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assessing risk|realizing opportunities

How Deep is the Ocean?

The crisis in the credit markets is creating some new American superheroes. Fed Chairman Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Geithner are today’s dynamic duo engaged in a titanic struggle with the evil forces of inflation, stagflation, a weak dollar and dysfunctional credit markets. Their mission is to keep the specter of a recession from reappearing again.

Their weapon of choice is a high octane capital swap, low interest generator and paper guarantee machine. The machine produces accelerated capital flows by pumping liquidity into credit channels faster than water surging through the Hoover Dam at the height of a Rocky Mountain snow melt.

Just as the great Colorado River brings life and growth to the parched deserts of the American southwest so to is liquidity the essential condition to sustain the economic viability of a corporate enterprise.

Liquidity concerns grow particularly close to the bone of small businesses. Liquidity is their bread of life and small businesses must master the fine art of liquidity management. Unlike large corporations and governments, the ability of small businesses to print money, tap commercial paper markets, leverage or sell assets or engage in other forms of exotic balance sheet alchemy is limited. So at the end of the day, when the payroll is due, a key supplier is waiting by the receptionist for a check and your best sales person is doing her best to close that huge new deal your anxiety grows a bit as you ponder your cash position and begin to project the next three months.

You call your local banker. You are a long standing and valued customer but “risk aversion” continues to creep into the discussion and they tell you that their funding sources have grown “risk averse” due to losses in the sub-prime mortgage market and finding new funding sources have been difficult. So for now at least the expansion of a credit facility with them is not an option.

You keep getting calls from those merchant finance companies that are offering short term loans but the prospect of paying usurious rates of 18%-30% on future credit card receivables will put a major dent in your profit margins. That makes this credit channel’s cost of operating capital prohibitively expensive.

That’s where risk management comes in. Many small business owners are masters at risk management. They are skilled entrepreneurs that put personal capital at risk. They got major skin into the game and that motivates them to continually evaluate how to protect their assets and maximize returns. Many small business owners are extremely gifted at leveraging assets to address opportunities. Assets such as monetary capital, people, intellectual capital, suppliers, facilities and products are routinely utilized to enhance and extend liquidity. But as credit markets tighten all small businesses need to become more aware of preserving liquidity. This can be accomplished by incorporating a few simple risk management practices.

A good place to start is to make sure your systems and business processes are optimized to support efficiencies. Many of the traditional cash management techniques are well known. Small business accounting software and the availability of internet banking tools are a great help to small businesses. These tools help to extend and manage payment cycles, match assets to liabilities and a good banker will help you develop specific strategies and practices to address these issues and improve your cash position.

Another area to consider is to arbitrage credit providers. Obviously this tactic works great during times of enhanced liquidity but credit channels are still vibrant and the market is crowed with numerous providers and products. Though it is true that as more participants enter markets they tend to become more efficient resulting in small spreads the volatility of the credit markets can work to your advantage. If you can replace a line of merchant finance credit with a bank offered facility you will increase your margins by the spread of the savings.

Sources of capital leakage from the company are a major threat to liquidity. Small business managers must be aware of how to assess this risk factor and how to minimize potential damage it can cause. By “leakage” of enterprise capital we mean to suggest that capital invested by the business did not create an acceptable rate of return. A concerted approach to assessing and managing risk factors preserves liquidity, builds equity and a strong balance sheet.

The principal villains that contribute to capital leakage are poor cash management and inappropriate, non-prioritized or misdirected capital allocation initiatives. These initiatives are acquisitions or projects requiring the investment of time, money, personal energy and corporate resource that do not produce an optimal rate of return.

Small businesses need to incorporate opportunity cost in determining ROI on business initiatives. This is because a small business must limit the number of projects it can engage. It must be certain that current projects will build greater value for the business then the project it declined to pursue. An understanding of value at risk (VaR) is also a useful metric to determine what initiative or project will mitigate the greatest risk and produce the greatest return on capital expenditures.

Risk assessment is a powerful opportunity discovery exercise that requires intentionality and discipline. Many small business owners do these assessments in their head and make decisions based on gut feeling or intuition. An opportunity discovery methodology that walks you through an objective assessment of risk factors is a wonderful complement to the fine tuned business instinct of the small business owner.

