Horror at a New York Art Gallery

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Lolling about in the upmarket precincts of New York’s SoHo district recently, we chanced upon a ghastly scene…

A young, voguish couple in an art gallery… at close quarters with a square of canvas on the wall.

On that canvas was a carnage of what we assumed to be paint.

We suspected at once that a gorilla had broken loose from the Bronx Zoo… stumbled onto the gallery by way of the 5 train… and set to work with a violent abandon.

In respect of decorum and all things holy… we describe this work of “art” no further.

But to proceed…

A tall, slim man in a dark suit stands off to one side of the gallery, studiously indifferent to our young voguish couple… as if the couple’s presence was merely so much in the day’s work.

Yet he fixes them with furtive glances every 30 seconds or so. No. Maybe 20.

This fellow completes the characters of our scene…

Are these two actually considering buying that thing? we ask in silence.

Answering our own question:

No, no, they must be simply looking for the shock value, much like passersby at a road accident… or a child gawking a fellow who’s missing an ear or a leg. Nobody in their right mind would actually

But wait…

The couple approaches the man in the suit, who pretends to be startled by their approach.

The couple wheels about, indicating the obscenity on the far wall…

A few moments of animated conversation ensue, spiced with with hand gestures and head nods…

Then smiles. Handshakes.

The female of our tale adds a word of comment, followed by a bellowing laugh from the man in the suit…

All three approach the counter. A hand, the other fellow’s, reaches into a rear pocket…

We steal a voyeuristic glance at the price tag hanging from the simian treasure.

The cost? The cost? We’re tempted to say… but must refrain in decency.

We glance back at the counter…

More smiles. More handshakes.

Feeling somewhat dirty, as if emerging from a show of burlesque in the small hours… we set out to hunt a desperately needed drink, chin on chest… reflecting on the foregoing.

“Can you believe they just spent that… for that?”

Homo economicus can be the most splendidly irrational creature sometimes.

Think tulips. Think houses. Think stocks…

Think art.

That’s why we believe the greatest economic insights will always elude the dead hand of the statistician.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” as Hamlet reflected.

Or your economics, he may have added.

What compelled our young couple to venture upon such an atrocity this blue day in New York City?

We’ll never know. But it is not our place to.

Oscar Wilde famously scolded those “who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Are we among them? We’re alert to that possibility.

For the sake of this couple, we hope so.

But in this case… it is unlikely…

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

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Fine Art’s Worth More Than Its Weight in Gold

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I believe fine art has a place in investors portfolio.

I do a lot of work for the U.S. intelligence community, trying to thwart terrorist finance and transnational actors, as we call them. This includes money laundering, smuggling and arms dealing. This work has made me very familiar with the weight of different forms of wealth.

Assuming you have $100s in a briefcase, you’re going to need a 22-pound briefcase if you want to move $1 million paper in $100 bills.

Gold actually weighs more than that. I like gold as an investment, obviously, but as a store of wealth it’s heavy. Art isn’t.

That’s the funny thing about art, if you think of it in terms of weight. If you have a $100 million painting that weighs a couple pounds, and if you take it out of the frame, roll it up and put it in a backpack, it could be worth $500,000 per ounce.

And it won’t set off metal detectors. So fine art is a a very mobile form of wealth. You get very good weight for value, much more than cash, much more than gold, and it’s easy to move around.

Most people don’t like to think about what would happen if they have to pack up and leave their home. But if they do, a valuable, recognizable museum-quality painting is a much easier way to move wealth around than gold or cash.

If for whatever reason the banking system shuts down, or if there’s a power grid outage, and you’ve got to get on the move, art is a good way to take a lot of money with you in the palm of your hand.

That’s one good reason why I think of art as a good store of wealth.

But how do you get into this market given the high valuations? A multi-millionaire can go out and spend $135 million on a Picasso, hang it on his wall or puts it in a vault. But most people can’t pay $135 million, so what do you do? How can you be in this market at a different price point relative to everyone’s portfolio?

