And a Prosperous New Year?; What Does 2004 Hold for the World of Welsh Business? the Western Mail Asked Five Leading Figures from the World of Business, Employment and Finance What They Thought the Coming Year Holds. Here Are Their Predictions

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Chris Young, Chief Executive, Welsh Electronics Forum

IN 2003 the technology industry in Wales showed positive signs of recovery and we expect this trend to continue with key developments in the software, semi-con and broad-based electronics sectors.

Currently employing around 26,000 highly-skilled people, the industry contributes an estimated 3% of total employment and pounds 3.2bn to the economy annually, making it one of Wales' most prominent business sectors.

Like the world's most vibrant economies, we are confident that the sector will continue to evolve its low-cost, high-volume manufacturing in 2004, while continuing to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the development of a more highly-skilled workforce.

Over the last few years we have seen a number of job losses - not only in Wales, but on a global scale - and while this hurts both the industry and the economy, we remain cautiously optimistic that this trend will continue to decline and bottom out fairly soon.

We cannot afford to be complacent, however, and in order for the industry to compete favourably with the rest of the world, we need to continue to invest where it matters most - in our people and our technologies.

By literally re-inventing themselves, high-volume manufacturers like Orion, Axiom and TT ems are continuing to recruit and invest in cutting-edge technology to take advantage of new market opportunities at the higher end of the value chain.

Ultimately, the successful development of the industry will demand a higher level of interaction and buy-in from key influencers and decision makers in the public sector.

With the necessary support we are confident that the industry in Wales can return to the patterns of growth that we experienced in the recent past.

Bill Mayne, director sales and distribution at Principality Building Society

DURING the past year, house prices have been rising rapidly, fuelled by low interest rates and compounded by the lack of supply within the housing market.

This has been good news for those already on the housing ladder but it has meant that first-time buyers have been largely priced out of the market. In fact, 2003 witnessed the lowest levels of first time buyers for many years.

But the tides may be about to turn. There are several reasons why the housing market in Wales may undergo a significant shift during 2004.

Interest rates are predicted to continue rising for the first time in almost four years. This should have an impact on demand for housing and potentially result in more houses being available for sale - ultimately helping first-time buyers, in particular, to get a foot on the property ladder.

A common claim by those forecasting a property crash is that bust always follows a boom. However, although interest rates are expected to rise by 0.5-1.0% over the next year, they will still be low in real terms. Consequently, the slowdown in the market is highly unlikely to cause the dramatic plummet experienced in the late 1980s when negative equity created misery and hardship for many homeowners. In fact, the good news is that the market is likely to return to a much more sustainable and realistic level.

In addition to the changes faced by private homeowners, within the social housing sector there are different challenges to be met.

Welsh local authorities are required to maintain or replace social housing stock, which is older than that of any other UK region.

Local authorities will need to find imaginative ways to attract private finance to augment the Welsh Housing Grant in order to deliver the Welsh Assembly Government's targets set out in the Welsh Housing Quality Standard.

I believe the Principality Building Society should play its full role by working in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government and Housing Associations to make on progress such initiatives. …