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The World According To Boyar – Episode 17: Michael Santoli

The World According To Boyar – Episode 17: Michael Santoli

 

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The Interview Discusses:

  • Michael’s fascinating career from being a columnist and feature writer at renowned financial publication Barron’s to becoming a Senior Markets Commentator on CNBC.
  • The importance of Twitter as a tool for journalists.
  • Michael’s famous source, ‘the mystery broker’.
  • How Michael has used his experience covering 9/11 and has applied that to Covid-19.
  • His thoughts on the possible rotation from growth to  value in the equity markets.

About Michael Santoli:

Michael Santoli joined CNBC in October 2015 as a Senior Markets Commentator, based at the network’s Global Headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Previously, Santoli was a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Finance, where he wrote analysis and commentary on the stock market, corporate news and the economy. He also appeared on Yahoo Finance video programs, where he offered insights on the most important business stories of the day, and was a regular contributor to CNBC and other networks.

Santoli has covered the Wall Street beat for more than 20 years. Prior to joining Yahoo in 2012, he spent 15 years as a columnist and feature writer for Barron’s magazine. From 1993 to 1997, Santoli was a reporter at Dow Jones Newswires, covering the securities industry, and was awarded two Dow Jones Newswire Awards for distinguished real time journalism.

 

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Transcript Of Interview With Michael Santoli:

 

[00:00:11] Jonathan Boyar: Welcome to The World According to Boyar, where we bring top investors, bestselling authors, and business leaders to show you the smartest ways to uncover value in the stock market. I’m your host, Jonathan Boyar. Today’s very special guest Michael Santoli is well known to regular watchers of CNBC. Michael serves as a senior market’s commentator for the network.

Prior to that, he was a senior columnist at Yahoo Finance. Before joining Yahoo, he spent 15 years as a columnist and feature writer for Barron’s where I was a regular reader of his column, Streetwise. Michael, welcome to the show.

[00:00:47] Michael Santoli: Great to be with you, Jon. I appreciate it.

[00:00:51] Jonathan: Thanks for coming on. I’d love to hear a little bit about your career. You graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in history. How did you end up in a career in journalism?

[00:01:02] Michael: Well, the journalism part was, to the extent that I had a plan in school, it probably involved journalism, even though I didn’t study it. The financial journalism piece of it was somewhat more accidental. Wesleyan, of course, is just a purely liberal arts school, it was not really going to have something like a journalism degree, which was fine with me.

I felt like majoring in history was choosing a major without having to choose because everything is included in history and I was writing a lot and all that. I did work on the college paper pretty extensively. In fact, a couple of years, there was pretty much what I did at school, and at the paper at some point.

I did think that it would be maybe my first choice or something to do afterward, I didn’t do the greatest job in laying the groundwork for a career search necessarily before I got out of school. I had a few leads, but what I ended up hooking on was at a financial trade publisher. I actually got the job through a New York Times Help Wanted ad. There’s not many people who can say that or a lot younger than me at this point. This is the IDD, it was called Investment Dealers Digest, still exists in some form.

The business model was very high price weekly newsletters for very narrow financial subjects, only for professionals and they would hire young people just teach them in a hurry, the language and the ropes and the content to some degree and work them as hard as they could. Then they inevitably went off somewhere else within a couple of years.

I was covering the syndicated loan market, I was covering IPOs and really had no firm background in this stuff. It was really just learn the beat, learn the language, try to work the phones, it was a great experience in the sense of being on a steep learning curve. From there, though, I went to Dow Jones Newswires where I covered the securities industry, and that was a great training ground just to be able to write quickly and clearly, figuring out what the story is, learning a wide range of financial topics.

All this time, one of the reasons that financial journalism ended up being a place I stayed is because it was expanding, and it was becoming more mainstream throughout the ’90s. It seemed like it was interesting and the markets were getting interesting. I went to Barron’s from there, a pretty common route to go from Dow Jones Newswires to Barron’s owned by the same company.

Barron’s very market-oriented, but a lot more column centric, and a little more deliberative in terms of what you want to cover and where you feel like you have an edge and trying to be a little bit contrarian and trying to bring fresh info. That was the bulk of my career, I guess. All along the way, just to knit it up, I had done some video and TV.