Lastly, small businesses need to focus on their most profitable products, best clients and key suppliers within their most promising markets. This may seem obvious but many businesses are reluctant to alter their business models to accommodate this blatant reality. Inertia, culture and ego are the principle culprits and ironically clients, products, suppliers and markets pose some of the greatest risks to small businesses.

It is true that a rising tide lifts all boats. We have just experienced one of the greatest economic expansions in the history of the global economy. It’s been a great run. But the party is over. The era of an unending flow of easy credit and cheap capital is over for now. Until happy days return again we must adapt and protect our solvency through effective liquidity management practices. During times of economic uncertainty and distress it’s a great opportunity to build financial health through effective risk management because when the tide goes out the rudderless businesses captained by poor stewards will crash upon the rocks and get beached on unforeseen shoals or sink into the depths of the unforgiving briny deep.

You Tube Music Video:  Billie Holiday,  How Deep is the Ocean?

Risk: credit, small business,  SME, recession, liquidity

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April 29, 2010 Posted by | banking, credit crisis, risk management, small business, SME | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Schulte Roth & Zabel Navigating A Brave New World

This years Schulte Roth & Zabel’s  (SRZ) 19th Annual Private Investment Funds Seminar stuck a very different pose from last years event.  One year on from the global meltdown of financial markets, languishing institutional certainty and the  pervading crisis of industry confidence has been replaced with a cautious optimism.  The bold swagger of the industry however is gone, in its place a more certain sense of direction and expectation is emerging.  Though managers continue to labor under unachievable  high water marks due to the 2008 market devastation, 2009 marked a year of exceptional performance.   Investment portfolios rebounded in line with the upturn in the equity and bond markets.  Liquidity improved and net inflows into the industry has turned positive during the last quarter as large institutional investors and sovereign wealth funds returned to the sector with generous allocations.  These are taken as clear signs that the industry has stabilized and the path to recovery and the healing of economic and psychological wounds are underway.  Yes the industry will survive and ultimately thrive again but it will do so under vastly different conditions.  The new business landscape will require an industry with a guarded culture of  opaqueness to provide much greater transparency while operating under a regimen of greater regulatory scrutiny.

The 1,900 registered attendees heard a message about an industry at a cross road  still coming to terms with the market cataclysm brought on by unfettered, unregulated markets and excessive risk taking.  SRZ offered an honest assessment in examining the industries role in the market turmoil.  Speakers alerted attendees to an industry at a tipping point.  To survive the industry must adapt to a converging world that believes that uniform market rules and regulations are the surest safeguards against catastrophic systemic risk events.  A global political consensus is emerging  that expresses  support for industry regulation as an effective tool to mitigate the pervasiveness of fraud and market manipulation that undermines investor confidence and ultimately the functioning of a fair and efficient open free market.

Paul Roth, Founding Partner of SRZ,  noted in the events opening remarks that the market is beginning to recover as evidenced by industry AUM once again exceeding the $2 trillion mark;  but  he warned  that any exuberance needs to be tempered with the understanding that the new normal would not resemble the pre-crash world.  The days of  cowboy capitalism and radical laissez-faire investing are clearly over.   Indeed Mr. Roth wryly observed “the industry must develop a maturity about the need for change.  He concluded “that the industry must respond by playing a constructive role in forming that change.”

The conference subject matter, speakers and materials were all top shelf.  Break out presentations on risk management, regulatory compliance, distressed debt deal structuring, tax strategies and compensation issues all reinforced the overriding theme of an industry in flux.  The presenters passionately advocated the need to intentionally engage the issues  to confront accelerated changes in market conditions.  By doing so, fund complexes will be in a position to better manage the profound impact these changes will have on their business and operating culture.  Subject issues like insider trading, tax efficient structuring, hedge fund registration,  preparing for SEC examinations and the thrust of DOJ litigation initiatives and how to respond to subpoenas were some of the topics explored.

To highlight the emerging regulatory environment confronting the industry, a  presenter pointed to the Southerization of the SEC.  This is an allusion to the hiring of former criminal prosecutors from the Department of Justice, Southern District of New York to go after wayward fund managers.  The SEC is ramping up its organizational capability to effectively prosecute any violations of the new regulatory codes.   The growing specter of criminal prosecutions and the growing web of indictments concerning the high profile case of Mr. Raj Rajaratnam of the Galleon Group was presented as evidence of an emerging aggressive enforcement posture being pursued by regulators.  Managers beware!

