Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On why even financial analysts are jumping ship on the asset sales plan

November 24th, 2011

Barring a miracle, John Key will be getting the green light in 48 hours time to sell off a 49% stake in several of our most valuable state assets. In recent weeks, the issue has come down to a fairly simple question – would we lose money or save money by keeping the assets and borrowing the money instead?

A couple of weeks ago in the NZ Herald, Auckland financial analyst Brent Sheather laid out some compelling evidence to back up the conclusion he repeated to me on the phone yesterday:“They should borrow, rather than sell the assets.”

But… in this uncertain global climate, isn’t borrowing a risky and counter-intuitive road to take? On the campaign trail, Key has certainly been sounding the alarm about the crisis in Greece, and the spectre of getting in hock to the Chinese. Sheather doesn’t even blink. It all comes down to our ability to service the debt, he says.

And in his view, we’re about to dig ourselves an even bigger debt hole in the national ledger, because the government seems to be intent on selling assets that are generating a higher income than the cost of the borrowing. “If you look at it from the point of view of a business, our interest cover – i.e our ability to service the rest of the debt – is going to be worse after the sale, than it would be before the sale.”

Other commentators have done the maths and reached much the same conclusion. Yesterday, NZ Herald business columnist Brian Fallow found the asset sales plan wanting, even after doing the sums in a way that bent over backwards to be fair to the government. Treasury has estimated that $5–7 billion can be earned from selling 49% of the government’s stake in the assets in question. Rather than look at the current and projected yield from government bonds, Fallow used a figure of 5% for the cost of borrowing, based on that being the average cost of government borrowing over the past five years. So 5% on that $6 billion would be $300 million. That’s one side of the ledger: the cost of borrowing.

Now for the other side – the dividends we forego by selling. Treasury forecasts of the dividends expected from the four SOE energy companies up for sale. Fallow says, average out at $449 million a year over the next five years. The 49% share we intend to sell would therefore come to $220 million. Throw in $20 million for selling 23% of Air New Zealand and the dividends foregone would average $240 million a year – or 4 per cent of the $6 billion sale price.

That means we barely come out ahead. Assuming absolutely everything goes right, we would be $60 million in the black. “So we are talking about a difference of 1 percentage point between dividend yields and bond yields,” Fallow says. Margin of error stuff, in his opinion. And that’s after looking at the deals in the most generous of lights.

Why do I say generous? Well, for one thing, in the sums above we haven’t taken into account any of the likely cost of setting up and managing the asset sale process. Some estimates put that cost as anything up to $350 million, but again, let’s be generous to the government. Let’s assume the sales process will include the usual 1% charge exacted by sharebrokers for handling stock market launches. This, along with other related costs are likely to push the cost of the sales process up to around 3% at the very least, Sheather estimates.

On a $6 billion sales process, that comes out at $180 million, which in the first year at least, would wipe out the small advantage that Fallow discovered, three times over. Included in this bill will be the payment to the “advisers” to the Key government, such as the Australian investment bank Lazard, which is reportedly being paid $100 million to assist in the sales process.

There’s more. “The other cost,” Sheather says. “is that the management of the companies will expect options in the companies, which will massively reward them, just like the management of other companies get rewarded. That’s something that wouldn’t be happening if they remained state owned enterprises.” Management costs will rise in perpetuity.

Sheather’s analysis, round two

Two weeks ago in the Herald when Sheather estimated the cost of borrowing, he used the yield on government bonds as his yardstick. Looking ahead, he said then, the secondary market in 10-year government bonds were pricing them to yield 4.4 per cent. The yield on five-year government bonds was 4 per cent. The interest on $6 billion at 4% is $240 million, and that’s the cost of borrowing – or about $60 million less than what Fallow calculated.

