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2012 Investment Climate Statement - Iceland


2012 Investment Climate Statement
Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
June 2012
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Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

The Icelandic government professes it welcomes foreign investment in most sectors, but has been criticized for its lack of support for certain potential projects and for a deteriorating investment climate. The majority of past investment has been in energy-intensive industries, such as aluminum smelting, that take advantage of the country's abundant renewable energy resources. The current coalition government is less receptive to heavy industry and seeks to attract green projects that provide a large number of high paying jobs. As part of its investment promotion strategy, the state operates the "Invest in Iceland Agency," which facilitates foreign investment and provides information to potential investors.

The government continues to reevaluate the role of foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly anything related to the use of natural resources. There is considerable interest in further diversification from the fishing and aluminum industries, but beyond debating the merits of individual investment projects the Icelandic leadership has not articulated a clear growth strategy or signaled what its priorities are for foreign investment. Electricity is viewed less as a commodity than previously, as politicians now consider the effects that specific energy-intensive projects would have on the economy as a whole, in terms of job creation and environmental impact. The attempted purchase by a non-EEA citizen of a large parcel of land to develop the tourist industry was the subject of considerable debate regarding foreign investment in Iceland and highlighted significant differences of opinion within the government. Ultimately, the government denied the individual's request for an exemption, which would have allowed the sale.

Icelandic laws regulating and protecting foreign investments are consistent with OECD and European Union (EU) standards. As Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), most EU commercial legislation and directives are in effect in Iceland. The major law governing foreign investment is the 1996 Act on Investment by Non-residents in Business Enterprises, which grants national treatment to non-residents of the EEA (including U.S. citizens). The law dictates that foreign ownership of businesses is generally unrestricted, but limited in the fishing, energy and aviation sectors. Only entities with at least 51 percent Icelandic ownership can hold fishing rights. Non-EEA residents cannot hold hydro and geothermal power harnessing rights; cannot manufacture or distribute energy; and cannot own more than 49 percent of aviation companies. However, there are precedents of such restrictions being circumvented by non-EEA companies that establish holding companies somewhere within the EEA. Icelandic law also restricts the ability of non EEA-citizens to own land, but this may be waived by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Affairs. The managers and the majority of the board of directors in an Icelandic enterprise must be domiciled in Iceland or another EEA member state, though exemptions from this provision can be granted.

Icelandic courts uphold the sanctity of contracts as a matter of course. Depending on the turnover of the companies in question, the Icelandic Competition Authority shall be notified of mergers and acquisitions. The Authority may annul mergers or set conditions with the objective of preventing harmful oligopolies and the restriction of competition.

There is no automatic screening of foreign investors, although bidders in privatization sales may have to go through a pre-qualification process. Potential U.S. bidders in privatization auctions need to follow the process closely, since the procedures are often ad hoc and deadlines can be short.

The U.S. does not have a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) with Iceland. A Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) was signed in January 2009.

The Icelandic Krona (ISK), which depreciated 60 percent against the dollar during the 2008 economic crisis, has been relatively stable since 2009. Capital controls remain in effect for all but new investments and have been put into a law that is set to expire at the end of 2013.

Measure

Year

Index/Ranking

TI Corruption Index

2011

13

Heritage Economic Freedom

2011

14

World Bank Doing Business

2011

15

Conversion and Transfer Policies

The Central Bank of Iceland imposed capital controls in October 2008 to prevent a massive capital outflow by foreign investors with stakes in the Icelandic economy after the collapse of the financial sector. The capital controls are intended to be a temporary measure. The 1996 Act on Investment by Non-residents in Business Enterprises states that "non-residents who invest in Icelandic enterprises shall have the right convert into any currency, for which the Central Bank of Iceland maintains a regular exchange rate any dividends received or other profits and proceeds from sales of investments." Transactions involving imports and exports of goods and services, travel, interest payments, contractual installment payments and salaries are still permitted. The Central Bank published its Capital Controls Liberalization Strategy in August 2009, stating that the controls will be lifted in stages. Three steps have been implemented thus far. The outflow of foreign currency for new investments registered with the Central Bank is now allowed, and the Central Bank has begun the process of buying back offshore kronur.

Expropriation and Compensation
 

The Constitution of Iceland proclaims that no one may be obliged to surrender his property unless required by public interests and that such a measure shall be provided for by law and full compensation be paid. A special committee is appointed every five years to review and proclaim the legality of expropriation cases. If the committee proclaims a case to be legal it will negotiate an amount of compensation with the appropriate parties. If an amount cannot be agreed upon, the committee determines a fair value after hearing the case of all parties.

In 2010, the government announced its intention to "retract privatization of the energy sector and ensure that energy companies are owned by public authorities.” Expropriatory actions were considered against a foreign firm's purchase of a geothermal power company but were not taken, because a provision in the law on Foreign Investment stipulates that it must occur no later than eight weeks after the purchase. That foreign company, however, subsequently sold about 25% of its shares in the power company after continued public debate and pressure from Icelandic authorities.

As far as the U.S. Embassy is aware, the Icelandic government has never expropriated a foreign investment. Some actions of the Icelandic government before and during the financial crisis in October 2008, such as the takeover of the three major banks with significant foreign investment interests when they were running out of liquidity, have been described by private investors as an expropriation of sorts.

Dispute Settlement

Iceland has ratified the major international conventions governing arbitration and the settlement of investment disputes. Iceland accepts binding arbitration of investment disputes.

Economic Surveillance Authorities (ESA) under the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) agreement ruled that the emergency laws put in place when the Icelandic banking sector crashed were legal. Some entities, however, tried to appeal this ruling to change the order of claims in the estates of the old banks but were unsuccessful. In October, Iceland's Supreme Court upheld the legality of the emergency laws, paving the way for the first disbursement of payments to the priority claimants of the former Landsbanki. ESA filed a lawsuit in December against Iceland in the EFTA Court for breach of the Deposit Guarantee Directive. ESA states that Iceland is obligated to ensure payment of a minimum compensation of 20.887 Euros per depositor. The Embassy is unaware of any other cases of major investment disputes involving foreign investors in Iceland.

The Icelandic civil law system enforces property rights, contractual rights and the means to protect these rights. The Icelandic court system is independent from the parliament and government. Foreign parties must abide by the same rules as Icelandic parties, and they enjoy the same privileges in court; there is no discrimination against foreign parties in the Icelandic court system. When trade or investment disputes are settled, the settlement is usually remitted in the local currency.

Under the Constitution, sentences may be passed by the courts only. The courts are divided into two classes: the lower courts, where most cases are heard, and the Supreme Court, which hears appeals from the lower courts. There are eight lower courts and one Supreme Court, all hearing public and private cases. Iceland has been a member of the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) since 1966.

Performance Requirements and Incentives

Broadly speaking, Iceland currently does not offer direct subsidies for business investment. Its primary incentives are in providing for a favorable environment for businesses, including relatively low corporate tax rates and low energy prices. However, due to the State's fiscal gap following the financial crash the government has raised taxes to generate revenue. Past investment agreements have been made on a case-by-case basis and have included, among other incentives, some tax exemptions. In 2010, the government created a standardized investment agreement to serve as a template for all future agreements. Local communities may offer certain additional incentives.

As a member of the EEA, Iceland has access to various EU funding programs, including the Seventh Framework Program. Icelandic entities, including companies established in Iceland, can obtain funding from the Program for joint R&D ventures with entities from other EEA countries.

Film and TV production in Iceland are subsidized by the Icelandic state in the form of a rebate of a portion of production costs through 2016. A branch or a representative office must be established in Iceland for these purposes. There are no requirements as to the production budget, but the film should promote Icelandic culture as well as introduce Iceland's history and natural beauty. The film and TV production cost rebate rate for costs incurred over the 2007-2016 period is 20 percent. The program does not provide a rebate for the production of commercials or music videos. More information is available at www.filminiceland.com.

Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign entities are free to establish and own any type of business enterprise and engage in all forms of legal remunerative activity other than in fishing, energy, and aviation. Companies established in the EEA, however, are not subject to these limitations in the energy and aviation industries. If a foreign citizen from outside the EEA wishes to purchase land or real estate in Iceland, a permit is required from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Icelandic law treats public and private enterprises with equality when it comes to market access and other business operations. Foreign investors are permitted to participate in the privatization of government-owned businesses, subject to restrictions imposed by the government.

A foreign party must obtain an identity number (kennitala) before establishing a bank account.

Protection of Property Rights

Iceland adheres to key international agreements on property rights (e.g., Paris Union Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property). Trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and industrial designs are all protected under Icelandic law. As with many other issues, Iceland is following the European lead in protection of property rights and adheres to the European Patent Convention of 1973. In 2005, Iceland signed the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).

Iceland is a member of the EEA and therefore accepts jurisdiction of the EEA Court. Property rights are recognized and protected in the Constitution of Iceland. Secured interests in property are bound by law and enforced as such and there is a reliable system which records such security interests.

The Icelandic Patent Office -- a governmental agency under supervision of the Ministry of Economic Affairs -- handles all patent disputes in Iceland. The legal framework concerning intellectual property rights (IPR) in Iceland is in all respects equivalent to that of other industrialized countries in Europe. Iceland is a World Trade Organization (WTO) member, and Icelandic legislation complies with WTO TRIPS requirements.

As an EFTA state and member of the EEA, Iceland has implemented all relevant EU regulations and directives in the field of IPR. Furthermore, Iceland is bound by bilateral EFTA free-trade agreements which include provisions on IPR.

Iceland is a member of the European Patent Organization. Iceland is a member of WIPO and a party to most WIPO-administered agreements.

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Icelandic laws regulating business practices are consistent with those of most OECD member states, and are increasingly based on European Union directives as a result of Iceland's EEA membership. Much of Iceland's financial regulatory system was put in place only in the 1990s, thus transparency is occasionally a concern (i.e. in public procurement, and in privatization sales where the process is established by the government on an ad hoc basis). In response to the financial crisis of 2008, the government is working to increase its regulatory role in the financial sector.

The Competition Authority is responsible for the enforcement of anti-monopoly regulations and the promotion of effective competition in business activities. This includes eliminating unreasonable barriers and restrictions on freedom in business operations, preventing harmful oligopoly and restriction of competition and facilitating the access of new competitors to the market.

The Consumer Agency holds primary responsibility for market surveillance of business operators, transparency of the markets with respect to safety and consumers' legal rights, and enforcement of legislation concerning protection of consumers' health, legal and economical rights.

The system as a whole is transparent, though bureaucratic delays can occur. All proposed laws and regulations are published in draft forms for the public record and are open for comment.

The Icelandic parliament (Althingi) consists of a single chamber of 63 members and a simple majority is required for ordinary bills to become law. All bills that are introduced in the parliament are in draft form. Drafts are open to the public and are published on the parliament's web page. Interested parties can comment on proposed law and regulations.

Efficient Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

All companies have access to regular commercial banking services in Iceland, even if it is likely that financing for large-scale investment projects will largely need to come from abroad. The ISK weakened by 3% in 2011 despite the implementation of capital controls. Iceland has been running a positive trade surplus that has helped in stabilizing the ISK . There is ample demand for foreign currency, but selling large amounts of ISK in a single transaction might be difficult. The Central Bank has often involved itself in the market since the collapse, buying ISK, and those who have been allowed to sell ISK under the capital controls have been able to do so.

The combined assets of Iceland's three largest banks amount to roughly 2.5 times Iceland’s GDP in 2010. There are also a number of other smaller financial institutions active in Iceland, notably MP bank, which acquired a commercial banking license in 2008 and has assets valued at 50 billion ISK ($424 million). MP-Bank is the only Icelandic private bank that has not been recapitalized by the Icelandic state after the economic crash of 2008. Its current capital ratio is 20%, which is above the Financial Supervisory Authority’s (FME) 16% capital adequacy requirement. The three large banks in Iceland met this requirement by June 2010. At the end of the second quarter 2011, nonperforming loans in the Icelandic banking system were 39%.

The OMX Nordic Exchange operates the market for securities in Iceland and trades various products. Activity has been limited since the crash, but the infrastructure is in place. In 2010 99% of all volume on the OMX exchange in Iceland was in bonds. Daily turnover was around $100 million in bonds and $1 million in equities. The Central Bank frequently issues and auctions ISK-denominated government bonds and welcomes foreign participation.

Competition from State Owned Enterprises

Private enterprises are generally allowed to compete with public enterprises under the same terms and conditions in all sectors except energy manufacturing and distribution. SOEs are most active in the banking, energy, health and alcohol sectors. In some cases, politicians are on the boards of SOEs.

In the midst of the banking crisis, the state, through the Financial Supervisory Authority (FME), took over Iceland's three largest commercial banks in October 2008 and subsequently took over several savings banks to allow for uninterrupted banking services in the country. As of January 2011, creditors of two of the three largest banks acquired a majority of shares in the newly established commercial banks. The state has a considerable stake in many companies through its shares in the banks; however, it is the policy of the government not to interfere with internal or day-to-day decisions of these companies.

In 2009, the state established the Bank Shares Management Company to manage the state-owned shares in financial companies. The Minister of Finance appoints the three board members, who appoint a committee that determines who will represent the state on the boards of financial companies.

While most energy producers are either owned by the state or municipalities, there is free competition in the energy market. In 2008 one of the major energy companies was split into two companies: one that produces energy and another that distributes it. A foreign company bought approximately 95 percent of the energy producing company in 2010 through its EEA subsidiary, but subsequently sold a portion of its shares and now owns 75 percent.

The universal healthcare system is mainly state operated, though the Embassy is aware of plans to build private health tourism facilities in Iceland. Few legal restrictions exist; however, private clinics need an agreement with the Icelandic state, a foreign state or an insurance company regarding payment for services.

The State Alcohol and Tobacco Company of Iceland (ÁTVR), has exclusive rights for the retail sale of all alcoholic beverages. Importers and wholesale companies are privately run.

Corporate Social Responsibility

In general, there is an awareness of corporate social responsibility among both producers and consumers.

Political Violence

Iceland experienced political protests stemming from the October 2008 financial crisis. Public protests spurred the government to dissolve and a new coalition to form prior to early elections in spring 2009. Although the occasional protests are still held, they are much less intense then in late 2008 and early 2009. There have been limited cases of politically motivated vandalism of foreign holdings in recent years, directed primarily at the aluminum industry.

Corruption

Isolated cases of corruption occur but are not an obstacle to foreign investment. In 2011 Iceland was in 13th place out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index Ranking. It was ranked as number one in 2006.

Bilateral Investment Agreements

The U.S. has neither a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) nor a Free Trade Agreement with Iceland. There is no Social Security Totalization Agreement in place between the U.S. and Iceland, meaning that some dual citizens must pay into both social security programs; however, talks are underway towards concluding an agreement. There is a U.S.-Iceland bilateral taxation treaty and a Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TIFA).

OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs

Political risk insurance and project financing have traditionally been available on the local and international markets. As a result of the financial crisis in fall 2008, project financing may be temporarily limited. Iceland is a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.

Labor

The labor force in Iceland consists of just over 180,000 people aged 16 and older and is highly skilled. Until the economic crisis in October 2008, demand for labor exceeded supply. Foreign labor moved to Iceland to fill the majority of unskilled service jobs and semi-skilled construction jobs, as the EEA-agreement allows for the free movement of labor within the area. Layoffs followed in the wake of the economic crisis, particularly in the financial and construction sectors. Unemployment rose quickly and peaked at 9.1 percent in April 2009. As of October 2011, unemployment was 6.8 percent.

The labor market is highly unionized with 80-85 percent of employees belonging to unions. Icelandic labor unions are decentralized and non-political. Contractual wage agreements cover general terms of employment, including a basic minimum wage, but specific terms are usually negotiated on a more job-specific basis. Collective bargaining power, in both the public and the private sectors, rests with individual labor unions. The government has imposed mandatory mediation when strikes have threatened key sectors in the economy such as the fishing industry.

