Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside Downing Street, in Whitehall in central London, Britain, on January 2 2019. Picture: REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside Downing Street, in Whitehall in central London, Britain, on January 2 2019. Picture: REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS

London — Britain’s economic growth slowed to a crawl at the end of 2018 and the housing market is stalling, according to data published on Friday, less than three months before Brexit.

A closely watched business survey indicated firms were growing more anxious, while figures from the Bank of England and mortgage lender Nationwide painted a picture of households reining in spending.

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 but what will actually happen on that day remains far from clear.

The future of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal struck with the EU hangs in the balance as a parliamentary vote looms, raising the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal to smooth the economic shock.

Calls for a second referendum, which May has rejected, are growing.

Friday’s figures indicate that the disarray is starting to affect the economy.

Lending to consumers grew at its slowest pace in nearly four years in November and the number of mortgage approvals fell by far more than expected, the BoE said.

Nationwide said its house-price index had grown in December at the weakest annual pace in nearly six years.

Overall, Britain’s economy looks on track for quarterly growth of just 0.1% in the fourth quarter, data company IHS Markit estimated, based on its monthly purchasing managers’ index (PMI) surveys of businesses.

November and December were the weakest two months for morale among services firms, which make up the bulk of the economy, since March 2009 — around the low point of Britain’s last recession — the PMI indicated.

“The latest UK services PMI provides further evidence that the economy has lost most, if not all, of the momentum it had last summer,” ING economist James Smith said.

The headline IHS Markit/CIPS UK services PMI rose slightly more than forecast by economists polled by Reuters, to 51.2 in December. But the increase was one of the slowest since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

“[Clarity] on Brexit is needed urgently in order to prevent the economy sliding into contraction,” said IHS Markit chief economist Chris Williamson.

Lending slows

The BoE figures showed the annual growth rate in unsecured consumer lending had slowed to 7.1 percent in November from 7.4 percent in October, the smallest increase since March 2015.

The data chimed with signals from many retailers that consumers had reined in their spending in late 2018.

The number of mortgages approved for house purchase fell to 63,728 in November, the BoE said, the lowest figure since April.

Nationwide said house prices had fallen 0.7% from November, the biggest monthly fall since July 2012. Compared with a year earlier, prices were up just 0.5% compared with a 1.9% rise in the year to November.

Both readings were below all forecasts in a Reuters poll of economists.

Economist Samuel Tombs from the consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics said the house-price data amounted to “a bad end to the worst year since 2012”.

BoE governor Mark Carney warned in December that in the event of a “disorderly” departure from the EU — which is not the central bank’s base-case scenario — house prices could plunge 30% as part of a broader economic shock.

Reuters