The week ahead: A less-than-gentle return to work

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The Independent Online

The turkey leftovers have finally been consigned to the dustbin, the hangovers are clearing and the New Year resolutions are in the process of being broken. Which means, with the festivities well and truly over for another year, the City will be dragging itself back to its desk this week as 2004 kicks off in earnest.

The focus of the week will be the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, which meets on Wednesday and Thursday for its monthly mull over interest rates. Since November's quarter- point rise, the cost of borrowing has been kept at 3.75 per cent but January's decision is likely to be close. Many business surveys have suggested a strong end to 2003 and consumer debt remains high, giving the MPC an argument to up rates, if only to curb spending and hence debt. Yet most economists believe the committee will take a more cautious line and hold fire until February. The European Central Bank is also expected to leave rates on hold when it announces its decision just after the MPC.

Other economic data includes December's update from the services sector and trade in goods and services, more commonly known as the trade deficit. That is expected to improve slightly but not reverse the sharp slump seen in September.

One of the most interesting updates will be from retailers in the guise of the CBI distributive trades survey for December, published on Tuesday. It fell sharply in November, as the weather and Rugby World Cup conspired to keep us at home. Economists are expecting a recovery in retail confidence, however, as retailers reported a late start to the festive shopping season. HSBC, for example, is predicting the survey to rise to plus 22 which, it says, "is consistent with robust spending".

On the corporate front, there is little in the way of results but the retail sector will start updating on Christmas trading, and how the New Year sales are progressing. So far, the omens are not good: WH Smith has already warned profits will be hit by weak festive trading.

Yet it is unlikely to be all doom and gloom. Richard Hyman, the chairman of retail consultancy Verdict, says: "Christmas came very late and the sales have been very busy. It doesn't mean it was great but it was definitely not as bad as people thought."

Most of the FTSE 100 retailers issue trading updates in mid-January but this week will see fashion chain Next reveal its festive figures. Most agree that the retailer will have performed reasonably well and no shocks on the scale of WH Smith are expected.

On the markets, equities are generally expected to continue the good progress they made in 2003 during the next 12 months. Most traders may have spent Christmas and New Year away from their terminals, but that did not stop the FTSE 100's upward trajectory. Wall Street was largely to thank, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average continued towards 10,500 and inspired London in the process. Of course, what goes up must, at some point, come down and some are sceptical that 2003, the stellar year for equities, can be repeated on quite such a grand scale. But in the short term at least, things appear to be chugging along nicely.

Not so on currency markets, however, where the dollar is expected to continue with its lengthy tumble. There are a variety of concerns linked to the currency's poor performance but the main one is that while companies in the US may be recovering as the country's economy improves, the sterling value of profits is getting smaller.

Currency and commodity markets are closely correlated, so gold, which reported a record 20 per cent rise for the second year running in 2003 closing the year near a 13-year high, is likely to continue rising as the greenback slides.

On paper, this week will be a gentle return to the world of work after a two-week festive hiatus. But with traders hanging on retailers' every word, the Bank of England poised to give consumers a breather or add to their personal debt piles and the dollar continuing its merry trek south, it is shaping up to be anything but. So just to be on the safe side, it might be wise to bring the Alka-Seltzer.

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