The stock analysts; the Wall Streeters who tell you when and what to buy and sell.
Have you ever thought of calling your analyst? I mean the stock market kind, not the other kind. The one who writes the reports that your broker sends you, along with the little note that reads: "Our firm highly recommends this purchase, as noted in the enclosed.' For some reason, I never thought an analyst was an actual person you could contact, until I was helped along by the dozesn of Wall Street insiders I met during my year-long foray into the world of high finance.
I attended a meeting--actually a small gathering of a committee--within the New York Society of Securities Analysts. Frankly, it was depressing. In this booming field, this was an unusually sad group of white-collar professionals in their mid-to-upper forties who were constantly complaining about the younger, more aggressive analysts that the brokerage houses now prefer. They've had some reason to fret since hordes of college seniors heading for Wall Street have been particularly eager to become analysts. I was surprised, then, but not too surprised to find out that of the 1,250 students who graduated Yale in 1985, over 400 applied to be analysts at First Boston.
Listening to their stories at the meeting, I found out several useful things: (1) there are 15,000 analysts at large in the country and mostly in New York; (2) analysts at brokerage houses are expected to serve us, the stock-buying public; (3) some analysts, called "quants,' speak a form of calculus, so nobody can understand a "quant' except another "quant'; (4) most analysts have MBA degrees and are very well-informed; and (5) they may be the first to know when to buy and when to sell stock.
This latter point was exciting, and made me sorry that I hadn't learned any of this earlier. The day after the meeting I watched the stock I had bought seven months before, 5,000 shares of Angstrom Inc., makers of high-tech dies, plummet as the Dow Jones average jumped 41 points. It was up more than 300 points since I started my journey--a fact I'd been trying to ignore. Worse than losing money in a bad market is losing it in this greatest bull market in history, as some already have called it. Frantically, I called my broker, Ms. Linda Garrett of Prudential-Bache.
As I picked up the receiver and started to dial, I was overcome with conflicting emotions. First, there was the dilemma of selling or not selling. Any stock you hold might eventually go up, but the act of selling at a loss forces you to admit you made a mistake. And, I hesitate to mention it, I also worried that selling the Angstrom might hurt Ms. Garrett's feelings. Then I reminded myself of something I'll leave with you as a useful hint: Don't continue losing money just to keep your broker happy.
By the time I'd finished dialing, I'd nearly talked myself out of what had to be done. Just as Ms. Garrett picked up, I reached a sensible compromise with my emotions: sell half.
"What's the Angstrom worth?' I asked.
"Is there anything else an analyst would recommend? I'd like to work with an analyst.'
"Funny you mention it. Just a while ago, I was listening to an analyst over the morning call on our squawk box. Gillette. Nancy Hall says it's a buy. She's touting the domestic story.'
(The "squawk box' is a loudspeaker connecting each field office to the home office. In the "morning call,' the analysts broadcast their latest recommendations to thousands of local brokers. That's how many brokers get the new ideas they pass along to you.)
"Who's Nancy Hall?'
"Our cosmetics analyst in New York.'
I got so excited at this chance to get in early on an analyst's best bet that I put in the Gillette order on the spot. We sold 2,500 shares of Angstrom for $4,289.75, a loss of $781.82, and invested nearly all of it in 53 shares of Gillette at 79 1/4.
As soon as I bought it, I called Ms. Hall. Getting through to the analyst was easier than I expected. The switchboard operator at Prudential-Bache connected me right to her line and she answered her own phone. I introduced myself as a writer and a Prudential-Bache client who'd taken a major position in one of her stocks, and who wanted to make sure he'd done the right thing. She kindly agreed to let me visit her office.
Prudential-Bache is housed in one of the many high-rises at the southern end of Manhattan along Water Street. Ms. Hall's office was located on an upper floor. I'd say the waiting room was full of fine antique furniture, but I can never tell an original from a copy.
Nancy Hall came through the far door to greet me. She is tall and beautiful, a thin, lime-colored scarf hung like a dorsal fin along her back. In any police line-up, I would have picked her for a fashion model and not a securities analyst, whom I would have expected to be stooped and shopworn.
