Business Briefing

UK credit card debt soars: a worrying new trend?

People borrowed £1.5bn on credit cards in February, the highest monthly amount since records began

Credit cards

UK consumers borrowed a record amount on credit cards in February, prompting one economist to speculate that the economic recovery “is about to shift down a gear”.

Data published by the Bank of England showed that individuals borrowed a net £1.5bn on credit cards, the highest monthly amount since records began in 1993, noted This Is Money.

The figure was more than three times higher than the average of £400m borrowed in the previous six months, pushing total consumer credit, which includes personal loans and car dealership finance, to £1.9bn net - the highest level in five years.

Meanwhile, the latest fortnightly survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 12% of respondents were using credit cards more than usual to cope with increased prices in the first half of March. The proportion rose to 18% for those aged 30 to 49 and to 21% among renters.

The Financial Times noted that although consumer borrowing is usually considered “a measure of spending growth”, with inflation at a 30-year high and falling consumer confidence, some believe it is a sign of consumers “falling into debt to maintain their standard of living”.

“The big rise in consumer borrowing in February likely reflects households attempting to maintain their consumption at a time when real disposable income is falling sharply, rather than them going on a spending spree,” said Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics.

He added that the figures “suggest that the economic recovery is about to shift down a gear”.

Thomas Pugh, UK economist at the accountancy firm RSM UK, agreed, saying the latest figures “suggest that consumers are increasingly borrowing more to protect their lifestyles from the surge in inflation”.

However, said The Guardian, some experts believe the increase in credit card spending, which followed the lifting of restrictions related to the Omicron variant, might show a renewed confidence among consumers before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Paul Dales, the chief UK economist at the consultancy Capital Economics, said: “It is more likely that households had the confidence to borrow and spend a bit more and/or were willing to use borrowing/savings to smooth their spending.”

Therefore, predicted Dales, “the economy may have a bit more near-term momentum than we thought”.

Anti-poverty charities remain concerned. Joanna Elson, the chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, said the figures provide “an indicator of the underlying challenges households face in meeting the growing cost of living”.

Calling on Rishi Sunak to provide more help for under-pressure householders, she added: “Our concern is that more people will be pushed to credit to cover rising bills, which could be storing up problems further down the line when repayments are due.”

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