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Exclusive Q&A: Eric Kirsch, Global Chief Investment Officer, Aflac

by trusted insight posted 1year ago 6981 views

Eric Kirsch joined Aflac in November 2011 as the first senior vice president and global chief investment officer, and was promoted to executive vice president in July 2012. In his role, he oversees Aflac’s investment portfolio and investment team.

Previously, he served as managing director and global head of insurance asset management at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, where he oversaw a global team of 55 managing over $70 billion in insurance assets. Prior to that, he spent 27 combined years at Deutsche Asset Management and Bankers Trust Company. Kirsch holds a BBA from Baruch College and an MBA from Pace University. He is also a chartered financial analyst.

When Kirsch joined Aflac in 2011, the company, like many other insurance companies, was still struggling in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He transformed Aflac’s regionalized, buy-and-hold investment approach into a global investment process with a highly diverse portfolio, which helped Aflac’s $100 billion assets stay strong through market turbulences, including the energy crisis earlier 2016. 

Mr. Kirsch graciously spoke with us on October 24, 2016. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Trusted Insight: You spent much of your career working for publicly traded companies, managing insurance assets. How have those experiences informed your investment philosophy and your leadership style at Aflac? 

Eric Kirsch: Prior to joining Aflac, I was at Goldman-Sachs Asset Management for four years. For twenty-seven years before that, I was at Deutsche Asset Management. Originally, it was Bankers Trust Company, but in 1999 Deutsche Bank purchased Bankers Trust Company.

On a high level, I describe my career into two phases. Prior to 2004, my career was mostly as a manager of fixed-income groups both domestically and globally. Primarily investment-grade, high yield, some bank loans, more traditional fixed-income investment strategies. I worked with institutional clients, so not just insurance but pension funds, endowments, for example. I worked with mutual funds for a good portion of my career and worked both domestically and globally, on active and passive strategies. 

In 2001, I started to focus in on insurance clients. I did have some experience with insurance in the stable value world, which isn’t really running money for insurance companies. That involved buying guaranteed investment contracts from insurance companies. In 2001, specifically, at Deutsche, we purchased Scudder Asset Management, which back in the 80s and the 90s was one of the largest institutional and retail money managers in the United States. They were primarily a boutique for many years. They were actually, at the time we purchased them, owned by Zurich Insurance. Zurich, the large insurance company, had purchased Scudder to have an entrée into the money-manager business as well as run Zurich’s own balance sheet for the insurance company.

In 2001, when we purchased Scudder, as head of fixed income at Deutsche, I was in charge of the integration of the Scudder fixed-income business into Deutsche. Scudder managed $80 billion of insurance general account money. That is when my career became focused on running monetary issues for insurance companies. Scudder was the largest third-party asset manager for insurance company balance sheets in the world. 

Prior to 2001, I focused mostly on mutual funds, institutional clients. Now with the merger, as the CIO of fixed-income, I had $80 billion and approximately 50 insurance clients for which Scudder ran monetary issues. I began to gain an expertise into the differences between running money matters for a mutual fund or a total return pension fund and the balance sheet of an insurance company where it’s much longer-term focus, backs policyholder liabilities, impacts the stock price and with very keen fundamental, bottoms-up research on long-term investing.

In 2004, at Deutsche, we went through some reorganization and I was asked, instead of focusing broadly on fixed-income, where insurance clients were just part of my mandate, to focus exclusively on the insurance business. Specifically, what was different was Deutsche asked me to, in essence, be the global CEO of the insurance asset management business for Deutsche Asset Management. We viewed insurance companies globally as investors that would want to outsource some or all of their balance sheet to a third-party asset manager like a Deutsche, who had a business entirely focused on running money matters for insurance companies. 

Insurers, typically life insurers, are long-term investors. Most of our policyholders are long-term insurance. They’re not short-term. That means that pool of capital can afford to take a long-term view.

In that business, I had fixed-income professionals, all they did was manage money for an insurance company. They were not side-tracked by mutual funds and Morningstar ratings. Their focus was what was in the best interest of a long-term, ALM type of mandate, highly regulated in the insurance space. I also had insurance solutions people that worked for me, who were experts in asset liability management, regulatory capital, product development and partnering with the asset management side. I also had client service and sales professionals whose only focus was insurance clients.

In that job, in 2004, it was global. I had staff across Europe, the United States and Asia. They were not only focused on the regional clients, but remember, many insurance companies are global. It is very common for us, to be talking to an insurance company in Germany that happened to own a reinsurer in Bermuda. Or Zurich, who was one of our largest clients, that actually has operating entities in 100 countries globally. By setting ourselves up globally, we could face off on the clients globally. If my insurance people in Europe source Zurich, they spoke the same language as my insurance people in the states or in Asia. 

That’s where I spent 100 percent of my time, focused on insurance and the size of our business. When I took on that job was about $150 billion in assets globally. I left Deutsche in 2007, and our business was approaching $200 billion in assets globally. The concept of dedicated, customized management for insurance companies really was the way to go and was a big linchpin of the lessons that I learned and how I approached working with an insurance client. 

I joined Goldman Sachs Asset Management in 2007 because basically GSAM, as they were known, did not have an insurance focus. They did have insurance clients, but they treated their insurance clients like an institutional client, like a pension fund.

As big a brand as Goldman Sachs is, they only had $12 billion of insurance assets. At Deutsche we had $200 billion, Blackrock had about $150 billion. GSAM asked me to join because they recognized I understood the business and how to manage and service the clients. Goldman hired me to build a similar model, globally. I was there for four years and when I left we had about $75 billion of insurance assets. We hired about 50 to 60 people in Europe and Asia and the States, solely to focus on the insurance space. Goldman ended up being one of the leaders in the business as well.

It was in 2011, when I decided it was time for a change after working thirty-two years at investment banks, but in the asset management world. I had a great run, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It was just time for something different. Aflac happened to be looking at the same time I was looking. I couldn’t have asked for a better dream job. All that I had learned from 2001 up until 2011 prepared me to come into Aflac to manage the balance sheet here and to address the challenges that we had at the time. I wanted to build a world-class investment function.

Trusted Insight: You were the first global CIO at Aflac. Tell me a little bit about your strategy to build the department and how the portfolio has evolved under your leadership? 

Eric Kirsch: Generally speaking, when I came to Aflac, there were some challenges on its balance sheet as a result of the financial crisis. Many insurance companies and banks did. Aflac’s were more focused in Europe, frankly. Their issues trailed a little longer than the rest of the industry.

At Aflac, about 85 percent of our revenues, profits and assets are generated at Aflac Japan. Relative to the investment portfolio, when I arrived, we had a decentralized approach. It was more regionally focused. There were investment teams in Columbus, Georgia and Tokyo. They did work together, but there was significant regionalization. They did not have a global investment process, nor a global approach, for example, to asset liability management, capital management, credit work, trading, portfolio management strategies. 

So I decided I would institute a global organizational structure. In fact, we located our investment teams in New York and Tokyo. We had a balance sheet of $100 billion that needed to be viewed and invested on a global basis, even though a good portion of it backs Yen liabilities. Previously, the investment approach was a simplistic buy-and-hold approach -- a big focus on what we call Yen private placements -- but a large improvement was required on good credit work and risk management.

So we built a new team here in New York. I developed a global organizational structure for investments. It was no longer a regional approach, but rather teams in New York and Japan would on one hand have specific responsibilities but on the other hand a top-of-the-house investment strategy that matched our investment needs, our capital needs, our asset liability management needs, but then expertise in both parts of the world with regional chief investment officers to make sure it all came together within the region.

As a result, we now have a team of 70 investment professionals in New York and about 30 professionals in Japan. All the folks in New York did not exist here five years ago. In fact, we had our five-year anniversary November 1. This was a brand new global organization structure and redesigned global investment process. 

Over five years we built out our middle office, back office and front office; global credit team; global trading team; global macro team; and two regional CIOs -- one for the U.S. portfolio, one for Japan. We installed technology. We have compliance and legal functions. Everything that you’d expect for a $100 billion balance sheet that’s going to invest in multiple asset classes, have good diversification, had been built from scratch.

In 2011, Aflac spent about three basis points on the investment function. Today, we spend about nine basis points on the investment function. Aflac made a large investment and recognized we had to become a much more sophisticated investor, build world-class investment strategies, but that takes people and resources, technology and infrastructure to do. We built all of that out, and today we have a highly diversified portfolio, one that is very risk managed, but at the same time one that allows us to be opportunistic when opportunities exist in the marketplace. We’re in a position to invest in strategies when they become cheap and make sure our balance sheet is always safe so we can go through turbulent markets. 