Presenters made some excellent points about how institutional investors are demanding greater levels of TLC from their hedge fund managers.  This TLC stands for transparency, liquidity and control.  Creating an operational infrastructure and business culture that can accommodate these demands by institutional investors will strengthen the fund complex and help it to attract capital during the difficult market cycle.

The evening concluded with an interesting and honest conversation between Paul Roth and Thomas Steyer,  the Senior Managing Partner of Farallon Capital Management.  The conversation included increased regulatory oversight, compensation issues, industry direction and matching investor liquidity with fund strategy, capacity, structure and scale.   Mr. Steyer manages a multi-strategy fund complex with $20 billion AUM,  his insights are borne from a rich industry experience.  He made the startling admission that Farallon has been a registered hedge fund for many years and he believes that the regulatory oversight and preparation for examiners reviews helped his fund management company to develop operational discipline informed by sound practices.

Mr. Steyer also spoke about scale and that additional regulatory oversight will add expense to the cost of doing business.  Mr. Steyer believes that it will become increasingly difficult for smaller hedge funds to operate and compete under these market conditions.

Another interesting topic Mr. Steyer addressed were issues surrounding investor redemption and fund liquidity.  During last years SRZ conference investor liquidity was the hot topic.  Fund preservation during a period of market illiquidity and a fair and orderly liquidation of an investment partnership were major themes that ran through  last years  presentations.  Mr. Steyer struck a more conciliatory tone of investor accommodation.  He confessed his dislike for the use of “gates” as a way to control the exit of capital from a fund.  In its place he offered a new fund structure he referred to as a “strip” to allocate portfolio positions to redeeming partners in proportion to the overall funds liquid and illiquid positions.  He stated he believed that strategy to be more investor friendly.

Schulte Roth & Zabel has once again demonstrated its market leadership and foresight to an industry clearly in flux, confronting multiple challenges.  These challenges will force fund managers to transform their operating culture in response to the sweeping demands of global market pressures, political impetus for regulatory reform and the heightened expectations of increasingly sophisticated investors.   The industry could not have a more capable hand at the helm to help it navigate through the jagged rocks and shifting shoals endemic to the alternative investment management marketplace.

You Tube Music Video: Beach Boys, Sail On Sailor

Risk: industry, market, regulatory, political

January 15, 2010 Posted by | hedge funds, institutional, investments, operations, politics, private equity, regulatory, reputational risk, risk management, SEC, sovereign wealth funds | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Growing Contagion: One in Seven Companies Are a Credit Risk

contagion1-450The H1N1 Swine flu threat may be the big topic on CNN but a growing contagion of financial distress is widely infecting small and mid-sized enterprises (SME) with potentially fatal consequences.

CFO magazine reports that 14% of companies are struggling to pay their bills or are at risk for bankruptcy. These findings are the result of a study CFO conducted on 1500 Midcap companies. The 2009 Credit Risk Benchmarking Report indicated that 550 companies of the 1500 made the credit watch list and over 200 of the names were in or are entering a distressed financial condition.

The report measures each company on three factors: cash as a percent of revenue, days payable outstanding (DPO), and DPO relative to the DPO of that company’s industry. The last of these measures is intended to expose which companies are under performing regardless of the economic condition of their industry as a whole. A company scoring low in all three areas is rated a potential credit risk.

The strain of a two-year recession and limited credit access is taking its toll on small and mid-sized businesses. This development is not surprising. The recession has hurt sales growth across all market segments. Banks, still reeling from the credit crisis are still concerned about troubled assets on their balance sheets. Bankers can’t afford more write downs on non-performing loans. Banks remain highly risk adverse to credit default exposures and have drastically reduced credit risk to SMEs by shutting down new lending activity.

Reduced revenue, protracted softness in the business cycle and closed credit channels are creating perfect storm conditions for SME’s. Bank’s reluctance to lend and the high cost of capital from other alternative credit channels coupled with weak cash flows from declining sales are creating liquidity problems for many SMEs. As a defensive maneuver, SMEs are extending payment cycles to vendors to preserve cash. This same cash management practice is also being employed by their clients resulting in an agonizing daisy chain of liquidity pain. SME’s that have concentrated exposures to large accounts are at the mercy of the financial soundness of few or in some instances  a single source of revenue.

The growing contagion of financial distress is also a major threat to supply chains. Buyers might prize their ability to drive hard bargains with their suppliers but the concessions won may be the straw that breaks the camels back driving a supplier into insolvency.

It is critical that managers understand all risks associated with clients and suppliers. It is critical that managers assess risks associated with client relationships and key suppliers. In this market, enhanced due diligence is clearly called for. The financial soundness of suppliers and clients must be determined and scored so as to minimize default exposures to your business.

CreditAides is a company that delivers  SaaS based financial health assessments on SMEs.  CreditAides reports that their clients are becoming more vigilant and thorough  in their due diligence of customers and suppliers.  They have noted a particular emphasis on the growing practice of reviewing the financial health of suppliers.  Supply chain risk is a heightened risk factor for SME’s due to their over dependence on single source.  Conducting a financial health assessment on key suppliers and other enhanced due diligence practices mitigates a risk factor that could have potentially devastating consequences.  SME manager’s need to button down their due diligence practices  to prevent the sickness from infecting their business.

CreditAides SaaS can be accessed here: www.CreditAides.com

You Tube Music Video: Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney,  Button Up Your Over Coat

Risk: contagion, credit risk, counter-party, supply chain, client, recession, banking

October 9, 2009 Posted by | banking, business, commerce, credit, credit crisis, economics, recession, risk management, SME, supply chain, sustainability | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

SRZ’s Maginot Line

maginot_line_19441Schulte Roth Zabel’s (SRZ) Annual Private Investment Funds Seminar is the kick off event of the year for the AIM industry. In years past it was an event that was full of bravado from an industry flush with great expectations and giddiness over compensation levels that rivaled a small country’s GDP. This years event had more circumspection then bluster and more reflection on how to fashion a considered response to industry challenges squarely in the vortex of the market meltdown.

The shocking transformation and radical reconfiguration of the capital markets industry is underway. In the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy, Bear Stearns merger, market crashes, credit crisis, bank insolvency, recession and lastly the coup de grace of the Madoff scandal put these intrepid wealth managers through a trying year.

Myriad challenges and crises tested many firms management acumen and forced managers to work extra hard to earn that 2 and 20.  With hedge fund closure rates expected to approximate 25%-45% this year, the industry is confronted with enormous challenges. The excess capacity in the industry, heightened regulatory oversight, liquidity constraints and elevated client risk aversion will foster market compression and a dramatic alteration in market dynamics. The well managed, well positioned, well focused and well capitalized funds will thrive on the volatility. Uncertainty is always the mother of invention and the best and brightest of the breed will no doubt find numerous opportunities amidst the massive market dislocations currently underway.

SRZ a leading legal firm servicing the industry effectively laid out an industry battle plan to address many of these acute challenges. In the Crisis Management breakout session the panel offered an interesting metaphor of a hedge fund as an intricate and complex ecosystem. The topology of a fund complex is comprised of many parts that at times may have contradictory and competing interests.

The Crisis Management session conducted a quarterly review of market events that occurred in 2008 as the capital markets deteriorated and the credit crisis deepened. The panels review was an instructive exercise on how managers need to constructively engage problems with an intentional risk management program and how it affects each stakeholder in the hedge fund ecosystem. The principle objective was determining the best course of action to either save the fund or effect an orderly liquidation of the investment partnership. In all instances the strategy needed to consider how to serve the greatest good for all fund stakeholders. SRZ offered attendees a brilliant crisis management game plan for fund managers. It was one of the better presentations on risk management that I have ever attended.

The general session was also very interesting and engaging. The central theme was that hedge funds are under extreme liquidity pressure. The drivers are distressed portfolio valuations, counter-party deleveraging, risk aversion in the markets, market liquidity and increased redemption pressures from investors. SRZ has developed a series of innovative redemption strategies it calls gates. The gates are designed to protect the level of assets under management by controlling an orderly outflow of capital so as not to endanger the overall liquidity and asset level of the fund. SRZ again shows why it is the leading player in the space by offering innovative solutions to industry needs. A great example of a market leader demonstrating leadership by offering innovative product development solutions.