Since then, Sheather says, the rate has gone considerably lower – and is now close to 3% for five years, and just below 4% for ten years. What does this signify? Well, rather than seeing New Zealand as a similar risk to Greece and the rest of Europe, it means that investors are treating us as something of a safe haven and reducing the interest charge involved, thus making the option of borrowing the money – rather than selling the assets – an even more attractive option.

On the dividends side of the ledger, other observers besides Sheather have noted that the four energy companies have been performing extremely well. Those good times are about to get even better. Too bad the taxpayer will now be losing out once those assets are sold down, because they’ve just paid for the capital investment that will be driving those even higher returns – and which the private investors will begin to reap.

The evidence is clear on this point. The $1.7 billion return over the last three years from the four energy companies would have been even higher, as Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman pointed out yesterday, if the SOEs in question hadn’t chosen to double their investment in new plant and machinery, in order to deliver even higher returns in future. As Norman says:

Now that the earning potential of our SOEs has been enhanced through this capital investment, the Crown can expect to see considerable growth in dividend streams from this point on. Treasury makes this point explicit in their last 2010 Annual Portfolio Report. They say the Crown should now expect to receive higher returns.

We have seen this before. Like our energy SOEs, Telecom had invested significant amounts of capital in building a modern telecommunications network in the years before privatisation. In the years following Telecom’s privatisation, dividend streams for its new private owners doubled, then tripled within six years. History now seems to be repeating itself with our energy SOEs. National has allowed the taxpayer to build up the asset, only to then on-sell it to the benefit of others.

More than anything, those current 17.5% returns on average over the past five years are an astonishing testament to the efficiency of the SOEs. Despite the election campaign propaganda that asset sales will bring private sector disciplines to bear on the SOEs, the reality is the exact opposite. The SOEs are at serious risk of being reduced to the same general levels of incompetence as the private sector.

“Those returns suggest the SOEs are managed as well or better than stock exchange companies,” Sheather says, “because stock exchange companies haven’t returned anything like that rate of return. On average in the last five years ended in October, the New Zealand stock market has returned minus 2 per cent per annum.” They’ve lost money? “Yes, they’ve lost money. The world stock market in the same period is down minus 4.3% . So 17.5 % is pretty good work.”

In all probability, that stellar SOE energy company performance also reflects the pretty harsh prices for electricity that New Zealand consumers have been paying in recent years. Which raises a rather alarming concern about the situation once our energy assets are sold down – because if electricity prices are already sky high, how are the profit expectations of the new private sector investors going to be met? Not by racking up prices, Sheather agrees. “What they can do is use the famous venture capital saying – that there’s lazy capital there, the balance sheet isn’t being optimised. What we’ve got to do is pay out a special dividend to shareholders and take on more debt…”

Whaaat? So, rather than run the alleged risk of the government taking on more debt up front, we’re going to sell these things – only then to turn around and satisfy the new private investors’ thirst for dividends by taking on more debt, half of which will then be owned by every taxpayer in New Zealand? “I would say that is inevitable,” Sheather replies.” The share market, he adds, usually responds to such special dividends by ramping up the share price even further. Managers then get rewarded, and the taxpayer is left to pay for the bailout if and when the bubble finally bursts.

Sheather’s own argument for why selling the assets makes no sense is based on the simple mechanics of the deal. The average yield on the NZ stockmarket is about 6%, so Sheather says he would expect the assets to be sold around that yield. Then, growth is averaged at inflation plus one [over the four companies] which gets you to 10%. That means, he says, a lot more will be being given away by selling the assets, than the circa 4% cost of borrowing. As he explained in the Herald.:

To get these asset sales, the Government will need to price the companies at price-earnings multiples of somewhere around 14 to 16 times, which implies after-tax earnings yields of 6 to 7 per cent.

“The 7% is the profits of the company after tax,” Sheather further explained to me. “So the company could pay out 4% as tax free profit, and re-invest the other 3% for more growth. Either way, that’s going to be nearly twice the 4% cost [of the borrowing option.]” Again, these sums indicate that ordinary New Zealanders stand to lose by selling down the assets.