Dow Jones had to deal with CNBC in the ’90s, and I was a contributor, and I was a point person to do television. That grew to be a bigger part of what I did through Yahoo and, of course, now at CNBC, where it’s pretty much the main gig.

[00:03:59] Jonathan: Barron’s has a great history of weeding out frauds. They were the first ones or one of the first people at least publicly to question Madoff’s returns. I don’t know if you were working or around that story, but it’s amazing that the regulators didn’t run with it then, it would have saved people tons of money.

[00:04:20] Michael: Well, it’s funny you say that because I thought you were going to say Charles Ponzi because Clarence Barron, one of his claims to fame was having partially exposed Charles Ponzi as well. No, I was not directly a participant in that Madoff story, a colleague of mine at the time, Erin Arvedlund was writing about it and interestingly had coming at it from the options trading side of things where it was just like this suspiciously regular returns, as you know, and it’s tough to put a real fine point on those stories because you don’t really have subpoena power. You don’t really know everything necessarily, but you can raise the question. No, I really love that about Barron’s and still certainly respect it. I would say it was great. For me leaving it was much more about exploring different parts of media and how media was developing from there, in terms of Yahoo, the opportunity to be over the top free Bloomberg with video and just to get an idea of how things were flowing in free internet, so to speak. Then, of course, CNBC I’ve been in the orbit of CNBC for over 20 years and it just made sense to settle in here at some point.

[00:05:28] Jonathan: You’re basically on CNBC throughout the day. How do you prepare for the show, when does your day start, and what are you reading? You have to be able to react to almost anything.

[00:05:43] Michael: It’s a constant process that isn’t so much a defined menu of stuff that I consume but I start on the early side. Even if I don’t have an on air booking in the morning, I’m usually up and moving and looking at the news. I’m a lifelong Newswire headline watcher in real-time and Twitter has absolutely replaced that at this point, for the most part.

If you curate it well enough, you pretty much get a sense of the stories of the day and what seems to be relevant for markets. I will do that scan, I definitely have access to a lot of sell side research, and the research boutiques and all that stuff, as you can imagine. I’ve had to chop it down into stuff I find very relevant in real time and try to figure out my touchpoints. I start scanning all that stuff.

On the early side, I’m usually preparing for an 8:15 editorial meeting we have here with at least some take on the markets in terms of what’s going to matter or what’s not going to matter, where we are in terms of field position in the markets, what some of the main bullet points that I think are relevant. From there, I could have a lot going on in the morning, I could have nothing.

I’ll review to a degree what guests we’re going to have and mostly, I’m watching the tape. I watch the tape in conjunction with a lot of color commentary that I’m reading about it, whether it’s on Twitter or just back and forth messaging with people. I always do write a midday memo, it’s just series of notes on the markets. I’ve done it internally here for a while mostly just to prep people for the show and prep the anchors and now we run that out on CNBC PRO subscription service in the afternoon.

To me, it’s jus like my desk notes but I just think as a snapshot of what’s happening in the market, I like to have that. Again, its like you’re right to figure out what’s important. Then I could just be called on to comment on almost anything. The thing about TV is I’ve, a little bit of an adjustment is that the main story is usually the story. What I mean by that is, it’s not like when I was at Barron’s where it was, “Oh, we’ll let the news get out there and people can talk about it and we’re going to find out the unexplored angle. We’re going to find out what it means.”

I have to fixate on the main event of what’s happening. My ultimate goal is to place it in context, whether its historical context, whether its in context of what a particular company’s done before, or whether it’s a response to a competition, or whether this particular type of market move is strictly technical, or whether it’s some major style, shift or theme that’s washing through the markets.

All that stuff gets thrown into the mix. I have to say, I wish I could feel as if it were more orderly than it is as a process, it’s much more just consume as much as possible, and try to eliminate what’s not relevant.

[00:08:44] Jonathan: It’s interesting, you mentioned Twitter, two or three times so far in the interview, it’s full disclosure, Boyar Asset Management own shares of Twitter, and we wrote about it and when it was about $29 a share earlier this year, the company has a market cap of $34 billion, which when you compare it to Facebook or some of these others is really quite small. Are you surprised based on utility of the service, that they’re not much bigger than they are?

[00:09:18] Michael: Yes, I think on a top-down basis, I’m surprised given its importance in the information ecosystem, the engagement of the people who actually are on there. I’m just less surprised given the fact that it suffers I think a little bit from the comparison to Facebook, where the monetization on Facebook seems just automatic.

There are quarters where Facebook, it seems like they’re trying to hold it back and try not to seem like that they’re this magical growth machine. $34 billion now to your point in today’s market, is not a big number for a company that has carved out that kind of place. I don’t know exactly what to do with that, in terms of I wouldn’t have a prescription for how Twitter should operate differently to try to change that.

There’s no doubt in terms of how crucial it is to people who do– I think the knock on it to some degree is, people in the news business and people obsessed with things like politics and sports are completely saturating Twitter. For other people, it’s easy enough to ignore, but that might be changing as well. It seems like it’s becoming much more central.

[00:10:33] Jonathan: To me, when we were doing our initial work, it just amazes me. At that time, it was in the $20 billion and it was roughly where it was in the 2012 IPO. We started seeing somewhat of a no-brainer. You had Jack Dorsey who runs it. He’s a brilliant guy, but he’s also running Square and he has other outside interests. I wasn’t doing it in terms of how to jack up the stock price.

To me, it was just amazing that a professional like you, and I’m sure you’re not the only one who relies on it for news, it’s just so comparatively small. It’s always amazement of that. I follow you, or my firm @BoyarValue follows you on Twitter. You talk about how you did it in Barron’s, about this mystery broker. It’s a really interesting story. I’m certainly not asking you, would you reveal your source? Do you mind telling everyone how that came to be?

[00:11:34] Michael: Oh, sure. It’s fascinating to me that it became the phenomenon to the degree that it has. It’s a weird lesson too, and I think there’s a behavioral aspect to it, which I’ll get to after, as to why people so flocked to it. It’s just this mystique of secrecy that I think amplifies people’s sense of somebody’s importance perhaps.

The way it all started was, it was really during the global financial crisis. I was writing my column at Barron’s, and this guy, and what I’ve said about him is just that he’s a guy, he is a broker, he’s a financial advisor, but of the old school. Got into the business in the ’80s. He seems to have discretionary accounts and things like that, so that there’s an element of where he’s actually doing his own research and trading to some degree, in addition to just acting as a financial advisor.

However, he emailed me with certain thoughts about my columns. His basic thrust, and this was very, very close to the 2009 law was. He had sent me– By the way, there’s something he wrote in 2007 before he was in touch with me, and I verify the date when he more or less called the top ’07 of the market. Anyway, he sends me this lengthy email with his thesis.

Every time I pushed back on it, he said, “Because the financial crisis is over.” This is April of ’09. Literally, nobody thought the financial crisis was over. What they thought was, “Oh, maybe we’ve seen the worst,” whatever the rationale. I was just impressed with just how he was able to boil things down to what seemed to be discounted already, whether we pass the inflection point, both technical and fundamental inputs that he used.

In a column, and I used to write short columns, a few 100, 600, 800 words, whatever it was, I just detailed this guy’s view in pretty significant detail. I introduced it in a way I was like, “There’s this guy who emails me.” Basically, trying to characterize exactly how I came upon him and people went nuts. The reception– I think part of, it was a very tightly wound moment in the markets.

If you were saying the bottom was in April of ‘09, a few weeks after it was, you’re really going out on a limb. Then later in that year, he basically says, “This is not a bear market rally. This will be a multi-year thing. We’re probably going to have pullback,” et cetera. He’s very tactical along the way, but it just gained this following

I never really intended to make him a regular feature of what I did, but people would ask all the time, and they would also criticize me for amplifying this guy’s views without giving his name. There was no real accountability and all the rest of it. It carried on from there, he just stayed in touch. I’ve literally never met him in person.

I know who he is, I’ve checked out the background and all that, and he’s never telling me anything that would be insider-ish. It’s just his observations and his analysis of what’s happening. What’s fascinating is, Twitter is like a little bit of an ideal way for this thing, this stuff to propagate and I would put stuff out there and I think even when I was at Yahoo, I created the hashtag because people would constantly ask me what he said before, it’s sort of all in one place and I just think it’s– First of all, he’s not always been right but he’s been more right than not typically, he comes from a particular discipline.

