Rate fears cast a shadow over shares

A record number of big investors plan to sell UK shares because of fears that interest rates will have to rise next year, according to a survey published today.

The balance of fund managers planning to sell rather than buy shares, at 39 per cent, is the biggest since the survey, by investment bank Merrill Lynch and Gallup, began in 1990.

Bijal Shah, Merrill Lynch's strategist, said: "It looks like we are having a repeat of previous cycles, with a boost to the economy ahead of the election."

This pessimism in the financial markets about inflation prospects will cast a shadow over Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's annual Mansion House speech on Wednesday. The speech follows the weekend meeting of Treasury ministers and officials at Dorneywood to start work on this year's Budget strategy.

"Market sentiment has shifted considerably, even though there is a respectable economic case for lower interest rates," Neil Mackinnon, chief economist at Citibank, said.

In his speech Mr Clarke is expected to defend last week's surprise reduction in base rates by emphasising the strong exchange rate and absence of any cost pressures.

The pound has gained 5 per cent against a range of other currencies so far this year, making UK exports more expensive at the same time that key export markets have weakened.

This week's flood of official economic statistics is likely to help the Chancellor make his case. Analysts expect figures for producer and retail prices to show a further slowdown in inflation last month, while growth in underlying average earnings is expected to have remained unchanged in April.

In addition, April's manufacturing output is expected to have been very weak as firms continued to try to run down excess stocks. The only statistic that could send a warning signal on inflation is May unemployment, which analysts think continued on its donward trend.

However, other evidence continues to paint a picture of consumer demand gathering steam. "We are in a mini-boom," said Mike Dicks, UK economist at Lehman Brothers. "There is a real danger the next government will have to raise interest rates and tighten fiscal policy at the same time."

Demand for high street credit was at a record in April, the Finance and Leasing Association reports today, while total consumer credit was the highest for six months.

Member firms provided pounds 2bn of new consumer credit. Within the total, demand for retail instalment credit and personal loans hit new highs, up 57 and 48 per cent respectively on their year-earlier levels. Consumer finance for car purchase grew 25 per cent to pounds 724m.

Martin Hall, director general of the FLA, said: "The feelgood factor is obviously coming back." But he warned that the earlier upturn in business finance had not been sustained. "The lack of investment remains a serious worry," he added.

The respected pay analyst Incomes Data Services predicts in a report out today that inflation might start rising back towards 3 per cent in the autumn. The cold spring and lack of rain could lead to higher food prices.

A separate report out today predicts a significant revival in housing market activity, especially in East Anglia, the East Midlands and Wales. The pick-up in the number of transactions should ensure that prices do not fall in any region, according to forecasting group Cambridge Econometrics.

Amid market rumours suggesting speculators have been using futures markets to bid up the pound's exchange rate, the most famous speculator of all has issued a new call for international regulation of the currency markets. In an interview published in news magazine Der Spiegel today, George Soros says: "If people like myself can cause the collapse of a monetary system, then something is wong with the system."

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