Martin Vander Weyer: A cautiously happy new year

There is no reason to think 2006 will be a more difficult year for life changes
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The Independent Online

Whether you spend today nursing a throbbing hangover, striding across a sparkling winter landscape or shuffling towards an airport check-in desk, you will probably also find a few minutes to indulge in that great British new year tradition: economic pessimism.

A poll by GfK NOP last week asked people whether they expect economic conditions to be better or worse in 2006 compared with 2005: the result was an outstandingly dismal minus nine, neatly matching the Arctic temperatures sweeping the country. Professional doomsters took the opportunity to remind us that as a nation we have paid for Christmas only by borrowing excessively on our credit cards; that taxes can only go upwards as public finances become increasingly overstrained; that only a fortunate few can now look forward to the comfortably pensioned retirement we all once thought of as a natural right; and that just because house prices unexpectedly failed to plummet in 2005, there is no reason to think they cannot do so in 2006.

And even if the economy continues to proceed at a modest rate of growth - 2.25 per cent, say, compared with 2005's disappointing 1.75 per cent - it could be derailed by bird flu, terrorism or something out of the blue such as a cataclysmic collapse of the hedge fund sector. Oh, and by the way, if we get through 2006 unscathed, stand by for wipe-out in 2007 when the deficit-crippled, debt-laden US economy finally crumbles and China stands proud as the new global power.

Still with me, or have you decided to retreat to a darkened room with what's left of the cooking brandy? It's tough making new year's resolutions against such a barrage of gloom. Will 2006 be a good year to move house, start a business or retire early and live the dream, whatever the dream may be? Is it safe to start a family, or sign a civil partnership? Should you sell shares and buy gold, or vice versa?

The reassuringly dull answer to most of those questions is that it is entirely up to you. There is no obvious reason to think 2006 - barring major economic shocks - will be a more difficult year to embark on a life change than 2005. It might even turn out to be a bit better.

Most pundits predict, for example, that if house prices go anywhere this year they will drift marginally upwards, recovering the falls registered in 2005. Interest rates, meanwhile, are expected to remain static, or at most to see a couple of quarter-point cuts to help keep the economy moving.

Inflation, which blipped upwards in response to soaring energy prices in mid-year, has calmed down again. Domestic fuel costs will be significantly higher this winter than last, council tax bills will continue to rise, insurance costs more and more for no good reason; but other household items - made-in-Asia clothing and electronic goods particularly - will remain astonishingly cheap.

One way or another, the factors affecting whether you could afford a slightly bigger house or would be wiser to cash in and move to a smaller one, will be little changed. By all means, invest in loft insulation and log-burning stoves, but otherwise stay cool: bricks and mortar are still the safest, most practical way of storing your wealth.

As for other ways, most pundits also take the view that the stock market is more likely to go upwards in 2006 than to come tumbling down again. Companies across the board have been reporting steady profits, and at the present FTSE 100 levels of around 5,600, shares are not generally over-valued. Those companies in what remains of British manufacturing have adjusted to the threat of globalisation by sourcing components from low-wage countries. Merger and acquisition activity, one of the driving themes of the 2005 market, continues apace.

The more adventurous investor may be lured by gold as an alternative to shares: the precious metal has doubled in price to well over $500 (£290) an ounce, but still has far to go to regain its all-time high above $800. The recent rise has been highly speculative, however, rather than a reflection of real demand, so you would be foolish to punt anything more than the top slice of your savings on it.

Again, the message is stay cool, in investment as well as housing choices. One reason for doing so is the fact that pension prospects have so markedly changed for the worse since the beginning of this decade. The recent decision by Rentokil to close its final-salary scheme for current members is a particularly grim milestone, because many other companies are bound to follow.

If your retirement income is less secure than it was, all the more reason to conserve your savings and investments more cautiously. But if what you really want to do is to start a new business, don't be put off.

In the food industry, natural and organic small-scale production is all the rage. The so-called self-esteem industry - cosmetics, therapies, self-improvement programmes - is booming; the restaurant trade is excruciatingly fashionable. For designer clothing, furnishings and toys, even the smallest entrepreneurs can now readily source rock-bottom-priced, high-quality product from China. In service businesses, polite youngsters arriving here from Eastern Europe are eager to work hard for a modest wage. Banks are flushed with cash to lend, and wealthy Dragon's Den fans are keen to put money behind promising start-ups.

Here again, the key to success is to stay calm and cautious: don't pile on costs, and don't burn through capital as so many half-baked dotcom ventures did in the late 1990s. But if you have a bright idea and sensible business plan, 2006 will be as good a year as any to put it into practice.

It will be a year of occasional scare stories and worrying consumer statistics. We will repeatedly be reminded that the economy is not as strong as Gordon Brown promised it was going to be, and that the long-term prospects for savings, pensions, jobs, taxes and house prices are less certain than we would all like them to be. But as new years go, this really doesn't look such a bad one. So open the curtains, don't let the doomsters get you down, and take a cautiously cheerful view of 2006.