Monthly Archives: July, 2010

Stress Tests of the Other Kind

Mention stress-tests to healthcare workers..and it can only mean one thing –  jogging patients on the treadmill to ascertain their cardiovascular fitness. But in the world of finance and global economics, this term takes a different meaning.

Recently, banks in Europe were subject to stress-testing to ascertain their ‘fitness’ to carry on their business. In banking, this is not a new term and came into prominence in the US last year when the major banks were put to the test by forward-looking economic assessments of themselves. In essence, projections are done into the future (usually 2 years) to see, in the event of a worse-scene scenario, whether the banks will have enough money to survive.

Take the case of the stress tests conducted on 19 of the top banks in the US last year. The projected worse-scene scenario for 2009 & 2010 was put in place: the economy was to shrink 3.3% in 2009, the unemployment at 8.9% and home-prices to drop 22%. Based on this scenario, 10 of the banks failed, some of which are household names (see diagram below).  They were required to raise their capital to maintain solvency.

In the case of Europe, stress-test results on 91 banks released on 23 July 2010  showed that 7 failed (5 of which were from Spain). The prescription? They were asked to raise new capital in order to meet the ‘normal’ values.

Critics of these tests say these tests are badly flawed. They allege the assumptions themselves should be given a failing grade, while others decry the influence of politicians who want to ensure the results are not too damaging to the nation. Others say the tests are not ‘stressful’ enough..its like a doctor trying to gauge the health of one’s heart by setting the treadmill at a leisurely pace!

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Why We Are Waving Goodbye to Wagyu

Aficionados of the highly-textured marbled internationally renowned beef known as wagyu have better brace themselves for a steep rise in the already astronomical price of this delicacy.

Wagyu - famous for its marbled texture, tenderness, flavour and astronomical price.

More than 200,000 cows in Miyazaki, Japan (which supplies the prized cattle to nearby Kobe) were culled in the last week, all due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.(not to be confused with hand,foot and mouth disease which affects humans). This outbreak has forced Japan to stop its exports of wagyu to the rest of the world, with exports plunging from 77 tons in April to 9 tons in May this year. Of the foreign markets, only Hong Kong and Macau are still importing, but from designated slaughter-houses declared disease-free.

Prized bull: Yasushigemori, one of only five "ace-class" seed bulls to survive the Miyazaki foot-and-mouth outbreak, paces in his pen June 8. KYODO / MIYAZAKI PREFECTURAL GOVERNMENT

So if foot and mouth disease doesn’t generally affect humans, what’s the big deal? Well, economically, countries which have livestock, especially cattle, will be one of the first to put a trade ban to prevent spread of this highly infectious disease. The UK outbreak in 2007 was a clear example of what the EU was prepared to do. So the Japanese farmers are not spared too.. (see here).

So lovers of wagyu steak may now have to resort to that bred in countries like Australia and New Zealand…not quite the original stuff but quite close to it.

The Strange Case of the Woman Athlete Who Wasn’t

Amid the excitement of the World Cup Finals, another potentially earthbreaking news of another kind should, but did not, make the news. Remember the South African woman athlete who won the ladies’ 800 metres final at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin last August?  19 year-old Caster Semenya, then 18, secured victory in the 800m final in an impressive time of one minute 55.45 seconds, 2.45 seconds ahead of defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei.

South African Caster Semenya winning the 800m women final at Berlin, August 2009.

Her joy was short-lived as the IAAF, which had earlier asked her to undergo gender tests,  then ordered more tests, saying questions had been raised about her muscular physique, running style and recent stunning improvement in times. Last week, the IAAF backtracked and now has given the all-clear for the athlete to compete in all IAAF competitions as a woman. The IAAF added, “Please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential.”

Reliable sources have indicated that the athlete may have had AIS (androgen insensitivity syndrome), a type of biologic intersex condition. Intersex results from a deviation in the normal embryological development of the reproductive tract, often determined by a known genetic mutation. More senior doctors will also recall the older name for AIS – testicular feminization syndrome.

To understand this better,

The usual pattern of human foetal development is in 3 parts:

Either:

1) sex chromosomes = XY, leading to
2) gonads = testes, leading to
3) external genitalia = male

or:

1) sex chromosomes = XX, leading to
2) gonads = ovaries, leading to
3) external genitalia = female

So what happens in intersex?

Usually, such individuals will be either XY(male) or XX(female) with corresponding testes or ovaries respectively (1 and 2 above). The problem arises when there is a mismatch or distortion, with the external genitalia not manifesting the corresponding features (3 above). This means that you can, for example, have an XY individual with testes but with an external appearance that is essentially female (i.e. an XY female).

Queen Elizabeth 1

While the term AIS is rather new, this condition has been known for ages, with the suggestion that it could have afflicted Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) otherwise known as the “Virgin Queen”.

Whatever the case, sports bodies are now faced with a wider range of responsibilities, having now to contend not just with basic chromosomal studies in ‘doubtful’ cases and having to resort to more complicated testing procedures to determine their ‘true’ sex.

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Vasectomies & Pacemakers

What are the chances of a vasectomy failing? Would this be more common than a heart pacemaker stopping to work? JP Morgan has compiled a list of life hazards and the chances of them occuring. Take a look:

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