The business - Patrick Hosking discovers we're getting poorer

We have lifted the lid from the tureen in the City kitchen, and found something unappetising, overco

Skim, skim, skim. Dip, dip, dip. Churn, churn, churn. The City has regarded the nation's wealth rather like an enormous pot of soup. The nation has regarded the City as a greedy but competent cook. The cook keeps watch over the pot and is allowed to dip in his ladle for frequent slurps.

The nation expected the contents of the pot to grow. The skimming, dipping and churning were tolerated. For 30 years, the pact worked, or seemed to. True, the cook was getting bloated. The gorging sound was perhaps not in the best taste. The smell from the kitchen occasionally offended the more delicate nostrils. But no matter - the pot got bigger all the time, and there would be helpings enough for everyone. Crashing pans (pension mis-selling), strangled oaths (endowment mis-selling), smashed glasses (split capital investment trusts) and panicky calls to the local takeaway (Equitable Life) did not unduly alarm us.

Come the dinner gong, however, the tureen lid has been lifted to reveal something overcooked, unappetising and horribly shrunken. The value of our pensions, endowments, ISAs and other savings has collapsed by a third in two years. Yet the cook believes that tomorrow he will be allowed to begin again with fresh ingredients.

Ron Sandler's official report last Tuesday on long-term saving makes all the right noises. He wants to reform with-profits funds, the dark heart of the life assurance industry. His plans for a range of fairly priced, no-frills savings products should drive down costs. And his call for less complexity and more transparency can only be applauded.

But the recommendations are still a long way from the statute book. And our hopelessly mediocre cook has grown awfully fond of his Anton Mosimann-style wages. It will be fascinating to see how many of Sandler's ideas are eventually watered down.

I have one gripe. He rightly berates the industry for using terms incomprehensible to the layman, but then dubs his proposed new range of savings vehicles "stakeholder" products. First, it's a gruesome, meaningless word. Second, we already have stakeholder pensions. I can't think of anything more likely to confuse ordinary savers.

Talking of the nation's wealth, I can't recall a time when house prices and share prices have diverged so dramatically. Usually, asset values move together. The cheap money and optimism that pump up the stock market have the same effect on property, Rembrandts, vintage claret, golf club debentures and any other asset.

Not this time. House prices are rising at their fastest rate for 15 years and at the same time share prices are plummeting at their fastest for 30 years (ignoring the blip of the 1987 crash).

So netting things off, are we getting richer or poorer? Poorer, I'm afraid.

Total household wealth has fallen by £139bn, or 3.5 per cent, in the past 12 months, according to the helpful number crunchers at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. People haven't yet noticed. They are deluded because house prices are highly visible, while the depreciation of financial assets is often hidden or the bad news delayed.

What happens when the penny drops? Probably a dramatic hike in saving and a corresponding fall in spending. It's all a bit ominous when consumer spending is just about the only thing preventing a nasty slide into recession.

To Merrill Lynch on Tuesday, to celebrate the opening of its vast new trading floor by the Prince of Wales. Does no one brief the heir to the throne? As we guzzled bubbly and canapes, the prince seemed oblivious to the scandal the world's largest stockbroker has just gone through.

First, he attempted some lame quip about Chinese walls. Was this perhaps an incredibly subtle dig at Merrill, which has just paid a $100m fine to end an embarrassing investigation into how it allegedly duped its own clients? Conflicts of interest and the lack of Chinese walls - between staff who advised investors and those who advised the companies they might invest in - were at the heart of the affair. Then the prince made a joke about insider dealing. Was this a brilliantly ironic reference to the Merrill broker recently suspended for his role in the insider dealing allegations made against the American style guru and TV pundit Martha Stewart?

No, in both cases I fear the prince was just plain uninformed. He even applauded the assembled bankers for taking corporate social responsibility so seriously. "You're doing marvellous things in Tower Hamlets," he gushed.

It's nice to see a rehabilitated Merrill welcomed back into polite society. But a gap of just seven weeks since it was hanging its head in shame is almost unseemly. Then again, the property developer Gerald Ronson, one of the Guinness Four, was shaking hands with the Queen Mother within six weeks of leaving Ford Open Prison.

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