LONDON (Reuters) - A surprise drop in manufacturing activity last month and a sharp fall in consumer lending in July cast doubt on Tuesday on the strength of any incipient economic recovery.
The headline purchasing managers’ index for manufacturing suffered its first fall since February, unexpectedly dipping below the 50-mark that separates growth from contraction.
Bank of England data showed unsecured lending to consumers fell at its fastest ever pace.
“The drop in the (manufacturing) index is a setback. It suggests some of the surveys could have got ahead of themselves and the upside to the recovery story is limited,” said Alan Clarke, UK economist at BNP Paribas.
The data surprised financial markets, pushing sterling to near its lowest level in three months versus the euro and causing government bond prices to rise.
The headline PMI number dropped to 49.7 in August from a downwardly revised 50.2 in July, much worse than economists’ expectations of a modest rise to 51.5.
The output and new orders components of the index remained in growth territory, but a slowdown in the rate at which new orders are coming in meant that ongoing reductions in employment and stock levels pulled the index back into negative territory.
The trend compares unfavourably with improvements in similar surveys released in France and Germany earlier on Tuesday. Unlike Britain, both countries’ economies returned to growth in the second-quarter of 2008.
“We are falling way behind continental Europe whereas a few months ago we looked as though we were ahead of it,” said Brian Hilliard, UK economist at Societe Generale.
However, several economists said the data did not dent their expectation that British gross domestic product would grow again in the third quarter, ending the economy’s deepest recession since World War Two.
“This does little to dilute hopes that the UK economy will achieve expansion in the third quarter for the first time since the first quarter of 2008,” said Howard Archer, chief UK economist for IHS Global Insight.
Data from the Bank of England suggested that consumers were repaying loans taken out during years of easy credit before the credit crunch, while banks remained wary about new lending.
Net consumer lending contracted by 635 million pounds in July compared to a 223 million pound rise in June and a 4.434 billion pound increase in July 2008, the biggest fall since records began in April 1993.
This was caused by a 418 million pound fall in net mortgage lending and a 217 million pound drop in unsecured consumer lending — far weaker than the increases of 300 million and 100 million pounds respectively that economists had forecast.
“The overall figures for net lending for households show the extent to which lenders are reining in credit at the moment,” said Stephen Lewis, economist at Monument Securities.
One bright spot, however, was a rise in approvals of new mortgages for house purchase to 50,123 in July from 47,891 in June — the highest level since April 2008, and roughly in line with economists’ expectations of 51,000.
Lower loan-to-value ratios for new mortgages, higher levels of repayment by existing borrowers and the fact that mortgage approvals precede actual loans explained the discrepancy with net mortgage lending during the month, economists said.
Nonetheless, the figures are unlikely to relieve the Bank of England’s concern that a shortage of credit could stunt any economic recovery, reasoning which lay behind August’s 50 billion pound expansion to its quantitative easing programme.
The QE programme, in operation since March, aims to boost the money supply by buying assets such as gilts with newly created money, and thereby increase banks’ willingness to lend.
M4 broad money supply data suggested the programme was having some effect, with M4 rising by 1.5 percent on the month in July after a 0.4 percent drop in June, its fastest growth since January.
But on the Bank Monetary Policy Committee’s preferred measure, which strips out holdings of financial intermediaries, M4 only rose by 0.6 percent in July, suggesting much of the QE money was remaining within the financial sector.
Data on households’ and non-financial corporations’ M4 holdings, which some private-sector economists prefer, gave a similar message.
“The MPC is unlikely to consider that current rates of money growth are consistent with a pace of growth of nominal demand that will generate on-target inflation,” said Simon Hayes, UK economist at Barclays Capital. “The Committee will wish to see deposit growth pick up significantly as economic activity recovers over the coming months.”
Additional reporting by Fiona Shaikh; Editing by Ron Askew