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Thread: Basic Investing Primer

  1. #1
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    Basic Investing Primer

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    In another thread several posters indicated that there's interest in having a thread dedicated to personal investing advice and strategies, so, here goes...

    ---------------------------------------

    What is the point of this thread?

    The purpose of this thread is to share some basic investment principles with the members of this board. It will cover some basic investing and finance concepts that are applicable to the majority of readers. It is meant for entertainment purposes only, I don't know what I'm talking about, I'm not responsible for what you do with your money, legal words, legal stuff, don't sue me, etc.

    What's investing?

    In basic terms, it is putting money into things that are expected to return more money to you at some point in the future.

    Why invest?

    Whether we like it or not, money is important. Having it will not buy you happiness, but it sure is easier to be miserable with money, than without. More importantly, money gives you options, and options are always good. Furthermore, a topic that will be covered shortly, a sufficient amount of money can provide you with enough passive income to replace your job and last indefinitely, or until a reasonable age of death. The latter part of the last sentence is roughly the description of financial independence.

    Investing can exponentially increase the purchasing power of your money, and, given enough time and discipline, can make you financially independent. Everyone reading this would want to be financially independent. Few actually are. Just as few will become so at some point in the future.

    Is it risky?

    Yes*.

    * - Not as risky as you might think, and not in the way you might think. Investing is a double-edge sword: risk is proportional to reward. If you want the highest possible reward, you must undertake high risk, if you want low risk, you must settle for low reward.

    "The single most reliable indicator of fraud is the promise of high return with low risk" - William Bernstein

    Why don't I just invest in safe things like a savings account or my mattress? Why bother with things like stocks?

    Money is purchasing power. Inflation is the decline of purchasing power. Inflation, historically, is about 3%. If your money, on average is not growing at least 3% per year, you are losing purchasing power. If you take $1,000 today, put it under your mattress, and take it out 10 years from now, that $1,000 will buy fewer things than it could have today.

    If such negative returns are acceptable to you, stop reading, I don't have further advice for you because you are either incredibly wealthy and don't care about inflation, or you don't care period. In either case, this guide will not prove useful.

    How do you define the best investment strategy?

    This is a very important question, and one that many think they can answer. If you thought "the best investment strategy is the one with the highest returns", you would be wrong.

    Remember the part about risk and reward? Investing is always a balance of the two. The best investment strategy is as follows:

    The investment strategy that achieves the desired reward, with the lowest possible risk.

    Put it simply, it's the way to make the money that you want but with as little risk of losing it as possible.

    Okay, but what if I'm afraid of losses?

    A certain level of risk must be accepted for most investors. In order to reach serious financial goals, such as financial independence, most investors cannot get away with ultra safe options like basic savings accounts. So, some risk must be undertaken to capture higher reward. The key is to undertake just enough risk, and not more. Also, each investor has a different tolerance of losses, and investment portfolios need to be adjusted accordingly.

    Where do we start?

    There's something obvious that needs to be said before we continue. You need to live below your means in order to have a meaningful investment strategy. Plain and simple, it doesn't matter how well you invest if you don't have money to invest. There are two ways to have money to invest, aside from inheritance and other windfalls: earn more, spend less. Ideally, it's a function of the two. If you are very young, it is usually worthwhile to increase your earnings potential since this will have profound effects over the course of your life. Spending less is self explanatory, and simply means if you make X, spend less than X. If you can, spend a lot less than X.

    Once you have something to invest, the question becomes into what? Just like with many other things in life, it depends on your goals. For simplicity purposes, I will split investments, and in this case, "money piles" into three categories, based on the time frame for when they will be needed:

    1. Short term. Emergencies, purchases in the near future, etc. 0-2 years.
    2. Intermediate term. House down payment, cash to buy a car, education expenses, etc. 2-10 years.
    3. Long term. Retirement, financial independence, etc. 10+ years.

    The number of years is a really rough number not meant to be exact, it's just to give you an idea of the time frames. Each category requires a different risk/reward profile.

