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Summer won’t lift the economic blues

There is some light relief for savers but the economic gloom prevails

It is almost four years since we witnessed queues of frantic savers trying to get their money out of struggling Northern Rock. Personal finance has been mainstream news ever since. Survey after survey revealing people’s plight has received high-profile coverage while similar releases would have barely made a news-in-brief in 2006.

Yet despite the gloom, many households have escaped the worst of it until recently, thanks to rock-bottom interest rates.

Indeed, it is savers who have suffered the most – but the tide could be turning. I suspect it will be those with cash in the bank and with little or no debt who will soon be able to afford a wry smile.

Finding income during the economic crisis has been a tough task. Dividend payouts were cut or suspended and the Bank of England was forced to cut the bank rate to just 0.5 per cent.

Quantitative easing and the sovereign debt crisis spooked bond markets and commercial property, another historically reliable source of income, collapsed.

But, for savers at least, it would seem there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The latest inflation figures and recent comments by Mervyn King, suggest rates hikes are on their way sooner rather than later.

Savers have already been handed one inflation-beating lifeline with National Savings & Investments reintroducing its index-linked certificates.

The Treasury-backed institution will no doubt remain tight-lipped as to the amount of money being taken but it will not be long before banks and building societies start moaning about uneven playing fields.

Not that savers will care or have much sympathy for the big commercial institutions, many of which played a role in causing their misery in the first place.

Nor will cash-rich savers care too much for borrowers who have enjoyed ridiculously low interest rates on their mortgages.

Home loans are going to start becoming more expensive and there are already signs that repossessions are on the rise.

One of the questions I am asked the most is whether our personal finance plight is going to get worse. You have to admit the prognosis does not look good. We have been living under a dark cloud for almost four years now but the ramifications of the financial crisis and recession were always going to be long-lasting.

National Insurance contributions have already gone up and the loss of tax credits is squeezing the pockets of many middleincome families.

Calculations by the Office for Budget Responsibility show the typical middle-class family is expected to see their disp-osable income fall by around £1,500 over the next two years because inflation will far exceed salary increases.

The OBR expects wages to rise by 2 per cent on average this year and the cost of living increases by more than 5 per cent.

Public sector spending cuts are still in their early stages but people are wary.

Like it or not, the housing market is a key barometer of consumer confidence. As a nation, we are obsessed with it. But it is with the housing market that my glass starts to look empty. Figures portray a market going into reverse and mortgage lending remains low. Homeowners, who a few years ago were remortgaging at will, have gone into hibernation.

And that is my fear – if the housing market is the key barometer to the nation’s mood then no amount of sunshine this summer will lift the economic gloom.

Paul Farrow is personal finance editor at the Telegraph Media Group

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