RESPs – The case for segregated funds versus mutual funds

The following is a guest post from Glenn Cooke who is an independent life insurance broker at Life Insurance Inc.  My Own Advisor may or may not agree with the content below. 

In this article, I’m going to compare life insurance company segregated funds against mutual funds for investment purposes within a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP).  Segregated funds can be a viable investment alternative for RESPs that many investors don’t consider, this post will help you do that.

For background, segregated funds or “seg funds” are mutual fund clones offered by life insurance companies.  However, seg funds provide a guarantee on your capital/deposits over mutual funds.  For example with some seg funds, after 10 years if your investments crash, the life insurance company guarantees at a minimum that you’ll have all of your deposits back. This guarantee typically comes in the form of higher fund fee costs (and thus lower earnings).

Seg funds are not normally advocated (well, not by some consumer advocates anyway) as a good choice for retirement planning.  The long time frames involved with retirement planning mean the higher (expected) returns that come with other funds are likely a better choice.  RESPs however are a different beast – there is a much more limited time frame – 18 years at the most and likely less than that.  And much more concerning for investors as well.  There’s a hard and short deadline for the RESP withdrawals.  If markets crash right when your kids go to university, there’s no time for recovery – the money has to come out right then.  With no time to wait for a recovery, this makes seg fund guarantees a good consideration for the cost.

So how much does it cost to get the seg fund, and is it worth the cost in order to cover the risk of a market crash?  Let’s look at some numbers…

But first, our assumptions:

  • Given this is an RESP, for our children’s education, our investments will be in a fairly conservative, low volatility fund.
  • We are going to use Industrial Alliance’s (IA) Diploma RESP program for our seg fund. This program has a conditional bonus on deposits that we are going to include in the comparison.
  • $100/month deposits occur to the RESP is assumed in all scenarios. Canada Education Savings Grants (CESGs) are ignored as they don’t impact the conclusions substantially.
  • We’ll show calculations for 16 years and 10 years of contributions, if you started your RESP later in life.
  • The ‘after crash’ scenario assumes a 50% drop in investments at the end of the deposit period.

16 years of deposits (total returns below):

 No CrashAfter Crash (50% drop)
Mutual fund return @ 5%$29,446$14,723
IA seg fund return @ 5% with bonus$32,326$16,200 (guaranteed)*

10 years of deposits (total returns below):

 No CrashAfter Crash (50% drop)
Mutual fund return @ 5%$15,592$7,796
IA seg fund return @ 5% with bonus$16,672$9,000 (guaranteed)**

*I assumed the guarantee is 100% of contributions for 10 years.

**I was conservative even with this guarantee.

It’s important to note that it’s easy to construct scenarios with assumptions that make either seg funds or mutual funds look better.  The question is, are these assumptions reasonable?  If we assume that my assumptions are reasonable (and let me know in a comment if you disagree), here’s the conclusions I draw:

  • Seg funds vs. ‘safe investments’: seg funds win.  Seg funds should outperform any type of ‘safe’ investment i.e., GICs.  A seg fund even in a market crash should outperform the returns on many guaranteed investment products (like GICs).  So if we’re concerned about volatility or a significant market crash, seg funds could be better than the other baseline guaranteed options.
  • Seg funds vs. mutual funds over longer term: seg funds win.  Over longer RESP contribution periods, seg funds will either perform the same as a similar cost mutual fund or be noticeably better in the event of a significant market crash thanks to the guarantee on your capital/deposits.
  • Seg funds vs. mutual funds over shorter term: seg funds win. Over shorter RESP contribution periods, seg funds will outperform mutual funds on the upside, or significantly outperform mutual funds if there is a significant market crash. (Note:  with retirement savings, the mutual funds should eventually come back and surpass the returns of seg funds.  But remember – we don’t have the luxury of decades of contribution years with RESPs – the kids need to go to school).

In summary, if you anticipate any significant market downturn or you simply wish to protect yourself should a significant market crash occur, the guarantees associated with segregated funds might be something worth considering for your RESP.

