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October 20, 2009

News Briefs

  1. Export Letters of Credit: The Importance of LC Instructions & How to Read an LC
  2. Eye on the Hill: Bill Introduced to Exempt Small Businesses From SOX 404
  3. Smarter Machines for Smarter Business
  4. Slow Payment, Tight Credit Pinning Down Smaller Manufacturers
  5. Economy Shows Signs of New Life as Exports Blossom
  6. IRS Releases Results of Offshore Tax Compliance Initiative
  7. Eye on the Hill: "Red Flags" Rules Deadline on the Horizon

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Export Letters of Credit: The Importance of LC Instructions & How to Read an LC

Less than 1% of U.S. firms are identified as exporters, and the largest tranche of the country's exporting portfolio is dominated by large enterprises. The U.S. government has been feverishly trying to change that, but exporting isn't as simple as plug-and-go. There are freight and shipping costs, country specific laws and regulations, taxes, quotas, duties and dreaded trade instruments like letters of credit (LCs). For exporting companies, protections like LCs have a much more gradually-sloped learning curve, some of which attendees conquered during the recent NACM teleconference, "Export Letters of Credit: The Importance of LC Instructions & How to Read an LC."

"We're protecting the assets of our company. We're there to collect and make sure that our A/R is real tight and our DSO is real low," explained Danielle Austin, letter of credit consultant, Export Trade Associates. "When I spend time with an importer with letters of credit, I may take two 30-minute sessions with them on how to fill out the application. On the export side, the learning curve is usually about three years and seven months."

One of the biggest headaches for companies looking to trade internationally is the documentary credit cycle. A security agreement like an LC has to be meticulously crafted and the entire process can be complex and frustrating. An estimated 70% of all LCs submitted to banks for payment are initially rejected due to incorrectly issued documentation, often leading to payment delays, additional fees and even nonpayment in some cases. These discrepancies are typically rooted in a lack of education by exporters, but trade creditors aren't powerless to secure the upper-hand.

"Don't cringe at the thought of it; master the art of it," Austin said. "On the credit side it is all about controlling the funds. It's all about reducing our risks and decreasing our DSO. What that comes down to is reducing our discrepancies."

Trade creditors should author concise and clear LC instructions. By taking the reins in this process, they can ensure that they control the terms of the deal. Streamlining documents and taking charge of the formatting of an LC firmly puts the trade creditor in charge. "If we don't control this process, we're going to end up with LCs that are three or ten pages long," warned Austin. "And that's something that's going to cause more work for us, as well as open us up to additional discrepancies."

Austin advised creditors to reduce and simplify the documentary cycle. Don't provide a lot of options in the LC guidelines to request copies of documents required. This allows the customer to start checking boxes and demand copies of items like certificates of origin and insurance policies.

Even though letters of credit have their quirks and frustrations, Austin stressed that trade creditors shouldn't automatically assume the worst of LCs. "Letters of credit aren't always such a bad thing," she said. "If we are doing new business in new countries, we want the safest way to do business. On the credit side, the safest is cash in advance. Well, when we're out there promoting our products, it's very difficult for us to receive $50,000 or $500,000 in cash and have our customer's trust that we're going to ship the goods. The next safest way is through these letters of credit."

During her presentation, Austin provided a detailed breakdown of sample LC instructions and described the forms that she often utilizes. NACM members who missed Austin's presentation can contact Tracey Flaesch at 410-740-5560 or traceyf@nacm.org for an opportunity to listen to a taped version of the teleconference.

Matthew Carr, NACM staff writer

"Red Flags" Rules and Guidelines Simplified

The date for mandatory compliance with the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) "Red Flags" Rules is just over the horizon. Business-to-business creditors must have a written and senior management-approved program to detect, mitigate and respond to fraud perpetrated by identity thieves. Before the November 1 deadline, NACM members have the opportunity to hear the "Red Flags" Rules simplified by two of the association's most well-known speakers: Wanda Borges, Esq., of Borges and Associates, and Bruce Nathan, Esq., of Lowenstein and Sandler, PC. The teleconference on October 26 will help companies determine their responsibilities and what needs to be part of their "Red Flags" program.

