LONDON (Reuters) - Manufacturing activity grew at its slowest pace in 20 months in May and mortgage approvals unexpectedly fell to their lowest since December, denting sterling and underscoring the fragile state of recovery.
The Markit/CIPS manufacturing PMI headline index fell to 52.1 last month from a downwardly revised 54.4 in April, well below the 54.1 consensus forecast, data showed Wednesday.
The worst headline reading since September 2009 was blamed on a weaker domestic market, particularly for consumer goods, the slowest growth in export orders in eight months and the effect of extra public holidays.
Separate figures from the Bank of England showed mortgage approvals for house purchase fell to 45,166 in April, down from 47,145 in March -- well below forecasts for a broadly stable reading and the lowest since December last year.
The surprisingly weak figures, which drove the pound lower and boosted government bond prices, will reinforce worries about the resilience of the economy at a time of public spending cuts, high inflation and uncertain consumer demand.
Sluggish growth in the first quarter has fuelled speculation the Bank of England will delay raising interest rates from a record low of 0.5 percent until around the turn of the year to let the recovery gather pace.
"Today's lending figures, combined with the downside surprise on the PMI manufacturing, make it a very bad day for UK Plc," said Hetal Mehta, economist at Daiwa Capital Markets Europe. "It is difficult to see how the Bank of England will be able to increase interest rates this year."
Interest rate futures show that markets are fully pricing in a 25-basis-point rate hike by next March.
FACTORY GROWTH FADES
Manufacturing, which accounts for around 13 percent of UK economic output, had been one of the few success stories during a slow return to growth after a recession that ended late in 2009.
"The UK PMI suggests that manufacturing has moved from rapid expansion to near-stagnation," said Rob Dobson, senior economist at survey compiler Markit. "Domestic market weakness was the main drag on order books and output."
The slowdown hit consumer goods producers and smaller manufacturers the hardest, and there was disruption to supply chains from Japan's earthquake and tsunami, Dobson added.
The headline PMI index has stayed above the 50.0 level that separates growth from contraction for 22 consecutive months.
But the output index nudged into negative territory at 49.9 for the first time since May 2009, while the new orders index contracted for the first time since June 2009.
The Bank lending figures are likely to reinforce expectations that house prices will continue to edge lower this year.
A rise in credit card borrowing pushed up consumer spending more than forecast, though it was inflated by one-off effects such as an extra holiday for the Royal Wedding, which also boosted retail sales in April.
Overall unsecured consumer lending rose twice as much as expected, up 504 million pounds.
Brian Hilliard, an economist at Societe Generale, said the consumer lending figures would provide some comfort for the central bank, while manufacturing may bounce back next month.
"I do suspect that British companies are underplaying the importance of the run of bank holidays," he said. "If you lost one working day that would reduce output by 5 percent."
(Editing by John Stonestreet)