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Mystery Of July Retail Sales "Beat" Solved: It Is All In The "Seasonal Adjustment"

Tyler Durden's picture


The July retail sales beat came as a surprise to many: an 0.8% increase (full series here) at a time when the data was supposed to grow at less than half this would surely be indicative of a potential turnaround in the US economy. Then we decided to do a quick spot check if maybe the Census Bureau had not adopted one of the BLS' worst habits: fudging seasonal adjustment factors. The reason for this is because we happened to notice that Not Seasonally Adjusted (full series here) retail sales data in July actually declined by 0.9% from $405.8 to $402 billion. Of course, if the Census Bureau was using a consistent, or at least remotely comparable July seasonal adjustment factor as it has in the past, this would make sense and we would move on. So we decided to look at what the July seasonal adjustment variance over the past decade has been. What we found would have shocked us if indeed this is not precisely what we expected: with the July seasonal adjustment factor routinely subtracting a substantial amount from the NSA number, averaging at -$5.2 billion, in 2012, for the first time this decade, the seasonal adjustment not only did not subtract, but in fact added "value" to the NSA number, resulting in a seasonally adjusted number that was $1.9 billion higher than the NSA number at $403.9 billion.

So what would have happened if instead of arbitrarily deciding to add a seasonal contribution for the first time in a decade, the Census Bureau had used the last decade average factor of $5.2 billion (not adjusted for inflation, so the end number would be far greater)? Instead of rising by 0.8% Seasonally Adjusted retail sales would have declined from $400.7 billion to $395.5 billion, or a 1.3% decline.

And that is how data is fudged.

Those curious what the model behind this now glaringly obvious seasonal adjustment fudge is, read on (source):

We use the X-12 ARIMA program to derive the factors for adjusting data for seasonal variations and, in the case of sales, for trading-day and holiday differences.


Adjustment of estimates is an approximation based on current and past experiences. Therefore the adjustments could become less precise if current competitive pressures, changes in consumer buying patterns during holiday periods, and other elements introduce significant changes in seasonal, trading-day and holiday patterns.


Each month for sales, concurrent seasonal adjustment uses all available unadjusted estimates (including the latest preliminary and advance estimates) as input to the X-12 ARIMA program. Factors derived from concurrent seasonal adjustment for sales are applied to the unadjusted advance, (one month after the preliminary) preliminary, and final (one month before the preliminary) estimates and to the previous year estimates that correspond to the advance and preliminary months.


The table Combined Seasonal, Trading-Day, and Holiday Adjustment Factors for Retail and Food Services Sales by Kinds of Business presents the combined seasonal, trading-day, and holiday adjustment factors that are used to adjust sales estimates. For kinds of business whose last observation is an advance estimate, two months of projected factors are shown. For all other kinds of business, three months of projected factors are shown. Projected factors are estimates of the factors that will be used to derive adjusted estimates when unadjusted estimates become available.


More information about the X-12 ARIMA Program is available on the Census web site at .


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Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:38 | 2703501 Big Corked Boots
Big Corked Boots's picture

must... reelect... obama...

Lies, damn lies, and statistics. All the stops are pulled out.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:44 | 2703531 spastic_colon
spastic_colon's picture

so this means QE is still coming?  See how well their baffle strategy works!  Gotta give ZH credit for doing in a few minutes what used to take the general investing public (or what's left of them) and the algo's days to interpret.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:05 | 2703605 TrillionDollarBoner
TrillionDollarBoner's picture

Great piece of research. Thanks ZH. 

'Seasonal adjustments' tweaked as necessary. What a crock of shit these data are. 

Now can everyone just wake the fuck up! 

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:17 | 2703634 mikla
mikla's picture

If it is a Number from the Government, do not trust it.

If it is a Number from a Publicly-traded company, do not trust it.

If it is a Number from a Market in which the Fed is active, do not trust it.

If it is a Number to settle International Trade, do not trust it.

If it is a Number quoted by any Politician, do not trust it.

If it is a Number quoted by any Economist, do not trust it.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:37 | 2703688 BaBaBouy
BaBaBouy's picture

Can I ADD...


Do not Beleive the GOLD Prices Quoted. Be happy you are owning a REAL ASSET, Probably

worth North of 25K were it not for the bogus manipulations...

Be happy you can actually still buy GOLD at these prices today... Tomorrow - ???

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:46 | 2703910 Bananamerican
Bananamerican's picture

"I, for one, welcome our new number-fudging overlords!"

