The Ultimate Guide to Gold Trading

Why is Gold Valuable?

For thousands of years, gold has occupied a unique role in the financial systems of cultures worldwide. Unlike virtually every other commodity, gold has value far beyond its applications in industry. While business sectors including dentistry, electronics and jewelry use gold in their products, there is simply not enough commercial demand to explain the very high price markets assign to the yellow metal. However, the high price is no mystery. Since the beginning of civilization, humankind has viewed gold as a proxy for money and wealth. This reality has made it one of the most fascinating and misunderstood commodities.

How much gold has ever been mined?

The supply of above-ground gold is limited.

Gold deposits are difficult to find, and extracting the metal from gold mines is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Interestingly gold isn’t just in the ground, it is also in our oceans. Ocean waters hold approximately 20 million tons of gold, theoretically many times more than mankind has actually mined, however, each litre of seawater only contains, about 13 billionths of a gram of gold. Yes, billionths.

There is no getting away from the fact that gold is rare. Analysts estimate that the total supply of gold in the world is around 170,000 tonnes.

If all of this gold covered Centre Court at Wimbledon, it would rise just 9.8 meters above the ground.

Or to put it another way, if it was all melted, it would fit within an Olympic swimming pool with room to spare (as the picture below demonstrates).

All the gold in the World as one cube

All the gold ever mined if it were melted into a cube. Demonocracy

 

A (Brief) History of Gold

Please use the arrows below to scroll through the slides.

5000 BCE: First evidence of gold smelting

5000 BCE: First evidence of gold smelting

There is evidence of gold use dating all the way back to 40,000 BCE but the first evidence of gold smelting is from Ancient Egypt. The tombs of the first dynasty contain jewelry made entirely and partly from gold. Accounts of gold across the ancient world are commonplace and cultures from Europe to South America have all used gold for decorative or economic purposes. Gold held a special status in many ancient societies, with the Incas referring to gold as the “Tears of the sun”

1323 BCE: Tutankhamun buried with his mask

1323 BCE: Tutankhamun buried with his mask

When Tutankhamun died in 1323 he was buried with a golden mask. Tutankhamun’s mask represents one of the most famous works of art from the ancient world and demonstrates the skill of Egyptian goldsmiths. The mask is fashioned from two layers of high karat gold and weighs 22.6lbs (10.26KG). It is the same representation of Tutankhamun as found in the rest of the tomb and is a particularly detailed piece, inlaid with a variety coloured glass and precious gemstones. The mask was discovered by Howard Carter in 1925 and is currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Tutankhamun’s mask is one of the best representations of the value that gold held to ancient societies, not just as currency but also as a ritual and artistic artefact.

564 BCE: First international currency

564 BCE: First international currency

The first example of a standardised gold currency was supposedly created by the King of Lydia, Alyattes, and his son Croesus. The kings of Lydia minted coins called Croesids that had a standardised weight and gold content. The Croesids were the first in a series of internationally accepted coins with successors including; Roman aureus, Florentine Florins and Spanish pieces of eight. These coins often bore images of Kings or famous events and acted as a form of propaganda.

1380 to 1420: The Great Bullion Famine

1380 to 1420: The Great Bullion Famine

In the late medieval period the mines that supplied Europe’s precious metals had begun to run dry. Coin mints were unable to access the bullion they required and began to close across Europe. As circulating coins became damaged, lost or traded away European markets began to lose their liquidity. This had huge knock-on effects for the economy as merchants and ordinary people found it impossible to buy the goods they needed. Silver was particularly scarce and there was an increase in the number of small gold coins. The crisis finally came to an end with the discovery of new silver seams in 1420 but European monarchs began to seek out new sources of gold and silver in order to prevent another crisis from occuring in the future.

1441: First Gold from West Africa arrives in Portugal

1441: First Gold from West Africa arrives in Portugal

The Great Bullion Famine spurred European powers to find new sources of Gold and silver. The Portuguese began to seek new sources of gold in Africa. Portugal experienced its first success when Captain Antão Gonçalves returned from Guinea with gold in the hold of his ship. By 1445 Portugal was minting their first coins made from African gold. Portugal began to occupy the Gold Coast and by 1482 were shipping more than 25,000 ounces (708 kilos) of gold to Lisbon from Africa. African gold would later be supplemented by substantial discoveries in Latin America. The gold and silver reserves of the newly discovered continent were so rich that when Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage to America he mentioned the word “gold” 65 times in his ship’s log.

