Jeff Salway: Crystal ball shows unpredictable future

Jeff Salway. Picture: Jane Barlow
Jeff Salway. Picture: Jane Barlow
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AN ECONOMIST, according to American humorist Evan Esar, “is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today”.

The quote also applies to newspaper columnists, particularly at this time of year. A glance at the column I wrote a year ago reinforces the suspicion that there are only two types of forecasts – lucky or wrong. That I’m far from alone in that respect does offer some consolation. Look back at what the alleged experts reckoned we had in store for 2014 and you’ll understand what Lao Tzu was on about when he insisted that “those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge”.

Still, if you can’t take a wild stab in the dark at this time of year when can you? I can start on fairly safe territory by suggesting that we’ll finally see the back of a coalition that has governed with an incompetence matched only by its callous, self-serving mendacity.

The composition of the next administration is anyone’s guess. The election will set investor nerves on edge, particularly if an uncertain outcome triggers a currency crisis. There will be high points but plenty of turbulence as investor confidence is undermined by oil price volatility and ongoing difficulties in Russia and the Eurozone, while concerns over the outlook for China will weigh down on emerging markets.

Back home, it’ll be years until we have evidence illustrating the full lunacy of government reforms giving people far greater freedom with their pension savings. But distrust of the pensions system will result in far too many people taking advantage of the new rules after they take effect in April, and with disastrous long-term consequences. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), pension firms and fund managers will come under renewed pressure to tackle charges, with support growing for a single fee that provides much-needed transparency.

Activity in the housing market in Scotland will be shaped largely by the replacement of stamp duty with the land and buildings transaction tax. But as prices continue to rise and housebuilding remains slow the problems faced by renters will finally rise up the political agenda.

Those already on the ladder and with equity behind them will over the coming months have the opportunity to cash in on a price war among lenders that will drive mortgage costs to new lows. It’ll be short-lived though – mortgage rates will climb again in spring as speculation grows of a post-election interest rate rise.

Whenever it comes, it’ll hurt. Inflation may be down but household budgets remain under huge pressure. Recent figures from StepChange showed that Scotland has the highest levels of council tax arrears and payday loan debt in the UK. Almost three in ten households in Scotland expect their finances to worsen in 2015, according to research out today from Which?.

The headline figures may point to a recovery, but real evidence of it is thin on the ground. I’m no fan of new year’s resolutions, but if you insist on making some then it’s worth resolving to give your finances a once-over and make sure you’re able to withstand whatever the world throws at you in 2015. After all, the only thing we can predict with confidence is that the unexpected will happen.