Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

U.K. Banks Tighten Consumer Credit as Defaults Rise

Updated on
  • Pace of consumer borrowing has raised alarm bells at the BOE
  • Regulators are concerned about households piling on debt

Britain’s consumer borrowing boom may be about to hit a wall.

Major banks are now more wary about extending unsecured credit than any time since 2008, shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

According to a Bank of England survey published Thursday, lenders are starting to see an increase in defaults and have tightened the criteria they set for borrowers. The change comes in the wake of multiple warnings from regulators that the pace of borrowing, with credit growth still running close to 10 percent a year, poses a risk to financial stability.

The BOE said its gauge of the availability of unsecured credit stayed below zero in the three months through September. The measure -- already at the lowest since 2009 -- is expected to fall further this quarter. 

Lenders in the BOE survey -- including Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland -- said the tougher stance was due to the economic outlook as well as a changing appetite for risk.

Banks have also started to rein in one major lure for borrowers by shortening the interest-free period when a balance is transferred to a new credit card. The head of the Financial Conduct Authority, Andrew Bailey, issued a warning this month, saying that about 5 million credit-card borrowers are experiencing difficulties paying off their balance.

“Motivations for this included concerns about customer indebtedness and the squeeze in real incomes,” the BOE said in the survey.

The rapid pace of consumer-credit growth has been a hot topic in the U.K. this year. The BOE’s Financial Policy Committee said in September that banks could suffer bigger losses from defaults than they’re expecting if the economy faces a sudden downturn.

In its latest survey, it said default rates on credit-card lending increased “slightly,” while those on other unsecured lending rose “significantly.”

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