To be perfectly clear on that point: in Sheather’s view, would the annual cost of servicing the extra debt needed to retain these assets exceed the annual dividends derived from keeping full ownership of them?

“No, I don’t think they would. Because if they swell them at an earnings yield of 7%, they can pay out 4% of that to the government to service the debt and retain the residual 2-3% in the company for extra capital for growth plus they’ve got depreciation as well. You could probably argue that those companies could fund their growth from the depreciation charge, anyway.”

There will be a lucky (and relatively few) private investors who will stand to make a killing, given the fairly dismal investment options that are available elsewhere. “They’ll underprice it, so the buyers feel good. They’re going to get a tax free dividend which is 4% – which is tax free, which grosses up to six plus they’ll get growth, which is another four. Look at it – if I can get 6% return from Mighty River plus growth, versus 4% in the bank, then the price is going to be right. And if the price is right for the buyer, it is going to be wrong for the seller.” Who happens to be the New Zealand public.

There are other reasons why the sellers are likely to get short changed. Elsewhere, Scoop has explained why the need to diversify their portfolios will mean that few local investors – and even fewer foreign investors – are likely to want to invest in four energy companies one after the other, especially since there are already other energy related stocks (Vector, Trustpower, Contact Energy) crowded into the New Zealand share market.

Meridian will be the big prize for local investors, and Solid Energy’s coal deposits and related technologies will make it the only one that foreign investors will be rushing in to buy. For political reasons, the Key government will therefore be selling Solid Energy last, in order to minimise the furore over selling our precious natural assets into foreign hands.

Finally… it is quite hard not to be depressed then by this asset sales process, isn’t it? “It is,” Sheather says. “I’m assuming Mr Key is a rational person.” The public don’t want the sales, he says, and the financial sector can’t see the logic behind them.

What Sheather would like to see is a last minute offer of a referendum on the subject, as a sign that Key has listened to the public’s concerns, and has responded in kind. “If he does that, all will be good. If he doesn’t, he needs his head read.”

********

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    1. 30 Responses to “On why even financial analysts are jumping ship on the asset sales plan”

    2. By Megan Hutching on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks Gordon – it’s good to have this information spelt out so clearly.
      I wonder what the attitude of the managers of these SOEs is? Do they support the sales? Are they telling National that it is a good idea and that they can perform wonders after they have been partly privatised? I haven’t read anywhere what their attitude is and am wondering if anyone has asked.
      I can imagine what it might be like if there is a group of people all talking to each other and encouraging each other – eventually it seems as though there is no other possibility but a partial sale, if their companies are going to improve. Bankers and financial market people will be encouraging them to think this way too because it is in their interest – you mention the possible $100 million being paid to Lazard.

    3. By Margaret on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Thank you, I am sure any intelligent, emotionally stable person reading your article who cares about his country and his fellow man, before self and place could never go out and vote National this weekend, even if it be only for this one election.

      We must keep our assetts for the security of our future generations.

      What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask,”why did you let this happen”?

    4. By Richard on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      It is also valuable to look at the economic case for *buying* our state assets.

      Our state assets need to be worth more to the investor buying them than the cost of borrowing (by the investor) to purchase the assets.

      So, this means that for the assets to be a sensible purchase they must:
      - either, be returning a dividend well in excess of the cost of borrowing,
      - or, we are selling them for a lot less than they are actually worth.
      - Alternatively, the investors are planning on buying the assets and then running them into the ground by short-term profit-taking rather than re-investment in growth and improvement.

      Past experience seems to show that a combination of these three factors is likely.

    5. By Tim on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks again Gordon for highlighting the utter nonsense of asset sales. On this issue alone I would not vote National. However, many seem to be ahppy to do so for no logical reason. It beggars belief but follows a pattern of political self-harm that Nzers seem unable to avoid (Shipley, Muldoon, Bolger). I predict that within 18 months of the next National Govt. a lot of people will be denying they ever voted for them! We are in for some very dark days indeed if this bunch of pirates are returned on Saturday.