The basic legal work week is 40 hours over 5 days, but some professions have 37.5 – 39.5 hours per week, mainly office clerks and sales assistants. Most employees are paid for overtime, or alternatively allowed time off in lieu of paid compensation. Typical shift-work rates are an extra 33% on top of the daytime rate for hours worked outside 8:00-17:00and 45% when work is preformed from 24:00-8:00 and at weekends. If total work hours exceed the definition of full-time employment, overtime is paid. On public holidays there is an extra 45% on the daytime rate. A continuous rest period of 11 hours is typically guaranteed during each 24-hour period. In certain circumstances the rest period may be shortened to 8 hours.

Iceland has ratified approximately 20 ILO conventions, including those that protect basic workers' rights.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Trade Zones

Under the EEA agreement, free ports or foreign trade zones are not allowed in Iceland.

Foreign Direct Investment Statistics

The following tables reflect data available as of December 2011. Information in this chapter was obtained from the Central Bank of Iceland. The Central Bank of Iceland does not provide information on specific investments, but the majority of U.S. investment in Iceland is in the aluminum sector. A large part of the FDI stocks from Belgium/Luxembourg and the Netherlands may be held by Icelanders residing there.

Total FDI stocks in Iceland in 2010 amounted to 88 percent of Iceland’s GDP for 2010. The total 2010 FDI flows to Iceland amount to 3.8 percent of GDP, which was a increase by a factor of 6 over 2009 levels.

USD/ISK end of year mid-exchange rate:

Year

 

 

2007

2008

2009

2010

Rate

 

 

62.00

120.87

124.9

115.05

FDI stocks in Iceland by country (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

U.S.

 

 

890

249

215

Belgium/Luxembourg

 

 

7,137

6,682

9.538

Netherlands

 

 

441

1005

1110

Norway

 

 

201

234

229

Switzerland

 

 

191

177

183

Denmark

 

 

135

201

214

Sweden

 

 

174

55

151

U.K.

 

 

-6

7

8

Total

 

 

9,184

8,632

11,766

FDI stocks in Iceland by industry (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

Holding companies

 

 

5,281

5,303

4,610

Metal and mech. production

 

 

2,741

2,752

2,877

Financial activities

 

 

586

3

15

Trade and Repairs

 

 

185

187

201

Tele-communication

 

 

172

17

-0,212

Food Production

 

 

98

17

17

Transport and Storage

 

 

-30

133

120

Total

 

 

9,184

8,632

11,766

FDI flows to Iceland by country (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

U.S.

 

 

26

-753

-10,7

Belgium/Luxembourg

 

 

268

-151

283,7

Netherlands

 

 

-132

831

37,8

Norway

 

 

47

-13

15,2

Switzerland

 

 

33

-8

5

Sweden

 

 

376

128

157

Denmark

 

 

-19

13

2,4

U.K.

 

 

-141

3

0,782

Total

 

 

668

77

505

FDI flows to Iceland by industry (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

Holding companies

 

 

432

1,7

188,5

Metal and mech. production

 

 

86

-211,6

75,4

Financial activities

 

 

89

15,3

1,2

Trade and Repairs

 

 

-36

1,8

1,6

Tele-communication

 

 

-15

0,5

-0,82

Food Production

 

 

-77

15,2

0

Transport and Storage

 

 

-265

103

13,1

Total

 

 

668

77

505

Icelandic FDI stocks abroad by country (in millions of ISK):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

U.S.

 

 

190,602

196,153

144,249

Netherlands

 

 

290,514

283,359

261,196

U.K.

 

 

267,533

398,979

284,293

Denmark

 

 

260,190

291,469

61,336

Sweden

 

 

61,717

48,942

47,585

Norway

 

 

59,311

18,231

19,669

Canada

 

 

42,499

19,015

18,145

Belgium/Luxembourg

 

 

-311,281

-369,847

245,714

Total

 

 

1,063,299

1,157,812

1,281,384

Icelandic FDI stocks abroad by country (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

U.S.

