Police treat stabbings at UK shopping mall as terrorism incident

By Peter Powell

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – British police said five people had been injured after a man lunged at passers-by with a large knife in a shopping center in northern England on Friday in a “brutal” attack officers were treating as terrorism.

The man attacked people around him and chased two unarmed officers shortly after entering Manchester’s Arndale shopping center in the heart of the city at about 11.15 a.m. (1015 GMT), police said.

He was overpowered by armed officers, with pictures on social media showing them using a stun gun to detain him. The man, in his 40s, was arrested on suspicion of terrorism although police said his motivation was not yet clear.

“He was armed with a large knife and … he began lunging and attacking people with the knife,” Assistant Chief Constable Russ Jackson told reporters.

“Two unarmed police community support officers … attempted to confront the attacker. He then chased them with a knife as they were calling for urgent assistance. The man attacked people around him and we understand five people were injured by him.”

Earlier, police said three people had suffered stab wounds; two women, one aged 19, and a man aged in his 50s. Jackson said the injuries were “nasty” but none had suffered life-threatening wounds.

“We do not know the motivation for this terrible attack, it appears random – it’s certainly brutal and of course extremely frightening for anyone who witnessed it,” Jackson said.

“We have the man we believe to be the attacker safely in custody. We will now be working to understand why he committed this awful attack.”

Britain has long been at a high state of alert and is currently at its second highest threat level, meaning an attack is considered highly likely.

Manchester was the location for Britain’s most deadly attack in recent years when Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton born to Libyan parents, killed 22 people in May 2017 when he blew himself up at the end of a pop concert by Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena, not far from the Arndale center.

Islamic State said it was responsible in the immediate aftermath of that bombing, but security services have always treated the claim with scepticism. Abedi’s brother, who is suspected of involvement, was extradited from Libya in July.

“This is bound to bring back memories of the awful events of 2017,” Jackson said. “At this time we do not believe there was anyone else involved in this attack but we will constantly be keeping this under review.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter: “Shocked by the incident in Manchester and my thoughts are with the injured and all those affected.”

(Reporting by Michael Holden, James Davey, Costas Pitas and William Schomberg; editing by Stephen Addison)

Chemical weapons agency agrees to ban Novichok nerve agents

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The OPCW global chemical weapons watchdog will add Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent used in an attack last year in Salisbury, England, to its list of banned toxins after its members adopted a proposal on Monday.

The 41 members of the decision-making body within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted a joint proposal by the United States, the Netherlands and Canada, member states said.

They agreed “to add two families of highly toxic chemicals (incl. the agent used in Salisbury),” Canada’s ambassador to the agency, Sabine Nolke, said on Twitter.

“Russia dissociated itself from consensus but did not break,” she wrote.

Western allies ordered the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War in response to the attack on former Russian secret service agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March.

Britain says Russian GRU military intelligence agents poisoned the Skripals with Novichok. Moscow denies involvement.

Monday’s OPCW decision was confidential and no other details were released.

It was the first such change to the organization’s so-called scheduled chemicals list, which includes deadly toxins VX, sarin and mustard gas, since it was established under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The OPCW’s 193 member countries have 90 days to lodge any objections to Monday’s decision.

The OPCW, once a technical organization operating by consensus, broke along political lines over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which Russia supports militarily.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Bereaved father weeps for lost baby at London’s Grenfell fire inquiry

FILE PHOTO: Workers stand inside the burnt out remains of the Grenfell tower in London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay/File Photo

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – Survivors of London’s deadly Grenfell Tower fire wept on Monday as they listened to a bereaved father pay tribute to his baby son and heard a recording of another victim making his last phone call from the burning building.

Those were among many heartbreaking moments on the first day of oral hearings at a public inquiry into the blaze, which killed 71 people in the social housing block in the night of June 14, 2017.

The fire shocked Britain and led to an outpouring of angst over whether poor quality social housing and neglect by the authorities of a deprived, ethnically diverse community had played a part in the tragedy.

