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Trade gap trebles but inward investment soars to record

The shortfall on the balance of payments more than trebled last year due to a disappointing performance in ``invisible'' trade. Doubled UK payments to the EU helped account for the weaker invisibles figure.

However, inward direct investment - and investments by UK companies overseas - set new records last year. Foreign direct investment reached pounds 19bn, including acquisitions of UK companies. British direct investment overseas was pounds 24bn.

Separate figures confirmed that the economy grew by a modest 0.5 per cent in the final quarter of 1995 but showed that the balance of spending power shifted from companies to the personal sector. The savings rate returned to its highest level since mid-1993, while the company sector suffered its first financial deficit for nearly three years.

``There is a big transfer of money from the corporate sector to persons,'' said Leo Doyle, an economist at Kleinwort Benson. ``It is concentrated on the wealth holders. If you are one of the lucky ones with shares and Tessas, you will be starting to spend.''

He pointed to the rapid growth in spending on big ticket consumer durables - up 1.8 per cent in the fourth quarter - as evidence.

"The switch from corporates to persons suggests scope for higher consumption growth this year,'' said Kevin Darlington, an economist at brokers Hoare Govett. Financial markets have begun to focus on the caution about interest rates being expressed by economists.

A majority of the Treasury's panel of ``wise people'' think there is little scope for further cuts. Yesterday, Goldman Sachs economists, headed by ``wise man'' Gavyn Davies, said their leading indicator of inflation had risen for the fourth month running.

The balance of payments was in the red by pounds 6.7bn last year, up from pounds 2.1bn in 1994, although it narrowed slightly to pounds 1.8bn in the final quarter. Visible trade was pounds 11.6bn in deficit in 1995, slightly worse than the previous year.

The big deterioration was in the surplus on invisibles such as investment income and services. It fell from pounds 8.8bn to pounds 4.9bn. Earlier figures were revised substantially for the worse.

The most important reason was a rise in payments to the EU in December, with the end-year adjustment of payments for once going against the UK. It took the net British contribution to the EU from pounds 2.1bn in 1994 to pounds 4.2bn last year.

There was also a sharp deterioration in banks' net earnings on their overseas transactions. UK banks' payments overseas increased by more than pounds 10bn to pounds 43.9bn, while their receipts were up nearly pounds 7bn at pounds 39.7bn. Total net UK investment income fell to pounds 6.6bn from pounds 9.3bn.

Trade in services improved, however. The surplus climbed by nearly pounds 1bn to pounds 5.7bn, although it slipped by pounds 200m to pounds 1.3bn in the final quarter. Business services reported a weak final quarter.

Analysts were not alarmed by the disappointing balance of payments figures because EU transfers can be very erratic. However, some were concerned about the beef scare. Adam Cole at James Capel said it could add pounds 1.5bn to this year's shortfall.

The full national accounts released yesterday did not substantially change earlier estimates of growth last year. GDP grew 0.5 per cent in the final quarter, to a level 2.0 per cent higher than a year earlier.

However, the figure for consumer spending in the final quarter was revised down to 0.5 per cent from 0.7 per cent while income growth was higher than expected. This took the savings rate up to 10.5 per cent.

On the other hand, company profits growth slowed to a year-on-year rate of only 3.5 per cent. Combined with a sharp rise in dividends, the company sector went pounds 624m into the red.

The GDP deflator - the widest measure of prices in the economy - is now estimated to have risen by 0.5 per cent in the final quarter, compared with an earlier estimate of 0.1 per cent.