July 29, 2008 / 12:42 PM / in 9 years

WRAPUP 1-UK housing market pain grows, hits retail sales

LONDON, July 29 (Reuters) - British retail sales fell this month at their fastest pace in at least a quarter century and consumers are finding it increasingly hard to get home loans in a housing market downturn that threatens to derail the economy.

Bank of England data showed mortgage approvals -- loans agreed but not yet made -- fell last month to a third of the number approved a year ago. At 36,000 in June from 41,000 in May, the figure points to further sharp falls in house prices in the coming months ECONGB ECON.

Retailers are suffering. The Confederation of British Industry’s monthly retail sales balance fell to -36, its weakest since the survey began in 1983, as sales of white goods, furniture and carpets collapsed.

“Consumers are clearly reining back their spending. And with the data earlier this morning showing that housing market activity is continuing to slump, consumer spending is only likely to weaken further,” said Vicky Redwood of Capital Economics.

Economists say interest rate cuts are unlikely for now as the BoE is having to contend with inflation that is running at almost double its 2 percent target rate. One policymaker even wanted to raise borrowing costs this month.


Few analysts expect rates to go up but they say the prospect of the central bank holding interest rates at 5 percent for the rest of the year has increased.

That bodes ill for the housing market and the wider economy. After a decade-long boom, house prices are coming down fast as a global credit crunch forces lenders to toughen up terms, making it all but impossible for many would-be new buyers to get a mortgage.

The number of properties changing hands has halved from a year ago and homebuilders have announced thousands of job cuts this month.

A government-sponsored report on Tuesday warned mortgage markets could remain jammed for years but fell short of making any recommendations as to what can be done to break the impasse.

The BoE data on Tuesday showed mortgage lending rising by its weakest amount in nearly 8 years. The overall rise in secured and unsecured lending was the lowest since 1999 and at a third of the level seen just a few years back.

British retailers are not expecting any improvement in their fortunes any time soon. The CBI’s expectations balance also hit a series low.

Highlighting the consumer pain, sweets-to-DVDs retailer Woolworths WLW.L issued a profit warning on Tuesday, blaming a marked downturn in trading conditions. It scrapped plans to sell out of DVD publisher 2 entertain, sending its shares to a new low.

“The risks of a sharper retrenchment in consumer spending, highlighted by today’s CBI survey, are real, signalling a real risk that the UK economy could lapse into a mild recession,” said Matthew Sharratt, economist at Bank of America.

Additional reporting by Matt Falloon; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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