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A CONSUMER&#39S VIEW

There are quite a lot of us only too happy to forget 2000 and get on with 2001.

In a year which will be remembered for the collapse of our oldest and most prestigious mutual, Equitable Life, practically the only good news was that the millennium bug failed to strike and house prices put on a last burst of enthusiasm before levelling off. After that, it was practically all downhill.

Tech stocks hit the roof, then collapsed; regulation got worse; Standard Life pulled the wool over policyholders&#39 eyes and deprived them of a substantial demutualisation bonus and four million endowment policyholders learned that their policies were unlikely to provide sufficient sums to pay off their loan.

The FSA produced stakeholder decision trees so complex that you need a GCSE in pensions to understand them and they don&#39t take into acc ount the minimum income guarantee, thereby ensuring that millions of lower-paid workers will definitely be mis-sold stakeholders.

Halifax abandoned independent advice; Axa tried to rip off the orphan assets of Equity & Law; petrol prices went through the roof and polarisation was effectively abandoned. Other than these disasters, it was a relatively uneventful year.

By comparison, 2001 looks positively jolly. With the election looming, the Government is bound to try to cheer us all up with a bunch of vote-catching giveaways in the Budget. They have already been heaping goodies on pensioners, with increases in the MIG, and highlighting the upcoming introduction of pensioner tax credits.

Whether or not the Inland Revenue, already struggling with self-assessment, will be able to cope with an even more complicated tax system is another matter entirely.

For those who would like to see a change of Government – or at the very least a big reduction in Labour&#39s overall majority – Tony Blair looks as though he might oblige.

No one in their right mind would try to push through the Countryside Bill and a ban on hunting just before the election if they wanted to win votes. But that is precisely what Blair is trying to do.

He clearly totally underestimates the level of public opposition to this basic interference in individual liberties. There are plenty of us who do not necessarily want to hunt ourselves but we respect the rights of others to enjoy their countryside pursuits.

Just as Mrs Thatcher signed her own death warrant with the introduction of poll tax, so Blair will shoot himself in the foot if he tries to force through a ban on hunting.

For IFAs, life will get tou gher. The effective abolition of polarisation, coupled with a sharp decline in commission levels as products come into line with stakeholder charges, will reduce the number of IFAs yet again.

Over the longer term, only IFAs with volume business or a substantial client base in the high-net-worth category, prepared to pay fees for advice, will survive.

The introduction of stakeholder in April should provide some momentum for promoting pensions but there is not much fat in the 1 per cent charge to pay anything other than minimal commission unless life companies are prepared to raid their surpluses or orphan assets or the with-profit funds. If they do, this does not augur well for with-profits investors who have already had a tough time.

The stockmarket and the property market both look set to slow down and, once the euphoria of the election is out of the way, reality will start to impinge. Lower interest rates will be good for homebuyers but bad news for those struggling to supplement their income with interest on investments.

We have already seen layoffs at Vauxhall and Ford and there is likely to be more red undancies in other industries with overcapacity such as financial services.

It will be interesting too see how the banks deal with the problems of overexposure to the telecoms industry. Further mergers and takeovers in the banking and insurance sectors are inevitable.

There will also be a big chuckout in the dotcom companies. And if I have to put my money on one racing certainty, you really do not need a crystal ball to predict that 2001 will be the year that lastminute.com disappears.

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