Monday, 22 December 2014

Clampdown on market rigging

Key benchmarks in the financial markets, including significant foreign exchange rates, the London Gold Fixing and the price of Brent crude will be subjected to strict regulation from April next year.

The clampdown comes in the wake of the Libor scandal, over the attempted rigging of interbank interest rates.

The Chancellor has confirmed a list of 7 indicators -- in addition to Libor -- where manipulation will be formally banned.

Those found guilty of manipulating these benchmarks would face up to 7 years in prison.

The full list, recommended by the official Fair and Effective Markets Review in September includes:

*The WM/Reuters 4pm London Fix, which is the dominant global foreign exchange benchmark

*The Sterling Overnight Index Average (SONIA) and the Repurchase Overnight Index Average (RONIA), which both serve as reference rates for overnight index swaps;

*The ISDAFix, which is the principal global benchmark for swap rates and spreads for interest rate swap transactions;

*The London Gold Fixing and the LMBA Silver Price, which determine the price of gold and silver in the London market; and

*The ICE Brent index, which acts as the crude oil market's principal financial benchmark.

The financial watchdog, the FCA, will consult on the detail of the new rules over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Pension charges over 3%

Independent body set up to look at high pension charges finds some pension savers in old schemes being charged more than 2% or even more than 3% a year.

Out of £67.5bn of pension savings looked at by the Independent Project Board set up by the Association of British Insurers in response to concern about high charges:

£42bn had charges under 1% a year
£25.8bn was exposed to over 1%
£13.4bn of that potentially exposed to over 1.5%
£8bn of that exposed to over 2%
And £0.9bn exposed to over 3% in annual charges.

The government is banning charges over 0.75% in NEW schemes from April next year.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

How to get a Pensioner Bond

Pensioner Bonds are an exclusive investment for the over-65s with a rock solid government guarantee and market-beating rates of interest. But how can you get them?

When are Pensioner Bonds available?

They won’t be available until January and we won’t be told the exact day on which applications open until that day actually dawns.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to register on the National Savings & Investments website, if you haven’t already, to receive the information. Here is the link.

Which is the best way to apply?

When the day comes in January, you will have the choice of applying over the internet (via National Savings), by phone or by post.

There could be a rush to apply, so the postal method could take too long. Funnily enough, you would have to download the form or phone up for it in any case.

Many will opt for the internet, as long as the website doesn't freeze up, rather than risk being held on the phone for ages.

Which bonds should I buy?

You can put between £500 and £10,000 in a fixed rate 2.8% one year bond and between £500 and £10,000 in a 4% three year bond.

Obviously most people will have less than £20,000 to salt away and a large proportion will be investing less than £10,000.

If you are one of those and wondering which bond to choose, it is worth noting that the three year bond appears to pay a better rate of interest even if you cash it in after a year and pay the penalty of 90 days interest.

But both of them pay more than equivalent bonds from banks and building societies.

What do I need to have with me when I apply?

If you are applying over the internet or by phone, you will need to have your debit card handy. It has to have your name on it.

You will be asked to give your bank details and to enter your address.

They might send you a form by post for you to sign and confirm the application.

Applying by post, you would have to get hold of the form, fill it in and send it back with a cheque.

When will they take the money?

If you apply online or over the phone, the investment is deemed to have started on the same day, even if they ask you subsequently to complete a confirmation form by post.

You will receive confirmation by email or, if you choose, in a letter.

If you apply by post, the investment would start on the day the application is received, assuming in both cases that the bonds haven't been over-subscribed by that time.

When will I get my interest?

The interest is paid on maturity, in other words at the end of the investment term, or when you cash in the bond.

So it's a good way of salting money away for a decent rate of interest, but not much use if you are looking for an account which pays you interest every month.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Second wind for house prices?

The latest Halifax house price index shows price increase continuing to moderate last month, though a leading economic consultancy suggested the Chancellor's stamp duty reforms could give the market a "second wind".

Halifax reported that house prices rose by a relatively modest 0.4%, reversing a slight drop the previous month.

The annual rate of increase declined for the fourth consecutive month, to 8.2%.

However, Matthew Pointon, housing specialist at Capital Economics commented that yesterday's cut in stamp duty announced by the Chancellor would give house prices a boost over the next few months.

Although there would be no repeat of the surge in values seen over the past 18 months, he suggested prices would get a second wind.

He predicted that the direct impact would amount to less than 1 per cent, as buyers used the leeway provided by the typical gain of £4,500 to offer more.

But the indirect impact was likely to be larger as the reforms lifted confidence and cut costs.

Halifax expects further moderation in prices but issued a statement on the stamp duty changes saying, "The average homeowner will be financially better off under the new structure and the changes should encourage more movement in the housing market as transactional costs will be reduced for many".

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Rabbits out of the hat

We all wonder what eye-catching give aways, reforms or consulations the Chancellor will put on show today.

Stamp Duty
One being mooted is a reform to Stamp Duty, whereby you'd pay a bit more on each extra portion of the purchase price of a home, replacing the current method of paying a higher rate on the whole purchase price each time the price goes over a threshold.
This change is already being brought in Scotland.

Pensioner Bonds
Special high interest bond for pensions, starting in January. Yes, we already know about them, but Osborne's likely to say more about the rates being offered.

Inheritance Tax
The Conservatives wanted to raise the threshold to £1m from £325,000. One for the Budget, maybe.

Personal Allowance increases.
Going to £10,500 in April, but perhaps we could be given detail about the stepped increases to the further goal of £12,500.

Pension Tax Relief
Lots of speculation recently about taking full tax relief from 40% taxpayers, taking them down to the standard 20% or something in between. And lots of warnings that a Tory Chancellor wouldn't do this. The lure is the billions of pounds that could be released to cover the Tories' promise of £7bn in tax cuts if they won the election.
A possible half way house would be to restrict the tax relief for 45% taxpayers.

Fuel Duty
Keep going with the freeze.

Peer to Peer lending
More about including this and Crowdfunding in tax-free Individual Savings Accounts. And more on promoting new Financial Technology. The Chancellor's very keen on cyber-banking and how the UK can be a leader.

That's a start, anyway.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Housing market cooling

Leading banks say that the cooling of the property market has continued in recent weeks.

The number of mortgages approved for house buyers was down 16% in October compared with last year, at just over 37,000, according to the British Bankers Association.

High house prices and tougher rules on mortgage applications appear to be holding buyers back.

Matthew Pointon of Capital Economics commented that the figures reflect a "sharp slowdown in housing demand", though a flurry of cheaper mortgage deals could revive interest.

The Halifax predicted that overall growth in house prices would slip to between 3 and 5 per cent next year, after peaking at 10 per cent in July.

However, the number of house sales is still on the up according to data from HM Revenue & Customs, which takes into account purchases for cash as well as mortgages.

HMRC reported on Friday that there were 114,000 transactions in October, a rise from 102,000 in the same month last year.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Your rights to stop tax officers grabbing cash from your account

This how HM Revenue & Customs explain ways you now be able to challenge their planned power to grab cash directly from bank accounts. 

Its what they call Direct Recovery of Debt and it only applies to people who they say have ignored 4 demands by letter or phone.

Direct Recovery of Debts – routes of appeal and opportunities to object to HMRC

Debtors will have several ways to challenge the use of DRD:

- Taxpayers already have appeal rights if they do not agree that the tax or tax credit debt due is correct. The exact process differs depending on the type of tax, but usually involves first requesting an internal review by HMRC. If the taxpayer does not agree with HMRC’s decision, they can appeal to an independent Tribunal. DRD will not affect these existing rights.

- Debtors who are considered for DRD will receive a guaranteed face-to-face visit from HMRC’s agents. Even those who have failed to respond to the numerous attempts to contact them  – by letter, telephone or SMS message – will again be made aware of their debt and have a further opportunity to discuss their case. This will confirm beyond doubt the identity of the taxpayer and that the debt is owed.

- Once DRD has been applied, debtors will have as a minimum 30 days before any money is transferred to HMRC. During this window, in which money is held in their account, the debtor can get in touch with HMRC directly and object to the use of DRD if they believe HMRC has made a mistake, or that removing the funds will cause undue hardship. HMRC will promptly carry out an internal review of their case. If there is clear evidence that DRD action will cause undue hardship, it will instruct the debtor’s bank to release an appropriate amount to the debtor.

- If the debtor still does not agree with HMRC’s decision, they will have a further right to appeal to a County Court on HMRC’s use of DRD or on the grounds of hardship. 

Tax grabbing powers watered down

The government has watered down its plans to given tax officers the power to take money directly out of the bank accounts of people who don't pay their tax.

Those targeted will have the right to appeal to the county court and each will receive a face to face visit.

The proposals from the the Budget in March were designed to deal with about 17,000 persistent non-payers of tax, people owing more than £1,000 who have ignored a minimum of 4 letters and telephone calls.

But campaigners objected, saying that the power was excessive, enabled HM Revenue and Customs to get around the need for a court order and didn't allow for the likelihood that it would make mistakes.

So the government has backed down to an extent.

While still planning to let tax officers take money from bank accounts, it will bring in 30 day notice period and lay down that those targeted will receive visits designed to check they understand the process and can pay.

And crucially, they will have the right to appeal to a County Court.

The Treasury expects to gain £100m a year from the measure, but some accountants believe that the numbers affected will be cut drastically as a result of today's change.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Wonga off kids' kit

Wonga has announced that it has agreed with Newcastle United to remove its logo from children's kit and training wear.

It said the logo will be removed from all children's replica shirts and training wear from the earliest possible opportunity which, due to kit production schedules, will be from the commencement of the 2016/17 season.

Wonga said the change follows Chairman Andy Haste's commitment, on his appointment in July, to review all the company's marketing to ensure that none of it could inadvertently appeal to the very young or vulnerable.

Wonga has already ended its puppets advertising campaign in the UK.

Newcastle United Managing Director Lee Charnley commented: "We understand and respect Wonga's position and are happy to support their decision."

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

No need to turn up the thermostat

Public Health England has cut the recommended temperature that people should heat their homes to from 21 degrees C last winter down to a minimum of 18 degrees this year, opening the way to families reducing their bills by turning down the heating. 

It says the change follows a full review of the available science.

As householders start to turn on their heating, there can be uncertainty, even arguments, over where to set the thermostat.

It's not just a question of comfort, it's important for health and for the bank balance because of the high cost of gas and electricity.

Last year Public Health England said rooms occupied during the day should be kept at a minimum of 21 degrees celsius and at 18 degrees at night.

But when the government body checked the evidence this year, it found that the guideless were based on outdated World Health Organisation figures from 30 years ago.

A fresh review has resulted in a lower recommendation of at least 18 degrees, day or night, which they say poses minimal risk to the health of a sedentary person, wearing suitable clothing in winter.

Below that the danger of stroke or heart attack begins to increase.

They do add that the over 65s and those with medical conditions may benefit from a slightly higher temperature.

Savings from turning down the thermostat by 3 degrees could be substantial.

British Gas says a reduction of just one degree could cut the typical gas bill by as much as 10 per cent.

Monday, 20 October 2014

CHAPS up and running

CHAPS statement

“The Bank of England’s RTGS system is now processing payments again following a resolution of the technical issue experienced earlier today. As such, CHAPS is now processing the backlog of payments and is confident that all payments submitted today will be processed today. To help customers and to ensure payments can be processed today CHAPS is extending  its operating times until 19.40 hrs. Customers are advised to contact their own bank for any queries they may have on their specific payments.” 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Britain's £34bn tax gap

Britain's tax gap -- the gap between was is collected and what should be -- widened to £34bn in the year to April 2013.

HM Revenue and Customs say there was a rise from £33bn the previous year, partly the result of an increase of nearly a billion in the VAT shortfall and a widening of the tobacco tax gap.

It is the biggest overall gap in cash terms since 2009 and will add to concerns that some are managing to avoid tax in a time of austerity.

HMRC says causes include taxpayers simply not taking enough care with their tax returns and criminal attacks on the tax system.

It points out that the shortfall on the £500bn which should be brought in is much narrower in percentage terms than in 2006, at 6.8 per cent of tax owed compared with 8.5 per cent seven years before.

And that some other countries have much bigger shortfalls: Mexico's is in excess of 25 per cent.

Monday, 6 October 2014

£1m deposit guarantee

The Bank of England is to boost protection of bank deposits to £1m, for people who have a short-term jump in their account balance because they have sold a house or received compensation or an inheritance.

The proposal, which would come into force by July next year, would mean that the normal guarantee covering £85,000 of a bank account balance would be raised temporarily for a period of 6 months.

The Bank of England's Prudential Regulation Authority is bringing in the new rule to comply with a a European directive.

The PRA is also planning to create a "seamless" process of transferring accounts from a failed bank to a new account provider, so that customers will be able to use them as normal within 24 hours.

