Is Asia facing a housing debt crisis?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Is Asia's household debt fueling a financial crisis?

High household debt levels are spurring concerns about Asia's housing sector, but even if mortgage rates start to rise, a U.S.-style crash may not be on the cards.

Around the region, household debt levels are high, with household-debt-to-gross domestic product at 81 percent in Malaysia, at least 77 percent in Thailand, at 77 percent in Singapore and 75 percent in Korea, according to data from Standard & Poor's.

"Asia has had a good run so far, but increasingly the internal risks of Asian financial systems are rising. So, whatever we faced in 2008, if it were to come again now, the implications would be even more damaging," said Ritesh Maheshwari, managing director at S&P.

(Read more: Household debt: Singapore's 'Achilles heel'?)

In 2008, the global financial crisis peaked as a buildup in the U.S. of bad mortgage loans, many of which were securitized and used as collateral, caused many large banks to go under.

Munshi Ahmed | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Maheshwari noted mortgages around the region have very high loan-to-value ratios, sometimes as high as 90 percent. In the U.S. in 2008, loan-to-value ratios could be over 100 percent of the value of the home.

"The moment there's more than [a] 20 percent correction [in home prices], you're going to go into negative equity," he said. But he noted, "Negative equity in Asia doesn't mean you'll start defaulting. Our mindset isn't that the house is less value than the loan, so chuck it, because the bank can come after me for my other assets."

(Read more: Where's the next property bubble building?)

In the U.S., banks can't chase buyers for other assets if the house is forfeited, he noted. There is more of a social stigma in Asia when individuals are faced with debt collectors at the door as well, he noted.

Others also see less reason to be concerned Asian homebuyers might walk away from mortgages.

"Families tend to pool savings together," said Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC. "Unlike in the U.S., there is no good personal bankruptcy in Asia where individuals come out of the bankruptcy in a few years," he noted. "Individuals would carry that burden with them for the rest of their lives. It's very difficult to wipe your slate clean, unlike in the U.S."

Asia household debt is worrying: Deutsche Bank

Neumann also noted mortgages in Asia aren't securitized, with banks keeping the loans on their books. "There's much higher incentive to make sure there's fairly high debt-servicing capacity," he said.

Maheshwari also doesn't expect house price declines in Asia would be as sharp as in the U.S. "Part of the reason the decline is so steep in the states, is people were borrowing against the home to consume. Home equity loans don't occur here," he said. "The level of stretch is not as much as in the U.S."

He noted S&P isn't yet adjusting its ratings on the region's banks, but added, "We shouldn't get complacent."

(Read more: Are markets at risk of 1999-style Fed bubble?)

Neumann noted that the high household debt could cause larger problems.

"As long as interest rates don't go up and property prices continue to climb, we don't think that will have any impact on consumption," Neumann said. "Once interest rates start to rise, at the very least, you'll have a sharp impact on consumption in Asia." He doesn't expect rates to rise for at least another year.

"The threshold is higher, but we shouldn't rule out a severe financial stress if Asia were to plunge into deep recession," Neumann said.

By CNBC's Leslie Shaffer. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieShaffer1