Reducing household debt
The eurozone crisis is spreading like wildfire, raising fears that even Italy might fall victim to the latest ``perfect storm.’’ The U.S. Great Recession erased much of the value of family assets, bringing their wealth down to levels last seen 18 years ago.
What could be the most serious time bomb for the Korean economy? It will surely be household debt.
A report released by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Thursday shows how serious our household debt problem is, compared with those European countries that are struggling to contain the crisis. The percentage of Korea’s household debt to gross domestic product (GDP) reached 81 percent in 2010, which was higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 73 percent and similar to Spain’s 85 percent. The corresponding figure in Greece, which is now at the height of the crisis, was merely 61 percent.
Ominously enough, the growth pace of household debt is speeding up. Korea’s household debt grew 9.8 percent in 2010, the third highest gain following Greece (12.1 percent) and Turkey (10.8 percent) among OECD member countries. The figure represented a 2.4 percentage point rise from the 2009 number.
According to McKinsey, a world-renowned consulting company, loans to the household sector in Korea have expanded at the world’s second fastest pace after Spain since the turn of 2000. Specifically, the proportion of household debt to disposable income in Korea jumped from 81 percent in 2000 to 140 percent in 2008 ― a 59 percentage point rise compared with 61 percentage points for Spain.
The household debt problem here could become more complicated because nearly 43 percent of the debt is linked to money borrowed to buy homes. This means that the government’s poor handling of the problem could derail the property market at any moment.
In this respect, it’s encouraging to see Kwon Hyouk-se, governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, express the government’s commitment to resolving the tricky problem. He told a Seoul forum that ``soft-landing the household debt problem is an important issue we can’t forsake’’ and raised the possibility of creating a unit to deal with insolvent liabilities in an effort to brace for the worst.
Most worrisome is that household debt may become a fuse to a fresh economic crisis if the European debt crisis is protracted and our economic recovery is delayed. What is needed now is for the government to prepare watertight contingency plans to brace for the worst-case scenario.