The Compound Return Marathon: Which Retirement Strategy Will Win?

Before we fire off the gun to start the ‘Compound Return Marathon', let's cover some basics on what compound returns are and why you should care.

What is compound interest?
You probably became familiar with the term ‘compound interest' when you first started placing money in your bank accounts. Most of us recognize compound interest as the interest we receive from holding money in a savings account, certificate of deposit, or other low rate of return investment at the bank. Any form of compound interest is great, but this post isn't about avoiding depreciation in cash value by earning just enough to out-pace inflation with low rate returns (which is about all no risk interest accounts are able to do). Let's discuss a different type of compound interest.

Compound returns
When you purchase index or mutual funds, you are often asked what you would like to do with any dividend or capital gains disbursements from that particular investment's holdings. When you select that you would like to ‘re-invest', you are, in effect, compounding your returns. The same goes for dividend producing stocks. You are offered the choice of receiving your dividend in the form of a cash payout, or re-investing the amount into more stock.

Why should I care about compound returns?
When fully harnessing the power of compound returns, you can save less, make more, and retire early. There is sacrifice. You will need to start saving at a time when many of your peers are getting takeout food every night, leasing vehicles they can't afford, and buying all the latest tech gadgets. If you're in your 20's or 30's, this post should instill a sense of urgency in you. If you're a little older, you have some making up to do, but it's not too late. Additionally, maybe there's a young adult in your life whom you can help get off to a financial running start with the aid compound returns.

The Compound Return Marathon
Let's take a look at five different retirement strategies in the form of five hypothetical “marathon” participants (based on personas that we are all familiar with) and crunch some numbers to see who wins. Before we test the strategies, let's take a look at the rules:

  1. The average annualized rate of return for U.S. stocks was 13.4% from 1926 to 2000. The worst average annual rate of return for U.S. stocks in any 65 consecutive year period has been 8.5%. For this Marathon, let's take the average between the two, and assume our participants are able to get a 10.95% return on our investments every year for each participant that invests in stocks.
  2. Our conservative participant invests in a CD, which will earn 5%, compounded annually.
  3. For simplicity, we'll ignore taxes.
  4. Everyone invests until age 67, the projected official retirement age in the future.

And now, let's meet the participants:

  • Early Bird Bob: Bob didn't follow the urge to blow his cash flow and ‘make up for it later'. He has decided to follow his own rules to utilize the power of compound returns. He invests $5,000 per year in domestic stock funds (earning 10.95% annualized) starting at age 20, and stopping at 40. Because he sacrificed early, he's also able to stop investing 27 years before anyone else does.
  • Conservative Carrie: Carrie invests $5,000 per year in certificates of deposit (earning 5% annualized) starting at age 20 until age 67. Carrie sees the value in compound interest and has the right idea in saving early. She could get a reward for her consistency, but the fear of a market crash paralyzes her willingness to invest in stocks.
  • Live-it-up Larry: Larry invests $10,000 yearly in domestic stock funds (earning 10.95% annualized) starting at age 30. Larry discovered the power of compound returns after living it up in his 20's, but regrets not discovering it 10 years earlier, so he is making up for it by doubling Bob's yearly contribution amount.
  • Late bloomer Bill: Bill invests $20,000 yearly in domestic stock funds (earning 10.95% annualized) starting at age 40, until age 67. Bill has a high income job and is trying to make up for lost time with huge contribution amounts. He has downgraded from a Benz to a Lexus and cut back from three times a week at the golf club to two.
  • Mid-life crisis Melissa: Melissa invests $40,000 yearly in domestic stock funds (earning 10.95% annualized) starting at age 50, until age 67. Melissa spent most of her money throughout life to impress her friends, but since they all left her because she was too materialistic, she now has a load of time to make extra income to apply towards retirement. Is it too late for Melissa?

You can view the results of the Compound Return Marathon in a free Google Doc. Here you can see how much each participant was able to amass up through age 67. Additionally, you can see how much money they personally contributed to their retirement efforts.

