FIRMS have suffered a significant fall in confidence in the past

month, says a bank's report. An expected increase in interest rates, coupled with an economic

slowdown in the US and the continued strength of sterling against the euro, had led to a marked slump in optimism, said Lloyds TSB. A survey of 200 firms showed the lowest level of optimism by firms

across Britain since May. Firms in the South were most pessimistic, with those in the North

and the Midlands least negative. A Lloyds TSB spokes- man said it was a worrying time for many

British firms.