She escorted me down a hallway and into her cubicle, which had a wonderful view of the harbor. Atop the usual clutter of pamphlets and magazines were samples of various shaving and menstrual products from the cosmetic companies that Ms. Hall analyzes. In fact, she seemed to be running a little drugstore counter there. Before I was able to sit down, she handed me the newest Gillette disposable razor, a brown one that swivels, and invited me to try it out and give her an opinion.
Ms. Hall is as charming as she is attractive. She said she'd been an analyst for only two-and-a-half years and worked as an editor at Harper's Bazaar before that. It was comforting to hear her say that being a securities analyst is a lot like being a journalist. Like a journalist, she works long hours, 10 to 14 a day. She has a journalist's beat, cosmetics. She writes "stories' on the dozen or so companies she follows. Less like a journalist, in my experience, was that her base salary fell somewhere between $125,000 and $200,000 a year, plus generous bonuses if her stories turned out to be true.
When it came to Gillette, Ms. Hall congratulated me on a wise choice. Though she might have preferred Avon herself, she was certain that Gillette wouldn't disappoint its shareholders. "We've liked the stock since it was $50,' she said, "and we still like it now.' She explained that Prudential-Bache had a rating system from 1 to 5, with 1 for "aggressive purchase,' 2 for "accumulate,' 3 for "average performer,' 4 for "swap,' and 5 for "sell.' Each stock was assigned two numbers, the first for its near-term prospects, and the second for its long-term prospects. Avon was rated a 1-1, but Gillette was close behind at 2-2.
Ms. Hall went on to explain that last year's Gillette story was international earnings boosted by the falling dollar, while this year's story would be domestic profits boosted by market share gains in blades and toiletries, especially if people liked the new brown razors. She mentioned new Dry Idea deodorant products and Brush Plus makeup as big money-makers, said there'd be solid sales gains in the old razors, and predicted that White Rain shampoo, conditioner, and mousse would make a comeback.
Though Ms. Hall made a very convincing case for Gillette, I thought it wouldn't hurt to get a second opinion. I mentioned this as tactfully as I could, and she kindly gave me the names of other analysts who followed the stock. In fact, she seemed as anxious as I was to find out what these other analysts were saying. "Let me know if you hear anything interesting,' she said. "You can call me back any time.'
Wiggling the toe
The first name on Ms. Hall's list was Deepak Raj of Merrill Lynch, whom I contacted immediately. After I mentioned that I'd visited Ms. Hall, he invited me down to Merrill Lynch head-quarters, which is more or less the same setup but without the antique furniture.
As you might have guessed, Mr. Raj is of Indian descent. He was much too agitated for a prolonged, idle conversation. Perhaps if I'd bought my 53 shares through him, he might have had more time.
As to the future prospects of Gillette, Mr. Raj was cautious but optimistic. He had no free samples in his office, and said he hadn't bothered to try the new brown razor on himself.
Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned that Ms. Hall was anxious to know what Mr. Raj was thinking, but I did. He didn't ask me what Ms. Hall thought. He was more interested in what Diana Temple thought, and wondered if I'd been to see her over at Salomon Brothers.
I made an appointment to see Ms. Temple, which was easy to get after I told a secretary that Mr. Deepak Raj had suggested that I call. Ms. Temple's office was on the usual upper floor of a Water Street high-rise, though she had no view of the harbor.
Ms. Temple is a heavy-set woman who wore pearls, and she looks a bit older than her two colleagues I'd visited. This was more or less-confirmed when she said she'd been in toiletries for 15 years. Ms. Temple also was less ebullient than the others, and I doubted she liked me any more than she liked Gillette.
It wasn't that she disliked Gillette per se, but that she thought the company would "lag the market' in earnings. "I wouldn't say "sell' here, but the earnings growth will be below average,' Ms. Temple said. "White Rain, though, has made some good inroads.' Her own earnings estimate of $5.80 a share was higher than Ms. Hall's estimate of $5.60, yet she was cool on the company while Ms. Hall was crazy about it. I found this perplexing.
I brought up Ms. Hall's opinion, but Ms. Temple wasn't really interested. She was more anxious to know what Mr. Raj had been saying. She also mentioned an Alice Beebe Longley at Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette. That's where I headed next.
I checked in with Ms. Longley on the 31st floor. She was as winsome as Ms. Hall, and she had the appealing habit of taking her shoe off and wiggling her toe during the conversation. This put me at ease.