The overall tenor of the conference reminded me of the construction of the Maginot Line. In years past investors were eagerly throwing money at hedge fund mangers to get a slice of the alpha pie. Today hedge fund managers need to build sophisticated battlements to keep the assets of the investment partnership under their control. In a sense the industry as moved from an offensive posture to a defensive one. SRZ is assisting its hedge fund clients to create a defensible business structure that will protect the long term sustainability of the fund and ultimately serve the greatest good of the funds partners and stakeholders.

During these times of extreme market duress tactics and strategies must be employed to protect the fund from excessive redemption runs that would ultimately serve to create a self fulfilling prophesy of liquidation.

Clients who have access to a war council of professionals like SRZ should be well suited to engage the battles they will encounter in the coming year and survive to enjoy the peace and spoils won during the next business cycle.

You Tube Video: Edith Piaf, Mon Legionnaire

Risk: market, credit, legal, reputation

January 15, 2009 Posted by | hedge funds, legal, risk management | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Yin and Yang of Inflation

Yin YangInflation like all risk is a double edge sword. Its negative nature will upset the apple cart and pose uncomfortable challenges for business managers that have grown accustomed to the status quo. It will force managers to reconsider their well conceived business plans and perhaps more closely scrutinize this quarters P&L or the company balance sheet. It will present serious challenges for businesses supply chain and client relationships. It may raise the eyebrows of your shareholders and credit providers perhaps provoking some pointed questions concerning your management skills and the validity of your business model.

That said inflation does have an upside. Like all risk factors it has the potential to create opportunities for your business. Inflation will drastically alter market conditions. It will reveal inefficiencies that nimble businesses can actively engage and manage to turn those market conditions to their advantage. The key operative words are management, intentionality and active engagement.

Inflation is a silent killer. It stalks all businesses threatening to gobble up product margins, revenue opportunities and bottom line profits. It diminishes customer buying power and may threaten the solvency of your largest customers and suppliers. It drives up the cost of capital, making credit more expensive while it forces state and local governments to raise taxes and fees.

The inflation bogey man lurks in the profit and loss statements of all businesses with small business being particularly vulnerable to its effect. Inflation dramatically shows itself on the expense side of the ledger in the increases for basic materials, energy, delivery services, T&E, administrative expenses and employee benefits. Inflation also affects the income side of the profit loss statement. It erodes the buying power of your customers and threatens collection of receivables by extending days outstanding, increased write offs or the sale of uncollected debt for pennies on the dollar.

Small business profitability is particularly sensitive to the effects of inflation because of economies of scale, concentration of risk factors and lack of pricing power.

Many small businesses lack pricing power. Pricing power suggests that if price of a product rises to a certain level demand for that product will not diminish. For a small business to have pricing power it must offer a non-commoditized product to dependent buyers. Its product or service cannot be easily replicated or widely available from other sources.

While pricing power escapes most small businesses numerous factors inhibit their ability to become low cost producers. They deliver product or service differentiation to their customers by other means then low price. Inflation erodes consumer purchasing power driving buyers to seek low cost producers. In this environment small businesses may suffer when buyers trade down to low cost providers. Key customers may compel small businesses to lower prices to be more in line with lower cost producers. This is a major threat to small businesses.

Small businesses tend to have greater risk concentration in their business model. Heightened risk concentrations are most pronounced in small businesses due to a limited product line, geographical risk, market cyclicality and in client and supply chain relationships. Consider a small manufacturer of finished steel products for the home construction industry. Generally, manufactures profitability is highly correlated to the price it pays for basic commodities and has an extremely high concentration of supply chain and product risk. Small businesses may not be able to recover or adjust its product prices to cover increased commodity prices due to existing contractual agreements with customers or its lack of pricing power. The abatement of market demand due to a recession may provoke larger customers to demand price concessions by threatening to move their business to lower cost producers. The pressure on this small manufacturer is compounded by a spike of smaller account losses and moribund demand due to weak cyclical market conditions in its target market.

