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Technicians make repairs to bitcoin mining machines at a mining facility operated by Bitmain in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

China has long been home to more than half the world’s bitcoin miners, but now, Beijing wants them out ASAP. 

In May, the government called for a severe crackdown on bitcoin mining and trading, setting off what’s being dubbed in crypto circles as “the great mining migration.” This exodus is underway now, and it could be a game changer for Texas.

Mining is the energy-intensive process which both creates new coins and maintains a log of all transactions of existing digital tokens. 

Despite a lack of reserves that caused days-long blackouts last winter, Texas often has some of the world’s lowest energy prices, and its share of renewables is growing over time, with 20% of its power coming from wind as of 2019. It has a deregulated power grid that lets customers choose between power providers, and crucially, its political leaders are very pro-crypto – dream conditions for a miner looking for a kind welcome and cheap energy sources.

“You are going to see a dramatic shift over the next few months,” said Brandon Arvanaghi, previously a security engineer at crypto exchange Gemini. “We have governors like Greg Abbott in Texas who are promoting mining. It is going to become a real industry in the United States, which is going to be incredible.”

China’s mining dominance

2021 data for the global distribution of mining power is not yet available, but past estimates have shown that 65% to 75% of the world’s bitcoin mining happened in China – mostly in four Chinese provinces: Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, and Yunnan. Sichuan and Yunnan’s hydropower make them renewable energy meccas, while Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia are home to many of China’s coal plants. 

The drawdown in miners has already begun in Inner Mongolia. After failing to meet Beijing’s climate targets, province leaders decided to give bitcoin miners two months to clear out, explicitly blaming its energy misses on crypto mines. 

Castle Island Ventures founding partner Nic Carter says that while it’s not totally clear how China will handle next steps, it a phased rollout is likely. “It seems like we’re going from policy statement to actual implementation in relatively short order,” he said.

The way this exodus is measured is by looking at hashrate, an industry term used to describe the computing power of all miners in the bitcoin network.

“Given the drop in hashrate, it appears likely that installations are being turned off throughout the country,” continued Carter, who also thinks that probably 50 to 60% of bitcoin’s entire hashrate will ultimately leave China. 

Although China’s announcement hasn’t been cemented in policy, that isn’t stopping miners like Alejandro De La Torre from cutting their losses and making an exit.

“We do not want to face every single year, some sort of new ban coming in China,” said De La Torre, vice president of Hong Kong-headquartered mining pool, Poolin. “So we’re trying to diversify our global mining hashrate, and that’s why we are moving to the United States and to Canada.”

One of bitcoin’s greatest features is that it is totally location agnostic. Miners only require an internet connection, unlike other industries that must be relatively close to their end users. 

“The cool thing about bitcoin that is under appreciated by a lot of the naysayers is that it’s a portable market; you can bring it right to the source of energy,” explained Steve Barbour, founder of Upstream Data, a company that manufactures and supplies portable mining solutions for oil and gas facilities.

That said, the exodus won’t be instantaneous, in part, because it will take miners some time to either move their machines out of China or liquidate their assets and set up shop elsewhere. 

Where they’re going

Because miners at scale compete in a low-margin industry, where their only variable cost is typically energy, they are incentivized to migrate to the world’s cheapest sources of power. 

“Every Western mining host I know has had their phones ringing off the hook,” said Carter. “Chinese miners or miners that were domiciled in China are looking to Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the U.S., and Northern Europe.”

One likely destination is China’s next-door neighbor, Kazakhstan. The country’s coal mines provide a cheap and abundant energy supply. It also helps that Kazakhstan has a more lax attitude to building, which bodes well for miners who need to construct physical installations in a short period of time. 

Didar Bekbauov runs Xive, a company that provides hosting services to international miners. Xive also sells the specialized equipment needed for mining. 

Bekbauov says that he’s stopped counting the number of Chinese miners who have called him to ask about relocation options, ranging from operations with 15 rigs to thousands. 

“One miner told us that only government electricity plants have restricted mining and private ones will continue to service miners,” Bekbauov told CNBC. 

“But most of the electricity is generated by government power plants, so miners will have to move. That makes them uncertain and desperate to find other locations,” he said.

Whether Kazakhstan is a destination or simply a stopover on a longer migration west remains to be seen. 

Arvanaghi is bullish on North America and thinks the hashrate there will grow over the next few months.

“Texas not only has the cheapest electricity in the U.S. but some of the cheapest in the globe,” he said. “It’s also very easy to start up a mining company…if you have $30 million, $40 million, you can be a premier miner in the United States.”

Wyoming has also trended toward being pro-bitcoin and could be another mining destination, according to Arvanaghi.

There are, however, a few major limitations to the U.S. becoming a global mining destination.

For one, the lead time to build the actual physical infrastructure necessary to host miners is likely six to nine months, Carter told CNBC. “The U.S. probably can’t be as nimble as other countries in terms of onshoring these stray miners,” he said.

The move logistics may also prove difficult. There is a shipping container shortage, thanks to the tailwinds of the Covid pandemic. 

But perhaps the biggest question is the reliability of the Texas power grid. A storm that devastated large swaths of the state in 2020 has reignited a debate over whether Texas should winter-proof its systems, a potentially costly project that might affect taxes or other fees for those looking to tap into the state’s power grid. More recently, ERCOT, the organization that operates Texas’ grid, asked consumers to conserve energy amid what officials called an unusual number of “forced generation outages” and an upcoming heat wave.

Answering the Musk critique

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has bashed bitcoin mining, claiming that it is bad for the environment. It’s not a new criticism.

For years, skeptics have maligned the world’s most popular digital token for polluting the planet, while supporters have extolled the virtues of bitcoin and its role in accelerating the rise of renewable energy. 

It is unclear whether the China mining exodus will make or break the case for bitcoin enthusiasts in the debate around the token’s carbon footprint. The dominant narrative, to date, has been that much of the world’s bitcoin is mined with Chinese goal. 

“From a narrative perspective, it’s definitely an improvement,” said Carter. “But China also has the most abundant stranded hydro resources in the world.”

The country offers significant energy vectors from wind, solar, and especially hydropower in the south. Xinjiang’s grid, for example, is 35% powered by wind and solar energy inputs.

If all the miners do end up leaving China, it will mean less fossil fuel-powered mining, but it will also mean that the network’s share of renewable energy-powered mining will drop. This is why the question of where these migrant miners end up could prove critical to bitcoin’s future. “It’s the biggest story of the year for bitcoin,” said Carter. 

De La Torre says they’re looking to expand operations using green energy, a trend that is already years in the making. He says that hydro plants are generally cheaper than fossil fuels in most parts of the world.

“Mining is price sensitive, so as to seek out the lowest cost power and the lowest cost power tends to be renewable because if you’re burning fossil fuels…it has extraction, refinement, and transport costs,” explained Blockstream CEO Adam Back. 

Lazard

Each year, investment bank Lazard releases a breakdown of energy costs by source. Its 2020 report shows that many of the most common renewable energy sources are either equal to or less expensive than conventional energy sources like coal and gas. And the cost of renewable power keeps going down.

But there are limitations to running crypto mines purely on renewable energy.

Though solar and wind are now the world’s least expensive energy sources, both power supplies face limitations at scale, so there is concern over the viability of miners turning exclusively to wind or solar energy.

Next six months

For the time being, there isn’t that much mining capacity worldwide that is ready to absorb the Chinese miner diaspora. While they scramble to find a new home, we could see hashrate go offline – and stay offline. 

In practice, that would mean all the remaining miners are more profitable for a period of time. 

Having more geographic dispersion would even out the global balance of power, and it would also reduce the ability of any one sovereign nation to co-opt or control the network.

We may also see special crypto economic zones pop up in the next few months.

“You will see jurisdictions adopting a very favorable stance and creating the equivalent of special zones to encourage miners to host locally,” said Carter. “We’re seeing it at the state level here. You’re also gonna see it at the country level, you might even see subsidized electricity for mining.”