Members wanting to better understand this controversial FTC regulation can register here.

Eye on the Hill: Bill Introduced to Exempt Small Businesses From SOX 404

Just after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued its strongest language yet about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and its pending application to small businesses, Congressman Scott Garrett (R-NJ) introduced a bill that would exempt the nation's smaller firms from SOX's most onerous provisions.

Aptly dubbed the "Small Business SOX Compliance Relief Act," Garrett's bill would exempt public companies with less than a $75 million public float, also called non-accelerated filers, from what he described as the burdensome reporting requirements contained within Section 404(b) of SOX.

"Although the stated intent of Sarbanes-Oxley was to provide investor confidence in our markets through greater accountability and disclosure, the Act has had the unintended effect of creating undue—and often unbearable—burdens on small businesses," said Garrett. "It is diverting valuable resources away from other legitimate business needs, creating massive and tedious documentation requirements and discouraging the public listing of both international and domestic companies on U.S. markets. Honest companies are being punished and the U.S. economy will suffer as a result."

Currently, the bill has been referred to the House Financial Services Committee and has garnered no cosponsors.

In an effort to reassure investors who were uncertain of when, if ever, small businesses would be required to comply with SOX's reporting provisions, the SEC issued a statement stating that no further delays would be granted to small businesses and that all the nation's firms would be required to comply by June 15, 2010. Section 404 already applies to larger businesses and requires public companies to report on their internal accounting controls and have an independent auditor attest to their efficacy.

Observers have raised questions about the timing of the act's imposition on the still-struggling small business sector. "Especially now, as our country struggles to emerge from a recession, the last thing American small businesses need is another barrier to economic stabilization," said Garrett, who, in a release, used the SEC's own words against it. In a survey of businesses published by the agency in September, the SEC wrote that "[A] majority felt that the costs of compliance outweighed the benefits. This was especially true among smaller companies."

Garrett's release also referred to research by NASDAQ that showed the burden of compliance, on a percentage of revenue basis, falls on small businesses 11 times harder than it does on larger companies, giving these already better-positioned companies an even greater market advantage.

NACM has watched and reported on SOX since its passage in 2002. If you have any thoughts on the Act, the SEC, or Garrett's proposed legislation, please email them to jakeb@nacm.org.

Jacob Barron, NACM staff writer

Get Published. Get Cash.

There's only two weeks left to submit a story to this year's Credit Words: Stories of Victory and Defeat contest. The deadline to submit is November 2.

"After getting a commitment from John Doe's finance director that they would overnight payment for their outstanding invoices in exchange for letting two more truckloads of products ship, I approved the new purchases. As one can guess, the overnight did not arrive. One truck had already delivered; the other was in transit and I had no way to stop the delivery. No one was taking my calls-not even the finance director who made the promise the day before. 'John Doe'd again!'" —Excerpt from one of last year's winning stories.

Every credit manager has a story to share, a tale brought out while networking with colleagues. It's that humorous anecdote about an on-site visit that is sure to get a laugh or that harrowing yarn of outwitting a company dodging payment. Share your experience with other credit professionals in NACM's Credit Words short story contest for a chance to earn Roadmap points and a cash prize.

You've only got a few days! Submit your stories to bcm@nacm.org, but be sure to read the contest rules and information first!

Smarter Machines for Smarter Business

For a majority of field services enterprises, like construction or installation businesses, one of the major burdens is paper-thin margins. Material and labor costs have to be monitored, while the multitude of pieces of equipment required to perform the jobs must be tracked. For businesses of any size, this can be a daunting task.

Rudder Capital Corporation, which provides satellite and broadband services in various markets throughout the United States, was coping with this very problem. Monitoring and tracking costs for a single location—employing W-2 and 1099 subcontractors—is difficult enough, let alone for a nationwide company. Throw in an economic downturn and there are the makings of a bottom-line headache.

Six months ago, Rudder turned to a business intelligence software system developed by Creative Vistas, Inc. to help manage its operations. The results have been promising.