    The short term stuff cannot be high risk. Why? Because you can't have your investments drop 25% right before you need them. The intermediate stuff can be moderate risk. Why? Time is a bit more on your side, so you can afford higher risk in exchange for higher returns. The long term can be as risky as necessary for the duration of your life. Why? Because it is not money you need today or tomorrow or next year, it is your life money, your I-don't-need-a-job-ever-again money, your FU money, as some call it.

    Some piles are all three, as is the case if you retire. A retiree, which by the way sounds old and boring, and does not have to be, needs money today to live on, needs money next year, and needs the money to last until they die. Such a portfolio will have a combination of investments with varying risk/reward profiles to suit each time frame.

    The first thing to start with is the short term stuff. Everyone needs some liquidity on hand to cover life's curve balls. If you lost your job today, how long do you think it would take you to find a new one? That length, in months, conservatively, multiplied by monthly expenses, should roughly be the minimum in your short term savings. So, if you make $2,000 a month, have monthly expenses totaling $1,500, and you think it would take you about 3 months to find a new job, you should strive to have, at a bare minimum, $4,500 in savings. Ideally, you would have more. Precisely how much is for you to decide.

    This money is also for the "aw crap" stuff: car repairs, medical expenses, house work, broken fridge, etc. Don't be in a place where a typical life expense puts you into debt. Debt is the other root of all evil. It's money's evil cousin.

    This short term stuff needs to be safe, since the "aw crap" moments typically happen unexpectedly, which is usually what makes them crappy. Typically, vehicles for such things are certificates of deposit, online savings accounts, I Bonds, etc. It's stuff you don't need to worry about losing.

    The short term stuff is where we start.

    Okay, I got that, now what?

    If you're like many Americans, your employer has a 401k. A 401k is a tax deferred account designed for long term retirement savings. What's tax deferred? It means you can put money into it before paying any tax on it. Furthermore, with a 401k, all your investments grow tax free. In other words, if your $1,000 investment in your 401k turns into $10,000 along the way, you don't pay any tax on it! Yes, it makes a huge difference.

    However, like death, taxes are inescapable, so with 401k contributions, you must pay taxes when you withdraw your money in the future.

    Many employers offer a 401k match. A match is free money from your employer that they will give you, provided you put in some pre-set amount. A common match is 50% of the first 6% you contribute. What does that mean? If you make $10,000 a year and contribute 6%, i.e. $600, your employer will match 50% of that, i.e. $300. This is a free lunch. If you don't contribute that $600, you are saying "no thanks, I don't want an immediate guaranteed 50% return on my money". You don't have to be an investment wiz to know that's foolish.

    The minimum you want to do is to invest enough to get that match. Everyone wants a free lunch.

    This is the next step.
    Last edited by quikky; 05-05-2015 at 08:34 AM.

  2. #2
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    My employer sucks, I don't have a match. Should I still invest in my 401k?

    Maybe. Tax advantaged space like the 401k is very valuable for its tax free growth benefits. The current yearly contribution limit on the 401k is $18,000 a year. That's $18,000 you can invest tax free, and grow tax free. However, there's more to the story...

    It's time to cover some long term investment vehicles. As this is a basic guide, I will focus on two major types of investments: bonds and stocks. Bonds are basically securities that are used by various entities, government and private company alike, that allow them to borrow money, from you the investor, in exchange for paying it back at a certain percentage. We don't need more detail than that for the purposes of this guide, but essentially, they are a mostly safe investment option, with decent long-term returns, but not nearly as good as stocks. Stocks are basically tiny fragments of a business you can buy. Stocks can grow and shrink in value, depending on market valuation and trading, as well as produce dividends. Technically speaking, bonds can also grow and shrink in value, on top of the interest, this is the NAV price, but you don't need to worry about that just yet.

    A long term portfolio, at the highest level, is a combination of bonds and stocks. You will hear, and probably have heard, this being called an asset allocation. It is the ratio of fixed-income, safer securities, i.e. bonds, to riskier but higher expected reward securities, i.e. stocks. This ratio is one of the most important decisions to make in an investment strategy, as it, at its core, defines your risk/reward profile. Risk and reward are not only important to achieve your goals with the minimum amount of risk, but also to allow you to sleep at night. If you are the type of person that will panic during a sharp stock market decline, you need to be less risky, i.e. more bonds. If you are a person nearing financial independence, my preferred term, instead of retirement, you want more bonds. If you are a person who needs high enough returns to generate a large portfolio in the future, i.e. someone younger and/or someone with a longer investment horizon, you need more stocks.

    The question is, how much is right? There are many formulas out there, and you will have to figure out your individual situation, but as a general rule of thumb created by Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, it's as follows:

    Your age in bonds.

    This means if you are age 35, you would have 35% of your portfolio in bonds. If you are 70, 70%, etc. Some use more risky formulas, such as age - 10. Some go for a fixed bond percentage up to a certain age, say 20% until age 40, 30% until 50, etc.

    In general, you never want less than 10% in bonds. Now you might ask, if you're really young, or have nerves of steel, why not go 100% stocks? The reason is re-balancing.

    Re-balancing is selling an over-performing asset to buy the other asset(s). For example, suppose you have a 50/50 allocation and stocks have a great run. Your allocation becomes 60% stock and 40% bond due to all the growth in stocks. You would sell some stocks and buy some bonds to make your allocation 50/50 again. In effect, this is buying low (the bonds) and selling high (the stocks) - ideally what you want. Similarly, if it is 2008 and stocks burn like jet fuel, you would sell some bonds and buy some stocks.

    Long-term, re-balancing can produce higher returns and/or less volatility combined with nearly same returns, and all with less risk. Now we're talking...

    If you were alive, you surely heard of all the horror stories during the financial crash in 2008/2009. People lost their retirements overnight. This is a prime example of failure to understand risk and asset allocation, as well as paper losses vs. realized losses. More on the latter part later.

    If you had an allocation to bonds during that time, and every investor should, it was mostly stocks that dropped like a rock. If you re-balanced during this time, the money you re-balanced into stocks would have returned about 170% from the bottom of the market. Yup, one of the worst crashes in history could have more than doubled some of your investments. Furthermore, if you were a person who was retired or nearing retirement, you would have had assets that did not drop, or did not drop much. And, you would have a lot more money in short-term reserves, since you need the money short-term. A stock market crash ruining your retirement is usually a failure of planning.

    Going back to the paper vs realized losses part, if you own stocks and they drop 50%, you did not lose any money. What? That's right, you lost nothing. Why? Because you still own the same number of shares, that are simply worth less than before. So, the only way to *really* lose that money, is to sell those shares. You only really lose or gain money if you sell the shares, remember that during the darkest times. Many people forget this fact, and sell when things hit the fan, and buy when things look rosy. This is the worst thing you can do. This is simply buying high, and selling low, i.e. losing money.

    Warren Buffet, the most successful investor ever, says:

    "Be greedy when others are fearful, and be fearful when others are greedy".

    This means buy when there's blood on the streets (2009), and sell when things are fantastic (2000). The question now is, buy and sell what?

    You can certainly buy individual bonds, and individual stocks. However, doing so exposes you to a very high level of risk. For example, suppose you buy a bunch of stock of company X. Suppose company X goes bankrupt. ...So do you. Suppose company X becomes ultra successful and returns 100%+ year for years. ...You make a boatload. Do you know what company X will do? I don't. Neither do most professionals. I don't like risk, and neither should you, so I want safer options.

    This is where mutual funds come in. Simply put, mutual funds are bundles of particular types of investments, that a financial manager and his team invests for a fee. There are bond funds, stock funds, real estate funds, government bond funds, you name it, it's there. There are funds investing in tiny companies, and huge companies, US companies, and international companies, oil companies, healthcare companies, Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, intermediate term bonds, junk corporate bonds, Real Estate Investment Trusts, gold, socially responsible companies... You get the point.
    Last edited by quikky; 05-05-2015 at 08:43 AM.

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    Mutual funds spread the risk by diversifying their investments across a broad range of entities. For example, a mutual fund that invests in stocks of large domestic companies, owns shares of many different large companies in the US. This diversification reduces risk, since a company or a few can fail without making the whole fund tank. Similarly, if a few companies perform exceptionally well, the fund will not sky-rocket just because of a few companies. Essentially the fund's return is an averaging of the investment strategy that the manager implements. There are many different managers utilizing many different strategies.

