Exporters have reported a sharp rise in payment difficulties from Southeast Asian buyers due to the region's economic turmoil, according to the Hong Kong Export Credit Insurance Corp (ECIC). The news came as the Government-owned body yesterday predicted insured exports would rise 7.1 per cent to $21.5 billion for the year to yesterday, while claims would fall 14 per cent to $61 million. ECIC commissioner Thomas Yiu Kei-chung said the outlook for this year appeared less rosy as company failures in the region should push up claim levels. He said in the past two months alone the ECIC had received 20 reports of companies whose Southeast Asian clients were finding it difficult to pay. 'Certainly it is during a time like this when one fully realises how export insurance can help exporters.' Mr Yiu said the reported cases so far added up to about $10 million in potential claims, about one-sixth of last year's claim amount. The payment difficulty cases range across the whole spectrum of export products - including toys, garments and household products - and across Southeast Asia and South Korea. Mr Yiu said despite the uncertainties ahead, the ECIC still forecast a 5 per cent growth in insured business this year, as business growth to the region accounted for a relatively small amount of its overall business portfolio. He said the outlook for the ECIC's two main markets, the United States and Britain, remained positive, and it would step up efforts to develop credit insurance coverage for exports to the mainland. Mr Yiu said the ECIC's new Credit Guarantee Scheme, which aimed to provide export finance to small and medium-sized enterprises at the pre-shipment size, was on schedule to be launched next month. He said the Government had approved $500 million in funding for the scheme and consultation with a number of banks to participate in the scheme was under way. The ECIC provides credit insurance to exporters against the risk of non-payment for goods and services.