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CONFIRMED: Foreign investors flock back to Russia

As economy strengthens Russia overtakes India as top pick for foreign investors and equity funds

Alexander Mercouris

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This article was first published by RussiaFeed

Growing investor confidence in the Russia as its historically high inflation rate continues to fall, and as its economy leaves recession behind it, has received dramatic confirmation with the news that for the first time Russia has overtaken India as the preferred investment option of emerging market investors.

This confirmation comes from the most authoritative possible source, an article in the Financial Times, which in recent years has been intensely critical of Russia.

Russia has taken over from India as the largest overweight position for emerging market equity funds.

The move comes despite the imposition of ever-tighter sanctions on Moscow, still low oil prices and an economy now pulling out of bitter recession but still assailed by real, inflation-adjusted interest rates of 5.2 per cent.

In contrast, India has long been a darling of foreign investors licking their lips at the prospect of the world’s second-most populous country growing at a punchy rate, assisted by the reformist zeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Russia is now the largest overweight position among emerging market managers for the first time since our records began in 2011, surpassing longstanding EM favourite India,” said Steven Holden, founder of Copley Fund Research, who compiled the data and confessed to “surprise” at Russia’s newfound popularity.

The average EM equity fund is now overweight Russia by 1.46 percentage points, surpassing the 1.4 percentage-point figure for India, where fund managers had an average overweight position of 4.4 per cent in early 2015, according to Copley’s numbers, as shown in the first chart.

The data are based on the holdings of 126 funds with combined assets of $300bn. Of these funds, 72.8 per cent are now overweight Russia, compared with only 60 per cent with an outsize position in India….

The article points out correctly that foreign investor interest in Russia starts from a very low base, and that Russia has overtaken India as much because of India’s recent loss of attractiveness as Russia’s rise in attractiveness.

However the article also makes it clear that the rise in investor interest in Russia is ultimately driven by Russia’s increasingly strong fundamentals

Mr Jain is among a group of investors with a genuine fervour for Russia now, which is striking given that he was “ultra bearish for 15 years”, while CIO of Switzerland’s Vontobel Asset Management, where he ran as much as $32bn. Yet now his GQG Partners Emerging Markets Equity fund has an exposure of 10.2 per cent to Russia, more than three times its index weight.

“I was publicly critical of investing in Russia. I have covered Russia for 25 years and this is the most I have had,” he said.

Nicholas Field, EM strategist at Schroders and co-manager of the group’s Global Emerging Market Opportunities fund, is another convert, with a punchier weighting of 14.2 per cent.

“A lot of the headlines one reads about Russia are about geopolitics and relations with the US and so on, but when you look at the economy you do see some things that are interesting to investors,” he said.

Mr Jain’s thesis is that the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and EU, as well as the slide in oil prices, have been largely beneficial to foreign investors because they have forced Russian companies to delever and cut costs.

India is very expensive. It has gone from very cheap to one of the most expensive markets.  More specifically, he says Russian oil companies have been forced to develop complex drilling technology in-house, potentially helping them in the long term, while some domestic agricultural companies, such as cheesemakers, have benefited from reduced foreign competition amid Russian counter-sanctions on European food imports.

“Sanctions have been positive for the Russian corporate world. [Companies] were forced to get their act together and there was a massive cost-cutting effort,” said Mr Jain. “Because of this cost-cutting, operating profits are higher than people estimate. Corporate earnings have begun to recover after a long slump. You have to follow the corporate profits.”

He even sees positives in the travails of Otkritie and B&N Bank, two private banks that have been bailed out by the central bank and nationalised in recent weeks after running into financial difficulties.

About 4.2 per cent of Mr Jain’s fund is invested in Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. He said: “The banking industry has seen massive consolidation. Now three banks control 70 per cent of the assets. “Sberbank is very well run, on six times earnings. How many banks make 20 per cent ROE [return on equity] in the middle of a recession? The position they have wouldn’t be allowed in many countries, and now there is tremendous credit growth and NPLs [non-performing loans] are coming off.”

