South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn


South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

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PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

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Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed



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