1848: California gold rush begins

1848: California gold rush begins

The California gold rush began on January 24th when James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s mill. Marshall discovered gold flakes in the American River while attempting to build a water powered sawmill for James Sutter. The discovery changed the region forever and over the next 7 years more than 300,000 people would come to California. The gold rush led to the development of advanced gold panning techniques and the first use of modern hydraulic mining. The California gold rush was followed by others, including the South African Witwatersrand gold rush in 1886 that led to the foundation of Johannesburg.

1873: Germany adopts gold standard

1873: Germany adopts gold standard

The United Kingdom was the first modern nation to adopt the Gold Specie standard. This is a form of gold standard where each currency unit is based on the value of a circulating gold coin. In 1717 Sir Isaac Newton established a new mint ratio that effectively put Birtain on a gold standard, this was made official in 1821. A number of other currencies followed suit but it was not until The German states adopted the German Gold Mark in 1873 that a World gold standard came into effect. Towards the end of the 19th century many nations had pegged their silver standard currencies to the gold standards of the United States and the United Kingdom.

1914: Outbreak of WW1 begins the end of the Gold standard

1914: Outbreak of WW1 begins the end of the Gold standard

The First World War prompted a number of nations to halt or limit gold exchanges and instead print paper money in order to fund military operations. This caused inflation to run rampant among the combatants. The United Kingdom reinstated a Gold Bullion standard in 1927 that removed gold coins from circulation and instead compelled the state to sell gold at a fixed price on demand. This stabilized the economy but led to deflation and ultimately contributed to the great depression. Speculation on the Sterling caused the Bank of England to lose much of their gold reserves and the gold standard was effectively abandoned by 1938. The events of the First World War and Interwar period laid bare the the risks posed by the inflexibility of the Gold Standard.

1933: Roosevelt bans US citizens from holding gold

1933: Roosevelt bans US citizens from holding gold

The Great Depression hit America particularly hard and following a series of bank closures a large number of its citizens had attempted to protect their wealth by purchasing gold. This practice threatened to overwhelm the Federal gold reserve and so President Roosevelt’s government took action. On April 5th 1933 Roosevelt then ordered that all gold coins and gold certificates worth more than $100 be compulsorily purchased by the Federal Government. This effectively made it illegal for private citizens to hold significant amounts of gold barring jewelry. Roosevelt continued by issuing an executive order in 1942 that closed all U.S goldmines. The ban on owning gold remained in effect until 1974 when President Gerald Ford signed legislation that allowed Americans to own gold bullion.

1944: Bretton Woods system

1944: Bretton Woods system

The Bretton Woods system was negotiated between the Allied powers at the Bretton Woods conference. The agreement was signed on the 22nd of July 1944.  Each member agreed to keep their currency exchange rates with 1% of each other using the gold backed US dollar. This kept the gold standard in place but removed the ability to convert currency to gold domestically. This reduced the risk of the rampant currency devaluation seen in the interwar period. The agreement remained in place until Nixon ended the American gold standard in 1971.

1961: First Gold in space

1961: First Gold in space

On the 12th of April 1961 the Soviet Union succeeded in launching the first manned spaceflight. This spaceflight also marked the moment that gold was first used in spaceflight. The unique radiation shielding properties of gold has made it invaluable to space programmes around the World. Since 1961 gold has been used to shield electronics and protect them from high levels of background radiation. It also coats the visor on an astronauts helmet and helps to prevent the radiation and light from damaging their eyesight.

1971: Nixon ends gold standard

1971: Nixon ends gold standard

In 1971 it was becoming clear that despite the efforts to save it, the Bretton Wood system was no longer fit for purpose. The value of foreign held US dollars exceeded the value of US gold reserves, leaving America vulnerable to a rush on gold. This led to Nixon taking the extreme action of closing the gold window. Nixon’s actions made it impossible to exchange US dollars for Gold, turning it into a fiat currency. Other nations quickly moved to free-floating currencies and the gold standard was ended.

