17 Jul 2015, 10:21pm
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  • Windfall for tourists as Carney trails interest rate rise

    The Grauniad tells us it’s a good time to be a British tourist, all thanks to that Carney chap trailing an interest rate rise. I can’t help feeling that empty promises of  rising interest rates are just like a lasting solution to the Greek predicament, this is a movie that we’ve seen before and will see again – announcement of interest rate rise only to welch on the deal when push comes to shove. But a lot of people seem to buy it. Or perhaps they’re pissed off with the Grexit shenaigans. Either way, we’re back in 2007 again in relative terms to the Euro, though we are all still flat on our financial backs with stars going round in front of our eyes. And that’s before you even think of Greece.

    1507_eurogbpNow an Ermine could take the opportunity to hit Eurotunnel, duel with the myriad desperados and striking Frenchmen, and join the massed ranks of British wage slaves on their annual family two weeks in the sun, or I could think to myself maybe I’ll pass on that. I’ve always avoided school holidays for travelling anywhere because it’s damned hot and the price goes up and, well l’enfer c’est les autres avec leur fractious rugrats on public transport in the heat of summer. After 30 years of avoiding this sort of fun I’m not about to start now.

    Nevertheless, perhaps I could take some of my ISA for a summer holiday. Last year I was a forced seller and sold IDJV 1 for about £16 because it had fallen to what I had paid for it. It was unwrapped, I’d already maxed my CGT allowance so I couldn’t sell any of the rest of my holdings at a profit even though I needed the cash, hence I had to borrow some. Now it’s still a bit higher than that at £16.91, so I’ve told TD to let me know if it falls to a bit below what I sold at, because then I can effectively bed and ISA this over six months.

    All sorts of other foreign stuff will get cheaper. Now the other side of the coin is that all the foreign stuff that I already own will go down the toilet a bit. As it is this isn’t a hugge issue for me as I am hopelessly unbalanced worldwide

    Ermine total equity distribution

    Ermine total equity distribution

    because my HYP is the largest lump and it’s UK biased. Index True Believers would sell off half of that and pump up that devxUK and EM. I’m okay with buying EM and have done some of that already, and it bleeds now of course 😉 I’m not touching the US at current valuations but I would quite like to see some of that IDJV, in my ISA this time thanks very much. I’m not in a great hurry – 1550 would do me well. I should probably knock it off on the EM and lift some bombed out dev world. The problem is that as the ISA gets larger the annual steering wheel of new contributions gets smaller compared to the overall size. Since I don’t sell and I bought a lot of the HYP in the bombed out years of 2009 to 2011 I’m going to have a hard time balancing this out a bit. But a high pound and a low Euro helps…

    So you can keep your sea, sun and sand. I’ll get my summertime kicks on the market, particularly if the Greeks go and scare the horses a bit more. I like hot lazy summers of snarl in the markets.

    Notes:

    1. IDJV is basically Eurozone big fish.
    15 Jul 2015, 11:00am
    personal finance:
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  • UK government pensions consultation

    I shouldn’t think there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t read Monevator, but there’s apparently a consultation on about UK pensions. Props to The Accumulator for trying to sift the mutually contradictory desiderata in the comments thread into a narrative suitable for Her Majesty’s Government, who will probably file the results in the round filing cabinet on the floor.

    Nobody actually does a consultation to find anything out, they do it to put a veneer of faux democracy on the decision they are going to take anyway. Most of the motivated commenters are richer though not necessarily wealthier than I am 1, so the issue of the life time average and the annual contribution limits exercise many. I would have been sore about the annual limits as set now but I didn’t have £225,000 handy to put into a pension when I was going for it so I was okay. This isn’t my problem any more, because once I am 55 I won’t have space to avoid paying tax on pensions, so more pension saving isn’t useful to me. In the unlikely event that I decide to become a wage slave/productive member of society again I’ll just have to suck it up and pay tax, as my personal allowance will already be eaten up by existing income. Which is obviously a disincentive to putting my shoulder to the wheel of raising Britain’s dreadful productivity, though I will show later that it appears the Government has already decided I am over the hill in contributing to STEM activities, so it’ll be making knick-knacks on Etsy for me then. Bollocks to that, Iain Duncan-Smith. That’s the joy of financial independence – being able to issue that command.

    I paid less tax in my last three years by using pension saving than probably at any time throughout my working life even though I was in theory a 40% taxpayer. Yes it would be nice if I could save more than £3600 p.a. into a pension now and get back the tax, but so what.

    The straws in the wind are that the Government want to do for the 40% and up tax relief on pensions, perhaps making it about 33% for everyone, because the people they want to incentivise are basic rate taxpayers, higher rate taxpayers are rich enough to sort themselves out. It’s worth observing that a basic rate taxpayer can get 32% tax beneift if you can save into a pension by salary sacrifice, because the contribution comes off your pay before NI and tax are charged. But that’s for some future budget. Let’s just say that I am not yet putting my £3600 into a pension because if I can get 33% rather than 20% relief it will cost me £2400 rather than £2880. It’s not a huge amount of difference but it’s worth waiting till March 2016 for.

    The overall feeling seem to be that the well off and the rich have been making hay on the pensions front and this will get screwed down. In some ways pensions are an odd incentive – the government is encouraging people like me to leave the workforce early, some 8 years (relative to The Firm’s NRA) to 15 years (relative to my State Pension Age), while at the same time hollering that the country is short of scientists and engineers. I am tickled by the casual ageism of the Government’s report on High Level STEM Skills – supply and demand

    However, it is the inflow of new STEM graduates that is more likely to help ensure workers have knowledge of the latest science and technology – retaining older individuals does not do this.

    That’s the trouble with those old dogs – you just can’t teach ’em new tricks 😉 Bless. What they are saying is that we need young scientists and engineers – the Zuckerberg doctrine at work.

    away with ye - dead wood in the white heat of technology

    away with ye – weed out dead wood in the white heat of technology

    I have heard the theory that while the artistic side of CP Snow’s Two Cultures deepens and matures with age Zuckerberg may have a point in technology that young people are just smarter –  it seems echoed at GOV.UK 😉  I also observe that companies can’t be bothered to train young people in their specialisms these days – to wit:

    A representative of one of the major engineering companies noted, “For mechanical engineering, I would agree [there is no shortage]. However, for electrical / electronics, there are simply not enough graduates with the right degree and employers are trying to recruit from a small pool of those with the right degree content (i.e. higher-voltage direct current is a pre-requisite for the transmission and distribution industry: there the supply of graduates is inadequate)”.

