High Debt Levels in Asia Debunk Myths about Asians as Savers - Manulife Survey

2016-02-22 17:57 2962

HONG KONG, Feb. 22, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- High levels of personal debt among investors in Asia debunk the conventional wisdom that Asians are prudent savers, according to new research from Manulife. The research findings support wider trends that suggest household debt levels in Asia are approaching - or even surpassing - US household debt levels.

Manulife Investor Sentiment Index: Asian Investment Strategy -- Journey to Your Financial Goal
Manulife Investor Sentiment Index: Asian Investment Strategy -- Journey to Your Financial Goal

The Manulife survey also showed that while millennials (aged below 35) across the region have debt, they are no worse at tracking their finances than their elders, and even outperform them in some markets.

Highlights from the Manulife Investor Sentiment Index (MISI) research for Asia:

  • A third of Asian investors (33%) have personal debts (excluding mortgage)
    • The new MISI findings also show that the proportion of investors with debt is on the high side in some Asian markets. The proportion is highest in Malaysia (68%) and lowest in Japan (15%). Singapore, China and Taiwan come in at around a third and Hong Kong at 22%.
    • China has the severest debt issue with average debt at US$21,650, or 14.3 times monthly income; followed by Taiwan (11.5x) and Malaysia (9.7x). In Hong Kong (4.8x), Singapore (5.6x) and Japan (4.2x) it was more moderate, while the Philippines was the lowest (0.88x).
    • Asian investors on average spend about 60% of their monthly income, with Indonesia and Japan being the big spenders that spend two-thirds of their income.
    • The MISI findings are reinforced by other data showing some Asian countries' debt levels (household debt to GDP ratio, including mortgage) are approaching or even higher than in the US. At the end of 2014, household debt in Malaysia and Taiwan exceeded that of the US (80%), with Singapore just below[1].


  • The main causes of debt are daily living and discretionary expenses, suggesting people may be living beyond their means
    • The impact of daily living expenses on debt was most noticeable in Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, while discretionary expenses hit hardest in Singapore and China.
    • Medical expenses and children's education costs were also significant factors, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia.
    • In Hong Kong, a relatively high percentage cited investment losses as a cause of debt.
    • Although just a fraction compared to other causes, gambling was a factor too, particularly in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and China.
    • The MISI findings dovetail with other data showing credit-card debt to be on the rise in parts of Asia, most noticeably in Hong Kong, Singapore and China[2]. At the end of 2014, credit card debt in Hong Kong (just over 5%) was above the US (4%). More startling was the huge jump in such debt in China to more than 3.5% from about 1% in 2010, reflecting perhaps the increase in credit card ownership and opportunities to spend through e-commerce. In Singapore, it was about 2.5%.


  • While millennials have some good financial planning habits, similar to their elders, they still need to improve their financial management:
    • 37% of Asia's millennials hold debt compared to 31% of those aged 35 and above, with Malaysia having the highest proportion (74%), followed by the Philippines (50%).
    • Millennials' debt-income ratio on average is higher than their elders. China's milliennials in particular have a very high ratio of 18.5 times their income, which is above the overall average (14.3x) and much higher than their elders (10.3x). Next comes Malaysia (10.2x). The ratio of their peers in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore is moderate.
    • Millennials spend a similar proportion of their monthly income as their elders (56% vs 59%). But in some countries, such as Japan and Indonesia, this group spends nearly two-thirds of their income which is on the high side.
    • Key sources of debt for Asia's millennials are similar to their elders, with "own education" also being one of the top three in some countries.
    • They expect to take 17 months to pay off debt which is slightly shorter than the overall average. Those in Malaysia and China, countries with the highest debt ratio, expect to take longer to pay off.
    • Millennials (76%) are more likely to keep track of their expenses than those aged 35 and above (72%).
    • Across Asia, 60% of millennials have a target saving amount, compared to only 44% of the older group. The average saving target of millennials is about US$126,000.
    • They allocated nearly 40% of their savings to cash/time deposits or investments with no specific purpose. The no-purpose allocation may slow progress towards achieving their saving goals.


  • Overall, an overwhelming proportion of investors in Asia regret their lack of effective financial planning.
    • Most investors rely on themselves (74%) or their family for financial advice, (53% spouse; 41% parents), rather than a professional (25%).
    • However, nearly three quarters of investors (72%) surveyed regret not doing a better job with investment planning. This was particularly so in China, where investors regretted holding so much money in cash, not doing more research before making investment decisions and not being more proactive in reviewing their portfolios.

Geoff Lewis, Market Strategist, Asia, Capital Markets Group, added: "People from the Asia Pacific region have a reputation for thriftiness, but Manulife's latest MISI survey questions that and indicates Asian investors have higher-than-expected levels of personal debt. In Malaysia and Taiwan, household debt levels are approaching or even higher than in the US. That calls for a better, comprehensive financial plan. In view of the anticipated economic slowdown this year, investors with debt should be even more alert to their situation and plan accordingly."

