Spain's bank balance starts heading in the right direction

Some good news from Europe.

This chart, from JP Morgan via FT Alphaville's David Keohane, is quietly rather good news:

 

TARGET2 (Trans-European Automated Real-Time Gross Settlement System – yes, it's not a particularly good acronym) is the European inter-bank lending system, used for settling cross-border transactions throughout the eurozone.

If a Spanish supermarket buys beer from a German brewer and pays with a bank transfer, then the euros aren't just sent directly from one account to the other. Instead, they are channeled through the countries' central banks. The German brewer gets money from their bank, which gets the money from the Bundesbank, while the Spanish supermarket owes money to their local bank, which owes money to the Banco de España. The two central banks then settle those debts with the ECB, and that's the where TARGET2 comes in. Over the long-term, these debts and credits don't always even out, and so countries end up with balances with the ECB.

The chart above shows that the long-running trend for Germany to have ever-increasing credit, and Spain ever-increasing debt, may now be reversing. This is a good thing, because one of the few silver-linings of the crippling austerity the Spanish people have experienced over the last year is that the so-called "internal devaluation" – the reduction of wages in the country – is supposed to increase the strength of exports.

The TARGET2 trend also indicates that fears of a Spanish bank run are unfounded. While it doesn't leave the country in the all-clear – if people are taking money from banks in cash, it wouldn't show up on this account – it bodes well for the health of the banking sector.

But the most important aspect of TARGET2 for the eurocrisis as a whole is that it provides a mechanism for mechanical exit of the euro. We wrote about this in May with regards to Greece, but the short version is that if the debt gets too big, the ECB can decide to simply stop lending to the country. If that happens, the state is all but ejected from the euro in a stroke.

Greece may not be out of the water yet, but the knowledge that Spain is, for the time being, perfectly safe in the eurozone will help the country get its bearing. It still leaves Rajoy with the tough decision as to whether or not to officially request a bailout, but his hand is no longer as forced as it was.

Symbolic. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.