Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5460 on: Nov 9th, 2011, 11:34am »
Nov. 9, 1963: Dual Disasters Stun Japan By Daniel Dumas November 9, 2009 | 12:00 am Categories: 20th century, Disasters, Transportation
1963: Two industrial tragedies in Japan claim the lives of more than 600 people.
The first accident occurred at the Miike coal mine between Omuta and Arao. Ten mining carts loaded with coal were being hauled to the surface at around 3:12 in the afternoon. One of the chains linking the carts together severed and sent eight of them careening out of control to the bottom of mine. The carts traveled nearly 400 yards and hit speeds of 73 mph before crashing.
Because the carts were moving so fast in an enclosed space, they created a powerful suction effect, mixing coal-dust particles with the surrounding air.
When the carts finally hit the bottom of the mine, the resulting wreckage of iron and steel either hit some high-voltage wiring or created its own shower of mechanical sparks. Whatever the case, the combustible mixture of air and coal dust ignited. A powerful series of explosions ripped through the mine and killed 20 people outright.
Unfortunately, the tragedy was just beginning to unfold.
The explosion filled the mine with toxic levels of carbon monoxide. Another 438 workers died from acute monoxide poisoning, and an additional 839 suffered aftereffects from inhaling the toxic gas.
As if that weren’t enough, several hundred miles away in Yokohama, a deadly three-train railroad crash had occurred.
A 12-car commuter train headed for Tokyo struck three cars from a derailed freight train between the Tsurumi and Shin-Koyasu stations on the Tokaido line. This caused the commuter train to veer off course and collide head-on with another passenger train. Four passenger cars were crushed, killing 161 people and injuring another 120.
The Miike mining disaster is still one of the worst coal mining disasters in history. The Yokahama crash still remains one of Japan’s most severe railway disasters as well. The 2005 Amagasaki rail crash resulted in far more injuries but thankfully fewer deaths.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5461 on: Nov 9th, 2011, 11:36am »
Italy at breaking point, Merkel calls for "new Europe"
By Philip Pullella and Andreas Rinke ROME/BERLIN | Wed Nov 9, 2011 12:30pm EST
ROME/BERLIN (Reuters) - Italian borrowing costs reached breaking point on Wednesday after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's insistence on elections instead of an interim government opened the way to prolonged instability and delays to economic reform.
Italian 10-year bond yields shot above the 7 percent level that is widely deemed unsustainable, reflecting investors' concerns that they may not get their money back and prompting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to issue a call to arms.
Merkel said Europe's plight was now so "unpleasant" that deep structural reforms were needed quickly, warning the rest of the world would not wait. "That will mean more Europe, not less Europe," she told a conference in Berlin.
She called for changes in EU treaties after French President Nicolas Sarkozy advocated a two-speed Europe in which euro zone countries accelerate and deepen integration while an expanding group outside the currency bloc stayed more loosely connected -- a signal that some members may have to quit the euro if the entire structure is not to crumble.
"It is time for a breakthrough to a new Europe," Merkel said. "A community that says, regardless of what happens in the rest of the world, that it can never again change its ground rules, that community simply can't survive."
Portugal and Ireland were forced to seek EU-IMF bailouts when their borrowing costs reached similar levels and clearing house LCH.Clearnet sounded another alarm by increasing the margin it demands on debt from the euro zone's third largest economy, effectively raising the cost of holding Italian bonds.
The European Central Bank, the only effective bulwark against market attacks, wasted no time intervening to buy Italian bonds in large amounts.
"The ECB is buying aggressively," one trader said.
Italy has replaced Greece at the center of the euro zone debt crisis and is on the cusp of requiring a bailout that Europe cannot afford to give.
Unlike Greece, an Italian default would threaten the entire euro project. EU treaty changes could take a year or more. Rome does not have that much time.
Having lost his majority in a key parliamentary vote, Berlusconi confirmed he would resign after implementing economic reforms demanded by the European Union, and said Italy must then hold an election in which he would not stand.
He opposed any form of transitional or unity government -- which the opposition and many in the markets favor -- and said polls were not likely until February, leaving a three-month policy vacuum in which markets could create havoc.
"It is a step in the right direction," Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg said when asked about Berlusconi's plan to resign. "There has been no proper understanding of the problems being faced in Italy."
Even with the exit of a man who came to symbolize scandal and empty promises, it will not be easy for Italy to convince markets it can cut its huge debt, liberalize the labor market, attack tax evasion and boost productivity.
"There is no guarantee (Berlusconi's) successor will be able to do a better job. Just keep your eyes on the Italian yield for now," Christian Jimenez, fund manager and president of Diamant Bleu Gestion, said.
While Italian bonds blew out, worries that the debt crisis could be infiltrating the core of the euro zone were reflected in the spread of 10-year French government bonds over their German equivalent blowing out to a euro era high around 140 basis points
Policymakers outside the euro area kept up pressure for more decisive action to stop the crisis spreading.
Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, told a financial forum in Beijing that Europe's debt crisis risked plunging the global economy into a Japan-style "lost decade".
"Our sense is that if we do not act boldly and if we do not act together, the economy around the world runs the risk of downward spiral of uncertainty, financial instability and potential collapse of global demand ... we could run the risk of what some commentators are already calling the lost decade."
Berlusconi has reluctantly conceded that the IMF can oversee Italian reform efforts.
Euro zone finance ministers agreed on Monday on a roadmap for leveraging the 17-nation currency bloc's 440-billion-euro ($600 billion) rescue fund to shield larger economies like Italy and Spain from a possible Greek default.
But there are doubts about the efficacy of those complex plans, and with Italy's debt totaling around 1.9 trillion euros even a larger bailout fund could struggle to cope.
Lagarde said she was hopeful the technical details on boosting the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) to around 1 trillion euros would be ready by December.
Many outside Europe are calling on the ECB to take a more active role as other major central banks do in acting as lender of last resort. German opposition to that remains implacable, seeing it as a threat to the central bank's independence.
German central bank chief Jens Weidmann, a key member of the ECB, rejected a separate proposal to use national gold and currency reserves or IMF special drawing rights to boost the bailout fund, welcoming opposition from Merkel to the same.
But with the ECB just about the only buyer of Italian bonds, according to traders, it will have to act more aggressively to contain the latest wave of crisis, despite internal opposition to its bond-buying program.
With the markets' fire turned firmly on Italy, Greece's struggle to find a new prime minister became something of a sideshow, but one which demonstrated the difficulty in taking decisive action anywhere within the euro zone.
Prime Minister George Papandreou will meet the Greek president later, raising hopes that party leaders may finally have come to terms on a national unity government as the nation hurtles toward bankruptcy.
The aim is to establish a "100-day" government to push a 130 billion euro bailout plan, including a "voluntary" 50 percent writedown on Greece's debt to private sector bondholders, through parliament by February.
The socialist and conservative parties had wanted former ECB vice-president Lucas Papademos to lead a government of national unity but he appears to have made demands about his level of influence which they could not swallow.
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Angeliki Koutantou in Athens, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Kirsten Donovan and William James in London, writing by Mike Peacock; editing by Janet McBride)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5462 on: Nov 9th, 2011, 11:41am »
Artificial Intelligence Finds Fossil Sites
Palaeontologists use computer neural network and satellite images to work out where to dig.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011 By Ewen Callaway of Nature magazine
Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, was found by accident when palaeoanthropologist Donald Johanson took a detour back to his Land Rover in Ethiopia in 1974. Such luck will always have a place in fossil hunting, but artificial intelligence now promises to assist, after a team trained a computer neural network to recognize fossil sites in satellite images.
The network, described in a paper in Evolutionary Anthropology, independently identified several places from which palaeontologists had unearthed mammal fossils, and researchers are now set to use its predictions to explore further sites in the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming.
