As Hong Kong struggles through a period of recession and economic restructuring, the number of personal bankruptcies in the territory is soaring. In the first five months of this year, the number of bankruptcies is triple that of those in the same period a year ago.
With unemployment on the rise and wage cuts common among workers, consumers in the territory are feeling the squeeze. Some are making up for it by relying on credit cards to maintain their standard of living.
This is one of the main reasons Hong Kong has seen a record number of bankruptcies said John Lees, head of accounting firm Ferrier Hodgson Hong Kong, which specializes in insolvency.
"The days of easy money are gone," said Mr. Lees. "So the general consumer is not as well off as they used to be. The credit card companies have been actively promoting their cards over the past three to four years, and it's easy for a lot of these people to accumulate three or four credit cards. This is an invitation to spend beyond their means."
The Hong Kong government announced on Tuesday that more than 8,000 bankruptcy orders were processed between January and May of this year. That is a threefold increase from the approximately 2,500 made during the same period the year before. And it is fast approaching Hong Kong's total number of some 9,000 bankruptcies in 2001.
But Mr. Lees said it is not only credit card debt that is leading many consumers to declare bankruptcy. "In addition to this credit card situation we have an enormous negative equity among homeowners. The banks are foreclosing on a lot of home loans as well," he said. "The other point is that the law covering bankruptcy was changed to allow an automatic release, the situation is a lot easier now [and] it's a way out. And particularly, some of the more unsavory debt collectors in Hong Kong can cause a lot of grief to people owing money, but bankruptcy solves that problem."
Unlike the United States and many other developed countries, Hong Kong does not have a credit rating system that allows lenders to look into clients' credit history. At present, banks are allowed to share only negative information like data on customers who have failed to pay debts.
The Hong Kong Association of Banks is pushing for changes to allow banks to share information on the number of credit cards a person owns, credit limits, mortgage loans and other data.