With financial literacy month coming to an end, at the end of November, I want to motivate you to understand RESPs and use this account, whether you use seg funds, mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) or other investment products.  So Life Insurance Inc. is giving away five (5) copies of The RESP Book plus $100 to drop into your kids’ RESP (giveaway now over) (or beer, whatever you feel is the best use of a C-note).  To qualify to win, leave a comment on this site about RESPs AND include a link (URL) of this article with your comment as part of social media sharing. If there is no comment about RESPs with a social media shared link, there is no entry.  (Note:  contest rules updated at request of Life Insurance Inc. on November 24th.  Previous entries will be accepted.)

Mark will randomly draw five qualifying names on November 30, and we’ll send you a copy of The RESP Book along with an email money transfer for your $100.  You need to be a resident of Canada and Mark’s decision on any raffle decisions will be viewed as final 🙂  Good luck!


  1. The views above represent Glenn Cooke and may not reflect those of My Own Advisor (Mark Seed).
  2. My Own Advisor encourages all investors to get a second opinion from the likes of a fee-only planner when in doubt about any major financial decision.

About the author: Glenn Cooke is an independent life insurance broker and president of Life Insurance Inc.

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My name is Mark Seed and I'm the founder, editor and owner of My Own Advisor. As my own DIY financial advisor, I've surpassed my goal and I'm now investing beyond the 7-figure portfolio to start semi-retirement with. Find out how, what I did, and what you can learn to tailor your own financial independence path. Subscribe and join the newsletter! Follow me on Twitter @myownadvisor.

48 Responses to "RESPs – The case for segregated funds versus mutual funds"

  1. What’s up,I check your blog named “RESPs – The case for segregated funds versus mutual funds – My Own Advisor” on a regular basis.Your writing style is witty, keep doing what you’re doing! And you can look our website about fast proxy list.

  2. I’m surprised no one commented on the Straight Line projection of 5% per year growth. Certainly over a 10 or 16 year period one may say that the expected growth is 5% per year. However that 5% may be quite different than a straight line 5% growth projections. Forecasting future growth is an area I never had any luck with and don’t try now!

  3. What is happening here? I see lots of back and forth in the comments but still not much clarity

    1. What is this bonus? It’s not fully explained. Their website indicates that it’s (up to) a 15% bonus of contributions at the end, so that’s what I’m assuming it is. ‎

    2. To the main discussion of fees, why is the seg fund getting the same 5% return as the mutual fund in the table? In the comments you indicate you ran other scenarios, but they got cut — I’ll run those below. I think that’s what many of the other commenters are wondering. Like, if you go to the fund info for IA Diploma Elementary, its 10-year return lags the benchmark by 3.5% — as expected with a MER of 3.5%. So an off-the-rack ~2% MER balanced fund ‎should have a 1.5% edge over the seg fund in the good case, and a passive approach a 3% edge — but without the downside protection or the mystery bonus. 

    It would make more sense to show that the seg fund does lag in good times (due to fees) but provide that bonus explicitly for clarity, and then you can figure on the trade-off. So here’s my numbers:
    Underlying market return: 5.5%, $1200/yr contribution, 10 year period 
    Seg fund: MER 3.5%‎, good times: $13.4k ($15.2k with the bonus)  crash: $9k guarantee (75% of 12k contributed)
    Regular balanced fund: MER 2%, good times: $14.6k, crash: $7.3k
    Low-cost index funds: ‎MER 0.5%, good times: $15.8k, crash: $7.9k. 
    So it turns out what’s really breaking the inherent expectation is the 15% bonus, which wasn’t explained above. So here it’s a more straightforward trade-off: give up ~$600 in the good case in exchange for protection from the unlikely case that you face a severe market crash (of at least 40% on a portfolio of 60% equities). ‎(plus take the risk that you have interim financial hardship and pooch the bonus)

    Note that we’ve ignored the CESG, however if they are not counted towards the bonus (and reading the page I doubt they are) that erodes the benefit a bit. With that adjustment, the seg fund good time return is $14.9k with the bonus on your contributions only (assuming now the $1.2k is combined with the CESG), and the cost of the guarantee in good times vs index funds is $900. ‎

    Now for the 16 year period ‎
    Seg fund: MER 3.5%‎, good times: $22.8k ($25.7k with the bonus on everything, $25.2k with the bonus excl. CESG)  crash: $?k guarantee (100% of 19.2k contributed incl CESG? $16k?)‎
    Regular balanced fund: MER 2%, good times: $26.0k, crash: $13.0k‎
    Low-cost index funds: ‎MER 0.5%, good times: $29.8k, crash: $14.9k. ‎

    ‎For this one I’m not sure what the right guarantee to use is. If we assume it’s 100% of contributions (but not counting CESG as contributions), it’s $16k, which matches with the table.‎ Now the seg fund looks less appealing (which makes sense as we’re getting to those longer time periods you mentioned).

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment John…I’ll respond and hopefully Glenn will as well…

      1. What is this bonus? I believe it’s contributions at the end but I don’t know exactly when myself: “Eligible for a government grant equal to 20% of your annual contributions to the RESP (up to $500 per year).” and “An education bonus of up to 15% of the contributions to the RESP will
      increase the income paid as Educational Assistance Payments (EAPs).”

      2. I believe Glenn is assuming the seg fund can and sometimes will get the same return as a mutual fund after fees have been taken into consideration.
      I believe this is possible.

      I did a quick comparison with one IA product here:

      For 10-years of TD e-series with CDN equity I get 5.36% through October 2015
      For 10-years of TD e-series with CDN bond I get 4.54% through October 2015.
      For IA, I get this via Globe Advisor:
      The 10-year return on the IA fund is 4.59% through October 2015.

      The good thing with indexed products as you well know John, you have to worry far less about under-performing the market due to high fund fees.

      ‎I can’t speak to the 15% bonus being the deal-breaker or not but it seems from your numbers it’s not a trivial factor. You also have to assume from Glenn’s post that a 50% market crash will occur.

      1. Hi Mark, I think you’re reading the columns wrong — on that page 4.59% is the “group average” for 10 years, and that fund is just 3.05%. It also has 25% US and 10% Int’l exposure, for which the equivalent TD e-series funds have 10-year returns of 8.27% and 4.8% respectively. As I said, they lagged the benchmark by almost exactly the amount of the fees.

        Some funds have that outside chance of generating out-performance beyond their fees (or at least to minimize them), so I don’t want to say that no seg funds will ever do that, but this fund uses index-based instruments for its underlying equity investments so it will never generate enough alpha to offset those fees.

        The bonus is actually what makes the whole thing worth considering in the first place, because it takes away some of the concern that you underperform so much in non-armageddon-like times, especially if you can get that full bonus on shorter investment timeframes.

        1. Sorry John, you’re right, my mistake in quoting the group avg. vs. the IA fund return itself around 3.05%.

          In general, I agree, some funds will have an outside chance of generating out-performance beyond their fees but it will be tough for many non-indexed funds to do so over time.

          The IA fund bonus is a very strong consideration and I think that was part of Glenn’s point in the article.

          Thanks for calling out my error.

          1. This is the most ridiculous attempt at justifying a horrific product I have ever seen.

            What kind of RESP investment for a child about to go to school would drop 50%?

            Forgetting to account for the larcenous 3.5% MER?

            Trying to argue a mediocre investment handicapped by that larcenous 3.5% MER would match an average mutual fund?

            Even a new to the industry and desperate for business insurance salesperson should be ashamed of this.

            This mythical, unquantified and optional bonus is supposed to be the secret factor that might save this? Yeah right.

            1. I struggled with this post Dave, have to be honest. With all the low cost options available now, these don’t make any sense IMO.

              “My Own Advisor may or may not agree with the content below.” 🙂

              I can’t speak for Glenn, the author, but wouldn’t think these are good RESP products for many parents.

              Thanks for your comment!

    2. Potato, remember also that using low cost index funds, the equity allocation is reduced then eliminated as you approach the time you need the money, so at that time there is no “crash” risk. You wouldn’t leave it in a 60/40 portfolio until the day you need the money.

      These are very complex products, which never favours the investor. I’m hoping that Glenn will answer the questions that Mark and I have asked him.

      1. Grant, I hope you don’t feel I’m anti-seg funds. I think they serve a purpose and I appreciated Glenn’s post for highlighting how they could help investors. I just think, for the most part, based on what I’ve learned in my investing career to date, indexing is the way to invest for most people regardless of the registered account they use.

        I have a bias to dividend paying stocks along with indexing. That’s me and I know many readers of this site have no interest or inclination in investing in dividend stocks. That’s OK! I guess what I’m trying to say is Glenn’s post was a good example of an alternative investment (seg funds) that folks could consider for their RESP for a few reasons. It doesn’t mean those reasons apply to everyone but certainly to help people make a more informed decision – is always a good thing.

        Hopefully Glenn can write back again. I always appreciate his comments on this site even though he and I sometimes have a different take. It’s all about learning and dialogue here on this site – at least this is what I’m trying to create 🙂

      2. Grant, you’re absolutely right — I just didn’t want to change too much in re-running the numbers. However, with that brochure that Mark just linked above we can see that the seg fund product automatically does that as well, shifting to just 15% equities by the time the beneficiary is 17.

  4. To clarify, the 20% government grant is given no matter which investments (GICs, ETFs, Index funds, etc.) are used inside the RESP. It is not tied to investing in segregated funds as it may appear in reading some of the above posts.

  5. Glen, yes, I did read the article, which is why I asked for your thoughts on B’s analysis above. I would appreciate it if you would respond.

    Incidentally, I wouldn’t use mutual funds either, with their very high fees of 2% and sometimes even more, when low fee index finds are available.

    I would also be very interested to see your response to Mark’s question asking you to compare a 50/50 stock bond mix of TD e-series index funds to your seg funds. Another interesting comparison would be to a TD e-series portfolio of stocks and bonds starting out in the early years with a 90/10 stock bond mix and reducing down to a 0/100 mix at age 18 to deal with sequence of return risk, as outlined here.

    I dare say this commonly used approach would result in a much improved return. It makes no sense to give up 43.3% of one’s return, as B showed above, to buy a guarantee from an insurance company by investing in seg funds. But, please, prove me wrong by running the numbers.

    1. Your post is nonsensical, irrelevant, and inflammatory – and relatively obtuse.

      43%? what a sales job.

      The seg fund hands over a 15% of deposits bonus. The gov’t hands over 20% in grants. The seg fund potentially hands over even more money in the event of a crash. All of that, and more, makes your speculative 43% (which doesn’t include the 15% bonus, so it’s actually false) inconsequential even if it were true. Nobody gives a crap about 43%. They care about the dollar cost, which of course, you don’t show since it would disprove your fervor over even evaluating your mutual fund religion.

      1. I think it’s helpful to argue with facts, not make ad homenum attacks. Upton Sinclair’s observation that “It’s difficult to get someone to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it” comes to mind.

        B’s analysis includes all invested funds, including government grants or any other monies. It is a total return. A crash is of no relevance when using a declining equity strategy as the money is out of equities at the point it is needed. This is called managing sequence of return risk. Much better than giving up 43% of returns. I think most investors would care more than “a crap” about a 43% reduction in money available for their kids education.

        I would appreciate it if you would answer Mark’s and my questions about comparing your seg fund to the TD e-series portfolio strategy.

  6. Glenn, I would really appreciate your thoughts on B’s comment above, particularly his reference to the IA Diploma RESP’s MER of 3.55%, which results in a loss to the investor of 43.3% of potential returns over 16 years. Particularly when the same safety of principle at the time of need for the money can be also achieved by reducing equity exposure as that time approaches within a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds using low cost ETFs which can now be bought with an MER of just 0.18%, or TD e-series index funds with a slightly higher MER.

  7. RESP’s are a great saving tool for Education but don’t take much risk with your investments as your children approach 18 years of age and are about to use the funds for education.

  8. Great article, frankly I am a little humbled by it. As a father of a two-year-old, I have started RESPs for him but have placed them into mutual funds and certain stocks. I figured with an 18 year. time horizon it was a relatively low-risk investment. Your article not only clarified what seg funds are but set me straight a bit…thanks.

    1. Glad it helped Alf. In the end, this blog is trying to show some alternatives to folks; options when it comes to investing. The reality and hard part is, no two investors are the same so it’s really buyer beware with any financial investment. I hope this blog is helped you (and others) figure that out.

  9. If you are starting to invest in an RESP when the child is first born then I think that the cost of seg funds are way too high & not warranted. You would be better to use your own dividend portfolio similar to Mr. Seed. Perhaps when they reach age 12 or so it may be better to switch into a seg fund to protect your principle or perhaps by then you are able to get 8 to 10% on a GIC.