    You, Mr Representative, are the problem, because of the fecklessness of your company. When I joined the BBC, with their specialism of colour TV, they damn well trained their graduate entry for a few weeks into the intricacies of the subject at their training facility in Wood Norton. You go to university to learn how to learn, and grasp the high-level aspects of your chosen field. Exactly what part of investing in people does this damn company not understand?

    The upshot seems to be that the Government wants to spend less on pensions tax relief, and in particular less on pensions tax relief for the well-heeled. This was also a theme of the Coalition government before this one. The Tories clearly have the interests of old money at heart with their fondness for inherited wealth and the iniquity that goes with that encouraged in the Summer Budget, but they are perhaps less fond of the nouveaux riche and their tax avoidance through the pension system. Hence the double targeting of the lifetime allowance, aiming to limit tax-advantaged pension income to about £40k (SWR of 4% on a lifetime allowance that seems to be trending towards £1,000,000, currently £1,250,000) and limiting the annual contribution rate to £40,000. The combination seems a bit rough – elementary arithmetic shows a young pup in the finance industry could just about make it, if he gets his running shoes on and saves the full £40k every year from graduating at 21 to becoming a greybeard at 52 (how many 52-year olds are there in finance?) but he better not want to buy a house, he needs to be prepared to eat ramen in those first few years and not inflate his lifestyle. In practice it’s not quite as bad as that, compound interest typically doubles the real value of savings over a 40-year working life, but it’s not going to be easy to reach the lifetime allowance with the annual allowance.

    I don’t understand the double whammy. There’s a case to be made for the lifetime allowance – there’s no need to tax-favour pension incomes of more than twice the median wage, but I don’t really see the point of the annual allowance limitation. And I certainly don’t agree with having both limits in place – one of the other seems okay. People’s careers vary much more than they used to, and the lifetime allowance sets a target of saying ‘this much income can be saved tax-advantaged, no more’. The annual allowance arbitrarily limits the capacity of the feckless Johnny-come-latelys to fix their pension savings in their forties and fifties – not everybody is a Steady Eddie on this.

    Notes:

    1. you are rich by the size of your wad and/or income. You are wealthy by how much of your income is committed/how many years your wad will maintain your lifestyle – open-ended for the financially independent. There is correlation but not necessarily causation between the two, because of the astronomical variation in lifestyle costs
    14 Jul 2015, 4:51pm
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  • hunting with dogs – class war by the aristocracy

    Gawd bless the Establishment, eh. Class war is normally the province of lefty sorts, but there’s a fightback on the cards at the moment. Hot on the heels of George Osborne’s boost to retaining ancestral wealth tax-free with his inheritance tax reductions for housing, because any fule kno that what Britain really needs in future is more expensive housing.

    You have to love the aristocracy, it made Britain what it is today. It owns more than half the land in Britain – in 2004 less than half of the land in England was on the cadastral records, for the simple reason that it had remained in the same family for over a hundred years.All the rest of us and our towns and cities make do with less than half of this green and pleasant land. And no, I don’t want Mugabe style land seizures – just that the noble inheritance tax that facilitated the middle class owning the freehold on their hovels in the ‘burbs 1continues to maintain the fight against the understandable but socially negative process of people favouring the fruit of their loins with the fruits of their labour – after they are gone and pushing up daisies.

    In an attempt to roll back the clock from the cheese-eating metrosexual times of 2004, Cameron and his chums want to restore the ancient tradition of charging around the countryside on horseback with a load of dogs with the aim of tearing a fox apart –

    The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable

    Oscar Wilde

    I think Call Me Dave lacks ambition on this rural sports lark. Yes, it’s animal cruelty, but jolly japes, it’s such good fun, Carruthers. Obviously the bleeding hearts moan, but although Britain claims to be a nation of animal lovers, the popularity of the Tesco £2 chicken raised on factory farms and the way we keep pigs indoors for cheap pork gives the lie to all that. So many of those townies who bitched about animal cruelty with foxhunting just do it by proxy to save money, who are they to demand we give up our ancestral right to hunt foxes. It’s vermin control on the cheap, and you get to dress up in red coats and put some sweat on the hounds and steeds. Tally-ho and all that.

    No, the problem is that we need leadership on this front, we should get more in touch with our traditional British sports. The noble tradition of cockfighting was cruelly arrested in 1849 but there’s still a lot of demand for it. Let’s go for gold and bring back more traditional British rural sports. To assist us on the way, let’s consult the Encyclopaedia of Traditional British Rural Sports for inspiration – one of their references was a book edited in 1911 by the Earl of Suffolk (woot!) and Berkshire – the somewhat colonial Encyclopaedia of Sport. You can inspect a rather fine facsimile of it over at archive.org

    So what else do we need to bring back along with the ancient rural sport of foxhunting with repeal of the Hunting Act tomorrow?

    Badger Baiting. Angry buggers, badgers, and have you seen what they to the the garden shrubs, dahlink? Set the hounds on ’em.

    have you seen what badgers can do to ones' prized lawn? Off with their heads!

    have you seen what badgers can do to one’s prized lawn? Off with their heads!

    Bear baiting with dogs – popular in Elizabethan times but dying out in Victorian times. Not because of any namby-pamby feelings but because the cost of importing bears was getting too much, don’tcha love the invisible hand of capitalism, eh? Maybe we could fly them in?

    of bull-baiting fame = "The dog that grabbed the bull by the nose and pinned it to the ground would be the victor. "

    of bull-baiting fame – “The dog that grabbed the bull by the nose and pinned it to the ground would be the victor. ” Blimey – that’s seriously overwhelming odds!

    Bull-baiting which has given the traditional symbol of British pluck in the face of adversity and overwhelming odds – the bulldog. Trained to seize the bull by the nose. That must be jolly good fun to watch, Dave.