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:53 | 2703926 ndotken
ndotken's picture

Numbers are all bullshit nowadays man ... nothing but goddamn fucking bullshit

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 12:18 | 2704013 DeadFred
DeadFred's picture

The hidden moral to this story is if you are the programmer in charge of developing a seasonal adjustment algorithm don't open up the Email from someone named 'Lolita' inviting you to see her pics. After that your program will adjust things just the way your handlers want them to be adjusted.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:41 | 2703700 Temporalist
Temporalist's picture

"the International Monetary Fund forecasts the slowest trade growth in three years."

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 15:49 | 2704847 John_Coltrane
John_Coltrane's picture

I recommend in the future that all numbers issued by the government have an "i" attached (though ZH readers have likely assumed they are imaginary already):

For example:  4 becomes 4i  (that way people will know that its an imaginary number (on the y axis of the complex plane)

Another specific example:  The BLS reported today that GDP was 1.5i %, while retail sales grew at 0.8i %. 

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:07 | 2703611 SmallerGovNow2
SmallerGovNow2's picture

Yeah Tyler is most definately on it.

Most informative site available for those that want the truth...

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 12:37 | 2704083 Plausible Denia...
Plausible Deniability's picture

This is precisely why this site is my first and foremost resource to fact check the eyebrow raising "stats" and data coming out these days. Also, zerohedge got a Santelli shoutout for this piece today. I guess you guys are sort of a big deal

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 12:37 | 2704084 Plausible Denia...
Plausible Deniability's picture

This is precisely why this site is my first and foremost resource to fact check the eyebrow raising "stats" and data coming out these days. Also, zerohedge got a Santelli shoutout for this piece today. I guess you guys are sort of a big deal

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:37 | 2703505 nathan1234
nathan1234's picture

Seasonal Adjusment equals extrapolating shit.

And shit is what you get from the manipulated data and from the administration

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:43 | 2703528 Frastric
Frastric's picture

Could explain why the GDP figures are a bit more accurate with retail sales, but then GDP is fudged with all that inflation expectation stuff...

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:43 | 2703529 rwe2late
rwe2late's picture

but, but ...
this time it's different.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:51 | 2703560 FL_Conservative
FL_Conservative's picture

It's the secret sauce that makes all statistics taste just right!

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:59 | 2703585 Ancona
Ancona's picture

So......who do I call to "seasonally adjust" my checking account? I could use a few grand right now.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:37 | 2703506 Flaming Ferrari
Flaming Ferrari's picture

I'm shocked. Data fudged...tell me it  ain't so.

Good to see Spain is getting on top of the housing crisis with another inspired policy move.

"Spanish new home VAT increases to 10%: The Spanish government has confirmed that value added tax on new homes will rise to 10% of purchase price next year, from 4%, according to PIE Magazine. Since it has already raised VAT on refurbishments to 21% from 8%, and abolished mortgage tax relief, the move adds to problems in clearing the 800,000 vacant housing overhang."

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:41 | 2703523 spastic_colon
spastic_colon's picture

its not a tax is a fee....they should change it to VAF

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:37 | 2703687 BurningFuld
BurningFuld's picture

The Spanish government could save themselves a lot of time enacting new legislation by simply enacting: "We are the Government give us All your Money!"

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:38 | 2703508 TwoJacks
TwoJacks's picture

jeezustapdancingchrist.  can we knock it off with seasonal adjustments already and just get a report of the raw numbers?  i hate this shit

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:46 | 2703536 Cdad
Cdad's picture cannot do that as it would not shine a good light on the current desperate, failing status quo morons in charge of destroying the US economy for the last 25 years.  And so we must fudge and that folks don't get restless and quit watching...ummm...errrr...I don't even know what anyone is watching these days...ah, forget it.  

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:46 | 2703721 Vince Clortho
Vince Clortho's picture

Without the Ministry of Fudging, the raw stats might cause the muppets to stampede.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:28 | 2703854 Nobody For President
Nobody For President's picture

A greenie for 'jeezustapdancingchrist'

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:39 | 2703510 glenlloyd
glenlloyd's picture

garbage in garbage out....literally

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:39 | 2703514 Frastric
Frastric's picture

This is bullish; an ACTUAL decrease in retail sales means QE is on! Stupid algos they're missing an excuse to rally the market!