Christmas cut for parcel prices

Royal Mail is moving to defend its share of the Christmas parcels business by slashing some charges.

From 20th October to 18th January, small parcels weighting up to 2kg will cost £2.80 to go Second Class, the same as 1kg parcels -- that's a £1 reduction.

And there will be a permanent increase in the permitted dimensions of small parcels, so some currently defined as medium -- costing £8 -- will drop down a category.

People whose gifts qualify as "small" rather than "medium" could save £5.20 from the size-change and the Christmas offer.

The promotion comes as Royal Mail tries to head off challenges from DHL, TNT and Yodel and hang on to the 115 million parcels which it usually handles over December.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Wonga rebrand

Wonga has clarified it's position on ditching its name after the brand was tainted by a series of revelations.

Andy Haste, chairman of the payday lender, said overnight: "I wouldn't rule out a name change in the future, but at the moment it's about real, customer-focused change at Wonga that shows we have a role to play in financial services - not a new name"

Wonga announced yesterday that it would write off the debts of 330,000 borrowers who were behind on their repayments.

It had not checked properly whether they could afford the loans.

In June the lender was fined for sending debt collection letters emblazoned with the names of fake legal firms.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Free iPads in mortgage war

Lloyds is offering home buyers free iPad minis, in an intensifying mortgage war between major lenders.

However, mortgage experts warned against choosing a loan purely on the basis of a freebie.

The £349 internet-connected iPads, on offer for two months, up the ante in a contest for customers.

So far, the battle has featured lower fixed rate deals, cashback offers and free legal fees.

Lenders are vying for market share as the housing market recovers.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Pensions turned on their heads

The end of the 55% tax charge will be a significant gain for some.
But the question Mr Osborne will have to answer is whether he is creating a way for better-off savers to escape tax.
They will have an incentive to use money stored in bank accounts and investments before dipping into the pension pot.
The reason? The pension will become a way of protecting up to £1.25m from some or all tax after death.
Those on lower incomes, who can't save much, and need the money during retirement, have not been in danger of paying the 55% and are unlikely to benefit from its removal.
Some experts, including the well known pension consultant John Ralfe, say the Osborne reforms turn pension saving on its head.
The point used to be to spread your income over your lifetime.
In future, pensions could become a method of preserving savings beyond the grave.

Friday, 26 September 2014

House prices up yet again

House prices are rising at their highest rate for nearly seven years according to the Land Registry for England and Wales.

Prices increased by 8.4 per cent in the year to August, the fastest rate since September 2007 and up from 7.5 per cent the month before.

The Nationwide and the Office for National Statistics have both released figures recently indicating that prices across the UK are continuing to move upwards.

However, research among estate agents published today and recent evidence from surveyors both suggest the market may be reaching a plateau.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Clamp down on comparison websites

The growing clout of price comparison websites like Gocompare, Comparethemarket and has stirred the UK authorities into trying to stop them abusing their power.

This is a new front a battle to contain the influence of internet sellers who gain easy access to millions of shoppers by advertising on TV and promising better choice and value.

This time the sites stand accused of charging us too much for car insurance by forcing insurers to accept agreements preventing other players from offering discounts.

The result, the Competition and Markets Authority is saying today, is that we are paying too much. The AA puts it at £20 too much per policy.

So how powerful are these websites? If you look at the detail of the CMA's report, you see how they have crept into a position from which they can force some of our biggest companies to do their bidding.

Although only 23% of motor policies are sold through the sites, 56% of new business -- not renewals, that is -- goes through them.

Of those policies, between 80% and 90% have been sold with the aid of special price agreements which defend the price comparison sites from being undercut -- agreements which insurers signed because these internet operators are the main way of winning customers.

Their operating margins are a very healthy 25%. That's a rate of profit which most financial firms would view with envy.

The CMA is banning agreements under which insurers concede that no one else will be able to charge less the the price comparison site.

This isn't the first attempt by the UK authorities to clamp down.

Over the summer the financial watchdog, the FCA, fired a shot across the bows of price comparison websites, accusing them of giving users insufficient information to choose products.

What happens is that you are lulled into thinking price is everything and don't check what you are buying. With insurance, you might get a cheap policy, but the level of cover might be totally inadequate.

And earlier this year, the Office of Fair Trading -- now part of the FCA -- had a go at the hugely influential websites which book hotel rooms and had deals in place with hotels to stop other online agents from offering discounts., Expedia and Intercontinental Hotels gave undertakings to permit the discounts, giving people the opportunity to shop around.

All these are skirmishes in an ongoing contest which pits regulators against a growing army of internet giants, who tell us they are on our side but can't always be relied upon.

The main problem with the price comparison and hotel booking sites is that they could rightly claim to be offering the cheapest deals - but that was only because other deals had been excluded.

Can they be contained? The CMA is showing that they can be, to an extent.

It is banning price agreements which cover the whole market. However, it won't prevent comparison sites from stopping the insurer offering a better price for cover on its own website.

These businesses are highly profitable, cheap to run and enjoy significant market power. It won't be long before they lock horns once again with those bodies whose job is to protect us from being overcharged.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Scottish homes tottering?

There is quite a lot of talk among Scottish estate agents and surveyors, and among mortgage brokers, about the potentially serious impact of a Yes vote.

There would be uncertainty, of course, but there is also speculation that mortgage lenders would be reluctant to lend and that house prices could fall sharply.

The reasoning is that the the possibility of Scotland adopting its own currency would raise the spectre of customers earning their wages in that new currency -- which might fall in value -- but having to pay back their loans in sterling.

Their monthly payments could go up. Hence banks might shy away from offering new mortgages.

One broker suggested the consequence could be a 25% fall in house prices in Scotland.

However, a top manager in one of the lenders tells me that this scenario is most unlikely, at the moment.

His bank has no plans to restrict mortgage lending in the event of a Yes vote, partly because they don't see the currency problem as a serious issue yet.

The view is that an independent Scotland would choose to stick with the pound, even if the UK government refused to allow a full monetary union.

"We'll still lend," is the reassurance I heard, "and we'll see what happens."

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Watchdog's phones at ready for Yes

The UK's financial watchdog, the FCA, is bracing itself for a rush of questions if Scotland votes Yes to independence in next week's referendum.

The chairman of the FCA, John Griffith-Jones, told MPs that contingency planning included "such things as making sure our phone lines are properly manned, and making sure we have appropriate advice on Day One."

On disentangling the regime to protect consumers, he warned that "it will be complicated to work out the detail".