    Cock-fighting – from which we get the term cockpit :)

    Dog-fighting – the pit bull terrier wasn’t bred for its attractive visage and placid personality

    1507_pigstickingPig-Sticking – get the lowdown from this fine treatise by R Baden-Powell, of Scouting fame 😉

    RBP shows an interesting new angle on blood sports and how it legitimises the the aristocracy – having noted on page 9 that hoghunting takes the place of foxhunting in India he observes

    “on becoming a pigsticker the pursuit of sport will take the young “civilian” 2 to covers in all corners of the district; he will of necessity be brought into personal contact with all classes of natives of his district […]

    An admiration of physical courage is inherent in every race, and among the less civilised peoples such prowess is looked on as a necessary qualification in any conquering or governing race”

    R Baden-Powell, Pigsticking, chapter 2

    Quite, young man. I didn’t realise the exercise of blood sports is a necessary part of showing dominance to the lesser people, but this is what he seems to claim 😉

    That’s the trouble with Cameron’s desire to repeal the Hunting Act. It lacks ambition  and intellectual rigour. If we’re going to advocate having the well-to-do getting to practise blood sports legally, then let the proletariat have its low-brow blood sports too  -there’s clearly a demand for dog fighting and cock fighting. If the toffs want to go on chasing and tearing up foxes with their hounds then let’s have some equitable thinking about this whole noble tradition of blood sports thing. Otherwise it’s class war by the aristocracy, suborning the government to legalise their blood sports while retaining bans on the blood sports of the common people. I know that foxes are a pain in the arse at times, but it is possible to shoot them, y’know. Our good friend R Baden-Powell confirms that the death of the fox is by the by –

    Foxhunting, on the contrary, needs money, and although of a tamer nature [than pigsticking] has just as many delights born of the glamour of its particular home associations, surroundings and comforts.  But here the main point is a good gallop over a fenced country, the death of the fox being a secondary consideration.

    RBP, Pigsticking, p17

    If you’re reading this and getting ready to spit bricks in the comments about advocating animal cruelty then you’ve failed the spotting irony test. Sadly it’s easy for people really into a cause to miss, so for the record, I don’t want to see hunting with hounds and I don’t want to see any more ancient blood sports like bear baiting, cockfighting or dog fighting legalised either. Got that?

    PS Since writing this I see the lily-livered Cameron isn’t up for a fair fight. He is going to rig the playing field, by withdrawing until he can hobble the opposition in the form of the SNP and then have another bash. WTF has happened to British sportsmanship and what the bloody hell is Eton doing letting such cowardice escape their tender ministrations?

    Notes:

    1. my parents bought a semidetached house leasehold in the 1960s, and purchased the freehold from the landowner for a respectable sum in the late 1970s. Before the Sixties and Seventies many urban houses were sold leasehold on a 99 year lease because the greedy bastards of the aristocracy couldn’t quite believe that the reforming Labour governments of the post-war era would make them pay IHT on non-agricultural land, thereby breaking up estates that had been granted to their ancestors since the time of William the Conqueror. The aristocracy negotiated an exception on agricultural land so that the it could continue to hand its wealth down the generations – this exception stands even now. The pretext was ‘you wouldn’t want to see our little family farms broken up’ – of course now they get contract farmers to do the dirty work on mahoosive estates and use agricultural land as an IHT-free way of cascading the value of their ancestral wealth down the line. They have also agitated for EU CAP benefits for rich people costing every British household about £250 p.a. because, well, they’re worth it FFS. Plugging that IHT loophole would gradually distribute land more equitably over time
    2. member of the Indian Civil Service I presume
    13 Jul 2015, 2:32pm
    economy:
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  • the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object meet again

    Another day, another sideshow in the Punch and Judy sideshow that is the slow crawl towards Grexit. It’s getting tiresome, because this is a crisis of leadership – problems don’t go away by whistling a dancing tune and come up with ever more outlandish ways of looking the other way.

    At the heart of the matter is that Greece doesn’t like austerity, and doesn’t want to exit the Euro. They can have that, provided there’s a permanent influx of other people’s money. Those other people are getting shirty about this, and are saying that the price of our money is that we get to run your country in a different way. That different way looks pretty rough to me – there’s no way it’s going to stick.

    Greece has promised to pass laws introducing controversial economic reforms by Wednesday. These include reforming the VAT system, overhauling pensions and signing up to plans that ensure immediate spending cuts in the event of breaching creditor-mandated budget targets.

    In the end Greece needs to find the cojones to seize control of their own destiny and quit the Euro – because it’s clear that the price of support is getting dearer and dearer. In the long run things that can’t go on, don’t, but it takes time to resolve the conundrum of the irresistible force and the immovable object. In the long run, of course, we’re all dead – it’s not surprising that most of the Oxi came from the young, who have most long run left 😉 By the looks of it the consensus of avoiding Grexit at all costs is losing the fight as it drags on. One of the flecks of gold panned from the endless tailings of random wibble from G Dubya Bush was

    If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down

    Dubya in a moment of clarity

    Fortune favours the brave and the decisive in situations like that, those that look at the predicament they are in and who take decisive action early to try and influence the outcome. I kinda like the pithy summary of

    “The facts tell us what to do and how to do it, but it is our humanity which tells us that we must do something and why we must do it.”
    — Sully Sullenberger

    Sullenberger was piloting a jet aircraft over New York when suddenly a flock of geese stopped the clockwork 3000ft above the city. Unlike the Greeks and the Troika with their endless river of make-believe deadlines, he had three and a half minutes to bring things to a definite conclusion.

    Tsipras failed the Greek people in asking them in a referendum ‘do you want the particular form of austerity that was on offer in early July’. He should have asked them the straight question

    This much austerity or more, or leave the Euro?

    At the moment it looks like he went to the country, asked them their opinion in an incomplete manner, then tore it up the confusing result 1. This is not a fellow I would want in the cockpit.

    Financial problems don’t get better through fudging them. The Ermine didn’t fudge the problem of my career going down the pan in 2009, within a month I had shifted savings to ISAs and drove my spending down to be able to save the maximum possible. I lived on the minimum wage plus an ISA allowance and saving the ISA with the rest going into pension savings to stop paying tax and NI on it. It worked – I was able to leave after three years and coast for three years more before I can get those pension savings. It wasn’t fun spending minimum wage while working at a higher level, because I couldn’t afford the middle class distractions that compensate for the suckyness of the way the job was going. I was lucky to be able to jump to a different project, but unlucky to run into the wall in the first place.

