Korea’s household debt problem is going from bad to worse after a brief period of relief. What’s ironical this time is that the government’s measures to revitalize the sagging property market are aggravating the problem

2013-08-06 17:03

Household debt blues

The nation’s household debt problem is going from bad to worse after a brief period of relief. What’s ironical this time is that the government’s measures to revitalize the sagging property market are aggravating the problem. Household debt contracted slightly to 961.6 trillion won at the end of March this year, but the figure began to rise again in April, raising the possibility that household lending may top 1,000 trillion won by the end of the year. What’s disturbing is that household debt rebounded in the second quarter because more people rushed to borrow money to buy houses before the government’s temporary tax break for home purchases expired. This must be a dilemma to the government, given that household debt could swell at a faster pace if the government takes fresh measures to boost housing transactions.No wonder the household debt overhang is one of the biggest risk factors facing the Korean economy. The fact is that consumers who bought houses on credit are reluctant to spend, which would in turn deepen the economic slowdown, and cause some of them to join the “house poor’’ who are unable to pay off their debts even after disposing of their houses. In this process, banks and other financial institutions become insolvent because of their debt exposure.
More worrisome recently is the rising proportion of household loans extended by non-bank financial institutions as low-income and elderly borrowers look to savings banks and insurance companies that are less tricky about screening loan applications. Moreover, there has been a steady rise in demand for loans because many parents are taking on large amounts of debt to finance their children’s university education and laid-off workers are starting their own businesses with borrowed money.
Against this backdrop, interest rates are apparently on an upward curve, affected by the U.S. Federal Reserve’s move to exit from years of quantitative easing. This will be the most egregious nightmare for low-income households struggling with heavy debt obligations.
The government still appears to believe that our household debt has not come closer to the point where it may be unsustainable, citing the fact that high-income earners account for 70 percent of household debt borrowers. But there must be preemptive actions before it’s too late, given the severity of the problem.
It’s needless to say that brisk job creation will be the fundamental solution, but this will take a lot of time. Even before that, the government needs to map out elaborate soft-landing measures, including the establishment of a state-run bad bank to take over non-performing assets, if necessary.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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