Here's how they finished:

  • Early Bird Bob contributed $5,000/yr. for 20 years ($100,000 total contribution). His nest egg at age 67 is $5,938,625.
  • Conservative Carrie contributed $5,000/yr. for 48 years ($240,000 total contribution). Her nest egg at age 67 is $940,127.
  • Live it up Larry contributed $10,000/yr. for 38 years ($380,000 total contribution). His nest egg at age 67 is $4,644,805.
  • Late bloomer Bill contributed $20,000/yr. for 28 years ($560,000 total contribution). His nest egg at age 67 is $3,168,398.
  • Mid-life crisis Melissa contributed $40,000/yr. for 18 years ($720,000 total contribution). Her nest egg at age 67 is $2,005,735.

Now that the race is over, let's see what we've learned.

  1. You're better off starting late and taking risk than starting early and taking no risk. Being risk averse is dangerous in many ways. When looking at Conservative Carrie's results, you'll see that despite starting earlier than three other participants and investing every year, she wound up earning the least for retirement, in dramatic fashion. With that being said, starting early and welcoming a little extra risk can pay the biggest dividends.
  2. Even if you start extremely late (Melissa), you can still drastically impact your future. Despite investing only 18 years, Melissa is still able to triple her total contributions.
  3. Fully taking advantage of compound returns is your only opportunity to retire early. Take a look at all participants at age 50. Bob could realistically retire at age 50 and live off the interest, at least to get him up to retirement age and social security. None of the other participants stand a chance of retiring early.
  4. Compound returns are pretty darn powerful.Early bird Bob contributed much less than anyone else, and stopped contributing at age 40 (27 years before everyone else), yet ended up with over $1.3 million more than any other participant. He contributed much less, quit early, and still wound up beating everyone else easily. In fact, he almost made 60 times his original return. Compare that to only three times for Melissa, the latest adapter.

The Bottom line: If you're not maxing out your contributions as early as you possibly can, you're falling behind.

J.D.'s note: As with some of the commenters, I believe the 13.4% average annualized return isn't realistic. I used 8% for my own article on compound interest this morning. I'll do some research to explore the notion of compound returns over various time periods, and share the results in the next couple weeks.

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Baddriver
Baddriver
12 years ago

Whenever an article like this one appears and quotes some high average rate of return I get cranky. I know many will probably gripe about this, so let me be the first. Why cherry pick 1926-2000. Let’s take a nice round time period, like 1900-2000. On 01/03/1900 the dow was 66.61. On 01/03/2000 it was 11357.51. That is an average annual return (not including dividends) of 5.3%. If we go to the close today 4/2/2008 of 12608.92 we get an average annual return of 5.0%. With that said I completely agree saving early and often is the key to retiring… Read more »

Nick
Nick
12 years ago

I also would like to add to Baddriver’s comment that you are even further “cherry-picking” the returns by only looking at the US. Looking at other countries with a time-frame of a little over one hundred years, the average equity premium is close to 4%. (risk-free rate + equity premium= market return). There were several reasons behind the US having such a large return (After all, the 20th century was America’s century) but what is to say that america won’t follow the way of India/Pakistan and average -0.1% over a 50 year period in the future? Just tone down the… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Thanks for the note, guys. I, too, think 13.4% is way high (I always use 7 or 8 percent myself), and I meant to include a disclaimer. I’ve added one as a footnote.

Donna
Donna
12 years ago

Just out of curiousity. I’m a college student. Don’t make that much money. Less than $10k annually. Not much of a math whiz. I’m sure I won’t be able to max out the Roth. I do have an Orange Savings Account. If I open a Roth IRA, will it even make a big difference if I invest $1000 annually now vs 2-3 years from now when I have a much higher income (hopefully) and invest $5000 annually?

Donna
Donna
12 years ago

Also, I forgot to mention that I’m 23. And have $9k in educational debt and $2k in Credit card debt.

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

This analysis also ignores inflation. This is fine, but should have been mentioned in the assumptions.

Heidi
Heidi
12 years ago

Not to be grumpy, but I have to admit to being a little tired of hearing how great it would be to start investing at the age of 20… it’s starting to get a little depressing thinking about how much compound interest I’ve missed out on because I was too busy going to school and barely paying bills the last 8 years of my life 🙁 Don’t get me wrong, compound interest is an amazing thing. I fully plan on encouraging my niece (and any children I may someday have) to start investing young. But if everyone could please stop… Read more »

klauss
klauss
12 years ago

Baddriver,

To ignore reinvested dividends is also cherry picking, becuase investors of the dow components would have a hefty dividend yield over that period and when reinvested would significantly boost the final egg.