About herself, Ms. Longley mentioned she'd earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature. When I asked what this had to do with being an analyst, she laughed and said, "I used to take poems and analyze them to death.' She left a job in academia for the brokerage firm, enticed by the considerable increase in salary she got for analyzing cosmetics companies instead of Dylan Thomas.
About Gillette, Ms. Longley was halfway enthused, calling the stock a "moderate buy.' That put her somewhere between Ms. Temple and Ms. Hall, but at this point, I didn't really care. I was caught up in the analysts' intrigue, fascinated with their obvious interest in what their fellow analysts were saying. Now that I'd been dragged into it, I told Ms. Longley that I felt like a messenger on some diplomatic mission. I explained that I'd been moving from office to office, serving as an unpaid spy for Ms. Hall. Why, I wondered, were the analysts of Gillette so anxious to learn each others' opinions, and especially from me?
Ms. Longley kindly took the time to explain everything, beginning with what the analysts really do. They're not at all the statisticians and lonely investigators, poring over the company's books, that one might have supposed. And they don't spend all day writing reports. Meetings and phone calls take up most of their working hours. Ms. Longley said she'd just returned from a visit to Avon. "I get back, sit down, and call everybody I know who owns the stock to tell them what I found out. That takes half a day.' Meanwhile, her competitors like Mr. Raj or Ms. Temple may also have visited Avon, and they, too, are busily calling up big clients to tell what they've found out. The tricky part is that all the analysts have the same big clients. "I may call a client who just got off the phone with Diana Temple,' says Ms. Longley. "I'll hear from the client what Diana has been saying. He might say to me, "Your earnings estimate is low. Diana's projecting $5.80.''
This explained their curiosity about each others' opinions. All day they are on the telephone talking to important investors, jockeying for influence. Each wants to have something new to tell the client that outdoes the previous caller. Each wants to be prepared for what's been said about them before they hear it from a client's mouth. Each struggles to be first on the telephone with the slightest nuance, such as an unusual jump in shampoo sales, or some unexpected loss in the razor sector.
As to where they get their information, Ms. Longley said most of it comes straight from company headquarters. Each Gillette analyst calls Boston two, three, even four times a week, to talk to Milton Glass. Mr. Glass is the Gillette vice president in charge of giving Wall Street the latest scoop on the company's progress, projected earnings, etc. After they hang up with him, the analysts quickly phone the big shareholders, hoping to tell them what's happening before the other analysts get through.
Squawking for Munsingwear
I drove up to Boston to meet this Mr. Glass. He was a perfect gentleman, and generous with his time. During a nice chat in his office, he expressed a fatherly affection for the analysts who follow Gillette. Since most of them call him at least once a week and see him in person four times a year at the quarterly meetings, he's gotten to know them as family.
Over a delicious lunch in the executive dining room, I told Mr. Glass my impressions of his analysts, how Ms. Hall of Prudential-Bache was ebullient, Mr. Raj of Merrill Lynch was cautious, and Ms. Temple of Salomon Brothers seemed a little grumpy. He confided that Ms. Temple was in a bit of a personal slump, which might explain her negative mood about Gillette, even though her earnings estimate was high. "Last year, she picked our Body Flowers as the product of the year and it failed. I cautioned her I didn't like the product myself,' said Mr. Glass. He was delighted with Ms. Hall's "domestic story,' because it presented the same information the others had received but in a more imaginative way.
In a few minutes with Mr. Glass, I began to understand why Wall Street analysts tend to think alike. After all, their earnings estimates for Gillette fell in a very narrow range, with hardly a dime separating the optimists from the pessimists. They get their information from the same source, in this case my host. Mr. Glass was determined to tell all of them the same thing at the same time, so none would be favored.
"Favoring an analyst would be a very serious matter and I don't do it,' said Mr. Glass. He reminded me of a college professor overseeing the writing of a term paper. His students, Ms. Hall, Ms. Longley, etc., worked with the same basic material and were expected to come up with the obvious answers, albeit with a few distinguishing flourishes.
In general, an analyst must explain back to the company what it already knows is happening to itself. Excessive flattery, or criticism, or oddball conclusions can ruin the relationship. An analyst with unpopular ideas may, like the fanciful newspaper reporter, be cut off from the source of information on which he or she depends. Mr. Glass said there's no such blackballing at Gillette, where all analysts are treated equally, but I've heard it's a fact of life at many companies. If there's important news from corporate headquarters, the popular analyst may hear it first.