Marcio and Andreia Gomes, parents of Logan Gomes, are comforted as they arrive for a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Marcio and Andreia Gomes, parents of Logan Gomes, are comforted as they arrive for a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The public inquiry, which will last many months, aims to establish the causes of the disaster, but first it has invited family and friends of those who died to talk about their lost loved ones and show pictures or videos if they wish.

Marcio Gomes, who fled from the 21st floor through thick, poisonous fumes with his heavily pregnant wife Andreia and their two daughters, went first with a highly emotional tribute to his son Logan, who was stillborn in hospital

hours after the family’s escape.

“I held my son in my arms, hoping it was all a bad dream, wishing, praying for a miracle, that he would open his eyes, move, make a sound,” Gomes said, crying as he spoke with his wife by his side.

Andreia was in an induced coma being treated for cyanide poisoning at the moment of Logan’s birth. He had been due to be born on Aug. 21, 2017.

Family photographs from before and after the tragedy flashed up on a screen, including an ultrasound scan image of unborn Logan in his mother’s womb, and images of him just after his birth, as well as photographs from his funeral.

“WE ARE NOW LEAVING THIS WORLD”

The inquiry also heard a recording of Afghan immigrant Mohamed Saber Neda phoning a relative from the 24-storey block.

“Goodbye. We are now leaving this world, goodbye. I hope I haven’t disappointed you. Goodbye to all,” Neda was heard saying in a calm voice in the voicemail message, as a photograph of him was shown on the screen.

Neda’s brother, son and wife paid moving tributes to the 56-year-old who ran his own chauffeur business.

Yvette Williams, representing Justice 4 Grenfell, and Clarrie Mendy-Solomon, who lost two family members in the disaster, speak outside a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Yvette Williams, representing Justice 4 Grenfell, and Clarrie Mendy-Solomon, who lost two family members in the disaster, speak outside a commemoration hearing at the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, in London, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Other Grenfell relatives and friends, lawyers and journalists in the hearing room wept as they watched and listened to one harrowing moment after another.

The commemoration hearings are expected to last nine days, although the schedule is uncertain as the inquiry has set no time limit for the tributes.

The oral hearings into the circumstances of the fire will start later, on June 4.

Separately from the public inquiry, the police are conducting a criminal investigation which could result in charges against organizations or individuals involved in the construction, maintenance or refurbishment of the tower.

While the official death toll from the fire is 71, the inquiry will commemorate 72 people as it is including Maria del Pilar Burton, a resident of the tower who died in January, having never left hospital since she escaped from the fire.

At the start of Monday’s hearing, everyone in the inquiry hearing room, at a conference center in a hotel in Kensington, stood in silence for 72 seconds to honor each victim.

Critics have accused the government and the local authority in Kensington and Chelsea of not doing enough done to rehouse the survivors and help them rebuild their lives.

As of Monday, 139 out of the 210 Grenfell households in need of a new home had moved into temporary or permanent properties. The remainder were still in other forms of housing, including 15 households still in what is classed as emergency accommodation, according to figures from the local authority.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

‘Violent scourge’ on London streets as murder figures overtake New York

Forensic investigators examine a car on Chalgrove Road, where a teenage girl was murdered, in Tottenham, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – London police investigated more murders than New York over the last two months, statistics show, as the mayor’s office condemned a “violent scourge” on the city’s streets after another weekend of bloodshed.

A 17-year-old girl died after she was found with gunshot wounds in Tottenham, north London, and a man was fatally stabbed in south London on Sunday.

“The Mayor is deeply concerned by violent crime in the capital – every life lost to violent crime is a tragedy,” a spokeswoman for London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement on Tuesday.

Forensic investigators examine the pavement and carriageway on Chalgrove Road, where a teenage girl was murdered, in Tottenham, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Forensic investigators examine the pavement and carriageway on Chalgrove Road, where a teenage girl was murdered, in Tottenham, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“Our city remains one of the safest in the world … but Sadiq wants it to be even safer and is working hard to bring an end to this violent scourge.”

There were 15 murders in London in February against 14 in New York, according to London’s Metropolitan Police Service and the New York Police Department. For March, 22 murders were investigated in London, with 21 reports in New York.

Including January’s figures, there have still been more murders in New York, which has a similar-sized population to London, but British politicians and police are increasingly expressing concern about the higher UK numbers, driven by a surge in knife crime.

Britain’s most senior officer, London police chief Cressida Dick, said gangs were using online platforms to glamorize violence, adding that disputes between young people could escalate within minutes on social media.

“It makes [violence] faster, it makes it harder for people to cool down,” she told the Times. “I’m sure it does rev people up.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Tuesday: “there can be no place in our society for violent crime. The government is determined to do everything it can to break the cycle.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison)

Inspectors analyze toxin used on Russian spy, EU backs Britain

A police notice is attached to screening surrounding a restaurant which was visited by former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia before they were found on a park bench after being poisoned in Salisbury, Britain, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nichol

By Alex Fraser and Peter Nicholls

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog on Monday began examining the poison used to strike down a former Russian double agent in England, in an attack that London blames on Moscow.

Britain says Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who are critically ill in hospital, were targeted with the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent Novichok. It accuses Moscow of stockpiling the toxin and investigating how to use it in assassinations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who easily won another six-year term on Sunday, said the claims were nonsense and that Russia had destroyed all its chemical weapons. While the Kremlin told Britain to back up its assertions or apologize, Britain’s fellow EU members offered it “unqualified solidarity”.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain, was found collapsed along with his daughter on a bench in the small southern city of Salisbury two weeks ago.

The identification of Novichok as the weapon has become the central pillar of Britain’s case for Russia’s culpability. Each has expelled 23 of the other’s diplomats as their relations have sunk to a post-Cold War low.

On Monday, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began running independent tests on samples taken from Salisbury to verify the British analysis, said an OPCW source speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The team from The Hague will meet with officials from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the police to discuss the process for collecting samples, including environmental ones,” Britain’s Foreign Office said.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

“ABSURD DENIALS”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Monday, before meeting his European Union counterparts in Brussels, that Russian denials of responsibility were “increasingly absurd”.

“This is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation. They’re not fooling anybody any more,” Johnson told reporters.

“There is scarcely a country around the table here in Brussels that has not been affected in recent years by some kind of malign or disruptive Russian behavior.”

EU diplomats cautioned there was no immediate prospect of fresh economic sanctions on Russia, but the assembled EU foreign ministers did offer strong verbal support.

“The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible,” said their statement.

They said using a nerve agent for the first time on European soil for 70 years would be a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the OPCW safeguards, and that it represented a “security threat to us all”.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and Robin Emmott and Alistair MacDonald in Brussels; Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey)

UK’s May says ‘highly likely’ Russia behind nerve attack on spy

Members of the emergency services wearing protective suits work at a site in Winterslow, near Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Alistair Smout and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday it was “highly likely” that Moscow was responsible for the poisoning in England of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a military-grade nerve agent.

May told parliament that either the Russian state was directly responsible for the poisoning or it had allowed the nerve agent to get into the hands of others. London has given Russia until Wednesday to explain its use.

British officials had identified the substance as being part of the Novichok group of nerve agents which were developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and 1980s, May said.

“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” May said, calling the attack a “reckless and despicable act.”

Russia’s foreign ministry hit back immediately, saying May’s comments were a “circus show” and part of a political information campaign against Russia.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration stood by America’s “closest ally”.

“The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage,” Sanders said. “The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”

Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, have been in hospital in a critical condition since being found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the city of Salisbury on March 4.

Relations between Britain and Russia have been strained since the murder in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

On Monday, May said the latest poisoning took place “against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” and that Britain was ready to take “much more extensive measures” against Russia than in the past.

Russia’s ambassador to London has been summoned to explain to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson how the nerve agent came to have been used.

“On Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state,” May said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off a question about the affair while visiting a grain center in southern Russia, saying British authorities should first “get to the bottom of things”, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent wrote on Twitter.

