Uncertainty after Brexit vote could 'rein-in' consumer borrowing

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Households' appetites to borrow could be sharply reined-in by the vote to leave the EU, experts have warned, as Bank of England figures showed consumer credit continued to grow in May at the strongest pace since 2005.

The Bank's Money and Credit report said consumer credit, which includes borrowing on credit cards and personal loans, increased by £1.5 billion in May, in line with the average seen over the previous six months.

The figures also showed consumer credit recorded a 12-month growth rate of 9.9% in May, up from 9.6% in April, marking the strongest increase on this measure since a 10.1% growth rate in November 2005.

Some charities have raised concerns in recent months about the growth in consumer credit. 

Low interest rates have helped people to keep their borrowing costs down, but fears have been expressed that some may have been over-stretching their borrowing.

Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist for IHS Global Insight, said the "robust" increase in consumer credit in May indicates that consumers were still prepared to borrow, despite mounting uncertainties over the EU referendum.

But he continued: "It is very possible that heightened uncertainty and concerns following the Brexit vote will markedly rein-in consumers' willingness to borrow.

"Certainly consumers' increased willingness to borrow in recent times appears to have been a consequence of relatively high consumer confidence and extended low interest rates."

He said banks may also become more wary about lending to households, adding: "At the very least, there may be some tightening of credit standards."

The Bank's figures also showed that the number of mortgage approvals for house purchase picked up in May, with 67,042 approvals recorded, with a total value of £11.8 billion, up from 66,205 approvals in April. 

Mr Archer said high employment and very low mortgage rates have remained a source of support for the housing market while a shortage of properties has also kept house prices up.

But he said that in the light of the referendum vote: "We suspect that house prices could fall by 5% over the second half of 2016 and there could well be another 5% to 7% drop in 2017."

Looking ahead, the housing market could be hit by a lack of consumer confidence and possible rises in unemployment, he said.

He added that households could see further squeezes to their spending power from the possibilities of rising living costs on the back of a weaker pound and companies clamping down on pay.