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How Housing Has Fared During the Recession

In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick is joined by Motley Fool personal finance expert Robert Brokamp and Bankrate senior writer and analyst Jeff Ostrowski. Alison shares the fascinating story of Marion Stokes and the power of investing to fuel audacious ideas. Later, Jeff helps us understand the latest real estate trends, how the real estate market has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, how it might change in the future, and much more.

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 8, 2020.

Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Alison Southwick, and I'm joined, as always, by Robert Brickhouse Brokamp. How are you doing, Robert Brokamp?

Robert Brokamp: [laughs] Fine. Thank you.

Southwick: In this week's episode we're joined by Jeff Ostrowski. He covers real estate and mortgages for Bankrate. And we're going to talk about the state of real estate in the U.S. All that and more on this week's episode of Motley Fool Answers.

Brokamp: Alison, what's up?

Southwick: Well, Bro, I want to share the fascinating story of Marion Stokes and the power of investing to fuel audacious ideas. So, I found out about her thanks to History Cool Kids on Instagram. So, if you're looking for a recommendation for a follow, History Cool Kids. And they got it from Atlas Obscura, which I don't think I need to recommend to you because I think we all know Atlas Obscura is pretty awesome. And Atlas Obscura wrote about it because of a 2019 documentary about Marion Stokes titled Recorder. So, Bro, let's get into it, shall we?

Brokamp: Let's do it. I can't wait.

Southwick: Born in the late-20s, Marion Stokes had been a librarian, lifelong activist, and local TV producer, when a magical piece of technology was born: the Betamax tape recorder. At the time, broadcast TV was considered pretty ephemeral: A broadcast happens, it goes out into the world, and it's never really seen again. One example, Doctor Who fans out there, apparently lament the lost 97 episodes of the show that were aired in the 60s and 70s, and that were, as a matter of routine, deleted from the BBC archive never to be seen again. Because, I mean, who wants to watch a TV episode over again? Am I right? I mean, you've seen it once, ugh!

So, enter Marion Stokes and her Betamax machine in 1975. She began recording bits of sitcom, science documentaries, and political news coverage. And as her son explains, from the outset of the Iran hostage crisis on Nov. 4, 1979, she hit "record" and she never stopped. Like, literally. When I tell you that over the course of 33 years Marion taped over 70,000 VHS and beta tapes of television, often running as many as eight machines at one time, you'd think, wow! This lady loves TV, but the truth was that she distrusted TV and the media. As her son explains in the documentary, she "Questioned the media's motivations and recognized the insidious intentional spread of disinformation." Ms. Stokes was alarmed. And in her private herculean effort, she took on the challenge of independently preserving the news record of her times in its most pervasive and persuasive form, television.

So, from a website called Frieze.com that wrote that she was obsessed with the mediation of media and she wanted to track how news stories changed as they broke and identify information dropped or suppressed, she wanted to look at how narratives were massaged and see what dramatic subplots and characters emerged as the news unfolded each day.

So, her archive really ramped up at the advent of the 24-hour news channel. So, like I said, up to eight machines recording constantly for years to capture the three local networks and 24-hour news channels, like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and more.

As her son explained, life revolved around creating this archive. And it was everyone's jobs to keep the machines going and swap out tapes every few hours. According to Wikipedia, in addition to her TV archive, she received half a dozen daily newspapers and 150 monthly periodicals collected for half a century. Stokes had also accumulated 30,000 to 40,000 books.

So, you might be wondering, where did this woman get the money to fund the project? Matt Wolf, who directed the documentary, again, titled Recorder, said in a Reddit AMA, Marion was a working-class single mother until she met her second husband, John Stokes, who came from an affluent family. After their marriage, Marion became a savvy investor, primarily in Apple stock, and that significantly enhanced their wealth and helped pay for the taping project, which later required purchasing nine additional houses to store the tapes and materials. In a word, [laughs] Marion was a hoarder, but she was a hoarder with a plan. Fun fact, she also loved Apple. In fact, [laughs] it's kind of sad, in one of the articles I read her son writes that she considered Steve Jobs -- whom I don't think she ever actually really met -- more of a son than her own son. So, that's pretty heartbreaking. But she also owned almost 200 Macs over the year, Macintosh computers over the year, and they were unwrapped and kept in a climate-controlled storage facility until they were auctioned off after her death.