    Sometimes you have to accept that all solutions before you stink, but that some of them are more ugly than others. The Greeks can either be a lot poorer soon, but then stop getting poorer and possibly turn things round, or they can face becoming incrementally poorer without a clear end stop, dependent on the unknown future grace and favour of others.

    this fine Greek graffito says it well

    a fine Greek graffito

    Greece has a lot going for it – but not in the Euro, and all the time they spend chasing the chimera of less austerity within the Euro the situation is degrading. Everyone with movable assets has been moving them, that much is sensible. The middle class’s savings will be destroyed, just like they were in Germany – twice. They will be destroyed in the fall of the drachma or destroyed in trying to stave off the impact of austerity – basically the choice is death of their savings fast or slow.

    It’s all too easy to choose the slow death approach by trying to avoid making a decision, but it nearly always makes the outcome worse. This ain’t going to end well. Germany can afford to throw money down this money pit, but are getting increasingly unwilling to do so. The question is can Greece afford to live the way that the Troika want them to, and I venture probably not. We’ll get to watch this movie again.

    Notes:

    1. Since writing this I have learned that referenda are advisory not binding in Greece which makes this a little bit more understandable

    China doesn’t really seem to get this stock market thing

    While our eyes are focused on the slow train crash that is Grexit, over on the other side of the world there is an interesting example of King Canute seeking to hold back the waves. In China they seem to be of the opinion that their overheated stock market, having gained over 100% in the last year, is supposed to stay there. If you’re one of those capitalist running-dogs that is going against the story looking to sell, well, you can stop what you’re doing right there. Hardened Western investors who went through the dot-com boom might ask themselves what the good reasons were for last year’s 100% heft in a generalised index 1

    from Bloomberg

    Shanghai Composite Index from Bloomberg

    So they stopped people with a 5% or more stake selling, and the government lends money to people to buy shares :) There’s something about the point of this whole stock market thing that is being missed here. The Chinese stock market is also a young market, it seems compared to other world markets there are a lot of retail investors buying shares on margin – what on earth could go wrong? This is classic New York 1929 bucket-shop trading. Maybe in a few decades they will  become sober index fund passive investors, but first they have to get the momentum-chasing speculator out of their systems.

    China’s investing culture remains backward and immature.

    Howard Gold

    Markets elsewhere have been on a roll of a long time, and while Grexit is unlikely to hurt too much outside Greece this one could be the second shoe dropping. There seems to be a lot of ruin in China as it tries to reorient itself from its early 2000s economic model to something that matches the post Lehman-crash world. There’s a lot of ruin in most economies, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to trouble, but by its sheer size China could have big knock-on effects.

    Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a man in a chaotic period 2

    There haven’t been tremendous buying opportunities in the markets for two or three years now. But interesting times lead to interesting opportunities. There’s still too much zombie puffery inflated by easy money after the 2007 crisis. Emerging markets are probably where it’s at in 20 years’ time, and perhaps we will have more opportunities to pick ’em up cheap in the next few years if this sucker goes down. Of course, associated with that will be all sorts of other misery. I’m not doing a Dubya and saying ‘bring ’em on‘. China has big challenges ahead with the whole get rich before getting old thing, and I personally have avoided investing in it 3 because I have no feel at all for the country – my preferences in emerging markets lean towards India, Latin America and Africa from a demographic point of view. Howard Gold is quite right to describe EMs as having gone down the toilet, but I’ll be surprised if they stay there for the ten years he is calling out. I don’t have enough EM exposure, because in the years after 2009 I was building a HYP. And I don’t want to be a dog…

    Notes:

    1. this question being, of course, the one they failed to ask themselves in 1999 – ain’t experience and hindsight a wonderful thing?
    2. May you live in interesting times is a good line, but not Chinese, so it’s not right to to use it for China ;)
    3. other than in generalised index funds
    7 Jul 2015, 7:06pm
    living intentionally:
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  • How do you recognise product quality online?

    Buy cheap, buy twice – I keep on doing this to myself, and really need to learn :) The trouble is that it’s hard to avoid – modern consumerism deliberately tries to strip out any markers of quality, leaving us chasing cheap, as Ellen Ruppel Shell highlighted a while ago.

    Three years ago I bought some RGB light strings from a fine Chinese emporium on ebay, which I used for parties outside. When new if I connected power to all RGB strands it would all light up white, but six lots of unrolling and restowing and it’s done for. Whereas the equally Chinese white LED tape I bought five years ago is still going strong. This stuff is made out of three LEDs at a time – the workmanship was so shoddy that half the sections had gone – I bought two 5m lengths and both have become faulty with ratty connections and missing segments.

    should really all be a nice even white colour

    should really all be a nice even white colour

    Perhaps using it outside was bad – although we think of dew as a morning phenomenon, in fact dew descends soon after the sun goes down, particularly in the summer. This surprised me when I observed it, but it is a consequence of the dew point, which falls with temperature. Derigging the equipment at summer parties after 1 a.m. the gear is often damp. Maybe this got into the supposedly waterproof tape and corroded the connections, though it was sold as waterproof :)

    Buy cheap, buy twice – it’s an online thing

    Ebay is a marvellous cornucopia of components and bits and pieces – whenever you want some part it’s always cheapest from there. Recently on a design I was making I wanted some TL494 power control ICs – I can pay 50p for these from CPC in 10-up prices or I can pay 13p a throw if I buy 10 from China on ebay for £1.29 – delivery free 1. If I rock up to Mr Texas Instruments and say I want to buy 1000 they will a) laugh me out the door – 500k is probably the minimum order, and b) cite me a budgetary unit price of 21US cents, probably F.O.B. Texas Instruments.