Overall, he sees room for further top-line revenue growth, margin expansion and a market re-rating, given that Moscow currently trades on a price/earnings ratio of just 7.8 and has a chunky dividend yield of 4.7 per cent.

Readers of RussiaFeed and of The Duran will already be familiar with much of this.  By way of example, here is a recent article I wrote for The Duran on the subject of Russia’s advances in oil drilling technology (one of the subjects touched on in the Financial Times article by Rajiv Jain), whilst the rapid advance of Russian agriculture, in part as a consequence of Russia’s counter-sanctions (a subject also touched on by Rajiv Jain) was recently discussed by me on RussiaFeed here.

As for the growing strength of the Russian financial and banking system – historically the Achilles heel of Russia’s post-Soviet economy – I have discussed it many times and in many places (see for example here and here).

What is finally happening is that the international investment community – and the Financial Times – are finally catching up with the truth of all of this.

Given the enormous amount of negative “noise” from which Russia suffers and the Financial Times’s longstanding hostility to the country and its government, the article about international investors coming to Russia nonetheless and entirely unsurprisingly comes with a sting in its tail.  The growing interest in Russia is supposedly not because its long term economic prospects are good.  It is only because of Russia’s recovery from recession

Mr Field’s optimism is fuelled by the country’s economic recovery, which he expects to continue until at least the middle of 2018. “Demand has been suppressed so the recovery should continue for a while. Inflation has dropped to 3.3 per cent, which is pretty unheard of in Russia. In the next 12-24 months there is room for quite a few interest rate cuts and that can certainly boost the economy. The one thing that can upset that is another major move in the oil price,” said Mr Field.

Nevertheless, he is not a long-term bull. “We don’t think long-term structural trend growth is very high, so as much as people are buying into Russia now it’s not because it has a glorious 10 or 20 years ahead, it’s because it’s recovering.”

We are likely to hear numerous such comments over the next few months as Russia’s renewed economic growth becomes impossible to deny even by those who previously said it would never happen.

Such comments are actually meaningless.  In what sense is an economy’s successful recovery from recession a reason for doubting its future growth?

Putting that aside, the article itself provides abundant examples of the ‘structural reasons’ why strong growth in the future is likely.  To repeat again the comments which appear in the article from Rajiv Jain

…….Russian oil companies have been forced to develop complex drilling technology in-house, potentially helping them in the long term, while some domestic agricultural companies, such as cheesemakers, have benefited from reduced foreign competition amid Russian counter-sanctions on European food imports.

“Sanctions have been positive for the Russian corporate world. [Companies] were forced to get their act together and there was a massive cost-cutting effort,” said Mr Jain. “Because of this cost-cutting, operating profits are higher than people estimate. Corporate earnings have begun to recover after a long slump. You have to follow the corporate profits.”

He even sees positives in the travails of Otkritie and B&N Bank, two private banks that have been bailed out by the central bank and nationalised in recent weeks after running into financial difficulties.

About 4.2 per cent of Mr Jain’s fund is invested in Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. He said: “The banking industry has seen massive consolidation. Now three banks control 70 per cent of the assets. “Sberbank is very well run, on six times earnings. How many banks make 20 per cent ROE [return on equity] in the middle of a recession? The position they have wouldn’t be allowed in many countries, and now there is tremendous credit growth and NPLs [non-performing loans] are coming off.”

What is cost-cutting, greater efficiency, development of new products and new technologies, high operating profits and (within the banking system) successful industry consolidation if not evidence of the economy successfully addressing its structural problems, thereby ensuring its successful long term growth in the future?  No doubt there is much more still to do, but why go on pretending that nothing is happening when it obviously is?

One of the perennial problems discussion of Russia’s economy faces is that its Western critics insist on having it both ways.  They are forced to concede that the Russian economy has successfully adapted to the harsh post-2014 economic conditions in which it found itself (low oil prices and Western sanctions) and is now recovering from a recession that most of them thought would break it, but at the same time they refuse to admit that this successful adaption of the Russian economy to these same harsh economic conditions in any way undermines their deeply critical even at times apocalyptic picture of it.