Nick makes some good points about US markets…good to be internationaly diversified

Paul
Paul
12 years ago

Also, in the cases where the person was invested in stocks, the account value doubled in the final 7 years, from ages 60 to 67. I think many 60 year olds would be very tempted to put that nest egg into something with less risk.

StanDaMan
StanDaMan
12 years ago

I must be grumpy too, when I see numbers that give the average of 10% and talk about compounding when it comes to the stock market. Stocks do not compound, dividends can be used to reinvest and compound, but not stocks themselves, these are not like bank accounts that constantly compound when the value of the amount goes up. Yes stocks have gone up in value in general, but they do not compound.

David B.
David B.
12 years ago

I am also of the same materials as those posters stating the average used in the OPs original analysis is too high.

However, I will add an additional point: The OP disregards fluctuating returns. Using an average return in the above analysis overstates the returns of those investors investing in the market. The market doesn’t return a constant rate – it fluctuates both positively and negatively. Discounting such a fact will lead to return being over or understated, and in this case overstated.

For a more thorough discussion on this topic I suggest reading up on the flaw of averages.

Aaron
Aaron
12 years ago

Ya’ll are a little harsh. There’s only so many assumptions one can pack into a simple blog post, and G.E. does a great job covering the basics for sake of equal comparison. Besides, the post isn’t about the assumptions, the main thing I got out of it is the fundamental and exponential differences of investing early in comparison to waiting until later in life. Reinvested dividends from the Dow? Come on, Klauss, what does that have to do with anything.

Max
Max
12 years ago

@Donna: If we look at your $1000 a year over three years in isolation, (without looking at any future contributions) in 40 years, it’ll be worth, at 8%: 3000 * (1.08) ^ 40 = $65,173. That’s worth thinking about. (More realistically, if we assume real returns of 4%, that is, accounting for inflation, your $3000 is worth $14,403 in today’s dollars. On the other hand, your credit card debt is likely at more than 8%, in which case, your “return” is whatever is whatever interest rate you’re not paying by paying it off. 🙂 Educational debt is a bit trickier… Read more »

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

yeah, this is pretty depressing for those of us who spent our 20s with practically no income thanks to universities.

Dividends4Life
Dividends4Life
12 years ago

Compounding is a powerful tool. It applies to dividends also. A significant portion of the historical equity returns are a result of reinvested dividends.

Best Wishes,
D4L

ABog
ABog
12 years ago

I’m currently reading John Bogle’s book, and he points out that while the *market* may have achieved lofty returns, the average *fund* earned around 2.5% less (costs, etc), but worse, the average *investor* earned 2-3% less than that! People usually buy and sell based on the news of the day, and therefore they really don’t earn anything close to 10%.

Food for thought.

Frugal Bachelor
Frugal Bachelor
12 years ago

“Why cherry pick 1926-2000.” As far as I understand 1926 is the year S&P 500 dates back to. The oft-quoted 13.4% is referring to S&P 500. It starts before the Depression so if you wanted to cherry pick you would pick a few years later. The DJIA you quote is a specific index – only a few biggest companies, and until recently (past ~25 years), only heavy industry companies. Not completely representative of the US stock market as a whole. S&P 500 is a much broader index. Do you (or anyone) have data on broad US stock market from 1900-2000?… Read more »

Trask
Trask
12 years ago

What’s missing from the big picture here? Quality of Life. Bob never made it to retirement age because his tightwad ass had a heart attack at age 43 because he never had a decent vacation. Carrie made out alright because she married Larry. Mid-Life crisis Melissa never had a chance and after a bout of alcoholism and two divorces, she finally dies in a drunk driving accident. Bill gets laid every weekend driving around in that Benz and that’s all he really cares about anyway so he’s alright with that. So in the end, Larry gets the girl, the good… Read more »

Cathy
Cathy
12 years ago

Investing money in your 20s is not realistic for most people. Maybe if you had wealthy parents, but I was an average Jane. I saved more money than my peers and had $6000 in the bank by the time I started college, but after that – debt. In your 20s you pick up debt from student loans, and many kids end up with credit card debt too. Having a portfolio is not an option, in my opinion, until you are making a wage in a career and debt free, which for most people would be in their late 20s/early 30s.… Read more »

