Personal Finance: Some assurance for US bulls

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The Independent Online
It is that time of the month when the Government starts throwing statistics at us so we can gauge the state of the economy. There are those who consider we take our own temperature too often, but regular statistics do at least demonstrate a trend. And there are two worrying trends here in the UK at present: rising wage settlements and consumer spending.

In a way, we should not be too surprised over the trend in wage settlements. Even if the Government has not loosened the reigns since it took power, there is the perception that things have changed and years of difficult wage negotiating, in which employers have been backed by a parsimonious administration, have come to an end.

Moreover, the economy is buoyant. With senior managers and company directors benefiting, why should workers not have a slice of this particular cake too? But it has worried enough of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee to ensure a split vote over holding down interest rates.

The funny thing is that in the US, where unemployment is even lower than here, wage settlements remain subdued. Perhaps the workers there are all too aware of the threat the wounded Asian tigers could present. And interest rates continue to fall in America. Another threat could be over the horizon, though. Or is it an opportunity?

The relative buoyancy of retail sales here is a recent phenomenon. Up until less than a year ago people were still reluctant to spend, despite a strong economy. Then came the windfalls, delivering an estimated pounds 30bn to Middle England, as building societies and life companies demutualised.

In America, of course, everything is always bigger. So it is with personal finance. It seems the American life assurance industry is poised to restructure in a move that will deliver billions of dollars of shares to as wide a range of recipients as benefited in the UK.

Prudential of America has already announced the intention to start the ball rolling. If listed in New York, Prudential is likely to be the tenth-largest company, with a market capitalisation extending into hundreds of billions of dollars. Makes even Halifax look small beer.

And this could be only the beginning. Metropolitan Life, the second- biggest life assurer - with assets above$170bn, is likely to follow suit. Prospects look exciting.

All this will take a couple of years but it heralds a restructuring of the US life assurance industry every bit as dramatic as what happened here.

The wealth that it will thrust into the hands of Americans does not bear thinking about. It could trigger a spending boom. But then again, it should help support the stock market. Given the way personal savings have boomed over the past decade in the US, this could add to the wealth locked away for the future. Maybe those long-term bulls of American shares have got it right.

Brian Tora is chairman of Greig Middleton Investment Strategy Committee.

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