Judgement day: the Fed chairman decides fate of US stimulus programme

An anxious waiting game.

The world stock markets are shaky as investors are cautious amid growing concerns that the US Federal Reserve may halt its favourite economic stimulus programme earlier than expected.

The US stocks opened lower this week, after reaching all-time highs last week. Now, financial media and analysts are putting the weak market down to a lack of economic security, after Fed officials suggested that the Federal Reserve might taper its bond buying programs.

Since September, the central bank has printed $85bn a month to purchase Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, a policy known as quantitative easing. The programme’s life is contingent on the strength of the economy – the Fed is committed to ending it as soon as it detects substantial improvement in the outlook for US employment.

That said, it is no surprise that all eyes are on Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who is scheduled to give his testimony on the US economic outlook before Congress on Wednesday. The speech might give some hints about the Fed's exit strategy.

When the Fed’s 19-member policy committee last met three weeks ago, officials emphasised that they could either increase or decrease the scale of their monthly bond purchases, depending on projections for the economy.

In the weeks since, positive news on the US economy has outweighed the negative, thanks to a stronger jobs market, and growth in retail sales.

So it is no surprise that investors across the globe paid attention when Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, the policy-setting arm of the Fed, last week expressed optimism over the US economy, raising concerns that he would support tapering the quantitative easing policy earlier than expected.

The US central bank's massive asset purchases are considered the main driver of US economic growth, so with the latest news that the stimulus programme might be halted or at best, that bond buying will decrease, investors are becoming wary. As the US dollar retreated against major currencies Monday, there’s no doubt that today’s testimony will have a serious impact on the American economy as well as global finances.

Consequently, today will be an anxious waiting game.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Photograph: Getty Images

Sandra Kilhof Nielsen is a freelance writer and former reporter for Retail Banker International, Cards International & Electronic Payments International.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear