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Archive for September, 2009

When Is a $3.4 Trillion Loss Supposed To Be Good News?

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 30th, 2009 2:45 PM |

A $3.4 trillion loss may be perceived as good news when it was previously projected to be $4 trillion. That said, when losses of this magnitude are buried in a mix of financial chicanery and accounting charades, the impact is not lessened but only extended.

The loss to which I refer is the projected global writedowns on a wide array of toxic loans and assets as put forth by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF released the Global Financial Stability Report yesterday. While it is hard for the media not to cover any report that would project these types of losses, this story is not receiving the attention it deserves. What do we learn from this report?

>Global financial stability has improved, but risks remain elevated.

> Estimated global losses have improved to $3.4 trillion. However, further deterioration in banks’ loans is to come — over half of their writedowns are still to be recognized. (LD’s emphasis)

> Policymakers face considerable near-term challenges. These include ensuring sufficient credit growth to support economic recovery; devising appropriate exit strategies; and managing the risks arising from heavy public borrowing.

Other highlighted points include:

1. In regard to financial institutions, the IMF puts forth that bank earnings will NOT be sufficient to cover these writedowns and that banks will need to raise more capital. While securities prices of certain toxic assets have rebounded, the underlying loans on securities, as well as unsecuritized loans, continue to deteriorate. Against that backdrop, bank lending to consumers and businesses will remain under pressure.

2. Private sector credit growth continues to contract while public sector credit demands grow. This phenomena will only lead to further ‘crowding out.’

3. While Asian and Latin American economies appear to be regaining a sense of stability, the emerging economies of eastern Europe remain challenged.

4. Long term interest rates will be under pressure due to the enormous global fiscal deficits. The IMF projects that these long term rates will rise by anywhere from 10 to 60 basis points for every 1% rise in the deficit relative to GDP.

5. Policy changes remain significant. Issues of systemic risk, exit strategies, credit availability, and balance sheet pressures need to be addressed and managed.

6. The IMF provides a thoughtful and comprehensive review of all the challenges facing financial institutions and regulatory agencies in an attempt to restart the securitization of assets.

From origination to securitizing to rating to distributing, this once large corner of our economic landscape has widespread issues. I come away from reading this part of the IMF report with the feeling that the hurdles will be substantial and the time process protracted before any meaningful fully private securitization market regenerates.

7. The IMF gives strong marks to officials for stabilizing markets, but also cautions that the communication along with the actual unwinding of support mechanisms is critically important for long term stability.

What do I make of the IMF report? I repeat what I said the other day: we are running a marathon and, at best, we have only reached the 7-mile mark.

Miles to go….


John Mack Almost “Comes to Jesus”

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 30th, 2009 11:22 AM |

Wall Street has never been known to embrace humility. The rough and tumble world of ‘the street’ ultimately prizes profit over principle. Not that the titans on Wall Street would ever admit it, but make no mistake, Wall Street was and always will be about one thing…the bottom line. Nobody was more aggressive in pursuing those bottom line results than Morgan Stanley’s John Mack. His moniker “Mack the Knife” speaks volumes about his ruthless nature and aggressive cost-cutting to drive results.

Against that backdrop, I find it particularly interesting to see Mack present a fairly introspective interview with Bloomberg’s Judy Woodruff.  All other assertions aside, Mack was recently unceremoniously pushed aside at Morgan Stanley. As I watched this short interview a few different times, I sensed a man entering a confessional as he tries to ‘come to Jesus.’

Mack initially provides insights on the following:

1. his view that the U.S. and European economies will have a long, slow recovery

2. his view that emerging economies will rebound in stronger fashion

3. the need for a systemic risk regulator on Wall Street

4. the need for one global financial regulatory system with one set of rules

5. the need for clawbacks in the Wall Street compensation process (clawback meaning the ability for the firm to pull back compensation from employees)

6. he admits that Wall Street needs to change. He tries to provide a mea culpa by offering an explanation that Wall Street firms tried to compete with private equity funds and hedge funds by developing those businesses internally. At this juncture in the interview, I felt that he was almost about to say, “Dear Lord, we lost our way and our moral compass. Please forgive us.”

