Gordon Brown: the world’s best contrarian indicator

When Gordon Brown sold half our gold reserves, it almost precisely marked the end of gold's long bear market. So it’s fitting that now the property boom is over, he’s going to buy some houses.

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When Gordon Brown sold half our gold reserves all those years ago, it almost precisely marked the end of the yellow metal's long bear market.

So it's fitting that now the UK property boom is well and truly over, he's decided to go out and buy some houses.

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Not many houses right enough less than a couple of thousand at going rates. The plan is to spend £200m on unsold new-build flats, which would then be rented to low income families, or sold on as shared ownership properties.

This bad idea alone is enough to show that the Government is now in full-blown panic mode and running around the yard like a recently decapitated chicken. But this was just one of a frenzied morass of bad ideas, clearly slung together at the last minute, to try to rescue the country from the inevitable consequences of 11 years of Mr Brown's prudence'.

That is, complete and utter economic meltdown

Inflation is out of control

This week, the grim truth about the UK economy really has been dragged kicking and screaming into the light.

Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, didn't pull any punches in the inflation report yesterday. Mr King, to his credit, has been trying to warn people for a long time that the good days were behind us, and so he feels quite comfortable with being bluntly honest about the UK's prospects going ahead. It's a refreshing change from the usual spin-dried fluff and downright lies we get fed by government officials, so ten out of ten to him for that.

Not that it's a message any of us will be glad to hear. Inflation is out of control, much worse than any City experts' predicted. It could hit as much as 4% in the coming months and that's judging by the rather forgiving Consumer Price Index (CPI) measure.

Figures out yesterday showed that unemployment is rising too, yet so are wage settlements. The housing market is falling off a cliff, with builders reporting massive falls in reservations, and surveyors' confidence at its lowest point ever recorded.

News from the banking sector keeps getting worse Bradford & Bingley did a massive U-turn yesterday and admitted that it did need a rights issue after all. It leaves B&B's credibility (what was left of it) in utter shreds, and also just confirms to investors that they can't trust a word that any bank says at the moment.

Who knows? We might even go a week without the Sunday supplements running a feature on what good value the banking sector looks just now though that might be going too far.

Why the government and Bank of England should not intervene

Anyway, with all that bad news, it might not have come as a surprise when Mr King became the first high-profile figure to officially acknowledge that Britain is facing recession. It's not, he said, "the central projection - but clearly further shocks could push us in that direction."

And there's nothing that Mr King thinks he can do about it. "We are travelling along a bumpy road as the economy rebalances. Monetary policy cannot and should not try to prevent that adjustment we have to be patient."

Mr King's advice is sound. Interference in the markets in the form of central bank and government intervention is what brought us to this point. It's time to stand back and let the cards fall where they will so that we can plan for picking up the pieces once the worst is over.

But patience is a virtue. So it's inevitable that the Government possesses none. Gordon Brown's response to the end of his economic miracle' is to rattle off yet another succession of bills. You'd think he'd realise that the British consumer is sick of bills by now. But no. The man once laughably described as the Iron Chancellor has thrown off all pretence of fiscal competence and is now flinging money he doesn't have at problems he can't solve.

Brown is over-spending on unworkable novelty policies

The move to spend £200m on buying unsold homes from builders is a case in point. This is meant to help first-time buyers by expanding shared ownership. Well, first-time buyers don't need any help. The housing market is in freefall. They'll soon be able to afford all the houses they want. For those who argue that a 20% fall "would still only take prices to 2004 levels" well, the answer to that is, clearly house prices will fall further than 20%.

As for the rest, we have more promises to get more people off welfare. Promises for "elected representatives" to fiddle with policing. Promises to get rid of bad teachers and bad schools. Promises for a new banking regulation system to replace the one that failed to stop Northern Rock a system that Mr Brown himself put in place about ten years ago.

In other words, Mr Brown is doing what he always does. Embarking on a frenzy of micro-management and over-spending on unworkable novelty policies. But this time there's no more slack in the system to indulge his bureaucratic fantasies. As Edmund Conway puts it in The Telegraph: "The twilight years of Labour governments are always like this: the pound in freefall, the economy sliding towards a possible recession, and the public finances out of control. And the ultimate bill left in the hands of households."

Just change the possible' to certain', and we have a nice summary of the UK's near-term future.

Turning to the wider markets...

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The FTSE 100 managed to climb 4 points to 6,216 as miners rose sharply on rumours of takeover deals and solid production figures.

Across the Channel yesterday, the Paris CAC-40 gained 56 points to end the day at 5,055. And in Frankfurt, the DAX-30 rose 23 points to 7,083.

On Wall Street, US stocks were higher as inflation data came in tamer than expected, though many analysts were sceptical about the long-term outlook. The Dow Jones gained 66 points to end at 12,898. The broader S&P 500 climbed 6 points to close at 1,408, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq rose 1 point to close at 2,496.

In Asia this morning, Japanese stocks made gains, hitting a four-month high after export giant Sony predicted higher earnings, partly because it is increasing overseas production and is thus less reliant on a favourable exchange rate. The Nikkei 225 rose 133 points to 14,251.

Crude oil was trading at $124.70 in New York. Meanwhile Brent spot was trading at $121.87.

Spot gold was trading at around $866 an ounce this morning, while silver was trading at $16.59. Platinum traded around $2,016.

Turning to forex, sterling was trading at 1.9471 against the dollar, and at 1.2542 against the euro. The dollar was last trading at 0.6443 against the euro and 104.80 against the Japanese yen.

This morning, Barclays reported that first quarter profits fell, after it took a £1bn hit to credit crunch-related assets at its investment banking arm, Barclays Capital. It expects its tier 1 capital ratio to be "slightly lower at the end of June than the 5.1% it reported at the end of 2007", reports Reuters, though it will raise that to 5.25% "in time".

Our recommended articles for today...

Why gold is still a good long-term play

- The gold price has pulled back but we're not seeing a reversal in its fortunes, writes Casey Research's David Galland. The fits and starts we are currently experiencing are nothing unusual. Quite the opposite, they're the norm for any sustained bull market. And now the gold mining companies are also starting to deliver. To read more, click here: Why gold is still a good long-term play

Have the Baltics entered a recession?

Current evidence suggests that the economic tide is now finally turning in the Baltics, says Claus Vistesen. The slowdown may have far-reaching consequences for the region, and if conditions continue we should be a prepared for a rapid change of fundamentals. To find out why the genie is out of the bottle in the context of the Baltics, click here: Have the Baltics entered a recession?

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.