The month at a glance

A shiver ran down the spine of the lending sector in icy January as Prime Minister Gordon Brown pondered whether or not to copy President Obama’s clampdown on big banks in the US

Winter wonderland

The beginning of January also saw the country grind to a halt when a few inches of snow fell. Countries such as Canada were no doubt suitably impressed with our resilience.

In this winter wonderland eight lenders hiked their SVRs while the Bank of England base rate was held at 0.5%.

Lenders bumping up their rates included Marsden Building Society which increased its SVR by Snow blankets the country but the housing market may be thawing0.46% to 5.95% on January 1 and Mansfield Building Society which pushed its rate up by 0.35% to 5.59%.

Alliance & Leicester was sitting pretty early in the month when research by Evaluate Technologies ranked it as the most consistently competitive lender in Q4 2009. It seized the crown from HSBC which was rated top lender in Q3.

Rankings were based on a points system whereby lenders were awarded a point for each time their products appeared in Evaluate’s top 10 mortgage deals between October and December.

Then business secretary Lord Mandelson used a London speech to warn us all that the financial services sector should not be at the heart of future economic growth in the UK.

Mandelson believes that in the past 10 years the country has become too dependent on the City and financial services for growth and tax revenues.

“That is why, without wishing the financial sector to be smaller, we need other strengths and sources of revenue to grow faster,” he told his audience.

“Finance will have to change – the insurance bill for saving the economy from the status quo was far too steep and it can never happen again.

“While putting the City in an iron cage of regulation is undesirable, just relying on a bit of nudge here and there will not suffice,” he adds.

The latest Halifax index of house prices showed that prices in December were 1.1% higher on an annual basis, marking the first such rise since March 2008.

Prices increased for the sixth successive month, with December’s increase being slightly below the average for the preceding five months.

House prices in Q4 2009 were 3.5% higher than in Q3, representing the highest quarterly increase since Q4 2006.

The biggest news in the middle of the month came from Virgin Money which entered the banking market by acquiring small retail bank Church House Trust.

The move has been approved by the FSA and will provide the platform from which Virgin Money can develop a retail banking business in the UK.

A range of products will be offered to consumers under the Virgin Money brand. Church House Trust is a regional bank offering deposits and mortgages.

A spokesman for Virgin Money said at the time that the company was focussing on securing its banking licence from the regulator. The company applied for this licence in October and says it expects to hear about the progress of this soon.

And it was all change at Abbey as the great Santander rebrand began. But it was also confirmed that the Abbey for Intermediaries brand would be retained despite the upcoming changing of all the company’s UK branches to its Spanish parent’s name.

All Abbey and Bradford & Bingley branches will become Santander, with Alliance & Leicester changing to the new name later in the year.

In the last week of the month the National Fraud Authority released its estimate that fraud now costs the country more than £30bn a year, with an estimated £1bn lost to mortgage fraud.

The NFA says the revised national estimate is more comprehensive than the previous widely accepted figure of £13bn which came from a report produced in 2007.
The higher figure is driven by previously unpublished fraud loss statistics along with the NFA’s estimates.

Meanwhile, it was a case of two wrongs make a right for B&B and Northern Rock when it emerged the banks were close to agreeing a merger which would combine B&B’s loan book with Northern Rock Asset Management.

A recent report in the Sunday Times states that B&B is about to receive approval from the EC for its state aid package, a move which should pave the way for the merger.

And January ended on a high when figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed that the country is officially no longer in recession.

GDP grew by 0.1% in Q4 2009 compared with a decrease of 0.2% in Q3. Overall, economic output fell by 4.8% last year – the biggest annual contraction since records began in 1949. It has fallen back by 6% since the recession officially began in 2008.