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Getting out of the Market in Retirement?

A reader writes in, asking:

“An acquaintance emailed recently to ask input on her portfolio. She said her ultimate goal is to get out of the stock market. This woman and her husband are both retired and in their early 70s I think, with no extreme wealth. I assume they are comfortable enough but live simply and likely need to watch expenses.

When I asked what her concerns were about the market, she replied ‘political objections, volatility, ignorance..lack of control..risk aversion..Would consider investing in something I could believe in..’

Can you point me to any resources (articles, books, charts) that clearly explain why getting out of the market probably isn’t a good idea?

Any thoughts about how to respond to something like this?”

The idea of getting in and out of the stock market necessitates a belief that the market is predictable in the short-term. And it is not.

People are always looking for ways to predict short-term market movements — a reliable such method is basically the holy grail of investing. Of course, nobody ever finds it. For example, here is a well known study that looked at over 5,000 different trading rules and found that they “do not add value beyond what may be expected by chance.”

The best stock market predictor I am aware of is the concept of valuations (which can be measured in an assortment of related ways). It’s useful (though not at all perfect) for longer-term predictions, but essentially useless for short-term predictions. Here’s a recent article from Larry Swedroe on that topic.

But a separate question is whether a retiree might want to permanently get out of the stock market (i.e., not attempting to move back and forth between stocks and bonds at advantageous times, but rather simply electing to have a permanent 0% allocation to stocks).

And that isn’t necessarily such a bad idea, depending on circumstances. Many experts think it’s entirely reasonable (wise even) to prioritize building a sufficient pool of safe assets to fund retirement before allocating any part of a retirement-stage portfolio to stocks.

For example, the following two quotes come from Bill Bernstein’s book The Ages of the Investor.

“As one approaches the end of one’s human capital and hopefully has accumulated enough investment capital to safely offset the expense of retirement living, it makes little sense to put at risk the funds earmarked for retirement living expenses. In other words, once the game has been won by accumulating enough safe assets to retire on, it makes little sense to keep playing it, at least with the ‘number’: the pile of safe assets sufficient to directly provide or indirectly purchase an adequate lifetime income stream.”

“If, at any point, a bull market pushes your portfolio over the LMP [liability matching portfolio] ‘magic number’ of 20 to 25 times your annual cash-flow needs beyond Social Security and pensions, you’ve won the investing game. Why keep playing? Start bailing. After you’ve put enough TIPS, plain vanilla Treasuries, and CDs into your mental LMP, you’re free to start adding again to your RP [risk portfolio].”

Or as many people have quoted him since: “if you’ve won the game, why keep playing?”

When comparing various stock/bond allocations, this 2015 paper/article from Wade Pfau may be of interest. In that paper, we can see that once we look at horizons greater than 20 years, it becomes clear that having some stocks is helpful relative to an all-bond portfolio, in the sense that those stocks will reduce the likelihood of running out of money.

But there are important caveats:

  • Probability of portfolio depletion is not the only relevant metric here. In the failure scenarios, we don’t just care that a failure occurred (i.e., portfolio was depleted), we want to know when it occurred. That is, in the scenarios in which the portfolio is depleted prior to death, it makes a big difference to the retiree whether the depletion occurred 15 years into retirement or 25 years into retirement. And a risky allocation can result in depleting the portfolio sooner than would be the case with a super safe allocation.
  • If the goal is just to maximize spending over their lifetimes in as safe a way as possible, a boring (likely inflation-adjusted) joint lifetime annuity is probably the best tool for the job rather than stocks.

With regard to that first caveat, this paper from Joe Tomlinson may be of interest.

Key questions that could help determine how much of their portfolio should be annuitized (and how to allocate the non-annuitized portfolio) would be:

  1. What type of health are they in (i.e., what type of planning horizon is necessary)?
  2. How much (what percentage of the portfolio) is the couple hoping to spend per year?
  3. How flexible is the answer to #2?
  4. How strong is their “bequest motive” (i.e., desire to leave behind money to heirs)?

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

A Rough, General-Purpose Retirement Plan

For a few years now I’ve been talking about a basic “cookie cutter” sort of Social Security plan (i.e., an approach that works reasonably well in most cases) and about factors that would suggest that a person or couple should make adjustments to such a plan.

I’ve been thinking recently that it might be fun/useful to extend that same type of thinking to a broader range of retirement planning areas. So here’s my attempt to do just that.