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:39 | 2703516 DizzySailor
DizzySailor's picture

IT is the new math: 2+2= what ever you would like it to be.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:47 | 2703727 Spastica Rex
Spastica Rex's picture

The Übermensch makes his own reality.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:40 | 2703517 goldencross10
goldencross10's picture

Obama: The Economy is recovering, we got retail sales up .8% I dont even now what that is but its going up so it must be good

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:48 | 2703733 Spastica Rex
Spastica Rex's picture

Goin' up.

Politicians don't say "ing."

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:40 | 2703519 Toolshed
Toolshed's picture

Wouldn't it have been a lot easier to say:

"We pulled this number out of our collective asses this year due to our bosses burning desire to be re-elected."

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:40 | 2703520 Peter Pan
Peter Pan's picture

I think I would be more inclined to the believe the figures if the Census Bureau announced that Martians had landed and were doing shopping.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:41 | 2703522 James-Morrison
James-Morrison's picture

Baaa baaa baaa
--we the sheeple

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:42 | 2703525 slewie the pi-rat
slewie the pi-rat's picture

seasonal seasonings by emeril

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:46 | 2703537 vertexa
vertexa's picture

In today's market, investor will only dump stocks in good news! today market should sell off

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:46 | 2703538 tuttisaluti
tuttisaluti's picture

Banana republic USA

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:24 | 2703842 Rip van Wrinkle
Rip van Wrinkle's picture

Banana world, buddy.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:47 | 2703540 ebworthen
ebworthen's picture

"Fudge Factor"

Hashish in the Brownies

Grain alcohol in the Punch Bowl

"Oh, someone didn't tell you?  Well?  Do you feel good?"

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:47 | 2703541 Hype Alert
Hype Alert's picture

And again, no QE until after the election.  Smoke and mirrors until then.  Wonder when Mr. Market will figure this out?

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:49 | 2703548 spastic_colon
spastic_colon's picture

Mr. Market won't......thats the genius of the BS

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:50 | 2703737 Vince Clortho
Vince Clortho's picture

Mr. Market passed on some time ago.

He has been replaced by some rich kids toy.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:47 | 2703542 slewie the pi-rat
slewie the pi-rat's picture

how many "NSA"s do we have?

this one is right up there prop-wiZe: "adding value"

dey lucky dey ain't gettin taxed for that malarky!


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:48 | 2703545 bnbdnb
bnbdnb's picture

The Fed puts out this number...basically, guys you need to sell off your shit so we can do QE.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:49 | 2703549 whoknoz
whoknoz's picture

...the season is the reason...wait 'til they tell how to recalculate the height of the fiscal cliff during descent...

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:49 | 2703551 JR
JR's picture

More artificial sweetener in the fudge…

The Retail Sales report and manufacturing statistics are simply measurements of inflation, not of actual production. Instead of measuring units of production, these reports all first measure the flow of sales measured in dollars.

Retail Sales “measures sales in dollars and since inflation is incorrectly measured is not adjusted appropriately. Since inflation is way understated, it overstates Retail Sales. Another flaw in this report is substitution bias, that is it only measures stores that are open over the last year and fails to account for stores that have closed…truth and transparency are not high on the list of those who control economic statistics.” (Nathan’s Economic Edge)

Disposable income is flat, construction spending bottom bouncing, credit growth remains all in student loans, July unemployment 22.9% (Shadowstats)…

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:52 | 2703563 LongSoupLine
LongSoupLine's picture



This country is one big manipulated pile of corporate run horseshit.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:53 | 2703565 Sandy15
Sandy15's picture

Tired of the FED print and push stock market methods....... others are starting to see it too

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:58 | 2703573 TWSceptic
TWSceptic's picture

Even if we put the fudged number aside. It's retail, not production. Meaning if retail should go up, that is nothing more than debt spending. There is no recovery.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:55 | 2703575 Mr_Wonderful
Mr_Wonderful's picture

No volume. Market to sell off.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:09 | 2703619 eclectic syncretist
eclectic syncretist's picture

Bots bracketing a trading range while smart investors stay away from the insanity of this broken thing that is supposed to be a market, but isn't any more.

These pathetic volumes do hurt the big Wall Street banks, so it would be poetic justice if this continued for a while longer.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:55 | 2703576 Let The Wurlitz...
Let The Wurlitzer Play's picture

Thanks for the analysis ZH.


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:56 | 2703577 govttrader
govttrader's picture

this is CRAZY...i'm buying more US treasuries

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 12:18 | 2704014 takinthehighway
takinthehighway's picture

Do you get an employee discount?

