UK personal insolvencies hit five-year high in gloomy sign for economy

LONDON (Reuters) - The number of people registering as insolvent in England and Wales hit a five-year high in the third quarter, according to figures on Friday that hinted at trouble brewing in Britain’s consumer economy.

FILE PHOTO: People walk across Westminster Bridge in London, Britain, June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The government’s Insolvency Service said 27,807 people in England and Wales registered as insolvent between July and September, up from 22,389 in the three months to June and marking the biggest total since the third quarter of 2012.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the figure was just short of a three-year high struck in the first quarter of 2017.

Personal insolvencies have been rising over the past couple of years, largely due to changes in regulation that have made debt relief for consumers easier to obtain, according to experts in the field.

But debt charities and the Institute of Chartered Accounts in England and Wales (ICAEW) warned that the latest sharp increase indicated wider problems in Britain’s consumer-led economy.

Household budgets have been strained by rising prices caused by the pound’s drop after last year’s Brexit vote, and wage growth has failed to keep pace.

The insolvency figures are likely to bolster the view of economists who worry that even a small rise in Bank of England interest rates could have an outsized impact on consumers.

A clear majority of economists in a Reuters poll published on Tuesday expect the BoE will raise interest rates next Thursday to 0.5 percent from 0.25 percent - although most also said it would be a mistake to act now. [BOE/INT]

“With household debt levels continuing to rise, we are concerned that more families will be pushed into difficulty if circumstances change,” said Jane Tully, director of external affairs at the Money Advice Trust charity.

The figures showed the increase in personal insolvency was down to a rise in individual voluntary arrangements - a debt relief measure short of bankruptcy.

The ICAEW said the insolvency figures boded poorly for the wider economy.

“Consumer insolvencies are a reliable marker of business challenges ahead,” said Clive Lewis, head of enterprise at the ICAEW.

“We anticipate a worsening scene for businesses in the forthcoming quarter and would urge all owner-managers to look out for early signs of trouble and act fast to address them.”

Lewis said he thought even a small increase in interest rates could persuade consumers that they were not able to afford contracts that they had entered into, citing loans for car purchase as a particular area of concern.

The BoE has said there is no overall debt bubble in Britain but it has expressed concern about consumer debt, which had been growing at about 10 percent a year.

Earlier this month a BoE survey showed lenders are planning the biggest cutback in new consumer lending in nearly 10 years.

Reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg