downs leading to a $560 million full-year loss on Tuesday morning, with the company’s future still in doubt as rival private equity funds wrestle over competing refinancing deals.

Analyst consensus is for Billabong, which owns a global portfolio of surf, streetwear and fashion brands, to report a pre-abnormal profit of $10.2 million with investors eager to get more clarity about management’s strategic direction of the business in the wake of tough trading conditions.

In February Billabong revealed sales and earnings collapses across

its core markets of the Americas, Europe and Australasia had decimated its business, triggering more than half a billion dollars in impairment charges and write-downs. It reported a loss of $536.6 million for the December half.

But any discussion about the resuscitation of the business is expected to be crashed by private equity bidders and their advisers who have been jostling for nearly a year to seize control of Billabong.

The battle has intensified over the past 10 days after a successful bid from Altamont Capital and Blackstone was reworked following an adverse ruling from the Takeovers Panel, only to be trumped a few days later by the rival Centerbridge Partners-Oaktree Capital consortium, which claims to have put up a better deal for Billabong and its shareholders.

Billabong has said it will be moving ahead with the $US325million refinancing proposal from Altamont and Blackstone with documents to be prepared for a shareholder vote by October.

However, Centerbridge and Oaktree have fired back, saying their fresh proposal, delivered to Billabong directors last week, is a vastly better offer in terms of takeover premium extended to shareholders, the level of debt to be left in the group and the interest rate it would charge on its loan component.

Centerbridge and Oaktree are working intensively to push Billabong directors to consider their deal, also claiming they could wrap up the details and finalise a recapitalisation within days.

The duo claim they would allow acting Billabong boss Scott Olivet – installed by Altamont – to remain at the helm if their offer succeeds. However, it is believed Mr Olivet has told Billabong directors he would not work with Centerbridge and Oaktree and would resign.

Meanwhile, shareholders seeking some hope of a resurrection of Billabong’s fortunes will be updated on trading conditions for the surf and streetwear market when the fiscal 2013 results are released.

A previous strategic plan delivered by former CEO Launa Inman aimed to simplify the business, leverage its brands, improve the retail performance and effect supply chain efficiencies.

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BHP to trim debt before special return

BHP Billiton could be several years away from treating shareholders to a special round of returns, according to guidance that chief executive Andrew Mackenzie gave recently.

Mr Mackenzie told UBS that he was unlikely to conduct a round of share buybacks or award a special dividend until the company’s debt was below $US25 billion.

At last count, BHP’s debt was just over $US29 billion, and UBS does not expect the company to be able to pay that down much during the 2014 financial year.

In a research note, UBS analyst Glyn Lawcock said BHP might wait until the 2016 financial year before conducting a special round of shareholder returns.

”At [$US25 billion] or lower, the CEO said he felt that the balance sheet would be at a level which would provide the company with flexibility and ensure the maintenance of a single-A credit rating,” Mr Lawcock wrote.

Mr Mackenzie told UBS that share buybacks were more likely than a special dividend given the company’s dual-listed structure.

BHP has been under pressure to increase shareholder returns in recent years, and has a progressive dividend policy that incrementally increases payouts to shareholders every year. Shareholders were last week awarded a full-year dividend of $US1.16, which was 4 per cent bigger than the payout the year before.

Mr Mackenzie’s comments on shareholder returns come after a five-year period during which BHP shareholders went backwards in terms of total shareholder returns, but fared better than investors in most other big miners.

Meanwhile, BHP has confirmed that one of its most senior executives over recent years, Marcus Randolph, will retire from the company within a week.

The gregarious Mr Randolph spent close to six years in charge of BHP’s iron ore and coal divisions, and was long touted as one of the favourites to replace former chief executive Marius Kloppers.

He recently returned after spending much of 2013 on sick leave, but will now depart on September 2.

Mr Randolph’s departure was not the only change announced by BHP on Monday, with a new face set to join the company’s powerful ”group management committee” (GMC).

BHP’s human relations boss, Mike Fraser, has been elevated to the GMC, and will carry the title ”president of human relations”.

The elevation was made possible by splitting in half the ”people and public affairs” role that GMC member Karen Wood has held over recent years.

Ms Wood will continue at the company as president of public affairs and remain on the GMC.

Mr Fraser has spent 13 years at BHP, serving in South Africa, Mozambique and at the company’s headquarters in Melbourne.

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