"What's important is transparency," said Patrick Engels, president, Rudder. "We have a number of locations around the country where we're deploying resources and we're deploying costs, such as equipment. The ability to come in every day and see how many jobs I have coming in, what the cost of each particular job is and, in real-time, be able to extrapolate out both the cost of labor and equipment and be able to see the revenue I'm generating on a real-time basis is phenomenal."

Over the last six months, by utilizing a business intelligence system, Rudder's lost equipment costs and chargebacks have fallen, from 14% of revenue to about 3-5%. In total dollars, the company says it has saved $175,000 by turning to Creative Vistas' OSS-IM View system and Webtracker, and is projecting full-year total savings of approximately $400,000. Rudder has also been able to reduce administrative overhead and improve productivity.

Engels, a former software company executive, is, not surprisingly, a big proponent of utilizing software as an enabler for business, something he feels is particularly key in this economic environment. "If the bottom line starts to shrink or remain steady, there has to be a change; there has to be better cost control," said Mark Thompson, senior vice president, OSS-IM View, a subsidiary of Creative Vistas. "The control of expenses and materials on delivery at this point has to be number one."

Charge-backs and other avoidable costs are killers for installation companies. For instance, when a company has to send out a technician to finish a job that its previous technician completed incorrectly only saps revenue. Being able to reduce those redundancies not only helps keep costs in line, but also improves a company's customer service.

"The other side from the actual business point of view is that fewer chargebacks mean that it goes straight to a company's bottom line," said Dominic Burns, CEO, Creative Vistas. "Their guys are more efficient and can actually go out and get new jobs instead of returning to the jobs they've already done."

Business intelligence software systems can help credit managers and finance departments keep a handle on revenue bleeding by offering access to a number of metrics. Thompson explained that OSS-IM View can provide revenue per day, revenue per truck, mileage, productivity, return patterns and efficiencies, as well as back-end processes like human resources, billing and reconciliation.

"Knowing what pieces of equipment, what pieces of material are installed and things like fuel usage, materials as a percentage of revenue and materials type to very specific jobs are some of the focuses," said Thompson. "Often, subcontractors are in high-volume/low-margin activities where getting this clarity allows them to put a focus on those nickels and dimes that add up to a much bigger improvement to the bottom line."

More robust but smaller multi-module systems are not only looking to only capsize large-scale enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in field services organizations, but also the simpler systems run by smaller businesses. Web-based tools offer the ability to see real-time information from a number of different feeds, which allows management to adapt to daily changes. Since the systems are smaller, they can also be implemented rather quickly—within a matter of weeks—and can integrate themselves with existing accounting software platforms.

"Not to say that the subcontractors in this world aren't very sophisticated, but you have everybody running models from Excel-based to their own homegrown systems," remarked Thompson.

"I think what's important in any type of model, whether it's a start-up or a mature business, is that those Excel spreadsheets can be very complex," said Engels. "They can be based on a particular user or designer of it. In my business, we've had turnover because of a number of changes that we've made, but we're able to maintain consistency in having all the information in Webtracker to run the business."

Matthew Carr, NACM staff writer

Learn More at the Library!

NACM's Online Resource Library contains all NACM publications, including all recent issues of Business Credit magazine. Whether you're looking for new updates on bankruptcy, expert collection techniques or a thorough guide of how to comply with regulations (like the FTC's "Red Flags" Rules, which go into effect November 1), the NACM Resource Library has you covered.

Also, check out the Resource Library for information on an NACM educational event you may have missed. Users can find documents and presentations from all recent major NACM events and audio teleconferences right at their fingertips. Click here to start your search today!

Slow Payment, Tight Credit Pinning Down Smaller Manufacturers

There has been no shortage of struggles over the last two years for the nation's manufacturers, which have absorbed the full brunt of the credit crisis' impact, and difficulties still remain despite government attempts to spur investment. A recent hearing in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs illuminated the various forces still squeezing the sector.

"Small- and medium-sized manufacturers are often trapped between the troubles of their much larger customers and financial institutions," said Robert Kiener, director of member outreach for the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA). Kiener was one witness testifying at the hearing, dubbed "Restoring Credit to Manufacturers" and called by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Policy. Kiener, along with David Andrea, vice president of industry analysis and economics for the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), discussed the many ways in which government programs fall short for small- and mid-sized manufacturers (SMMs) and the financial services sector's opinion of the nation's manufacturers that continues to contribute to its difficulties.