Mack has been humbled both inside Morgan Stanley and across Wall Street. This Bloomberg interview exemplifies how “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”


Documents Indicate Ken Lewis Utilized the MAC to Shake Down Bernanke and Paulson

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 29th, 2009 2:33 PM |

10.01.09 UPDATE FROM LD: I wrote this commentary this past Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Lewis tendered his resignation last evening. In regard to my concluding remarks in this post, I only wish all my calls on the market were equally as prescient.


The intrigue embedded in the Bank of America takeover of Merrill Lynch is never ending. While the book and movie of this high stakes Wall Street thriller will be voluminous, the story most certainly has many chapters yet to be written. To this point, the following questions remain outstanding:

1. Why, at the time, did Bank of America pay such a premium for Merrill Lynch?

2. Did Bank of America know all the details surrounding the $3.5 billion in accelerated bonus payments made to Merrill employees in December 2008?

3. What did Merrill CEO John Thain share with Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis in regard to the growing losses at Merrill?

4. Did Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson pressure Lewis to complete the merger against his will?

5. Did Ken Lewis consider invoking the MAC (material adverse condition) clause and negate the deal? Did Lewis consider invoking the MAC to negotiate a cheaper price?

6. Did Ken Lewis use the leverage embedded in the potential implementation of the MAC clause to generate significant government support?

Recall that a recent SEC fine of $33 million imposed by the SEC on Bank of America was thrown out by Judge Jed Rakoff as nothing more than a contrivance in which taxpayer funds were used to effectively repay other taxpayers, those being Bank of America shareholders.

Judge Rakoff will hear this case between the SEC and Bank of America in early February. Perhaps at that time answers to the questions asked above will be fully uncovered and released. Perhaps stories will leak beforehand to shed light on this drama. To that end, welcome to Sense on Cents.

I read a story to which I will link, but can not promise the link will not be broken at some future point. As such, I will provide a brief synopsis which provides riveting insights into Question 6. reports today How Bank of America Used Merrill’s Losses to Bully the Government. In this report, the reporter offers that Corporate Counsel magazine has pored over hundreds of documents, e-mails, and transcripts pertaining to the Bank of America merger with Merrill Lynch.

In regard to the use of the MAC clause or renegotiating the deal, very clearly lays out how events unfolded last December:

The record shows that Bank of America decided not to disclose to shareholders its consideration of a MAC before the Dec. 5 vote. It also apparently decided not to use the MAC as leverage against Merrill to lower its price before the vote, even though the bank had agreed to pay a premium — $29 per share for Merrill stock that was selling at $17. It might have, but didn’t, use the MAC to force Merrill to drop its multibillion-dollar bonus pool.

Instead, the bank waited until after the shareholders approved the merger — but before the deal closed on Jan. 1 — and used the MAC to muscle the federal government and U.S. taxpayers into ponying up more bailout funds. At the time, the bank did not disclose the role of federal regulators in not invoking the MAC, and in promising the bank another $20 billion of taxpayer money in 2009 to complete the deal. (The bank had already received $25 billion in bailout funds in 2008.)

Some observers and politicians have accused federal banking officials of forcing Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis into completing the merger. But the documents suggest it was Lewis doing the bullying, relying on a highly vulnerable marketplace to win his way.

Wow. Did Ken Lewis overplay his hand? In light of this information, is there any doubt that Lewis is a short timer?

We will learn more in the days and weeks ahead as this drama plays out. You can’t make this stuff up . . .

Thoughts, comments, questions always appreciated.


Related Sense on Cents Commentary:
Did Big Ben Bernanke and Heavy Hank Paulson Break the Law in Buying Ken Lewis’ Silence (April 28, 2009)
Rep Edolphus Towns on Bernanke’s Testimony: ‘Something Rotten in the Cotton’ (June 26, 2009)

Pimco’s El-Erian Properly Frames the Financial Debate

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 29th, 2009 9:34 AM |

Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian

I am increasingly impressed by Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian. Why? I believe El-Erian consistently provides a thoughtful and informed opinion and analysis of the global economic landscape. I witness his sagacity again this morning in reading his Financial Times commentary, Return of The Old Ways of Thinking Threatens Recovery:

We are at the point of maximum confusion in the multi-year transition of the global economy, markets and policymaking. We have left the global growth regime that was driven primarily by debt-financed consumption in the US, but we have not as yet reached a position of more balanced, albeit anaemic, growth. Those who lack a robust anchoring framework, be they investors or policymakers, risk being misled and backtracking to outdated ways of thinking.