    6. By Stephen on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Lovely piece but built of the ridiculous assumption that the rules of business apply to government and I quote, “If you look at it from the point of view of a business….”
      Well the government is not a business and if we are going to use all sorts of fancy financial arguments based around cost of capital to keep these assets we should be using the same arguments for suggesting the government buy more assets and over time replace borrowing and taxes as sources of income. If we going to do that we should be shipping the Wellington suits off to Singapore in their droves to understand how that ‘business masquerading as a country’ operates. I think the left would find more issues with adopting the policies that Singapore did in its past to achieve its current position that in flogging off some 50 year old power stations.
      The subjective appeal of the “don’t sell the assets argument” is based off the argument that we are selling the family silver and you can only sell that once. If they were silver, I’d agree as silver will always be silver (even when you melt it down) so it can be held and kept forever and rarely will it other than fluctuate in value so there’s no real downside risk in holding silver assets. These are productive business assets, not silver. They have a business lifecycle and a value that will decline over time and there is risk to holding them. It’s not big risk but it’s not as sure as holding silver. My issue with a government owning productive assets is that it hog ties them from investing in new technologies that will devalue their current investment and the income stream that you are so fixated about. That’s the businesses we want our governments to invest in. Big, early lifecycle growth opportunities where a govt can use its clout and our future tax take to underwrite the risk in things that do not stack up for private enterprise, like broadband, big scale tidal, solar & wind power. If it works flog it off and get onto the next thing, don’t lock us into the past through on-going ownership. Sell the roads for that matter and invest in modern trains. Essentially, let go and move on. when this country was young it defined the future shape of things for the world. Now we have got older we have lost the capability to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. Apologies for the rant the election seaason is nearly over.

    7. By Elyse on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      “I’m assuming Mr Key is a rational person”.
      Assumptions are dangerous.
      This is irrelevant and naive, like assuming Key’s a “nice” person because he took a young girl from a state house to Waitangi.
      It’s not about rationality. It’s about ideology and the opportunity to buy influence with Key’s former employers and cronies in the investment banking/hedge fund world. He has been biding his time for the past three years in order to do this.
      Watch. When they come up for sale, for the mythical “Mom and Pop” it will be like trying to buy tickets at a Stones concert. The shares will, mysteriously, all have been bought and will be available only at an inflated priced.

    8. By Pam on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      I’m confused. I’m no financial wizz – just your NZ worker, but from reading several articles there appears to be no real financial reason for selling the assets. Does that mean there is some other reason the government wants to sell them off? Is it back to the old right wing argument that the government does not want to run ‘business’ even if they are for vital public services? This, on top of the current government decreasing income by lowering taxes and refusing to look at long term policies like Capital Gains Tax or increasing the retirement age, could make one think that there is some plan to actually run this country into the ground. I genuinely don’t understand. Can someone please explain why Key would go ahead with the plan to sell our assets when most people don’t want it and the numbers don’t back him up?

    9. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Am pissed off about Gordon thinking that Key/Joyce/English are going to “cakewalk” their way back into “Gummermin”.

      It aint necessarily de case Gordon, and on Saturday hopefully you are going to be proven wrong – and to your delight also!

      Somewhere on Werewolf a fascist put a post ranting at you Gordon, that you are a Communist!!!

      “Joe Blow” will be in wholehearted agreement with that fascist, but nearly everyone else on Werewolf definitely is not!!!

    10. By Joe Blow on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      @ Leon

      Have you done your homework on R2P I gave you yet Leon? Here’s some more reading for you:

      http://r2pcoalition.org/content/view/73/93/

    11. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Pam: it is pure idiological treachery: John Key’s mother was married to a Jew, and when she was pregnant (with John Key) she was looked after by the State on Social Welfare and lived in a State House.