"The plan is to ground-truth this in July 2012," says the study's lead author, Bob Anemone, a palaeontologist at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Since the 1990s, Anemone has been scouring the Great Divide Basin for fossils of mammals from the early Eocene epoch, about 50 million years ago. "We're going to go to some areas we've never been to, that we wouldn't have been aware of, and see what we find," he says.
Modern palaeontologists tend to employ much the same fossil-hunting strategy as their nineteenth-century forebears: read the literature to see where other people have found specimens, scour geologic and topographic maps for exposed rocks of a particular age and then meander around these places, eyes fixed on the ground.
"The role of luck in vertebrate palaeontology is legendary," says Anemone. "People tell you, 'I was out taking a piss one day and found a fossil.' Everybody recognizes that it's kind of a crapshoot."
Some fossil hunters have turned to satellite-imaging tools such as Google Earth to focus their searches. Beginning in the late 1980s, Tim White, a palaeoanthropologist from the University of California, Berkeley, and his team used images captured by the space shuttle to identify parts of Ethiopia worth exploring on foot; one of the sites produced Australopithecine teeth nearly 4 million years old.
Another Berkeley group, Leslea Hlusko and her team, has used high-resolution satellite images to find 28 sites containing bones or archaeological artefacts in Tanzania.
But these approaches still involve hunting through reams of images by eye, relying on gut instinct to locate promising search areas.
In search of a less haphazard means of exploring the Great Divide Basin, which covers thousands of square kilometres, Anemone's team turned to software.
Patterns of pixels
Neural networks learn to spot patterns in known data sets, and can use these patterns to make predictions about other data. They are used in applications including image-recognition software, robotics and e-mail spam filtering.
To train his network to hunt for fossils, Anemone took satellite images of the Great Divide Basin and assigned pixels in six bands of light wavelengths, including infrared, to different kinds of terrain. He also marked whether the pixel represented a fossil site or not.
By comparing the attributes of 'fossil' and 'non-fossil' pixels, the network learned to accurately distinguish fossil sites--typically covering hundreds of square metres and found around eroded sandstone--from other kinds of terrain, such as forest, scrubland and wetland. The researchers then set the network loose on satellite images from the same area that it hadn't seen before.
In the unfamiliar images, the model correctly identified 79% of the pixels that were known to represent fossil sites. Of the pixels that it flagged, 99% held fossils.
Once they had trained the network on the Great Divide Basin, the researchers gave it images from a different location: the nearby Bison Basin, which is made up of older rocks. They compared the results against fossil-location data provided by Christopher Beard, a palaeontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The computer correctly identified four fossil sites, including one that Beard did not tell Anemone's team about until after the study was complete.
A targeted search
Such a tool could be invaluable for palaeontologists heading to previously unexplored areas, says Anemone. In theory, it could be used anywhere, as long as it was first trained using satellite images from a geologically similar place, he adds.
Glenn Conroy, a palaeoanthropologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and a co-author of the neural-network paper, is currently using the approach to look for caves that might contain ancient human fossils in the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg, South Africa.
As researchers identify more regions to explore, "these sorts of approaches will become more and more important, because they will allow us to target our searches better" without wasting grant money, says Peter Ungar, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
But he doubts that scientists will hand over all the responsibility for site location to a computerized black box, suggesting instead that they will use these sophisticated approaches to guide their own hunches. "You're never going to lose the gut feeling," he says.
This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on November 8, 2011.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5465 on: Nov 10th, 2011, 08:04am »
New York Times
November 9, 2011 Parks Chief Blocked Plan for Grand Canyon Bottle Ban By FELICITY BARRINGER
Weary of plastic litter, Grand Canyon National Park officials were in the final stages of imposing a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon late last year when the nation’s parks chief abruptly blocked the plan after conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation.
Stephen P. Martin, the architect of the plan and the top parks official at the Grand Canyon, said his superiors told him two weeks before its Jan. 1 start date that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled. His account was confirmed by park, foundation and company officials.
