"What exactly is distress?" reflected AsianInvestor editor Jame DiBiasio at a panel he moderated on Monday at the Tokyo Distressed and Troubled Asset Investing Summit. "Is it a good asset from a distressed seller, or an asset itself that is in bad shape?"

The panel of distressed experts plumped for the former -- they want good assets that are being flogged off by an imperilled owner.

"We prefer something that requires re-engineering, assuming that there is some enterprise value left," said Steve Moyer, a portfolio manager at Pimco. "Banks couldn't afford to take the losses on clearing portfolios of loans until they rebuild capital. That accomplished, they can begin the process."

Edwin Wong, a former distressed-investing managing director at Lehman Brothers, and regarded by some in those halcyon days as the finest exponent of distressed investing practice in the hemisphere, recently started his own fund management company, SSG Capital Management.

"Unlike the Asian crisis of the late 1990s, in which all sizes of companies went bankrupt, we're not seeing it this time around so much with the big companies," he said. "However, private companies and smaller corporates have built up a lot of leverage, and that's where we see the main opportunity in China, India and Indonesia."

In answer to the old conundrum 'what is the most famous thing that Belgium has ever produced?', perhaps Michel Lowy will be a contender, if his new firm SC Lowy succeeds.

Lowy says distressed investors have been sharpening their pencils for the past 18 months, expecting lots of deals, only to be disappointed by the available opportunities. He hopes that will change as commercial banks finally bite the bullet and sell off non-performing portfolios.

He also perceives differences geographically in the structure of opportunities on offer. "In North Asia and other sophisticated Asian economies, there is a weighting towards public companies," Lowy says.  "Elsewhere in Asia, there are more family-owned companies. The latter are often in places where the creditor has more limited rights. It's going to be harder to gain control of a company there by converting debt to equity."