He said it would be the responsibility of the Scottish parliament to decide how regulation should work in future.

Mr Griffith-Jones, speaking to the Treasury Select Committee in Westminster, added that setting up a new system would provide regulators with "a lot of work".

Monday, 8 September 2014

Your money and a Yes

How would Scottish independence affect savings, mortgages etc held by people in Scotland?

The worries people seem to have hinge on the big question over which notes and coins might be used.

If an independent Scotland managed to keep the pound, then it might be easier to keep things much as they are at the moment - unless a new government in Edinburgh decided it wanted to change the rules.

But if not? If Scotland had a different currency, what then?

Would homeowners be in the worrying position of paying interest and paying back their sterling loan in a different currency to their wages?
Would new borrowers, using a new Scottish currency, find they pay higher interest because Scottish interest rates are higher than in England?
In fact, could Scottish savers find that they are earning higher interest for their nest eggs?

*Bank accounts
The Scottish Government has reassured savers and current account holders that they would have the same deposit protection that they enjoy now in the event of a bank failure, up to £85,000 per bank - a guarantee which is underpinned by EU rules.
So customers would hope that the guarantee would hold even if Scotland had neither the pound nor the euro.

Future pensioners are being promised a better state pension in an independent Scotland.
As for those with additional private pension savings, built up in sterling, might they be able to hope for a more substantial pension income if the pound proved stronger than a new Scottish currency?

Would the impact of a new or different currency on insurance be less significant?
Car insurance is already cheaper in Scotland for other reasons.
Car and home policies come up for renewal every 12 months anyway, so might this be less of a worry?

*Tax free savings
The Scottish Government has said it would continue to support tax-free savings, through products like savings and investment ISAs, after a Yes vote.
If Scotland had a difference currency, would old ISAs remain in sterling? Would transfers between old and new products be possible?

Lots of questions - and, as things stand, they are hard ones to answer.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Insurance payouts for up to 164,000

Up to 164,000 people in the UK who were sold accident insurance in 2011-12 could be in line for compensation payments of around £75 each.

The financial watchdog, the FCA, has slapped an £8m fine on a Dutch-owned insurance company, Stonebridge International Insurance Limited, which targeted low-income families.

Stonebridge cold-called potential customers after buying contact lists from catalogue firms, online retailers and credit card companies.

The company then pushed policies costing between £6 and £12 a month, which promised daily payments after an accident or payouts to families in the event of a death.

But the FCA says sales staff did not disclose enough about charges or limits on cover and tried to stop people cancelling.

Stonebridge, which operated from Maidenhead in Berkshire, has already paid £400,000 in compensation and is checking hundreds of thousands of cases in the UK and overseas.

Aegon, the Dutch group which owns Stonebridge, said it regretted the failings, had stopped the company from selling insurance over the telephone and replaced the management team.

An Aegon spokesman said that more than 480,000 people had been sold the policies over the two year period, but the company had 164,000 UK customers.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Free banking in question

Study  from the UK's competition authority, the CMA, questions the value of free banking.

The worry is that while free accounts look attractive to the user, they result in banks hiding charges elsewhere -- for overdrafts, for instance - and not bothering to compete with each other with better value or service.

The study says :

It is also possible that there might be a degree of cross-subsidy in the PCA (Personal Current Account) market, which may be distortive of competition. Indeed, the 'free if in credit' model often involves cross-subsidy by other revenue streams for PCAs such as overdraft charges. In addition, we were also told that PCAs as a whole were loss-making. If this were the case, this could suggest the existence of a cross-subsidy from other retail banking products. 

2.67 This seems to suggest that there might be a degree of cross-subsidy between activities within retail PCA providers which, if true, could itself be distortive of competition. It might also represent a barrier to entry and expansion.

2.68 It is also likely that the pricing model used by PCA providers generates significant cross-subsidies between different categories of customers. PCA providers incur fixed costs to provide PCAs, but under the 'free if in credit' model PCA providers do not charge a monthly fee for using PCAs. Instead, they derive the majority of their revenues from NCI and overdraft charges. This pricing model is unlikely to be perfectly cost-reflective, and it might result in cross-subsidies between different categories of customers. For example, customers who use their overdrafts regularly and customers who keep large balances on non-interest-bearing accounts may subsidise other categories of customers which could, in itself, be distortive of competition.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Refunds from payday lender

The UK's second biggest payday lender is to refund over £700,000 of interest and default charges to 6,247 customers who couldn't afford to borrow as much as they were given.

The firm involved is Dollar, an American group which has 24 per cent of the payday market in the UK and includes The Money Shop, Payday UK, Payday Express, and Ladder Loans.

The mistake was due to a "systems error" which resulted in loans being approved for amounts above normal lending criteria between between January 2013 and April 2014.

The financial watchdog, the FCA, says Dollar has agreed to provide cash refunds totalling £79,000, with the remainder of customers having their outstanding balance reduced.

Later this week the FCA is expected to outline a cap on the cost of credit from payday lenders.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Savers losing out

The financial watchdog, the FCA, says that millions of savers are losing out by letting their money sit for years in accounts with low interest rates.

It is calling for ideas on how to encourage switching between accounts and to make it easier to compare interest on offer.

Banks and building societies take advantage of people's unwillingness to shop around by offering higher rates to new customers.

The average interest rate on easy access accounts opened in the last two years was around 0.8%, but that the equivalent rate for accounts that were opened more than five years ago was less than 0.3%.

The FCA highlights the fact that providers come out with new versions of savings accounts with higher rates and leave loyal customers languishing on the old rates. 

Many have attracted customers with bonus rates which only last a year.

But the watchdog also blames savers for not bothering to look for better deals.

It says they tend to keep their savings with the bank which provides their current account.

The average savings rate from leading current account providers is around 0.5%, but the equivalent rate offered by other providers is 1.2%.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

£1.9bn tax error

HM Revenue and Customs has come under fire from the National Audit Office, and from an influential committee of MPs, for exaggerating its performance in squeezing more revenue out of tax avoiders.

In a report on the tax office's 2013-14 accounts the head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, said he was concerned "that an error of as much as £1.9 billion in HMRC's baseline calculation led it to report the trend in its performance in a way that inadvertently exaggerated the improvement since 2010-11".

The error did not affect the amount of tax collected but made it appear that tax compliance targets had been exceeded by a significant margin.

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has called HMRC officials in to give evidence later this month.

She said, "It is truly depressing that HMRC's failure to take appropriate action has led to its unwittingly misleading Ministers, Parliament and the taxpayer".

There are a lot of red faces at the Revenue, where I understand officials are "penitent" at the shambles over targets.

HMRC has said: "We regret an historic error made in 2011 when we wrongly calculated the baseline against which our performance was measured. 

"We have corrected this error and even against the corrected baseline we have still exceeded our targets. We will work closely with the NAO to prevent this happening again."

28 = worst age

28 years old has been the worst age to be during the financial crisis, according to official figures, which show that those in their twenties have felt the tightest squeeze on pay.

Experts have looked at the hourly wages in 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, and compared them with last year, adjusting for the impact of rising prices.

Those in their twenties were being paid 12 per cent less last year -- that's effectively the buying power of what they were getting.

But the biggest impact of low pay and rising prices has been on 28 year olds: in 2009 28 year-olds were earning nearly 18 per cent more than the inflation-adjusted figure for 2013.

The Office for National Statistics says those in their 30s suffered a 9 per cent squeeze and those in their fifties were 5 per cent down.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Police meeting over Wonga

It has emerged that City of London Police representatives are meeting regulators for discussions about Wonga, the payday lender which is embroiled in controversy over letters sent to customers.

Wonga sent letters from non-existent law firms to customers in arrears between 2008 and 2010.

Last week, the the City regulator the FCA said the company had agreed to pay £2.6m in compensation to about 45,000 customers - an average of about £50 each.

The police then confirmed  that they would "be reassessing whether a criminal investigation is now appropriate."

Previously they had ruled it out, saying the case should be left to the regulator.

Today's event -- at the FCA -- is thought to be an initial, exploratory meeting and is unlikely to be followed by announcements on future action.

City of London Police would not comment on the meeting or confirm that it was taking place.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Free calls for child maintenance

The government has bowed to pressure from campaigners to make sure that parents don't have to pay to telephone for help with child maintenance.

Although the Child Maintenance Options helpline -- run by G4S -- is an 0800 number and free to phone from landlines, mobile calls can cost up to 41p per minute.

Now the Department for Work and Pensions says it has struck a deal with two providers, 'Virgin' and '3', to remove the charges from next month, with the taxpayer picking up the bill.

Discussions with the other major mobile companies are "ongoing".

Separated parents have to phone the number in order to make an application for support using the new Child Maintenance Service.

Gingerbread, which campaigns for single parents, called the move a U-turn and "an important victory for families for whom every penny counts".

The industry regulator, Ofcom, has introduced new rules which will make calls to 0800 numbers free for all, including mobile users, but these will not come into force until June 2015.

Friday, 13 June 2014

£11 on your mortgage

Millions of mortgage borrowers with variable rate loans face an earlier hike in their monthly payments after Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, said the first hike in rates "could happen sooner".

A likely 0.25 per cent rise would put at extra £11 a month on the average mortgage of £87,000.

After the Governor's speech the City of London is speculating that the increase will come before the end of the year, rather than next spring.

More than 7 million homeowners have variable rate mortgages, which track the Bank's base rate or the lender's Standard Variable Rate or SVR.

That's 65 per cent of all mortgage borrowers. The rest, on fixed rates, wouldn't be affected until their mortgage deals expire.

Some of those paying SVR might also be protected for a time, if their lenders decide not to pass on an increase.

Mortgage experts are also warning that new fixed rate deals could soon become more expensive as the financial markets begin to anticipate an earlier rise in rates.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Cash machine freedom

A million people with basic bank accounts at RBS and NatWest will be able to use the full UK network of cash machines after the banking group reversed a decision to restrict them to its own machines.

Lloyds says it will also give cash machine freedom to its basic bank account customers.

The accounts provide a stripped-down service, with no cheque book or overdraft.

The RBS Group has 8,000 cash dispensers and Lloyds, including Bank of Scotland and Halifax, has 6,500.

Adding the whole LINK network will mean customers will have access 67,000 machines which most current account account customers can use.

The U-turn at RBS comes as the new chief executive, Ross McEwan, tries to win back customer confidence.

It restricted access for basic bank accounts in 2011, saying the service was unsustainable because of the cost.

RBS chief executive Ross McEwan said: "We looked at this and decided it just wasn't right. 

"You don't make life harder for those who need your help most. We need to rebuild trust with our customers."

Lloyds will start sending out new cards to customers from July, allowing them full cash machine freedom.

RBS will implement the change by the end of the year.

Is Cable pre-historic?

Should we go back to limiting home buyers to borrowing 3 to 3.5 times their income, as Vince Cable suggested on BBC Radio this morning?

It's what he calls a "stable level" compared with the multiples of 5 times which some borrowers have been getting.

Here are some responses from the mortgage industry to show you the other side of the argument:

*"You would disappoint around half of first time buyers" because the average income multiple for first timers is 3.42 at the moment, so large numbers are having to borrow more than that.

*"He's pre-historic" because he's harking back to a time (in the late 1980s, early 1990s) when people had to budget for zig-zagging interest rates which could be 15%. You  don't have to do that now, although lenders are stress-testing household income for a jump to 7% rates.

*"It's nonsense", because the regulator, the FCA, has forced lenders to move away from strict income multiples, to detailed affordability checks. For some 5 times income is affordable, for others 3 times income is unaffordable.

*Cable doesn't appreciate that the market in London has already gone "off the boil".

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

How Lloyds will limit big mortgages

Lloyds, including Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Scottish Widows Bank, has said that it will restrict mortgage lending to people wanting to borrow more than £500,000.

The move is targeted directly at the spiralling London housing market and the risk that buyers might get themselves into trouble with over-risky purchases.

But why is Lloyds saying that it will limit this sort of lending to 4 times income?

After all, we were told that simple income multiples were a thing of the past, across the whole mortgage business.

From last month, they were giving way to much more detailed affordability assessments, based on detailed questions about childcare spending, haircuts, food bills and so on.

The answer is that Lloyds is bringing in a twin track approach for these soar-away London purchases.

Anyone asking for half a million pounds or more will still be subjected to the new barrage of questions about lifestyle and family budgets.

The spending power revealed by this process is then compared to the overall cost of a mortgage, factoring in future interest rate increases, according to a secret Lloyds formula.

The fact is that even after going through this mill, some people with large salaries and few commitments will find that they can borrow more than 4 times their annual income.

Some will qualify for 5 times, or even more, just like the bad old days before the credit crunch.

What Lloyds is saying is that even if its affordability checking machine spits out approvals for people asking for loans of more than 4 times income, they won't be given the money.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Lamborghini effect dismissed

Worries that the beneficiaries of the Chancellor's pension reforms would blow their savings on Lamborghinis and fall back on the state have been dismissed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

An IFS report explains that most of those who gain from the changes will be well off anyway.

George Osborne announced in his Budget that many savers would be able to do what they liked with their pension pots on reaching the age of 55 and avoid having to buy an annuity, a guaranteed income for life.

The Pensions Minister Steve Webb then said "If people do get a Lamborghini and end up on the state pension...that is their choice."

The IFS research shows that significant numbers will be entirely unaffected by the reforms because they have no relevant pension savings.

Of those currently aged between 55 and 59 just under four-in-ten men and just over two-in-ten women will enjoy greater flexibility.

The vast majority of those are home owners and have significant other assets. They are unlikely to qualify for key benefits such as housing benefit.

The middle range of this group has wealth adding up to £730,000 apiece, including their homes.

Don't be a mule

Thousands of bank account holders are being used by criminals as "money mules" to launder the proceeds of crime, according to fraud figures released today.

CIFAS, a fraud prevention service working on behalf of banks, retailers and hundreds of other organisations, says there has been a 54 per cent jump in the misuse of bank accounts so far this year.

The fraudsters target students, the unemployed and others who are stuggling financially - asking permission to use their accounts to handle money and transfer it to banks overseas, in exchange for a fee.

Fraud experts say the funds can come from internet scams, drug sales or people-trafficking.

CIFAS says there were 11,920 examples of account misuse in the four months to April. That's 19% up on the previous 4 months and 54% higher than the same period last year.

Over half of the frauds arose from individuals allowing their accounts to be used to receive money linked to organised crime.

Some people who become involved are unaware that they may be committing an offence and could have their bank account closed.

Crimestoppers has been campaigning on university campuses, telling students, "Don't be a mule!"

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Payday lender stopped

A leading payday lender, whose customers paid an Annual Percentage Rate of 3,000%, has fallen victim to the financial watchdog's get-tough policy on high cost loans.

The FCA has forced Cheque Centre, which has 451 branches across the UK, to stop making the short-term loans -- under what is termed a voluntary agreement.

The business was the second biggest payday lender on the High Street, making it the FCA's most high profile target since it took over the regulation of payday lenders last month.

The watchdog was unhappy about the extent of checks on what borrowers could afford and on the treatment of customers in financial trouble.

Cheque Centre has been criticised in newspapers for targeting desperate families who couldn't repay, a charge which it denies.

It will carry on with its parallel businesses of pawn broking and selling foreign currency.

A spokesman from Cheque Centre said: "The FCA made clear their expectations, under the new rules, and we offered to make immediate changes. One of the decisions we made was to accelerate our exit from payday lending."

Free wi-fi at the bank

Free public wi-fi is spreading like wildfire across UK banks, as bankers try to harness the power of mobile internet to keep customers happy.

RBS and NatWest have just revealed that all their 2,000 branches will offer free wi-fi by the end of the summer, for customers and anyone else who happens to be in a branch or in range.

Yesterday HSBC launched wi-fi hotspots in 650 of its branches. Barclays already has them in 1,600 outlets.

The RBS group has been trying out wi-fi in 800 locations, to give customers the option of downloading banking apps and managing their accounts on the move.

Some technology experts have warned that users need to be on their guard against cyber thieves who use open connections to steal personal information.

RBS said its service was safe and protected. However, customers needed to be alert to the danger of thieves setting up wi-fi hotspots purporting to be from the bank.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

House prices up, mortgages down

House prices rose by more than ten per cent in the year to April according to Nationwide Building Society, the first time for 4 years that the annual increase has hit double figures.

Nationwide warns that unless more homes come on the market, buyers will be stretched to afford to move.

But while prices continue to race ahead, the Bank of England reports that there was a fall, for the second month in a row, in the number of house-hunters approved for a mortgage.

Approvals had been revitalised over the winter, partly because of the government's Help to Buy scheme.

More recently, though, there may have been an early impact from stricter rules on mortgage applications -- which were launched officially last weekend, but imposed gradually by lenders over several months.

March saw just over 67,000 mortgages approved for house buyers, a reduction of more than 2,000 compared with February, and still around half the peak levels which were reached before the financial crisis.

Now I discover that while the Bank's seasonally adjusted figures show falls in mortgage approvals in February and March, their actual figures show increases both times!

In fact, there has been a year-on-year rise in approvals every month for the last 12 months...

So there may well be an impact from tougher mortgage application rules, but it probably isn't in the stats yet.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

How to spot a fake £1

Fake one pound coins keep turning up. One in every thirty is counterfeit.

Take a look at this video of a fake I just spotted, to see what they look like.

1st clue...
The designs on the two sides don't line up. When you flip the coin over they should match up vertically.

2nd clue...
The milling on the edge of the coin is poor quality and easily worn.

3rd clue...
The writing around the edge is uneven, the letters thin and poorly stamped.

This is one reason why the Mint is planning to replace one pounds with the new two-tone version which will be harder to copy.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Pear-shaped mortgage market?

How many property purchases are going pear-shaped because of the new, stricter rules on mortgage applications introduced by the financial watchdog, the FCA?

One family told me a worrying tale today about their mortgage offer which had been reduced to £122,000 from £134,000.

The repayment period was cut from 22 to 17 years and the repayments themselves went up to £750 a month from £660.

This family has mobilised all its savings in order to afford the bigger deposit now required to move to the home they want to live in.

But as one of them said: "how will this affect others out there in a similar situation, who do not have the savings to back them up and are now likely to lose the homes they thought they could afford?"

He said that during the inquest into the household's spending -- a feature of the new application process -- he was asked about "eating, smoking and drinking and whether my wife planned on having children".

The family had looked at different properties and had ditched one with structural problems in favour of another. So it's perhaps not surprising that the lender took a fresh look at the situation.

On the other hand, it is a pretty common experience at the moment for buyers to get close to purchasing several homes before finally getting one.

There have already been predictions of a sharp increase in outright rejections of mortgage applications, but a reduced offer can be almost as damaging.

Could it be that the FCA will have to push lenders into easing off on stress tests and what many see as intrusive questioning, to stop the housing market being disrupted over the next few months?

People have more savings than we thought

The savings held by UK households have been underestimated by a significant margin, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Since 1997 the savings ratio - the proportion of income saved - should have been 3% to 6% higher per year.

So last year's rate of just over 5% was, according to a new, more accurate measure, between 8% and 11%.