It’s almost a perfect storm of negative business conditions. Small businesses managers need to understand how inflation touches all aspects of their business and must manage its impact to maintain profitability and sustainable growth.

Managing Inflation Risk with a WIN Campaign

Small businesses can meet the challenge of inflation head on by implementing a Whip Inflation Now (WIN) program that engages the numerous risks inflation poses. In deference to our former President Gerald Ford, business managers can initiate WIN Programs and actions to temper the impact of inflation and to seize opportunities that rapidly changing market conditions create. Small businesses must be extra vigilant and proactive in managing all classes of business risks.

Some small businesses will cave into the demands of their large accounts to cut prices to prevent them from going to a lower cost provider. This is very dangerous for small businesses and can result in “death by a thousand cuts.” Managers should not wait for their largest account to approach them seeking price concessions. Now is the perfect time to go on the offensive and alter the value proposition that only your firm can uniquely deliver to key accounts. Remember your largest accounts are experiencing the negative effects of inflation as well. Go to them and propose a WIN Campaign. A company’s WIN Campaign can offer a joint marketing program using WEB 2.0 techniques. Your WIN Campaign can implement an expanded training and support program tied to a business development program or supply chain rationalization. You may suggest a partnership to develop a new product or put in place a customer loyalty program. Your job is to create a unique value proposition that adds value to your product and convey it to your customer so they cannot commoditize your product. Together you and your clients can WIN the fight against inflation and turn it into a business development initiative. Your clients will appreciate the fact that you are thinking about their business success.

Another common knee jerk reaction to fight rising business costs is to reduce expenses by cutting expenditures on areas that do not support the mission critical functions of the business. Capital is allocated to maintain funding to support sales, production and product delivery. This is coupled with a lean administrative management structure and this model is seen as a recipe for economic survival. Being good stewards of corporate capital is essential during these times. Capital leakage is always a threat to business profitability and needs to be even more diligently managed during times of economic duress. But this strategy is a subsistence survival strategy. It is based on investing the barest minimum of capital to address fluctuating market conditions. This strategy may limit small businesses ability to literally capitalize on opportunities that changing market conditions present.

Cutting expenses for marketing is usually another budget casualty when businesses look to cut costs. This will reduce your current expense line for this quarter and will certainly help bottom line profitability; but skipping this year’s trade show will not help you to locate that new customer who is looking for a supplier because his current provider is struggling with product quality issues. Cutting this expense won’t provide you with the critical insights you need to stay competitive and ahead of new market entrants that are attending trade shows. Who by the way are also aggressively courting your largest account to get just a tiny slice of your business to demonstrate their “superior value proposition.”

Employee benefits and training is another area that is often the focus of budgetary cutbacks. Many small businesses need to closely consider the gains they will realize by cutting back on benefits offered to its employees. Cutting benefits could increase employee turnover. Training and hiring new employees are an expensive proposition for small businesses. The loss of key employees can potentially devastate a small business. Expertise, intellectual capital and critical business intelligence leaves the organization when a key employee walks out the door. This is doubly true if some key employees leave the firm and walk some major client relationships out the door with them.

Small businesses can also try to employ risk transfer strategies. Insurance purchases may help in some areas but to fight inflation small businesses can use financial instruments (capital permitting) to hedge against rising prices. The purchase of TIPs, FX forward contracts, commodity or energy futures can help to offset the negative effects of key inflation business threats. As the price of oil rose this summer a modest equity position in oil or other energy company would have helped to offset the increase in energy expenses.

Thankfully adverse economic conditions will force small businesses to take an honest look at their product lines and business model. Economic adversity provides an opportunity for management to make hard decisions concerning product lines. This is an ideal time to focus and fund the development of products that offer the greatest potential for long term profitability and sustainable growth.

Inflation is a significant problem for small businesses but it is a problem that can be managed. Changing economic conditions alter the landscape for all businesses that accelerate and starkly reveal market inefficiencies. These inefficiencies create market anomalies and opportunities that astute small business owners and managers can capitalize on through an intentional practice of a risk management and opportunity discovery program.

June 20, 2008 Posted by | business, commodities, credit crisis, economics, inflation, product, recession, risk management, SME, supply chain, US dollar | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment