Financial Review

Top bankers’ pay rockets by 30%
Banks are still struggling under a mountain of debt as a result of the financial crisis – but the good times are back again for British bankers. While the rest of society struggled with a squeeze on their incomes, as living costs rose, City workers saw their earnings rise by a third last year.

The top 2,700 people in the world of banking and finance took home an average £1.6 million each. This makes them the highest paid in Europe, and the figures counter claims made by the banks that the financial crisis curbed the bonus culture. These record earnings were achieved despite criticism over the mis-selling of financial products, claims that small businesses were starved of cash and the banks’ involvement in attempts to rig interest rates.

In contrast with the 30% increase these top bankers enjoyed, the average person saw their earnings rise by 0.8%, while inflation was at 3%.

Big banks fail to impress customers
First Direct, M&S Bank and Nationwide have all ranked highly in a comprehensive customer survey of top brands, while banking giants such as Barclays, Lloyds and Santander did not manage to make even the top 100 cut.

Research company, Nunwood, looked at 260 brands by talking to 7,500 customers. Internet and telephone bank First Direct, relatively new player M&S Bank and Nationwide Building Society were all in the top 50. In fact, First Direct, which is owned by HSBC, was an impressive third in the overall list, beaten only by retailer John Lewis and, surprisingly perhaps, television shopping channel QVC.

M&S Bank, which is part-owned by HSBC, was ranked 23 and Nationwide was at 26 in the list. The survey does not report positions outside the top 100.

Government acts to protect mobile users
Mobile phone users are to get new protection against increases in charges during the period of a contract. Consumers will have the right to switch providers, without charge, if firms try to impose unexpected price increases, while bills for lost or stolen phones will be capped. The Government has also said that it wants all roaming charges scrapped by 2016.

While no details have been given of the liability cap on lost or stolen mobiles, the approach will be similar to the £50 limit for credit cards. Customers hit with mid-contract price rises will be free either to accept them or to end their contract without penalty.
Mobile phone firms have angered customers by using inflation to justify increasing monthly bills on 18 or 24-month contracts.

Savers’ interest plunges again
The interest savers have earned from banks and building societies has plunged by a massive £3.4 billion a month, even though the amount they have in savings has risen. They had £1.1 trillion held in banks and building society accounts in October, the latest Bank of England figures reveal, up from £1.06tn in the previous year. But these savers earned just £15.8bn in interest, down from £19.2bn in the same month last year.

The average gross rate paid on all accounts has fallen by just over a fifth from 1.8% to 1.4%. Among the worst hit are easy-access accounts, and savers have a huge £514bn in these accounts.

Councils cashing in on car park users
Councils are making record surpluses from their parking activities, according to the RAC Foundation. Last year they generated a combined profit of £594m from their on and off-street parking operations. This represented a 5% increase and just 52 out of 353 parking authorities reported a deficit.

Predictably the biggest earning councils were in the major cities, with Westminster in top spot, enjoying a parking revenue surplus of almost £40m.

UK economy to overtake Germany, think tank predicts
The UK will be in a position to overtake Germany as Europe’s largest economy, according to the think tank the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR). The CEBR predicts that Germany will lose its current top spot in Europe by 2030. Its report echoes the recent confidence of other business groups, such as the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which has suggested the UK economy will surpass its pre-recession peak this year.

In its World Economic League Table, where it ranks the ups and downs of global economies and forecasts their future position, the CEBR said China will overtake the US in 2028, which is later than some analysts have suggested. The UK, it claims, will perform second-best of all the advanced economies, but will still lag behind emerging countries such as India and Brazil.

Regarding Germany, it said that should the eurozone break up it would perform much better. France was deemed to be the worst performing of the Western economies, because of high taxation and its exposure to the problems of the eurozone.

Plug pulled on premium phone lines
Government departments have been ordered to stop using higher-rate phone lines as the contact for key services. A recent National Audit Office report found the numbers, often starting 0845 or 0870, cost callers £56m in 2012.