I concur with El-Erian’s premise. As much as consumers, investors, bankers, and politicians may want to return to ‘business as usual,’ the fact is the global economy and the markets are a dramatically changed place. While market analysts and government policy wonks feed us a steady diet of ‘green shoots’ and ‘positive change in the rate of change,’ El-Erian properly frames the debate by focusing on the absolute levels expressed in economic and market data rather than merely the rate of change in those levels.

I made a less eloquent attempt at stating this premise this past July 29th in writing, “Economy and Markets: Improving, Declining, or Adapting?” I asserted:

While most economists and market analysts are looking at statistics and data to determine whether the economy and consumers are improving or rolling over, my take is different. I view the economy and consumers as adapting to the new dynamic at work in our country.

While those on Wall Street and their friends in the media would revel in short term developments and daily market swings, I view our market and global economy as akin to running a marathon. As such, I would place us at best at the 7 mile mark. El-Erian makes a similar assessment and states as much in writing:

Today’s lack of appropriate anchoring frameworks appears to be exacerbating short-termism. The issue goes well beyond the still-limited appreciation of the multi-year realignment of the global economy, which is gaining momentum. It also relates to tendencies well-documented by behavioural economists – such as framing the problem wrongly and refusing to question past approaches.

Given all this, we would be all well advised to follow the admonition of Mervyn King. Last month, the governor of the Bank of England stated bluntly: “It’s the level, stupid – it’s not the growth rates, it’s the levels that matter here.” Investors have not yet accepted his insight that the absolute levels of income, debt, wealth and unemployment, not just the rates of change, are what matters today. They need to, and soon.

What ‘heart rate monitors’ does El-Erian utilize to assess the overall health of our global economy? He offers the following:

>First, consumer indebtedness is still too high relative to income expectations and credit availability, particularly in the US and the UK.

>Second, some banks’ balance sheets are still too geared for the comfort of regulators or their own managers. This will inhibit them from lending to the real economy at a time when certain sectors (such as commercial real estate, but also residential housing) still require significant refinancing, and when consumers need time to work down their excessive debt loads.

>Third, unemployment has risen well beyond expectations, and is likely to prove unusually protracted.

>Finally, public debt has grown so rapidly as to spark concerns about future debt dynamics. This would inhibit the effectiveness of future stimulus measures, as well as complicating the formulation of exit strategies.

I encourage readers to take Mr. El-Erian’s assessment to focus on the absolute levels of economic and market data. In the process, please then incorporate that approach into the report on deflation I offered yesterday in writing, “Will Deflationary Forces Overwhelm Global Fiscal Stimulus?”

I commend Mohammed El-Erian for properly framing the debate. He is helping us all see the ‘forest for the trees’ as we navigate the economic landscape.


Will Deflationary Forces Overwhelm Global Fiscal Stimulus?

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 28th, 2009 3:12 PM |

While Uncle Sam and his international brethren are doing everything they can to reflate the global economy, will the deflationary forces deeply embedded in the deleveraging process carry the day and the future? In doing so, will these deflationary forces usher in an economic dynamic not seen since the 1930s?

The analysis and review by market savants, media mavens, and government pundits is ultimately mere noise relative to the denouement of the question proffered above. Jeff Gundlach, of Trust Company of the West, has spoken his mind and believes deflation will ultimately weigh upon our economy and markets. Today I share with you Deflation Rising: Making the Case for a Lasting Deflationary Environment recently produced by Black Swan Trading. High five to loyal Sense on Cents reader Ben for sharing this report.

The professionals at Black Swan produce a thoroughly superb and comprehensive review of this critically important topic. I strongly encourage you to put this post in your “Save” box for further review as we navigate the economic landscape. The report is launched as follows:

“If Americans ever allow banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children will wake up homeless”
Thomas Jefferson

Uncle Sam, whom we’ve dubbed the “stimulator of last resort”, is doing all it can to create some inflation. Inflation creation, through the debasement of money, is one thing governments have proven historically they do quite well.