In reality an economy that could adapt so quickly and so successfully to the challenges it faced in 2014 cannot be the inefficient, corrupt, badly managed, ‘kleptocratic’ and underdeveloped ‘Zaire with snow’ economy imagined by its Western critics.

The article in the Financial Times shows that increasing numbers of fund managers, including some like Rajiv Jain and Nicholas Field who had previously bought into this dark picture, are starting to see the truth of this.

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“I’m Not A Racist, But I’m A Nationalist”: Why Sweden Faces A Historic Election Upset

Sweden is set to have a political earthquake in September.

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Via Zerohedge


“Trains and hospitals don’t work, but immigration continues,” Roger Mathson, a retired vegetable oil factory worker in Sweden, told Bloomberg on the same day as the violent, coordinated rampage by masked gangs of youths across five Swedish cities.

We noted earlier that Swedish politicians were quick to react with anti-immigrant party ‘Sweden Democrats’ seeing a surge in the polls ahead of the September 9th election.

“I’m not a racist, but I’m a nationalist,” Mathson said. “I don’t like seeing the town square full of Niqab-clad ladies and people fighting with each other.”

Is Sweden set to have its own political earthquake in September, where general elections could end a century of Social Democratic dominance and bring to power a little known (on the world stage), but the now hugely popular nationalist party often dubbed far-right and right-wing populist, called Sweden Democrats?

Sweden, a historically largely homogeneous population of 10 million, took in an astounding 600,000 refugees over the past five years, and after Swedes across various cities looked out their windows Tuesday to see cars exploding, smoke filling the skies, and possibly armed masked men hurling explosives around busy parking lots, it appears they’ve had enough.

Over the past years of their rise as a political force in Swedish politics, the country’s media have routinely labelled the Sweden Democrats as “racists” and “Nazis” due to their seemingly single issue focus of anti-immigration and strong Euroscepticism.

A poll at the start of this week indicated the Sweden Democrats slid back to third place after topping three previous polls as the September election nears; however, Tuesday’s national crisis and what could legitimately be dubbed a serious domestic terror threat is likely to boost their popularity.

Bloomberg’s profile of their leader, Jimmie Akesson, echoes the tone of establishment Swedish media in the way they commonly cast the movement, beginning as follows:

Viking rock music and whole pigs roasting on spits drew thousands of Swedes to a festival hosted by nationalists poised to deliver their country’s biggest political upheaval in a century.

The Sweden Democrats have been led since 2005 by a clean-cut and bespectacled man, Jimmie Akesson. He’s gentrified a party that traces its roots back to the country’s neo-Nazi, white supremacist fringe. Some polls now show the group may become the biggest in Sweden’s parliament after general elections on Sept. 9. Such an outcome would end 100 years of Social Democratic dominance.

The group’s popularity began surging after the 2015 immigration crisis began, which first hit Europe’s southern Mediterranean shores and quickly moved northward as shocking wave after wave of migrants came.

Jimmie Akesson (right). Image source: Getty via Daily Express

Akesson emphasizes something akin to a “Sweden-first” platform which European media often compares to Trump’s “America First”; and the party has long been accused of preaching forced assimilation into Swedish culture to be become a citizen.

Bloomberg’s report surveys opinions at a large political rally held in Akkeson’s hometown of Solvesborg, and some of the statements are sure to be increasingly common sentiment after this week’s coordinated multi-city attack:

At his party’s festival, Akesson revved up the crowd by slamming the establishment’s failures, calling the last two governments the worst in Swedish history. T-shirts calling for a Swexit, or an exit from the EU, were exchanged as bands played nationalist tunes.

Ted Lorentsson, a retiree from the island of Tjorn, said he’s an enthusiastic backer of the Sweden Democrats. “I think they want to improve elderly care, health care, child care,” he said. “Bring back the old Sweden.” But he also acknowledges his view has led to disagreement within his family as his daughter recoils at what she feels is the “Hitler”-like rhetoric.

No doubt, the media and Eurocrats in Brussels will take simple, innocent statements from elderly retirees like “bring back the old Sweden” as nothing short of declaration of a race war, but such views will only solidify after this week.