A spokesman for the National Park Service, David Barna, said it was Jon Jarvis, the top federal parks official, who made the “decision to put it on hold until we can get more information.” He added that “reducing and eliminating disposable plastic bottles is one element of our green plan. This is a process, and we are at the beginning of it.”
Mr. Martin, a 35-year veteran of the park service who had risen to the No. 2 post in 2003, was disheartened by the outcome. “That was upsetting news because of what I felt were ethical issues surrounding the idea of being influenced unduly by business,” Mr. Martin said in an interview. “It was even more of a concern because we had worked with all the people who would be truly affected in their sales and bottom line, and they accepted it.”
Neil J. Mulholland, president of the foundation, said that a representative of Coca-Cola had reached out to him late in the process to inquire about the reasons for the water bottle ban and how it would work.
“There was not an overt statement made to me that they objected to the ban,” Mr. Mulholland said, adding, “There was never anything inferred by Coke that if this ban happens, we’re losing their support.” The foundation president noted in the interview that Coca-Cola had recently donated $80,000 for a recycling program on the Mall in Washington.
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Susan Stribling, said the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer,” she said. “If you do that, you don’t necessarily address the problem.” She also characterized the bottle ban as limiting personal choice. “You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume,” she said.
In seeking the ban, the Grand Canyon park, under Mr. Martin’s direction from 2006 until his retirement last December, was following the example of Zion National Park, in Utah, which had instituted a similar program to great acclaim in 2008. The park service gave it an environmental achievement award in 2009 for eliminating 60,000 plastic bottles from the park in its first year.
Discarded plastic bottles account for about 30 percent of the park’s total waste stream, according to the park service. Mr. Martin said the bottles are “the single biggest source of trash” found inside the canyon.
Mr. Martin said he got approval to proceed with implementing the ban after he briefed his superiors in both the Denver regional office and Washington headquarters in the spring of 2010. Research showed that the park sold about $400,000 worth of bottled water in a given year. The planned ban at the Grand Canyon would have covered only smaller bottles and would not have applied to other beverages such as soda or juices.
In preparation, the park and its contracted concessionaires installed more water “filling stations” for reusable bottles at a cost of about $300,000, according to information provided by the park service to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental group based in Washington that has worked to uncover the underlying reasons for the abrupt turn-around on the ban.
Senior park officials considered having Mr. Jarvis announce the ban to a meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in the fall of 2010. “From a media standpoint, we see this as good news, it fits perfectly into Jon’s sustainability goals,” Mr. Barna wrote in an internal park service e-mail. He concluded, “We are aware that others (Nestle, etc.) may not be thrilled at this decision but other than that, are there any downsides?”
In mid-December, Mr. Martin received a telephone call and an e-mail from his immediate boss, John Wessels, the Intermountain regional director for the park service, with news that the ban was being postponed indefinitely.
Mr. Jarvis said that he had not heard of the ban until Nov. 17, and felt that an action by Grand Canyon park would have more impact than Zion’s. He added: “My decision to hold off the ban was not influenced by Coke, but rather the service-wide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park.”
The decision was laid out in an e-mail by Jo A. Pendry, then chief of commercial services for the park service, who explained that during a Dec. 13 meeting, Mr. Jarvis “reiterated his decision to have the Grand Canyon hold off on implementation” until “we have hosted a meeting with the major producers of bottled water.”
She also wrote that Mr. Jarvis expected that Mr. Wessels would “touch base with the N.P.F./Coke, and he asked that I get in touch with you to see where you are with making that contact.”
The N.P.F. refers to the acronym for the nonprofit foundation, which was chartered by Congress to generate individual and corporate private donations to the national parks.
The e-mails were provided to The New York Times by a current park service employee concerned about the handling of the bottle ban. The employee declined to be identified because he does not have permission to speak publicly on the subject.
PEER, the public employees’ group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in August seeking documents that could shed light on the decision, but only two documents — letters between Mr. Martin and representatives of the park concessionaire Xanterra — were released, said Jeff Ruch, the group’s president, who is weighing a lawsuit.