The communications regulator, Ofcom, says 0843 and 0844 calls cost between one and 13 pence a minute from landlines and 15 to 41 pence from mobiles. Calls to other numbers of this type used by public bodies cost a similar amount.

The new guidelines say it is inappropriate for callers to pay substantial charges for accessing core public services. Numbers which begin 01, 02 or 03 are generally included in phone calling plans, but the other numbers are not and are charged at their full cost.

Tax with turkey?
You can never guess how people will spend their Christmas, but HMRC says a surprising 1,566 people used the day to file their online tax return.

The busiest time was between 11am and 1pm, with people presumably wanting to do it before having their lunch. It was not only Christmas day that had people typing away. More than 17,000 people submitted their tax return on Christmas Eve and a further 4,500 did so on Boxing Day. The numbers filling in the form online over the three-day break was up by 12% on the same three days in 2012.

Pensioners head back to work
The number of pensioners with a job has jumped since the coalition government came to power. More than a million over-65s are working – equal to one in 10 in this age group and the highest number since official records began.

The so-called ‘grey workforce’ has jumped by a third since May 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics. Experts say many people are forced to continue working due to a lack of pension income or other savings.

Alarm bells ring for older gadgets
The traditional alarm clock is the gadget most in danger of being made redundant by smartphones, a study claims. Stand-alone satellite navigation systems are also at risk of becoming obsolete, according to the list of the top-10 endangered technologies compiled by the website pixmania.com.

Tablet computers are putting small-screen televisions at risk, and the DVD player is becoming less popular as consumers turn to online streaming services such as Netflix and LoveFilm.
Even the relatively new iPod dock is on its way out, as people now use bluetooth or wireless to direct music to speakers.

Also on the top-10 endangered technology list are small digital cameras, the wrist watch and the once beloved Blackberry, which paved the way for today’s smartphones but ultimately lost its market. Even the television remote is in danger of being eclipsed by an iPhone app.

School fees escape the defence cuts
Defence chiefs have spent £440m on school fees for the children of soldiers and civil servants in four years, despite making deep cuts to frontline forces. Taxpayers’ money has been spent sending children to some of the more exclusive schools including Harrow, Eton, Millfield, and Winchester. This is being seen as the latest evidence of perks and allowances funded by the state which have been spared the axe in the age of austerity.

Between 2009 and 2013 more than 23,000 staff claimed for school fees under the Continuity of Education Allowance. The fund is used so that children can stay in education in the same school if their parents are forced to move around the globe as part of their work in the forces. Parents have to contribute at least 10% towards the fees. MoD civil servants can claim if they are working abroad and their children, aged three to 18, are in full-time education.

House prices climb
Country house prices rose 3.1% in 2013 and will climb another 3.5% this year, according to agents Knight Frank. Oliver Knight said the average price of a prime country house in England increased by 1.4% in the final quarter of 2013 – the biggest quarterly increase in prices in more than three years.

Price performance is becoming increasingly dependent on the value of a property, Mr Knight said. For example, while homes worth under £2m increased by an average of 1.7% over the past three months, price growth for properties in the higher price brackets has been more muted.

The average value of a home worth between £2m and £3m rose by 1%, while the price of properties worth between £3m and £4m climbed by 0.4% between October and December. However, the average price of a home worth between £4m and £5m fell by 0.3% over the same time period. Prices of ‘super-prime’ £5m+ homes proved more resilient due to low stock levels increasing by 2% in Q4.

The higher stamp duty charge for £2m+ properties, introduced at last year’s Budget, remains a key driver behind stronger growth from the lower price brackets, while talk earlier this year about the introduction of a mansion tax for £2m+ homes has also weighed on buyers’ minds at this end of the market, Mr Knight said.

Demand in the market remains strong – with the number of new applicants registering their interest in buying a prime country home over the three months to December 2013 up 16.1% compared to the same period of 2012. Property viewings were up 7.9% over the same period. This has led to a rise in the number of prime country house transactions, which were 25% higher in the three months to December compared to the same period last year.

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