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Bitcoin miners brace for impact as halving goes live

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Bitcoin miners brace for impact as halving goes live

The Bitcoin halving is set to shake up the crypto's price and the network's miners

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Adam Sullivan left investment banking to mine bitcoin at an awkward time. It was May 2023, bitcoin was trading at around $21,000, U.S. regulators were in the thick of cracking down on the sector writ large, and Core Scientific, the company he had agreed to take over, was battling angry lenders in a Texas bankruptcy court over tens of millions of dollars in outstanding debt.

But Sullivan knew that, with a lifeline, he could get the business to a much better place. That’s because the halving was on the way, and with it would likely come a big rally in bitcoin.

Late Friday night, the bitcoin code automatically cut new issuance of the world’s largest cryptocurrency in half. It happens roughly every four years, and in addition to helping to stave off inflation, it historically precedes a major run-up in the price of bitcoin.

The technical event is relatively simple: Bitcoin miners get paid in bitcoin to validate transactions, and after 210,000 blocks of transactions are computed and added to the main chain, the reward given to the miners securing bitcoin is ‘halved.’

There are more than a dozen publicly traded miners on the network and thousands of smaller, private ones around the globe, constantly racing to process transactions and get paid in new bitcoin. Because the event leads to a cut to rewards paid to miners directly, they’ll be the first ones to feel the impact of the halving.

The price of bitcoin has touched new all-time highs after each “halving” event.

CNBC

Typically, when the halving cuts supply, it’s led to huge rallies for bitcoin.

In fact, the previous (and only) three halvings in the chain’s history have come before every bull run, in which the coin has touched new all-time highs and a surge of investors have entered the market for the first time.

That rapid price increase has helped many miners stave off the worst since it tends to offset the impact of having the block prize cut in half.

“As a company that was already in the process of scaling our infrastructure during the previous halving, we know the toll that halvings can take on a company if it is not adequately prepared,” Core’s Sullivan told CNBC.

The aggregate market cap of the 14 U.S.-listed bitcoin miners tracked by JPMorgan analysts declined 28% over the first half of April to $14.2 billion, reaching year-to-date lows. Bitdeer was the best-performing stock over the period, down around 20%, versus Stronghold Digital, which was 46% lower.

Some have billed the 2024 bitcoin halving as a seminal moment for the mining sector. Depending on how much prep work miners have done, it could easily make or break them.

“Being prepared for a halving means evaluating all of your power strategies, all of your software capabilities, all of your operations,” continued Sullivan.

Others are less concerned given recent price moves in bitcoin.

In a research note from Needham on Apr. 16, analysts said they expect the halving to only have a modest impact to miners’ estimated EBITDA margins, despite the 50% reduction in revenue, since the price of bitcoin has been trading in the range of $60,000 to $70,000.

“We expect geopolitical tensions and interest rate policy to be the biggest near-term drivers of crypto price action,” Needham analysts wrote, adding that at a bitcoin price above $60,000, the halving is “derisked for nearly all public miners.”

The bank did, however, single out their preference for low-cost bitcoin producers like Riot Platforms, Bitdeer, and Cipher Mining. Meanwhile, if bitcoin prices fall, Needham says the most outsized native impact will be felt by higher cost producers that are also levered to higher bitcoin prices via large treasury holdings.

Analysts from JPMorgan echoed a similar sentiment, writing in an Apr. 16 research note that they think “recent weakness offers an attractive entry point” for investors and that they are “especially bullish” on Riot, which they believe offers attractive relative valuations.

The 14 U.S.-listed miners tracked by JPMorgan account for around 21% of the bitcoin global network.

Power supply for Whinstone’s bitcoin mine in Rockdale, Texas.

Years spent bracing for the halving

Miners have had years to prepare for the halving, including seeking lower power costs and upgrading their fleets to more efficient machines.

“Bitcoin’s halving happens like clockwork every four years,” said Haris Basit, chief strategy officer of Bitdeer Technologies Group. “It’s a known variable that is a benchmark for us to remain focused on operational excellence.”

To that end, the Singapore-headquartered mining firm has invested in new data centers, but its core strategy has been to increase vertical integration through research and development. 25% of its staff is focused on R&D efforts, which Basit says have “led to new innovations and revenue pathways, such as our recently announced 4nm mining rigs and AI Cloud offerings.”

Analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald recently named Bitdeer as having one of the industry’s lowest “all-in” cost-per-coin.

Greg Beard, the CEO and Chairman of Stronghold Digital Mining, tells CNBC that miners whose only lever is more efficient machines will be at a disadvantage.

“Miners who own their low-cost power are better positioned,” said Beard. “Operational costs will be lower, allowing them to be more flexible with their capital.”

Core’s Sullivan agrees, noting that bitcoin mining data centers in the future will work hand-in-glove with power generators and grid operators to serve as a virtual battery for grid operators – allowing them to increase base load, curtail bitcoin data centers when they need to, and avoid peak generation loads, which he says are dirty and expensive.

“We own and operate our infrastructure, giving us greater control over operational and strategic decisions, such as the potential to expand into high-performance computing hosting,” said Sullivan.

Core Scientific, which launched in 2017 and now manages seven mining sites in five U.S. states, also owns the full technology stack. The company has been looking to diversify its revenue streams beyond purely bitcoin. Sullivan says that existing data centers offer reconfiguration opportunities to accommodate new types of high-value compute. 

“Certain data centers are located in close proximity to major metropolitan areas, making them candidates for low-latency, high-value compute applications,” said Core’s CEO.

Bitdeer’s bitcoin mine in Rockdale, Texas.

Riot Platforms CEO Jason Les told CNBC that preparation for the halving came down to the company’s long-standing focus on achieving a low cost of power, strong balance sheet, and significant scale of operations. Les says that’s what has positioned the firm to both withstand the halving with positive margins and be well positioned for upside on the other side of it.  

“Our new Corsicana Facility was energized just this week, and we will be significantly scaling up our hash rate with next-generation equipment at that new site over the remainder of the year,” said Les. “As a result, we are positioned to mine more bitcoin per day at the end of the year than we do today, despite the halving.”

Marathon Digital, which has grown more than 70% in the last year, took a different approach to scaling the business than its rivals. CEO Fred Thiel tells CNBC that the company grew quickly using an asset-light approach, where Capex was spent on mining rigs rather than infrastructure. 

“In December, we owned less than 5% of the sites where we were hosting our miners,” said Thiel. “Today we now own 53% of our total 1.1 gigawatts of capacity, having purchased it at less than the build and replacement cost.”

Owning sites lowers Marathon’s cost to mine by up to 20% on a marginal cost basis. Thiel also noted that by the end of 2024, Marathon expects to further improve efficiency by 10% to 15% as they deploy the next generation rigs across their new sites. 

That boost to efficiency isn’t just about new gear, however. The firm is deploying its custom firmware, which allows it to operate even more efficiently. 

Marathon, along with other mining firms, has begun diversifying its business model into ancillary operations beyond purely bitcoin mining.

Thiel says the company recently launched an energy harvesting division, where they are compensated to convert stranded methane and bio-mass into energy and then sell heat back into an industrial or commercial process, which essentially subsidizes and lowers our cost to mine significantly. Marathon expects this new business line to generate a significant portion of its revenues by the halving in 2028. 

Blockstream's Adam Back on teaming up with Tesla and Block to mine bitcoin with solar power

Diversifying revenue

The April 2024 bitcoin halving looks a lot different than the three that came before it.

For years, increased competition resulting from new miners coming online has been cutting into profits, because more miners means more people are sharing the same pool of rewards.

In a research note from JPMorgan on Apr. 16, analysts note that the network hashrate, a proxy for industry competition and mining difficulty, was up 4% in April from the month before. Stronghold’s Beard says the halving is a headwind dwarfed by the global hashrate increasing nearly five-fold from the last one in May 2020.

“Mining is a tough industry especially because there are a lot of nation states that have extra power power and they’re dedicating it to mining,” said Nic Carter of Castle Island Ventures. “It’s a free market, anybody can enter into it as long as they basics.”

U.S. spot bitcoin exchange-traded funds have also significantly shifted the pricing dynamics. In years past, the price of bitcoin didn’t surge until after the halving. But in the wake of record flows into these spot bitcoin funds, the world’s largest cryptocurrency touched a fresh all-time-high above $73,000 in March.

