US budget moves help to boost shares

Markets: Dow slips after breaking 5,000 barrier and pound sinks to all-time low as recovery falters
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The Independent Online

Economics Correspondent

Share prices in London scaled new heights yesterday, spurred on by an early rise on Wall Street that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average through 5,000 for the first time. But the pound caused consternation by sinking to another all-time low.

Wall Street's sharp move through the psychologically important 5,000 barrier bolstered London to a record high, up almost 20 points to 3,628.8.

The weekend's agreement between President Bill Clinton and Congress to finance the US government while budget discussions continue, sending 800,000 Federal employees back to work today, was one reason for the advance. A successful auction of US Treasury notes, no longer overshadowed by fears of an imminent goverment default, boosted both the bond market and shares. However, late profit-taking in New York left the DJIA off seven points at 4,983.

Financial market expectations of lower interest rates on both sides of the Atlantic within the next month or two also helped lift share prices. After weaker-than-expected figures yesterday added to the evidence the UK economy is slowing, the FT-SE 100 index ended up 20 points at 3,629.

James Cornish, an equity strategist at brokers NatWest Securities, said: "We are seeing both a brighter interest rate outlook and a US effect." The same evidence sent the pound to another record low, however. Its index against a range of other currencies closed at 82.2. While it recovered a fraction from Friday's record low against the mark, it broke its normal pattern of tracking the dollar's movements and fell against the US currency. The dollar rose against most European currencies, and by more against the pound than against other weak currencies.

Both the expectation of a cut in base rates after next week's Budget and growing political uncertainty are undermining sterling. Many analysts are nervous about the scale of tax cuts in next Tuesday's Budget, fearing that political pressures will tempt the Chancellor to be too generous to voters. Robin Marshall, chief economist at Chase Manhattan investment bank, said: "Foreign investors are starting to price in the political considerations. This will force sterling down to new lows." Stephen Lewis of the London Bond Broking Company said: "It would be most unusual for the pound to rise in the year before an election."

However, others thought the current exchange rate weakness could soon be reversed. "A stronger dollar and a well-received UK Budget could drive the pound back up above the DM2.20 level," James Barty, UK economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, said.

The pound closed at $1.5460, down from $1.5516, but recovered to DM2.1834.