So, what happened to these recordings? Well, when Marion passed away in 2012, the recordings stopped. She left them all to her son, who later donated them to the Internet Archive at Archive.org, where they are being digitized and put online. We're talking 400,000 hours of television.

Brokamp: Oh, my God! that is a lot of Three's Company.

Southwick: So, anyway, this is a fascinating story, and you can learn more by reading about her online and also watching the documentary Recorder. I think you can see it, if you donate to, like, PBS, you can maybe see it on their site, because it was aired on Independent Lens, but you can also see some of the content that she digitized over at Archive.org. But my larger takeaway is this: Wealth and investing isn't just about amassing money, it's about what you do with it, whether that's leaving it to the next generation or building something over your lifetime that will impact many generations. Now, Marion Stokes took this to the extreme. I doubt that she was an easy woman to live with from everything [laughs] I've read, but she had a vision and she put her wealth to work achieving it.

So, dear listeners, I hope investing is also helping you achieve your goals, be them audacious or fairly mundane. And that, Bro, is what's up.

Brokamp: The stock market is still up for the year, well, at least so far. Yet your portfolio may not be your only asset or even your biggest asset. In fact, according to Edward Wolff, an N.Y.U. economist, for the bottom 80% of Americans in terms of assets, their No. 1 asset is their home, about 60% of their net worth is in their house. So, how has residential real estate fared during the virus crisis and how might that change in the future? Here to help us answer those questions is Jeff Ostrowski, senior writer and analyst at Bankrate. Jeff, welcome to Motley Fool Answers.

Jeff Ostrowski: Hey, Bro, thanks for having me.

Brokamp: So, let's start with the current state of the housing market. Let's get to the numbers: How have prices been holding up during the recession?

Ostrowski: Well, surprisingly, really well. The prices are still going up. And I think I, like a lot of people, that fell victim to the whole recency bias flaw. You know, the last time we had a recession, home prices just absolutely collapsed and we had 50% drops in values in many parts of the country. And so back in March when we started going into recession again, I think I and a lot of others thought, oh, here we go again, in terms of home prices. And that really hasn't happened, home prices have held up, home sales are down, but fewer people have put their houses on the market, and so the supply and demand curve has just shifted. So, we've got basically more buyers than there are houses for sale. So, we're seeing a lot of bidding wars. I mean, I keep hearing these tales of a nondescript house getting 30, and 40, and even 50 bids over a weekend. So, home prices have held up surprisingly well, they're still going up, part of that is because we've got record-low mortgage rates and people have more buying power.

And then part of it also is just the pandemic has really changed people's thinking about housing. I mean, you know, if you're going to work and your kids are going to school and you're not in your house very much, you can make do with less space. But now that we're all crammed into one space and people are working from home and taking classes from home, you know, you suddenly start to think, hey, I could use a bigger house.

Brokamp: You brought up a couple of interesting points there. Let's start with mortgage rates. Crazy-low, 30-year mortgage, 30-year fixed is around 3%, little bit above, little bit below, depending on where you look. 15-year but below that. One interesting thing I've noticed though, is normally the adjustable-rate mortgages [ARM] are the lowest, but from what I've seen they're at the same as a 30-year fixed or even a little higher, what's going on with that?

Ostrowski: Yeah, that is a weird situation. And it's funny that you mention ARMs, because it seems like nobody really pays much attention to ARMs anymore with fixed-rate mortgages being so low for so long. And as you said, they're in the 3% range or even below for the 30-year fixed, but they haven't been much above that over the past decade. I mean, I think they briefly spiked up to around 5%, but when fixed-rate mortgages are so low, and they've stayed consistently low, people just, sort of, lose interest in ARMs. So, that's part of it, part of it is just that there aren't as many lenders offering ARMs, and so there's less supply, they're less widely available, and so that probably has something to do.