Inflation bails out creditors because it allows them to repay debt more cheaply in the future, paying back the nominal value of debt with currency that loses a substantial amount of real value.

There is no bigger creditor than government.

But that said, at the moment it seems governments are losing the battle of inflation, to deflation, despite pumping money into the market around the clock.

This report makes the case for deflation. In it we examine the powerful deflationary headwinds that could lock the US and global economy into years of deflationary pressures that are reminiscent of the lost years in Japan when they became locked in a deflationary bear hug.

The report puts forth a wealth of compelling evidence for the deflationary case. The evidence covers the following topics, complete with numerous graphs and analytics:

1. Relationship between gold and the U.S. Dollar
2. Growth in money supply
3. Review of decline in the Consumer Price Index
4. Lack of Velocity of Money
5. Increase in bank reserves
6. Decline in outstanding consumer credit
7. Decline in nonfinancial corporate business credit
8. Discretionary spending reaches 50-year low >>>the writers posit that consumption will be much more dependent on income than credit
9. Decline in personal income
10. Structural headwinds in global economy including:
— U.S. economic policies
— likelihood of asset bubble in China
— dynamics in the oil and food markets

After an exhaustive, but not exhausting, 22-page review, the writers make a compelling case that the lessons of The Lost Decade in Japan will now very likely be played out here in the United States. What plagued Japan during that decade and to a great extent even today….deflation.

Additionally, the buildup of leverage within our economy took place over a 20 year time frame with a few significant hiccups. To think that our economy will be able to delever and recover within a year or two is beyond naive. I would project this delevering, adaptation, and recovery process will take at least five years if not longer.

Whether you place yourself in the deflationary camp, the hyperinflationary camp, or somewhere in between, do yourself the favor of reviewing this report. In the process, you will be more educated and qualified to navigate the global economic landscape.


JP Morgan’s Winters Identifies Problem, But Offers No Solutions

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 28th, 2009 11:17 AM |

Who on Wall Street is willing to break camp and call for real change in the industry that crippled our global economy?

Strong managers and real leaders not only identify problems before they develop, but they define and implement solutions as well. No one individual or institution led us into the current economic mess and no one individual or institution will lead us out. That said, if leaders in finance want to regain a degree of credibility and respect, they can not expect to be accorded those benefits by merely identifying problems in global finance. They must also provide answers and policies which cut across the entire global economic landscape and serve the interests of all. I have yet to see this type of leadership from anybody on Wall Street or any other center of global finance.

Identifying a problem without proffering a solution is nothing short of pandering. I witness exactly that in reading the London Evening Standard’s, JP Morgan’s London Head Slams ‘Greed’ of Bankers:

Bill Winters

One of the most senior investment bankers in London has weighed in on the controversy over pay in the industry, attacking City and Wall Street employees as “greedy” and “inept”.

Bill Winters, the co-chief executive of JPMorgan’s investment banking arm, laid the blame for the financial crisis squarely on the shoulders of his fellow bankers.

“The crisis is about the collapse of the integrated wholesale banking system. The primary culprit was a wholesale banking market where borrowing was made to the wrong people at the wrong price,” he told a debate hosted by the Investment Management Association.

Winters, an American who is seen as being close to JPMorgan boss Jamie Dimon, is regarded as a likely future leader of the Wall Street bank.

He said the banking crisis was caused by “greedy bankers, investors and borrowers” and “inept risk managers who relied on the rating agencies”.

Having worked with Bill at JP Morgan, I respect him while admitting that our paths crossed to only a limited degree. That said, his comments here are nothing more than a ‘tremendous grasp of the obvious.’  Bill, what about the solutions?

Where are you and JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon in terms of the following:

1. Total transparency in the derivatives business achieved via the utilization of TRACE

2. Compensation practices which promote full correlation between long term risks and rewards (banker compensation)

3. Total transparency for Wall Street regulatory bodies, primarily FINRA

4. Fair and equitable credit card rates and practices

5. Supporting a fiduciary standard for financial brokers

6. Support for accounting practices which offer a full and honest look into banks’ books and records

7. Legislative changes for the ratings process

Without support for these initiatives, the very culture of greed which Mr. Winters would appear to be calling into question will perpetuate.

In fact, with all due respect, his lack of speaking out at this conference or at another forum on these topics can only lead me to believe his remarks are largely disingenuous.


Related Sense on Cents Commentary

For JP Morgan’s Winters’ The Ledge Got Very Narrow and The Elbows Razor Sharp’ (September 29, 2009)

More Socialized Housing Continues Assault on Capitalism

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 28th, 2009 8:43 AM |

Is there any doubt that the heart of our economic crisis centered on the mispricing of risk in a wide array of mortgage products? If that is in fact the case — and it is — then why does Uncle Sam continue to go down this road? In so doing, the ‘old man’ will only prolong the current housing crisis and likely promote another one as well. Why? A borrower’s ability to access funding at levels not correlated with that borrower’s ability to repay serves as an enormous incentive for the borrower to take undue risk. Inevitably, these greater risks will lead to greater losses. Who will absorb the losses? Ultimately, you and me. Where do we witness more of this socialized housing? Let’s navigate our way into the world of municipal housing finance.

Bloomberg details growing developments on this topic in writing, State Housing Agencies in U.S. Said Slated for Treasury Help:

State housing agencies in the U.S. would get help in providing mortgages to low-income borrowers under a U.S. Treasury Department program to provide new liquidity and purchase mortgage bonds, Treasury officials said.

The program would provide as much as $15 billion in fresh liquidity for as long as three years and would purchase as much as $20 billion in tax-exempt mortgage bonds issued by state- sponsored housing finance agencies through the end of this year, a person familiar with the matter said. The program may be announced as early as Sept. 30, said the person, who didn’t want to be named because the plans haven’t been made public.

A few questions, answers, and comments:

1. Given the enormous rally in the equity and bond markets, where is the private capital to support this initiative? There is plenty of private capital along with excess capital sitting at banks, BUT that capital would only lend itself at rates commensurate with the risks embedded in the value of the real estate and the borrowers.

2. The housing finance agencies’ inclination to ask Uncle Sam for financing and Uncle Sam’s willingness to provide it is nothing more than a socialization of this segment of the domestic housing market. How do we know? What entities will purchase the debt backing these financings?

Bloomberg highlights:

The Treasury effort would be administered by federally controlled mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which would also purchase the bonds, the person said. Those purchases would provide enough financing to restart and to fund the state home loan programs through the end of next year, according to the person.

Oh what fun. Uncle Sam will continue to bury more mispriced debt in the books of the current wards of the state, Freddie and Fannie.

3. Why would private investors be reluctant to more aggressively provide financing to these municipal housing finance agencies? We only need to revisit the fact that virtually all of these agencies utilized a form of auction-rate security known as a VRD (variable rate debt note), which in layman’s terms is nothing short of a form of Ponzi-type financing. Investors remain stuck with a tremendous amount of this debt.

If a borrower burned you on a financing, wouldn’t you increase the rate for future borrowings?

One final comment. Socialized housing finance will certainly dissuade private enterprise from entering any part of this market for a protracted period.

Capitalism remains under assault.


Related Commentary

$35 Billion Slated for Local Housing
by Deborah Solomon
Wall Street Journal; September 28, 2009

No Quarter Radio’s Sense on Cents with Larry Doyle Welcomes Author Norb Vonnegut, Sunday Night at 8PM

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 26th, 2009 9:04 PM |

UPDATE: This episode of NQR’s Sense on Cents with Larry Doyle has concluded. You can listen to a recording of the episode in its entirety by clicking the play button on the audio player provided below. Once the audio begins, you can advance or rewind to any portion of the episode by clicking at any point along the play bar.


Please join me this Sunday evening for NQR’s Sense on Cents with Larry Doyle as we dig deeper and work harder in navigating the economic landscape. My special guest will be Wall Street veteran and author Norb Vonnegut.

The 1980s saw dramatic swings on Wall Street. The ’80s brought us the start of a major bull market in bonds along with the major stock market crash of 1987. Rest assured, though, there was as much action after hours as there was during the trading days. The book that captured the true essence of that time period was Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.