I think I would characterize him as being kind of in the Marty’s Zweig, very focused on some like monetary and fun flow and rate of change type stuff but it’s certainly pick individual stocks, and he’ll do work on individual stocks as well. It’s just amazing to me where it’s come to. Also, he’s been an influence on how I think about the markets to some degree.

I try to actually make sure that I’m not bending my thought, my view in a direction, because I either want him to be proven right or wrong, I try to disassociate my current thoughts with like, what he’s– For example, just recently, he basically saying like, the rotation into value, it’s got years to run, here’s why and he’s playing it. I don’t disagree with that but I wouldn’t be so bold as to actually assert that myself.

Again, the lesson in how people view and treat what seems like kind of secret backroom information from an unnamed source is really an interesting lesson because I truly believe if people knew his name and what he did day to day, he would just be another guy, and he would be another voice. Maybe he would be one that people respected a lot like David Tepper, where he doesn’t say much all the time but when he says something, people think that it carries weight or maybe he would just be like one of the many voices that we have on the air all the time, who because of their familiarity, people don’t put on a pedestal. It’s really kind of an unintended phenomenon and kind of an interesting one.

[00:16:53] Jonathan: He’s like your reoccurring deep throat essentially.

[00:16:57] Michael: Right, exactly.

[00:17:01] Jonathan: Years after his death, hopefully many years from now, you’ll reveal him as the way they did with Mark Felt.

[00:17:09] Michael: Wasn’t that a good example of that though? I feel like when Mark Felt was shown to be Deep Throat, people were like, okay. It wasn’t like some bombshell because he kind of knew what was going on but it wasn’t so scandalous that he was one of the top guys or whatever but no, that’s exactly right. In fact, I’ve asked him if he be interested in a reveal and he’s just not. I just think temperamentally, he just doesn’t really want the attention, but clearly, he loves to be right and he likes– he just interestingly, seems to like having that limited amount of publicity.

[music]

[00:17:47] Jonathan: I hope you’ve been enjoying the latest interview with Michael Santoli. To be sure to never miss another World According to Boyar episode, please follow us on Twitter, @BoyarValue. Now, back to the show.

You were at Barron’s covering September 11th and I know you and I kind of talked about it a little bit off air. What did you take from your experience covering September 11th, from a financial journalism perspective that you currently applying to the COVID?

[00:18:20] Michael: Sure. I think one of the first things is a recognition of how markets will turn before it feels like it makes any sense to turn. The overshoot reaction on the downside and then before you really think the coast is clear, the markets will respond most likely, especially when there’s some kind of an overwhelming policy response as there was then.

Now clearly, it was a bear market before September 11th. It kind of gave way to a further bear market months later but the week after September 11th and when I was at Barron’s, we were in the World Financial Center across the street. I’ve had no crazy drama about the day, but of course, we were displaced, and the industry was completely hollowed out. It was obviously all the reasons we know pretty rough time.

We put out the paper that we’re going to publish remember the markets remained closed through that week. It was much more about trying to speculate on economic impact and what’s going to change and everything. Then the markets reopen the following week, I think the Dow opened up down seven, ends up being a pretty nasty little correction.

Going into the next weekend, the others thought, they wanted me to write a market piece and make a call on what happens next. I was completely nervous about it. I really didn’t know if we could be confident in the terms even under which we were trying to make this estimation and we ended up basically going with a cover story that said time to buy stocks now. That would have been, let’s see, 17, like September, the issue of September 24. We kind of got lucky timing-wise on it, and market went up 20% from there over the next few months before it did roll over again. That was a lesson to both of why you’re always going to be nervous when you’re deciding that the markets have already handicapped, or discounted awful events.

Also why you should never be surprised that how violently they react. The other thing that I think I’m carrying over here into COVID and did from the beginning is to be skeptical of that reflects strain of analysis that says, after this crisis, everything will change.

After this crisis, our behavior will fundamentally be different. Now, some of it, of course, will, but I just think back to 9/11, and nobody thought we were getting back on planes as fast as we did. Nobody thought that there would be international travel, and of course, we were worried about the war, and what would it do to the economy and everything else? I just feel as if I’m just reserving judgment, a lot of those things.