    All this strategy, obviously, is not free. There's money to be made. Every mutual fund out there has what is called the expense ratio, expressed as a percentage of the assets. For example, if you invest in a mutual fund with an expense ratio of 1%, it means that every year, 1% of your investments go to the fund manager and co. This happens regardless of what the returns are, so even on a losing year, you will pay the expense. Furthermore, some funds have loads. These are one time fees that you pay, typically when you buy the fund. This is money you pay just for the privilege of investing into the fund. Some are as high as 5.25% upfront. This an immediate loss on your part, since on day 1, your money is worth 94.75%.

    The interesting thing is, the vast majority of managers cannot outperform the market long term. Decades and decades of research prove that the vast majority of managers fail to outperform the market. I did not include specific studies, but we can explore those if there's enough interest. Consider this report from Standard & Poor's on active fund performance over a 5 year stretch http://www.businessinsider.sg/sp-ind.../#.VVUeISHBzRY:

    The past five years have been marked by the rare combination of a remarkable rebound in domestic equity markets and a low-volatility equity environment,” Soe added. “This combination has proven to be difficult for domestic equity managers, as over 70% of them across all capitalization and style categories failed to deliver returns higher than their respective benchmarks.


    Now, you might be wondering, what is the market?

    "The market" is a frequently misunderstood term, often intentionally misused by money managers to mislead investors into thinking their investment options outperform. The market, correctly defined in this case, is the appropriate benchmark against which the fund can be compared, to determine its relative performance. Benchmarks, for our purposes, are indexes. An index is a particular set of investment options, that financial firms use to approximate parts of the market. The most widely known index in the US is the S&P 500 index. Yes, the one you hear about in the news all the time. The S&P 500 index, is simply an aggregate valuation of 500 of the largest companies in the US, derived by Standard & Poor's. The reason why it is often mentioned is because it is the overall pulse of the US economy. Typically, if the economy is in bad shape, the S&P 500 sinks, and if it's humming along, the S&P 500 is humming along with it.

    The S&P 500 is by far the most commonly used benchmark, and is often called "the market" for comparison purposes. This is incorrect. Why? Remember that it's the 500 largest companies in the US? Well, if your fund invests in, say small foreign companies, or real estate, why do the funds' returns matter compared to the S&P 500? You need an apples to apples comparison. So, the appropriate benchmark, is the one that approximates the segment of the market that your fund invests in. If it's foreign small companies, perhaps the FTSE ex-US small cap index is an appropriate comparison. You wouldn't compare a Toyota Camry to a Deere tractor, and neither should you compare funds to an index approximating the wrong segment of the market.

    So, when we are talking about a fund outperforming the market, we are really interested if it is outperforming its respective index. As I said, research shows that most managers fail to do so. Part of the reason is the expenses. If a fund has, for example, a 1% expense ratio, it means that it must outperform its index by at least 1% to just break even. 1%, by the way, is huge when you're talking decades. Think of expenses as an anchor on your return. The more you pay, the less you get - literally and arithmetically. Similarly, reducing expenses is directly increasing your returns.

    Now, we know that most managers fail to outperform, and that expenses are a drag on returns. What should we do? What funds do we pick? The answer is index funds. An index fund is a mutual fund that does not hold an active investment strategy, and simply invests just like the index it represents. So, an S&P 500 index fund, invests into the 500 companies, and in the same ratio as defined by S&P. While index funds also have managers, the managers do not employ any strategy but simply ensure the index fund stays as close to its index as possible. Because these managers have to do a lot less and do not need to think of ways to outperform, the cost to invest in such funds is much lower. Consider, the cost to invest in the Vanguard 500 Index is 0.05%. Yup, five hundredth of a percent to invest your money into 500 of the largest companies in the United States. This strategy is called passive investing, i.e. we just follow the indexes and don't try to get clever. Our returns are guaranteed to be market returns minus a small fee.