Mr. Glass was so informative that I almost forgot my purpose. It wasn't until dessert and coffee that I remembered to ask him about the stock. If the analysts tell their biggest clients what's what, and Mr. Glass tells the analysts, then I was sitting with the horse's mouth. Trying not to be obvious, I leaned over my coffee cup and whispered, "Maybe you can't say anything due to your position, but do you think I made a good deal at 79 1/4?'
"I don't know,' he said rather loudly. "I sold all my shares a couple of months ago at 60.' That pretty much closed out our conversation.
Back at Prudential-Bache in New York, I revisited Ms. Hall, informed her of all the above, and spent an afternoon plus an evening hanging around her office and following her around the building. She took me upstairs to a fancy buffet party where new stockbrokers were initiated to the rigors of New York. There was plenty of caviar and little pate sandwiches and as much liquor as we could drink. After that, she let me sit in her cubicle while she made telephone calls.
Like Ms. Longley, Ms. Hall seemed to do nothing but work 15 hours a day. In the morning, she prepared her presentation on the squawk box, plus she helped plan the upcoming "road show' for Munsingwear. "Road shows' are whirlwind trips around the country where analysts meet local brokers and drum up support for their favorite shares.
To say the primary duty of an analyst is to analyze a stock couldn't be farther from the truth. After spending a few hours with them, I realized that an analyst is first and foremost a salesman. Certainly, sales was the major part of Ms. Hall's preoccupation. Her recommending of Gillette was the easy part of the job. Then she had to go out and stir up demand so the price would increase and fulfill the prophecy.
(Apparently, the analyst has not always been a salesman. Once, the analyst was more like an accountant, but this all changed on May 1, 1975, when fixed commission rates on stocks were abolished. For reasons I'll explain in a minute, the profession was revolutionized. From what I hear, the analysts were turned from introverts into extroverts almost overnight.)
For instance, you may have noticed that it's rare for a brokerage firm to use the word "sell' in any of its recommendations. The word "sell' is very troublesome for the analyst, especially in the role of salesman. "I don't think you'll hear too many sells',' Mr. Raj admitted to me. "If we say "sell' at Merrill Lynch, people accuse us of pulling the plug on the stock.'
I read somewhere that the ratio of buy recommendations to sell recommendations is 50 to 1 in favor of the former, and after my research I wasn't surprised. If an analyst cries "sell,' he's likely to lose favor with the company and be bumped from a favorable position in the string of phone calls. The various rating systems used by brokerage firms are a form of diplomatic language, similar to the flatteries employed by courtiers to disguise direct criticism. Instead of saying "sell,' a brokerage firm is better off saying "hold.' "Hold' may be a polite way of advising clients to get out of a stock, without offending corporate bankers and other principals. Some firms use "positive/neutral,' in which "neutral' takes the place of "sell,' or a numerical ranking system like the one employed at Prudential-Bache.
Actually, I've oversimplified this analyst business just to get us this far. There's further complication: the buy-side analyst. The big investors employ these buy-side analysts just to interpret what the Nancy Halls, Diana Temples, etc., have been telling them five times a day on the telephone. That I'd only been talking to sell-side analysts is something I discovered halfway through my investigation.
During one of my conversations with Ms. Hall, she told me that the biggest investor in Gillette was Citicorp--with something like 1.6 million shares, which I suppose meant as much to them as my 53 shares meant to me. In fact, what Citicorp might be doing with its 1.6 million shares was of great personal interest. If they decided to dump theirs all at once because some analyst advised them to sell. I assumed it might have a depressing effect on the value of mine.
When I expressed this fear to Ms. Hall, she gave me the name of the person to contact at Citicorp--their buy-side analyst Valerie Molter. That's the first I'd heard of the buy-side analyst.
A walk on the buy side
I called Ms. Molter and recited the string of sell-side analysts I'd already seen, as evidence of my importance. She agreed to meet with me. Soon I found myself on the 23rd floor of Citicorp headquarters on Third Avenue, the building with a piece lopped off the top that appeared in a Superman movie. There was no fancy lobby on Ms. Molter's floor, perhaps because the buy-side doesn't deal with the general public and can forgo the expensive impression. Maybe they'd spent the money on robots. As Molter and I walked back toward her cubicle, I almost tripped over one as it tried to deliver me some mail.