"Many banks are not lending to manufacturing businesses because of the fear of having their rating level reduced by federal regulators," said Kiener. "The federal government's policies should not create an environment in which manufacturers struggle to access adequate and timely credit. The nation's economy, in which manufacturing accounts for 12% of GDP, cannot recover without a sound manufacturing base. Returning to sound lending practices with manufacturers is good for their business and critical for the country."

Outreach and loan programs to smaller firms have fallen short in the sector, mainly due to the limitations placed on the amount of money loaned in these programs. "It is not unreasonable for a small supplier to be called on for the investment of $2 to $4 million to assist with the design, engineering and tooling for a component on a new vehicle program. However, typically suppliers receive payment for this investment after the launch of production through the piece price of the component," said Andrea. "The supplier might not begin receiving any cash flow on their investment for 12 to 24 months and will not be completely reimbursed until the product ends production in another 36 to 60 months."

"The SBA programs are limited to only $2 million loans," he added. "Since suppliers are expected to fund a great deal of the research and development in the projects, the net worth and loan amounts have limited utility to our industry."

The absence of available credit might not be the sector's greatest scourge though. SMMs are currently pinched both between banks that are tightening up and their own customers who have taken to delaying payment for as long as they can. "Many SMMs need a return to traditional lending, while other companies and their lenders require assurance that their customers will pay their outstanding accounts receivable. While guaranteeing loans is critical to supporting all manufacturers, guaranteeing accounts receivable is particularly important to SMMs requiring an immediate injection of cash to continue operations," said Kiener. "PMPA and other metal working industries are working with the Department of Commerce Manufacturing Council and members of the administration on such proposals."

"As one of our members said, ‘I pay my employees weekly, my leases every four weeks, my vendors every six weeks and my customers pay me every eight weeks,'" said Andrea. "The need is evident."

Jacob Barron, NACM staff writer

Industry Credit Groups

Credit groups are an effective management tool. They permit credit professionals of different companies servicing the same customer, regardless of industry or trade, to compare information on collection history and provide a forum for the exchange of data as to the most recent payment practices. The purpose of exchanging information is to help group members segregate fiction from fact, so competent and realistic credit decisions about a customer can be made.

Managed and operated by NACM Affiliates nationwide, NACM-Canada and FCIB internationally, credit groups:

  • Provide unparalleled networking opportunities
  • Assist in the exchange of credit information on common customers
  • Facilitate the receipt and analysis of information to make unilateral credit decisions
  • Provide a forum to discuss the latest developments on credit department procedures,
    equipment and other credit management functions
  • Support the discussion of account information and delinquent account reports
  • Adhere to federal antitrust guidelines

Click here to learn more about NACM credit groups and find the group for your industry.

Economy Shows Signs of New Life as Exports Blossom

The U.S. dollar is struggling to hold its own against the euro. Since hitting a year-to-date low of $1.25 to the euro in March, the dollar has lost almost 25 cents, plummeting to $1.49 to the euro this month. But as the dollar remains weak, gold and oil become more affordable to foreign markets, and U.S. exports are at least more competitive overseas.

The U.S. government has been campaigning heavily to entice as many small- and medium-sized enterprises that it can to get involved in international trade. Congress is wading through hearings to remove any obstacles that might be keeping small businesses from entering the global marketplace, while the United States Trade Representative is exploring amending established trade agreements, as well as pursuing new areas to bolster exports. This is a prime pillar for the nation's economic recovery and long-term growth, and it's particularly poignant in light of the projected budget deficits over the next decade.

The good news is that in August, the United States trade deficit continued to shrink, falling from $31.9 billion in July to $30.7 billion. This decrease was fostered by a slight $200 million increase in exports and a more significant $900 million decline in imports. Maybe most importantly, this was the fourth consecutive month that the export of U.S. goods and services has improved. Though at the same time, it also illustrates the sustained weakness through which the dollar has suffered.

