Simon Evans: It's just like a bad D:Ream – things can only get worse

We're top of the league in indebtedness, and it hurts
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The Independent Online

Another football season draws to a close and Britain once again finds itself sat at the head of a league table. But this is no cause for celebration.

The UK continues to top the international league of household indebtedness. We collectively owe more money as a national household than any other country. The public finances aren't exactly in a rosy state either. It makes one wonder why the politicians vying for your vote in Westminster are even bothering. Surely this is the election to lose rather than scrape home in?

My fears are well illustrated in Ernst & Young's Item Club spring economic forecast, which is published this week, and makes for largely grim reading. It predicts that, unlike in 1997, when Labour's jingle by the band D:Ream told us "Things can only get better", things will get worse, perhaps, considerably so.

A double-dip in the economy remains a distinct probability, according to the report, which warns that, unlike in previous recessions, indebted households won't power us out of the mire this time. It seems households are likely to experience a lot more pain before things get better.

Low interest rates have seen many households benefit from lower mortgage payments in the past few years, and I've certainly enjoyed seeing my own payments go down. Many people have put this money into paying down their debts – the great household deleveraging process took place last year. My own profligacy dictated that I didn't take part in this.

But with rates likely to stay the same, or even rise, not many households will enjoy such a fillip. Quite the reverse. Few are likely to take home bigger pay packets this year, while inflation is set to erode the value of the pound in your pocket even further.

Tax rises are inevitable. VAT will increase whichever party wins power, and for the higher earners the 50 per cent tax rate has come into force too. Leading retailers I spoke with last week all admitted that VAT increases are unavoidable. Some of them have already started making plans to deal with the likely increase to 20 per cent.

Such an increase will largely be passed on to the poor old punters, further hampering any recovery on the high street. Easter spending in 2010 skewed retail sales figures for the better, but few would suggest Britain's shopkeepers are anywhere close to being out of the woods yet.

For households looking to ease their burdens in 2010, the traditional route of selling bricks and mortar into a rising market looks closed off too. A surge in house prices in the UK in the second part of last year has persuaded some that the housing market is back. But early figures this year suggest that any renaissance has been short lived.

The number of people being granted approval for new mortgages in February this year fell by 20 per cent on the previous year. Ernst & Young predicts the average house price will fall by nearly 1 per cent in 2010, with any recovery delayed until 2011.

So, while Chelsea are likely to take the Premier League title from Manchester United in the coming weeks, Britain is unlikely to pass on its dubious crown at the head of the indebtedness table anytime soon.

The consequences could be considerable for the UK economy in 2010.

Signal failure: Greening switches to amber over Crossrail

Just when you thought the uncertainty that has dogged London's Crossrail project had come to an end, in wades Conservative front-bench MP Justine Greening.

Weeks after Crossrail passed its third-stage review, Ms Greening admitted a Tory government could not guarantee its future. Parts of the City and the West End, compulsorily purchased at a hefty cost to the taxpayer, are being dug up for the rail line that will link Heathrow to the City and beyond. It's the most economically important transport project in the UK, and any suggestion that it could be shelved, or pared back, should be greeted with horror. Insiders are said to be furious at Ms Greening's intervention, while those hoping for Tory commitments on other infrastructure schemes must wait with trepidation. Let's hope her comment was a gaffe, and nothing more.

Goldman charged with fraud? Oh, to be a fly on Obama's wall this weekend

I had the pleasure of meeting Harry Markopolos, the fraud investigator who unearthed Bernie Madoff's dodgy dealings nearly a decade ago, for a coffee last week. We discussed plenty, including how a visit to Europe convinced him Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme; how the FSA's crackdown on insider trading was far too little far too late; and we ended on the topic of structured product fraud. He said it was widespread. Little did we know how prescient that was.

News that Goldman Sachs, the untouchable doyen of Wall St, had been charged with fraud for selling sub-prime structured products, sent a frisson through dealing desks (and news desks) around the globe. The civil suit, filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US, came just four days ahead of Goldman's first-quarter numbers, predicted to be good, on Tuesday. The bank's shares fell by around 13 per cent to $160.70 on Friday.

This is payback time. And there is no doubt Goldman will be hit hard. If found guilty, it should be. Oh, to be a fly on President Barack Obama's wall this weekend.

Goldman has and will continue to be hammered in the media. In part, this is down to jealousy – Goldman is on many levels a fantastic firm – while much of the furore will be stoked by the aggressive, arrogant media strategy it has taken in recent times.

Goldman's spinmeister, Lucas Van Praag, will have to earn his corn. The traditional wall of silence or sarcastic put downs won't really do this time, Lucas. Or perhaps the Almighty will save the day for Goldman because, as Lloyd Blankfein told us last year, the firm is busy doing God's work.

Goldman has been found guilty of nothing yet, of course, and last week came out with a fiery statement pledging to fight the charges.

Other banks will be watching with trepidation too. Goldman is the first, but will it be the last? Not if Harry is to be believed.

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