S. B.
S. B.
12 years ago

Actually, 13.4% is probably about right for the arithmetic average of the S&P 500 over that time period. Note, however, that the geometric average is much lower — I would estimate the geometric mean for the S&P 500 over the same period would be about 10.7% from most of the studies I’ve seen. Arithmetic averages are useful in some contexts, but for what the author intended, clearly the geometric mean is what should have been used. Also, as has been pointed out, the DJIA does not include reinvested dividends, and during many time periods in the past, the average dividend… Read more »

Terra Andersen
Terra Andersen
12 years ago

Besides the percentages, the article is very good! Thanks for sharing!

Seth
Seth
12 years ago

This makes me wonder if I’m saving too much.

5k in Roth per year (4 last year) + 7k in 401k per year. Works out to about 25% of my annual income at 26.

Jim
Jim
12 years ago

RE: the impossibility of saving while in your 20’s — As a parent of a 20-something this is a strategy we’ve been using to help him contribute to a Roth as much as is legally possible and hence get that compound interest mojo working for him. My first born has had numerous summer jobs, dismally paying gigs of wage-slavery that annually make him far less than the maximum Roth contribution. His actual earnings are quickly converted into beer, ramen noodles perhaps a textbook or two but at the end of the year, his grandmother gifts him the exact amount he… Read more »

stephanie
stephanie
12 years ago

To everyone who believes that saving money in your 20s is impossible – you are being ridiculous. I started a Roth IRA with only $700 just after I turned 22, and started contributing $50 per month to it. While my college tuition was paid for by scholarships, I paid rent and all other bills on my own. And trust me, in addition to paying bills, I blew a TON of money in college on alcohol, clothes, and other useless stuff. Do I regret the fun I had in college? No. But do I realize how much more money I could… Read more »

Cathy
Cathy
12 years ago

If you’re able to sock away money while being a full time student, then most likely you’re receiving financial help from somewhere. That’s my point. People have a hard time paying rent, food and transportation costs on a minimum wage income, nevermind college tuition. I was able to go to school full time on $9/hr part time job because my parents were helping me with tuition and rent. So if you’re in your 20s and saving money with compound interest while going to school so you can have a better life later, please take some time to thank your parents,… Read more »

Mark
Mark
12 years ago

RE: everyone saying that it is impossible to begin saving in your early twenties, I absolutely disagree. I attended college directly after high school, dropped out ofter two years, and enlisted in the Army. I am now 26, married, have two children, a car payment, and a mortgage. I am still enlisted in the Army, but I have now finished my degree. And for the past 4 years I have been investing regularly for retirement, both through my Thrift Savings Plan (a federal employee retirement plan vaguely similar to a 401K, but without an employer match) as well as maxing… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I think the point is that whilst it is significantly harder to save and invest money in your twenties, particularly whilst you are a student, it will give you (matching) much higher returns.

The key thing in compounding is to start now. However old you are, if you wait 5 years until you’re in a better position in the long run you will be much worse off. Do what you can, as soon as you can.

Ron@TheWisdomJournal
12 years ago

The market may have returned X percent, but what has the average investor realized? Looking for some real world numbers here.

Eric
Eric
12 years ago

The “Rule of 72” is helpful when discussing the effect of different rates on compound returns. 72 divided by the rate tells you approximately how many years to double the initial investment. Doesn’t take on-going contributions into account, though.

Still, looking at the difference between 10.95% and 8% returns:

72/10.95 = 6.5 years
72/8 = 9 years

G.E. Miller
G.E. Miller
12 years ago

@ Baddriver, J.D. – 13.4% is high – this is why I factored in worst case scenario, and split the difference to equal 10.95% return. This wasn’t the essential point of the post (that being comparing time value in money and risk strategies). @ Anne – I agree, inflation is important to look at for long term goals on your personal nest egg, but for the purposes of a comparison article on investment strategy and compound returns, it has little bearing. @ Frugal Bachelor – Exactly, no cherry picking here, these were the dates for which data was available, and… Read more »

