Streetwise Professor

December 30, 2013

I Have Not Yet Begun to Write: Responding to the New York Times’ Farrago of Dishonesty, Insinuations, and Ad Hominem

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:49 pm

The New York Times, in an article written by David Kocieniewski, has singled out me and the University of Illinois’ Scott Irwin for an extended ad hominem treatment alleging that our statements and research on commodity speculation are tainted due to financial connections with “Wall Street.”  As one individual put it to me, the article is “nasty, biased and thinly researched.”   All true (if incomplete-the list of sins is even longer).  But at the risk of providing credence to the incredible, I believe some sort of response is warranted.  So here it goes.

Let me start by saying I have been very fortunate. I have been able to pursue my academic passions, publish papers and books on them, and consult and testify as an expert witness on many matters related to these passions. Through each and all parts of this, I have been true to my Chicago School roots and to what I thought the data and good economics showed.  My opinions on speculation are the product of my training and my research, period.

Moreover, completely contrary to the impression in the NYT piece, the vast bulk of my consulting and testifying work has been adverse to Wall Street and commodity trading firms.  Virtually none of this work relates to the alleged subject of the NYT story: the impact of speculation on commodity prices.  In fact, much of this work relates to market manipulation (which is distinct from speculation) by commodity traders.  I have been, and continue to be, on the side of plaintiffs in attempting to hold traders who abuse markets accountable for their conduct.

The failure of David Kocieniewski to point out this salient fact alone betrays his utter unprofessionalism and bias, and is particularly emblematic of the shockingly shoddy excuse for journalism that his piece represents.

Moreover, none of the research or writing I have done on the speculation issue received financial support from any firm or entity with even a remote stake in this issue.  I started writing about this on my blog in 2006, and have been arguing this issue on my own time with no financial support from anyone.  Unlike, say, Ken Singleton (whom I admire immensely and am not accusing of anything remiss) I have not written any commissioned research on the subject of commodity speculation.  My work that has been done with firms that are connected, in some way, to commodities trading has been on subjects unrelated to financial speculation, and/or with firms that are not financial speculators, and/or took place well after my opinions on the subject were a matter of public record, including in national publications like the Wall Street Journal.  Therefore, to suggest some connection between my paid outside work and my opinions on speculation is misleading, deceptive, and plainly libelous.

True to my Chicago School roots, I believe this is a data issue informed by a strong understanding of the theory and empirics of commodity pricing-a literature to which I have  made many peer reviewed contributions.  And I have been open and remain open to reviewing any data on any market.  I further note that the vast bulk of other research on this subject, undertaken by world-class scholars including James Hamilton and Lutz Killian supports  my conclusions (and those of Scott Irwin).  Ironically, considering the where this piece appears, even Paul Krugman is in agreement.

The simple explanation for my views is that I am avowedly a “super-freshwater economist” by training and conviction.  Because I know that drinking saltwater makes you go crazy. Kidding aside, my work on speculation is a piece with all of my academic work, my background, and my training.  Randall Kroszner, former Fed governor, told me once that I was one of the last true Chicago School economists. That’s a compliment, that’s pretty accurate, and that’s aspirational.  That is a much better predictor of where I come down on any issue than anything else: including money.

What’s more, I do not solicit, have never solicited and would not solicit money for any institution or purpose based upon my views of speculation or the policy issues relating to speculation. Or any other issue.

A couple of other points before getting into specifics.

First, there are no coincidences, comrades. The NY Times has been Tiger Beat effusive in its praise for Gary Gensler of the CFTC.  This piece attacking two of the most prominent academic critics of Gensler’s efforts to impose a speculative position limits rule comes out days after the Commission approved a new version of the rule, and is in the midst of the comment period leading up to the formulation of a final rule.  Gensler fought for this rule for 5 years, and he views it as an important part of his legacy.  That is, there is a clear political agenda at work here: to kneecap those who have the audacity to oppose the regulatory agenda of Gensler and his media acolytes.

Second, this kind of ad hominem attack will have the effect (which is likely intended) of serving as a warning to other academics who cross powerful political interests with their academic research, and who have the temerity to speak out on controversial matters.  How can this be seen as anything other than having a chilling effect on other academic researchers in the the financial and commodity markets?  But maybe that’s exactly the point.