Bruno Lee, Senior Managing Director, Head of Partnership, Product and Platform Development, said: "It's encouraging to see higher percentage of millennials across most markets have target savings than older group, indicating higher awareness of the need for financial planning and they can certainly benefit from having more investment advice to help them to achieve their savings target. Amid today's current volatile market where investors may be worried about how to get their expected return, we would suggest them to look into a yield enhancement with diversification strategy. Diversification across asset classes and geographies, along with discipline in rebalancing equity assets with a long-term view, are some ways to help investors grasp opportunities across different markets and manage downside risk."  

For more information on the Manulife Investor Sentiment Index, please visit

*About Manulife Investor Sentiment Index in Asia

Manulife's Investor Sentiment Index in Asia (Manulife ISI) is a half-yearly, proprietary survey measuring and tracking investors' views across eight markets in the region on their attitudes towards key asset classes and issues related to personal financial planning. The Index is calculated as a net score (% of "Very good time" and "Good time" minus % of "Bad time" and "Very bad time") for each asset class. The overall index is calculated as an average of the index figures of asset classes. A positive number means a positive sentiment, zero means a neutral sentiment, and a negative number means negative sentiment.

The Manulife ISI is based on 500 online interviews in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and 500 face-to-face interviews in Indonesia. Respondents are middle class to affluent investors, aged 25 years and above who are the primary decision maker of financial matters in the household and currently have investment products.

The Manulife ISI is a long-established research series in North America. The Manulife ISI has been measuring investor sentiment in Canada for the past 17 years, and extended this to its John Hancock operation in the U.S. in 2011 and Asia in 2013. Asset classes taken into Manulife ISI Asia calculations are stocks/equities, real estate (primary residence and other investment properties), mutual funds/unit trusts, fixed income investment and cash.

This material, intended for the exclusive use by the recipients who are allowable to receive this document under the applicable laws and regulations of the relevant jurisdictions, was produced by and the opinions expressed are those of Manulife or any of its affiliates as of December 2015 and are subject to change based on market and other conditions. The information and/or analysis contained in this material have been compiled or arrived at from sources believed to be reliable but Manulife or any of its affiliates does not make any representation as to their accuracy, correctness, usefulness or completeness and does not accept liability for any loss arising from the use hereof or the information and/or analysis contained herein. The information in this document, including statements concerning financial market trends, are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Manulife or any of its affiliates disclaims any responsibility to update such information. Neither Manulife or any of its affiliates or its affiliates, nor any of their directors, officers or employees shall assume any liability or responsibility for any direct or indirect loss or damage or any other consequence of any person acting or not acting in reliance on the information contained herein. All overviews and commentary are intended to be general in nature and for current interest. While helpful, these overviews are no substitute for professional tax, investment or legal advice. Clients should seek professional advice for their particular situation. Neither Manulife nor any of its affiliates or representatives is providing tax, investment or legal advice. Past performance does not guarantee future results. This material was prepared solely for informational purposes, does not constitute an offer or an invitation by or on behalf of Manulife or any of its affiliates to any person to buy or sell any security and is no indication of trading intent in any fund or account managed by Manulife. No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee returns or eliminate risk in any market environment. Unless otherwise specified, all data is sourced from Manulife.

About Manulife
Manulife Financial Corporation is a leading international financial services group providing forward-thinking solutions to help people with their big financial decisions. We operate as John Hancock in the United States, and Manulife elsewhere. We provide financial advice, insurance and wealth and asset management solutions for individuals, groups and institutions. At the end of 2015, we had approximately 34,000 employees, 63,000 agents, and thousands of distribution partners, serving 20 million customers. At the end of December 2015, we had C$935 billion (US$676 billion) in assets under management and administration, and in the previous 12 months we made more than $24.6 billion in benefits, interest and other payments to our customers. Our principal operations are in Asia, Canada and the United States where we have served customers for more than 100 years. With our global headquarters in Toronto, Canada, we trade as 'MFC' on the Toronto, New York, and the Philippine stock exchanges and under '945' in Hong Kong. Follow Manulife on Twitter @ManulifeNews or visit or

About Manulife Asset Management
Manulife Asset Management is the global asset management arm of Manulife, providing comprehensive asset management solutions for investors. This investment expertise extends across a broad range of public and private asset classes, as well as asset allocation solutions. As at December 31, 2015, assets under management for Manulife Asset Management were approximately C$417 billion (US$301 billion).

Manulife Asset Management's public markets units have investment expertise across a broad range of asset classes including public equity and fixed income, and asset allocation strategies.  Offices with full investment capabilities are located in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In addition, Manulife Asset Management has a joint venture asset management business in China, Manulife TEDA. The public markets units of Manulife Asset Management also provide investment management services to affiliates' retail clients through product offerings of Manulife and John Hancock. John Hancock Asset Management and Declaration Management and Research are units of Manulife Asset Management.

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James Dyson (FleishmanHillard HK)

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[1] Source: HSBC and Bloomberg
[2] Source: Bloomberg, HKMA, IMF, The Financial Stability and Payment Systems, Bank Negara Malaysia, Singapore Department of Statistics, BOJ, PBOC, National Bureau of Statistics China, BI/OJK, BPS, FSC, National Statistics, Republic of China (Taiwan)

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Source: Manulife
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