      John was a cunning crypto-Kike and went to University (up until the late 1980′s University and Polytech was free to all New Zealanders, and what is more, Kiwi’s were paid a generous Social Welfare benefit to live on when they were going to University)for the sole purpose of learning how to speculate with money.

      He then went to New York, and because he is part Jewish, he was able to get a position in Goldman Sachs as a currency speculator.

      The creature is a traitor to this country, and a traitor to the world. Key is known to have at least one-hundred-and-forty-million-dollars (US) from his currency fiddling.

      Lets get rid of this vicious, rotten, thug on Saturday.

    12. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow, my eyes glaze over when confronted with stuff like that. That jargon is also utterly meaningless because the USA and the Jews have repeatedly broken every single Article of the United Nations Charter, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the USA built for the Jews in the Negev Desert an atomic bomb manufacturing factory in the early 1970′s and it was totally illegal) and the Statutes of the United Nations Charter were long ago rendered utterly meaningless by the USA and the Jews and their puppets.

      The annexation of Kosovo and the invasions of Iraq and Libya are hideous demonstrations of how meaningless the United Nations Charter actually is.

    13. By Joe Blow on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      @ Leon

      R2P sure beats Bush’s unilateralism, which is probably why our Mighty Green Party support the doctrine:

      “•Promote the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ in cases of genocide or gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
      “•Propose to the UN General Assembly that the five criteria for justifying intervention under the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine be adopted by the Security Council.”

      http://www.greens.org.nz/policysummary/foreign-affairs-policy-summary

      You should give it a chance… You’re a Green voter aren’t you?

    14. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

    15. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Arg Shit: the previous post has ended up on this page not how it was supposed to be: it was meant to be a whole lot of “Zed’s” (ZZZZ) to represent snoring!!!

      Hey Joe Blow, politics can be depressing, and it is good to have other stuff to think about every now and then.

      Do you know about “The Fortean Times”? They have got some fabulous articles on their Website, such as these ones:

      http://www.forteantimes.com/features/profiles/archive/

    16. By Jackp on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Gordon, thank you for this… I suppose this is why the Ombudsman won’t release the treasury advise. Leon Henderson, your spot on. What I find quite exasperating is Key is a financial derivative trader and that is what exactly got us into this financial mess. Why can’t people see this?? I call Key a parasite. He’s slowing sucking the nutrients out of this country. My vote will go to Winston Peters and I voted National last time.

    17. By Joe Blow on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      @ Leon

      For someone that claims he is a member of our Mighty Mighty Green Party you don’t seem to know much about or have much interest in our party’s policies…

      “We oppose discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnic origin, religion, political belief, gender, sexuality, marital status, family, age, disability, or socio-economic background.”
      http://www.greens.org.nz/policy/summary/humanrights

    18. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      So, the point you are attempting to make, Joe Blow?

      It obviously has got something to do with your apparently insatiable need to defend every evil thing that the Jews do, yes?

    19. By Michael on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Just curious – should 5% of the 6 billion not be 5% on 12 billion assuming you will be paying off 6 billion and not borrowing another 6?

    20. By Michael on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      The point of asset sales is the Future Investment Fund. Capital assets bought with this are presumably intended to give a return which should be incorporated into this analysis – the problem is it is election time and they have told us very little about what projects they intend to spend those billions of dollars on!
      From http://www.national.org.nz/PDF_General/Future_Investment_Fund_policy.pdf they spend 3 1/2 pages talking about how they will sell assets and about 1/2 a page with some very general indications (other than 21st C Schools), and I’ve heard about the irrigation scheme and a hight tech centre elsewhere.
      http://www.national.org.nz/PDF_General/Economic_Development_Action_Plan.pdf There is obviously going to be roading under New Policy that will attract money, how much from the Fund will go to existing policy in progress that isn’t fully funded who can tell?