A good recent example is the energy crisis earlier this year. When oil was at $30 per share, obviously there were lots of challenges in the energy industry. Our portfolio was well covered by analysts who cover insurance companies because we actually didn’t have any impairments. We certainly had some credits that concerned us, but they were able to go through the storm. Now that oil is back to $40 and $50, those concerns have dissipated. That’s a good example of when you have the proper structure, proper credit teams, proper risk management, proper governance of how you cut through a storm.

Trusted Insight: You were brought into Aflac when the company was feeling a hangover from the financial crisis. You joined Goldman right before the financial crisis. How did the experience of building up that Goldman team during that financial crisis impact your approach at Aflac? 

Eric Kirsch: Absolutely. That’s a great question. The way I like to think of it when I was at Goldman, I built out a team like we had at Deutsche with dedicated fixed-income portfolio managers. All they did was run insurance money. We created an insurance solutions team, where I had actuaries and quants, where we could go into a client and say let us solve, or help you solve, your asset liability management and capital challenges and optimize your portfolios for that.

We built out that capability where our approach was to say to an insurance client, “look we want to partner with you. Getting a mandate is nice and at the end, we are money managers and we do need to get mandates, but we want to customize how we run the money for you so it ties into how you manage your earnings and capital.” 

When the financial crisis happened, we were working with so many insurers around the world, because all of them had some exposure to mortgages, asset-backed securities and structured securities, which as you know was what was most damaged as a result of the financial crisis. For each one of those clients, when we walked in, it was about a solution. It was about bringing more resources to their resources, and typically what we discovered is that most insurance companies, by their very nature are not asset managers. They’re insurance companies. That’s their core focus. In the insurance industry, you tend to find under-invested resources in the investment groups, and when markets are benign, there’s no issue. Nobody worries about it because markets are benign. Your credits are good. There’s no challenges.

Then when markets hiccup, and the financial crisis was a big hiccup, all of the sudden it shows where the challenges are. We prided ourselves on walking into an insurance company and saying, “Let us look at your investment teams, what your resources are, what you do well and what you don’t do well. Let us partner with your actuaries to look at your asset liability management and your risk professionals to look at how risk managing comes into this, as well as understand your company objectives from a capital earning standpoint.” 

Very often, a lot of these companies were looking to outsource a good portion of all of this. We walk in with Goldman with a business plan. “Here’s how we would approach all of those variables, and here are the resources that Goldman can bring to bear.” In essence, we became their outsourced investment team. That was the experience that was highly effective. That’s what I brought to Aflac.

When Aflac first called me, my first interview was with Dan Amos: our CEO, Chuck Knapp, chairman of the finance committee of the board, and Ken Janke, who at that time was the deputy CFO. The search firm gave me some insights into what they were looking for, but I did my own due diligence. 

I walked into that first interview with a business plan. I didn’t know all the facts and details of exactly how Aflac was structured with investments, but I had the vision in my mind from all those other insurance companies I visited during the insurance crisis, that Aflac is probably similar. It just didn’t have the resources and the focus on the investment side because markets had been benign. Things were good. But things had changed. So I actually walked in with a business plan, and I said to Dan, Chuck and Ken, here’s what I would like to do in the first 180 days.

I didn’t know all the details of the staff or systems. I didn’t even know all the details of the portfolio, but I had read the analyst reports, and I had seen that script before. I believe I knew the right prescription to help the company. I had the good fortune to get the position and was permitted to implement that business plan. Obviously the details were a little different than what I imagined because I learned about the specifics, but the concept was exactly the same. Those learning experiences were invaluable when I joined here at Aflac. 

Trusted Insight: In-house insurance company investment offices are increasingly more sophisticated and making more ambitious investments across the world, especially if you look at Chinese or Japanese players. What role do you see insurance company investment offices playing in the markets over the next few decades?

Eric Kirsch: A very critical role. If you add it up globally, insurance companies represent, $9 or $10 trillion of capital, globally, and this number is probably a little stale. The U.S. and Bermuda account for something like $4 or $5 trillion. Japan is roughly $3 or $4, and then there’s everybody else. It’s just a huge pool of capital. 