Russian state TV accused Britain of poisoning Skripal as part of a special operation designed to spoil Russia’s hosting of the soccer World Cup this summer.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Skripal worked for British intelligence and the attack happened in Britain so it was not a matter for the Russian government.

A British policeman who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition, police said.

Skripal is a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence who was convicted of passing secrets to Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency and later exchanged in a spy swap.

The chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat, said Russia’s so-called oligarchs, who have amassed fortunes during Putin’s 18-year rule, should be denied entry to the luxuries of London and the West.

The British capital has been dubbed “Londongrad” due to the large quantities of Russian money that have poured in since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

May last year said Putin was seeking to undermine the West and the international order by meddling in elections, and promised to ensure corrupt money did not flow into Britain from Russia.

A British public inquiry found the 2006 killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy – a former KGB bodyguard who later became a member of the Russian parliament.

Cordons remained in place in the center of Salisbury and some police investigators wore full chemical and biological suits. The army was later deployed to help remove items from the scene.

Health officials said there was no wider risk to public health.

Jenny Harries, deputy medical director at Public Health England, suggested members of the public who had visited the same restaurant and pub as Skripal and his daughter on March 4 should wash their clothes, clean phones and bags with baby wipes and wash items such as jewelry and spectacles with warm water and detergent.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Jonathan Shenfield and Alex Fraser in Salisbury, England; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

Putin: UK should ‘get to bottom’ of spy attack then we’ll talk

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an interview with NBC's journalist Megyn Kelly in Kaliningrad, Russia March 2, 2018. Picture taken March 2, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Britain should work out what happened to a former Russian spy struck down by nerve gas in southern England before talking to Russia, a BBC reporter said on social media.

Former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4 when they were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the southern English city of Salisbury.

“Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this,” BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg quoted Putin as saying when asked about the alleged poisoning.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Hundreds urged to wash clothes after UK nerve agent attack

Soldiers wear protective clothing in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Henry Nicholls and Alex Fraser

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Hundreds of people who visited the Zizzi restaurant or the Mill pub in the English city of Salisbury were told on Sunday to wash their clothes after traces of nerve agent used to attack a former Russian spy last week were found at both sites.

Public Health England said there was no immediate health risk to anyone who may have been in either the restaurant or the pub, but their was a small chance that any of the agent that had come into contact with clothing or belongings could still be present in minute amounts and contaminate skin.

Former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English cathedral city of Salisbury.

People walk past a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

People walk past a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

“We have now learned there has been some trace contamination by the nerve agent in both the Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury,” chief medical offer Sally Davies said on Sunday.

She said she was confident that no one who was in the restaurant or the pub on March 4 or 5 had been harmed, but their clothing should be washed and personal items like phones wiped as a precaution against any long-term exposure to any substance.

Skripal and his daughter remained in a “critical but stable condition in intensive care,” the chief executive of the local hospital said at a news conference.

A police officer who initially responded was “conscious and in a serious but stable condition,” she added.

British police have said a nerve agent was used against Skripal and his daughter, but have not made public which one.

SMALL RISK

Public Health England said it had weighed new evidence before issuing its advice on Sunday, and it said the general public had not been at risk in the days since the attack.

“This is about a very, very small risk of repetitive contact for any traces of contamination that people may have taken out,” Public Health England’s deputy medical director Jenny Harries said at the same press conference.

“In risk terms one or two days is not what we are concerned about, what we are worrying about is whether there could be an ongoing risk that could build over the future.”

Cordons were still around the restaurant and the pub on Sunday, and police could not say how long they would remain.

A number of police cars and other vehicles were removed from a local car park by soldiers wearing protective clothing and gas masks on Sunday, a Reuters eyewitness said.

Items from the Zizzi restaurant, including a table, had been removed and destroyed, the BBC said.

Local residents said they were concerned by the warnings about contamination issued to the people who had visited the venues.

“It’s worried a lot of people,” dog walker Phil Burt said. “This town is usually packed on a Sunday, but I think a lot of people are just staying away.”

Many in British media and politics have speculated that Russia could have played a part in the attack on Skripal, but interior minister Amber Rudd said on Saturday it was too early to say who was responsible.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and in 2010 was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.