 

 

1,577

1,704

1,253

Netherlands

 

 

2,404

2,462

2,270

U.K.

 

 

2,214

3,467

2,471

Denmark

 

 

2,153

2,533

533

Sweden

 

 

511

425

413

Norway

 

 

491

158

170

Canada

 

 

352

165

157

Belgium/Luxembourg

 

 

-2,575

-3,214

2,135

Total

 

 

8,797

10,063

11,137

Icelandic FDI stocks abroad by industry (in millions of ISK):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

Financial activities

 

 

359,202

299,217

262,440

Petro, rubber and chemical

 

 

330,213

381,629

96,876

Trade and repair

 

 

173,721

161,322

186,568

Food production

 

 

88,998

124,062

100,970

Transportation and Storage

 

 

74,112

47,886

31,520

Prosthetic aids

 

 

41,077

61,420

98,921

Real Estate

 

 

15,901

27,046

17,671

Scientific activities

 

 

15,632

16,008

6,487

Holding companies

 

 

-92,719

-76,696

404,861

Total

 

 

1,063,299

1,157,812

1,281,384

Icelandic FDI stocks abroad by industry (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

Financial activities

 

 

2,972

2,600

2,281

Petro, rubber and chemical

 

 

2,732

3,317

842

Trade and repair

 

 

1,437

1,402

1,621

Food production

 

 

736

1,078

877

Transportation and Storage

 

 

613

416

273

Prosthetic aids

 

 

340

534

859

Real Estate

 

 

132

235

153

Scientific activities

 

 

129

139

56

Holding companies

 

 

-767

-667

3,519

Total

 

 

8,797

10,063

11,137

Icelandic FDI flows to abroad by country (in millions of ISK):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

U.S.

 

 

-88,994

6.148

-42,278

Netherlands

 

 

-251,383

126.253

-17,765

U.K.

 

 

-24,186

69.321

-28,117

Denmark

 

 

-39,315

-22.402

-98,461

Sweden

 

 

-89,962

-9.665

-4,075

Norway

 

 

-16,399

-7.253

-6,195

Canada

 

 

-16,399

1.872

550

Belgium/Luxembourg

 

 

27,878

117.335

-91,067

Total

 

 

-716,513

278.030

-307,591

Icelandic FDI flows to abroad by country (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

U.S.

 

 

-736

53

367

Netherlands

 

 

-2,080

1,1

154

U.K.

 

 

-200

602

244

Denmark

 

 

-327

-195

855

Sweden

 

 

-744

-84

35

Norway

 

 

-223

-63

54

Canada

 

 

-136

16

4,8

Belgium/Luxembourg

 

 

231

1,01

792

Total

 

 

-5,928

2.416

2,673

Icelandic FDI flows to abroad by industry (in millions of ISK):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

Financial activities

 

 

-293,387

183.806

-82,750

Petro, rubber and chemical

 

 

29,452

21.889

-30,748

Trade and repair

 

 

2,317

48.500

-3,432

Food production

 

 

-35,990

31.662

15,619

Transportation and storage

 

 

-38,370

30.994

-15,521

Prosthetic aids

 

 

-3,574

10,051

-22,155

Real estate companies

 

 

-38,410

-27.863

-12,462

Scientific activities

 

 

-972

-8.717

4,506

Holding companies

 

 

-295,150

-645

-146,509

Total

 

 

-716,513

278.030

-307,591

Icelandic FDI flows to abroad by industry (in millions of USD):

 

 

 

2008

2009

2010

Financial activities

 

 

-2,427

1,970

719

Petro, rubber and chemical

 

 

244

190

267

Trade and repair

 

 

19

421

30

Food production

 

 

-298

275

136

Transportation and storage

 

 

-317

269

135

Prosthetic aids

 

 

30

874

193

Real estate companies

 

 

-317

-242

108

Scientific activities

 

 

-8

-75

39

Holding companies

 

 

-2,442

-56

1,273

Total

 

 

-5,928

2.416

2,673



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