The year’s nice surprises

2014 has been full of financial surprises – some more welcome than others, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Some of what happened in 2014 was entirely expected. The eurozone did not magically cure itself. Growth in China slowed dramatically. The Scottish referendum result was a firm No. The US cut back on quantitative easing. The dollar strengthened.

Japan announced an astounding programme of money printing and asset purchasing. The Japanese stockmarket rose. London house prices finally peaked (and are falling in many parts of the capital).

The public-sector deficit in the UK failed to fall much, and our seemingly very busy politicians failed absolutely to outline a genuine alternative to debt-financed public services. Marginal political parties gained traction everywhere as a result. Gold did very little.

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But 2014 was also a year of financial surprises. No one foresaw the invasion of Ukraine, the sanctions, the collapse in the oil price and the consequent collapse in the rouble: as John Stepek notes, even the most extreme (and at the time ridiculous) forecasts for 2014 had the oil price falling to $80 a barrel.

Given our expectation of slowing growth in China, a fall of this size wouldn't have totally surprised us. The price is now $60 that did.

Not quite so huge (so far) but still of interest are events in Cuba (where the capitalist genie is now surely completely out of the bottle) and in North Korea where the hacking of Sony seems to have led to the start of a mini-cyberwar. This could get interesting in 2015.

But there have been surprises closer to home too. We knew there was chatter around pensions in the government and we have long lobbied for an end to the annuity system in the UK. But we were stunned by just how far George Osborne has been prepared to go in freeing up our retirement finances.

Your pension is now yours to take as and when you wish post-55 subject to your marginal rate of income tax. You can also pass it to your heirs free of inheritance tax.

Given the upfront tax breaks, this is all so generous we aren't sure we approve and we have a nasty feeling that a Labour government might not either. More on that in 2015.

The first issue in January will be packed with predictions for the year ahead political, economic and financial. But for now we offer you Matthew Lynn's forecasts (which include a happy future for Gordon Brown at RBS) and our exceptionally expert roundtable.

I think it is one of our best yet: a good many of the suggestions that have come out of it will find their way into my self-invested personal pension.

Finally, if you think reading MoneyWeek every week this year has made you particularly knowledgable, you will find our quiz. If you think there is a way to go, read our holiday reading list. A very happy New Year to all our readers.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.