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News Comment
a personal view of the week's news from Erithacus

The Stock Markets continued to fall steadily this week, causing much concern among many investors who see no sign of the value of their shares recovering in the near future. The FTSE100 closed on Friday at 5,858.6, its lowest level in two years after losing ground in three consecutive sessions and at 15% lower than its high point at the end of 1999. Losers on Friday included software maker Autonomy down 12.9% ahead of expectations it will leave the FTSE100 next week, BP Amoco down 1.3%, Vodafone down 0.8%, and Cable and Wireless down 4.5%. Worst hit was the banking sector despite gains on Thursday, and Friday’s losses included a 2.5% drop for HSBC, a 3.1% drop for Lloyds TSB and a 2.4% drop for Barclays. Losers on the FTSE100 outnumbered winners by three to two.

While a few analysts are predicting a "bounce" in the UK Markets which they feel have fallen further than is reasonable weighed down by persistent bad economic news from the U.S., the indications are that the bottom has not yet been reached. There remains a real risk that the debt faced by global telecoms companies might spark a real crash, and three out of every five U.S. companies issuing statements since January has warned of a downturn in business. Those analysts who have been watching reactions of Market Makers have also noted their swift and drastic down-pricing of shares each time there is a threat of any sizeable selling. Private client stockbrokers too are suffering financially – an indication that many smaller investors are no longer active in the Market. Advice from many of those who are normally the first to tip risky shares, is now for private investors to keep their money out of shares, and even to consider selling those that might have been considered a "safe" investment a few months ago.

Other news for the last week has concentrated on the growing foot-and-mouth crisis facing the UK with 57 confirmed cases of the disease identified by the end of the week. Belgium and France have now also reported suspected cases although initial tests have proved negative. The slaughter of animals infected as well as those considered at risk of having been in contact with those infected has resulted in over 53,000 animals destroyed and burned so far. Compensation for sheep farmers is expected to start this month, with payments to beef and dairy farmers likely in April and May. Although licences are expected to be available from next Tuesday for the movement of uninfected animals to abattoirs again, few farmers are in any doubt of the serious financial damage they face even after the compensation, and of the repercussions that will go far beyond the farming industry. Supermarkets report that UK meat will run out early next week, and expect substantial price rises to cover the additional costs of imports. Meat purchases were reported to have increased as consumers stockpiled meat, but there were no reports of panic buying.
Despite closure of footpaths, common land, forest and parkland, and warnings to the public to stay away such areas as well as from farms to avoid spreading the disease, animal rights activists have staged protests this weekend. A protest was planned for Sunday outside the drugs testing firm Huntingdon Life Sciences in Suffolk, and a small group of animal rights protesters gathered near Heathfield in East Sussex. A spokesman for the National Farmers Union condemned the irresponsible actions of the protesters, and highlighted the dangers to all animals from such gatherings. "The less people move around the countryside at the moment the better and anyone who cares about animals should take notice of that", he said.

As we proceed with "silly-season" for politicians approaching the General Election, still assuming the Government does not decide the current foot-and-mouth crisis will mean that the election should be postponed, William Hague has been spelling out the Conservative policies on Britain’s future role in the EU. Speaking from Harrogate where Tories are gathered in conference, he said, "I don't want to see an ever closer union" and added that the Conservatives would seek to renegotiate the Treaty of Nice agreed by European leaders last December and in which Tony Blair gave up Britain's veto in various areas. Shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude echoed William Hague’s views and confirmed the Conservatives’ intention of pulling British forces out of the planned European rapid reaction force unless it comes under direct NATO command. "We'll make sure that in future Britain is run by Europe less than we are today," Francis Maude told party enthusiasts. The growing anti-European feeling in the Conservative party may strike a chord with many voters, but it continues to have its dissenters within the party. Michael Heseltine, known for his pro-European views, told the Independent on Sunday he had faced a dilemma over whether to vote Conservative. At least 70% of the British people, according to the latest opinion polls, are strongly opposed to Britain’s entry into the Euro, and the Conservatives are trailing far behind New Labour in the polls. These two facts are, of course, not linked to present Conservative policy. Avoiding closer integration with Europe is indisputably the right thing to do. Isn’t it, Mr Hague?

And finally, with education policies also a major issue in the electioneering of the politicians, I hear that 150,000 children in secondary schools will conduct a serious scientific experiment next week. Each one of these children will drop a slice of buttered toast from a plate 20 times and keep a record of which side hits the floor first. The experiment will be repeated with unbuttered toast and then a third time from a height of 2.5 metres. The experiment is designed to test the truth of Murphy’s Law or The Law of Universal Cussedness, and is sponsored by the makers of Lurpak butter. It forms part of the Government's "Maths Year 2000", although it may possibly be that no-one has noticed Year 2000 has actually finished. On being reminded of the date, a particularly perceptive spokesman for the Department of Education said, "It’s a probability test." Yes. It is. Probably.

4th March 2001                        


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