Jeremy Warner: Ten reasons to be cheerful about prospects for 2009
Wednesday 31 December 2008
Outlook In true Panglossian spirit, I've determined amidst all the gloom to find reasons to be cheerful about 2009. It's not been easy, but for what they're worth, here's my top ten causes for celebration about the year ahead.
1. Low interest rates. For some householders on tracker products, the effective mortgage rate has already fallen as low as 1.7 per cent, making them hundreds of pounds a month better off, depending on the size of the outstanding loan. This is because at the height of the mortgage bubble, some tracker products were offered at below bank rate, so desperate were lenders to persuade house owners to borrow from them.
If the base rate sinks to zero, which is possible, these happy few will presumably be in the bizarre position of being paid by the lender for the privilege of their indebtedness. Admittedly, not many will find themselves in such an Alice in Wonderland world, but one way or another, most mortgage borrowers will be quite a bit better off.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of savers. Despite what you read in the press, which paints Britons as a nation of profligate, debt-crazed, spenders, net savers still outnumber net borrowers by a considerable multiple, even if the borrowers more than make up the difference through the sheer size of their debts.
2. Lower house prices. House prices have already fallen by some 15 per cent since their peak in September 2007, and according to most predictions, will fall at least another 15 per cent before they hit bottom. For the great bulk of us, this is excellent news. For unless you are a buy-to-let landlord, or are planning to trade down or cash in your chips and exit the housing market altogether, nobody has any interest in constantly rising house prices.
In time, first-time buyers should return to the housing ladder and growing families ought to be able to trade up in the normal way, without having to take on a million-pound mortgage to do so.
In the boom, housing came to be seen as more of a pension or business opportunity than a place to live. A return to the days of more affordable housing, seen for what it is – a roof over your head rather than a money-making investment – is very much to be welcomed.
3. Low inflation. Price inflation is falling at a speed nobody would have dreamt possible less than six months ago, when it was roaring away at more than 5 per cent. It may even turn negative by the middle of next year. For those in secure jobs, this again means you are going to get better off, as wages are likely to continue rising, albeit not by much, even as prices are falling.
Lower prices will be most visible in gas and electricity bills, and at the pumps. The only reason energy prices haven't fallen already is that, somewhat stupidly you might think, companies bought their supplies forward at the inflated prices that still ruled last summer. If lower wholesale prices aren't feeding through to the consumer by the end of next month, we'll all want to know why.
4. Rising share prices. I may have to eat my words on this one, but the stock market looks set for a substantial bounce, even if the year as a whole may be one of fluctuation. The past year has witnessed a profound bear market in equities and corporate bonds, but an equally dramatic bull market in government bonds. I think I'm right in saying that never before have the two asset classes diverged to quite the same extreme degree.
The situation is either profoundly anomalous or indicative of a deep and prolonged depression to come, in which companies will default en masse and the only safe place for your money will be government debt, however insulting the coupon. As an optimist, I'm opting for the former explanation.
But it is not just blind faith that leads me to believe the cult of equity is still just about alive. The past year has witnessed a policy response from central banks and governments to the downturn of unprecedented proportions, with yet more expected from President-elect Barack Obama when he gets into power. If it doesn't work, then the safety of our money will be the least of our worries. We might as well give up all worldly thoughts and return to the land.
5. Fewer bankers and hedge fund managers. I, for one, see plenty of reasons to celebrate the contraction of the financial services industry, and the accompanying death of Wall Street's bonus-driven culture. The riches being generated in the City, or as it now appears, being conjured up out of thin air like an illusionist's antics, had reduced those on more normal earnings to relative penury.
London and the South-east were becoming almost prohibitively expensive places to live, while the arrogance and lifestyles of these self-styled masters of the universe had become almost too much to bear. The hubris of the bankers may have ended up producing misery for all, but at least we can all wallow in Schadenfreude at the sight of their come uppance.
6. It's getting easier to hail a cab.
A friend of mine used to swear blind that the best guide to economic activity was the taxi rank on London's St James's. Most of the time it's empty, and when it's raining... well, neither love nor money would find you a cab. But as times get tough, the rank of waiting taxis just gets bigger and bigger.
Is it just me, or is there genuinely less traffic on the roads? This too seems a boon, making driving more pleasurable. It also reduces the nation's carbon footprint.
Don't tell anyone, but it's now dead easy to get a table for breakfast at the Wolseley, one-time favoured caffeine-and-eggs stop for the hedgies and private equiteers. The same is true of top London restaurants, where the waiting lists are getting shorter and the restaurateurs ever less snooty about who they give tables to. Even in a depression, there will always be the rich and the super-rich, but there are fewer of them, and they tend to be less showy with their wealth.
September's record-breaking Damien Hirst auction may have represented the high-water mark of late noughties conspicuous consumption.
7. More leisure time. For those who have lost their jobs, that is. But look on the bright side. Many find redundancy to be a blessing in disguise, enabling a complete change of career and/or lifestyle. For accountants and actuaries, there's lion taming, and for investment bankers and hedgies, a life-changing spell at Her Majesty's pleasure may be the order of the day. If all else fails, there is always teaching.
8. No more share buy-backs or M&A. One of the most ingenious of the mechanisms invented by bankers for wasting capital and loading the corporate world with debt was the share buy-back, whereby companies were invited to spend their "surplus" capital by borrowing from banks and debt markets to buy up their own shares and then cancel them.
This bizarrely vacuous use of hard-earned money was meant to "maximise balance-sheet efficiency" but rarely seemed to have any beneficial effect on the share price, while ensuring that for many the balance sheet was so efficient that there was nothing left in it to see the body corporate through the recession.
All that has ended now, and many companies that so liberally gave all their capital away are now being forced to ask for it all back again, at prices that are far less advantageous.
An end to empire-building mergers and asset-stripping leveraged buyouts seems an equally desirable side-effect of the recession. Still, the bankers always win one way or another. There may be no M&A, but there's a roaring trade in corporate restructuring.
9. The end of junk mail. Thank the Lord. All begging letters inviting you to take on even more debt have mysteriously ceased. Less pleasing is their replacement with unsolicited correspondence inviting you to pay off your overdraft or credit card bill.
By the third time of writing, the language has become more threatening, and while you are about it, you might like to pay off your car loan too. Can there be no happy medium?
10. No more Russians in Courchevel. A friend has just returned from a week's skiing, and, despite having to come to terms with the crippling cost of euro parity, remarks that the slopes around Courchevel, a swanky French ski resort, are pleasantly free of vulgar Russian millionaires. This may, in fact, have little to do with the credit crunch and the now plummeting oil price: two years ago, one of their number was arrested while on holiday in Courchevel for allegedly supplying prostitutes to his wealthy friends. He seems to have been as good as his word in promising to lead the Russian brigade out of their winter playground for good, by way of punishment for Courchevel's impertinence.
Whatever the cause of the dearth of Russians, it seems a fine outcome, leaving the slopes free for senior British civil servants and all other genuine Europeans lucky enough still to be in a safe, public-sector job.
So finally, let's raise a glass to the upturn – whenever that may be.
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