Finance minister Philip Hammond said Britain would respond “appropriately” if a foreign state is found to have been involved in the poisoning.

“This is a police investigation and it will be evidence-led and we must go where the evidence takes us,” Hammond told BBC television on Sunday.

“So we have to allow the police investigation to run its course. But if there were to be an involvement of a foreign state evidenced by this investigation, then obviously that would be very serious indeed and the government would respond appropriately,” he said.

(Reporting by Paul Sandle and William Schomberg; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans)

Panic on London’s Oxford Street after reports of shooting

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – Panic erupted among Christmas shopping crowds on London’s Oxford Street on Friday evening as armed officers raced to respond to reports of shots being fired in the area but police said later they had found no evidence of gunfire or casualties.

Oxford Street, with its festive window displays and hundreds of overhead lights, was crammed with shoppers taking advantage of the Black Friday sales when the incident happened shortly after dusk.

London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement they had found no evidence of gunfire, casualties or any suspects and that the incident, which lasted for just over an hour, had been stood down.

“Given the nature of the information received, the Met responded in line with our existing operation as if the incident was terrorism, including the deployment of armed officers,” they said in a statement.

A Reuters witness said panicked shoppers had fled Oxford Street and Oxford Circus underground station.

The witness saw an elderly lady and a man carrying his child knocked over in the rush. “There were people running in all directions. I didn’t know which way to run,” the witness said.

Britain’s transport police said they had received a report of one woman suffering a minor injury in the panic.

The capital’s transport operator, Transport for London, said Oxford Circus and Bond Street stations, which had been briefly shut due to the incident, had later reopened.

(Additional reporting by David Milliken, William Schomberg and James Davey; Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison)

Rookies and robots brace for first UK rate rise since 2007

Office lights are on at dusk in the Canary Wharf financial district, London, Britain,

By Fanny Potkin and Polina Ivanova

LONDON (Reuters) – Financial markets braced this week for what could be the Bank of England’s first rate rise in a decade – a step into the unknown for a generation of young traders who started work after 2007 but also for the state-of-the-art technology they use.

After a decade that included a global financial crash, numerous investigations into market collusion and relentless automation, trading floors at banks in London have been transformed in ways not obvious at first glance.

The newest kid on the block is not necessarily the rookie trader with a PhD in physics but the latest computer model or algorithm. How these models will perform under the almost novel circumstances of tightening monetary policy is as much a question as how the human neophytes will react.

Using past market data, assessments of demand, valuation models and even measures of how upbeat news headlines are, computers crunch the numbers, game the scenarios and buy or sell in the blink of an eye.

But shocks such as Brexit have shown that computer-driven trading can end in stampedes, or so-called flash crashes.

“You’ve got to weigh up the strength of the traders and the strength of the algorithms that have been developed and whether they can manage this kind of a process when the rate hike does come in,” said Benjamin Quinlan, CEO of financial services strategy consultancy Quinlan & Associates.

At Citibank’s expansive trading floor in London, the dealing room doesn’t look much different from a decade ago with traders hunched in front of banks of screens, the odd national flag perched on top, and television screens on mute.

But beneath the outward appearance, foreign exchange trading has undergone a seismic shift: more than 90 percent of cash transactions and a growing proportion of derivatives trades in the global $5 trillion a day FX market are done electronically.

So-called smart algos, or fully automated algorithmic trading programs that react to market movements with no human involvement, were virtually non-existent in 2007. Now, almost a third of foreign exchange trades are driven solely by algorithms, according to research firm Aite Group.

“Most of these algorithms haven’t really been tested in a rising interest rate scenario so the next few months will be crucial,” said a portfolio manager at a hedge fund in London.

To be sure, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s first rate rise in a decade in 2015 provided a dry run for this week’s UK decision – but the two economies are in very different positions and the knock-on effects on the wider financial markets of a Bank of England move are hard to predict.

 

ROOKIES AND ROBOTS

Much has changed since the Bank of England raised rates by 0.25 percent on July 5, 2007 to 5.75 percent. The first iPhone had yet to reach British shores, the country’s TVs ran on analogue signals and Northern Rock bank was alive and well.