There is no doubt the economic booms and busts of this decade make the ’80s look like childs’ play. What books will be published to capture the essence of this period? Let me propose Top Producer by Norb Vonnegut, a Wall Street veteran who understands a 10-Q, a CDO, and the spirit of the characters who drove Wall Street and our economy into the ground.

This recent review of Top Producer speaks volumes:

It seems Kurt wasn’t the only Vonnegut with storytelling in the extended family DNA. The proof is in this entertaining debut novel from Kurt’s distant cousin Norb Vonnegut. Here we meet Grove O’Rourke, a successful stockbroker (known as a “top producer” in Wall Street-speak) swirling in the aftermath of his best friend’s gory, public murder. To help the widow, Grove tries to decipher the ins and outs of his friend’s hedge fund business. Then, of course, mysteries and secrets unfurl, and our well-meaning protagonist finds himself in hot water.

The story mirrors reality — in ways that may now surprise even its author, who finished the book before the economic meltdown. The two decades Vonnegut spent as a wealth advisor are evident in the venom he brings to descriptions (”a colostomy bag in wingtips”) and in his grasp of the cutthroat world of finance. That plus his affinity for wordplay — nicknaming a raspy-voiced character “the hoarse whisperer” — will likely give you an appreciative smirk as you turn the pages to see exactly what happens to Grove in his search for the truth.

For those who have worked on trading desks and for those who would like an insider’s look at the Wall Street pace and race, Top Producer is a must read. I strongly recommend it. Norb Vonnegut will be joining me on Sunday night’s program to discuss his surefire blockbuster, as well as his views on the Wall Street experience.

What is on your mind? What would you like to address? Please share your questions and thoughts by calling in to (347) 677-0792, and also join our live chat room, which I’ll start up about 10 minutes before the show begins.

As a reminder, all of my radio shows are archived and can be listened to right here at Sense on Cents by clicking on the No Quarter Radio tab located under the page header. (FYI, I keep an audio player of my most recent episode in the right sidebar). In addition, all No Quarter Radio programming is available as a free podcast on iTunes. From the iTunes Store, type “NQR podcasts” in the search window.

Many thanks to Larry Johnson and the rest of the team at No QuarterUSA blog for providing such a vibrant media vehicle as No Quarter Radio. I look forward to having you join me Sunday evening as we collectively navigate the economic landscape!!


How the Mighty Have Fallen

Posted by Larry Doyle on September 26th, 2009 4:03 PM |

Sir Allen Stanford

R. Allen Stanford

Sir R. Allen Stanford, the once proud and domineering master of the Stanford Financial kingdom, has not been having a lot of fun lately. How so?

Aside from the fact that he has been indicted for masterminding a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme centered on the Caribbean island of Antigua, his assets are totally frozen affording him no ability to retain legal counsel. As a result, he is being represented by a public defender. To add insult to injury, he sits in jail because the judge considers him a flight risk.

Life in jail is no bed of roses for Stanford, who was dubbed a knight in Antigua. What is life like in jail for Stanford? Put ’em up!! Sounds like Stanford took a beating this week. Bloomberg reports, Stanford Gets Medical Treatment After ‘Altercation’ at Texas Jail:

R. Allen Stanford, awaiting trial on charges he swindled investors in a $7 billion scheme, was given medical treatment after getting into a fight with an inmate in a Texas jail, a U.S. marshal said.

“He got into an altercation with another inmate,” Alfredo Perez, a spokesman for the Houston office of the U.S. Marshals Service, said yesterday in a phone interview. “He’s being examined by medical staff and treated for his injuries,” which aren’t life-threatening, Perez said. Perez said the incident happened about 10 a.m. on Sept. 24.

Stanford, who has been in custody since being indicted in June, faces 21 felony charges for allegedly paying investors “improbable if not impossible” returns by taking funds from later investors in certificates of deposit at Antigua-based Stanford International Bank Ltd.

Stanford is obviously entitled to due process. Does he or anybody in jail deserve a beating by a fellow jailbird? No . . . but welcome to the real world, Sir.


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