MossySF
MossySF
12 years ago

I have Schiller S&P data from 1871. 1871-2006: 8.84% nominal, 6.51% real An argument can me made that some of that early data is suspect since it was the wild-wild-west era of the market so let’s increment up in decade steps. 1880-2006: 8.94%, 6.28% real 1890-2006: 9.26%, 6.15% real 1900-2006: 9.62%, 6.28% real 1910-2006: 9.62%, 6.15% real 1920-2006: 10.23%, 7.30% real 1930-2006: 9.65%, 6.22% real 1940-2006: 11.22%, 6.78% real 1950-2006: 11.59%, 7.50% real 1960-2006: 10.33%, 5.90% real 1970-2006: 11.05%, 6.14% real 1980-2006: 12.85%, 9.15% real 1990-2006: 11.00%, 8.16% real If you look at the pattern, you’ll notice the real number… Read more »

The Weakonomist
The Weakonomist
12 years ago

More or less, this is the smartest group of readers I’ve followed. High five to everyone here for being smart! Nick, this is the first time I have seen the term risk free rate and equity premium in a personal finance blog. You sound like you’ve had a finance class or two. I started a Roth at age 20 with $500. $100 here and there over time adds up. Now that I have a full time job and out of school, I can make regular (and larger) contributions. If nothing else, its great to get in the habit at a… Read more »

MossySF
MossySF
12 years ago

BTW, the article uses “annualized return” which is geometric mean so market fluctuations have no impact on the ending number. The reason why that number is so high is not the 1926 starting period but the 2000 ending period. Ending your data at the peak of a huge stock market bubble corrupts the data. (Ending in 2002 after an over-correction also is as bad.)

jsl
jsl
12 years ago

The sad thing I’m learning form this post is that college dosen’t worth it. From a financial POV, insted of spending 5+ years in college, one should get a low paying job straight out of HS and win the ‘Compound Return Marathon’.

Cathy
Cathy
12 years ago

G.E. Miller: I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. You said ‘right out of college’ you were able to make max contributions. Which is my point. What I’m saying is I don’t think it is realistic or prudent to plug money into a retirement fund while you are IN college accruing student loan debt that will come due. After college and starting an entry level career job, you’ll have access to 401K with employer matching, which is smarter. You’ll be able to think about making max contributions to 401K, IRA, and more. Do I think you can save while in college?… Read more »

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

This article could probably summarize your entire web site’s purpose.

I have forwarded it to all my friends (who are in their early 20’s) as a way to get them started ASAP.

The Google Spreadsheet is excellent for teaching purposes.

Great Stuff… Keep it coming.

JACK
JACK
12 years ago

First off, the conclusions aren’t supported by the data. She didn’t account for risk. Not at all. That’s one of the chief problems with these type of back-of-napkin analyses. People need to stop pretending that the average return over that period somehow perfectly accounts for risk. It doesn’t. You need to account for it separately, not just assume that the average rate of return already has that covered. Second, I agree about the cherry picking of the data. People who assume anything more than 8% returns are insane in my book. Particularly, when they do their modeling without the benefit… Read more »

allen
allen
12 years ago

I agree with JACK on this one, assuming over 8% gets you into snake-oil’s-men in my book.

Another thing this perfect case senario doesn’t seem to account for (sorry if someone else noticed this, and i didn’t notice their post!) is that you need to make your investments SAFER as you get closer to where you NEED them. No way i’d be leaving all my money in the stock market the year i want to retire!

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

@Cathy Right now I am 23 years old and have about 40K in Student Loans and 3K in credit card debt. I still manage to put: 8% of my check into a 401K which my company matches 10% in my ING Savings account for easily accessible cash. That means I am living off 88% of my normal pay. I might have some advantages here and there, but it is quite possible to start saving early. You just have to know when and where to spend most of your money. I live in a decent apt in a non ritzy area… Read more »

Cathy
Cathy
12 years ago

Chris:

I’m with Dave Ramsey. Debt is slavery, and until you get rid of debt and the interest it accrues, you aren’t really saving anything. I think everyone should have money saved aside for an emergency fund (10% of net pay is excellent!). I’m all for savings at any age, any time. My objection is to the investment assumptions. Investmest are for building wealth. Loan payments aren’t doing anything for your wealth (non asset of course). They subtract from your wealth and your options for true financial freedom.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

i’m a student and so is my husband. we have no car payments, we have student loans, we have $20k/year for day to day living expenses.