Now some specifics.

  1. There are many egregious distortions in the article, but the most egregious is Kocieniewski’s lying by omission.  Lying. By. Omission. Specifically, he omits the salient fact that the bulk of my consulting engagements (in the form of expert testimony) have been adverse to commodity traders and banks.  I have testified numerous times about manipulations by these types of firms, and have testified against them on other matters unrelated to manipulation.
  2. Let’s examine some of the firms I have been adverse to in my work over the past 20 years, shall we?  Off the top of my head: BP (twice); AEP; Ferruzzi (a commodity trading firm); Duke Energy; Nasdaq market makers; JP Morgan; MetLife; Morgan Stanley; Goldman Sachs; Cargill; Amaranth (a hedge fund that was one of the largest speculative-industry players in the country); Moore Capital (one of the world’s largest hedge funds, and another huge speculative industry player); Optiver (a major trading firm); Pimco (the world’s largest fixed income fund); Merrill Lynch (twice); Sumitomo (major copper trader); Microsoft; Cantor Fitzgerald (twice); and on and on.  A veritable murderers’ row of banksters and traders and energy firms.
  3. I say again: by omitting any mention of this work the Times is lying by omission, and presenting a biased and extremely distorted picture of me and my work.  This biased selectivity makes a joke of the Times’ motto “all the news that is fit to print”.   Leaving out this salient fact makes it plain that Kocieniewski and the Times have an agenda, and no interest in presenting a complete picture of me and my work.  The Times article (inaccurately-see below) lists some of my work on the side of commodity traders and exchanges to create the impression that I am their creature, but leaves out the work in which I have been their fierce antagonist-and in the performance of which I have contributed to their payment of damages running into the many hundreds of millions of dollars.  This failure to mention evidence that contradicts his pre-conceived conclusion is shoddy, dishonest journalism.
  4. Nowhere in the article does the article point out any mistakes or inaccuracies in my research or Scott’s, only making it plain that the problem is that our research does not fit his and the NYT’s preconceived notions about speculators.  I spoke to the reporter for quite a while.  Mostly about the substance of my arguments.  None of that made it into the article, and the reporter wasn’t even able to find another academic to criticize my arguments (or Scott’s): there’s no evidence he even tried, suggesting that the substance was irrelevant to him.  The failure to address the substance of my arguments is very telling.  If I am merely advancing some illegitimate commercial interest, my arguments would be easy to refute, no?  Moreover, Kocieniewski fails to mention my numerous peer-reviewed publications on commodities.  This provides independent validation (though imperfect, because I have serious criticisms of peer review) of my work on the behavior of commodity prices.
  5. There are several factual errors.  Most notably, Kocieniewski claims I wrote a “flurry” of comment letters on speculation/position limits.  I guess in the NYT Thesaurus, “flurry” is a synonym for “one.”   For I wrote a single comment on the issue: as I noted in an earlier post, the comment must have had something of an effect because the CFTC’s new speculative limit proposal eliminates language I had criticized in my letter.  (I also wrote a comment on the CFTC rule proposal relating to clearinghouse governance.  Thus my “flurry” of comments to the CFTC on Frankendodd totals two snowflakes.)  Also, the article ominously suggests that I simultaneously had undisclosed “financial ties” to banks and trading firms when I wrote the study on the systemic risk of commodity trading firms for the Global Financial Markets Association (GFMA).  This is not correct.  I agreed to write a white paper on commodity trading firms for Trafigura more than a year after writing the GFMA report.  Indeed, the GFMA report led to the Trafigura engagement.  Which again indicates that public revelations of my views typically precede any paid retention.
  6. Obviously, the story of the GFMA study, which I have discussed earlier on the blog, demonstrates clearly that my opinions are not for sale, and that I have stood up to and do stand up to “Wall Street.”  I would specifically note that one thing that I adamantly refused to remove from that study, despite the insistence of the attorney for JP Morgan’s commodity trading division, was my statements that commodity trading firms have been known to manipulate markets.
  7. Kocieniewski’s’ claim that I somehow conceal my consulting work by referring to myself “solely as an academic” is refuted by the biography linked to in his story.  That bio includes the following language, which I include in the bio for every speaking engagement I undertake: “Professor Pirrong has consulted widely. His clients have included electric utilities, major commodity processors and consumers, and commodity exchanges around the world.”  Therefore, Kocieniewski’s characterization of how I represent myself is deceptive and fundamentally dishonest.  I gladly reveal that I consult because it suggests I might actually know something about the real world that real people might learn from.
  8. Kocieniewski’s representations about disclosures are invalidated by his dishonest handling of chronology.  He insinuates that I did not disclose my work for the CME or commodity trading firms when I testified before Congress in 2008. But the work for CME Group, GFMA, Trafigura, etc., that Kocieniewski mentions occurred in 2011 and later.  My disclosures in my testimony were accurate at the time I made them.   But I guess I should have invented a time machine, or become Karnac the Magnificent and disclosed things that I would do in the future.
  9. The Times insinuates that my work for CME, Trafigura, TruMarx and others is related to the speculation issue, and hence taints my opinions about this matter.  My work for CME has consisted of evaluating the performance of the WTI contract as a hedging mechanism and an expert witness engagement regarding a patent on electronic trading systems: neither has anything to do with commodity speculation.  Trafigura is a physical commodity trader that uses derivatives almost exclusively to hedge, not speculate.  TruMarx launched a platform to trade physical energy, primarily between end users: again, nothing to do with financial speculation.  These matters and these companies are not related to the financial speculation issue, and Trafigura and TruMarx in particular have no real stake in the speculation debate.  Moreover, my work for them has nothing to do with the speculation issue.  Either Kocieniewski is ignorant of the fact that many commodity traders are not speculators, in which case he is not competent to be writing this story, or he is counting on the inability of his readers to understand the great diversity of firms involved in commodity markets, most notably the fact that many (most?) are not speculators, in which case he is attempting to mislead.  I know where I am laying my bets.
  10. The Times also mis-states facts about Scott Irwin, but that is mainly for Scott to correct.  One particularly egregious thing stands out which I cannot let pass though.  Kocieniewski talks about the $1.5 million that CME Group donated to the University of Illinois.  But not one cent-one cent-of that went to Irwin’s Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, let alone to Irwin personally.   To say that Kocieniewski’s connection of the CME’s financial support for the University of Illinois (a $4.4 billion dollar operation) and Scott Irwin is scurrilous is an extreme understatement.

I could go on, and may expand on this in a subsequent post.  But this should suffice to show that the New York Times published a hit piece to achieve a political purpose.  That piece is is a farrago of dishonesty, insinuations, innuendo, and ad hominem.  It is dishonest to its very core because of its egregiously biased omission of some essential material facts and deceptive presentation of others.

And pace John Paul Jones,  I have not yet begun to write-and fight-on policy issues that matter to me.  I will continue to bring my style of economics, data, and facts to issues upon which I can make a constructive contribution. The fact that the New York Times feels compelled to answer with fundamentally dishonest ad hominem means that it knows it cannot win on the substance, and that it views me (and Scott) as a threat to its agenda.  That’s all the encouragement I need to keep it going.

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  1. The non-scandal of Scott Irwin and Craig Pirrong
    By Felix Salmon ~ DECEMBER 29, 2013 ~ Posted by Christofurio 

    Ostensibly Respectable Academic Is In Fact A Hack: it’s a hardy perennial, and an enjoyable one at that. The best example is Inside Job, where big names like Ric Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard got their well-deserved comeuppance. And it’s a genre I’ve indulged in myself: last year, for instance, Ispent 4,500 words on a paper by Bob Litan, showing how he lies with numbers to arrive at his paymasters’ predetermined conclusion. RC: Pure Krugmanite of NYT/Princeton.
    But here’s the thing: for this kind of article to carry any weight, it has to demonstrate the mendacity or venality of the academics in question, ideally, those academics should have a high-profile reputation which deserves to be tarnished.
    Which is why David Kocieniewski’s article about Craig Pirrong and Scott Irwin this weekend is such a disappointment. It’s currently doing very well on the NYT’s most-emailed list, but it’s easy to guess who’s doing the emailing: people who love to hate Wall Street, and who will use just about any possible excuse for doing so. Because in this case Kocieniewski has missed the mark. Neither Pirrong or Irwin is mendacious or venal, and indeed it’s the NYT which seems to be stretching the facts well past their natural breaking point. RC: Pure Krugmanite of NYT/Princeton again.
    Let’s start, for instance, with the one part of the article almost everybody will read: the big picture at the top of the article, showing the gleaming and extremely expensive University of Illinois business school. “The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has given more than $1.4 million to the University of Illinois since 2008,” says the caption, “with most of the money going to the business school.” RC: MMmmm…:POTUS former law practice area. Let’s also remember CME is in 20 Wacker drive, a common habit of 20’s aged students. In fact I see the entire case one for wacker’s.
    That number — a very big sum, which is more than enough to buy research from for-sale economists — gets repeated further down the article: RC: Didn’t they know they can buy Krugman cheaper as NYT prove, but he isn’t crom the mob trained city, Albany NY is more the business end of the $.
    One of the most widely quoted defenders of speculation in agricultural markets, Mr. Irwin of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, consults for a business that serves hedge funds, investment banks and other commodities speculators, according to information received by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act. The business school at the University of Illinois has received more than a million dollars in donations from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and several major commodities traders, to pay for scholarships and classes and to build a laboratory that resembles a trading floor at the commodities market. RC: MMmm…POTUS taught UC rather than UI, but taught all the same Illinois & Chicago pretty much one? UC being private research based with great accolades & Lauriat’s than the State Research UI same city anyhow, so same thinking UICU follows, rather than leads. Mr. Irwin, the University of Illinois & Chicago exchange all say his research is not related to the financial support.
    This is carefully written to be as damning as possible. Yes, it makes perfect sense that the CME would fund a major business school right in its own backyard — RC: MMmm… win POTUS support too perhaps??? & that it would fund activities related to its own business of commodities trading. But surely Kocieniewski is about to show us how the grants are linked in some way to Irwin’s research: no NYT reporter would write such a thing unless he had reason to believe that there was some kind of quid pro quo, or that the grants to the business school were written in gratitude to Irwin. RC: Can’t hurt to be at 20 Wacker drive either. Chicago has plenty of them. Always has since roaring 20’s. Anyhow now with POTUS former links entrenched, and On August 18, 2008, shareholders approved a merger with the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and COMEX. The Merc, CBOT, NYMEX and COMEX are now markets owned by the CME Group, back in Krugman vested NYT’s area. That’s where NYT reporter might find a reasonable fear of being undermined by invading CME dudes into NYMEX. Or perhaps its just that Monsanto have vested interests in the subject research and a long hekld strong attachment to Illinois Viz., see Wikipedia “In1926 the company founded and incorporated a town called Monsanto in Illinois (now known as Sauget). It was formed to provide a liberal regulatory environment and low taxes for the Monsanto chemical plants at a time when local jurisdictions had most of the responsibility for environmental rules. It was renamed in honor of Leo Sauget, its first village president”.
    Except, if you keep on reading to the point at which you’re 2,500 words into the piece — and pretty much nobody reads that far — you’ll find this:
    While the C.M.E. has given more than $1.4 million to the University of Illinois since 2008, most has gone to the business school and none to the School of Agriculture and Consumer Economics, where Mr. Irwin teaches. And when Mr. Irwin asked the exchange’s foundation for $25,000 several years ago to sponsor a website he runs to inform farmers about agricultural conditions and regulations, his request was denied.
    RC: Now lets see vested research & Monsanto interests perhaps CME’s main Ag-field :~ “Commodity futures and options ~ Agricultural Commodity Contracts include: Live Cattle, Lean Hogs,Feeder Cattle, Class IV Milk, Class III Milk, Frozen Pork Bellies, International Skimmed Milk Powder (ISM), Nonfat Dry Milk, Deliverable Nonfat Dry Milk, Dry Whey, Cash-Settled Butter, Butter, Random Length Lumber, Softwood Pulp, Hardwood Pulp.

