The number of people defaulting on their credit card debts soared in the first three months of the year, according to figures from the Bank of England.
Credit card lenders reported that defaults jumped to their highest level since the first half of 2017, following a deteriorating trend that dates back to last summer.
The default rate, which is calculated by the central bank based on a balance of responses from lenders, increased to 22.9% in the first quarter from 12.7% in the last quarter of 2018 and -11.2% in the third quarter of the same year. A positive figure indicates that the number of defaults has increased.
The last time the credit card default rate rose above 20% was in the second quarter of 2017, when it hit 25.4%.
Anti-poverty campaigners have argued that the recent rise in defaults showed that increasing numbers of low-income households were getting into serious financial difficulties; analysis by the Guardian of government data revealed a sharp increase in council tax arrears.
The Bank reported that the trend for lenders to cut back on unsecured lending was likely to continue over the next three months.
Banks expected further restrictions on credit card loans to bring down the default rate over the next three months. However, they expected this last year and yet the trend for credit card defaults kept rising.
Jeremy Thomson-Cook, chief economist at the currency broker WorldFirst, said the rise in defaults “could threaten the brighter-than-expected retail picture”. Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed retail sales were up 1.1% in March.
Retail sales have bucked the trend in other areas of the economy affected by Brexit uncertainty. Analysts have pointed to rising employment and wages, combined with low interest rates, as providing a benign financial backdrop for most households.
Peter Briffett, the chief executive of payments firm Wagestream, said the figures showed the default rate for credit cards almost doubled as a percentage of net balances between the last quarter of 2018 and the first few months of 2019.
“A surge in defaults on credit card borrowing shows that rising wages in the UK mask the financial stress that is still a reality for many,” Briffett said. “This is a big red flag for household finances.
“The credit card balance default rate hasn’t been higher since the first half of 2017 and marks a return to rocky ground, far outpacing the deterioration seen with other forms of unsecured lending.”