Right now, it’s all about like, are people really going to stay away from the office? Are people never going to be comfortable on planes again? Obviously, it’s unique in the sense that we have to find medical signposts for all this stuff when it might get back to normal. Those two things more than anything, I think, inform how I’m trying to go about covering things this phase.

[00:21:35] Jonathan: Yes, I am always skeptical when people say that the world is going to change. We had David Rubenstein on the last podcast, and he had similar views. To me, what’s amazing was, if you would just look at the headlines, starting in, I guess, early March, and you look, you had the chance to look at the headlines through today of what has occurred. You saw that over the past six months, the S&P is up 27%, up 14% year-to-date. The NASDAQ has advanced about 32%. Was there anyone emailing you or telling you that this is what is going to occur that this is actually like the mystery broker said in April of 2009, this is the time to buy stocks?

[00:22:27] Michael: I don’t think anybody said that it would happen that quickly. I think that it goes in these little increments. I think anytime that S&P is down almost 35% in five weeks. That’s usually a close your eyes and buy just for a bounce type of thing. I think it’s gone and it goes in these phases of, okay, fine, you can play for the bounce for mega oversold, maybe the most ever. We’ve already discounted a wipeout of earnings or something for earnings growth for this year, and then all the rest of it. No, I don’t think anybody really thought that it would round trip as quickly as it did.

Now, what’s been fascinating is the way it did it, of course, and I do think that all you would have had to say is that like, Oh, well, mega-cap growth stocks are going to be considered to be bond proxies and the safety trade and they’re going to expand their valuation up to 35 times forward. That gets you a long way toward the S&P getting back to the old highs but no, I think what’s been interesting this time around is that you had such disagreement going in as to how much of an economic event this was even going to be?

I’ll be perfectly candid that through February, I was in that camp that said, “Look, we’ve heard about these. We’ve had these pandemic scares before they’ve been localized. We’ve gotten lucky. If never, if you look back, you never felt like it was smart to sell on the Ebola scare, the SARS crisis, or anything like that.” I was definitely not one from an early stage that was saying, this is going to be big.

I didn’t feel equipped to make the call on the other end of it very well and not that I make calls even, but I do think that one of the main tasks I found myself, well, assigning myself here at CNBC, and it’s gone on everywhere, is trying not to pretend that every step of the way and every day, the market had it wrong.

It was very easy to say what the hell is wrong with the stock market, they don’t get what’s happening with 20% unemployment and shut down economies and mass business failure, you go down the list and I think it comes down to what the stock market does and does not capitalized in the given moment and what stock market we’re discussing. As I said, the NASDAQ 100 is perfectly positioned to be a net beneficiary of that type of environment and it showed through.

I mean, the other piece of it, though, is and this might be the most enduring impact of this period, in terms of economics and fiscal policy and things like that is basically short circuit in the recession with massive proactive response, $3 trillion from Congress, $7 trillion, whatever, another $3 trillion or $4 trillion from the Fed incrementally, whatever it’s been. It completely washed over the economy and did buffer things in a way that you wonder down the road if it’s going to just be considered to be like, “Well, why aren’t we doing this?”

Are you going to essentially just overwhelming force to try to prevent recessions because you haven’t yet gotten any of the bad side effects of that necessarily, so far. It’s been surprising to me but I think once we got into the summer, and the market felt as if it was just handicapping a process that it could monitor day-to-day, whether it be on vaccine development, or whether it be on re-openings.

There’s a sense that we got to created all these new metrics. They’ve been plugged into the machines, and the market was happy to just discount them day-to-day, with every incremental data point. At that point, it didn’t become, all that surprising to me. Also, the earnings floor was I think higher than most people thought would be, for a lot of companies. They just suspended guidance, raised a ton of debt, created a vast liquidity plan for the worst and then maybe the worst didn’t really last more than a couple of months.

[00:26:31] Jonathan: Something near and dear to my heart and you had mentioned that the mystery broker had said to you or I talked about you, do you think we’re really in the midst of a rotation from growth to value? How do you think it’s going to unfold? I’ve seen plenty of false starts for the last three or four years. I’m trying not to get too excited on any of these moves but it does feel like there might be something there.