“The recently approved Bitcoin ETFs have proven to be huge pipelines of capital into Bitcoin and that universe of ETFs continues to grow with the recent approvals in Hong Kong as well,” said Riot’s Les. “We think the price action we’ve seen in bitcoin year-to-date reflect that and has us very optimistic on what bitcoin mining economics can look like in the months and years post-halving.”

Bitcoin resumes rally after hitting a new all-time high

Blackrock’s ETF reached $17 billion in net assets within a few months of launching. Beard of Stronghold tells CNBC that if Blackrock added even just a billion dollars more of bitcoin in April to its ETF, it would single handedly create demand for more coins than the mining industry will supply post halving.

What is also different this time around is that the block reward is no longer the primary form of miner revenue. Recent programming innovations in bitcoin have given way to a burgeoning ecosystem of projects building on top of bitcoin’s blockchain, which has translated to greater transaction fee revenue for miners.

There is a limit to how large the blocks can go but the value of those blocks is about to increase significantly, according to Bill Barhydt, who is the CEO and founder of Abra. From Barhydt’s vantage point, he supports miners with a mix of services, including their auto liquidations, so he has access to a lot of macro data across the sector.

“The math is simple,” begins Barhydt. “Bitcoin blocks are fixed in size and the demand for data within those blocks is going to increase significantly for several reasons, including more retail wallet holders moving their Bitcoin into and out of storage, new uses cases like Ordinals (NFT’s for Bitcoin) and DeFi on Bitcoin, institutional settlement requirements for exchange traded products in the U.S., Hong Kong, Europe, etc, lightning settlement transactions and more.”

At the current rate of adoption, Barhydt believes that transaction fees in this cycle would likely peak within 24 months at 10 times their cost during the previous cycle peak, due to a combination of a higher price for bitcoin itself, combined with higher demand for the space inside each block. 

Castle Island’s Carter isn’t so sure that fee-based revenue can completely make up for lost income post-halving.

“It’s not entirely clear that fees are fully offsetting the lost revenue, and in fact, I don’t expect that to happen” said Carter.

Fees tend to be really cyclical. They rise sharply during periods of congestion, and they fall back to near zero during other normal periods. Carter cautions that miners will see spikes in fees, but there is not yet an enduring, strong, and robust fee market most of the time.

Jack Dorsey backed start-up taps into geothermal, hydro and solar power to run bitcoin mines across Africa

Swapping ASICs for AI

In the last year, there has been a surge in demand for AI compute and infrastructure that can support the massive workloads required to power these novel machine learning applications. In a new report, digital asset fund manager CoinShares says it expects to see more miners shift toward artificial intelligence in energy-secure locations because of the potential for higher revenues.

Already, mining firms like BitDigital, Hive, Hut 8, Terawfulf, and Core Scientific all have current AI operations or AI growth plans.

“This trend suggests that bitcoin mining may increasingly move to stranded energy sites while investment in AI grows at more stable locations,” write analysts CoinShares.

But pivoting from bitcoin mining to AI isn’t as simple as re-purposing existing infrastructure and machines. The datacenter infrastructure is different, as are the data network needs.

“AI presents several challenges, notably the need for distinct and considerably more costly infrastructure, which establishes barriers to entry for smaller, less capitalized entities,” continues the report. “Additionally, the necessity for a different skill set among employees leads to increased costs as companies hire more AI-skilled talent.”

The rigs used to mine bitcoin are called ASICs, short for Application-Specific Integrated Circuits. The “Specific” in that acronym means that it can’t be used to do other things, like supporting the underlying infrastructure for AI market.

“If you’re a bitcoin miner, your machines can’t be repurposed,” explains Carter. “You have to buy net new machines in order to do it and the datacenter requirements are different for AI versus bitcoin mining.”

Sullivan says that Core Scientific, which has been mining a mix of digital assets since 2017, began to diversify into other services in 2019.

“The company has owned and hosted Nvidia DGX systems andGPUs for AI computing, having built and deployed a specialized facility specifically for high-value compute applications at our Dalton, Georgia data center campus,” he said.