    A pukka Texas TL494, from when they used to make them in the low-cost manufacturing place du jour before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tianamen Aquare

    A pukka Texas TL494, made by Texas in 1988 from when Portugal was the low-cost manufacturing place du jour before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Whereas the spotty youth in Shenzhen could manage to slightly beat the manufacturer’s price and stick ’em in a Jiffy bag to send over here. The canny buyer will, of course, ask himself some serious questions about the provenance of these parts, let’s just say that the Texas Instruments stamp on the cheaper parts may be a little bit fuzzy and this is probably not an ISO9001 traceable supply chain. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

    Shenzhen electronics store

    Shenzhen electronics store

    The way most sellers of onesy-twosy Ebay goods work from China is you put your order in, and over in China an enterprising young fellow will go down to one of the fabled electronics shops of Shenzen and buy the part and stick it in the post to you. Looks like it pays to be a local here to avoid getting ripped off, but ’twas ever thus. At Huaqiangbei you can nip up to the next floor and check out Women’s World or Carnival Clothing City if you are, ahem, “bargain hunters and brand name copy lovers“. Which explains why so many Chinese ebay sellers of electronics parts are equally at home selling me some LED strips 2 or a girl’s dress. This puzzled the inquisitive Ermine snout, and now I know why.

    Price is not a clear signal of quality in many markets, and it’s hard to gauge quality online

    Once upon a time people used to go into a store to buy things, and when you handle the goods the experienced buyer can often gauge quality – by the weight, the smooth running of moving parts, the quality of workmanship. We’ve lost many of these quality cues when we buy online, leaving us with the basest metric of all, price. Although price can be correlated with quality it doesn’t depend on it – marketing is a lot more sophisticated now, indeed websites can show different prices to different consumers for the same thing, depending on their history. One of the main advantages we got with the Internet is that it allows us to compare by price, so that’s what we do, driving everything down to the lowest common denominator.. Which is great with many things – but it drives us right down to the bottom end for a lot of products. Which is not always where we want to be.

    I don’t know where to go to buy a better RGB LED strip. I could go to these guys, and pay £8 a go. But let’s face it, they probably get their strips from China and mark ’em up – the product image looks exactly the same as my faulty item. For all I know there is one massive company in China turning these out. What I will probably end up doing is getting big 3W LEDs and screwing them to a aluminium rail – at least if I get failures it will be my own rotten workmanship and I will be able to fix it 3.

    In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a big deal, but the quality conundrum is observable in many things now – if you want something a little better than the bottom end quality you have no way of finding a reliable supplier even if you are prepared to pay more money. I can pay more, for sure, but as UTMT said, price is what you pay and value is what you get.

    more »

    Notes:

    1. the price matters here because someone is thinking of using this in a product; for a single unit 37p is neither here nor there.
    2. For the record I didn’t buy the defective LED strips from this seller
    3. I can’t use the obvious route of commercial lighting kit as that’s all 240VAC and I want to run 12V
    29 Jun 2015, 1:07pm
    economy:
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  • A long hot summer, perhaps a Grexit – and hopefully a rescue mission

    This is a story too hard to call, and yet it seems to be gathering speed. Hot summers are also good for a decent rumble in the markets, in the immortal words of George “Dubya” Bush

    If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down,

    And here it is from Tsipras himself

    Now I’m sure there’s going to be loads of punters and talking heads, most of them better qualified than I on the whole macro thing, but this is my blog so I’ll add to the wall of noise.

    I think the Greeks are taking the piss wanting to stay in the Euro on other people’s ticket, though I do see the point that the Germans are also taking the piss in a different way. The advantage the Germans have is they are the ones with the money. Fundamentally there seems to be the tension in the design of the Euro and the regulations about fiscal probity and not having it as a transferunion, it’s like wanting things to be light and dark at the same time. We’re about to find out, when push comes to shove whether we will have fiscal probity or we will have a transfer union in the Euro, and the symptom will be Grexit in the first case and Grescue in the second.

    My hope is for Grexit – it is a second shoe that didn’t drop in the 2009 financial crisis. Something unsustainable gets worse and worse as time goes by. I see the point that Europe stiffed the Greeks by bailing out Europe’s banks in 2010. Greece is owed something by Europe, but not everlasting transfer – unless that is democratically agreed not just by Greeks wanting it or not but by Germans and the rest of the Eurozone voting for a transferunion – it’s not just up to the debtors to holler “I want”. Too much of European policy is decided before putting it to the people, and that sort of thing needs to stop until the people can catch up or say “enough of that”. Half the trouble we have is that it’s not clear if there’s enough common cause for a United States of the Eurozone, the symptoms seem to indicate not. A lack of common cause in Europe has been ugly in the past.

    Europe does owe the Greeks something. A Grexit will be a serious shitstorm. Not much can be done to avert the initial storm, but Europe could do well to take inspiration from the United States. Both the Marshall Plan, and indeed how Nixon handled Hurricane Camille in the 1960s rather better than Dubya handled Katrina that attacked the same region.

    The Nixon administration realised they could not fight the storm, but they could chase it, and render assistance the day after. Perhaps something similar is owed Greece – yes, they may have to default, and return to the drachma to regain fiscal sovereignty. In the shitstorm that ensues, Europe should render humanitarian and basic stabilising  financial assistance without strings and given, not lent. It will then be up to the Greek people how they want to live, with some semblance of fiscal probity or with the high levels of tax evasion they seemed to have. In the latter the value of the drachma can fall to adjust, and people still feel good.It’s got form…

    As time went by you needed more and more drachma to buy that 1990s US dollar

    As time went by you needed more and more drachma to buy that 1990s US dollar (I mislabelled the £ and DM which need to be switched)

    I called this too early in February and maybe I call this early now. A long,hot summer is good for damn fine financial crisis.

    Interesting times ahoy?

    Too tough to call at this stage, but it’s worth getting ready. I don’t think that the credit crunch was ever properly fixed – what seemed to happen is QE went into inflating asset prices – that’s houses for you lucky BTL landlords if you can sell at the higher price and share prices for the rest of the PF community. The hard-pressed middle seemed to get the short end of the stick, and indeed are due for a second helping in Osborne’s budget next month. Further afield there seems to be trouble in paradise China though there seems to have been a fair bit of irrational exuberance too.

    I need to shift about half my AVCs to my SIPP, but the remaining half is due to come out in just over five years time, and I don’t need it for income. Although as a deferred member I am a second-class citizen it appears I can still switch from the cash fund I have been in for a while (when I thought I would have to draw it early) to the 50:50 Global:FTSE100 index fund that served me so well between 2009 and 2012. Since I can shift some to a SIPP I am not up against the 25% tax-free PCLS limit any more, so I may well go back in for another bite of the cherry over the next few months, spreading myself over time buying into (hopefully) a falling market.

