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Morning news brief

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Look at the financial markets over the last few days, and you see a general slide downwards.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Which is hardly a crash, but does suggest uncertainty after the collapse of two regional banks in California and New York. Yesterday, concerns about a big Swiss bank sparked a sell-off in both the United States and in Europe, which prompts a question - do we need to worry about more than just the banks?

PFEIFFER: NPR's Scott Horsley is with us now to try to answer that. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: Explain the ripple effects here. How does a pair of bank failures end up causing slower economic growth across the whole country?

HORSLEY: It just sparked a lot of uncertainty. Even though U.S. officials acted quickly to limit the damage and reassure depositors that their money is safe, there's just some lingering concern about the problems being more widespread. And, of course, that was amplified yesterday by worries about this big Swiss bank. Now, stock in Credit Suisse rebounded today after that bank got a lifeline from the Swiss central bank. But Goldman Sachs is predicting the ongoing tension is going to make banks more cautious about the loans they make. And that cutback in credit could lead to slower economic growth.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Economist Julia Coronado of MacroPolicy Perspectives says it's part of what the Federal Reserve has been trying to achieve with its higher interest rates.

JULIA CORONADO: Consumers are likely to cut back or become more price-sensitive and bargain more, and that's how we bring inflation down.

HORSLEY: Yesterday, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales in February were down, suggesting that shoppers are getting more cautious after a big jump in spending in January.

PFEIFFER: And what is the Fed's role here?

HORSLEY: The Fed's got two jobs here - fighting inflation, of course, and safeguarding the stability of the financial system. And it's kind of a coin toss which one's going to get top billing when Fed officials meet next week. People who think fighting inflation is top of mind for the central bank expect the Fed to raise interest rates by another quarter percentage point. But rising interest rates were one of the contributing factors in the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. So those who are most worried about financial stability think the Fed might pause and keep interest rates where they are next week. That tug of war has been playing out in the betting markets all week as analysts try to decide which is the more urgent priority for the Fed.

PFEIFFER: And the interest rates are sort of the short-term job that the Fed needs to get done. What are the longer-term things that can be done to address all these issues in the banking system?

HORSLEY: President Biden said on Monday that he wants Congress and bank regulators to put stronger rules in place to prevent the kind of problems that brought down Silicon Valley Bank in California and Signature Bank in New York. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren says part of the problem was that 2018 law that rolled back some of the strict rules put in place after the financial crisis. Warren wants to tighten those rules again so banks the size of Silicon Valley are put through regular stress tests.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: Stress tests - they're kind of like general health checkups. They check your heart, they check your liver, they check your kidneys, because any of them can bring down a bank. It was a mistake to take them away. We got to put them back.

HORSLEY: But Republicans like Senator Kevin Cramer say not so fast. The North Dakota lawmaker says he doesn't want a national fix for what he says may have been a localized problem.

KEVIN CRAMER: The tendency to rush could be counterproductive. At the same time, somehow we have to create calm where calm doesn't exist, particularly if it's unwarranted alarm.

HORSLEY: So legislative changes look like kind of a long shot. But the Federal Reserve is looking at its own role and how Fed supervisors failed to spot the problems at Silicon Valley Bank and what the Fed might do differently in the future. The central bank's promised a public report in about six weeks.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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PFEIFFER: More than 1,200 times in a single year, the miracle of childbirth can go terribly wrong. In each of those cases, the mother died.

INSKEEP: That number does not expose a new problem. Six years ago, NPR's groundbreaking reporting found that mothers in the richest country on Earth were far more likely to die after childbirth than in other nations. New numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the problem has grown worse.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here with more insight on the numbers. Good morning, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Tell us more about these CDC findings.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, this is an annual report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of CDC. It looked at deaths of pregnant women up to 42 days after delivery. And in all, there were 1,205 maternal deaths in 2021. There were increases across all age groups and racial groups. And the overall rate is alarming, as well. That's the number that's per 100,000 births. The rate of maternal deaths in the U.S. in 2021 was 32.9. That is huge. For comparison, the rate in Australia in 2020 was two deaths per hundred thousand births, and the rates in Japan and Germany were similar.

PFEIFFER: So do researchers know why there would be such high numbers in the U.S.?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's a big question. I spoke to the author of the study, Donna Hoyert, and she told me that COVID-19 is probably at least partially responsible. And likely, that's both people dying from COVID-19 while pregnant and problems accessing care for other complications because of pandemic disruptions, like health care workers shortages.