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:57 | 2703578 user2011
user2011's picture

Well, pretty soon, they are going to "seasonally adjust" volume traded in stock market.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:50 | 2703734 Spastica Rex
Spastica Rex's picture

Cunning plan, Baldrick.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:59 | 2703584 JustObserving
JustObserving's picture

Not only are all the markets manipulated - stocks, bonds and commodities, but also all the data.  Who would be crazy enough to try to trade under these conditions?  You will lose everything to the HFT algos which can react in microseconds, not to mention the insiders who know what is coming next.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 09:59 | 2703588 CheapBastard
CheapBastard's picture

This makes more sense and is what I see 'on the ground."


...and in other bullsih news (esp for NYC real estate):


Chinese companies pull out of US stock markets


I guess all those "aliens' buying up property will now be selling and moving to where the action is...HK and Shanghai, Frankfurt and London. NYC is so old hat.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:00 | 2703589 crzyhun
crzyhun's picture

Score one more for Dearest Leader and Klack. You ain't seen nothing yet. Just you wait and see all the limosene libtards, lap dogs, and other useful idiots, you will be up against the wall and handled like the tools you are. Pop goes the weasel! Sweet dreams...

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:06 | 2703609 madcows
madcows's picture

So, I looked up the NON adjusted numbers:


June 2011: 392,888

July 2011: 388,749 Million.

June 2012: 405,820

July 2012: 401,988

Looking back, historically the only months with values exceeding 400K are in December(Chirstmas).

I haven't perused the various categories. I know that food and gas prices have soared over the last 5 years, and my gut tells me that "retail" sales are going up b/c the economy is booming.  Instead, people are spending a lot more for essentials (food, gas, heating oil and clothes.)

ZH:  give me a chart overlaying "Retail" sales with essential spending and discretionary spending.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:48 | 2703732 JR
JR's picture

It’s the SNAP folks in my coastal area who appear to have the discretionary income left over for mall-type dining out and cheap entertainment, having all their nondiscretionaries paid for by the government’s transfer of wealth program; the retirees seem to have disappeared from the public streets…it’s their money, their savings, Bernanke is spending into the economy, only they aren’t the ones “entitled” to spend it. Therefore, the indirect $78 billion boost in “consumer spending…”

“From 2007-2011 spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the SNAP program, informally known as the food stamp program) increased 135 percent to reach a cost of $78 billion last year (2011) alone, the report reveals.”

As ZH blogger MrBoompi 6/22/2011 put it: “Until they remove government spending and ‘banking contributions’ from GDP calculations they're not worth the paper they're printed on anyway. These ‘organizations’ suck money from the ever-shrinking productive part of the economy.”

Read more:

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:07 | 2703613 DOT
DOT's picture

Tyler, I get the move is a Corn Syrup Statistic designed to move opinion. But why/ Would not a horrible number serve TPTB better?

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:38 | 2703735 Terminus C
Terminus C's picture

In today's fucked up market bad news is good because bad news means greater chance of QE. I am not sure why we have associated government printing with market positive (nominally, sure but in the end you are Zimbabwe) but the 'market' does.

If bad news is good, then good news is bad ( or at least not as good), which gives the Fed some room to print, not to mention some element of surprise as 'investors' have priced in QE already.

In short the Fed needs a selloff, but none of the insiders will take the hit, so they are trying to fool the last few retail people left in the 'market' and get them to dump... on good news.

Just another example of how sick and twisted our financial system has become while under the control of these sociopathic terrorists we call bankers and politicians.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:08 | 2703617 NEOSERF
NEOSERF's picture

There are no more rules anymore except saving the world which is Job #1.  ANYTHING that could possibly send the stock er confidence market down is not allowed anymore.  Anything that would crash Europe is not allowed anymore.  ESM doesn't have a banking license?  We can find a way around that...just route funds through Zambia, back to New Zealand into the Caymans and back to the Bank of Greece...unbelievable.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:15 | 2703631 eclectic syncretist
eclectic syncretist's picture

Not saving the world, trying to save the status quo is what is going on here, but the skimmers are going to fuck it up just like everything they touch, and once they crap the bed things will get better until it eventually starts over again (unless we man up and make some fundamental changes for the better).  We already have a clear example of them trying to lay blame for their ways at the feet of the little guy from peregrine.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:53 | 2703745 Spastica Rex
Spastica Rex's picture

The world is the status-quo - to them.

What's good for Apple is good for America.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:53 | 2703746 Spastica Rex
Spastica Rex's picture


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:37 | 2703641 FieldingMellish
FieldingMellish's picture

Just like last weeks jobs report, gold has had a rethink and is turning around. Fool me once...

