Twixt Trade Adversaries

A fortnight from now we will know
How Brexit is going to go
Can Minister May
Still carry the day?
Or will the vote, chaos, bestow?

Meanwhile, this week, in Buenos Aires
A meeting twixt trade adversaries
Has hopes running high
We’ll soon wave goodbye
To tariffs and their corollaries

The first thing you notice this morning in the FX markets is that the pound is under more pressure. As I type, it is lower by 0.7% as the flow of news from London is that the Brexit deal is destined to fail in Parliament. Perhaps the most damning words were from the DUP (the small Northern Irish party helping support PM May’s government), which indicated that they would not support the deal as constructed under any circumstances. At the same time, numerous Tories have been saying the same thing, and the general feeling is that there is only a small chance that PM May will be able to prevail. We have discussed the market reaction in the event of no deal, and nothing has changed in my view. In other words, if the Brexit deal is defeated in parliament in two weeks’ time, look for the pound to fall much further. In fact, it is reasonable to consider a move toward 1.20 in the very short term. Between now and the vote, I expect that the pound will be subject to every headline which discusses the potential vote outcome, but unless some of those headlines start to point to a yes vote, the pound is going to remain under pressure consistently.

Beyond Brexit, there are two other things that have the markets’ collective attention, Fed Chairman Powell’s speech tomorrow, and the meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi on Friday in Buenos Aires at the G20 gathering.

As to the first, the market narrative has evolved to the point where expectations for the Fed to raise rates at their December meeting remain quite high, but there are now many questions about the 2019 rate path. If you recall, after the September FOMC meeting, the consensus was moving toward four rate hikes next year. However, since then, the data has been somewhat less robust, with both production and inflation numbers moderating. Notably, the housing market has been faltering despite the lowest unemployment rate in more than 40 years. Ignoring the President’s periodic complaints about the Fed raising rates, the data story has clearly started to plateau, at least, if not roll over, and the Fed is quite aware of this fact. (Anecdotally, the fact that GM is shuttering 5 plants and laying off 15,000 workers is also not going to help the Fed’s view on the economy.) This is why all eyes will be on Powell tomorrow, to see if he softens his stance on the Fed’s expectations. Already the futures market has priced out one full rate hike for next year, and given there is still more than two weeks before the Fed meets again, Powell’s comments tomorrow, along with vice chairman Clarida today and NY Fed President Williams on Friday are going to be seen as quite critical in gauging the current Fed outlook. Any more dovishness will almost certainly be followed by a weakening dollar and rising equity markets. But if the tone comes across as hawkish, look for the current broad trends of equity weakness and dollar strength to continue.

And finally, we must give a nod to the other elephant in the room, the meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi at this weekend’s G20 meeting. Hopes are running high that the two of them will be able to agree to enough common ground to allow more formal trade talks to move ahead while delaying any further tariff implementation. The problem is that the latest comments from Trump have indicated he is going to be raising the tariff rate to 25% come January, as well as seek to implement tariffs on the rest of Chinese imports to the US. It seems that the President believes the Chinese are feeling greater pressure as their economy continues to slow, and they will be forced to concede to US demands sooner rather than later. And there is no question the Chinese economy is slowing, but it is not clear to me that Xi will risk losing face in order to prevent any further economic disorder. I think it is extremely difficult to handicap this particular meeting and the potential outcomes given the personalities involved. However, I expect that sometime in the next year this trade dispute will be resolved, as Trump will want to show that his tactics resulted in a better deal for the US as part of his reelection campaign.

And those are the big stories today. There are two data points this morning, Case-Shiller House Prices (exp 5.3%) and Consumer Confidence (135.9), but neither seems likely to have an impact on the FX market. However, as mentioned above, Fed vice-chairman Richard Clarida speaks first thing this morning, and his tone will be watched carefully for clues about how the Fed will behave going forward. My take here is that we are likely to hear a much more moderate viewpoint from the Fed given the recent data flow, and that is likely to keep modest pressure on the dollar.