You can. But if you want to be a buyer of art, you need to exercise a lot of care, do a lot of diligence, educate yourself and deal with reputable people.

But there is another way to do it, which is to invest in an art fund. You’d be investing a lot of money, say $500,000. These are not things you can invest in at a retail level — I’m not aware of any art funds that you can buy for $10,000.

But for $500,000 or something in that range, you can invest in an art fund. Like any fund, the sponsors and the manager are going to pool the resources of different investors to go out and buy art. And when they sell the art, you’ll get your share.

Now, you’ve got to do due diligence. You might not be diligent on individual pieces, but you must do the due diligence on the fund structure, the manager, what they’re doing with your money, et cetera. Plus, there are good funds and bad funds. And when I say bad, there are conflicts of interest.

Some funds are sponsored by dealers. The dealer manages the fund but on the other hand, the dealer probably has artists that he sponsors or has an inventory. So you’re in a situation where your investing dollars are being used to finance the dealer’s inventory. He’s getting first dibs and you’re getting the dregs, so to speak.

It’s like those Hollywood film deals. People like to invest in these limited partnerships that finance Hollywood films, but somehow they never get Spiderman. They always get the one that’s in the DVD rack at Costco.

But there are excellent funds where those conflicts don’t exist, where the sponsor is not a dealer. They have their own money in the fund, and everyone’s interests are aligned. But you need to look for other things.

For example, is there a mark to market or fee back provision? What that means is, if it’s a five-year fund and the art goes up in the first year, the appraiser comes in at the end of the first year.

He might say, “This art is now more valuable based on my appraisal,” and the manager takes a fee based on that value. But if year four comes and somehow the art’s worth less, they don’t return the fee.

That’s a conflict. So you want a fund where the manager doesn’t take any fees until you get paid. That would be a fund where you put your money in, then wait four years until they sell the art. Then the manager gets his fee and you get your share.

That’s fair because the manager deserves a fee for the performance, but you want it so that he doesn’t get paid until you get paid.

So you have to look for those kinds of features. Those are all design features that are in the offering document. I realize not everybody’s an expert. I don’t want to give legal advice on this call, but those are the kinds of things you need to think about when investing in art.

There are funds out there that pass all those tests — where there’s an alignment of interest and where the sponsor’s not a dealer. That way they’re not taking fees until the art’s actually sold and everyone gets their share at the same time. There’s one in particular that I’m aware of.

It’s called the 20th Century Master’s Collection. I’ll be talking about that more in the future in my newsletter, in Strategic Intelligence. But those are the kinds of things you want to look for. And the fund I mentioned has an interesting feature.

Let’s say you put in, say, $500,000. You’d pool that money with others. The whole fund might be $40 million, or $50 million or upwards of $100 million. They can go out with, say, a $50 million checkbook and buy $1 million, $2 million pieces. They actually have what’s called a rotation where those pieces can be loaned to the investors.

They’ll come to your house and install it with expert installers. Then they’ll come back a year later and maybe install another piece. There are some requirements — you can’t smoke, you need an alarm system, etc. But that’s optional.

My point is, for a $500,000 investment, you can have a $1 million or $2 million museum-quality piece on your wall for your enjoyment and the enjoyment of your friends. It’s on loan from the fund, so it goes back into the fund eventually. But it’s an extra little perk that some of these funds have.

So there are different ways to participate in fine art. You can buy it directly or you can participate through a fund. It’s important to know that, for the fund, it’s like private equity. When you buy in, your money’s going to be locked up for four or five years. Again, you have to read the offering document carefully.

So don’t put any money into it that you’re going to need for the kids’ college education next year. These are not liquid investments, but if you’re looking four or five years ahead, they are good investments in a highly uncertain environment.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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The “Chuck Prince Market” Redux — Only More Dangerous

This post The “Chuck Prince Market” Redux — Only More Dangerous appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

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On July 10, 2007 former Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince famously said what might be termed the “speculator’s creed” for the current era of Bubble Finance. Prince was then canned within four months but as of that day his minions were still slamming the”buy” key good and hard:

“When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing,” he said in an interview with the FT in Japan.