    1. You think they’re too high? Fight against assuming that the common knowledge is correct. If you didn’t run the numbers, you should assume that your assumptions are wrong.

      I ran the numbers, seg funds compete aggressively in this case against mutual funds. The behind the scenes reasons are:
      – guarantees
      – a bonus paid by the seg fund
      – limited timeframe
      – and thoug we didn’t take this into consideration, the gov’t grant money.

      With all of those things, the higher fees inherenet in seg funds become minimized and allow the benefits of seg funds to outshine mutual funds.

      These same benefits break down when applied to longerterm planning, like saving for retirement.

  10. Great article on Seg. Funds. I’d honesty forgotten about them from when I did the CSC. Besides being used for RESPs, or at least closer to when you will need the funds from the RESP. You could also potentially stagger multiple Seg Funds in a fashion similar to a how a laddered GIC works, in order to try for higher returns, and the ability to have access to a lump sum of cash every so often to use/re-save as required. Food for thought, thanks again for the article!

    I hope to write articles like this at some point in the future. For now, just my dividend investing/frugal life journey 🙂

  11. We have set up one fund with IA, such as your example, and then have another fund recently opened using ETFs. We might need to think about this second fund again then.

  12. Interesting article. I’m curious what the MER% is on the seg fund? I’d also be curious to see how the scenario would change if compared to a low cost couch potato strategy. I don’t know what this seg fund is typically comprised of, but I’m guessing you could make a similar mix using ETFs with a MER% of around 0.5% or lower. The question then becomes is the seg fund’s guaranteed amount higher or lower than the difference in the MER% over the 10 or 16 years.



    1. A couch potato strategy isn’t the best idea on limited timeframes – that’s part of the point here. ETF’s etc. have been shown to work over the long term – but nobody claims they are better in the short term, because they aren’t necessarily (better in the short term).

      The original article did show mutual fund at 5% and the seg fund performing at a variety of lower amounts (simulating a higher MER) i.e. mutual fund at 5% and seg fund at 3.5%. That was to address your concern about comparing to a lower cost fund – same type of investment returns but mutual fund having lower fees.. Those numbers got cut from the final article for brevity. Nevertheless, to answer your question, the conclusions were still the same.

    2. There are several misleading assumptions in this article that attempt to skew the facts in favor of segregated funds.

      The author states the assumptions:
      – Given this is an RESP, for our children’s education, our investments will be in a fairly conservative, low volatility fund.
      – The ‘after crash’ scenario assumes a 50% drop in investments at the end of the deposit period.

      I understand that some might want a “fairly conservative, low volatility fund”, but why model a 50% loss? This is the risk model one would use for a 100% equities portfolio. Any crash scenario should assume a 50% loss to the equity equity components of a portfolio, not the entire portfolio. Fixed income exists for a reason.

      Next, the fund: IA Diploma RESP. Info here:
      MER: 3.55%!
      10-year annual compound returns: 3.1%
      This fund is going to struggle to reach the 5% return assumption in the calculations above.

      What is the added insurance on this product going to cost you over 16 years? Well, using the MERQ formula from Michael James’ page:

      We get 1-e^(-16*0.0355) = 0.433… or 43.3% of potential returns.

      Looking at the asset mix of the fund, we see a (current) mix of 60% growth, 40% fixed. This is a standard “balanced growth” mix, not exactly a “fairly conservative, low volatility fund”. The returns only seem conservative because it lags its benchmark by a staggering amount.

      As DGI&R pointed out, a person could model a couch potato portfolio for a fraction of the cost. And just as you should shift the asset allocation of your retirement portfolio to a more conservative mix as you get closer to retirement, so too should you shift the asset allocation of an RESP as your children get closer to needing it. For an example of this, see MDJ’s RESP strategy:

      If you were using the MDJ RESP strategy, your “crash” scenario would cause the portfolio to drop anywhere between 0% and 15%, depending on what age you modeled the crash at. Since the segregated funds strategy only guarantees the contributions, it feels like you would be giving up 43% of your potential gains for nothing…

      1. Excellent analysis, B. You are exactly right. Just like any cash value life insurance, these segregated funds are insurance products that mix investing with insurance that are complicated, come with very high fees and terrible returns. They are a rip off. The appeal of segregated funds is their reduction in volatility, but that comes at a high price, 43% of returns in this example as you showed!! Anything you do to reduce volatility reduces returns, and seg funds are no exception.