Some of it also is that -- without geeking out here too much, but the rates were based on LIBOR, or the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, for a long time, and LIBOR is going away and a new index is coming in, so that that might have something to do with it. And then in times of economic uncertainty, we do see this pattern where ARMs suddenly get more expensive than fixed-rate mortgages. But you know, it's intriguing, I talk to a lot of consumers, a lot of lending officers, a lot of mortgage brokers, nobody is talking about ARMs, they're all talking about the 30-year fixed and they're talking about how many points should you pay, should you do a 30, a 15, a 10, what are the advantages of different types of fixed-rate mortgages. And yeah, it just seems like ARMs have been, sort of, forgotten. They were a hot thing 15 years ago, but I almost never hear anyone recommending taking an ARM.

Brokamp: When rates drop so low, even if you aren't shopping for a mortgage, you're going to pay attention because you might want to refinance. But anecdotally, I've come across people saying it's actually harder than they expected to refinance nowadays. And then things got a little bit more complicated about this 0.5% refinance fee that kind of came out of nowhere, tell us a little bit about that.

Ostrowski: Right. So, yeah, there's a lot going on, obviously. So, part of it is, we've had such low rates that lenders are just inundated. You know, in normal times it might take a month for a refi to go through, and now it might be two months. I was talking to somebody recently who said that Wells Fargo told him his refi was fine, everything was on-track, but it wasn't going to close for a couple of months. And that seems pretty common just because lenders don't have enough people to handle all this volume, so that's one issue.

The other issue is that the pandemic has made lenders even more risk averse, even less willing to extend credit. So, these days if you want to get a refi, you better have a stellar FICO score, you know, 750 and above. You probably shouldn't try to take any cash out of your home and you definitely want to be well within the normal bounds of the debt-to-income ratio and loan-to-value ratio. So, as long as you're borrowing 80% of the value of your house or less and you've got a high credit score, you should be OK.

The other wild card, though, is income verification, and so if you've been furloughed or if you've lost your job in the past few months, it's going to be really hard to qualify for a refi. So, obviously, a lot of folks are refinancing, they're able to do it because home values have stayed strong, people have equity, most Americans are still employed and didn't lose income. So, if you're in that box, you're probably good, but there certainly are a lot of people who are having a hard time refi-ing.

And so that refi fee that you mentioned, so that kind of came out of nowhere. The agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in August said, oh, by the way, starting in a couple of weeks, we're going to charge an extra 50 basis points or 0.5% as a fee on refinances. And so, just in round numbers, if you're borrowing $300,000, this would be an extra $1,500. The bankers and realtors and the whole lending industry were up in arms and said, no, this is unfair, we've got a pandemic going on, people are hurting. You know, let's not do this. And so, Fannie and Freddie backed down a bit, they pushed this back to December. And their argument is that they've got billions of dollars of loan losses that they're expecting next year once all the mortgage forbearance programs go away. And so, their argument is, hey, we need the extra money. So, who knows what happens in a couple of months, if there's enough pressure that Fannie and Freddie decide not to do this, but yes, that is going to be just one more fee that you have to consider as a borrower if you're refinancing your home.

Brokamp: Right. So, that's the bottom line, right now it's been pushed off to December, so if you're thinking of refinancing, you should get that ball rolling now.

Ostrowski: Correct. Correct.

Brokamp: Yeah. So, a lot of people have lost their jobs, they're in difficult situations. When the pandemic started a lot of programs came out either from lenders themselves or from governments offering forbearance, offering moratoriums on foreclosures, some of those have expired, some haven't, what's the general state on basically the help you can get if you're having trouble paying your mortgage?

Ostrowski: Well, the most generous program is the government forbearance that you mentioned. And so, if you've got a loan that's backed by Fannie or Freddie, which is, you know, it's a little hard to know, but you can find search tools where you can put in your loan number and they'll tell you if your loan is owned by one of those agencies, or if it's a VA [Veterans Affair] loan or an FHA [Federal Housing Administration] loan, you automatically qualify for this mortgage relief known as forbearance, all you have to do is ask for it, you don't have to prove any hardship, you don't have to really do anything other than just notify the company that collects your mortgage payment that you're going to stop paying. You can stop paying for six months, and then if after six months you want to remain in forbearance, you can get another six months. So, that's part of the reason that we haven't seen a real flood of foreclosures. This very generous government program that says you can stop paying your mortgage for up to a year with no penalty. So, no fees, no extra charges, no hit to your credit score, nothing, you just stop paying for a year and then when you're ready you can resume payments with no penalty.