We are at that moment again. Only this time the danger of a thundering crash is far greater. That’s because the current blow-off top comes after nine years of even more central bank policy than Greenspan’s credit and housing bubble.

The Fed and its crew of traveling central banks around the world have gutted honest price discovery entirely. They have turned global financial markets into outright gambling dens of unchecked speculation.

Central bank policies of massive quantitative easing (QE) and zero interest rates (ZIRP) have been sugar-coated in rhetoric about “stimulus”, “accommodation” and guiding economies toward optimal levels of inflation and full-employment.

The truth of the matter is far different. The combined $15 trillion of central bank balance sheet expansion since 2007 amounts to monetary fraud of epic proportions.

The massive injection of fiat credit has drastically falsified prices in the debt and money markets. Through the channels of cap rates, carry trades and corporate financial engineering, the prices of equities and all other risk assets, have been falsified too.

20 Years of Massive Central Bank Bond Buying

Bond and stock prices are way too high, and that reality has infected the very foundations of the financial system. Like the hapless Chuck Prince last time, today’s traders and robo-machines have lost all contact with the fundamentals of corporate performance, macroeconomic outlooks and the political risks of a Washington.

Traders today are just dancing – blindly. That’s why the Russell 2000 hit 1442 the other day, capitalizing the earnings of small and mid-cap domestic companies at 87.5 times.

That’s crazy in its own right. As measured by valued added output of the U.S. business sector, the main street economy – where most of these companies live — has expanded at a tepid 2.1%  annual rate since 2002. By contrast, the RUT index has increased by 10% per annum since then.

At the same time, the level of speculation in the hyper-momentum tech stocks is even more stunning.

We are in the blow-off stage of the Fed’s third and greatest bubble of this century. Yet the stock market has narrowed drastically during the last thirty months, as is typical of a speculative mania. This narrowing means that the price-earnings ratio (PE) among the handful of big winners have soared.

FAANGs and Bubble Finance

In the case of  the so-called “FAANGs + M” (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Microsoft), the group’s weighted average PE multiple has increased by 50%.

That’s caused the market cap of these six super-momentum stocks to soar from $1.7 trillion to $3.1 trillion during the period or by 82%.

The combined earnings of the group have grown by just 20%. 75% of this huge gain in market cap is attributable to multiple expansion, not operating performance.

The degree to which the casino’s speculative mania has been concentrated in the FAANGs + M  can also be seen by contrasting them with the other 494 stocks in the S&P 500. The market cap of the index as a whole rose from $17.7 trillion in January 2015 to $21.2 trillion at present, meaning that the FAANGs + M account for 40% of the entire gain!

If this concentrated gain in a handful of stocks sounds familiar that’s because this rodeo has been held before. The Four Horseman of Tech (Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and Intel) at the turn of the century saw their market cap soar from $850 billion to $1.65 trillion or by 94% during the manic months before the dotcom peak.

At the March 2000 peak, Microsoft’s PE multiple was 60 times, Intel’s was 50 times and Cisco’s hit 200 times. Those nosebleed valuations were really not much different than Facebook today at 40, Amazon at 190 and Netflix at 217 times PE.

The point is, even great companies do not escape drastic over-valuation during the blow-off stage of bubble peaks.

That spectacular collapse was not due to a meltdown of their sales and profits. Like the FAANGs +M today, the Four Horseman were quasi-mature, big cap companies that never really stopped growing.

For example, Cisco’s revenues have increased from $15 billion to $50 billion annually during the last 17 years and its net income has tripled to $10 billion. Yet Cisco’s market cap today is just $160 billion or only 30% of its 17-years ago bubble peak.

The reason is PE normalization. In this case, the company’s hideously inflated 200 times PE multiple imploded with the tech crash. It now stands at 15 times PE.

Amazon and the Chuck Prince Market Redux

Amazon is now set for that kind of PE implosion during this cycle. It’s stock price doubled from $285 per share in January 2015 to $575 by October of that year; and then it doubled again to $1026 in the 20 months since.