1999: Central Bank Gold Agreement

1999: Central Bank Gold Agreement

On the 26th September 1991 in Washington D.C the first Central Bank Gold Agreement was signed. 15 European central banks agreed to limit their collective gold sales to 2,000 tonnes over the next five years. The signatory banks accounted for around 45% of global gold reserves and the agreement was designed to prevent mass sales that could destabilize the gold market and drive the price down. Follow-up agreements have been signed every five years with the most recent being in 2014

2009: Bitcoin attempts to create a virtual gold standard

2009: Bitcoin attempts to create a virtual gold standard

Created by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoti Bitcoin represents the first attempt to create a digital currency. Often referred to as “digital gold” Bitcoin was designed to closely resemble gold and shares a number of features with the gold standard. Each coin is produced in a predictable manner and there is a limit to the total number of coins that can ever be produced. Bitcoins proponents have argued that this similarity to gold will ensure that Bitcoin will eventually replace fiat currency although there are many skeptics who argue that Bitcoin is little more than a pyramid scheme.

2011: Gold price reachs highest point in history

2011: Gold price reachs highest point in history

Despite starting at just $1,400 in the new year by mid-2011 gold prices reached a record high of $1,900 per ounce. This huge price increase was largely fueled by fears of governments devaluing their currency in order to service increasingly large national debts, with traders viewing gold as a safe haven.

Where does gold come from?

Miners extract gold from the ground on every continent except Antarctica.  The largest producers of gold historically include the following countries:

World's Biggest Gold Producing Countries

 

Top 10 Gold Producing Countries

For many years, South Africa was the dominant gold producer of the world now it struggles to maintain its position in the top 10 as countries with a far larger surface area such as China and Russia have overtaken them.
RankFlagCountryAnnual Production (metric tons)
#1Flag of ChinaChina455
#2Flag of AustraliaAustralia270
#3Flag of RussiaRussia250
#4Flag of USAUnited States of America209
#5Flag of CanadaCanada170
#6Flag of PeruPeru150
#7Flag of South AfricaSouth Africa140
#8Flag of MexicoMexico125
#9Flag of IndonesiaIndonesia100
#10Flag of UzbekistanUzbekistan100

Which Countries Have the Most Gold?

These are the officially reported figures (correct as of November 2017) of gold reserves held by each country.
It is worth remembering that Central Banks don't typically allow independent audits therefore the "real" figures may be significantly higher or lower than the figures below. There is speculation that China and Russia in particular have been buying up significant gold reserves in recent years.
RankCountryAmount of Gold (tonnes)
#1USA8,134
#2Germany3,374
#3Italy2,452
#4France2,436
#5China1,843

The 4 Main Uses of Gold

After it is mined, refiners process gold into bars and sell them. Buyers then transform these gold bars into items such as coins, jewelry and electronic components, or they store the bars and hold them as an investment.

As with supply, gold market demand is also international and includes a variety of different industries and traders. Fast-growing Asian economies including India and China have increased their demand for gold in recent years.

Four groups comprise the major demand components for gold:

Use of GoldDescription
JewelryThis industry fabricates gold into watches, rings, earrings and necklaces among other items. Jewelry manufacturers have been a mainstay of gold demand for centuries.
TechnologyBecause gold conducts electricity and does not tarnish, many industries use gold in their products. Connectors, switches and relay contacts on cell phones contain gold, for example, as do CPU memory chips and motherboards. Gold is also used in salts to treat arthritis patients and on space vehicles to reflect radiation.
Private InvestorsIndividuals and investment funds that want protection from inflation and market crises view gold as a way to preserve wealth. Investment demand for gold manifests itself through the purchases of gold bars, coins and funds that invest in the metal.
Central Banks & Sovereign Wealth FundsMost central banks and sovereign wealth funds hold gold reserves. Although none of the major world economies has a formal gold standard, many countries including the US, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and China hold substantial gold reserves as a way to instill confidence in their fiat currencies.

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What Is The Spot Price of Gold Today?

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What Drives The Price of Gold?