Another Sweden Democrat supporter, a 60-year old woman who works at a distillery, told Bloomberg, “I think you need to start seeing the whole picture in Sweden and save the original Swedish population,” she said. “I’m not racist, because I’m a realist.”

Sweden’s two biggest parties, the Social Democrats and Moderates, are now feeling the pressure as Swedes increasingly worry about key issues preached by Akesson like immigration, law and order, and health care – seen as under threat by a mass influx of immigrants that the system can’t handle.

Bloomberg explains further:

But even young voters are turning their backs on the establishment. One potential SD supporter is law student Oscar Persson. Though he hasn’t yet decided how he’ll vote, he says it’s time for the mainstream parties to stop treating the Sweden Democrats like a pariah. “This game they are playing now, where the other parties don’t want to talk to them but still want their support, is something I don’t really understand,” he said.

Akesson has managed to entice voters from both sides of the political spectrum with a message of more welfare, lower taxes and savings based on immigration cuts.

With many Swedes now saying immigration has “gone too far” and as this week’s events have once again thrust the issue before both a national and global audience, the next round of polling will mostly like put Sweden’s conservative-right movements on top

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The Turkish Emerging Market Timebomb

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s populist economic policies have finally caught up to him.

The Duran

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Authored by Jim O’Neill, originally on Project Syndicate:


As the Turkish lira continues to depreciate against the dollar, fears of a classic emerging-market crisis have come to the fore. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s populist economic policies have finally caught up to him, and sooner or later, he will have to make nice with his country’s traditional Western allies.

Turkey’s falling currency and deteriorating financial conditions lend credence, at least for some people, to the notion that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” I suspect that many Western policymakers, in particular, are not entirely unhappy about Turkey’s plight.

To veteran economic observers, Turkey’s troubles are almost a textbook case of an emerging-market flop. It is August, after all, and back in the 1990s, one could barely go a single year without some kind of financial crisis striking in the dog days of summer.

But more to the point, Turkey has a large, persistent current-account deficit, and a belligerent leader who does not realize – or refuses to acknowledge – that his populist economic policies are unsustainable. Moreover, Turkey has become increasingly dependent on overseas investors (and probably some wealthy domestic investors, too).

Given these slowly gestating factors, markets have long assumed that Turkey was headed for a currency crisis. In fact, such worries were widespread as far back as the fall of 2013, when I was in Istanbul interviewing business and financial leaders for a BBC Radio series on emerging economies. At that time, markets were beginning to fear that monetary-policy normalization and an end to quantitative easing in the United States would have dire consequences globally. The Turkish lira has been flirting with disaster ever since.

Now that the crisis has finally come to pass, it is Turkey’s population that will bear the brunt of it. The country must drastically tighten its domestic monetary policy, curtail foreign borrowing, and prepare for the likelihood of a full-blown economic recession, during which time domestic saving will slowly have to be rebuilt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership will both complicate matters and give Turkey some leverage. Erdoğan has  constitutional powers, reducing those of the parliament, and undercutting the independence of monetary and fiscal policymaking. And to top it off, he seems to be reveling in an escalating feud with US President Donald Trump’s administration over Turkey’s imprisonment of an American pastor and purchase of a Russian S-400 missile-defense system.

This is a dangerous brew for the leader of an emerging economy to imbibe, particularly when the United States itself has embarked on a Ronald Reagan-style fiscal expansion that has pushed the US Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than it would have otherwise. Given the unlikelihood of some external source of funding emerging, Erdoğan will eventually have to back down on some of his unorthodox policies. My guess is that we’ll see a return to a more conventional monetary policy, and possibly a new fiscal-policy framework.

As for Turkey’s leverage in the current crisis, it is worth remembering that the country has a large and youthful population, and thus the potential to grow into a much larger economy in the future. It also enjoys a privileged geographic position at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, which means that many major players have a stake in ensuring its stability. Indeed, many Europeans still hold out hope that Turkey will embrace Western-style capitalism, despite the damage that Erdoğan has done to the country’s European Union accession bid.