    At the moment the market isn’t really reacting in any big way. For sure, I may look stupid saying that in the coming week!  The Grauniad says Shares slide as deepening Greek crisis shakes global markets and the Torygraph says World Markets in Turmoil but we’re only talking 2% – at the elevated levels shares have been this last couple of years a 20% fall would probably still be a correction rather than a dive IMO :) Only hindsight will tell us if these are the trumpets at dawn heralding the second phase of the 2007-9 credit crunch. But yeah, looks like times could get more interesting and the stock market a lot less boring than it has been of late.

    Interesting times are also times when it’s more comforting to have paid down the mortgage and be debt-free, with a unreasonable amount of cash, and have most of this year’s ISA allowance free. Mind you, over at Fidelity there are fellows telling you to go a step further and hold physical cash in the mattress…

    Let’s hope for some statesmanship from our EU leaders

    It may be time to surrender a piece of the Eurozone dream in the case of Greece. But I despise the talk of Greece having to leave the EU at the same time, and I hope in the back rooms there are people drafting a different tone. If the Greeks move to the drachma which is probably their best long-term route, the history of the EU and indeed the spirit of the people who set up the Treaty of Rome in 1958 should prevail. Europe fought a second world war because the victors pushed for an ignominious defeat. Greece doesn’t belong in the Eurozone, but it belongs in the EU if that is the wish of the Greek people, and the EU as a whole owes it the grace of assistance across the troubled times ahead. It’s time for a magnanimous resolution, and giving thought to establishing what a successful Eurozone looks like, what needs to happen and whether the people really want that. The markets will be gunning for the next target soon…

     

     

     

    Don’t be in thrall to Total Return

    Poor old Greybeard over at Monevator has stuck his head above the parapet again saying he will use actively managed investment trusts to smooth his retirement income and make it easier to manage. Meanwhile Insourcelife has paid down his mortgage in his late 30s, some ten years earlier in his life cycle than I paid down mine in my late forties. 1. Paying off a mortgage early is an opportunity costThe Accumulator sensibly decided to invest instead. Here are two people giving up some Total Return, OMG, that’s nuts!!!

    The world of personal finance seems to be moving towards an intellectual materialist rationalism that favours Total Return over all else 2. Now if you are a 20-something with 35 plus years before you can get a hold of your pension savings then yes, I agree TR is what it’s all about in those pension savings taken in isolation. If you are a retiree who wants to featherbed your adult children because you think the robots are coming to take way their middle class jobs then TR is important too, because although you can’t take it with you they will and a little bit of you will live on, enabling you to do the whole terror management theory thing of living beyond death. Beats having your head frozen, I guess.

    The trouble is that life is a balance, and often maximising one aspect above all else has undesirable consequences. Money is crystallised power, a claim upon future work. You can prioritise one aspect of it like total return, but then you will have to deal with being exposed to massive volatility. It’s easy to sit back at 30 and say I’m cool with that but you need to have gone through a couple of stock market crashes to know if you are cool with that really. Maximising TR means you should run towards that sort of fire :)

    The Ermine is not a Total-Return maximising rationalist

    I have done some dumb things in personal finance. I retired 8 years early – the gross money I would have earned in the remaining eight years probably roughly equals my total networth 3. Oh no – hundreds of thousands of pounds kissed goodbye to-  how crazy is that? Well, I don’t know – the world of work was driving me round the bend with it’s stupid metrics and micromanagement – I am ERE craftsman, not gamesman. The view is a hell of a lot better, too:

    giving up a six-figure sum to see this

    giving up a six-figure sum to see this

    or this

    or this

    instead of this

    instead of this – hell yeah.

    I paid my mortgage off early – even at the time I knew this was a teeny bit irrational, and took a whole year with it dropped down to to about £1000 4 mulling over whether I should pay it off. Then I did, and although every so often I observe that I take an income suckout between leaving work and getting hold of my pension savings, faced with the same I’d do it again, because at that time I wanted peace of mind that if I got iced from work I could lock down and make it through.

    There’s a time to maximise your total return, and that’s probably when you’re young, because you aren’t usually putting much in. But as you go through life, beware of black-and-white thinking. Sometimes you have to consider throwing some red meat to The System and giving up some total return, particularly after you have retired, because it is about the ride, not just the money. Otherwise we are in the danger of becoming that “man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” Oscar Wilde warned of in Lady Windermere’s Fan.

    I’ve given up a very decent six-figure sum, pasting my potential Total Return by about 50 to 25%. I  did it because it is more important to live to see another few decades with health intact, and sometimes you have to take chances in life. It is nearly three years since I left work, and would I do it again if I had my time over? Hell yeah – because the aim of the game is to maximise Total Life Experience, not total return. It’s a balance thing, not a single variable.

    For sure, I’m poorer for it in money, but I am richer for it in Life. Money is not the only thing you can run out of…

    The Escape Artist put it this way

    Why behave as if this one life we get is just a dress rehearsal?  If you are one of those people and you carry on working in your all consuming City or Corporate job, then you are wasting your life.

    If maximising total return is stressing you out in retirement as you see your capital eroded which is reminding you of the Grim Reaper’s call then give up some total return. Use investment trusts, have a plan to annuitise at some stage/stages, give up the fight slowly for an easier ride.