    21. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      Joe blow, you can here read the writings of Robert Fisk whose enemies (and there are many!!!) even admit grudgingly that he is by a long way the foremost expert in the so-called “western world” about the construction and nature of the “Islamic World”.

      http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/

    22. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      When you try to attack me, Joe Blow I do things like this:

      http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A5849076

    23. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      The biggest tragedy for this Nation, Joe Blow, besides the ever-increasing poverty due to capitalism/moneylenders/ and landlords, is precisely that: your Jew moneylenders and your Jew-sucking landlords.

      With gracious regards, Leon Henderson!!!

    24. By Leon Henderson on Nov 24, 2011 | Reply

      You continue to refuse to answer the “question” about the torture and murder of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and his son, by Mr. “Hopey Changey” Obama and the Mad Bint Hillary Clinton.

      Describe how those capitalists are “right” as per what they did, then Joe Blow, you will be doing for them what is impossible:

      Viz-A-Viz their ridiculous claims of so-called “Morality”.

    25. By Joe Blow on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      @ Leon

      After being accused by you that “nothing that [I] write is in accordance with the New Zealand Green Party, and instead is always totally against us.” I merely felt it prudent to point out that my views are more consistent with our Mighty Mighty Green Party policy than yours are.

      Hone NEEDS YOU Leon!

    26. By Leon Henderson on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow: you have got to try and keep away from the nose powder.

    27. By Leon Henderson on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow: I tried to answer you, but my post did not get placed. Am maybe banned, do not know???

    28. By Leon Henderson on Nov 27, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow: what a Hideous Election result!!! You will be wondering why I have not seemed to be responding to you, but my ancient computer is doing it’s narna again and have had to do two complete Operating System reinstalls.

      Joe, it is gonna drive me utterly Apeshit soon.

    29. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow: you will have observed the Hatchet-Job that the mass-media (with Werewolf being the solitary exception) did to Sue Bradford.

      It is a terrible loss to us all that Sue, Matt MaCarten, and John Minto are not in Parliament.

    30. By John Monro on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      This sale is pure neoliberal ideological dogma. John Key could be a monkey, and he’d still sell these assets, indeed the only reason that they’re not 100% for sale is that he knows that would not be acceptable, the 49% sale is sugaring the pill, he knows another National administration can complete the work started by Max Bradford in the 90′s. I don’t believe it is the financial considerations that are important, I suggest it is the further erosion of New Zealand’s sovereignty that is the issue here. That we no longer will control, even partially, our single most important strategic asset, is a real demolition of our ability to control or direct a renewable energy future, these facilities are the envy of nearly every other contry in the world. Indeed , we could see a Chinese commercial energy company, still controlled by the Chinese government, owning our dams, rivers, rain, wind, sunshine and geothermal energy. I would have John Key and all his cohorts up for the crime of “economic treason” against his own country’s long term interests.

    31. By Bart Schroder on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      In times past the government of the day built these huge power schemes unfettered by the RMA, using vast amounts of money borrowed from others. People complained. However, this foresight resulted in a reliable source of low cost energy. Now we don’t want to sell them because of this sunk cost, and because we are not thinking about the future. In 3 years time the battery in your new eco car will store 40 kWHr. The sun provides 300 W/square meter average onto your roof. Your colour steel roof will make 50 W/square meter, so the 100 square meters on a small house will generate 5kW on a cloudy day (more on a sunny day). Say it does that from 9am – 3pm – that’s 30kW Hr. The average house uses 10-30 kWhr/day. Your roof can run your car and your house. You could share with the houses on your street, and plug your car into the roof at work to even things out. Now you don’t need a power station for all those houses, you don’t need the expensive transmission lines, or all that switch gear. A power failure doesn’t bother you.

      This scenario is going to happen, and not too far away. Is holding onto the power companies still smart?

      We need a decent slogan free evaluation of the entire industry, and make a decision based on costs and benefits including the future stuff.

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