According to the World Gold Council, annual volume of gold production has tripled each year since the early 1970s, while the amount of gold purchased each year has quadrupled. The price of gold has risen from $45.75 in 1972, the first year private ownership of gold became legal again, to its levels today.

There are several common factors that typically move the price of gold:

  1. Supply and demand
  2. Central bank policies
  3. Economic data
  4. Demand for financial instruments that invest in gold

Supply and Demand

As with any commodity, the balance between output and market demand determines price levels. When supply levels diminish, prices tend to go up. Factors such as political unrest in countries with large gold mining projects or increases in mining input costs (such as the price of oil) can constrain supply. On the other hand, discoveries of new gold deposits or declines in input costs can increase supply. One factor that consistently affects supply is the price of gold itself. When gold prices increase, mining gold becomes more profitable, so more supply comes on to the market. The opposite happens when prices decline. Similarly, changes in demand from industry, traders, central banks or sovereign wealth funds can move gold prices.

Central Bank Policies

The actions of central banks can have a big impact on gold prices in two ways. First of all, central banks make decisions to contract or grow the money supply in their countries. These decisions ultimately drive investment demand for gold since fiat currencies (e.g., US dollar and euro) compete with gold as a store of value and a form of money. Secondly, central banks hold large gold reserves. Their decisions to accumulate or sell reserves can move the gold market.

Fort Knox inside gold vault

Inside gold vault at Fort Knox via Pixabay

Economic Data

Economic data, particularly in the United States, can impact gold prices. Because the US dollar is generally viewed as the world’s reserve currency, weak employment or GDP numbers, for example, often result in a weaker dollar against other currencies. Typically, gold benefits from US dollar weakness as it is a competing form of money.

Demand for financial instruments that invest in gold

Investment instruments such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs) represent an increasingly important segment of gold investing. Most gold ETFs purchase physical gold and store it for their traders although some ETFs invest in gold futures, options or other gold derivative products. Demand for these instruments can impact gold prices.

4 Reasons You Might Invest in Gold

Investors purchase gold for a variety of reasons, but the following are the most common ones:

  1. Hedge against inflation
  2. Hedge against global instability
  3. Speculate on demand growth
  4. Portfolio diversification

Hedge Against Inflation and Weak US Dollar

Gold represents a viable way to hedge against weakness in the largest global economy – the United States. Global interdependence means that US economic weakness is likely to spill over into other economies. When faced with such weakness, central banks typically react by lowering interest rates and increasing the money supply. When these remedies fail to spur demand, they can lead to significant inflation and loss of purchasing power. Unlike fiat currencies, gold maintains its purchasing power in periods of inflation.

Hedge Against Global Instability

Gold generally performs well during global crises. Wars, terrorist attacks and pandemics, for example, often produce a flight to safety. Gold generally benefits at the expense of other assets during turbulent times.

Speculate on Demand Growth

Investors optimistic about the economic prospects of developing nations such as China and India may see gold investing as a way to profit from this view. Gold has played an important role historically in these countries, and more wealth will likely translate into more demand for gold.

Portfolio Diversification

Many traders view gold as a way to balance their investments. Historically, gold has a lower correlation to many asset classes, which makes it an attractive instrument to diversify.

Gold as an Investment Explained

Think of investing in gold as a four-tiered pyramid, with the safest tier as your foundation (at the bottom) and then the risk (and reward potential) rises as you climb upward on the pyramid.

  1. Insurance – gold bullion in your possession.
  2. Investment / Savinggold bullion on deposit, gold certificates, allocated gold accounts.
  3. Investmentproducing gold mining company shares, gold ETFs.
  4. Speculationgold CFDs, gold explorer shares, gold futures, gold options.

pyramid to explain gold as an investment

Should I Invest in Gold?

The following is not investment advice, it’s intended for information only. We lay out a number of the reasons for and against investing or trading gold, it is up to you to make up your mind or seek professional advice.

As with any investment, there are both risks and rewards to investing in gold. Investors should consider gold for its risk mitigation potential. In the case of both economic calamities and geopolitical turmoil, gold may provide portfolio protection. For this reason, traders might consider investing at least a small portion of their assets in gold.