Insurers, typically life insurers, are long-term investors. Most of our policyholders are long-term insurance. They’re not short-term. That means that pool of capital can afford to take a long-term view. I compare and contrast that with a pension fund or a hedge fund that has to have a short-term view and managed for total return and really not think about what’s a good, long-term way to invest.

The other dynamic that’s happening in the market is that because of Dodd-Frank, banks have had to pull back. They no longer can provide capital to investors and investment opportunities around the world like they used to. What does that mean? I’ll give you one or two examples. Infrastructure investments have received significant attention over the last eight or nine years. There’s infrastructure debt, there’s infrastructure equity. 

A simple example of infrastructure, building a toll road in Illinois, or building a toll road in the middle of Europe. Governments no longer have the money, the will power and the knowledge to build that out and maintain it, but they can, in essence, issue debt and have others do it for them. That’s an infrastructure project and the appeal of that is, if you’re funding debt that funds an infrastructure project, then that toll road is going to be around for 100 years, and it’s going to collect tolls. It’s going to self-fund. It’s highly collateralized, but you probably need to make a 30-year investment. It’s not a short-term investment.

Insurance companies have long-term views. They don’t have to worry about short-term volatility and total return. That’s an area where banks had been contributing capital, and they’ve had to pull back. Insurers are taking up that space. And I’m just using a toll road example, but this could be utility lines, wind and alternative power generation -- lots of different things. 

Another example is something called middle-market lending. There are thousands, tens of thousands of small- to mid-size companies across that United States. That’s the engine of our growth actually. Companies with EBITDA of $10 million to $50 to $200 million, they’re not necessarily public. They’re privately run companies, typically a niche in their industry and have been around for 10, 20, 30 years. They, too, need debt to finance themselves, redo a warehouse, expand operations. There’s always been this whole market of middle-market lending, a whole host of lenders across the United States.

Historically, the banks were the provider of capital to those lenders as well as the entities that disintermediated the risk. After the lenders would make the loans, they would also find buyers for the loans. The banks can no longer afford to do that business. It’s too capital intensive under Dodd-Frank. So we are stepping in, along with other insurance companies because we consider credit underwriting a core competency. Credit is something we can analyze; we can get covenants and protections. We can ride out economic cycles. That’s another asset class for which we are filling a void because of our long-term nature to investments. 

I see more and more, whether it’s investment opportunities or investors that create investment opportunities, looking toward insurance companies. And insurance companies like Aflac, because we have a $100 billion balance sheet, are looking at diversifying our asset base. It must be appropriate per the regulations. It needs to fit our ALM and capital framework, but we want to be investors where we can do that good fundamental credit research and get a good long-term stable return. I see the amount of incoming calls to us as an industry increasing and the amount of new things we may do versus what we might have done 10, 15 years ago increasing because banks have left the space, and we’re the natural providers of that capital.

Trusted Insight: You focused on debt. What about equity in terms of private markets? 

Eric Kirsch: When you think about private markets, like private equity or even real estate, core, core plus, there’s definitely a home in our portfolios. For life companies, depending on if you’re in North America, Japan, et cetera, on average because of the capital rules and the nature of our liabilities, we’re going to have 90 to 95 percent in debt. That’s the natural asset class that’s capital efficient, that’s predictable and backs policyholder liabilities. As an industry, anywhere from three to seven percent might be invested in these alternative sources of capital: private equity, real estate, et cetera.

Three to seven sounds like a small number, but three to seven of $10 trillion is a big number. It’s a huge amount of capital. So yes, that too is an area of great interest to us and the industry. Again, we in the life insurance space have other sources of liquidity to take care of our liabilities. We typically consider that three to seven percent as money you’re not going to need year in and year out to match your liabilities to pay a policyholder claim. You can afford to have it in the core, the very center of the portfolio, knowing you’re not going to have to call on it to meet policyholder obligations. Therefore, sort of against your surplus, you can afford to take a little bit more risk and therefore generate higher returns than fixed-income would generate. That’s the attraction to those types of asset classes. That has been a place where insurers have invested, and I see more intense focus on it going forward. Particularly in a time of low-to-negative yields, which we’re all battling worldwide. 

