Stephen Foley: Raising the debt ceiling may not be enough to prevent financial disaster

Outlook: Congressional leaders have been privately praying for tumult on the markets, to concentrate the minds of deniers who doubt the US will default

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The Independent Online

The US television networks and major news websites have started displaying countdown clocks. With all the drama of an episode of MacGyver, the Eighties action series, President Barack Obama is sweating to defuse the ticking timebomb primed to rip through financial markets one week from now. That is when the government of the world's most powerful economy will run out of money to pay its bills, for the entirely self-inflicted reason that its Congress hasn't raised an arbitrary legal limit on the size of the federal debt.

The plot is exactly as predictable as MacGyver, too. The debt ceiling will be lifted, one way or another, but only with seconds to spare. This is the way of things in the land of the free and the home of cowardly lawmakers; only a threat of Armageddon rouses lawmakers to unpalatable decisions. The irritating thing yesterday was that credit markets refused to play their role. They are supposed to provide the dramatic music, the drum roll of collapsing share prices and soaring interest rates, to elevate the tension in its concluding phase.

But the stock market was flat at lunchtime, even as President MacGyver seemed as far away as ever from corralling his sidekicks into a team effort that will defuse the situation. The yield on Treasuries, though it spiked a little in the morning, was back to flat by lunchtime trading in New York. Congressional leaders have been privately praying for a tumultuous week on the markets, to concentrate the minds of the deniers on the right who doubt the US will default if the ceiling is not raised and to send a message back home to their constituencies that, hey, what else was there to do but vote for a raise?

Unfortunately, this episode doesn't end when the credits roll. Both Standard & Poor's and Moody's have said they will factor the nature of the process, as well as the outcome, into their decisions on whether to downgrade US government debt. S&P even says that, if there is no immediate, or no immediate prospect of a $4trn (£2.45trn) deficit reduction deal to go along with the debt ceiling raise, then it will axe the country's AAA credit rating – and the consequences of that are impossible to calculate.

President MacGyver and his Congressional colleagues may defuse the ticking timebomb, only to find the explosion happens anyway.



Getting the measure of online statistics

There are lies, damned lies and online measurements. The spat between Research in Motion and comScore over just how many UK residents are using BlackBerrys, which we report today, is par for the course in the infuriatingly slippery work to pin down our modern technology habits.

This is hardly the first and hardly the worst example of a discrepancy between comScore and the reality it purports to measure. This time last year, a tweak to the research firm's methodology sent Hulu, the US internet TV service, plunging from No 2 to No 10 on the league table of online video services. Before that, Yahoo lodged a formal complaint that the firm had under-reported its monthly page views by a full one billion.

It is four years since an exasperated IAB, an advertising industry lobby group, fired off a furious letter to the chief executives of comScore and its rival Nielsen demanding they get their act together. Websites have complained for years that their internal figures – numbers they know to be accurate – often differ wildly from the estimates of the measurement firms' survey data. The advent of online video, which may or may not fully load, and which users may or may not watch to the end, has only made the technical challenges of measuring harder. And without agreed-upon, standardised metrics, advertisers have even less to go on when they are trying to guess what to pay for these newfangled online opportunities.

Progress is being made. ComScore and Nielsen have submitted to audits by an external rating council, and there is lots of talk of collaboration on projects such as Making Measurement Make Sense, an ad industry-led standardisation effort.

But a paradox remains. In an age where the exact numbers of people visiting a website, the exact number of pages and the exact amount of time they spend there can all be measured by the site, we are trying to improve a system based on intermediaries who sample a small number of internet users. That might be the best we can do for measuring television and radio, but when it comes to online measurement, comScore and its ilk could be disintermediated. Better to have websites and online platforms publish their own data in standardised form, and audit that.



Yorkshire could revive the rotten Egg brand

The great Yorkshire Building Society roll-up of unloved, devalued or collapsing financial brands continues, with the addition of the one-time internet sensation Egg to its portfolio. As well as the $430m (£263.8m) mortgage book and $2.5bn in savers' deposits, Yorkshire also snaps up the Egg brand, an asset of sorts that Barclays, when it acquired Egg's credit card book in March, declined to buy.

Egg's new northern owners say they have not decided what, if anything, to do with the brand. In previous acquisitions, they have tiptoed around southern sensibilities and promised to keep existing names, from Chelsea to Norwich & Peterborough, above the door at their bricks and mortar branches. It is to be hoped that they stick to that pattern and incubate, rather than smash, the Egg brand.

Although it has been passed from uncaring owner to uncaring owner, and has devalued itself along the way with rotten public relations moves such as dumping unprofitable customers, it still has the potential it had when the idea was first hatched. With a bit of marketing money behind it, it could once again become a powerful, and youthful, internet banking brand. Let's see Yorkshire go to work on Egg.

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