Gold also offers traders a way to cash in on strength in emerging markets. Many emerging economies have experienced long periods of economic and political instability. Citizens in many of these countries have probably experienced devaluations in their local currencies and are less likely to trust fiat currencies. As wealth expands in these economies, so too should demand for gold. Investors who want exposure to growth in emerging economies without investing in local stock and bond markets in these countries should consider gold.

Investing in gold, however, is not without risks. Strength in the US dollar and fiscal hawkishness from central banks may lead to significant price declines for gold. A slowdown in China and India or large sales of gold reserves by central banks could also cause the price to head lower. Finally, traders should consider that gold is a commodity that is subject to the whims of the market. If trader sentiment toward gold sours, the price will head lower.

Never invest more than you can afford to lose.

What Do The Experts Think About Gold?

Investment experts have divided opinions on gold investing.

Legendary trader Warren Buffett holds a longstanding negative opinion of gold.  Buffett argues that gold doesn’t have earnings or pay dividends and is therefore inferior to stocks.

Warren Buffett on gold

“Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”

Warren Buffett – on why he doesn’t invest in gold

Buffett has a simple tenet when it comes to picking winning securities.  “All there is to investing,” he says, “is picking good stocks at good times and staying with them as long as they remain good companies.” Sticking with that philosophy, Buffett’s results speak for themselves. A $10,000 investment in Berkshire Hathaway in 1965 would be worth nearly $50 million today.

But one investment Buffett won’t stash in his portfolio is gold, a stance that has vexed gold bugs for decades.

Gold has most of the value components Buffett likes to see in each of his portfolio holdings.

  1. Exposure to a high-quality, growth-oriented investment
  2. Protection against economic volatility
  3. Leverage in gaining quick cash liquidity

Famed hedge fund manager Jim Rogers has long argued that every trader should hold physical gold coins in their portfolio as a hedge against the collapse of other assets.

Superstar hedge fund manager George Soros has often held positions in gold mining stocks. Soros and hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller see irresponsible actions by the Federal Reserve Bank as a reason to hold gold assets.

How to Trade & Invest Gold

Gold traders have several ways to invest in the commodity:

Gold Trading & Investing Methods Compared

Method of InvestingComplexity Rating (1 = easy, 5 = hard)Storage CostsSecurity CostsExpiration DateManagement CostLeverageRegulated
Gold Bullion1YESYESNONONONO
CFDs3NONONONOYESYES
Futures5NONOYESNOYESYES
Options5NONOYESNOYESYES
ETFs2YES*YESNOYESNO**YES
Shares2NONONONOYESYES

*Storage costs are passed on to traders in the form of management fees.

**Some metals ETFs offer exposure to 2x or 3x the movement in gold prices.

Gold Bullion

One way to speculate on the price of gold is to hold physical gold bullion such as bars or coins. While this is the most direct way to invest in gold, investing in bullion requires a secure storage facility. Ultimately, the cost of this storage could make holding physical gold an expensive proposition.

Here are some online gold bullion dealers you might consider:

  1. BullionVault.com
  2. JMBullion.com
  3. APMEX.com
  4. Moneymetals.com

Gold CFDs

There is a way to trade gold that is superior in many ways to the alternative discussed in this guide. Through a derivative instrument known as a contract for difference (CFD), traders can speculate on gold prices without actually owning physical gold, mining shares or financial instruments such as ETFs, futures or options.

The value of a CFD is the difference between the price of gold at the time of purchase and the current price. In other words, the value of a CFD increases as the price of gold increases, but falls when gold prices decline.

CFD traders open an account with a regulated broker and deposit funds. The funds serve as margin against the change in the value of the CFD.  Investing in CFDs does not require the trader to pay for gold storage or roll futures contracts forward every month. Traders also don’t have to worry about getting the timing and size of markets move correct in order to profit on their trades.

CFDs are still high-risk financial instruments however and your capital is at risk so you should be an experienced trader or seek out a broker that offers a demo account to allow you to develop your knowledge in advance of risking real money.