Asked why Mr. Mulholland, the president of the foundation, had been involved in the decision to table the ban, Mr. Barna, the park service spokesman, said, “He’s a partner, and he represents a lot of people who do good things in the parks. He’s a way for people to get introductions within the park service.”
Mr. Barna quickly added that he did not mean that donors could buy access.
For his part, Mr. Mulholland said he had no qualms about entertaining Coca-Cola’s questions and concerns. “I don’t feel conflicted, because the park service does a very good job of policing themselves and adhering to their standards,” he said.
Top Phrase: Red States/Blue States No. 2: Rush to War
Top Name: Dubya/Rove
Top Word: Embedded
Top Phrase: Shock and Awe, No. 2: Rush to War
Top Name: Saddam Hussein, No. 2 Dubya
Top Word: Misunderestimate
Top Phrase: Threat Fatigue
Top Name: W (Dubya)
Top Word: Ground Zero
Top Phrase: ‘Lets Roll’
Top Name: The Heros
Top Word: Chad
Top Phrase: Dot.com
Top Name: W (Dubya)
Top Words of the Decade
The Top Words of the Decade were Global Warming, 9/11, and Obama outdistance Bailout, Evacuee, and Derivative; Google, Surge, Chinglish, and Tsunami followed. Climate Change was top phrase; Heroes was the top name.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5467 on: Nov 10th, 2011, 11:46am »
Air Force Buried Remains in Virginia Dump
NBCWashington.com updated 11/10/2011 9:15:34 AM ET
Service members' cremated remains were given a final resting place in a Virginia dump, according to the Washington Post.
Investigating the practices of mortuary officials at Dover Air Force Base, the Post traced the transfer of cremated body parts from the base to a landfill in King George County.
From the paper:
Air Force officials acknowledged the practice Wednesday in response to inquiries from The Washington Post. They said the procedure was limited to fragments or portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield, and which family members had said could be disposed of by the military.
An officer with the Air Force likened the practice to the disposal of medical waste.
The Air Force says the procedures were in place from 2003 to 2008, but have since been changed. Cremated remains are no longer sent to the Virginia landfill.
Dover Air Force receives remains from all U.S. service members killed overseas.
Guests: Neil Arnold, Richard Dolan UFO Disclosure:
In the first half of Wednesday's show, UFO researcher Richard Dolan reacted to the White House administration's formal statement on UFOs. "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race," wrote Phil Larson of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. The message was in response to Stephen Bassett's petition posted on the We the People website calling for governmental UFO/ET disclosure. Though their response was "sophomoric," this is the first time the White House has made a public policy statement on this topic-- in the past, they let the Air Force do it, explained Dolan.
To say there is no evidence for the UFO phenomenon, "flies in the face of hundreds, and really thousands of pages of documents that the US government itself is responsible for," which show that something is definitely going on, he pointed out. They could have said this is a valid phenomenon that deserves more attention than its received, but the govt. wants to avoid addressing such topics as alien abduction and secret recovered technology, he continued. Dolan also talked about well documented UFO incidents, such as a case written up by the Coast Guard, which occurred in March 1988 over Lake Erie, in which an aerial object hovered over the frozen water, and caused the ice to break.
In the latter half, folklore researcher Neil Arnold discussed mysterious creatures seen in London and the UK. There have been numerous sightings of 'big cats' around London, and while not native to the region, the lions, leopards, and panthers that are seen, might have originally been bought and sold there, and then released by their owners, he explained. Earlier sightings of such cats may relate to Victorian menageries or traveling circuses, in which the animals escaped or were released. On the canine side, witnesses have described "hellhounds," huge creatures with a shaggy look, and red fiery eyes. Their appearance is said to be a kind of omen, he noted.
