City has priced a hung parliament into share prices
Julian Knight and Chiara Cavaglieri look into the likely financial consequences of a close result on Thursday
Sunday 02 May 2010
The bookies don't normally get it wrong. The odds of the UK having its first hung parliament in 36 years have shortened considerably.
The increasing likelihood of a hung parliament, the potential downgrading of the UK's credit rating and the ongoing implosion of Greece all presage very difficult times for our economy. Some argue – particularly those in the right-wing press – that the UK is about to throw political uncertainty right into the mix just when Europe's out-of-control deficits magnify any weakness. By our very indecision we are about to court the disfavour of the international markets.
The history of the UK economy from Suez to Black Wednesday is interspersed with painful, expensive and humiliating lessons handed down from what one prime minister, Harold Wilson, called the gnomes of Zurich.
If you accept that premise – and many don't, arguing that a "balanced" parliament would enable co-operation between politicians in the same way it does in many Western countries – what is the potential impact on you, your wallet and your investments, and what measures can you take now to protect yourself, or even take advantage of, the possible new reality where the U word "uncertainty" reigns? Just in case the doomsayers have a point.
The good news is that it seems the UK stockmarket has already largely priced a hung parliament into the value of company shares. In fact, among some in the City the prospect of power sharing could actually be welcome as a coalition may lead to greater action on the deficit as the parties can in effect present themselves as a type of government of national unity with the authority to act. Nevertheless, investors don't like uncertainty: "The concern is that there is no agreed solution to the deficit and although I wouldn't recommend selling your stockmarket holdings now – you should be investing for the medium to long term anyway – you may want to give careful thought to where any new money you have goes," says Adrian Lowcock, investment expert at Bestinvest.
"Shares in smaller companies are more sensitive to political uncertainty and the UK domestic economy as a whole, so perhaps concentrate on large companies which derive most of their revenue outside of the UK," Mr Lowcock says. In addition, he adds investors could buy into markets outside of the UK such as the Far East or the US.
Any potential downgrade of the UK's credit rating may force the price of government bonds down. This could affect corporate bonds, a popular investment area. "It may not be a good time to be invested in corporate bonds if there is a downgrade of the UK's credit rating. If you want exposure to bonds, perhaps look at a strategic bond fund such as the Legal & General Dynamic Bond as these types of fund give their managers much more leeway to switch to areas which will be less impacted by any downgrading."
One of the major fears of a hung parliament is that markets will lose confidence in the UK's ability to tackle massive government deficit. "There is speculation that this could lead to a fall in the value of sterling and in the price of gilts, which would drive up the yields on the latter," says David Black, of analysts Defaqto.
This, coupled with the associated risk of rising inflation, could actually lead to an increase in savings and annuity rates But after taking account of inflation, the effective increases will be barely noticeable.
Official figures already show that the current level of inflation means that many savers are effectively losing out by holding their money on deposit. The consumer price index (CPI) jumped to 3.4 per cent last month, up 0.4 per cent on February, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
"If inflation starts increasing, the only real way of protection is the NS&I's index-linked savings certificates which are tax free and pay RPI (retail prices index) plus 1 per cent over a choice of a three or five-year term," he says.
Other options that might help include making the most of cash ISA allowances to eliminate the "tax bite", as well as using savings more effectively by overpaying on existing debts. Offset mortgages, for example, allow homeowners to use their savings pot to reduce the amount of interest paid on their home loan.
"Inflation would lessen the real value of the mortgage (and sadly the savings) but the savings would effectively earn tax-free interest at the same rate as the mortgage," adds Mr Black.
Saving for retirement is a long-term undertaking, so at first glance, a hung parliament shouldn't have much of an impact. However, market uncertainty combined with the need to fund the huge government deficit is very likely to push interest rates and, possibly, inflation higher. The prospect of higher rates will please savers but inflation is traditionally the enemy of the pension saver.
Roger Ramsden, chief executive of Saga, suggests that this poses particular problems for those looking to convert their pension pot into an annuity: "If there is an expectation of future inflation then you should look to build this into your choice of annuity, which could mean a index-linked product."
Shopping around for an annuity rather than simply accepting the one on offer from your insurer is a must in a higher inflation environment. "Choosing to exercise the open-market option can add on average 20 per cent to annuity income," says Mr Ramsden.
Homeowners are particularly vulnerable to higher interest rates and variable rate mortgage customers would be hit in the pocket immediately if rates were to jump after the election.
"A hung parliament would produce uncertainty. This would have a knock-on effect on the money markets, pushing up the price of new mortgages," says Melanie Bien, director of mortgage broker Savills Private Finance.
Borrowers have the option of taking out a cheap tracker and waiting until after the election to see how rates fare, but they are warned to watch out for non-refundable booking fees. Several lenders such as Lloyds TSB charge a small fee of £99 and Nationwide offers a "switch and fix" option on all tracker deals, enabling customers to move on to a fixed rate without incurring early repayment fees.
Andrew Montlake, from broker Coreco, thinks those hedging their bets by waiting to see how rates pan out are playing a risky game.
"There is always a danger in people waiting to see what the market will do as market reactions are much quicker than the public's," he says.
Experts say that those who know they will struggle with interest rate rises should be looking at fixing while competitive products are available.
"Consider a longer fix of around five years rather than two, otherwise rates could be rising just as you need to remortgage again," says Ms Bien.
She recommends the five-year fix from the Co-operative Bank at 4.49 per cent, for those with a 25 per cent deposit, charging a £250 booking fee and an £849 arrangement fee.
Adrian Lowcock, Adviser, Bestinvest
Sell gilts and corporate bonds
A downgrade of the UK credit rating will force gilt prices down and have a negative effect upon corporate bonds.
Sell UK small companies and buy UK FTSE 100
Smaller companies are less able to weather the storm.
Buy global equities
Reduce your exposure to the UK.
Gold is a safe haven.
Buy absolute return
These funds allow investors to benefit from UK market falls as the managers can sell shares they do not own.
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