    This is real jaw-on-the-floor stuff. The NYT has published an article about how academics who write nice things about Wall Street “reap rewards”, in the words of the headline — and its main illustration is donations to a business school where the academic in question doesn’t even work! Anybody trying to hold academics to standards of intellectual honesty has to be intellectually honest themselves. And the fact is that there’s zero reason to believe that there’s any connection between the business-school donations and Irwin’s research.
    Or maybe Kocieniewski thinks that consulting contract is enough to demonstrate that all money in the general vicinity of Irwin is tainted by venality. Except, if you get to the very end of the article, you’ll find out a bit more about what this consulting contract comprises:
    Mr. Irwin also works for a business called Yieldcast that caters to agricultural producers, investments banks and other speculators, selling them predictions of corn and soybean yields. RC: Oh! Goody Monsanto prime subject at this time “Corn & Soybean GMO Yield accelerators” Mr. Irwin has said he does not consider it a conflict because he works only with the mathematical forecasting models and never consults with clients.
    This is pretty blameless stuff. If you’re a professor who puts together models of commodities prices, it’s fine to consult for a company which puts together models of commodities prices. Shouldn’t we be encouraging professors to work on real-world applications of their research, rather than implying that any such work is a dastardly conflict of interest? RC: Never fear Monsanto will practice those risks, and CME/NYMEX/NYT can also look & smell like roses.
    Once you realize how much of an axe Kocieniewski is grinding, then the rest of his article rapidly starts to crumble. For starters, as Evan Soltas says, both of these men are “super-freshwater” academic economists, working at freshwater schools. (In econojargon, “freshwater” economics happens far from the coasts, and is generally laissez-faire and pretty right-wing; “saltwater” economics takes place in coastal universities and tends to be more Keynesian, interventionist, and leftist.) Neither is inclined to write anything which deviates from freshwater orthodoxy. Kocieniewski takes issue with these professors’ defense of financial speculation — but that’s a central tenet of freshwater economics, and “orthodox economist is orthodox” is never going to be much of a story.
    What’s more, there’s clear evidence that Pirrong, in particular, does not simply churn out whatever his paymasters want him to write:
    Commodity trading houses are not “too big to fail”, says a report commissioned by the banking industry’s top lobby group, which had hoped it would conclude the opposite.
    That report was written by Pirrong, who is on the record as saying that the report was never officially published precisely because he refused to change its conclusions. (Kocieniewski quotes from Pirrong’s post, but doesn’t link to it.)
    Indeed, you don’t need to spend very much time reading Pirrong’s excellent blog before you realize that he’s one of those economists who will always speak his mind. Pirrong is not a grandee who can be counted on to deliver a certain conclusion if you pay him enough money: there aremany economists out there who I consider to be in the “bought and paid for” camp, but Pirrong is absolutely not one of them.
    So, what’s going on here? Three things.
    First, Kocieniewski has a bee in his bonnet about the effect of commodities speculation on commodities prices. He has not only convinced himself that speculative flows caused substantial increases in commodity prices; he has also seemingly convinced himself that anybody who disagrees with that position must be lying. So he’s taken aim at Pirrong and Irwin, not because they have made a lot of money from the financial-services industry, and not because they’re particularly conflicted, but just because they hold a position Kocieniewski doesn’t like. As Peter Klein acerbically puts it, “if you oppose the Times’s editorial position on regulation (or any other issue), you are compromised by financial or other ties. If you support the Times’s position, you are a scholar or public figure of great integrity.”
    Secondly, Kocieniewski has picked on these two professors in particular because they both work at public universities, which can be FOIA’ed. Kocieniewski put in freedom-of-information requests for the two professors — requests that private universities like Harvard or Yale could happily ignore — and used the results as the basis for his story. Thanks, David — you’ve just made it even more difficult for public universities to attract top economic talent.
    And finally, Kocieniewski seems to have bought into a much bigger conspiracy theory which he’s looking to illustrate — a theory summed up in the NYT’s “Professors as Pitchmen” subhed. It’s a theme which runs through Kocieniewski’s piece:
    Underwriting researchers and academic institutions is one part of Wall Street’s efforts to fend off regulation…
    Major financial companies have also funded magazines and websites to promote academics with friendly points of view…
    Financial firms have been able to use the resources and credibility of academia to shape the political debate.
