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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 June, 2003, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Brown takes aim at housing market
Analysis
By Julian Knight
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

Gordon Brown

UK savers and homeowners might see little cause for immediate action in their financial affairs after Chancellor Gordon Brown's "not yet" verdict on membership of the euro.

But that is not to say there are not issues of great significance a little further down the line.

The chancellor's plan for a "clear path" towards convergence of the UK and eurozone economies will have a direct impact on our investments and savings, and even potentially on our salaries and the value of our homes.

The key items to note are reform of the mortgage and housing market and a change in the way inflation is calculated.

Incentive

The chancellor hopes that more people can be encouraged to move to long-term fixed-rate mortgages - at present only 7% of the market - so that the impact of interest rate changes on homeowner pockets can be reduced.

There will have to be some incentive for homeowners to switch their mortgages - presumably a tax break of some sort - but Mr Brown did not elaborate.

It's business as usual - and for Britain, business is ticking over pretty nicely at the moment.

The chancellor also said he wanted simpler planning guidance, quicker decisions and examination of the case for binding local plans.

He wants to see more homes built, hoping that this will restrain the galloping house price inflation that has characterised the UK in the past few years but not the eurozone.

If Mr Brown has his way, annual house price growth of 20% or more could become a thing of the past.

Inflation drop

Inflation is likely to fall, with the adoption of the internationally-recognised harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) in place of the retail price index (RPI).

HICP inflation since 1997 has totalled 6.4% against the 11.9% RPI figure.

The smart money is on interest rates falling as the UK and eurozone converge - fixed interest securities look a good safe bet
Justin Urquhart Stewart, Seven Investment Management

The chancellor pledged that the new measure would not be used when calculating index-linked state pensions and benefits.

In so doing, he hopes to avoid repeating the infamous "bag of peanuts" rise in the state pension which so embarrassed the Labour government during its first term.

But many of us still face the risk that our employers will decide to base annual pay rises on the new, lower, figure rather than RPI.

Hitting savers

The process of convergence with the eurozone is also likely to restrain interest rates.

UK and European rates are closer than they were several years ago but UK rates are still at 3.75% while the eurozone sits at 2%.

With the eurozone economy sluggish, and recession-threatened Germany needing even lower rates, there is little prospect of the European Central Bank tightening monetary policy.

It seems more likely that the UK will edge closer to the eurozone.

But lower long-term interest rates will hit savers and those buying annuities for an income in retirement.

On entering the euro, the FTSE may suffer as UK fund managers switch to eurozone investments
Mark Dampier, Hargreaves Lansdown

Justin Urquhart Stewart of Seven Investment Management says canny investors are buying government bonds and gilts.

"The smart money is on interest rates falling as the UK and eurozone converge. As a result fixed-interest securities look a good safe bet."

Net borrowers might feel happy that interest rates are unlikely to rise sharply in the near future - but they will have to bear in mind that low inflation means the real size of their borrowings will not be eroded by time.

Higher dividends

Ever since the euro was first mooted, doomsayers have been predicting the end of the City of London's pre-eminence among Europe's financial centres.

The Treasury has concluded that the Square Mile has held its own, despite the euro's acceptance as one of the world's leading currencies.

But, as a referendum on the euro nears, the UK stock market could decline in importance, some financial experts say.

At present the vast majority of UK investor money ends up in British-based investments.

Mark Dampier, technical director at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown, told BBC News Online that this could soon change.

"Experience has shown that investor cash tends to spread between countries on entering the euro. The FTSE may suffer as UK fund managers switch to eurozone investments."

As a result, UK shares may lag the major European stock markets in the run-up to euro membership, he says.

Sandy Fleming, who manages the F&C smaller companies investment trust, takes a more optimistic view, believing UK cash heading for the eurozone will be balanced by funds moving in the opposite direction.

"UK firms pay higher dividends - this is bound to attract money from the eurozone," he told BBC News Online.


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