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Why Asia can get a fillip from high household debt

Alexandr Tovstenkor | E+ | Getty Images

Southeast Asia's climbing household debt may have a silver lining: policy makers won't need to tighten policy much to deal with rising inflation, ANZ said.

"Monetary policy tightening cycles are likely to be modest," Weiwen Ng, an economist at ANZ, said in a note last week, despite the bank's forecast for rising inflation across Southeast Asia. ANZ expects inflation in Indonesia will rise to 7.3 percent in 2015 from 6.4 percent this year, while Thailand's inflation is expected to accelerate to 2.9 percent next year from 2.4 percent this year.

Read More Why higher rates won't hurt Asia markets

"Any given increment of rate hike will lead to a correspondingly larger decrease in disposable income given the higher interest rate debt servicing burden," he said, noting that mortgages, which generally have floating rates, comprise a large portion of household debt in the region.

"Economies where mortgages comprise a chunk of the household borrowings –such as in Singapore and Malaysia -would be at risk of re-pricing of loans, and households would be confronted with an increase in debt repayment," he said. Singapore's housing loans make up nearly 75 percent of total household borrowing, compared with Malaysia's 50 percent and Thailand's 28 percent, ANZ said.

Read More Are Asian households over their head in debt?

But while households might feel a pinch, Ng doesn't expect rising interest rates will pose a systemic risk in Southeast Asia.

"Systemic risks would certainly increase if robust household loans continue expanding to unsustainable levels after the credit cycle turns," he said. But Ng noted that much of the increased credit in the region was funded by easy international liquidity, with that flow likely to be tightened as global interest rates are heading toward normalization amid improving growth in developed markets.

"As liquidity will be increasingly rationed, we think a further extension of leverage seems unlikely," he said.

Read More The Asian economies most at risk of a Fed rate hike are…

Others also don't expect rising interest rates, especially in the U.S., will pose systemic risks in Asia.

"On the whole, Asia looks well-placed to cope with tighter U.S. monetary policy," Capital Economics said in a note Friday.


"For starters, investors have had plenty of warning that interest rate hikes are on the way in the U.S., most likely in the first half of 2015. As such, they are unlikely to catch investors by surprise," it said.

Read More Corporate debt in Asia to top US, Europe combined

In addition, financial risks -- such as a jump in current account deficits or external debt -- have been falling over the past year, it said.

Indeed, Capital Economics doesn't expect interest rates will necessarily be the primary driver of the region's fortunes.

"The region's growth prospects will be far more dependent on the success of reform programs, particularly in China, India and Indonesia, than on the actions of the U.S. Federal Reserve," it said.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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