     

    Notes:

    1. Insourcelife is American so paying off a mortgage may be an easier ask as houses are less expensive relative to wages I believe, certainly from looking at US real estate windows on a business trip in 2007 where I could have easily bought a house cash, but impressively Insourcelife has done this with children which probably more than offsets the difference!
    2. I’m projecting some of my own prejudice here, but passive investing is still a belief system IMO. Any belief system has axioms, and I am uncomfortable with some of them, in particular the ‘valuations don’t matter’ one. My perspective is different, however – I don’t have 30 years of investing without extracting returns ahead of me like a young Boglehead starting out would have
    3. the opportunity cost is in fact a fair bit lower, I was a HR taxpayer and couldn’t have extracted anywhere near the gross amount because of limitations on pension contributions introduced since I retired.
    4. it was a flexible mortgage so I could have ramped it back up at will up to the original repayment track
    24 Jun 2015, 3:16pm
    personal finance:
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  • Passive income from ebook writing isn’t passive – reflections from Avalon

    Funny old game, this passive income lark. I personally define it as income that you get regardless of what you are doing. The classic dream is steady income paid while you are lying on the beach. Wikipedia defines it in somewhat US-centric terms as

    Passive income is an income received on a regular basis, with little effort required to maintain it

    I spent a few days soaking up the sun in the atmosphere of Glastonbury, enjoying a chilled time and exploring the place.I came just before the well-known festival, to appreciate the summer solstice – the closest I have come to the festival was a distant view of it 7 miles from Glastonbury Tor.

    1506_tor_P1070296

    Unlike the festival-goers I had decent weather. I was looking for some of the background story, bought some books, but I have a predilection for books in electronic form these days. Following up the Glastonbury connection, passive income is the Holy Grail of the idler, and there are an awful lot of Knights of the Round Table chasing it. It’s bad enough that people who have at least earned the money first behave like teenagers in love:

    People looking for investment income home in on bad ideas like Premier League footballers sniffing out WAGs with loose morals.

    Dunno what he’d say about the wretched river of humanity out of Eden seeking the Free Lunch without Consequences, but the old boy Mephistopheles is in business in different garb offering Passive Income to the penniless, the poor, and the pecuniarly challenged.

    Sometimes I wonder if these good people would use their time better getting a job and saving some of their hard-earned, but then I think that any time I stand in line behind somebody buying a lottery ticket in the Co-Op. There is something irresistible about the concept of something for nothing. It’s been there since time immemorial in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone 1 that turns lead into gold. The story metamorphosed into the search for the perpetual motion machine in the Victorian era, and turns full circle in the search for a passive income, that turns the leaden hours of the idle into a stream of gold. I’m hassling the Calvinist work is good for you doctrine there – I for one don’t find the workless hours leaden and indeed I would regard humanity’s development of robots to do all the work leaving us to a life of leisure the pinnacle of engineering success, if only we could build a human society that didn’t start to look like a winner-takes-all Gilded Age which seems to be where we are headed at the moment.

    The ebook proposition – wresting the medium and the message away from Facebook. Into Amazon – oh boy…

    One of the tragic things about the Internet is that the original open platform has been taken over by corporations like Facebook, Google and Amazon , who drove out the universality of the end-to-end principle because we readers are idle, want a uniformish UI, and are suckers for attention-grabbing trivia that the platform can monetise the shit out of. In Web 1.0 ISPs tried and failed to hold customers on their ‘portal’ to save you the graft of looking for interesting stuff, but now we hire Facebook and Google to do that very job. Once upon a time it was possible to get a copy of vi, grok some HTML, create a website with useful information, serve some ads and make a modest income. I still have some website real estates from the 1990s that even after 20 years do provide a modest income this way but the trend is long-term decline. Some of this is, of course, that the topics age – let’s face it what was newsworthy/interesting in 1995 is often less riveting twenty years later on, the effort to maintain some of these with other people dropped away around ten years ago. One of the sites performs a technical service which still seems to have some fans judging by the pleading to fix I get if my web hosts changes the version of PHP and it goes titsup, it seems to have got embedded into the processes of some communities. I even tell them they can get the facility easier and more prettily using OS getamap but they don’t switch 2. It provides enough revenue to be worth Googling the error code and fixing the code or third-party library to keep people happy.

    It’s harder to establish a modest website on a topic now – the Internet is much larger but there are also winner-takes-all effects that raise the barrier to entry, so it’s basically a go-large-or-go-home world. The Amazon ebook seems to be the place where some of the small fry information providers have gone to, if the topic is suited to a write once read many and non-interactive format. For many to many discussions we used to have forums (before that we had Usenet and email mailing lists, but the latter scale terribly), but with the demise of the medium-sized website vis-a-vis the big beasts many of these are dying out, moving to Facebook groups

    I don’t regularly use Facebook, and it’s a source of sadness for me when a forum I’ve used goes down for some reason and the topic migrates to Facebook. Facebook fosters the narcissistic and the voluble, there seems no threading or fine topic capacity, and to be honest I’d rather read people’s thoughts on the topic rather than endless trivia about their children, pets and minor ailments. As the old forums die, the wall of noise increases. Life is too short to strip out the tales of lives of quiet desperation from a Facebook group topic feed 3

    more »

    Notes:

    1. I am aware that there are many esoteric personal transformation aspects to the story of the search for Philosopher’s Stone, but it is the profane rather than sacred that fits my narrative :)
    2. correctly, it seems – I was there before getamap and may be there after it’s been deprecated
    3. Facebook is designed to narrate everyday trivia and that’s fine – but trivia seems to pollute group topics to a degree that it never did on forums and bulletin boards, these usually had a separate section like MSE’s Money Savers’s Arms off-topic section.
    31 May 2015, 12:17pm
    personal finance
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  • Briefcase and The Hardest Grafter – spectacles pitching the poor against each other

    Ah, the taste of bread and circuses, harbingers of decadence in the declining imperium bereft of leadership, vision and ideas. The ermine is not a bleeding-heart liberal. I even believe in making the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor which is beyond the pale in right-thinking circles these days, because I believe Britain is probably rich enough to assist the former whereas the latter will expand to consume all resources – witness the bizarre goal of eliminating relative child poverty of the Labour administrations, which is going to lead to serious misery in this.

    1505_briefcase

    I am out of touch with pop culture, and loathed the concept of ‘reality TV’ ever since DxGF tried to make out there was some merit in the original Big Brother that she was addicted to – I stuck about 10 minutes before deciding this was shite robbing me of minutes I’d never live again. The description of two current/proposed ‘reality’ TV shows gives me a chilling feeling that we are going back to the days of cockfighting and circuses having dwarves and other sorts of gawpery that I’d thought we’d left behind decades ago. There’s nothing wrong with reality TV exploiting people who are compos mentis and who have other choices when they sign on the dotted line. Violating the latter condition for spectacle makes me queasy for what it says about our respect for others.