    The Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, for example, at times blur the line between research and public relations.
    The exchange’s public relations staff has helped Mr. Irwin shop his pro-speculation essays to newspaper op-ed pages, according to emails reviewed by The Times. His studies, writings, videotaped speeches and interviews have been displayed on the exchange’s website and its online magazine.
    Kocieniewski’s most explosive allegation, here — that major financial companies have paid magazines and websites to promote certain academics — is in desperate need of backing up: he needs to name the companies and the magazines in question, and explain exactly what he’s talking about. Is he just referring to advertorial content, or sites like the Financialist which are clearly sponsored by financial institutions? Or is he saying that financial-services companies have found a way to pay for certain content to find its way into the editorial pages of certain magazines? That’s certainly what he’s implying. RC: I think if you read my yellow research comments you may agree with this conspiracy theory viz., POTUS Chicago U ties, CME now NYMEX tec. NYT always open to Krugmanlike flexible $$$ Professors, CME Group Ltd., commodity futures & Option trading in ag., Monsanto 1926 links, their main emphasis today both players “Corn & Soybean GMO’s”~ Is this a starting place?
    Then again, when Kocieniewski starts babbling about “the line between research and public relations”, the simplest explanation starts becoming clear: that he’s just gone a little bit off the reservation. There is no “line between research and public relations”; rather, as every financial journalist knows, there is research, and then there is a small army of PR people who try to get journalists to write about that research. Those PR people might work for sell-side banks, or for the Federal Reserve system, or for private universities, or for public universities, or for non-profit think-tanks, or for-profit corporations — but in any event, their job is just to get certain pieces of research noticed. If the CME finds a piece of research that it likes, it makes perfect sense that it will feature that research on its website and tell journalists about it. No line is being crossed there. RC: Yep Monsanto lackies do that well.
    There’s no doubt that PR people can be infuriating at times, but Kocieniewski is taking this idea one step further: he’s saying that if an academic agrees with a certain corporate point of view, and allows the company in question to promulgate that view, then the academic has thereby basically become that company’s PR person. RC: Probably as “Money speaks louder than words” always.
    Once you understand that deep assumption, then the rest of the article starts to make more sense. Kocieniewski sees Pirrong and Irwin as PR people for financial speculators, and feels that no PR people should ever receive the kind of respect that these two economists get, especially in Washington. If Kocieniewski presented that view in a blog post, maybe at Daily Kos or Zero Hedge, few people would bat an eyelid. It’s a little on the overheated side, but I know a lot of people who would basically agree with it.
    The problem is that Kocieniewski isn’t presenting this view as opinion: instead, he’s presenting it as a fact, unearthed by his diligent use of freedom-of-information requests. Even though those requests revealed nothing surprising whatsoever. What Kocieniewski calls Pirrong’s “financial dealings with speculators”, for instance, Pirrong himself has another term for: “litigation consulting”. It makes sense that Pirrong would frequently be used as an expert witness: he explains things clearly, he’s well respected, and he’s entirely consistent in where he comes down on certain well-known questions. The causality here is abundantly clear: Pirrong’s views caused the commodities firms to hire him as a witness, not the other way around.
    In presenting Pirrong and Irwin as doing something deeply unethical, Kocieniewski is actually making sensible ethics reform much more difficult. The AEA code of ethics is an important document, which goes a long way towards addressing the conflicts in the financial-economics industry. But Irwin, for one, was clearly entirely in line with the code all along. (Pirrong, I think, should have been more forthcoming about the identity of the companies paying him substantial expert-witness fees.) If Kocieniewski can take a blameless professor and turn him into a poster child for graft, then it’s easy to see how the rest of the academy might come to the conclusion that they were better off when everything was secret.

    Comment by Rob Carter — January 5, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

  2. […] St. Reap Reward,” I would love Mr. Kocieniewski to respond to criticisms of his piece by myself, Craig Pirrong and others, including, but not limited […]

    Pingback by NYT vs Pirrong and Irwin: David Kocieniewski responds | Felix Salmon — January 7, 2014 @ 11:02 pm

  3. […] for Wall Street, Felix Salmon has a bit to say about that [Reuters, EconBrowser, Bainbridge, Pirrong] Daniel Fisher on a possible tie-in with Times reporter David Kocieniewski’s earlier piece […]

    Pingback by Banking and finance roundup - Overlawyered — January 10, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

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