And then a lot of lenders have extended those same terms to their borrowers, even when the law doesn't require them to. So, if a bank has a jumbo loan or another type of loan that it's held in its portfolio as opposed to selling to Fannie or Freddie, they're also offering forbearance, not quite as generous, typically it tends to be a six-month break for making your payments. But, yeah, really, it's sort of the opposite of what we saw during the Great Recession when we had just millions of foreclosures. Now, we've got almost no foreclosures. I mean, there were hardly any foreclosures during the second quarter of this year.

Brokamp: And just to be clear forbearance doesn't mean you don't have to pay that money eventually, right? And so it seems to me that what is most common is that you'll just get extra time added to your mortgage, but is it also responsible you'll have to come up with a balloon payment or immediately, once you start paying back, your payments will go up?

Ostrowski: So, under the Federal law, there are no balloon payments. And the Federal regulators have been very adamant about that, so the situation is what you described. If you stop paying for a year, you essentially just add a year to your mortgage. And the idea is that it's giving people a chance to, if they've lost their jobs, they can, you know, hopefully within a year, they'll be collecting a paycheck again and be able to resume making payments. And really, with home values as strong as they've been, if folks really get into trouble, unlike 15 years ago, they should be able to just sell their homes and get out from under the problem as opposed to losing the home to foreclosure.

It's a bit more of a gray area with the banks that are voluntarily offering forbearance on jumbo loans and these other types of loans. I don't think most of them are demanding balloon payments, but you would need to check with the individual lender if you're in that situation.

Brokamp: One way that you have written about how to measure how housing is faring in different areas of the country is the housing hardship index. Tell us so a little bit about that and maybe which states aren't looking so good on that index.

Ostrowski: Right. So, I came up with that idea back in March-April when we had the huge spike in unemployment, when it looked like the economy was going down, and looked like maybe the housing market was going to suffer. And so, I just based it off the old misery index, which summed inflation and unemployment to give, sort of, like a reading of how the economy felt. And so, this is a state-by-state index, I'm just adding the state unemployment and state mortgage delinquency rates and coming up with the number that shows which states are being hit the hardest and which are doing fairly well.

So, in the first couple of months of the recession, back in April and May, the two hardest hit states by far were Nevada and Hawaii. And Nevada and Hawaii didn't really have a lot of COVID cases, but they have very tourism dependent economies, and there was no tourism during that period. So, I think Nevada's unemployment rates spiked up to 28% in April, and so it was, you know, a pretty dramatic rise. Since then the numbers have shifted a bit, Nevada and Hawaii have seen some improvement, and now the hardest hit states seem to be the ones that have had the largest number of COVID cases. So, in my most recent numbers, the state of New York was No. 1 and New Jersey was No. 2. And so, obviously, those two states were the epicenter of COVID deaths, so it kind of makes sense that they would be hit the hardest.

And so, as we saw today, unemployment is back down in the single digits, we're in the 8% range for unemployment if the number is accurate. And so, I mean, it seems like that those concerns about just a huge surge in unemployment are maybe going away. And with home prices holding steady, it doesn't seem like folks who are late on their foreclosures are really going to get hammered to the same extent that they were 10 years ago.

Brokamp: Since you brought up New York and you had mentioned previously this idea of people moving out of the cities, is it really happening or is that just something we occasionally see on Twitter, and if it is happening, do you think that's a true long-term trend?

Ostrowski: Yeah, that's a question everyone is asking right now. So, Manhattan saw a sharp drop in home sales compared to a year ago. The city of San Francisco has seen a decline. So, in New York, some of the outer boroughs and the suburbs are doing well, because there's been this move away from the densely packed city. And the idea that if you have a little more elbow room, maybe you won't have people coughing on you, you'll be less likely to catch the coronavirus. And San Francisco saw, kind of, a similar thing. But those are really the only two places I can point to off the top of my head that have seen a sharp slowdown in home sales. Everywhere else we've got these very intense shortages of homes for sale and just a ton of interest and activity.

