Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

SA consumers battling to pay their home loans and credit cards

More affluent consumers are battling to repay their home loans while surviving on credit to cover their cost of living expenses.

South African consumers are battling to pay their home loans and credit cards and in response lenders are tightening their requirements to qualify for a credit card or personal loan. It is especially significant that it is people who can afford to buy a house or who qualify for a credit card who are now unable to pay their instalments.

This shows that consumers continue to battle with the rising cost of living and low economic growth. According to the Experian Consumer Default Index for the third quarter, there was a significant increase in consumer debt default compared to the third quarter of 2022, from 3.69 to 4.88 or 32%, indicating that consumers increasingly struggle to meet their debt obligations amid the rising cost of living crisis.

The composite index remained unchanged on a quarterly basis from 4.88 in June 2023 to 4.88 in September 2023. Jaco van Jaarsveldt, head of commercial strategy and innovation at Experian, says this stability, despite high interest rates and reduced lending across all products, was expected as consumers historically tend to pay off debt in preparation for increased spending over November’s Black Friday, as well as the festive period.

“The fact that the reading remained flat as opposed to previous years’ improvement, suggests that consumers continue to face financial strain in the credit market.”

The index for the third quarter revealed a significant year-on-year deterioration, specifically in home loans and credit cards which are commonly used by highly affluent consumers. This is a continuation of the trend observed over the past 12 months which indicates that the most affluent segment of the market continues to struggle to repay their debts and increasingly rely on credit cards.

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Inflation also increased as interest rates remained high

At the same time, inflation increased in August and September and although it is still within the South African Reserve Bank’s target range of 3% – 6%, it signals that cost of living pressures in the South African economy have not subsided, says Van Jaarsveldt.

“Add to this the lacklustre performance of the South African economy, which contracted by 0.7% on a year-on-year basis in the third quarter of 2023 and the persistent high unemployment rate and the overall environment for consumers and small businesses remains challenging.”

Van Jaarsveldt says the sustained high credit application levels suggest that consumers are turning to credit to cover gaps in their cost of living expenses. “However, despite the high demand, approval levels for new credit applications remain low, with more than two thirds of applications for credit rejected.”

These non-approvals are largely due to consumers’ inability to afford additional credit commitments amid the ongoing cost of living pressures, as well as credit providers tightening approval criteria as the increased provisions for non-performing debt starts to affect profits, he says.

New business volumes for unsecured loans, such as retail and personal loans, have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels but secured lending products, such as vehicle and home loans, have shown signs of sustained slower growth.

Van Jaarsveldt says lenders seem to be curbing credit risk associated with new business in personal loans and credit cards by reducing opening limits, particularly for highly affluent consumers. “This indicates that these consumers increasingly depend on unsecured loans to maintain their living standards.”

As the cost of living continues to rise and the Consumer Default Index continues an upward trend, it is crucial for consumers as well as financial institutions to monitor these closely and make informed decisions to navigate this challenging economic landscape, he says.

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