Across the Atlantic, France and Germany have already declared themselves free of recession. The United States is impatiently waiting its turn. Thankfully, these numbers show that the country seems to be on the right path. "We're encouraged by the continued signs that the U.S. and other major economies are beginning to expand again," said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "We must remain steadfast in our effort to boost U.S. exports and put Americans back to work."

In August, the U.S.'s trade deficit with the European Union (EU) shrank, falling from $8 billion in July to $5.4 billion, primarily because exports from the EU are down 20%. The 16-nation Eurozone saw its own trade balance collapse considerably from July to August, decreasing from $18.3 billion to just $5.9 billion. Total exports for the Eurozone were down 5.8%, while imports declined 1.8%, and both figures were down more than 23% compared to the same period last year. Demonstrating the severe impact the global economic decline has had on both the United States and Europe, the EU's trade surplus with the U.S. fell from $57 billion through January-July 2008 to just $33.3 billion for the same period this year.

The United States' two largest trading partners—Canada and China—somewhat renewed their thirst for U.S. goods in August, even if it wasn't enough to significantly impact the running trade deficits the nation has with both. Exports to Canada increased $1.2 billion in August, while exports to China increased $300 million. Unfortunately, U.S. imports from both countries also ticked upward, albeit far more modestly.

Despite mounting job losses and bankruptcies, the U.S. economy had more encouraging signs in terms of retail sales. Though sales slipped 1.5% in September, weighted down by the nearly 10.5% decline in vehicles sales, the drop was still not as steep as anticipated. In fact, retail sales in the third quarter actually saw the strongest gains in almost two years.

The Commerce Department is optimistic that the healthy increase of .4% in sales, excluding motor vehicles and gasoline over the past two months is indicative that consumers are gaining confidence, which also signals the initial stages of rebound. Secretary Locke also believes that, as more stimulus money makes its way into the system in the coming months, it will further promote an upturn and provide more opportunities for America's unemployed.

Matthew Carr, NACM staff writer

Look for the "A" Players

You need the "A" players. They're the most qualified—the most productive people—in your organization. And, for any open positions you have, you need them fast because any interruptions in staffing can mean missed deadlines, a breakdown in operations and loss of productivity—consequences you can't afford.

You'll find the "A" players at Careers in Commercial Credit, Collections & Finance (C4F), the online resource for the people who are educated and experienced in your related field, and who are looking for the opportunities you can provide.

Click here to get started!

C4F: Employment Connections for the Business Credit Community

IRS Releases Results of Offshore Tax Compliance Initiative

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently announced that its offshore voluntary tax compliance initiative netted 7,500 taxpayers who disclosed the existence of their offshore accounts and activity. Accounts disclosed by offshore tax evaders were hosted in more than 70 countries and ranged from $10,000 to $100 million.

"This is encouraging news and shows the IRS is taking the right steps to bring criminal tax evaders out of the shadows," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee which oversees tax compliance. "With record deficits and a weakened economy, we owe it to honest taxpayers to set an aggressive agenda that puts an end to offshore tax evasion once and for all. "

The accounts discovered in this program included old family accounts that had been passed down without owners knowing that they needed to be reported, as well as more complex situations involving multiple accounts in multiple countries. Baucus hinted that legislation may arrive in the future that gives the IRS more leverage when it comes to taking offshore evaders to justice. "I have committed time and resources to helping the IRS do a better job tracking these billions of taxable dollars, and we will continue to work with the House and White House to move a strong bill that gives the IRS the tools it needs to combat and prevent these intolerable abuses," he said.

Domestically, the IRS continues to be troubled by non-compliance among the nation's sole proprietors. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that sole proprietors who own unincorporated businesses by themselves underreported their net income by 57%, or $68 billion, in 2001, which was the GAO's most recent estimate. A recent proposal to curb the problem of tax evasion within the sector would limit losses that these businesses could deduct from their income, which the GAO said would successfully reduce noncompliant losses but also limit the ability of sole proprietors to actually claim legitimate losses.

Baucus' Republican counterpart on the Finance Committee, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has recently criticized the proposal, noting that it would be too broad in its reach and would punish law-abiding businesses as much as it would law-breaking businesses. "As the IRS and GAO have documented, there are problems of noncompliance among sole proprietors, yet the IRS is directing its enforcement at bad actors and good actors alike," he said. "The IRS needs to do a better job of using its resources so innocent people aren't having their time and money taken up by IRS audits when they should be running their businesses and helping the economy. Small businesses create the majority of new jobs."

