Endowments Direct, one of the specialist brokers matching buyers and sellers of second-hand endowment policies, is launching a 24-hour- a-day world-wide trading system through ED's site on the Internet, by- passing auctions and postal sales.

Sellers can register policy details for pounds 30 (waived in the first two months from launch), and buyers can input bids until a policy is sold. Bids are also accepted via telephone, fax, E-mail or post.

More than pounds 165m worth of endowment policies were sold in the UK last year, and demand for policies issued by companies that may pay bonuses as a result of takeovers or conversion to public companies is particularly brisk.

But most of the 500,000 unwanted policies each year are still surrendered to the insurance companies that issued them, according to ED's managing director, Julian Knopf.

Annuity rates, which decide how much pension investors can buy with a fixed sum of money, have been rising since the start of the year and made a further jump in the last week as a result of the Government's poor performance in the local elections.

Generali, Standard Life and Swiss Life have increased the annuity they pay for a fixed sum by between 2 per cent and 5 per cent in the last two weeks and rates are back to their highest levels since last July.

Peter Quinton, managing director of the Annuity Bureau, says anyone considering whether to cash their investments and buy an annuity now has to consider the possibility that the stock market might fall, reducing the capital they have available, but annuity rates might continue to rise if they wait.

Barclays Bank has launched a new "silver service" current account with extras including a free pounds 100 overdraft facility. The bank says it is based on extensive research into what customers really want from a current account.

Other add-ons include a free will-writing service, an automatic pounds 5,000 life cover (pounds 5,000 each for joint accounts), private medical cover for children under 21 at a cheap rate of pounds 2.50 a month and access to Barclaycall telephone banking.

There is a charge of pounds 5 a month for the account, however, and some critics, especially Terry Thomas, the chairman of the Cooperative Bank, one of the pioneers of free banking, claim the account is the thin end of a wedge that could bring a end to free banking for customers in credit.

Barclays insists the account is just an option alongside its standard current account.

General Accident Life has launched a new fixed-rate mortgage at 7.2 per cent until January 2000. The rate rises by 0.24 per cent if the lender's house and contents insurance is not also taken, there is a completion fee of pounds 295 and a valuation fee of pounds 99 and a mortgage indemnity guarantee policy is required for loans greater than 75 per cent of the valuation, but first-time buyers can consolidate them into the loan even if it takes them above 95 per cent loan to value. Redemption penalties of six months' interest are charged on the sums redeemed before January 2000, but the loan can be transferred without penalty on moving house.

Bradford & Bingley Building Society has announced a two-year fixedrate mortgage of 5 per cent and a three-year fixed rate of 6.50 per cent, both for up to 85 per cent loans to value of the property.

Add 0.25 per cent for loans between 85 per cent and 95 per cent of value and a further 0.25 per cent if the society's insurance is not taken. The arrangement fee is pounds 295 and the redemption penalty six months' interest within the first five years.

To coincide with the FA Cup Final today NatWest Bank is introducing a special service allowing customers to trade in shares in the three football clubs listed on the main market, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Millwall, and the three clubs listed on the AIM, Chelsea, Celtic and Preston. Prices can be watched and deals done on the instant share-dealing screen in 280 branches, but the bank is not offering any special deals.

Subsidence claims are set to soar by at least 50 per cent this year, and not even a wet summer can stop the trend, according to the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters.

Claims rose from pounds 125m in 1994 to pounds 325m last year, with all the increase in the last half of last year, and insurance premiums may have to rise.

But some loss adjusters claim that the institute is being alarmist and Guardian Direct claims to be able to reduce premiums for many homeowners in areas considered to be at high risk of subsidence by using more detailed information based on the Geological Survey, to assess true risks.

A quarter of the population of Greater London and South-east England is likely to suffer financial hardship in retirement, but the proportion rises to two-thirds in East Anglia, according to a regional survey prepared by Mintel for Flemings Investment Trust Management.

Their definition assumes that anyone retiring on less than 40 per cent of final earnings will face hardship. Almost 40 per cent will face hardship in Scotland and the West Midlands, and 44 per cent in Northern Ireland, but the proportion rises to more than half everywhere else in the UK.