Amid slowing economic growth globally, how much debt gets counted isn't just an academic matter.
"There is something about debt that prevents growth," Michael Pettis, an economist and professor at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, said last week at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference. "You cannot possibly grow once that bubble has reached a certain level where the amount of uncertainty about the resolution of debt is high enough to change behavior."
There is a lot of other debt that's not showing up in official data within Asia.
Workers often borrow from recruitment agencies to obtain placements for overseas jobs and these loans -- which can become crushing debts if the placement isn't successful -- generally aren't included in official figures. Additionally, peer-to-peer lending via the Internet is a relatively new development which may not be reported consistently.
To be sure, it isn't clear whether regional household debt has reached bubble proportions.
In Thailand, for example, household debt climbed to a record 85.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of 2014, data from the central bank showed Tuesday.
But the pace of growth is slowing, with household debt rising at around 5-7 percent annually, down from a 15-18 percent pace in 2011-12, DBS said in a note Wednesday.
"Concerns over household debt level require less of an immediate attention now compared to a couple of years ago," it said, noting households are deleveraging and loan-to-deposit ratios have fallen. It expects the household debt-to-GDP ratio may climb a bit further for a couple quarters until economic growth picks up toward year-end.
Others do disagree.
Leverage drove around 57 percent of Thailand's GDP growth over the past five years, Bernstein said in a note earlier this month, citing populist measure that boosted car and house financing even as GDP per capita increases were negligible.
"This will now bite fully this year," Bernstein said.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1