Among the regional powers, Russia is sometimes mentioned as a potential savior for Turkey. There is no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin would love to use Turkey’s crisis to pull it even further away from its NATO allies. But Erdoğan and his advisers would be deeply mistaken to think that Russia can fill Turkey’s financial void. A Kremlin intervention would do little for Turkey, and would likely exacerbate Russia’s own .

The other two potential patrons are Qatar and, of course, China. But while Qatar, one of Turkey’s closest Gulf allies, could provide financial aid, it does not ultimately have the wherewithal to pull Turkey out of its crisis singlehandedly.

As for China, though it will not want to waste the opportunity to increase its influence vis-à-vis Turkey, it is not the country’s style to step into such a volatile situation, much less assume responsibility for solving the problem. The more likely outcome – as we are seeing in Greece – is that China will unleash its companies to pursue investment opportunities after the dust settles.

That means that Turkey’s economic salvation lies with its conventional Western allies: the US and the EU (particularly France and Germany). On August 13, a White House spokesperson confirmed that the Trump administration is watching the financial-market response to Turkey’s crisis “very closely.” The last thing that Trump wants is a crumbling world economy and a massive dollar rally, which could derail his domestic economic ambitions. So a classic Trump “trade” is probably there for Erdoğan, if he is willing to come to the negotiating table.

Likewise, some of Europe’s biggest and most fragile banks have significant exposure to Turkey. Combine that with the ongoing political crisis over migration, and you have a recipe for deeper destabilization within the EU. I, for one, cannot imagine that European leaders will sit by and do nothing while Turkey implodes on their border.

Despite his escalating rhetoric, Erdoğan may soon find that he has little choice but to abandon his isolationist and antagonistic policies of the last few years. If he does, many investors may look back next year and wish that they had snapped up a few lira when they had the chance.

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Why Scandinavia Isn’t Exceptional

Scandinavia is entirely unexceptional.

The Duran

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Authored by Per Bylund via The Mises Institute:


[From the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.]

The Scandinavian countries, and primary among them Sweden, are commonly referred to as anomalies or inspirations, depending on one’s political point of view. The reason is that the countries do not appear to fit the general pattern: they are enormously successful whereas they “shouldn’t” be. Indeed, Scandinavians enjoy very high living standards despite having very large, progressive welfare states for which they pay the world’s highest taxes.

As a result, a large and growing literature, both propagandist and scholarly, has emerged that tries to identify the reasons for this Scandinavian exceptionalism—especially as pertains to their welfare states. I have myself contributed to this literature1 and have previously reviewed others’ contributions to it in this journal.2 But what has been missing is a summary analysis that is accessible to non-scholars. It was therefore a delight to read Nima Sanandaji’s Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets, and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism, published by British Institute for Economic Affairs.

Dr. Sanandaji is a political-economy analyst and writer, well known in both Sweden and Europe, and as expected does an excellent job summarizing the state of scholarship. He also uses examples and quotes from articles published in Scandinavian news media to illustrate the narrative. The result is a short and informative but easy to read answer to both how and why the Scandinavian welfare states seem to work so well.

The short book provides the reader with insight into Scandinavian culture, an explanation of the causes of the nations’ exceptional rise from poverty, an overview of their recent political-economic history, the distinct structure and evolution of the Scandinavian welfare state, the origins of their egalitarianism and gender equality, and the effect of immigration. I will briefly touch on three of these areas.

First, Sanandaji makes clear that the rosy story of the Scandinavian welfare state, as it is usually told, is at best incomplete. The Scandinavian countries were among the European continent’s poorest by the end of the 19th century and were largely unaffected by the industrialization that had started centuries earlier in the United Kingdom. A combination of classical liberal reform and the adoption of industrialized production created a century-long “golden age,” as Bergh (2014) denotes the period approximately 1870–1970 in Sweden, of economic growth and rapidly rising standards of living.