Arnold detailed an incident from a few years ago, where a hair-covered creature was seen on a remote platform, and then walked through a wall. He also touched on lore about the Highgate Vampire, a 'phantom chicken,' flying snakes, and a horned creature seen at White Chapel. Some of the strange creatures that people report, as well as storied beings like leprechauns and dragons, he considers to be "beasts of the mind." They're not flesh and blood, but "very much part of the human psyche...not to say they're all in the mind in the skeptical sense, but these things are required and needed, and believed in...And if you believe in something enough, you can actually start it to happen," he commented.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5473 on: Nov 11th, 2011, 07:59am »
New York Times
November 10, 2011 Europe’s Banks Turned to Safe Bonds and Found Illusion By LIZ ALDERMAN and SUSANNE CRAIG
PARIS — As the bets that European banks made on United States mortgage investments went bust a few years ago, bankers piled into what they saw as a safe refuge: bonds issued by countries in Europe’s seemingly ironclad monetary union.
Now, the political and financial crisis engulfing the Continent has turned much of that European sovereign debt into the latest distressed asset, sending tremors through global financial markets not seen since the demise of the investment bank Lehman Brothers more than three years ago.
This week, shortly after European leaders formally conceded that Greece could not pay its debts and forced banks to accept losses, the shock waves reached Italy, the third-largest economy in the euro zone after France and Germany. And despite frantic efforts by politicians to contain the damage, market analysts said that France, one of the strongest countries in the euro zone, may soon feel the impact.
“When people started buying more European sovereign debt, there was not a cloud in the sky,” said Yannis Stournaras, director of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, based in Athens. Now, he said, “This crisis is going to last because the perceptions of risk have changed dramatically.”
European banks face tens and possibly hundreds of billions of dollars in losses on loans to nations that use the euro. Worried about even greater losses if the crisis worsens, the banks have been scrambling to reduce their holdings of an investment that, like triple-A-rated subprime mortgage bonds, was once thought to be bulletproof.
The French bank Société Générale, for instance, this week marked down 333 million euros of its Greek sovereign debt holdings and in October slashed its exposure to that country to 575 million euros, from 2.4 billion euros at the beginning of 2011. Another French bank, BNP Paribas, has cut its holdings of Italian government debt 40 percent since July, to 12.2 billion euros.
How European sovereign debt became the new subprime is a story with many culprits, including governments that borrowed beyond their means, regulators who permitted banks to treat the bonds as risk-free and investors who for too long did not make much of a distinction between the bonds of troubled economies like Greece and Italy and those issued by the rock-solid Germany.
Banks had further incentive to overlook the perils of individual euro zone countries because of the fees they earned for underwriting sovereign debt sold to other investors. Since 2005, several dozen banks in Europe and the United States have earned $1.1 billion in fees from selling bonds for European governments, according to Thomson Reuters and Freeman Consulting Services.
Like other investors, banks clung for a long time to the seemingly inviolable belief that all the countries using the euro would make good on their debts. For years, Greek and Italian bonds did not pay much more than German ones, but banks were always hungry to chase even a fraction of additional profit. For much of the last decade, they bought the higher-yield bonds, ignoring the growing political and fiscal problems of those countries as well as other peripheral euro zone nations like Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
Regulators bear much of the responsibility. Before 1999, when Europe forged its monetary union, regulators permitted banks to treat as risk-free the debt of any country that belonged to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of developed nations that includes the United States and most of Europe.
“There was encouragement from European authorities for banks to load up on more debt, because it was seen as safe,” said Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a research firm in Brussels. “In hindsight, it was unwise risk management.”
Some regulators realized that allowing banks to set aside no capital for sovereign defaults could be a problem and moved to address it in a 2006 accord known as Basel 2. They mandated that big, complex banks use their own models to determine if individual countries were at risk and hold some capital against them. But the European Union never enforced the stiffer regime. And amid the subprime mortgage crisis, Europe’s regulators added to the problem by demanding that banks hold more safe assets, much of it sovereign debt.
As a result, banks were not discouraged from placing their most liquid assets “into the worst possible government debt,” Achim Kassow, a former Commerzbank board member, wrote in a study published by the European Parliament.