Good luck
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Little Fear

Much to all Free Traders’ chagrin
More tariffs are set to begin
But markets appear
To have little fear
This madness will cause a tailspin

As NY walks in this morning, there has been very limited movement in the dollar overall. While yesterday saw a modicum of dollar weakness, at least against the G10 currencies, we remain range bound with no immediate prospects for a breakout. It does appear that US data is turning more mixed than clearly bullish, as evidenced by yesterday’s Empire Manufacturing Survey data, which printed at 19, still solid but down from last month’s reading of 25.6 as well as below expectations of 23.0. A quick look at the recent history of this indicator shows that it appears to be rolling over from its recent high levels, perhaps signaling that peak growth is behind us.

At this point, it is fair to question what is causing this change in tone. During the summer, US data was unambiguously strong, with most releases beating expectations, but lately that dynamic has changed. The most obvious catalyst is the ongoing trade situation, which if anything worsened yesterday when President Trump announced that the US would be imposing 10% tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese imports. In addition, these are set to rise to 25% in January if there is no further progress in the trade negotiations. As well, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on an additional $267 billion of goods, meaning that everything imported from China would be impacted. As we have heard from several Fed speakers, this process has grown to be the largest source of uncertainty for the US economy, and by extension for financial markets.

Yet financial markets seem to be quite complacent with regard to the potential damage that the trade war can inflict on the economy and growth. As evidence I point to the modest declines in US equities yesterday, but more importantly, to the rally in Asian equities overnight. While it is fair to say that the impact of this tariff war will not be directly felt in earnings results for at least another quarter or two, it is still surprising that the market is not pricing the potential negative consequences more severely. This implies one of two things; either the market has already priced in this scenario and the risks are seen as minimal, or that the rise in passive investing, which has exploded to nearly 45% of equity market activity, has reduced the stock market’s historic role as a leading indicator of economic activity. If it is the former, my concern is that actual results will underperform current expectations and drive market declines later. However, I fear the latter situation is closer to the truth, which implies that one of the long-time functions of the equity market, anticipating and discounting future economic activity, is changing. The risk here is that policymakers will lose an important signal as to expectations, weakening their collective hands further. And let’s face it, they need all the help they can get!

Turning back to the dollar, not only has the G10 has been dull, but EMG currencies are generally benign as well. In fact, the only substantive movement has come from everybody’s favorite whipping boy, TRY. This morning it is back under pressure, down 1.3% and has now erased all the gains it made in the wake of last week’s surprising 625bp rate hike. But in truth, beyond that, I can’t find an important emerging market currency that has moved more than 20bps. There are two key central bank meetings this week, Brazil tomorrow and South Africa on Thursday. Right now, expectations are for both to stand pat, leaving interest rates in both nations at 6.50%. However, the whisper campaign is brewing that South Africa may raise rates, which has undoubtedly helped the rand over the past two weeks as it has rallied some 4.5% during that time. We will know more by Thursday.

This overall lack of activity implies that traders are waiting the next important catalyst for movement, which may well be next Wednesday’s FOMC meeting! That is a very long time in the market for treading water, however, given the US data the rest of this week is second tier, and the trade situation is widely understood at this time, it is a challenge to see what else will matter until we hear from the Fed. And remember, the market has already priced in a 100% probability that they will raise rates by 25bps, so this is really all about updated forecasts, the dot plot and the press conference. But until then, my sense is that we are in for a decided lack of movement in the FX world.

Good luck
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The Tempo of Growth

The President keeps on complaining
That higher Fed rates are constraining
The tempo of growth
But Powell is loath
To change things til prices are waning

Over the weekend, the President registered his dismay over recent Fed policy moves, apparently calling out Chairman Powell for raising rates too swiftly. His complaints centered on the fact that the Fed’s gradual removal of policy accommodation is helping to support the dollar and has been responsible for its recent strength. Recall that since the middle of April the dollar had rallied more than 8% before its recent modest pullback. So even with a 2% decline in the past week, the dollar remains far stronger than earlier this year. And that is what has the President upset. He sees the dollar’s strength through the lens of his trade policy and it is effectively undermining the tariff process.

Now, this is not the first time that the President has complained about the strong dollar (that occurred shortly after his election in 2016), but for some reason, the market has become far more concerned this time that it may impact the Fed’s actions. Perhaps adding to that sentiment was a speech yesterday by Atlanta Fed President, Rafael Bostic, where he explicitly stated that he would not knowingly vote for rate hike that would invert the yield curve. He is now the fourth Fed President to discuss that issue, although he is the only member of that group with voting privileges this year. The point is that there has been an increase in the discussion of whether the Fed will continue on its current rate hiking path which still seems slated for a hike in both September and December of this year and three more next year. Interestingly, though the dollar responded to the discussion, Fed funds futures remain unmoved and are still pricing in the same probabilities as last week, 90% for September and 60% for December.

So the question has become, will Powell ignore the President and act as he sees fit, or will he bow to political pressure? My money, at this point, remains on Powell. There has been no indication, as yet, that the US economy is doing anything but expanding at a solid clip. And more importantly, when looking at the Fed’s dual mandate, the current issue is clearly on the stable prices side rather than the unemployment side. While the Fed has decreed PCE is the key policy data point, there can be no mistake that Powell, an experienced pragmatist, is abundantly aware that CPI is running at its hottest level in more than a decade. The point is that inflation pressures continue to build and the Fed is not likely to ignore that situation. In fact, that is why Powell’s speech on Friday in Jackson Hole is arguably the most important news for the week. Everyone is waiting to hear if he has changed his tone, let alone his tune, about the economy and the proper Fed policy going forward.

Until then, though we will have to make do with tomorrow’s FOMC Minutes, where analysts will be looking for how much the trade story impacted their deliberations, and housing data tomorrow and Thursday.

Turning to the overnight session, the dollar has continued yesterday’s weakness and is lower by a further 0.35% this morning. The movement has been fairly uniform through the G10, with all of those currencies rallying between 0.2%-0.5%. And this has been a dollar story as there has been virtually no data of note from any one of those nations. In truth, the only G10 news of any sort came from Australia, where the Minutes from the last RBA meeting highlighted that increasing trade tensions could have a negative impact on the economy and currency, and that interest rates Down Under were unlikely to move at all during the next year.

Turning to the EMG bloc, we also see generic dollar weakness with just a few outliers. The Turkish lira continues to suffer, falling just under 1% this morning despite the dollar’s overall weakness, and we saw the Korean won slide 0.5% as well. But the rule has been a softer dollar today.

Given there is no US data to be released this morning, and there are no scheduled Fed speakers, it seems that the day is likely to follow the overnight pattern of mild further dollar weakness. Of course, given the apparent catalyst for this move, and the President’s penchant for doubling down, it would not be surprising to hear more from him if he felt it could push the dollar lower. However, history has shown that political wishes are just that, and the market will respond to policy changes, not talk. So even though further commentary by President Trump could lead to modest extra dollar weakness, as long as Chairman Powell maintains his current stance, this dollar move should be faded. Hedgers, take advantage of the opportunity to add to hedges at current levels, as my sense is that nothing at the Mariner Eccles building has changed. Higher US rates are on the way.

Good luck
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No Tariffs For Now

Herr Juncker and Trump had their meeting
And what they both claimed bears repeating
No tariffs for now
As both sides allow
The current regime with no cheating

Whew! That pretty much sums up the market reaction to yesterday afternoon’s hastily arranged press conference with President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Both were all smiles as they announced that there would be no tariffs imposed at this time while the US and EU begin more serious trade negotiations with an eye toward reducing trade friction in manufactured goods. In addition, Europe would be seeking to purchase more US soybeans and LNG in a good faith effort to reduce the current trade imbalance. And finally, they would be addressing the current US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe. It can be no surprise that the market reacted quite positively to this news, with equities in the US finishing higher and European markets all performing well this morning. It should also not be that surprising that the euro jumped immediately upon the news, rising 0.25%, although this morning it has given back those gains after both French and German Consumer Confidence data extended their trend declines amid disappointing outcomes.

While it is still anybody’s guess how this will ultimately play out, the news is certainly an encouraging sign that there can be movement in a positive direction on the trade front. The same appears to be true regarding NAFTA negotiations with both Canada and Mexico reconfirming that a trilateral deal is the goal, and apparently making headway toward achieving those aims.