Trusted Insight: You take an inherently long-term approach, but how do the near-term market factors that we see today play into your long-term investment strategy?

Eric Kirsch: It’s a great question, and it’s quite a challenge. We manage it in two ways, from a strategic and a tactical standpoint. 

From a strategic standpoint, remember as an insurance company, we are highly regulated. Every asset we put to work takes capital from the company. So it’s got to be capital efficient. At a strategic level, we do what we call a strategic asset allocation and an asset liability management study. First, assets and liabilities, make sure you’re as matched as you can be because if you’re matched while interest rates remain low it will mean less net investment income, but if I match from a duration standpoint, it means I’m going to be fine as interest rates go up and down because my assets and liabilities will move in tandem. The only consequence: in the short-term, I’m earning less income. If you’re not exactly matched, you want to match or manage that tolerance. That’s the starting place.

From a tactical standpoint, as a public company, certainly we are pressured to earn income. There’s never anything we would do to take us off the guardrails from a strategic standpoint and safety and preservation of capital. It does force us to say, what else should we look at as an investment strategy that allows us to earn extra yields while not taking on undue risk. 

I am a strong believer, however, that you don’t get something for nothing. If you’re not buying Treasury securities or JGBs, which are the risk-free assets by definition, you’re taking some more risk. Things like the middle-market loans that I mentioned and infrastructure are very credit-worthy investments, where I can earn that extra return. They are capital-friendly. It just means more focused time on the underwriting the credit and the risk management. That should allow us to make up some of that net investment income while preserving our ALM strategies.

I do a significant amount of credit underwriting. Part of my team deals specifically with looking at credit assets, analyzing and assessing the risk inherent in that, negotiating tight covenants. So if that company gets in trouble, we have protections built in. 

What I really have to watch out for is macro risk. That’s where the ALM comes in and good risk management. What I mean by that is, I can’t underwrite what the Federal Reserve is going to do or the Bank of Japan or the ECB. Often they don’t even know what they’re going to do until they do it. The markets right now are being driven by our central banks that pumped up liquidity so much as a result of the financial crisis, to keep world growth going, with which they’ve only been moderately successful. They’re all trying to figure out how to take the pedal off the metal and ease up, and that can cause volatility.

In 2013 Ben Bernanke said, “If data was good, I’ll raise rates.” And the market was upset about that, and rates went up 100 basis points in the course of six months. It turns out the data never got better, and the Federal Reserve never did anything. I want to make sure my portfolio is situated such that if there’s a surprise by central banks, we don’t get hurt by it in the portfolio. We minimize macro risk. We maximize credit risk, because we feel like we can underwrite that and manage that. That’s what will get us through economic cycles and this tough time. 

I should also mention, as a life company, at the top of the house at Aflac, we also look at the different products that we offer. Where there’s been products that have been interest-rate sensitive, we’ve actually cut back sales of those products because we do feel that, given the macro environment, it’s really not good to take money in on those products where the amount of unpredictability from the central banks is so great that we could get hurt, us and the policyholders. We have actually shut off sales of what we call our first sector products in Japan, so that we have less of those types of products. And we focus more on what we call our third sector products, which is the cancer and disability insurance, which is the more stable part of our liability.

My point in telling you that is it’s just not the actions that I take, but it’s also actions on the product side that we take here at Aflac and other insurers would look to take given the unique macro environment that we’re in. 

Trusted Insight: Who do you consider your peers within the investment industry? What sets you apart from them?

Eric Kirsch: A few things. Firstly, we’ve truly set up a global team here. At other insurance companies with operating subsidiaries in different countries, you’re going to find that they have an investment team in each country, and they just leave it to them. They don’t leverage the global platform. We have totally globalized. We have global investment committees. We have strategy teams that consist of people from our New York office and Japan office. We have phone calls at night, early in the morning, but it pays off because we have one strategy that’s consistent when we’re looking at the markets given the nature of our liabilities in Japan and the United States. 