Jacob Barron, NACM staff writer

MLBS Lien Navigator

Lien laws are continuing to evolve and change. Both Pennsylvania and Arkansas debutted changes to their statutes in recent months. Texas recently adopted considerable changes that affect minor lien notice errors or omissions and their relationship to the Fraudulent Lien Act. Colorado has passed legislation that affects two sections of the Colorado Revised Statutes and ultimately all lien waivers entered in the state as of July 1, 2009.

For construction credit professionals, tools like NACM's MLBS Lien Navigator—a credit professional's guide to notice, lien, payment bond and suit time requirements—gain prominence in this changing environment. MLBS Lien Navigator is already the leading source of information on when action needs to be taken to protect lien rights across the 50 states and D.C. and is updated as new regulations are passed and affect lien rights.

Members who are interested in learning more about the benefits of NACM's MLBS Lien Navigator and who would like to try a free demo should click here.

Eye on the Hill: "Red Flags" Rules Deadline on the Horizon

The November 1, 2009 deadline for commercial creditors to have a rewritten and senior management-approved policy to detect, mitigate and respond to potential fraud committed by identity theft under the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) "Red Flags" Rules is fast approaching.

The "Red Flags" regulations are built on the concept that consumers and businesses have to form a partnership to combat identity theft. If businesses ignore an event that signals possible identity theft, then consumers are helpless in trying to prevent their identity from being stolen and used to fraudulently purchase goods. The same applies for business-to-business transactions. There has to be a tiered approach to prevention. The multi-agency "Red Flags" Rules have sought to address this by outlining that companies must establish policies to detect, mitigate and respond to possible instances of identity theft.

The Rules are not about data security or about building a fortress to protect your own customers' private information from hackers—there are already laws in place that address these issues. The "Red Flag" Rules are about preventing identity thieves from using someone else's or another company"s identity to fraudulently purchase products from another business. The regulations create a policy barrier to prevent identity thieves from profiting from their crimes.

Under the FTC's "Red Flags" Rules, entities must first determine if they are considered a "financial institution" or a "creditor." The regulations define "creditor" as "businesses or organizations that regularly provide goods or services first and allow customers to pay later. Examples of groups that may fall within this definition are utilities, health care providers, lawyers, accountants and other professionals and telecommunications companies. This also applies to businesses that regularly grant loans, arrange for loans or the extension of credit, or make credit decisions. Examples include finance companies, mortgage brokers and automobile dealers or retailers that offer financing or collect or process credit applications for third party lenders." In addition, the definition includes anyone who regularly participates in the decision to extend, renew, or continue credit, including setting the terms of credit. Basically, this means that business-to-business creditors are considered "creditors" under the rules.

Second, a creditor or financial institution must provide "covered accounts" in order to be subject to the regulation. "Covered accounts" are broken into two categories: consumer accounts designed to permit multiple payments or transactions, and any other account that presents a "reasonably foreseeable risk from identity theft." This second type is a catch-all leaving businesses to make their own determination of the risks their accounts face. It does not mean "any risk from identity theft," because, technically all accounts face some sort of risk from identity theft. What it means is any type of account where there exists definite potential for the person placing an order or asking for the extension of credit not to be the person they say they are or not to have the authority to place the order from the company they allegedly represent.

Companies must meet both criteria to be subject to the "Red Flags" Rules. If a business determines that it does not meet both criteria, it still must conduct periodic risk assessments to prove this.

NACM members can review the March and May issues of Business Credit for more in-depth materials about their responsibilities under the "Red Flags" Rules and for a sample policy. They can also check the FTC's website for Fighting Fraud With the Red Flags Rules: A How-To Guide for Business, which also provides links to a wealth of FTC information on the topic.

Click here to register for NACM's October 26 Teleconference: "Red Flags" Rules and Guidelines Simplified."

Matthew Carr, NACM staff writer

To view past eNews issues or to visit the NACM Archives, click here.



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