    I know part of the point of art is meant to hold up a mirror to us, so that the ideas and thoughts can resonate with the messages locked behind the firewall of our subconscious, transforming unvoiced fears into safe signals so we can know ourselves better. One of the drivers behind the search for financial independence is the fear of becoming poor. It pushed me to go through a period of elective privation to escape the Man, and underlying many of the tradeoffs in FI/RE is elective privation now against unelective privation later.

    It’s not surprising that after a period of economic retrenchment mining this seam of fear is rewarding for story pitchers. Take the American CBS show The Briefcase, where two families short of cash are given a briefcase of ~$100,000 and instructed to share it with the other, as sort of financial version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Over on this side of The Pond the BBC is looking for Britain’s Hardest Worker – to pitch a bunch of these against each other and the winner gets £15k. At least our American friends are both more generous and in theory every participant can win!

    According to the Beeb

    The series will tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time: why is British productivity low? Is the benefits system providing many with a reason not to work or hindering their working opportunity? Is the hidden truth about immigrants simply that they work harder than Brits – and we need them as much as they need us – or are they simply prepared to work for a lower wage? And have the young simply not inherited the work ethic of older generations or have working conditions just got too hard? Who in Britain still knows how to graft? It’s time to find out.

    The Ermine Bullshit-athon failed scanning this because it isn’t designed to process a signal more than half ordure so I had to take it in manual

    “You lot on the couch out there – you know that jobs are getting worse and many of you fear in falling out of a comfortable living in this generation or the next. Projecting your fears upon others is an easy way to relieve the pressure. Let’s take your mind off the fact with this exploitative drivel where we pretend hard unskilled work is the route out of poverty, because as we all know that is so true these days 1.”

    Now the PR release does raise some interesting questions. As Merryn Somerset-Webb describes in the FT (h/t Monevator for the link)

    The 16 hours bit is because that is the number of hours our system insists that you work in order to claim in-work benefits, something that has nasty implications for UK productivity

    […]

    If you incentivise people to work part time you get a lot of part time workers with unsatisfactory careers (and low productivity). And if you use the tax system to show that you favour housing above all else you get very expensive houses and as a knock on, possibly lower levels of productive investment than you would like.

    so the BBC’s thesis that the tax credits in-work benefits system that helped Gordon Brown get unemployment down might have pole-axed UK productivity has friends in other places. It may even be true – the endless special cases and indeed the historic pro-natalism of the tax and benefits system creates some strange distortions in what types of lifestyles it promotes – witness the truly bizarre spectacle of comfortably off people bitching ‘S’not fair’ 2  to Osborne’s removal of child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers some five years ago.

    I’m not at risk of being subjected to either programme, and I’m very happy to say that I’m not paying for the BBC version of it, but I feel uncomfortable with the divisive image that’s being held up to me by these programmes and the popularity of other poor-shaming TV shows like Benefits Street. One of the changes that I see in British society is an increasing stratification by income, though in other ways we have become far more tolerant and accepting of diversity.The most egregious example of this stratification is shown in the proposal for the city-state of London, where an Ermine was born and raised. This  is a place where people figure you need an income more than 10 times the UK average income to live. I grew up in an (admittedly south of the river) part of the city in Zone 2. Although I could buy a flat in the area I’d struggle to buy a house.

    These programmes feed on the fear of falling down the financial pecking order, as some of the distortions we have enjoyed relative to the rest of the world are being flushed out by globalisation and automation. We need insight, analysis and leadership to navigate these changes as best we can. Not bread and circuses to distract us from it. Yes, I’ve taken the piss at length from the middle class who have been acting dumb selling off their house for school fees and holidays, and carping they can’t afford Silly Bandz for their children. That’s because one can live perfectly well without school fees and Silly Bandz. But I draw the line against going further in the line of entertainment. In an increasingly financially stratified society I suspect that many well off people never come across people who are really poor, because we live increasingly separate lives. That’s fair enough, but to gawp at such fellow humans on TV without having the humility to remember that there but for the grace of God you go seems to be a retrograde step. The poor may always be with us, and I don’t know the answers – mindlessly throwing money at the problem doesn’t work, but taking the piss by gladiatorially setting some against others in the name of entertainment demeans both the watchers and the watched IMO. A respectful philosophy is good – NoMo PoMo.  Merryn Somerset-Webb’s analyisis and the positing of questions, yes. Cheap TV, er, no. Nietzsche has some sage advice for prospective viewers

    when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you

    It’s always good to be open to alternative points of view, so here is a Torygraph article telling us that this is an excellent insight into the heart of darkness that is the feckless poor that we should ogle not because it says something about us but because it says something about the reality of the human condition in Britain. Maybe a couple of hours with the Trussell Trust would be a better way to get the inside skinny rather than sitting on one’s backside being ‘entertained’ by other people’s desperation. And since everybody else writing about this sticks up a picture of the Jennifer Lawrence I am going to too, even though I haven’t read/seen Hunger Games :)

    1505_jlaw-2060x1236

    Rupert Myers of the torygraph doesn’t seem to understand the role of having choice in whether something is exploitative when he compares this with other reality TV. If The Hardest Grafter rings me up offering a place they will be met by a long string of the finest Anglo-Saxon cursing them and the horse they rode in on. If they ring up someone poor enough for it to be an attractive option then that someone doesn’t really have a choice. The reason all those Lefties draw the analogy with Hunger Games is not that the participants of this show have to kill each other. It’s that they don’t really have any ‘king choice as to whether to volunteer for the spectacle, because the chance of an upside win compared to a zero is worth shooting for. Compared to that, all the other reality TV bozos who ended up eating kangaroo testicles electively chose to do it among other good options of spending their time. I presume that when Rupe read Law at Emmanuel College Cambridge he was introduced to the role of metaphor and allegory in a narrative. Heck, as a decent writer he’s been known to indulge. Don’t be a punk, Rupert.

    Notes:

    1. The JRF indicate (PDF) that work is a route out of poverty for about half of households – low skilled work and having dependent children don’t seem to be conducive to that
    2. to save anybody the bother, yes, ‘snot fair to SAHM households. In a similar way that finding myself subsidising my well-off colleagues’ family holidays through their universal child benefit across 28 years of my 30 year working life wasn’t fair.
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