Now, Société Générale, Commerzbank and other banks cannot get rid of the shaky debt fast enough. In the last several months, they have booked billions of euros in losses from unloading it, although their exposure remains substantial. Including the effect of hedges, European banks had a net exposure of about $120 billion to Greek government borrowings and private debt at the end of June, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Even more worrisome, analysts say, is the banks’ exposure of $643 billion to Spain and $837 billion to Italy.
Banks in the United States are also caught in the crossfire. For Italy alone, they had $47 billion in net exposure to government borrowings and private debt at the end of June, the B.I.S. data show.
Goldman Sachs has $700 million in exposure to Italy, according to a regulatory filing released this week, and could feel the fallout if the bonds were marked down.
The loss from a write-down similar to that on the Greek debt — 50 cents on the dollar — would erase 10 percent of the $3.43 billion in profit Goldman earned in the first nine months of the year.
Regulators are requiring European banks to raise 106 billion euros in new capital by next summer to protect themselves against further losses.
Banks insist the risks are manageable. But the big fear is that they do not have enough capital to cover potential losses from the euro zone. That kind of crisis of confidence drove MF Global, the large New York brokerage firm, into bankruptcy last week after its $6.3 billion bet on European debt alarmed investors.
While the markets are now being brutally efficient in telegraphing the differing debt risks among European countries, they failed in that function for a long time, just as they failed to reflect the risks of subprime mortgage loans as a real estate bubble formed in the United States.
For most of the last decade, bond yields among Germany, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain traveled in a tight pack. That meant investors buying and selling those bonds acted as if the countries were almost equally safe simply because they were members of the euro zone, despite shaky finances in Greece, real estate bubbles in Ireland and Spain and high debt in Italy.
The phenomenon rang alarm bells as far back as 2005, when banks, national treasuries and the European Commission held intense internal debates on why the spreads between Germany and other countries did not seem to reflect the differing risks, said a senior Brussels official involved with bank regulation.
When the subprime crisis started to buffet Wall Street in 2007, banks sought shelter by turning even more to European sovereign debt, especially countries with the best returns. The B.I.S. data show that bank lending to the governments of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, largely through bond purchases, rose faster than usual, by 24.2 percent, to $827 billion, between the second quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2009, when the crisis in Greece first started to taint European sovereign debt.
Banks across the world joined in this lending binge as they chased higher yields. Emblematic of those that took the plunge was Komercni Bank, a large bank in the Czech Republic that is majority-owned by Société Générale.
As the subprime crisis in America began mounting, Komercni veered into the seemingly safe Greek government bonds. The bank’s entire board, more than half of whom were long-time veterans of Société Générale, signed off on Greek debt purchases from 2006 through 2008. Now the bank is expected to write down an additional 2 billion koruna, or $111 million, on its Greek debt this year, after taking a 1.66 billion koruna hit in the second quarter. That is a manageable amount, but the bank would have been barely affected if it had bought the safer German bonds.
A spokesman for Société Générale refused requests for interviews with officials and declined to comment.
As the subprime crisis peaked on Wall Street, banks sharply increased their underwriting of European sovereign debt. In 2007, the world’s big banks made $113.9 million in underwriting fees; by 2009, that number had more than doubled to $273 million.
Société Générale went from issuing no Greek debt in 2005 to being the world’s eighth-largest underwriter just a year later. The bank has made $61.5 million in fees from underwriting debt for euro zone countries since 2005, according to Thomson Reuters. Deutsche Bank, the top underwriter of euro zone debt in that period, took in $87 million in fees.
Banks in the United States also profited. Since 2005, Goldman Sachs has earned $44.5 million in fees underwriting euro zone debt, and Morgan Stanley has earned $47.4 million, according to Thomson Reuters.
Their special relationship with governments sometimes also presented a unique dilemma: it gave banks little incentive to publicize red flags even if they were suspicious about sovereign debt.