So, it seems for now that there's a real interest in the suburbs. And that's a reversal from the past decade. I mean, we saw this real pushback toward urban living, we've seen gentrification in urban areas, huge home price gains in San Francisco and New York, because that's where the job growth was, the highest paying jobs were in New York and San Francisco. And home prices and demand for homes follow the jobs. So, yeah, I don't know, it's hard to say. Right now, the median home price in San Francisco is $1.4 million; that's not $1.4 million for a mansion, that's just $1.4 million for the typical house or the typical apartment. So, there is some thought that now that people can work remotely that they will work remotely and move to Idaho or Arizona or Texas or Ohio or someplace where their housing dollar goes a lot farther but they can collect their fat salaries from the tech industry. I don't know, who knows, I mean, the urbanists all say that the cities have a lot of momentum, that the energy of cities, that these economic effects of being around other highly skilled, highly paid people, they're lasting and they're not going to go away. And maybe when the pandemic is gone that those cities will regain their momentum. I don't know, it's really hard to say.

Brokamp: You wrote an article about affordability, and you mentioned some of these high cost cities, like San Francisco, and how much the housing is relative to the median income. And it's, in many cases, 7X, 8X, 10X the median income, way above the rule of thumb you often hear, don't buy a house that's more than 3X or 4X your median income. And you began the article with a story of someone who's living in Boston, he's thinking, all right, I can buy this house here for $750,000 and pay $12,000 in property taxes every year. Or I can move to Georgia, buy a house for $250,000-$300,000, very little taxes, bigger house, more space. And the person you mentioned in that article actually did do that. The flip side of it is, these big cities, at least over the last 25 years or so, buying a house was a great investment, whereas if you go to someplace like Cincinnati or Cleveland or Scranton, you can get a cheaper house, but over the last 20, 25 years, your house didn't make a lot of money for you.

Ostrowski: Yeah. And that's been the real conundrum of the housing market over the past generation. So, yeah, I went back and looked at the numbers over the past 25 years, and it used to be that Silicon Valley and San Francisco and New York were expensive, but maybe twice as much as what you would pay in other cities. And now it's 4X, 5X as much as you would pay for a typical house in Chicago or St. Louis. So, yeah, it's really opened up this huge gap.

In the case of that homeowner you mentioned, he moved from Boston to Athens, Georgia. He's happy, he's got a big yard for his kids to play in and a basement. And it feels like he made the right move, but it is tough. I mean, over the past 25 years the housing market that seems just the most eye-wateringly expensive are also the ones that appreciated. So, if you had sucked it up and paid $600,000 for a house in Silicon Valley 20 years ago, you'd have a house that's worth probably $2 million or more now. And if you bought a house in Detroit or Cleveland, your house would not have even appreciated at the same pace as inflation. So, yeah, it's a tough call, you know, do you go move to St. Louis or Indianapolis or Dallas where you know your money is going to go a lot farther, but the home is probably not going to appreciate in value? I mean, for a lot of people that's really the only choice, because qualifying for a mortgage on a $1.4 million home in San Francisco is almost impossible.

Southwick: It's kind of funny, if I can interject here, because you're talking about how buying these houses in these very expensive neighborhoods, towns, cities, they are the ones that appreciated, it was also kind of similar in the stock market. [laughs] Like, how long have we been talking about how overvalued some of these tech stocks are, but if you didn't buy them, you missed out on the massive gains in the stock market over the last few years. So, it's funny how there's a similarity there that we can think something is overvalued or overpriced, but that's what's going to keep going up.

Ostrowski: There you go, so I guess we could call Silicon Valley and Manhattan growth markets and Detroit and Cleveland value markets.

Brokamp: And as I looked at my value funds today, I totally understand that. I thought one interesting thing in your article, you quoted Brodie Gay, who is the Vice President of Research at Unison Home Ownership Investors, as saying, "Home value is a reflection of income," "Strong job growth attracts young talent, so there's this virtuous cycle." Which totally makes sense, right? I mean, you have an area where you're willing to pay people a lot of money, they move there, they have a lot of money, so they can bid up home prices. It'll be interesting to see if that changes or not. I mean, we have heard of companies, like, Facebook saying, we're willing to hire people in the middle of the country, we may not pay them as much as we pay the people in California, but they're still going to make a pretty good salary.