However, the same optimism is nowhere to be found regarding trade relations between China and the US, with no indication that the situation has shown any positive movement. In the meantime, China continues to respond to signs of weakening growth on the mainland, this time by further reducing capital requirements for banks’ lending to SME’s. While the PBOC has not specifically cut rates, generally seen as a broad monetary policy step, these targeted capital requirement and reserve ratio cuts can be very powerful tools for the targeted recipients, allowing them to expand their loan books and driving profits in the banking sector. But no matter how the easing of monetary policy is implemented, it is still easing of monetary policy and will have an impact on both Chinese equity markets and the renminbi’s exchange rate. While the currency weakened, as would be expected, falling 0.5% overnight, the Shanghai composite fell as well, which is somewhat surprising. Although, in fairness, the Shanghai exchange has rallied nearly 8% over the past two weeks, so this could simply be a case of “selling the news.” In the end, especially if the trade situation between the US and China remains fraught, I expect that USDCNY has further to run, and 7.00 remains on the radar.

The other big story this morning is the anticipation of the ECB meeting results, not so much in terms of policy changes, as none are expected, but in terms of the follow-on press conference where Signor Draghi will be asked about the timing of interest rate increases and the meaning of the term “through the summer” which was inserted into the last statement. Analysts have been debating if that means rates could be raised in August or September of next year, or if it implies a longer wait before a rate move. The futures market doesn’t have a full 10bp rate hike priced in until January 2020, significantly past the summer. The other question of note is how the ECB will handle reinvestment of their current portfolio, and whether they will seek to smooth the reinvestment program or simply wait until debt matures before purchasing more. The reason this matters is that their portfolio has a very uneven distribution of maturities, which could lead to more volatility in European Government bond markets if they choose the latter path.

In the end, given that Eurozone data continues to disappoint on a regular basis, it seems that whatever path they choose for rate hikes and reinvestment, it will seek to maintain as much support as possible for now. Other than the Germans, there does not appear to be a strong constituency to aggressively tighten monetary policy, and there are nations, like Italy and Greece, which would much prefer to see policy remain ultra accommodative for the foreseeable future. While the euro has been range trading for the past two months between 1.15 and 1.18, I continue to look for a break lower eventually.

Away from those stories, things have been less interesting. Most of the G10 is trading in a fairly narrow range, with Aussie the laggard, -0.4%, on the back of weaker metals prices. EMG currencies have similarly been fairly quiet with limited movement overall.

Yesterday’s US data showed that the housing market is starting to suffer a bit more consistently as New Home Sales fell to 631K, well below expectations and the lowest level since last October. Adding this to the miss in Existing Home Sales on Monday shows that the combination of still rising house prices and rising mortgage rates is starting to have a more substantial impact on the sector. This morning we see Durable Goods data (exp 3.0%, 0.5% -ex Transport) and the weekly Initial Claims data (215K), which continues to show the strength of the job market. However, regarding US data, all eyes remain on tomorrow’s first look at Q2 GDP, where the range of expectations is broad, from 3.8% to 5.2%, and traders will be trying to parse how the data will impact the Fed’s activities.

In the meantime, US equity futures are mixed this morning with the NASDAQ pointing lower after some weaker than expected earnings guidance from a FANG member, while Dow futures are pointing higher on the back of relief over the trade situation. As to the dollar, I expect that it will see modest weakness overall as positions continue to be adjusted ahead of tomorrow’s key GDP release.

Good luck
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Tired

Speculation’s rife
Kuroda is tired of
JGB support

For the fifth consecutive session, the Japanese yen is rising amid growing speculation that the BOJ, when it meets next Monday and Tuesday, is going to adjust monetary policy tighter. During that run, which also included President Trump’s harangues on currency manipulation around the world, the yen has strengthened nearly 2%. My point is that the dollar has suffered somewhat overall during that period, so this movement is not entirely due to the BOJ story. But, as the meeting approaches, that is becoming the hottest topic in the market.

