Bank warns over consumer borrowing surge fuelled by interest-free credit cards


The rapid rise in consumer debt fuelled by interest-free credit cards could pose a risk to the UK financial system, the Bank of England has warned.

The Financial Policy Committee (FPC) said a recent surge in consumer borrowing may leave banks exposed if their lending rules are too loose and people cannot make their repayments.

Consumer credit notched up its fastest expansion for 11 years in November, recording an annual growth rate of 10.9% before easing back in recent months.

In the minutes from its March meeting, the FPC noted that an "easing in credit supply conditions" had boosted consumer credit growth, including "the gradual extension of interest-free periods on credit card balance transfer offers".

The 13-strong committee said: "If recent strong growth had been driven by weaker underwriting standards, this could reduce the resilience of lenders to shocks."

The FPC judged that underwriting standards should be monitored closely.

It said last year's jump in consumer borrowing was driven by credit cards and personal loans, but an acceleration in car finance was also having an impact.

The comments came after the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) revealed new proposals on Monday to help millions of people languishing in severe credit card debt.

The financial watchdog announced a raft of measures to help people in arrears, including waiving or cancelling interest and charges if customers cannot afford to curb their liabilities through a repayment plan.

A study by the FCA found that 3.3 million people have fallen into a persistent credit card debt spiral, where they are forking out more on interest and charges over 18 months than they have spent on paying back their borrowing.

It came after data from the Office for National Statistics revealed on Friday that the household saving ratio had hit record lows as consumers plundered their nest eggs to keep spending in the face of rising inflation.

Focusing on the global risks to financial stability, the FPC said prospects for the global economy "had improved" as investors and businesses brace for an expansion of fiscal policy across the US.

However, it said risks remained elevated as debt levels continue to rise across China.

On Brexit, the committee said the risk to financial stability would depend on the "orderliness of the adjustment to the new relationship" between Britain and the European Union.

The FPC said it was assessing ways to mitigate any weakening in the UK's financial system if Brexit causes company business structures to become more complex.