        When it comes to RESPs, you are way ahead building a diversified portfolio of low cost index funds, and reducing the equity allocation as you near the withdrawal dates, to protect against a market crash when you need the money, rather than giving up nearly half of your returns to an insurance company!! When buying any product, especially financial products, always ask how the salesman is
        paid, and how much he gets if you buy the product.

        1. I’ve always founds Seg funds overly complicated. I find any product that you need to really think about probably isn’t worth owning – if it takes too much effort on behalf of the consumer to figure it out then likely this is a better product for the industry, not the consumer.

          If I was a parent, I would gravitate to low cost index funds and not seg funds although I see Glenn’s points.

          1. Mark, yes I agree with you staying away from complex financial products is good advice. Complexity always favours the seller, not the investor. Investing is not complicated, but the wealth management industry likes to make it appear so, so we feel we need them.

            I also agree with Glenn’s points about safety of principle as you near the time you need the money, but Seg funds are not the way to it. They are just too expensive. Reducing your exposure to equities within a low cost globally diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds is.

            1. “Complexity always favours the seller, not the investor.”

              Need to Tweet that this week 🙂

              Good comments Grant, totally agree with you regarding the fees associated the seg funds. Everyone is welcome to their perspective but it doesn’t mean I agree with everyone 😉

          2. Grant says too expensive? Did you even read the article? In every reasonable scenario I ran, the seg funds matched or beat the mutual funds.

            If you want to run the numbers using different assumptions that you feel are reasonable,and that show mutual funds creaming the seg funds, please do so. But I think you’re going to have to be stretching the bounds of ‘reasonable’ in your assumptions.

            Knee-jerk responses using opinions carried over from retirement planning don’t give the right answer. The numbers give the right answer.

            1. Glenn, I know you ran some numbers, nothing wrong with that at all. However for the same reason most investors don’t wish to pay higher than 2% fees in other accounts, the same rationale I believe applies to RESPs. Seg funds have some good points (i.e., some guarantees for a market crash) but we all know fees can hurt portfolio values when we compare apples to apples. This doesn’t mean some seg funds or mutual funds can’t be star-performers but I suspect the odds are in the index investors favour. Again, your post was to drive some discussions…which is good Glenn.

              Speaking of numbers, is there any way you can compare a 50/50 portfolio of large AUM funds of CDN equity/CDN bonds vs. your IA product and place the results in a comment? The readership might find that interesting.

              Here is a quick analysis:

              For 10-years of TD e-series with CDN equity I get 5.36% through October 2015
              For 10-years of TD e-series with CDN bond I get 4.54% through October 2015.

              For IA, I get this via Globe Advisor:
              The 10-year return on the IA fund is 4.59% through October 2015.

              So, basically, TD e-series CDN Bond and the IA product are a dead heat over the last 10-years.

  13. To be clear, you can tweet a link to this article, or drop a link on your blog to this article. We’d accept a facebook post to the article as well, assuming that Mark or I can see the post.

    Ultimately my idea was to ask you to participate in the promotion of the article in order to get more people thinking about RESP’s.

  14. I never considered Seg Funds for my RESPs. In an effort to mitigate potential loses closer to withdraw, my plan is to reduce equity exposure. Even with using this strategy my investments will still be at the mercy of the market.

  15. OK seg funds now? One more thing to think about when I talk to my sister about opening an RESP for her baby boy.

    What I find somewhat confusing is how every RESP provider does not provide all the possible grants. Finding a provider that 1) provides the Quebec incentive (QESI), 2) allows for low-cost indexing, 3) is simple enough to be used by my sister, and 4) is in French, is reaaaaally difficult.

  16. There is a lot of confusion about seg funds and they are not too popular in the financial articles and blog post that I have read. This now has made me rethink my assumptions. Appreciate the information based on data and not fees.

  17. I work in a financial office that sells mutual funds and seg finds and I’ve never thought about RESP’s in this way. We use mainly mutual funds for RESP’s. I appreciate the information of a specific product (IA) that you referenced and will be discussing this with our advisors. Thanks for the info!


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