Where once lightning decision-making and a calm head in a crisis were at a premium, the bulk of trading today is done by machines and the job of a foreign exchange sales trader is often little more than minding software and fielding client queries.

Itay Tuchman, head of global FX trading at Citi and a 20-year market veteran, said while the bank employs roughly the same number of people in currency trading as over the last few years, fewer are dedicated to business over the phone.

“We have an extensive electronic trading business, powered by our algorithmic market making platform, which is staffed by many people that have maths and science PhDs from various backgrounds,” said Tuchman, who heads trading for Citi’s global developed and emerging currency businesses.

London is the epicenter of those changes with the average daily turnover of foreign exchange trades executed directly over the phone down by a fifth to $566 billion in just three years to 2016, according to the Bank of England.

At Dutch bank ING’s London trading room, Obbe Kok, head of UK financial markets, said the floor now has about 165 people but the bank wants to make it 210 by the end of the year – searching mainly for traders attuned to technological innovations and keen on artificial intelligence.

The proportion of people employed in trading with degrees in mathematics and statistics has increased by a 58 percent over the last 10 years, Emolument, a salary benchmarking site, said.

“What banks have started to do is trade experience for technological skill and with electronic platforms growing, the average age on the floor is a bit younger,” said Adrian Ezra, CEO of financial services recruitment agency Execuzen.

 

TAPER TANTRUM

The increasing use of technology means traders can gauge the depth of market liquidity at the click of a button or quickly price an option based on volatility – a major change from a few years ago when they had to scour the market discreetly for fear of disclosing their interest to rivals.

Ala’A Saeed, global head of institutional electronic sales and one of the brains behind Citi’s trading platform FX Velocity, said its electronic programs process thousands of trades per minute.

Most of the currency trading models used by banks incorporate variables such as trading ranges, valuation metrics including trade-weighted indexes and trends in demand based on internal client orders to get a sense of which way markets are moving – and the potential impact of a new trade.

Nowadays, the models also incorporate sentiment analysis around news headlines and economic data surprises.

These electronic trading platforms also have years of financial data plugged into them with various kinds of scenario analyses, but one thing they have sometimes appeared unprepared for is a sudden change in policy direction.

Witness the market mayhem exacerbated by trend-following algorithms when Switzerland’s central bank scrapped its currency peg in 2015, or the taper tantrum in 2013 when the U.S. Federal Reserve said it would stop buying bonds.

Or Britain’s vote last year to leave the European Union.

Indeed, the biggest risk for financial markets cited by money managers in a Bank of America Merrill Lynch poll in October was a policy misstep from a major central bank.

 

EASY CREDIT, LOW VOLATILITY

One concern is that the rise in automation has coincided with a prolonged decline in market volatility as central banks from the United States to Japan have kept interest rates close to zero and spent trillions of dollars dragging long-term borrowing costs lower to try to reboot depressed economies.

While central banks have been careful to get their messages across as they end the years of stimulus, there are concerns about whether quantitative trading models can capture all the qualitative policy shifts.

For example, a growing number of investors expect the Bank of England to raise its benchmark interest rate to 0.5 percent on Nov. 2, and then leave it at that for the foreseeable future.

But futures markets are expecting another rate rise within six to nine months, injecting a new level of risk around interest rate moves and potentially boosting volatility.

Neale Jackson, a portfolio manager at 36 South Capital Advisors, a $750 million volatility hedge fund in London, said young traders have never seen an environment other than central banks supporting markets, and that has fueled risk-taking underpinned by the belief that “big brother has got our backs”.

“The problem these days is that there’s a whole generation of traders who have never seen interest rates, let alone interest rates hikes,” said Kevin Rodgers, a veteran FX trader and the author of “Why Aren’t They Shouting?”, a book about the computer revolution within financial markets.

 

(Additional reporting by Maiya Keidan and Simon Jessop; writing by Saikat Chatterjee; editing by Mike Dolan and David Clarke)