Top 3 Gold CFD Brokers

BrokerOur RatingThe GoodThe BadMax Leverage on Gold**Sign UpRead Review
plus500logo
www.plus500.com
Tight spreads on gold*, easy to use platform.No phone support, only email and live chat.1:300Start TradingPlus500 Review

www.eToro.com
Easily copy leading traders.$25 withdrawal fee is quite high compared to other brokers.1:100Start TradingeToro Review
markets.comlogo
www.markets.com
Great technical analysis features.Wider spreads on gold compared with other brokers.*1:200Start TradingMarkets.com Review

*The spread is the difference between the buy and sell price of a financial instrument. A lower or “tighter” spread is better for the trader, a higher or “wider” spread generally means the broker is making more on the trade.

**Leverage magnifies the size of a trade. For example, a $100 balance leveraged by 1:20 increases to $2000. Leverage can be dangerous but responsible brokers like Plus500 also have leading risk management tools to mitigate some of these risks.

Gold CFD trading at Plus500

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Gold Futures

These gold trading derivative instruments allow traders to speculate on the future price of gold through the purchase of exchange-traded contracts.

Futures markets offer traders a liquid and leveraged way to trade gold. However, leverage can lead to margin calls when prices decline. Also, futures contracts come with definite expiration dates. This requires the trader to either accept delivery of gold or roll the contract forward to the next month. In other words, trading futures requires active and onerous maintenance of positions.

Gold Options

Like futures, options are a leveraged derivative instrument for trading gold. However, options traders must be correct on the timing and the size of the market move to make money on a trade. Options traders may find that they were right about the direction of the gold market and still lost money on their trade.

Gold ETFs

While ETFs may seem like perfect proxy for investing in gold, traders should be aware of their considerable risks and costs. Many ETFs invest in gold futures or options, which have the risks outlined above. As for the ETFs that invest in gold itself, these funds incur same storage and security costs just as individuals do. Ultimately, these costs get passed on to the trader.

Finally, ETFs are financial instruments that trade like stocks. When stock markets decline, ETFs are not immune from the same pressures that drag stocks down. Investors may find that their investment in gold is behaving more like a stock investment.

Here are some leading gold ETFs (based on assets under management):

Top 5 Gold ETFs by Assets Under Management

SPDR Gold TrustiShares Gold TrustETFS Physical Swiss Gold SharesPowerShares DB Gold FundVan Eck Merk Gold Trust


Top 5 Gold Stocks by Market Capitalization

Purchasing shares in exploration and mining companies supposedly allows traders to make a leveraged bet on the price of gold. In theory, many of the costs of running a mining company are fixed. Therefore, as the price of gold increases, the additional revenues should flow to the bottom line in the form of profits. Markets assign a multiple to these profits, so in bull markets traders should make more money from owning shares.

The flaw in this argument, however, is that gold prices rarely rise in a vacuum. When the price of gold increases, usually oil and other commodities needed to run a mining company rise as well. In fact, mining shares have rarely if ever outperformed gold prices during bull markets.

Here are a few leading gold explorer and mining stocks:
 Current PriceOverviewListingsFoundedNumber of EmployeesInteresting Fact
Barrick Gold
Largest gold mining company in the World, headquartered in Toronto.Toronto (TSX)
New York (NYSE)
198311,000Originally founded as an oil and gas company.
Newmont Mining
US gold mining company based in Colorado.New York (NYSE)191634,000Newmont is the only gold company in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index
Polyus Gold
Russian gold mining company headquartered in Moscow.London (LSE)
Moscow (MCX)
20064000The largest gold miner in Russia.
AngloGold Ashanti
Johannesburg based global miner and explorer.Johannesburg (JSE)
New York (NYSE)
Sydney (ASX)
200462,000The company has 17 mines in 9 countries.
Newcrest Mining
Australia's leading gold mining company.Sydney (ASX)19661,500Originally a subsidiary of the Newmont Mining Company.

Further Reading

Lawrence Pines is a Princeton University graduate with more than 25 years of experience as an equity and foreign exchange options trader for multinational banks and proprietary trading groups. Mr. Pines has traded on the NYSE, CBOE and Pacific Stock Exchange. In 2011, Mr. Pines started his own consulting firm through which he advises law firms and investment professionals on issues related to trading, and derivatives. Lawrence has served as an expert witness in a number of high profile trials in US Federal and international courts.
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