We leverage each other. So credit is a good example. A lot of my competitors have credit teams in multiple jurisdictions, doing the same work, covering the same credits and creating inefficiency, and perhaps different opinions on the same credit. We see that as less than optimal. I have a credit team sitting in New York, about 15 credit analysts, and we have a credit team in Japan of only about three analysts. Why? Because the Japan analysts cover Asian and Japan credits, a much smaller universe. The U.S. team covers Europe and the U.S., but the underlying bonds are owned by both balance sheets -- the Japan and the U.S. balance sheet. One analyst covers the same credit. We just apportioned the risk to Japan and the United States. So when my Japan CIO comes in, he’s working with the U.S. credit team to the extent that the Japan portfolio has U.S. exposure, which by the way, it has about $30 billion of U.S. exposure. That credit process and global structure is very unique.

Then we do go to great lengths to practice strategic and tactical asset allocation. A lot of insurers simply go to market and find where the yield is and put their money to work. We do, every three years, the strategic asset allocation, which calibrates our investment strategies to our liabilities and capital. From that, we create an optimal portfolio of different asset classes, the duration characteristics, that maximize the opportunity while lowering our surplus volatility, in essence, our risk.

From a tactical standpoint, as a public company, certainly we are pressured to earn income. There’s never anything we would do to take us off the guardrails from a strategic standpoint and safety and preservation of capital. It does force us to say, what else should we look at as an investment strategy that allows us to earn extra yields while not taking on undue risk.

Then, the team works globally and works through market environments, finds investment opportunities, finds those assets we should avoid, frankly, or sell down. We do that by working globally and applying the risk on the balance sheet, or taking risk off globally. I think that’s what differentiates us in our approach. Our investment results have been terrific. Net investment income has held up very well in a very challenging environment. 

I think what I’m most proud of is how much we’ve diversified in these five years. We’re in so many new assets, but also we weathered the storm. The energy story, as I told you earlier, was a perfect example. All eyes were on the insurance industry and energy, and no matter which report I looked at, from an S&P report that came out to analyst reports that studied energy and the insurance energy, we came out looking very well versus our peers in terms of the diversification of our holdings and potential losses and impairments. That’s because of the hard work and the approach that we take.

Trusted Insight: What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the institutional investing industry on the insurance side of the business? 

Eric Kirsch: My advice would be, you have to understand that particularly as a public company, your first duty is to your policyholders and your regulators because it’s the policyholders that are entrusting money to us, and they expect to get paid back some day. You have to invest with safety, preservation of capital in mind. Secondly, it’s to our shareholders who entrust us. That’s where, as an insurance company, you put capital at risk, but your strategy in the portfolio has to be balanced between protecting those policyholders, while taking some amount of risk with the capital to earn a good long-term return on this balance sheet for our shareholders.

That means customization. It means patience. It means have a long-term horizon. It’s okay if it takes longer as an insurance company, for us to get involved in something. Maybe a pension fund or a mutual fund does it in a month because there’s something new. It may take me six months, because I’m going to make sure it fits our profile right, it works from a long-term perspective. Then the results are on public display. They go into the financials. Our net investment income, our gains and losses. There’s a governor. There’s a public metric that actually measures our performance every quarter. You have to get that balance right, long-term policyholder benefits that converts into what’s good for our shareholders. 

I see a lot of folks that are more short-term oriented coming into the insurance space. They might focus on total return. Those just aren’t the right metrics. Economically, we have to examine everything, and that’s where the SAA and the ALM comes into play. From a tactical standpoint, we’re not going to be the first movers in or out, but we’re going to be slow and steady and earn that good return and with the amount of risk and capital we can put to work, earn the extra return with that long-term view.

Trusted Insight: What should readers know about you, Aflac or insurance investing in general? 

Eric Kirsch: In terms of Aflac, I would say to you that Aflac is a great company. You obviously know the duck. The duck is known in Japan and the United States and is a global brand. I am proud to work with a company whose ethics and morals are high because it means we do the right thing for our policy holders. You’ve probably heard the Aflac slogan, “One Day Pay.” Basically, a policy-holder comes with a claim, they get paid in a day. Because we realize that when our policyholders need money, they need it fast. It’s what separates us from the competition.

That sort of corporate culture goes right down to our investment function and how we feel so strongly about meeting those goals. We’re really quite a unique company with this dynamic of Japan and the U.S., but one that just has a very high degree of caring for its policyholders and shareholders. If you look over the years, we’ve done a great job of meeting the objectives of both.

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