Seoul warns of debt hangover as apartment price growth hits 15-yr high

An aerial view shows apartment complexes  in Seoul
An aerial view shows apartment complexes in Seoul, South Korea, October 5, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A senior South Korean official on Thursday called for greater efforts to manage the country's excessive borrowing, saying problems at China Evergrande served as an example of the debt issues economies could face as they scale back stimulus.

Lee Eog-weon, a vice finance minister, said South Korea should "pre-emptively manage default risks that could arise from excessive leveraging and risk-taking," citing a potential Evergrande default as the kind of incident that could arise as central banks globally unwind pandemic-era monetary policy.

Koreans have been borrowing more than ever before, and South Korean policymakers are increasingly worried the debt pile could become unsustainable as rates rise, hurting people's purchasing power and long-term growth. The central bank raised its benchmark interest rate for the first time in almost three years in August. read more

Lee's comments come after data last week showed home prices in the capital region, home to about half of the country's population, jumped 13.11% this year through August. That was the fastest increase in 15 years and up from an annual increase of 9.8% last year, according to the Korea Real Estate Board.

The monthly pace of home price gain also accelerated to a 13-year high.

Dozens of loan curbs and tax measures over the past five years have done little to curb the home buying frenzy. Household borrowing hit a record 1,805.9 trillion won ($1.54 trillion) in the June quarter. read more

Global investors have been on tenterhooks in recent weeks as debt payment obligations of Evergrande, labouring under a $305 billion mountain of debt, triggered fears its malaise could pose systemic risks to China's financial system. Markets were keeping a close eye on China's second-largest real estate developer to see if it will be able to pay interest on one of its dollar bonds due on Thursday. read more

"At a time when nothing seems to be working to cool the debt binge, the lesson from Evergrande is that crisis will come around when you have a lot of debt," said Park Sang-hyun, an analyst at HI Investment & Securities

"I'm unaware of direct exposures Korea has, but any instability in the Chinese economy will hurt Korean growth momentum too," Park said.

Home affordability has also become a problem is South Korea, data from Kookmin Bank showed.

The average price of a Seoul apartment has roughly doubled in the past five years to 1.18 billion won ($999,236) as of August this year, data from Kookmin Bank showed.

An apartment in Seoul now costs more than 18 years' worth of South Korea's median annual household income, up from 11 years when President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017, according to the bank.

($1 = 1,178.2400 won)

Reporting by Cynthia Kim; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa

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