Along the way it picked up a hefty $350 billion in added market cap. That’s nearly $12 billion of value gain per month!

Amazon is now 24 years-old, not a start-up; and it hasn’t invented anything explosively new like the iPhone or personal computer. Yes, it is taking retail market share by leaps and bounds, but that’s inherently a one-time gain that can’t be capitalized to infinity.

Indeed, 91% of its sales involves sourcing, moving, storing and delivering goods — a sector of the economy that has grown by just 2.2% annually in nominal dollars for the last decade.

Amazon embodies the speculative mania of the current market. It is simply ludicrous to put a multiple of 190 times PE on a company that runs a profitless $130 billion e-Commerce sales juggernaut.

Even as its stock price has tripled during the last 30 months, AMZN has experienced two sharp drawdowns of 28% and 12%, respectively. As shown in the first chart below, both times it plunged to its 200-day moving average in a matter of a few weeks.

A similar drawdown to its 200-day moving average today would result in an immediate 16% sell-off. But when, not if, the broad market plunges into a long overdue correction the ultimate drop will exceed that by a greater magnitude.

200-day Moving Average Amazon

In the meanwhile, the market mindlessly melts-up because the Fed has destroyed all of Wall Street’s natural forces of financial discipline. Eight years of central bank money printing and intrusion have destroyed short-sellers and caused day-traders and robo-machines to be wired to buy every dip.

Never mind about the gong show in Washington. Or even the fact that the Keynesian economists in the Fed’s Eccles Building does actually intend to normalize rates and shrink the Fed’s balance sheet.

The talking heads wandering around Wall Street have come to the delusional belief that the bubble can live forever without help from Washington or the Fed.

With only a small share of companies having reported, LTM earnings for the S&P 500 have already dropped below $105 per share on a GAAP basis. That’s still below the $106 per share posted way back in September 2014 and barely above the $100 per share reported in 2013.

What Earning Growth Oil Material Busy Cycling

Make no mistake, this is the Chuck Prince Market Redux. Only the daredevils and Wall Street dancing machines would dare buy the S&P 500 at 25 times PE, the Russell 2000 at 88 times PE, Amazon at 190 times PE.

For everyone else, the present blow-off top is surely a godsend.

Never has there been a better opportunity to get out of harm’s way, nor a clearer warning that a thundering crash is waiting just around the bend.

Regards,
David Stockman
for The Daily Reckoning

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Japan’s Shifting Power Alliances

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I’ve just wrapped up a long trip to Japan. And I’ve taken away one lesson from all of my conversations, speeches and research: The rise of nationalism in the U.S. will cause massive shifts in global trade alliances.

One of the main beneficiaries will be Japan. Now, Japan might not be on your radar, day-to-day, but it’s about to play a very important role in the world of Donald Trump.

Here’s what I mean…

During President Trump’s campaign, he often discussed making “better” trade deals for the United States with its partners.

Indeed, one of his first executive orders as President on January 23, 2017 involved removing the U.S. from the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, or TPP. That agreement originally involved 12 countries including the U.S.

Now, TPP is left with 11: Japan, Mexico, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The TPP’s member countries account for 40 percent of global GDP, 20 percent of global trade, and 11.3 percent of the world’s population. It will still likely go ahead without the U.S., which will put America at a trading disadvantage.

However, this offers Japan good news for future trade and projects. Japan is well positioned to benefit both from existing alliances with the U.S. and growing ones in the rest of the world, particularly with China and the EU.

Another key agreement, called the RCEP, also excludes the U.S. but includes Japan. It represents 16 countries that account for almost half the world’s population, contribute 24% percent of global GDP and over a quarter of world exports.

RCEP

The countries are Japan, Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The economic and population growth rates of the RCEP countries far outpaces that of the U.S. and EU.

This trend of non-U.S. trade alliances is more pronounced than ever for three reasons: First, because of the United Kingdom vote for Brexit last summer, which cast into flux the future trade and capital flows between the U.K. and its trading partners.

