Are Asian households over their head in debt?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
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Household debt in Asia is growing quickly, spurring concerns that consumers may struggle to pay their bills as interest rates show signs of heading higher.

"In the last several years, consumer debt has surged across the region, financing not only purchases of new, flashy condos, but also of cars, motorcycles, and everything else the heart desires," Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC, said in a note Friday.

Singapore and Thailand have seen credit growth exceeding that of the U.S. during its boom, while Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Korea have seen a bigger increase than in the U.K. during the 2001-2007 runup to the financial crisis, he said, noting academic studies suggest the pace of increase matters more in generating financial risks than the absolute level.

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

Pawnshops flourishing

In what may be a sign that Singapore's credit surge is weighing on consumers, pawnshops are on the rise in the city-state.

Pledges at Singapore's pawnshops rose to 4 million in 2012 from 2.7 million in 2007, while loans surged around 344 percent over the same period to 7.1 billion Singapore dollars in 2012, according to a report last month from OSK-DMG.

Singapore household debt not an issue: StanChart

"The trend is likely to continue due to a few factors such as the availability of cheap credit fuelled by easy monetary policies from central bankers in advanced economies since the global financial crisis," analysts Jarick Seet and Terence Wong said in the report, starting coverage of the pawnbroker sector at Overweight.

While the 2010 opening of the city-state's casinos is likely a key driver for pawnshops' growth, Seet and Wong also believe that the government's clampdown on unsecured lending and credit cards means more borrowers are facing difficulties with debt payments and are turning to their local pawnbrokers.

The trend may be spreading, with all three of the city-state's listed pawnbrokers eyeing expanding into neighboring Malaysia, they said.

Read More Is Asia facing a housing debt crisis?

'No silver bullet' for consumer debt

Others are also worried about whether Asia's consumers are likely to struggle to cover their debt payments.

While Asian debt is generally considered "safer" because of the region's reliance on macro-prudential measures, such as stricter loan-to-income ratios, that might not be quite the hoped for "silver bullet," said Rob Subbaraman, chief economist for Asia ex-Japan at Nomura.

"There's some reason to believe they lose their effectiveness over time as loopholes are found," he said.

Read More Do rising Singapore bankruptcies signal trouble ahead?

So far, consumers have been cushioned by interest rates which are lower than in the U.S. in the lead up to the housing bubble there, he noted.

"We may see a lot more wood rise to the surface when Asian interest rates rise from these low levels," he said.

The rate increases have already begun. On Thursday, the Philippine central bank raised its secondary interest rate after increasing its reserve requirement ratio for banks twice earlier this year. Indonesia's central bank has hiked rates five times since mid-2013.

"It's a high enough risk that at least half of the region's central banks should -- and we think they will - raise policy rates in the next 12 months," likely even before the U.S. Federal Reserve acts, Subbaraman said.

Read More Piling on household debt also causes crashes

To be sure, it isn't clear that the consumer credit binge is likely to lead to an actual credit crisis.

Even though he's sounding an alarm over Asia's credit growth, HSBC's Neumann believes a sudden credit blowup is unlikely due to the region's stricter lending standards compared with the U.S. and the U.K.

But he added, "household debt may not be as big a systemic financial risk as it was in the West, but it highlights a potential growth problem in Asia: without it, how resilient would consumption spending really be?"

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