I warmed up to my eventual question about the 1.6 million shares of Gillette by asking about Citicorp's overall portfolio. Ms. Molter said it currently involved about $39 billion, or roughly the gross national product of Greece.
Ms. Molter was an intriguing combination of youthful assurance, argumentativeness, and indifference. I tried to ingratiate myself by telling her what Ms. Temple, Mr. Raj, etc., had been saying. This may have been a mistake. She couldn't what they'd been saying. Buy-side analysts are allowed to talk directly to the sell-side. In fact they're supposed to talk to the sell-side. As Ms. Moulter explained it, it's her job to weigh the relative sell-side opinions, to take note of any surprising news and who delivered it, and to rate the enthusiasm and general cooperativeness of the sell-side analysts.
"The sell-side sees only the trees, but it's up to the buy-side to see the forest,' Ms. Molter explained. More specifically, she listens to all the gossip, the earnings estimates, and the news not only from the cosmetic group, but from automobile analysts, media analysts, dozens of analysts who follow hundreds of stocks. Then she makes recommendations to the Citicorp portfolio managers as to which stocks they should actually buy.
Here was the final clue to the whole analyst mystery, and especially to why Ms. Hall, Ms. Longley, etc., worried so much about pleasing their big clients. Ms. Molter was one of those clients, and she gave them all grades just like high school. It was this grading system that kept the sell-side analysts in constant dread. They worried not only about what grade they'd get from the likes of Ms. Molter, but also about the grades they'd receive from the Institutional Investor magazine. I'd already noticed that several analysts had copies of this influential magazine on their desks, especially if they'd made the highest ratings.
Ms. Molter calls the grades "votes.' In her firm, she's given 50 votes to divide among all the sell-side analysts. She said she rarely gives out more than five votes to any one person, but might give four, "if they're always around when I need them,' or three, "if they call regularly plus do something unusual every once in a while,' or two, "if they write decent reports,' or one, "for just existing.'
"I try never to give a complete zero vote,' she said. "Sometimes, I'll give a one vote to an analyst just because he's funny.'
What makes these votes so important is that they translate into dollars. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier, the day in 1975 that fixed commision rates were abolished. If Ms. Hall, for instance, gets a good grade from Ms. Molter at Citicorp, it means that Citicorp will purchase more stock through Ms. Hall's firm, Prudential-Bache. Prudential-Bache will get a bigger commission and Ms. Hall will get a sizable bonus. If Ms. Hall gets a bad grade, then both she and her firm will suffer.
No wonder so many of the sell-side analysts were gregarious, well-spoken, beautiful, diplomatic, and not at all the back-room types I had imagined. No wonder they spend so much time courting the big clients on the phone. They're constantly fighting for grades. The only way average investors could compete for their attention is if we sent out report cards ourselves.
Ms. Molter didn't say so directly, but of all the Gillette analysts, I sensed that she favored Ms. Temple of Salomon Brothers. She praised Ms. Temple so enthusiastically that I'd bet Ms. Temple got a lot of her votes. That Ms. Temple had a lukewarm opinion on Gillette should have prepared me for the disturbing news.
When finally I revealed to Ms. Molter that her firm and I had something in common--their 1.6 million shares to my 53--she confided that Citicorp portfolio managers had been dumping the stock at a rapid rate and had reduced their holdings to less than 600,000 shares. Maybe 53 of theirs had ended up with me.
"Wiser than trusting in oracles,' as Euripides said, "is to be friends with the gods.' For some reason, I quoted this to Ms. Molter, which was a mistake. After that, she didn't seen so anxious to refer me to any portfolio manager at her institution, and claimed that all the best ones were either sick or out of town. Anyway, since Gillette had gone up four points and her Citicorp had been selling, I knew somebody equally big must have been buying and it would be nice to talk to them. Ms. Molter kindly gave me the name of Ed Platt, a friend of hers who was a portfolio manager at Bankers Trust.