This growth was partly also made possible by a distinct Scandinavian culture, which is characterized by the “[h]igh levels of trust, a strong work ethic and social cohesion [that] are the perfect starting point for successful economies” (p. 7). As Sanandaji points out, the market-aligned virtues of Scandinavian culture also explain the limited impact of the welfare state as it was erected and ballooned in the 1930s and beyond. Cultural change takes time, and thus old values lag in the face of political change. So it took time for the Scandinavian virtues to give way to the destructive incentives of the welfare state.

It should also be noted, though Sanandaji fails to make this point clearly, that after the welfare state was established, and during its several decades of expansion, it’s growth rate tended to be lower than that of the overall economy. The increasing burden was therefore, in relative terms, marginal. That is, until the radical 1960s and 1970s when Scandinavian governments, and the Swedish government in particular, adopted very expansionist welfare policies. (This political shift is analyzed in detail in, e.g., Bergh.)3

Sanandaji also presents interesting data with respect to Scandinavian gender equality. His discussion begins with the internationally enviable women’s labor market participation rate in Scandinavian countries, and especially Sweden. The background, however, is that Sweden’s government had adopted a radical agenda for population control formulated by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal (yes, the same Gunnar Myrdal who shared the 1974 economics prize with Hayek). The gist of this reform was to enforce a shared responsibility between parents and “the community” for children’s upbringing. By raising taxes on income while offering government-run daycare services, families were incentivized (if not “forced,” economically speaking) to secure two full-time incomes.

Interestingly, while this indeed rapidly increased women’s participation in the labor market, Sanandaji notes that “few women in the Nordic nations reach the position of business leaders, and even fewer manage to climb to the very top positions of directors and chief executives” (p. 102). Part of the reason is that jobs that women typically choose, including education and healthcare, are monopolized in the vast public sectors. As a result, women at trapped in careers where employers do not compete for their competence and many leadership positions are political.

This development is indirectly illustrated in a terrifying statistic from Sweden’s labor market: “Between 1950 and 2000, the Swedish population grew from seven to almost nine million. But astonishingly the net job creation in the private sector was close to zero” (p. 33).

Finally, Sanandaji addresses the issue of immigration and shows that the Scandinavian nations were exceptionally good at integration, with greater labor participation for immigrants than other Western nations, prior to the radicalization of the welfare state. Thereafter, due to rigid labor regulations and vast welfare benefits, immigrants were more or less kept out of Scandinavian job markets.

The literature identifies two potential explanations. First, the anti-business and job-protection policies practically exclude anyone with a lack of work experience, highly sought-after skills, or those with lacking proficiency in the language or limited network. This keeps immigrants as well as young people unemployed (the very high youth unemployment rates in Scandinavia illustrate this problem). Second, the promises of the universal welfare state tend to attract people who are less interested in working their way to the top and thus have a lacking work ethic.

This explains the recent problems in Scandinavia with respect to immigration, which is essentially an integration and policy problem — not a foreign-people problem.

Overall, Sanandaji’s book provides plenty of insights and a coherent explanation for the rise of the Scandinavian nations and their welfare states. Their impressive standard of living is a free-market story, which is rooted in an economically sound culture. This culture also supported the welfare state, until decades of destructive incentives eroded the nations’ sound values. The welfare state, after its radicalization, was soon crushed under its own weight, and Scandinavia has since undergone vast free-market reforms that again have contributed to economic growth and prosperity.

Considering the full story, Sanandaji summarizes the example of the Northern European welfare states simply and bluntly: “Scandinavia is entirely unexceptional.”

  • 1.Bylund, Per L. 2010. “The Modern Welfare State: Leading the Way on the Road to Serfdom.” In Thomas E. Woods, ed., Back on the Road to Serfdom: The Resurgence of Statism. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books.
  • 2.2015. “Book Review: Sweden and the Revival of the Capitalist Welfare State by Andreas Bergh,” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 18, no. 1: 75–81.
  • 3.Bergh, Andreas. 2014. Sweden and the Revival of the Capitalist Welfare State. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar.

Per Bylund is assistant professor of entrepreneurship & Records-Johnston Professor of Free Enterprise in the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University. Website: PerBylund.com.

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