Edit: Looks like equity markets (i.e. HFT bots) have come to the same realization.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:20 | 2703650 GoldbugVariation
GoldbugVariation's picture

The seasonal adjustment model has been developed jointly with Bank of Spain - I kid you not.  See last entry in this glossary:

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 15:50 | 2704851 Panafrican Funk...
Panafrican Funktron Robot's picture

Nice catch, let out an audible "holy crap", which is notable due to my lack o' surprise at most of this shit. 

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:21 | 2703651 adr
adr's picture

The Let Them Eat Cake bureau? On the ground reality is deteriorating faster than it ever has, yet the government and its propoganda arm of Wall Street is trying to make it look like times are better than ever.

Zero prosecutions for financial fraud will do that.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:22 | 2703652 Donnie Duvanie
Donnie Duvanie's picture

I've heard of new math, but this is ridiculous.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:27 | 2703665 DOT
DOT's picture

Now we have Nuage Maths !

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:25 | 2703660 MFLTucson
MFLTucson's picture

This is telling as to why all the countries in the world are slowly turn againt our currency.  Everything we read is a lie or manipulated.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:39 | 2703693 FieldingMellish
FieldingMellish's picture

USA: The Goldman Sachs of nations.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:28 | 2703667 fresno dan
fresno dan's picture

C'mon - its just a slightly adjusted number...

Just like the seasnally adjusted happiness number.  Sure, your home is repossesed, your divorced now, your children are in cults, your unemployment has run out, your eating from dumpsters, and your living in an abandoned refrigerator, your health insurance has lapsed, so your treating your kidney dialysis yourself by running your blood through discarded coffee filters....BUT, SEASONALLY ADJUSTED, YOU HAVE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER!!!


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:43 | 2703712 TheBird
TheBird's picture

@Tyler: Two points.  First, it appears that there are additional corrections to the SA figures beyond the 'adjustment factors' you have linked to - a simple spreadsheet will show that there are consistently large "errors" between the reported SA figures and the 'expected' based upon NA/Adj Factor.    

Second, why are we even going crazy on a time series which admits to an error bar of 0.8%?  In most months this is larger than the reported change, ie the actual is just noise.


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:54 | 2703752 MachuPicchu
MachuPicchu's picture

Using econometric stuff just to multiply negative numbers. . of course: "- x - = +"

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:12 | 2703794 Shizzmoney
Shizzmoney's picture

I love how those on the street get excited over this "beat".  "It's a whole 0.03%!!!!111 ZOMG time to buy stocks!!1111"

What a lot of fucking suckers.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:16 | 2703818 poor fella
poor fella's picture

So Santelli does exactly what WE all do when a number comes out. We watch the boob-tube, think about how the number is full of shit, and then check out ZH to see what is really going on.

Nice Santelli plug - "'Tis the seasonal, as ZeroHedge points out [...] go check it out for yourselves".


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:36 | 2703883 Your Creator
Your Creator's picture

i didn't know baghdad bob could do statistics.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 12:18 | 2704012 bigfire
bigfire's picture

There are lies, damn lies and Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Guess which one the US Government went with.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 12:28 | 2704053 sasebo
sasebo's picture

Makes me think about the old wild west potion salesman selling from the back of a wagon. He decided to try to sell some rabbit pellets (aka rabbit shit) as "smart pills".

One day a customer came back & said "hey man, these pills taste just like rabbit shit". The old potion guy replied, "see they're working --- you're getting smart" 

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 14:01 | 2704408 Whoahthere
Whoahthere's picture

Hey . . . we're trying to win an election here!

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 19:24 | 2705319 rjs
rjs's picture

who changes their vote basis on one month's retail sales numbers?

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 14:56 | 2704629 dimakat
dimakat's picture

Just a minor correction, although the overall pooint still holds.  SA is multiplicative, not additive.  The average SA factor for July from 1992 through 2011 was 0.98796958.  This month's was 1.004829.  Using the average on this month's raw numbers gives a drop of 0.9% in Retail Sales.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 19:27 | 2705332 rjs
rjs's picture

do not seasonal adjustments under the X-12 ARIMA Program go back 5 years, with greater weighting for the most recent? so what did we lose in 07, how do 2010 & 2011 compare...

Thu, 08/23/2012 - 10:51 | 2730274 Jstanley011
Jstanley011's picture

Not surprising. I can't trust my old Ma' anymore neither.

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