PFEIFFER: Is anything being done to address this?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, actually, there have been some new efforts in recent years, although it may take time for those efforts to start bringing the numbers down. I talked to Dr. Veronica Gillispie-Bell. She's an OB-GYN in Louisiana and investigates maternal deaths for the health department. And she says there are promising signs that awareness is improving. She was invited to speak at the White House and testify in Congress.

VERONICA GILLISPIE-BELL: I do think there's so much more attention being paid and more people looking for the solutions.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And she also made note of the racial disparities in today's report. The maternal death rate is highest among Black women. It's nearly three times higher than the rate for white women.

PFEIFFER: You know, Selena, we're talking about numbers and data here, but it's worth noting - it's worth remembering or saying out loud, that every time a woman dies during or after childbirth, that means a newborn left behind.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, I mean, it's true. When you stop to think about it, it is heartbreaking. I talked about these numbers with Wanda Irving. In 2017, her daughter, who was actually an epidemiologist at CDC in Atlanta, got really sick a few weeks after giving birth.

WANDA IRVING: She had gained nine pounds. She was having headaches. One leg was bigger than the other. And she said, there's something dreadfully wrong. I don't understand. Will you please check?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She went back to the hospital again and again, but kept getting sent home. And about three weeks after she gave birth, she collapsed at home and died. So Wanda Irving now lives in her daughter's house and is raising her granddaughter, who's now 6 years old. And she's bright but struggles with her loss.

IRVING: And she breaks down and she's in tears. And it's like, what's wrong? It's like, I want my mommy. And, you know, can I die to go see my mommy?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Irving now runs an organization called Dr. Shalon's Maternal Action Project. She says she doesn't want another little girl or little boy to grow up without their mother's love.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Selena, thank you and thanks for looking at the people behind these numbers.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

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PFEIFFER: The Biden administration is demanding that TikTok be sold or banned nationwide.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's correct. It's the latest U.S. move against a social media platform which is owned by a China-based company, ByteDance. President Biden is the second-straight president to try this. The Trump administration also attempted to force a sale, although federal courts stopped that move.

PFEIFFER: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us to explain why this time might be different. Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So this is the second administration to try to challenge TikTok over these national security concerns - essentially put it out of business. How serious is the threat this time?

ALLYN: Yeah, it's quite serious. Now, beginning in the Trump administration, as you mentioned, a national security committee led by the Treasury Department has been examining whether Americans' data is safe with TikTok. Since laws in China require businesses to give government officials unfettered access, White House officials have been worried that Beijing could use TikTok to spy on Americans or analyze what is popular in the U.S. and then launch disinformation campaigns. While we haven't seen evidence of that happening, the fear is just as present in the Biden White House as it was during the Trump administration. And TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, has resisted calls to sell TikTok. But now the Biden administration is telling TikTok, look, you have to sell to an American company or be put out of business in the U.S.

PFEIFFER: And what is TikTok saying to that?

ALLYN: Yeah, TikTok officials say they are disappointed with this outcome, and they say they're going to stay focused on a major restructuring now underway to enact a firewall between TikTok and its Chinese parent company. They're calling it Project Texas because it involves an Austin-based software company, Oracle, which, under this plan, would host all of Americans' TikTok data. The plan also creates a new entity focused on data security, and it would be subject - all of Americans' data would be subject to regular independent audits. And - you know, but the plan did not go as far as having ByteDance sell off TikTok completely. And Biden officials are saying, look, if there's no divestiture, the plan is not going to be approved.

PFEIFFER: And, Bobby, if there is no plan approved and if TikTok says, no, you can't sell us, then what happens to it?

ALLYN: There certainly is going to be some legal fights if that's the case. When President Trump tried to ban TikTok, federal courts halted it, in part because it was a free speech violation. Remember, a hundred million Americans use this platform to express themselves, to connect with other people and sometimes to get informed about the news. So besides a legal battle, China could step in and try to prevent TikTok from being sold. It's unclear how the White House would respond to this, but federal officials could start taking steps to place TikTok on a blacklist that would make it illegal to do business with TikTok, which could be a big problem for the company.

PFEIFFER: And then what does that mean for, as you said, the almost third of the country that uses TikTok?

ALLYN: Right. In the very short term, not much, Sacha. I mean, TikTok is not going to go away overnight. But TikTok faces the real possibility now of being banned in the U.S. And if they are, who benefits most? Well, look, major social media platforms - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. TikTok's disappearance would create a huge void, and all of the established social media companies would then try to attract the displaced TikTokers over to their own platforms.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thank you.

ALLYN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.