The second reason is the Trump doctrine of bilateral rather than multi-lateral trade agreements. Taking the U.S. out of critical multilateral contention during an intense period of international re-alignment means more economic opportunity for other budding alliances as well as a long-term power shift.  This would benefit Japan.

Finally, there is the ongoing West to East shift of power and influence. Since the Federal Reserve and its cohorts at the ECB and BOJ embarked upon quantitative easing, or asset buying to bolster the markets, debt to GDP levels in those areas jumped as well. Respectively, they are 90.1 percent for the ECB, 104.3 percent for the U.S., and 250.4 percent for Japan).

Nomi Prins Canon Institute for Global Studies

Nomi Prins delivering a speech to Canon Institute for Global Studies in Japan. Canon is a prestigious think tank populated with former government and central bank officials, and academics.

Pushback, particularly from China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, has resulted in the yuan’s inclusion into the IMF’s special drawing right, or SDR. This is a way of securing currency flows and challenging the world’s main reserve currency, the U.S. dollar.

Japan stands ready to benefit from both its existing relationship with the U.S. and its involvement with China, the EU and other regional agreements.

All that said, the U.S. and Japan still represent about 30 percent of global GDP. With so much in flux worldwide and in Asia, their combined strength and diplomatic ties could prove more fruitful for both countries if translated quickly to real infrastructure building and development projects. These could create long-term demand for knowledge, supplies and jobs.

New Infrastructure Projects for Japan

The last time I was in Tokyo was a week after the U.S. election when I addressed the Tokyo stock exchange. There was much interest from the Japanese as to what the Trump presidency would mean for Japan, particularly in the areas of defense and trade.

Six months into Trump’s administration, that interest remains acute. In February, President Trump addressed military and defense, saying he is committed to “the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control.”

This was a victory for Abe, who came to Washington to develop a sense of trust with Trump and a solidification of the post-WWII U.S.-Japan alliance.

A White House statement confirmed policy continuity, noting, “Amid an increasingly difficult security environment in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States will strengthen its presence in the region, and Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities in the alliance.”

From the standpoint of joint infrastructure projects, there are other, nearer term synergies that are also attractive investment opportunities.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, there have been two official visits between President Trump and Prime Minister Abe. Trump has not been to Japan as President yet but it’s rumored that he has a trip planned for November.

Meanwhile, the two leaders just met at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Before that meeting, Japan and the EU signed a historic, free trade agreement that will greatly increase trade and coordination between the two regions.

This is yet another sign about how eager Japan is to take a bigger position on the world stage. As the U.S. adopts a more nationalist tone to trade, major trading partners like Japan are looking for more regional capacity building. By diversifying international agreements, Japan could solidify its security while re-establishing itself as a reemerging Asian powerhouse.

Japan is also eager to get more involved in major infrastructure projects around the world. Just last week, the Japanese government set a new goal for Japan Inc., a network of corporate allegiances supporting construction, labor, and jobs. The goal is to export 30 trillion yen ($268 billion) worth of infrastructure packages by 2020.

According to its just-released draft plans, Japan Inc. will seek involvement in infrastructure projects over multiple phases, spanning development through post-completion, providing on-the-ground ongoing operational, maintenance, personnel training and consulting services.

Japan Inc. plans are multinational. The group, or its participating companies, could target India to get involved in the development of bullet trains and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for high-speed rail systems and non-public transportation projects.

Japan Emerges in High-Speed Competition

Japan, Inc. also launched a competitive move against China for a high-speed train from Malaysia to Thailand. This is a 350-kilometer link project, worth about $14 billion. Winning that, or a portion of that contract, could prove a boon for Japanese construction and engineering companies.

The winning company would be responsible for the design and construction of the railway systems, including tracks, power, signaling and telecommunications. The train will have a maximum operating speed of 320 kilometers per hour and cut travel time between the capitals to 90 minutes, compared with nearly five hours by car.