Ostrowski: Yeah. And then, of course, you see the stories about the Google [Alphabet] employees living in a van in the parking lot or crashing with five other people to save money. So, yeah, it's tough, but I mean, with the Nasdaq at record highs, those folks, they've got options that are in the money and they can still afford to keep bidding up home prices.

Brokamp: Do you want to take any shot at prognosticating at all? In that article there were some quotes of people saying, like, these high-priced areas can't go too much higher, do you have a sense of real estate, in general, over the next year or two, interest rates -- someone was telling me the other day that their parents were saying, you need to buy a house now, because interest rates are at all-time lows and they're going to go up creating this sort of urgency, like, I have to get the house now ...

Southwick: Which we've also been saying for years now. [laughs]

Brokamp: [laughs] That's true. Interest rates, they can't go any lower. And they just keep going lower.

Ostrowski: Yeah, it's so hard to make a very specific promise like that, because you've got a good chance of being wrong. I mean, you have to think that part of the reason that home prices have continued going up is because mortgage rates are so low. So, a lot of people are, they're not buying a price, they're buying a monthly payment. And so, even as rates have gone from 4% down to 3% over the past year, that just added, like, $70,000 to a typical homebuyer's budget, so. So, yeah, falling mortgage rates are good for buyers to an extent, but then to an extent the savings on your monthly payment are going to be eaten up because there's more demand for housing and so prices are going up.

It's hard to say if this is going to continue. There are several housing economists who say that we could have a small pullback in home prices over the next year or two just because we've got high unemployment, we've got all this economic uncertainty, we've had this little boom here as the Spring selling season was canceled, and then compressed in a few months over the Summer, but maybe that won't continue. I haven't heard anyone say, we're going to have significant drops in home prices.

But I guess one argument in favor of the buy now position is, we've got a pretty intense shortage of housing, there's just not a lot of construction in most areas of the country. And so, the supply and demand equation seems to favor homeownership. I mean, it's hard to see home prices crashing, and it's easy to see them continue to rise over the coming years and decades.

Brokamp: Right. So, we come to wrapping this up here, as a final couple of questions, I was just curious, there are sort of any under-the-radar developments that aren't getting as much attention as they should or if you've learned anything about the real estate or mortgage markets over the years that you think more people should know about?

Ostrowski: Let's see, under the radar, I guess, the one thing that jumps out is just how different this recession has been from the Great Recession. So, leading into the Great Recession, there were a lot of concerns about housing affordability and then that went away with the crash in home prices. And so, people who couldn't afford houses suddenly could afford them. And that hasn't happened this time around. So, people who couldn't afford houses before this recession, still can't afford them. And so, we're seeing, kind of, this widening of the wealth gap, so the people who own stocks, who own houses are doing pretty well and the people who don't own them are, you know, still on the outside and maybe a little bit farther on the outside.

A side note to that is that there remains a huge racial gap in home ownership in the U.S. I mean, the Black home ownership rate is a good 40 points below the White homeownership rate. Fewer than half of African-Americans own homes, and something like three-quarters of White Americans own their homes. So, that's another troubling trend, and it's hard to see how that's going to be addressed with so little construction happening.

Brokamp: Well, this has been great, Jeff. We really appreciate you stopping by. Hopefully you'll come back to join us again, because this is something that I, sort of, know the periphery of, so it's great to be able to read your articles and have you on the show every once in a while.

Ostrowski: All right. Well, yeah, I'd love to come back. Thank you.

Southwick: Well, that's the show. Our email is Answers@Fool.com.

I want to thank Heather Horton for stepping in on the taping, but it's still edited continuously by Rick Engdahl. For Robert Brokamp, I'm Alison Southwick, stay Foolish everybody.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Randi Zuckerberg, a former director of market development and spokeswoman for Facebook and sister to its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Alison Southwick has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Robert Brokamp, CFP has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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