[00:26:58] Michael: Yes, I’m on board with the idea. I think of it a little more as just a more inclusive market of broadening out. On a relative basis, stuff that’s more cyclical, tied to better nominal growth and just cheaper is it does seem as if there’s certainly a window for that to work better. Where I’ve struggled is the idea that with the major indexes at all-time highs, that somehow in a wholesale way, people are going to retreat from the best business models in the world with the highest profit margins, and reallocate in a major way into laggards and value.

In other words, my point is, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. It doesn’t seem as if growth stocks have to fall apart. They probably get derated a little bit. Just have earnings growth, that it’s not matched by stock price performance. I find a little more satisfaction in talking about cyclical as opposed to value because I think you’d get a little bit bound up in some of the weird statistical value measures that maybe don’t tell you much.

One of the issues is, obviously, in many sectors, if you’re buying cheap, you’re buying the disrupted. I just don’t know to what degree that’s fully been discounted. I think, to a large degree, it has been discounted, that that disruption cycle, these companies been living with it for a long time or they’ve been such, they’re now such small parts of the index that doesn’t really matter and the rest of valuable will take over.

I see the opening for it but it’s tough for me to think that it happens as a easy pass the baton at all-time highs from one style to the other, as opposed to in the mass of a correction or even a bear market. Although maybe the last several months collectively, was that hashing out process. I’m not really sure because you obviously remember in 2000, index did terribly, growth fell apart, and value didn’t have a bear market.

[00:29:02] Jonathan: [laughs] I love those days. Our view is this is not 2000 that those leaders are actually really solid good businesses. I just think the rest will play catch up but does an Apple deserve to trade at 30 some odd times earnings should be treated more like a consumer staple, that type of thing might happen. Amazon’s in its own orbit, how that plays out with regulations. It will be interesting to see. That’s what makes it really interesting.

One of the things I see you utilize, we don’t use it just because it’s just not part of our style. I’m not saying that there’s not a reason for and I think a lot of people do it very well is technical analysis. How do you think investors should be thinking about technicals when making their buy and sell decision? What should they really be paying attention to?

[00:30:02] Michael: It’s interesting because, first of all, I am a complete amateur practitioner. I don’t really consider myself a technician either by belief or practice, but I do highlight a lot of technical metrics. I do view the world to some degree through those frames. The reason I do it, to be honest with you is, I’m always looking for context. I’m always looking to place what’s happening today in terms of what came before. I want to get a sense of trend, I want to know if this is just a continuation of what’s been going on or if it’s been some kind of an aberration, and whatever.

I don’t really focus as much on levels and absolute price signals and targets as much as saying, you have to have a really good reason to fight an entrenched trend. If the price hasn’t got diverge massively and decided to get very overbought or oversold, the trend is something you should probably– It’s like path of least resistance.

I follow people who make very persuasive arguments that like, “If you see a stock that falls out of bed, it gets oversold, but it’s in an uptrend, there’s your opportunity.” Those are the types of dips that you want to buy and vice versa. If some oil and gas stock is in this disgusting looking downtrend, and it just pops 20%, don’t think that’s a trend reversal, you need some more confirmation.

To me, it’s about listening to the market, as much as telling the market what it ought to be doing. I’m not one of those people who says the only truth is price and fundamental analysis is useless. For me, it’s more of a convenience to how I should portray what’s happening in the market, graphically and narratively, than it is believing that technicals are magic in terms of trading or investing.

I’d make that distinction to some degree, but I’m a huge baseball fan. It’s like, I believe all this high powered statistical stuff that people have come up with, it’s an amazing way to decide what matters in a game and what types of players might be more or less valuable, but it doesn’t really entirely replace having a sense of who performs well in better situations and trying to project out how a team might perform or something like that.

I also like to see the game unfold, let’s be honest. What I’m mostly doing is color commentary on the action. Not predicting the next move, we’re just trying to give some perspective on how it’s been going. I think the technicals at least helped me do that.

[00:32:52] Jonathan: Michael, you’ve been more than generous with your time and you’ve gone 15 minutes over than what I told you it would be and I know you probably have some stories you need to cover. I want to thank you for appearing on The World According to Boyar and I really appreciate your time and insights. To be sure to never miss another World According to Boyar, please follow us on Twitter @BoyarValue. Michael, again, thanks for being on the show.

[00:33:19] Michael: It was great. It was great to talk to you.

[music]

[00:33:40] [END OF AUDIO]

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