The ECB's Asset Quality Review is a work of art - minimalist art

A masterpiece of reverse engineering.

In creating what was a potentially vital part of the project to keep the Euro afloat, the European Central Bank had a mission. They were to design a bank asset quality review that was just tough enough to gain credibility, but not too tough, for fear of scaring the horses and inducing queues of depositors to form outside banks when the results come out.

What we got was a masterpiece of reverse engineering, aimed at achieving just what was required - just enough. It can't be denied there are some tough-sounding parts, some tidbits of rectitude - an examination of gross liquidity ratios, excessive LTRO usage, and rigorous scrutiny of off-balance sheet exposures and the risk-weightings which banks choose to apply to their assets.

We are assured these matters will all receive diligent attention in the AQR, and may even lead to a subjective decision to raise the required capital ratio above the standard level of 7 per cent, (8 per cent for large, systemically important banks). Ok, sure, we'll wait and see what happens!

Very sensibly the AQR will take a Q4 2013 snapshot of balance sheets, so as to discourage banks from indulging in an unseemly fire sale of assets or reduction in customer loans by not giving them enough time to do so.

We even got some headmasterly rhetoric from Mario Draghi along the lines that we must have no fear, the AQR would be stringent enough so that some banks do actually fail, to ensure the process had credibility (preferably very small ones that have little chance of spreading contagion fear). He further insisted that governments must have a backstop in place. This was a thinly veiled tilt at Germany, who is in turn insisting that every cent is bled out of private bond and equity holders, of every possible description, first, before the European Stability Mechanism is tapped for bank re-capitalisation.

The trouble is, this AQR does very little to address the potentially lethal death embrace of banks and their governments that exists as a result of the banks' enormous holdings of sovereign bonds. This is to be expected: a proper risk-adjusted examination of the various hues of government bonds stuffed into banks' balance sheets, with realistic risk weightings, would be far too scary and if it ever saw the light of day, and might just bring the whole Tower of Babel crashing down.

So there were are, just enough to give the banks another year to de-leverage before the European Banking Authority stress tests and, with results not due for a year, just enough time for Germany to become satisfied with the ESM's rules of engagement.

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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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