Britons have long been criticised for not saving enough, but this new basis for calculating the rate would bring our savings habits more in line with those of countries such as Germany.

The reassessment reflects the growing value of employer-provided pension schemes rather than people setting aside more cash.

Experts had underestimated the funding needed to pay for salary-linked pensions, particularly for former workers in the private sector and local government.

Hence, the pot of savings households will enjoy in retirement is bigger than previously shown in the National Accounts.

The new method of calculation is in line with a worldwide standard being adopted across Europe this year.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Paying by mobile phone

Next week the banking body, the payments Council, is launching its way of letting you pay friends and traders using just your mobile and mobile phone numbers. It's called Paym.

There are lots of other new payment ideas on offer, including Pingit and Zapp, but in Paym's favour is that it is backed by all the leading banks.

RBS/NatWest isn't on board yet, though it will be soon. So will Nationwide and First Direct.

Here are some questions I fired at the Payments Council...

Can you register for Paym yet?
Yes, but you have to do it through your bank.

What if you have a joint account?
You can both attach you mobile phone numbers to the same account. However, you can't use the same mobile number for two different accounts.

What if you enter the wrong mobile number when paying someone?
Once you have entered the person's number, the name attached to that number will appear on your phone, so you will have to check that before confirming the payment. So there is a possibility of making an incorrect payment, but they have reduced the risk.

How quick is the payment?
Almost instant, via Faster Payments or LINK. The service standard is "within 2 hours".

What if you don't have funds in your account?
It is the same as if you paid using another method. Either you go into agreed overdraft. Or, if you don't have an agreed overdraft, your bank will have to make a decision and may charge you.

How will a payment appear on your bank statement?
It will have a special code, so it is likely to have Paym typed beside it.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Pension top up

The government has unveiled more details of a scheme to allow people to top up their state pensions, if they reach pension age before the new £144 a week flat rate pension kicks in in 2016.

Those reaching pension age before then will be able to buy up to £25 a week in extra pension.

The new information today is on how much the added pension will cost.

A 65 year-old man or woman will have to pay £890 to secure an extra £1 a week in pension. The maximum £25 top-up will cost £22,250.

A 75 year-old would pay £674 for an extra pound.

The scheme, available from October next year, could be of particular help to women and the self-employed, who are more likely to have incomplete National Insurance records, so lower pensions.

The government has designed the top-up so it does not create an extra burden on the taxpayer. However, pension experts say the terms are more attractive than annuity rates currently available to pensioners.

The state pension is now £110.15 a week. The new flat rate pension is pencilled in at £144 in current prices, likely to be over £150 a week when it starts in April, 2016.

DWP says:
"Pensioners and those who reach pension age in the next 2 years will be able to acquire up to £25 of additional State Pension a week under plans set out today (2 April 2014) by the Pensions Minister.
The State Pension top up will be available from October 2015 to all those reaching State Pension age before 6 April 2016.
The scheme will allow people the opportunity to get inflation-proofed additional State Pension by making Class 3A Voluntary National Insurance contributions.
The cost of a State Pension top up is based on a person’s age and takes average life expectancy into account. For a 65-year-old an extra £1 of pension a week will be £890, whereas for a 75-year-old the contribution rate for the same amount of pension is £674.
A calculator is available online which illustrates the contribution rates based on age and how much people wish to increase their additional pension by at"

Friday, 28 March 2014

FCA investigates itself

The Financial Conduct Authority says there will be an investigation into the way details of its inquiry into life insurance schemes were made public.

Shares in some of Britain's biggest financial institutions fell sharply in the wake of the announcement that it would look at whether some policies set up between the nineteen seventies and 2000 still represented good value for money.

This stockmarket episode started out with major criticism of insurance companies' charges for old pension and endowment policies and news that the Financial Conduct Authority would launch an inquiry.  It ended with a major embarrassment for the City watchdog itself -- with the authority being forced to launch an investigation into the way it had handled the announcement.

The authority had briefed the Daily Telegraph -- the resulting story suggested there would be action to give millions of savers a better deal, so share prices in insurers plummeted, some down 16 per cent at one point.

Furious insurance industry chiefs complained that a disorderly market had been created -- the Authority then published a statement saying talk about cutting the charges was overblown.

The investigation into the way the matter has been handled will in part be carried out by an external law firm.  It's the first  major setback for the authority since it started work last spring.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Working till you drop?

If you suffer from bad health in later years, then earning your living into ripe old age becomes a tricky proposition.

The government has accelerated the timetable for pushing up pension age, with a pension age of 68 now set to be implemented in the mid-2030s.

One thing that really matters is whether people are actually able to work that long. Figures today from the Office for National Statistics provide an insight into how serious the challenge might be for some people.

The stats show how the time you can expect to live in good health varies from place to to place - it's called healthy life expectancy.

Men in affluent areas can expect to live to 82.7 years, with 70.5 of those in good health.

But in deprived areas life expectancy is 73.4 years and healthy life expectancy is just 52.1 years.

Women live longer. The situation for women in affluent areas is that life expectancy is 85.7, with 71.5 years in good health.

But there is a wide gap in the most deprived areas: there women can expect to live to 78.9, but healthy life expectancy is only 52.5.

So a woman in a deprived area might live a long life but suffer 26 years of poor health.

Compare all those numbers to the path the government plans for pension age for both men and women: 66 in 2020, 67 in 2026-8, 68 in the mid-2030s.

After that 69 is likely to be introduced in the 2040s and 70 will come soon after that.

Does that make sense if people might struggle physically to continue in work?

Well, the whole point of the changes to pension age is cope with the consequences of life expectancy continuing to grow coming decades.

But clearly there is a need to improve the health of people in deprived areas to make it more likely that they can work longer and live to draw their pensions.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Service charges rip-off?

Housing associations and local authorities are to be included in an investigation into the service charges, sometimes thousands of pounds a year, which are imposed on home-owners with leasehold property.

The Office of Fair Trading is launching a market study into the charges, paid by 5 million leaseholders in England and Wales for maintenance of the shared areas of their building and for roof repairs.

It is acting on concerns about overcharging, commission paid by contractors to freeholders to win business and the lack of choice for leaseholders over who does repair work.

Since it gave warning of the investigation in December the OFT has received complaints that leaseholders with public sector landlords face just as many problems as those in the private sector - so the scope of the study is being expanded.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Tax pensioners says IFS

The influential Institute for Fiscal Studies is suggesting a dramatic change in the tax paid by pensioners.

It wants the government to look at charging a levy on private pensions in payment, on the grounds that pensioners -- in the opinion of the IFS -- get more out of the tax system than they should.

Make no mistake, this would be a major reform which would result in pensioners paying much more tax.

The IFS argues that it would help to spread the task of dealing with the government’s financial problems "more evenly across the generations".

At the moment pensioners don't pay National Insurance on their pension income, a substantial benefit in comparison to workers who pay 12% National Insurance on top of their income tax.

However, if you save for a pension, that is out of money that is likely to have incurred National Insurance.

The tax break on pension contributions only applies to income tax, at whatever rate you pay. You still have to pay National Insurance on money paid into a pension scheme.

The point of this complicated system is to avoid the situation where pensioners are taxed twice on the same money - once when they pay into a scheme and again when they take their pensions.

The IFS suggests that pension contributions should attract National Insurance tax relief. But pensioners should then pay a charge on their pension income.

To prevent double taxation on people who have already salted away money in pension schemes, this charge or levy should start low, says the IFS, and then rise to the level of National Insurance as the bulk of pension savers began to benefit from National Insurance relief.

The maths favours the Treasury, because the new levy would also apply to pension income which came from pension contributions added by the employer.

Each 1% charged to pensioners would raise £350m a year for the government's coffers, so Chancellors would have a big incentive to push up the levy as quickly as possible.

A Treasury spokesperson commented that there were no plans to put National Insurance on pension income, nor were there plans to change pension tax relief.

Strong interest in Help to Buy

The Halifax says it is receiving 500 applications per week from house buyers seeking assistance under the Help to Buy scheme.

The Help to Buy mortgage guarantee was launched 4 months ago for buyers who have trouble raising a big enough deposit.

Critics are concerned that the scheme will help create a housing bubble, particularly in London and the South East of England where prices have risen fastest.

However, the Halifax says that so far, 8 out of ten applications have been from other areas, and 80 per cent are from first time buyers.

The average house price under the scheme is £157,000, which is less than the typical UK price.

In December the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, described a "raging housing boom" in London and said ministers needed to look again at the Help to Buy scheme.

The Halifax reports interest in the scheme is still strong and it has completed 1,000 loans.

Instant checks on payday loans

The danger of desperate borrowers taking out multiple payday loans in a single day should become a thing of the past with the launch of an instant checking service for lenders.

Short term loan providers on the High Street and the internet have faced a barrage of criticism for allowing customers to borrow several times from different lenders over hours or days and build up an unsupportable level of debt.

The credit reference agency, Experian, has announced that it will start a real time data sharing service from the second half of this year.

As soon as one member updates the system with details of a loan, other providers will be able to view the details on their screens, warning them about the customer's new debt.

Previously it could take weeks for the information to be shared.

Another credit reference agency, Callcredit, has already announced a rapid checking service, to be launched in April, which will update every day.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Huge cost of pension charges

Paying 1% a year on your pension savings, rather than 0.5%, could cost you £77,900.

Paying 1.5% rather than than 0.5% would cost you £144,200.

That is how much less your fund would be worth because of higher charges -assuming you started putting in £100 month and raised contributions gradually over 46 years and got some decent investment growth.

The analysis comes from the DWP's consultation on capping charges at 0.75% or 1%.

The Pensions Minister, Steve Webb has put off imposing a cap until after April 2015

The average charge for new savers is 0.51% but thousands are already on higher rates.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Homeserve faces record mis-selling fine

My understanding is that it is a minority of Homeserve's 2.7m customers (at the time of the mis-selling) who might get compensation. That's likely to mean tens of thousands at least, but perhaps not hundreds of thousands.

The payments, or refunds, could amount to hundreds of pounds but are unlikely to be in the thousands. Some customers may have stayed for several years but the Homeserve cover in question cost a few pounds a month.

It appears that the process of contacting the victims of the mis-selling has already started and should be completed by the spring. So, in theory, if you are affected you don't need to do anything - in practice, if you are worried about being missed out you can get in touch with the company or the FCA to make sure you aren't.

The home repairs and insurance company, Homeserve, could end up paying the biggest fine ever imposed on a retail financial firm in the UK.

Homeserve revealed to the stockmarket this morning that it had been put on notice by the financial watchdog, the FCA, that it faced a fine for £34m for mis-selling.

Homeserve had 2.7 million customers when news of the investigation emerged nearly two years ago, but it is unclear how many are affected and how much compensation might be paid.

The company provides emergency repairs and insurance cover for boilers, electrics and plumbing.

It said in a statement that the issues under investigation "relate to historic sales and marketing, controls and governance and complaints handling".

Homeserve can now discuss or challenge the fine if it chooses to, so it's likely to be weeks or months before the full details of the inquiry are published.

Last year, Lloyds Bank was fined £28m for pushing staff to sell customers insurance they didn't need.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

At last, people might decide to sell the house

There's a turnaround in the number of people thinking it's a good time to put their homes on the market, according to the Halifax.

It says 51% see the next 12 months as propitious for selling, against 39% who don't agree. Three months ago it was the other way round.

The finding is based just on a MORI survey of 1,984, adults around Britain, but this is an important issue, because the dearth of sellers has been holding back transactions.

Plenty of experts warn that there is a shortage of homes, which is exacerbating the jump in prices. One reason is that we haven't built enough, but another is that owners are reluctant to become vendors.

Some suggest caution about the Halifax survey, arguing there hasn't been much of an increase in homes coming on the market...yet.

But the stats are interesting:

*There's a North/South divide. 69% in London think it is a good time to sell, 64% in the South East of England. Only 30% think so in Scotland, 40% in the North East of England and 41% in the North West.

*Those who actually own something are more optimistic. 56% of owner-occupiers (versus 51% overall) and 58% of people with a mortgage.

*Older and better-off people are more likely to think 2014 is a good time to sell.

Why have people been reluctant up until now? Well, part of it is just the general gloom which prevails when the market is seen to be in a trough.

But there are also specific reasons:

*transaction costs, including stamp duty which can be tens of thousands of pounds in higher-value areas.

*the fashion for extending the house rather than selling

*some are trapped (or think they are) in interest-only mortgages

*or they took out a huge mortgage and that's still weighing them down.

*older people not downsizing because they think prices will go up, while savings rates on any profit they'd make are still derisory

Even so, if 2014 became a year for selling it would make a big difference to house hunters and might make a house price bubble less of a danger.

PS - thanks to @HenryPryor for his thoughts!