Monday, March 22, 2010

Can Islamic banks be too big to fail? Dr. Elgari proposes Shari'ah governance standards, Nakheel sukuk options

A poll conducted by FinanceAsia magazine found that over 40% of voters in the poll said that Islamic finance had been damaged in the financial crisis. I agree with them, although it is more relevant whether Islamic finance was more or less damaged than the conventional financial industry in the countries where it is predominant. A direct comparison with the large banks in the U.S. and Europe is not very appropriate because Islamic banks had far less time to create toxic products (although those would have been more difficult under Shari'ah guidelines). The real lesson from the financial crisis was that there are insufficiently clear legal experience for bankruptcy and default compared to conventional finance. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner suggested today that too big to fail institutions should have a
"bankruptcy-like regime for large financial institutions that mismanage themselves into failure and can no longer survive without special government support. In that process, equity holders would be wiped out and the firm will be placed in a form of receivership so it can be broken apart, sold over time, with no exposure to the taxpayer."
While this has no specific bearing on Islamic financial institutions, it does highlight a similar problem facing Western regulators with regards to too-big-to-fail (TBTF) institutions as is facing the government of Dubai as it deals with Dubai World (whose subsidiaries were active in the Islamic capital markets). The problems with the Dubai World resolution mirrors the problem of TBTF institutions: there is no legal history to fall back on for guidance about how to deal with situations of crisis. With an Islamic bank being launched with $3 billion in capital, which could support total assets of between $30 billion and $60 billion assuming a 10-20x leverage ratio, it will be important for Islamic finance to consider whether this creates a systemic risk that even new bankruptcy laws developed for smaller Islamic financial institutions and players in the Islamic capital markets cannot deal with.

There is not anything wrong with a global Islamic bank with assets of upwards of $50 billion: this is far smaller than the TBTF institutions that Secretary Geithner is speaking about. However, with $50 billion in assets, this could account for 5% of total Islamic finance assets in one institutions and would be a significant size relative to many of the economies in the Gulf (ex-Saudi Arabia). For example, it is more than three times the GDP of Bahrain, which could house the bank. That rivals the ratio of RBS, Barclays and HSBC combined as a percent of UK GDP (337%). Creating a resolution regime for large Islamic banks should be a big focus for the Islamic banking industry and it would create a bad image for Islamic finance if it had to wait for an equally large crisis as the one that conventional finance faced in the fall of 2008.

It is hard to provide a good summary of Mohamed Elgari's call for greater Shari'ah governance in the Islamic financial industry and it the article from Arab News deserves a full real. His views cover the many areas including transparency in Shari'ah governance as well as creating greater public dialogue among Shari'ah scholars about the Shari'ah standards under which Islamic products are judged. He rightly notes that there will not be a consensus nor can (or should) there be total standardization of Shari'ah standards. That would remove the ability to adapt the interpretation by Shari'ah scholars to changing environments and lessons learned from how Islamic finance develops.

The first Nakheel sukuk since the one that matured in December will mature on May 13 and there are a number of options being considered according to Reuters reports. The sukuk is likely to be part of the Dubai World debt restructuring plan and the Nakheel sukuk, unlike its predecessor, does not have a guarantee from Dubai World. The most likely option according to Reuters is an extension of the maturity, although this would depend on whether the creditors would be forced to take a haircut and the size of that haircut.

Other News

  • Dr. Abdel Fattah M Farah, the Economic Advisor to the Ajman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, proposes a model for a Shari'ah-compliant charitable investment bank that is very interesting.
  • An Islamic advisory in the Dubai International Financial Centre, Tabarak Partners, will become the first such firm to be wound up under DIFC laws. With a peak valuation of AED1 billion ($272 million, mis-stated in the article as $27.2 million), it would be relatively small compared to Dubai World, but could provide an example for future (larger) cases.
  • Al Hilal Bank received a license to open the first Islamic bank in Kazakhstan.
  • Al Rajhi Bank has received approval to offer banking services in Jordan. The Oxford Business Group has an article on building Islamic finance in Jordan.
  • Turkey's Islamic banks made profits of $470 million. This represents a 9% growth over 2008. Total assets grew 30% to $22.4 billion.
  • Japan's Tokio Marine may expand its Islamic insurance operations.
  • The new ETFs allowed by the Saudi Arabian regulators can include sukuk and commodities.

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