A quick look at the Japanese economy shows that inflation remains quiescent, with the latest core reading just 0.2%, a far cry from the 2.0% target the BOJ has been aiming for during the past five years. In addition, last night’s PMI data, (printing at 51.6, well below expectations of 53.2) has to give Kuroda and company pause as well. In other words, while Japan is not cratering, it doesn’t seem like there is any danger of overheating there either. However, with the Fed actively tightening, the BOE widely expected to raise rates in early August and the ECB highlighting its plans to end QE this year with interest rate increases to follow next year, the BOJ is clearly feeling somewhat left out of the mix. Apparently groupthink is a strong emotion for central bankers.

At any rate, whether justified or not, the story that is getting play is that they are going to tweak their operations, perhaps allowing (encouraging?) the long end of the JGB yield curve to see higher yields, although they will likely keep control of the 10-year space and below. But all the market needed to hear was that QE was going to be reduced and the reaction was immediate. JGB yields in the 10-year space jumped from 0.03% to 0.09%, at which point the BOJ stopped the movement by stepping in with an unlimited bid for bonds. Remember, they already own 42% of all outstanding JGB’s, and liquidity in that market is so thin that there have already been six days this year where there were absolutely zero trades in the 10-year JGB. The FX market was not going to be left out and seeing the prospect for less QE immediately added to the yen’s recent gains. It remains to be seen whether Kuroda-san will be able to actually implement any policy changes given the combination of slackening growth and still low inflation, especially with the prospects of a trade war having an even more deleterious impact on the economy. However, the market loves this story and is going to continue to run with it, at least until the BOJ announcement next Tuesday. So I would look for the yen to continue to trade slowly higher during that period.

The other big story overnight was the PBOC injection of CNY502 billion of liquidity into the market as part of their ongoing policy adjustments. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Chinese economy is having trouble dealing with the simultaneous deleveraging demanded by President Xi for the past two years and the increased trade issues that have arisen quite rapidly of late. Of course, the PBOC is no wallflower when it comes to taking action, and so having already cut reserve requirements three times this year; they decided that direct injection of funds into the market was a better method of achieving their goals. In addition the government created tax incentives for R&D, encouraged more state infrastructure spending and told banks to offer more credit to small firms. The market impact of these measures was immediate with the Shanghai Stock Exchange rallying 1.6% while the renminbi fell as much as 0.6% early, before retracing somewhat and now standing just 0.2% lower on the day.

When considering the CNY, the opposing forces are that a weaker yuan will certainly help support short-term growth due to the still significant reliance on exports by the Chinese economy. However, there is a feared tipping point at which a weak yuan may encourage significant capital outflows, thus destabilizing the Chinese economy and Chinese markets. We saw this play out three years ago, shortly after the PBOC surprised markets with its mini (2%) devaluation of the yuan. The ensuing global market sell-off was significant enough to prevent then Fed Chair Yellen to hold off on raising rates, despite having signaled that the Fed was ready to do so. However, it is not clear to me that Chairman Powell sees the world the same way as Yellen, and my take is that he would not be dissuaded from continuing the Fed’s current trajectory despite some increased global volatility. Of course, the Chinese instituted strict capital controls in the wake of the 2015 situation, so it is also not clear that the contagion can even occur this time. In the end, though, this is simply further evidence of the diverging monetary policies between the US and China, and continues to underpin my views of USDCNY moving to 7.00 and beyond before the year ends.

Away from those two stories, the dollar is modestly softer this morning despite mixed to weaker Eurozone PMI data (Germany strong, France weak, Eurozone weak), and US Treasury yields that gained nearly 10bps yesterday after the BOJ story broke. Yesterday saw weaker than expected Existing Home Sales (5.38M), which is the third consecutive monthly decline. While there is no important data today, we do see the critical first look at Q2 GDP on Friday, and of course, the ECB meets Thursday, so there is ample opportunity for more opinion changing information to come to market. But right now, the dollar remains largely trapped between the positive monetary policy story and the negative political story, and so I don’t anticipate it will be breaking out in either direction in the short run. However, as long as US monetary policy continues on its current trajectory, I believe the dollar has further to run. We have not yet evolved to a point where other issues are more important, although that time may well come in the future.

Good luck
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I’m Not Thrilled

Said President Trump, “I’m not thrilled”
With how Chairman Powell’s fulfilled
Both job and price mandates
By raising Fed Fund rates
‘Cause soon the Dow Jones could get killed

“I’m not thrilled. I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up. I am not happy about it. But at the same time I’m letting them do what they feel is best.” So said President Trump in an interview on CNBC yesterday afternoon. It should be no surprise that the FX market response was immediate, with the dollar reversing earlier gains.