sure, if we were living on $40k (a dream!) or even $50somethingk (unfathomable!), investing would not be so hard. employers that give benefits would help but we don’t have that. those of you with some kind of support system, please do not take it for granted. and understand, many of us are on our own here with nobody to fall back on.

stephanie
stephanie
12 years ago

I think what it basically comes down to here is taking responsibility for the choices you make and your actions. No one helped me with college. I worked hard through high school and stayed in-state so that I could get my tuition paid for by scholarships instead of going to a big name school where I would have had to take out loans. I chose to work all through college, waiting tables and bartending, and for a while working 30-40+ hours a week (especially in the summer and over breaks, when I wasn’t in class). Every person is in a… Read more »

Rick Francis
Rick Francis
12 years ago

On contributing to retirement in 20’s- I think a large part of it depends on what your friends/coworkers are doing. When I was in college I wasn’t thinking about retirement investing at all… However, when I went to grad school I started contributing to a Roth IRA because some of my fellow graduate students were doing so. In hindsight I think that is one of the most valuable things I got out of the program. I wasn’t making much as a student (~$14K-18K), and I did not get financial help from my parents. I lived frugally- NO CAR for several… Read more »

commonsense
commonsense
12 years ago

BEST POST I’VE EVER READ ON A MESSAGE BOARD SO FAR GOES TO: TRASK

HIS POST WAS JUST HILARIOUS!

G.E. Miller
G.E. Miller
12 years ago

@ Heidi, Leigh – reading this post, and then looking retroactively upon not saving (and getting depressed) was not my intention for anyone to get out of this post, but everyone has their own views. I would hope that even if you feel it is too late for you to make a huge impact with your investments that there are young adults in your life whom you may inspire to start saving earlier. @ Trask – well played on the conclusions of the characterizations. You took it where I didn’t go, and for that, my friend, you deserve a gold… Read more »

Adfecto
Adfecto
12 years ago

Rather than use the pseudo-cherry picked stock market return data I recommend going to Firecalc.com and plugging in your savings plan. That site uses real stock market data to calculate every rolling period of market performance to see how must you would save or how much you can safely withdraw from your nest egg in retirement. In other words, rather than use only 1926-2000 it checks every time period available, if you are looking at 50 years for example it would be 1900 to 1950, then 1901-1951, then 1902-1952, etc. This type of analysis will tell you the likelihood that… Read more »

Aleks
Aleks
12 years ago

“Not to be grumpy, but I have to admit to being a little tired of hearing how great it would be to start investing at the age of 20… it’s starting to get a little depressing thinking about how much compound interest I’ve missed out on because I was too busy going to school and barely paying bills the last 8 years of my life 🙁” I’m grumpy for a different reason. I did start investing at 23, and contrary to what all these over-simplified compounding articles tell you it didn’t set me up for life. As others have pointed… Read more »

Diane
Diane
12 years ago

Seth, don’t worry about saving too much. There are times in your life when you won’t be able to manage 25%, or even 15%. And if you do, then you’ll have a very comfortable retirement. You’ll also have the option of retiring early, or starting a business, or pursuing passions, simply because you have the money available.

Diane
Diane
12 years ago

Aleks: no one says that short time periods mirror long-term trends. In fact, every decent advisor pretty much says that stocks go up and down a lot in the short term. That’s why stocks are not advisable if you need your money within a few years. I’m 28 now, and I started investing when I was 23 (just out of university). Although this year has been a bust for stocks so far, I’m ahead of the game overall. If you count my real estate investments, I’m way ahead of the game (real estate in Canada has not had the problems… Read more »

Travis
Travis
12 years ago

OK I’m sorry I can’t take it anymore. I am so sick of people saying 10-13% ROI is too high. “The life you live reflects the life you have already established inside your head.” Once I decided to believe I could earn more is when I met someone who showed me how. It was just my luck that he was a millionaire. Although I trade options (50-400% ROI) which I don’t recommend for the average investor even the mutual funds he showed me make at least, 15%-25%. I hate risk and I can trade maybe 3-5 times a year get… Read more »

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