But there’s more. Japan, Inc. is also angling for the U.S. maglev train project. The initial leg is estimated at $10 billion to build — the Japan Bank of International Cooperation has offered to pay half of the cost.

Reuters (CNBC) reported on Feb. 3 that Tokyo had proposed an investment package for Trump that could generate 700,000 U.S. jobs and help create a $450 billion market. The proposal was in line with Abe’s strategy of promoting Japanese high-tech exports and expertise overseas.

Reuters sources also noted that Japan was proposing to invest 17 trillion yen (US$150 billion) in public and private funds in the U.S. over the next decade.

Japan’s main regional competitor, China, has also been gaining momentum on regional and international projects. Japan has missed some bids there, but it has the opportunity to use its unique favored-nation position with the U.S., and as a major partner in the ASEAN and RCEP agreements, to be well-placed to pick up fresh, lucrative contracts.

Topping that all off, Japan’s new free trade agreement with the EU will be the third largest in the world. It’s expected to benefit both powers immediately by removing tariffs for a number of products, including electronics, sake and tea from Japan.

If the Trump administration makes good on its promise to build cooperation with the Japanese, collaborating on infrastructure projects would only further Japan’s position in the region.

Regards,
Nomi Prins@nomiprins
for The Daily Reckoning

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Main Street vs. Wall Street: What I Learned From Rubbing Elbows With Major Media Types

This post Main Street vs. Wall Street: What I Learned From Rubbing Elbows With Major Media Types appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Last week, our team traveled to New York City to attend a book launch for Fox News personality Melissa Francis.

Packed in a small steakhouse on First Avenue, we hopped between chatting with TV producers, Fox News personalities and various attendees at the party.

I’ll be honest, it was a weird place for us to be.

We try to be the opposite of mainstream media. We want to bring you stories and ideas you can’t find on the 24-hour news cycle.

We’re not used to rubbing elbows with these types. If you want to talk about “fish out of water” scenario, this was it.

Fly on the wall: TV personalities and producers gather at New York City steakhouse.

Our invite was a bit serendipitous, but we jumped on the opportunity to get our tech guru Ray Blanco’s face in the spotlight he deserves.

So we went, we mingled and we had some interesting conversations with a lot of smart people along the way.

But there was one topic we continually brought up that had all ears in the room — pot. And just how huge the market is for weed right now.

The growth of the marijuana industry continues to astound the most seasoned media market watchers.

THEY were asking US about the latest scoop on the pot market.

Unlike major news networks, we weren’t surprised by this trend. Ray’s been covering the marijuana boom for nearly a year.

That’s been very good for you!

Ray recently booked readers of his Penny Pot Profits service a 50% gain in four market days, thanks to the power of this industry.

Off Cameras: Fox News on-air talent and producers celebrating a colleague’s book launch.

So let the mainstream media keep reporting on the trials and tribulations the cannabis industry faces. Meanwhile, investors are raking in cash despite the setbacks big news outlets like to cover.

“Legally, marijuana has the most restrictive classification. But I believe it’s all political at this point. It has nothing to do with reality,” Ray said.

He’s right. You want to look at the reality of what marijuana is doing right now? The reality is this:

  • 92% of medical marijuana patients are happy with how the drug works to treat and alleviate everything from migraines to cancer
  • 76% of doctors worldwide approve of marijuana use in the medical field
  • 90% of the U.S. population approves of the legalization and use of marijuana in some form
  • 24 states, plus Washington, D.C., have some kind of marijuana decriminalization law currently in effect.

So that’s roughly half the country with lower restrictions on cannabis, and already the marijuana market is a multibillion-dollar industry. Imagine what happens as states relax their laws more. It’s mind-blowing.

Here’s the thing — you don’t have to hobnob with mainstream media types to get the inside scoop on the big opportunities in the pot space.

If you want to know how to make money in pot right now, don’t turn on the 24-hour news — you’ll find the best stuff right here in this space.

Regards,

Amanda Stiltner

Amanda Stiltner
for, The Daily Reckoning

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