While this is not the first time that a US president has tried to persuade the Federal Reserve to cut rates (they never want higher rates, I assure you!), it is the first time since George H.W. Bush pushed then Chairman Greenspan to reduce rates more quickly in 1992 (he didn’t). This is a situation fraught with serious consequences as the independence of a nation’s central bank is seen as one of the keys to a developed economy’s success. For instance, recall just several weeks ago when Turkey’s President Erdogan essentially took over making monetary policy there, and how the market has behaved since, with TRY already significantly weaker.

As long as the Fed remains on course to continue raising rates, and despite the Trump comments, Fed Funds futures showed no change in the probability for two more rate hikes this year, I see little reason to change my stance on the dollar’s future strength. However, the bigger problem is if the Fed, independently, decides that slowing the pace of rate hikes is justified by the data, it could still appear to be politically motivated, and so reduce whatever credibility the Fed still maintains. This will remain a background story, at the very least, for a while. So far, there is no indication that Chairman Powell is going to change his stance, which means that policy divergence remains the lay of the land.

In the meantime, the other big FX story comes from China. We discussed yuan weakness yesterday and in the overnight session, the PBOC fixed the onshore currency at its weakest point in more than a year, which in fairness is simply following the dollar’s overall strength, but then when USDCNY made new highs for the year above 6.83, a large Chinese state-owned bank was seen aggressively selling dollars. This tacit intervention helped to steady the market and worked to support the Shanghai Stock Exchange as well, which ultimately rose 2.0% on the day. It is, however, difficult to follow all the twists and turns in the US-China relationship these days, as literally minutes ago, President Trump raised the ante yet again, by saying that he is “ready to go” with regard to imposing tariffs on $500 billion of Chinese goods. That represents all Chinese exports to the US and is considerably larger than ever mentioned before.

Tariffs and protectionism have a very poor history when it comes to enhancing any country’s economic situation, but it is very possible that this continuous ratcheting of pressure may actually be effective at achieving policy changes in this situation as China has plenty of domestically created economic problems already. Recall, President Xi has been on the warpath about excess leverage and the PBOC had been tightening policy in order to squeeze that out of the system. However, growth in China has suffered accordingly, and the recent data indicates that it may be slowing even more. With that in mind, a full-scale trade war with the US would likely be disastrous for China. The last thing they can afford is to see reduced production numbers, as well as loss of access to critical component and technology imports. It is not impossible that Xi blinks first, or that the two presidents recognize that a face-saving deal is in both their interests. It may take a little while, but I have a sense that could well be the outcome. However, until then, look for USDCNY to continue to rally sharply, with a move to 7.00 and beyond very viable. This morning, despite the intervention overnight, it has subsequently weakened 0.4% and shows no signs of stopping.

Finally, one last story has returned from the past to haunt markets, Italy. There appeared to be a push by Five-Star leader, Luigi di Maio, to have the Finmin, Giovanni Tria, removed from office. You may recall that back in May, things got very dicey in Italy before the current government was finally formed as President Mattarella rejected the first proposed cabinet because of the Euroskeptic proposed for the FinMin post. Tria was the compromise selection designed to calm markets down, and it worked. So, if he were forced out, and it has been denied by the Finance Ministry that is the situation, it could lead us right back into a euro area crisis. This is especially true since the populist coalition of the League and Five-Start has gained further strength in the interim. While Italian bond markets suffered on the news, it was not sufficient to impact the euro much. However, we need to keep an eye on this story as it could well resurface in a more malevolent manner.

And that is really today’s situation. Overall the dollar is mildly weaker, but given its performance all week, that has more to do with profit taking on a Friday than other news. Clearly the Trump comments undermined the dollar to some extent, but until policies are seen changing, I think that will only be a temporary situation. With no data due this morning, and no speakers on the agenda, it has all the feelings of a quiet day upcoming. It is, after all, a Friday in July, so the summer doldrums seem appropriate.

Good luck and good weekend
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