© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a protective face mask walks past the Bank of England (BoE), after the BoE became the first major world’s central bank to raise rates since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London, Britain, December 16, 2021. REUTE
By Andy Bruce
LONDON (Reuters) -British consumers increased borrowing by the most in three years over February and March, according to data that would typically be a sign of solid demand but might now reflect how the cost-of-living squeeze is forcing some households deeper into debt.
The Bank of England said lending to consumers rose by 1.3 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in net terms in March. That was as expected in a Reuters poll of economists following a nearly 1.6 billion-pound increase in February.
It marked the highest borrowing over a two-month period since early 2019.
Credit card lending accounted for more than half of the increase in March, which was before a sharp rise in energy costs and an increase in taxes in April.
The BoE is watching for signs of how the jump in inflation is affecting the economy as it considers how much further it needs to raise interest rates.
The central bank is expected to increase its Bank Rate to 1.0% from 0.75% on Thursday.
Paul Dales, an economist with Capital Economics, said the rise in consumer borrowing suggested that a recent plunge in consumer confidence and the inflation-adjusted fall in incomes had not caused consumer spending to collapse.
But the Money Advice Trust, a charity, said the recent increases in credit card lending could be a sign of mounting pressure on household budgets rather than a sign of a strong economy.
Earlier on Wednesday the British Retail Consortium said shop prices in Britain surged last month at the fastest rate in more than a decade and worse is to come.
The BoE’s money supply data showed no sign that better-off households who accumulated savings during the pandemic were spending them – something many economists say will be needed to avert recession.
“Households’ continued unwillingness to touch the savings they accumulated during the pandemic suggests that real expenditure is set to fall in Q2 in response to the squeeze on disposable incomes,” said Samuel Tombs, economist from consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics.
The BoE reported 7.0 billion pounds of net mortgage lending, up from 4.6 billion pounds in February, and 70,961 mortgage approvals, down slightly from the previous month but still well above the pre-pandemic norm.
Britain’s housing market retained much of its momentum in the first months of 2022, despite the phasing out of temporary tax breaks on property purchases in the second half of 2021.
($1 = 0.7988 pounds)