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Personal Insolvency in Asia and Currency Comparison

posted by Jason Kilborn

While Shenzhen has gotten all the good press since its March launch of the first personal bankruptcy regime in Mainland China, a number of other Asian regimes have also been on the move. I recently examined the rapidly developing personal insolvency system in Singapore, and others have done great work on the unique processes in Japan and Korea. As an outsider, I struggle to capture the real feeling of life under these procedures. The challenge is expressed brilliantly by my favorite article on the difficulty of examining legal phenomena that are utterly foreign to the examiner, a paper that sought to answer the question "what was it like to try a rat?" This struggle is particularly acute in a new paper I've just posted on the fascinating evolution of Shenzhen's new law from its roots in a little-known 2008 consumer insolvency law in Taiwan. The Taiwan law is still in effect, of course (as amended in important respects), and the rocky experience of its first decade offers important lessons for personal insolvency policymakers in Asia and beyond. In both Taiwan and Shenzhen, a potential continuing challenge that intrigues me is among the most important and impactful in any such law--the measure of "necessary" household expenses to be budgeted to debtors for the purgatory period of three years (in Taiwan, it's six!) preceding a discharge. Both Taiwan and Shenzhen chose the social assistance minimum income; basically, the poverty level. Taiwan recently increased this by 20% after years of criticism of forcing bankrupt debtors into the extreme austerity of living within these tight budgets. Shenzhen has decided not to go beyond the poverty level, at least for now.

Expressing the strictures of these poverty levels in useful comparative terms is really difficult for me. Official exchange rates are quite misleading when the question is "what is it like to try to make do on X [local currency units] for three years in [X country]?" Purchasing power parity exchange rates likely get closer to the mark, but with China, I'm not even sure that approach captures the pain (or ease) that debtors in the "discharge examination period" must endure. The figures I'm wrestling with are 1950 yuan in Shenzhen and about 18,000 new Taiwan dollars (15,000 x 1.2) in Taipei (less in the outlying areas). I vaguely understand these to correspond to about US$465 and US$600, respectively, per month, but this just seems untenable to me. How could anyone survive on these amounts for 36 months in Shenzhen or 72 months in Taipei? Granted, both sets of figures are per person, so a debtor caring for parents and/or children might end up with several multiples of these figures per month, but even then, supporting a family of four on US$1860 per month for three years in a major city like Shenzhen still strikes me as so austere as to dissuade people from seeking relief. Am I just out of touch with the reality of modern financial struggles generally (I know some low-income Americans also strain to make ends meet on somewhat similar budgets), or am I not understanding something about life in big-city China, or are the figures just not reflecting the feeling of life within these limits? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

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