Core has also partnered with CoreWeave, a cloud provider which provides infrastructure for use cases like machine learning.

Sullivan says the combined capabilities will support both AI and High Performance Compute workloads, resulting in an estimated revenue of $100 million, though he says the total potential revenue is much higher given their significant infrastructure footprint that can be fitted to host some of the most advanced GPU compute coming to market.

“Bitcoin mining is an early example of high-value compute, attracting significant capital and a number of companies scaling their operations to support the Bitcoin Network,” said Sullivan.

But Sullivan thinks few operators will be able to make the transition to AI.

Sullivan continued, “Bitcoin mining sites can only be repurposed if they meet the attributes that are required for HPC. Many existing sites across North America do not meet these needs.”

Spot bitcoin ETF decision: First trades expected after SEC grants multiple approvals

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Firstgreen remote operated electric skid steer hopes to reduce mining deaths

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Firstgreen remote operated electric skid steer hopes to reduce mining deaths

Mining fatalities climbed more than 30 percent from 2022 to 2023, with construction fatalities also continuing to rise. In a bid to help keep miners safe, FIRSTGREEN Industries has launched a new line of cabinless, remote operated skid steers designed specifically for use in critical mining operations.

We covered the copmany’s first cabinless electric loader, the Elise CBL, back in January. The CBL (for “Clean Building Logistics”) is designed to enable fully remote operation, reducing the risk of operator injury or exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos and radiation in high-risk demolition environments. And, because it’s electric, it can do so without adding diesel exhaust emissions (themselves a known carcinogen) to the list of hazards faced by its operators. Now, FIRSTGREEN is offering that same functionality to underground miners with the new ROCKEAT equipment line.

“We are thrilled to introduce ROCKEAT skid steers to the US market, which represents a significant leap forward in safety and sustainability for traditionally dangerous, high-emission industries like construction and mining,” Marcus Suess, COO of FIRSTGREEN Industries, told Construction Equipment Guide. “With continued national support to accelerate the expansion of critical mineral mining projects on home soil … addresses pressing environmental concerns but also contributes to the resurgence of homegrown industry.”

Available in big and bigger

Designed with a low clearance, 360-degree camera and remote operability, ROCKEAT machines redefine safety and efficiency in critical mining, construction and other hazardous industries; via FIRSTGREEN Industries.

The ROCKEAT comes in two models. Designated 700 and 1200, the two models are 67 in. and 71 in. wide, respectively, and available with either lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries. Max power output is 3 36.2 hp motors generating a maximum torque of 3 x 89 lb-ft of torque, with load capacities of 1,500 and 3,300 lbs., respectively. Charging is accomplished using standard 110v or 220v outlets, or by swapping batteries on the fly.

In both cases, the key feature is remote operation. The ROCKEAT machines can be operated via the standard, Danfoss-developed remote cabin, or the FIRSTGREEN mobile app for a quick backup solution, regardless of whether that’s a “I just need to back it up a few feet,” or, “Oh my God! It’s killing Kenny!” scenario.

Electrek’s Take

FIRSTGREEN quotes the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report saying that, of the 484 workplace fatalities reported in 2022, some 75 percent involved heavy equipment operators. By reducing the amount of noise in a mine with electrified equipment, and putting the operators far enough away to keep them out of harm’s way, the ROCKEAT may just be able to do what its makers say: keep workers a little bit safer.

To that end, FIRSTGREEN’s efforts to beef up the Elise and move into the mining space should be of great interest to companies like Caterpillar and Liebherr, who are also working to electrify their mining equipment offerings. Whether or not the upstart equipment brand will be able to establish a beachhead with its cabinless, remote-operated machinery and clever, practical, battery-swap technology remains to be seen.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

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We added to 5 portfolio stocks in last week’s oversold market. Here’s the breakdown

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We added to 5 portfolio stocks in last week's oversold market. Here's the breakdown

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on April 1, 2024.

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

It was a tough, choppy week for stocks, but the oversold market gave us many opportunities to put some of our cash to work selectively.

The Club added to five of our positions.

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