And just to be super clear about something that is hopefully obvious given the brevity of this article: there are many, many cases in which the suggestions below would not be the best approach for an actual person, due to their personal circumstances. I have mentioned some of the circumstances that would suggest alternative approaches, but in each of the topics below there are plenty of potential factors that I have not mentioned.

Social Security

If you’re single, delay claiming benefits until somewhere in the 68-70 range. If you’re married, the spouse with the higher earnings record files at 70, and the spouse with the lower earnings record files as early as possible (62 and 1 month in most cases).

Some of the circumstances that would suggest an adjustment to such a strategy include:

  • You are single and are in very poor health (in which case you should file earlier),
  • You are married and both spouses are in good health (lower earner should file somewhat later) or very bad health (higher earner should file somewhat earlier),
  • The lower earning spouse is working beyond age 62 (in which case they should usually wait to file until they quit work or have reached full retirement age),
  • You have minor children or adult disabled children (may be a reason for the higher earner to file earlier), or
  • You or your spouse will be receiving a government pension (could affect the decision in either direction).

Tax Planning (Retirement Account Distributions)

Try to “smooth out” your taxable income over the course of your retirement.

For example, if you retire at age 60 but don’t plan to take Social Security until 70, you have a 10-year window during which your income will be markedly lower than it has been in the past (because you’re retired) and lower than it will be in the future (because neither Social Security nor RMDs have started yet). So it’s likely wise to spend from tax-deferred accounts and likely do some Roth conversions during that 10-year window — with the goal being to shift income from future years (which would otherwise be higher-income years) into the current lower-income years (i.e., smoothing out your taxable income over time).

To be clear, that’s somewhat of a simplification. In reality you want to try to smooth your marginal tax rate — rather than taxable income — over time. That is, if your marginal tax rate now is lower than it will be later, try to shift income from future years into this year. (And it’s key to remember that your marginal tax rate is often quite different from your tax bracket, especially during retirement.)

Spending Rate

Firstly, set aside (in something safe, such as a short-term bond fund) enough money to fund any Social Security delay that will be happening. For example, if you are forgoing $150,000 of Social Security benefits by waiting from 62 until 70, set aside $150,000 in something safe in order to fund the extra spending necessary until age 70. Then, from the remainder of the portfolio, use the IRS RMD table (i.e., “Uniform Lifetime table“) to calculate a spending amount each year. And for years prior to 70, use the same overall age-based approach — with a lower rate of spending the younger you are.

We discussed this overall strategy last year, and you can find a paper here from Steve Vernon that discusses it in more depth. Broadly speaking though, basing spending on RMD percentages has two main advantages:

  • It adjusts spending over time based on portfolio performance, rather than spending a fixed inflation-adjusted amount each year of retirement, and
  • It adjusts spending based on your remaining life expectancy (i.e., it accounts for the fact that you can afford to spend a larger percentage of your portfolio per year when you are age 90 than when you’re age 60).

Circumstances that could suggest an adjustment to such a strategy:

  • You have an unusually long or short life expectancy,
  • Real interest rates are very high or very low,
  • Market valuations are very high or very low, or
  • Your portfolio makes up a relatively small part of your overall financial picture. (For instance if you have a government pension that covers all of your major needs, you can spend from your portfolio at a faster rate, if you so desire — because, unlike many retirees, you would not be in an especially bad situation if you depleted, or nearly depleted, your portfolio.)

Asset Allocation

There’s a huge range of asset allocations that could be reasonable for a retirement portfolio (i.e., the portfolio that does not include the fixed sum that is set aside for the purpose of delaying Social Security).

  • Want a 70% stock, 30% bond portfolio? Go for it.
  • Prefer a 30% stock, 70% bond portfolio? That’s cool too.
  • Want to exclude international stocks completely? Sure.
  • Prefer to have a heftier 30-50% international stock allocation? Knock yourself out.
  • Want to use only Treasury bonds for your fixed-income holdings? That’s reasonable.
  • Prefer to use a “total bond” fund instead? Super.

One key point — something that surprises many people — is that a higher stock allocation (or any allocation decision that shifts things toward more risk and more expected return) tends to result in only a relatively modest increase in the amount you can safely spend per year early in retirement. The higher expected returns are, to a significant extent, offset by the increased unpredictability. (For related reading, here’s Wade Pfau’s 2018 update to the Trinity Study — though of course that has to be considered with all the usual caveats about using historical returns to try to plan for the future.)

The more dramatic impacts of higher-risk, higher-expected return allocations are that they tend to mean more volatility (duh) and a greater chance of either a) leaving a large sum to your heirs or b) increasing spending later in retirement.

Insurance

If you are retired, you probably don’t need life insurance, as it’s likely that you have no dependents anymore. One noteworthy case in which you likely would want life insurance as a retiree would be if you still have minor children or if you have an adult disabled child. Another case in which a retiree might want life insurance is if they’re married and a major portion of their total income comes from a pension with a small survivor benefit amount.

If you are retired you almost certainly don’t need disability insurance. Disability insurance exists to replace income that you’d be unable to earn if you’re unable to work. But if you aren’t working anyway (i.e., you’re retired), you don’t need it.

Health insurance is a must-have. If retiring prior to Medicare eligibility, make sure you have a very specific, well-researched plan for health insurance. The Affordable Care Act makes it possible to get insurance, but make sure you have a good idea of the cost, and make sure you have researched plans to know what they cover — though of course it’s subject to change every year.

Long-term care insurance is a genuine predicament, regardless of what decision you make. If you don’t buy it, you could potentially be on the hook for huge costs. If you do buy it, you might be faced with premiums that rise rapidly and unpredictably. (Other related products to consider are “hybrid” long-term care annuities or long-term care life insurance, but those both have their problems as well.)

Having proper liability insurance (including an umbrella policy, in many cases) continues to be important. In fact, it’s likely more important than at any prior point, given that during retirement you are more dependent on maintaining your assets than you are at earlier stages.

As far as longevity risk (i.e., the risk of outliving your money, because you live well beyond your life expectancy), lifetime annuities (whether immediate or deferred) can provide protection. The downside is that they reduce your liquidity/flexibility, reduce the amount you’re likely to leave to your heirs, and usually come with significant inflation risk. Delaying Social Security provides the same type of protection at a much better cost — and with an inflation adjustment. So purchasing such an annuity generally only makes sense if you are already age 70 and still want additional longevity protection (or if you are already planning to delay Social Security to 70 and still want additional longevity protection).

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

Lifetime Annuity: Avoid the Period Certain

A reader writes in, asking:

“Can you please write an article about SPIAs with guarantees of a minimum payout period?”

For those who are unfamiliar, a single premium immediate lifetime annuity (sometimes referred to as a SPIA) is an insurance product where you give the insurance company a lump sum of money (which you cannot get back) and in exchange the insurance company promises to pay you a certain amount of money every month for the rest of your life. In short, it’s a pension that you purchase from an insurance company.

Such annuities are useful because they protect against longevity risk (i.e., the financial risk that comes from living very long and therefore having to pay for a very long retirement).

One thing that stops many people from buying such annuities, however, is the fear that they’ll die soon after purchasing the annuity. For example, if you spend $100,000 on a SPIA that pays you $6,000 per year for the rest of your life, but the rest of your life only turns out to be a couple of years, you will have had a net loss of $88,000.

And that’s why insurance companies offer the option to purchase a “period certain,” whereby the insurance company promises to pay out for at least a given period of time. For example, for a lifetime annuity with a 10-year period certain, the insurance company promises to pay out for the rest of your life but no less than 10 years. (So if you died after two years, the insurance company would continue to make payments for another 8 years to your named beneficiary.)

Of course, because of this guarantee, a lifetime annuity with a period certain will cost more (i.e., will require a higher premium) for a given level of income than you would have to pay for a lifetime annuity without a period certain.

Why a Period Certain Is a Bad Deal

The whole point of insurance is risk pooling. For example, consider 1,000 people who purchase homeowners insurance from a given insurance company. Most of those people will not have their homes destroyed by a fire or a tornado. And that fact — the fact that the insurance company is going to collect money from all of those people without ultimately having to make a huge payout to them — is how the insurance company can afford to make a huge payout to the person whose home is destroyed by a fire.

A key point, however, is that for every dollar that an insurance company receives in premiums, they keep some part of it to cover their administrative costs and to provide profit to shareholders. So only some of the money spent on premiums ultimately goes to pay for claims to people purchasing the insurance product in question. So in general it is unwise to purchase an insurance product unless:

  1. There is risk pooling going on (i.e., many people are going to ultimately get a bad deal so that some people can get a very good deal), and
  2. You need such risk pooling (i.e., you cannot reasonably afford to cover this risk out of pocket on your own).

With a lifetime annuity, risk pooling occurs because some annuitants will die prior to reaching their life expectancy (i.e., the insurance company will pay less than the “expected” amount to those people — which is how it can afford to pay more than the “expected” amount to the people who live beyond their life expectancy).

But if the insurance company is providing a period certain, it knows it must pay out for that entire period. In other words, the annuity then offers no risk pooling for that period. Instead, what’s occurring for that period is just the insurance company gradually paying your money back to you — after taking a piece off the top for profit and expenses — without any actual net insurance effect.

In most cases you would be better off investing the money yourself for the period certain, then buying the annuity at the end of that period. (Of note: if you would be considering a 10-year period certain, don’t buy 10-year bonds. Instead buy longer-term bonds to offset the interest rate risk that you face with the annuity purchase. See this prior article and this Bogleheads discussion for a more thorough explanation.)

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

61: The Magic Retirement Age?

David Blanchett of Morningstar recently released a piece of research discussing the uncertainty of retirement age: The Retirement Mirage (pdf). I linked to it in the most recent roundup, but I wanted to highlight its findings, as I know that any single article in a roundup can be easy to miss.

Blanchett looked at 12 years of data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The HRS is interesting because it tracks a large group of people (approximately 20,000) over a period of time, so you can see how people’s circumstances and views change over time.

Blanchett learned two interesting things from the HRS data.

First, he found that you’re likely to retire closer to age 61 than you think. In Blanchett’s words:

“According to the Health and Retirement Study data, planned and actual retirement ages align at 61, with those planning to retire earlier than that tending to retire later than expected, and those planning to retire after 61 tending to retire earlier than expected. In other words, actual retirement ages pull toward 61, with each retirement year planned before or after age 61 resulting in a half-year’s difference in actual retirement age. For example, someone who plans to retire at age 69 will likely retire at age 65 (69 – 61 = 8 × 0.5 = 4; 69 – 4 = 65)”

Of those planning an early retirement, many are ultimately unable to retire as early as planned.

And of those planning on working well into their 60s, many are unable to do so for one reason or another. (Alternatively, some people are probably retiring earlier than anticipated because they’re finding that they do not need to work as far into their 60s as planned.)

So, what might help us to predict who will be in the “retiring earlier than planned” or “retiring later than planned” groups? That leads us to Blanchett’s second noteworthy finding:

“The rich HRS data set allowed us to test more than a dozen factors, including general personal characteristics such as gender, marital status, and education, along with factors that might be expected to lead to retiring early, such as job stress level, how physical a job is, and whether health problems limit someone’s work. However, these factors had little or no predictive power on retiring early. The only factor that appeared to tell us much about when someone might retire was their planned retirement age and its distance from the previously noted ‘magic’ retirement age of 61. […] Not only do many people retire earlier than expected, but it’s nearly impossible to predict who will be part of this group.”

This obviously presents some challenges as far as retirement planning. But it also suggests a few financial/life strategies that are likely to be worthwhile.

If you’re planning an early retirement, keep your professional skills sharp, as there’s a good chance you’ll be working longer than you anticipate. Also, if you’re currently in the position of “grinding it out” at a job that you hate, with the hope of being happy once you achieve an early retirement, you may want to consider a different approach. “Just 2 more years” could well turn out to be 3, 4, or 5 more years. Focusing instead on making changes that allow you to be happy while still working is likely to be a good idea.

At the other end of the spectrum, if for example you are currently age 60 and planning to work until 68, socking away that last chunk of necessary retirement savings may be more urgent than you think. Retirement may ultimately be something that happens to you, rather than a decision you make.

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

Investing Blog Roundup: 2018 “Can I Retire” Now Available

The 2018 edition of Can I Retire is now available (print edition here, Kindle edition here). That’s (finally) the last of the 2018 updates to reflect the new tax law. To be clear, the biggest change with this update is simply new tax information. So if you’ve read a prior edition, there’s probably not a lot to be gained from buying/reading the new edition as well.

For anybody who hasn’t yet read the book and is curious what’s in it, the table of contents is as follows:

Part One: How Much Money Will You Need to Retire?

1. How Much Income Will You Need?
Calculating your expenses
Adjusting for inflation
Adjusting for taxes
Adjusting for pensions, Social Security, and other income

2. Safe Withdrawal Rates: The 4% “Rule”
Why only 4%?
Volatility is bad news when selling.
Sequence of returns risk
It’s only a guideline.

3. What if 4% Isn’t Enough?
Possible options
Increasing returns isn’t easy.

4. Retirement Planning with Annuities
What is a SPIA?
Annuity income: Is it safe?
Minimizing your risk

5. How Much (and When) to Annuitize
Creating a safe floor
Annuitizing as a backup plan
Social Security as an annuity

Part Two: Managing a Retirement-Stage Portfolio

6. Asset Allocation in Retirement
Assessing your risk tolerance
There’s no “right” answer.
Stocks vs. bonds
Bond risk levers
Stock risk levers
Rebalancing your portfolio

7. Index funds and ETFs vs. Active Funds

8. 401(k) Rollovers
Reasons to roll over a 401(k)
Reasons not to roll over a 401(k)
How and where to roll over a 401(k)

Part Three: Tax Planning in Retirement

9. Roth Conversions
Roth conversions & retirement planning
How to execute a Roth conversion
Roth conversions of nondeductible contributions

10. Distribution Planning
Fill your 0% tax bracket
Taxable account before retirement accounts
Roth before tax-deferred?
Social Security: It’s complicated.

11. Asset Location
Tax-shelter your bonds
The role of interest rates
Tax-shelter your REITs
Foreign tax credit

12. Other Tips for Taxable Accounts

Again, you can find the book here on Amazon.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

Building a Safe Floor of Retirement Income — in Advance

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’ve been reading about the safety first school of retirement planning because I think that appeals to me more than the probability method of just spending from risky investments and assuming everything will ‘probably’ be okay. My question is how to start putting such a plan into action in advance.

With the old school probability method, I would just keep building my mutual fund holdings, possibly rebalancing to hold more bonds instead of stocks. The ‘safety first’ method focuses on delaying social security or buying an annuity. But I can’t delay social security until I’m 62. And I can’t, or shouldn’t, buy an annuity in my 50’s either. So what should I, as a safety first investor in my 50’s, be doing right now in the years leading up to retirement?”

As a bit of background for readers unfamiliar with the terms, there are two broad schools of thought with regard to retirement planning. The first school of thought plans to finance retirement spending primarily via liquidating a mutual fund portfolio (or a portfolio of individual stocks/bonds) over time. This approach relies heavily on historical studies and/or Monte Carlo simulations to calculate how safe a certain level of spending is, given various assumptions. This approach is sometimes referred to as the “probability” school of thought, because it focuses on metrics such as “probability of portfolio depletion.”

The second approach essentially says, “I don’t want to bet my retirement on the validity of such studies/assumptions. I’d rather lock in sufficient safe income (e.g., via annuities, pension, Social Security) to satisfy my needs and only use mutual funds to finance my discretionary spending.” This school of thought it sometimes referred to as the “safety first” or “safe floor” method of retirement planning.

The answer to the reader’s question about how to start implementing a “safety first” plan in advance is that you start building a TIPS ladder (or other bond ladder, or CD ladder) that you will use to fund your spending while you delay Social Security, or to fund your annuity purchase.

To plan in advance for delaying Social Security, you would allocate a portion of the portfolio to a bond ladder that will provide the necessary cash each year for 8 years. For example, if you’re passing up $1,500 per month ($18,000 per year) for 8 years, you could start building an 8-year bond ladder, with roughly $18,000 maturing each year.

If Social Security at age 70 still doesn’t give you a sufficient “safe floor” of income to meet your needs/satisfy your risk tolerance, then you should start thinking about a lifetime annuity.

To start planning in advance for an annuity purchase, you’d do something similar — build up bond holdings that you would eventually use to fund the purchase. What’s different about this, relative to delaying Social Security, is that you don’t know how much the annuity will cost. For example, if you anticipate buying a lifetime annuity at age 70 that pays $10,000 per year, there’s no way to know right now (in your 50s) how much that annuity will cost, because you don’t know how high or low interest rates will be when you turn 70.

The solution, rather than buying a bunch of bonds that mature when you turn 70, would be to work on building bond holdings that, when you turn 70, will still have a duration roughly equal to that of the annuity you expect to purchase. This way, the market value of your bonds will rise/fall along with the cost of such an annuity, helping to offset the interest rate risk that you face with the annuity purchase. (Here’s a great Bogleheads thread on that topic.)

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."
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