    As you could have guessed, most funds are actively managed, i.e. their managers try to actively outperform. Not only is the out-performance unlikely, but funds can change managers, managers can change strategies, and even overall allocations. You might, for example, invest into a large company fund, and the manager can decide to invest more into mid-size companies, and the fund after can significantly alter its allocation which might not fit into your portfolio. These factors are additional risks of actively managed funds.http://www.businessinsider.sg/sp-ind.../#.VVUeISHBzRY
    Last edited by quikky; 05-14-2015 at 03:18 PM.

  4. #4
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    Okay, I know a little more now, but should I invest in my 401k, beyond the match?

    Usually, yes. Since we covered expenses a little bit, I can further divulge a little secret: one of the best predictors of performance of mutual funds is the expenses. Investing is the opposite of other things in life. You know the phrase "you get what you paid for"? Well, in investing it's the exact opposite, "you get what you did not pay for". In the investing world you want to shop at the dollar store, not Nordstrom.

    In terms of your 401k, if you have low cost (I would define that as less than about 0.6%) funds, especially index funds, then absolutely yes. If your 401k is full of high cost options, high being above say 1.2%+, consider the following...

    What are these IRAs I keep hearing about?

    An IRA is an Individual Retirement Account. You can open one with nearly any financial firm. An IRA is a special account, in many ways just like the 401k - it is tax deferred. There are a few differences between IRAs and 401k to consider:

    1. You put after tax money into an IRA, and when you do your taxes, you deduct your contributions. This is in contrast to the 401k that you invest from each paycheck pre-tax.
    2. The IRA has a, as of 2015, $5,500 annual limit (more if you're 50+). The 401k is much higher at $18,000.
    3. The IRA can be with any firm you want. The 401k is stuck with the firm your employer (usually foolishly) chose, at least as long as you're employed. After you end your employment, you can roll your 401k into an IRA. That's usually a good idea.

    Point #3 is important. Since we're talking about cheap index funds, and your 401k might be set up like Nordstrom, after you get the match, you might consider opening an IRA for the next $5,500 of your yearly investments. Since the IRA can be anywhere, you can pick a firm that has a lot of cheap index options. My personal favorite is Vanguard, since their specialty is exactly that, and low costs are their language. However, other firms can be good options as well, I know Fidelity and Charles Schwab have good index funds.

    What about a Roth IRA?

    A Roth IRA functions just like an IRA conceptually but is instead after tax. You put after tax money into a Roth, but it grows without tax and you get to withdraw it without tax. Also:

    1. Roth contributions (not gains) can be withdrawn any time penalty free.
    2. There are no required minimum distributions at a certain age, like with 401k/traditional IRA.
    3. Easier to pass down a Roth as inheritance.

    Roth IRAs also have income limits. For individuals it's starting at $116,000, and for couples $183,000 for 2015.

    Roth IRAs are great for diversifying your investment taxes. Most of us will have a lower income in retirement, so traditional IRAs and 401k's make a lot of sense, since the money put into them is in the highest tax bracket for your income. However, a Roth can give you the option to withdraw some money tax free. Depending on your situation in the future, a Roth might be more advantageous. For example, if taxes are higher.

    If you are not in the lowest tax brackets, it is usually a good idea to put money into a Roth as the next investment after a 401k to the match.

    Note: The $5,500 yearly limit is for both IRA types combines. In other words, if you put $5,500 into a Roth IRA, you cannot put $5,500 into a traditional during the same tax year. If you put $1,000 into a Roth, you can put the remaining $4,500 into a traditional IRA.

    I got the IRA maxed out, now what?

    If you have decent funds, max out your 401k. Even if your funds are very expensive, the tax benefits of a 401k can often outweigh the high investing costs. Plus, are you going to be with your employer forever? Once you're no longer employed, you can do a rollover, which will give you many investment options.

    Why do expenses matter so much?

    Compound interest. In order to understand the importance of expenses, consider the following three hypothetical funds:

    Fund A with an expense ratio of 2.0%
    Fund B with an expense ratio of 1.0%
    Fund C with an expense ratio of 0.1%

    Suppose all the funds' investments return 10% over the course of 30 years. The following is what $50,000 would look like invested in each fund for those 30 years:

    Fund A with an expense ratio of 2.0%: $503,132
    Fund B with an expense ratio of 1.0%: $663,383
    Fund C with an expense ratio of 0.1%: $848,986

    The difference is profound, especially between fund A and C. Paying 2.0% ER instead of 0.1% can cost you 1/3 of a million in this case! To add insult to injury, consider the fact that funds A and B most likely were not index funds, and probably under-performed.

