Economist 11/30/15

  1. IN JUNE of last year the European Central Bank reduced its benchmark interest rate, at which it lends to commercial banks, to 0.15% and its deposit rate, which it pays to banks on their reserves, to -0.1%.The ECB was in effect charging commercial banks to hold their excess deposits at the central bank.Three months later, the ECB cut the deposit rate again, to -0.2%.Not so long ago, the lowest possible interest rate was thought to be zero. There is a ready alternative to keeping money in banks: holding it as cash.This has not caused commercial banks to swap their reserves at the central bank for cash, as theory would suggest. That is because to do so would itself be costly. To settle payments, banks must move vast sums between themselves each day. The costs of counting, storing, moving and insuring lorry-loads of banknotes apparently trumps the smallish charge Europe’s central banks are levying to hold electronic deposits.
  2. For all these countries, it is the exchange rate against the euro that matters most. To suppress their currencies, their central banks must offer interest rates that are further below zero than the ECB’s. The deposit rate in Denmark and in Switzerland is -0.75%. In Sweden it is -1.1%.Most banks, however, have shielded retail customers from such charges, on the assumption they would move their accounts elsewhere. As a consequence, overall bank deposits have been stable. The banks have simply absorbed the cost of deposits at the central bank, which has dented profits.
  3. THE Sikh religion provides for a gathering of believers, the Sarbat Khalsa, in times of great crisis. It was convened regularly in the 18th century, when the Mughal empire was trying to exterminate the Sikhs. But it was called just twice in the 20th century. The last time was in 1986, as a response to bloodshed that began with the Indian army’s assault on the Sikhs’ Golden Temple in Amritsar.And so a tremor was felt in the state of Punjab when a Sarbat Khalsa was called for November 10th, to be held on an unassuming patch of ground outside Amritsar. Its topic was blasphemy and the desecration of the Sikhs’ holy book: torn pages had been showing up around the state for weeks.The Badals understand that they and not the religious leaders were the real target—for their family is widely thought to control the gurdwaracommittee that appoints the priests.Few seem happy with the Badals. Their many businesses have thrived, though little else does. Their electoral hold on the state is helped by the fact that not only are they Sikhs, like most of Punjab’s population, but they are from the Jat Sikh caste, the majority within the community.
  4. Each government sets different rules for what data may be looked at, by whom and with what authority. This is partly due to politics (Belgium has numerous squabbling police forces); and partly because of legal restrictions—the European Parliament takes privacy extremely seriously, as does the German government.Breaking down barriers to information-sharing is a much better idea. Terrorists and criminals cross national borders easily. Law-enforcement should be able to do the same. The police should have access to databases such as passenger name records on internal European flights, and the fingerprints of people who have arrived claiming refugee status.The internet has (by accident, not design) has fostered a culture in which anybody can pretend to be who they like.We do not allow anonymous births, cars, planes or bank-accounts. Insisting on absolute anonymity online looks a bit anomalous.
  5. FOR more than two decades, 50 was a kind of magic figure for cyclists in the Tour de France. That is maximum threshold for hematocrit, the percentage of oxygen-carrying red-blood cells that can be found coursing through human vessels without external help. Breach the 50-mark and be suspended on the reasonable suspicion that you were using EPOs (erythropoietins), a red-blood-cell booster; but ride with a lower figure and risk being left behind. As of last year, 38% of all top-ten finishes in the Tour de France from 1998-2013 were found to have doped themselves with EPOs.Yet each year only 1-2% of all tests result in penalties.he preferred method therefore is “micro-dosing”. Instead of injecting EPO subcutaneously (under the skin), risking a longer “glow time” during which they might be found out, athletes have learned to administer smaller doses directly into their veins. Marginal gains matter. The difference between the first and second place in the 100m dash in world championships held earlier this year was 0.01 seconds, faster than blink of an eye.The most common anti-doping test is called a T/E ratio, where “T” stands for testosterone and “E” is a steroid called epitestosterone. The human body normally has equal amounts “T” and “E” in the blood. But the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) allows T/E ratios as high as 4:1, to allow for the small segment of the population who have the natural genetic variation. Hence, the ordinary-blooded athlete finds wiggle-room to dope.To address some of these issues, the “Athlete Biological Passport” (ABP) was introduced in 2009. The passport records all of an athlete’s vital physiological records to generate a baseline blood profile. Over time, an electronic trail should allow testers to see unnatural variations and sudden spikes to compare against the body’s natural ability.
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