Bankers Trust is located in a mid-town building, around Park Avenue and not far from Grand Central Station. I met Mr. Platt in a conference room, and gave him Mr. Molter's regards. If you put him in a crowd of people and asked me to pick him out today, I'd fail, so there's no point in my pretending to recall his appearance. I'm sure he was dressed in a sensible suit. I remember he said he was 40 years old, lived in Westchester, had a nice family, got his undergraduate degree from Cornell, came to Bankers Trust from Marine Midland, and had $150 million in pension fund money under his control. He also mentioned he was an unusual portfolio manager because he not only chose where to invest, but also did some of the analytical legwork usually charged to someone like Ms. Molter.
I said I'd love to be in his shoes--with all that intelligence behind you how could you lose? Mr. Platt laughed. Then he confided that the portfolio manager is on shaky footing and must look over his shoulder at the other portfolio managers, plus stay awake nights worrying if he's going to lose his job. In fact, the dozen or so portfolio managers at Bankers Trust had made a recent pact to all buy the same stocks, so nobody would look bad compared to the others, thus avoiding what Mr. Platt called "diverse performance.'
"Our agreement works this way,' he said, "I hear from all my sources, make a recommendation on what stocks to purchase, then write it up. The other portfolio managers do the same. Then we get together and vote on our recommendations. Basically, whatever is approved we put in all our portfolios.'
You'd think a portfolio manager would welcome diverse performance, but Mr. Platt convinced me they'd gladly forgo the chance for relative glory in return for reasonable job security. They'd rather go up and down together for the following good reasons: "If a client hears that another portfolio manager did better than me during the last quarter, then he might consider switching to that other manager. Clients demand results, and results is what they pay us for.'
As I got further into Mr. Platt's obvious worries about his competition and about quarterly results, I began to wonder if the average investor for all his ignorance isn't better off than these gods of the marketplace. Instead of the conquering ego I'd expected to meet, I got the feeling that Mr. Platt was just as nervous as the rest of us, and often forced by circumstance into following the crowd. In fact, he'd said so much about the foibles of portfolio managing that by the time he told me he wasn't buying Gillette I was almost glad.
That was after he mentioned that "portfolio managers have a hard time beating the market averages.' I could hardly believe he'd said it. Did he mean that all these layers of experts didn't get any better results overall than the broad group of ignoramuses out there, investing willy-nilly? Not only did he mean it, but he was right.
I tried to step back and consider this logically. Here were the sell-side analysts earning $150,000 and up, depending on their grades, for recommendations that had to be reviewed by the buy-side analysts who earned as much or more. Then the recommendations of buy-side analysts again were reviewed by portfolio managers, who earned an even greater amount to make insecure decisions, the consequences of which they avoided by acting only in concert. In the end, none of this did any good, and most of them failed to beat the market average.
I discussed the matter with Mr. Platt and others, and got several charitable explanations. One is that since the general public no longer buys much stock, the big institutions compete against themselves and can't possibly beat each other at the same game. Another is that portfolio managers are judged every three months and can't afford to take chances. Michael Lipper, an expert on mutual funds I had visited earlier, had mentioned that "most of the large chunks of money are managed by people who think alike, who are trained in the same places, and who serve clients who want to hear the same sort of things.' This so-called "group think,' he said, caused many managers to adopt the identical strategy. In this way, many portfolio managers tried to be average.
I did further research, and in a recent Wall Street Journal discovered that most bond portfolio managers consistently failed to beat their market averages. Similarly, Business Week did a cover story on how the managers of stock portfolios hadn't beaten the market averages for three years in a row, with the majority doing much worse than the norm.
I had a suggestion for all the institutions. Fire the analysts and portfolio managers and invest in the market as a whole. That would save a lot of trouble, not to mention the millions in salaries and commissions that now are thrown at a lost cause. There are mutual funds that already do this. These funds simply buy all the stocks on the S&P 100 list, or all the stocks that make up the Dow Jones industrials, or all the bonds in the various bond indexes, and they've equaled the market average by definition. These results are as good or better than what most investors, large and small, are paying extra money for.
Whether it makes sense to get out of an existing mutual fund and into one that simply buys market averages is something you'll have to decide. What I got out of my trip to Bankers Trust was an appreciation for the portfolio manager, who has a difficult job. That Mr. Platt worried about equaling the averages, made me feel better about my own record--which so far has been nothing to brag about.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1987|
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