    Let's talk about the under-performance of active management for a second. Depending on the specific bit of research you look at, the percentage of actively managed funds that under-perform their benchmark is anywhere from 80% to 95%+. For the sake of this example, let's say 90%. Investing in actively managed funds would be like playing this game:

    You have 10 boxes in front of you. Each box has cash in it. 9 out of the 10 boxes have less than one million dollars. You do not know how much less. One box has more than a million, you again do not know how much more. You are given an option to either try one of the boxes, or to just get one million dollars straight up. What do you choose?

    If you are investing in actively managed funds, you are playing the box game. If you are investing in index funds, you are opting out for the million, which is simply the guaranteed market return, but not more.

    Think about this hard before you give your money to the next hot shot manager.
    Last edited by quikky; 05-05-2015 at 02:53 PM.

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    I maxed out the 401k, now what?

    Welcome to the world of taxable investing. At this point, you no longer have the government telling you how much you can put in and where, nor do you have any tax benefits. Now, you can open a mutual fund or brokerage account, and invest as much as you want. However, taxes are now your enemy. In order to invest successfully in taxable accounts, you want to minimize the amount of tax you'll have to pay at the end of the year. Not all investments are created equal.

    For a good description of what types of funds are tax efficient, i.e. will not produce a massive tax bill, I will refer you to the Bogleheads wiki:

    http://www.bogleheads.org/wiki/Princ...fund_placement

    Read through the entry and it should give you the answers you seek. In simple terms, smaller/foreign stocks are more tax efficient, most bonds and things like REITs are much less efficient.

    What specifically do I invest in?

    We already covered that you need stocks and bonds invested in cheap index funds. Now the question is, which funds? For bonds, the simplest fund is something like the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index. That fund gives you access to an incredibly broad range of bonds and can serve as the foundation of the fixed income portion of your portfolio.

    In terms of stocks, we need to look at the next layer. Stocks, at the highest level can be split into two categories: domestic and international, i.e. stocks of US-based companies and stocks of non-US based companies, respectively. So, as a general minimum, your stock allocation will be split into domestic and international stocks.

    The simplest good portfolio can thus be derived (I use Vanguard so this is their funds, but the idea can be applied to any firm that has index funds):

    Vanguard Total Bond Market Index
    Vanguard Total Stock Market Index
    Vanguard Total International Stock Index

    Those 3 simple funds will invest your money into countless different bonds and fixed-income securities, as well as the stocks of thousands of different companies worldwide.

    The ratio between bonds and stocks we discussed. The ratio between domestic vs international is also individual. Generally speaking, the percentage of the stocks devoted to international is 20-50%. In terms of world distribution, the United States is about 45% of the world's equity market, so if you want to go with that percentage, it's perfectly fine.

    As an example, suppose you have $10,000 to invest, you are 30 years old, and you want 20% in bonds, and 40% of your stocks in international. Your 3 fund portfolio would look as follows:

    Vanguard Total Bond Market Index - $2,000 (20% of total)
    Vanguard Total Stock Market Index - $4,800 (60% of stock allocation, together with next fund add up to 80% of portfolio)
    Vanguard Total International Stock Index - $3,200 (40% of stock allocation)

    To be continued...
    Last edited by quikky; 05-05-2015 at 02:50 PM.

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    #3, just in case.

    For anyone reading, this is a work in progress

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    Thanks for sharing this stuff, very useful. I'll try to think of some questions to ask tomorrow.
    In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.

    This message has been intercepted by the NSA, the only branch of government that listens.

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    Interested. Thanks for starting this.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jefferson1775 View Post
    Thanks for sharing this stuff, very useful. I'll try to think of some questions to ask tomorrow.
    Glad it's helpful so far. There's more to come. What I've written so far is a partial brain dump after work, so it'll need some editing.

    If anyone has suggestions or feels there's a need to explain things better, feel free to share. It's going to need work.

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    This is really useful, very relevant to what's on my mind currently. Thankyou!

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