An article in the National newspaper provides a good summary of the growth areas in Islamic finance, as well as the areas of controversy which remain in these areas. The largest focus is on whether creating Shari'ah-compliant hedging contracts is a help or hindrance for the growth of the industry. In some aspects I can see how it reinforces the view that Islamic finance does nothing but mimic conventional financial products. However, as the article notes, longer term financing like what would be necessary for project finance, would be largely absent were there not a way to hedge against currency, commodity price or interest rate fluctuations.
The article also discusses the lack of Islamic microfinance. Moinuddin Malim, the CEO of Mashreq Al Islami, is quoted as saying "We have not yet reached our real audience. We need to develop microfiannce to enable communities to thrive in their own right and bring living standards to them". I would disagree with his characterization of "bringing living standards to them" and replace that with bring affordable, Shari'ah-compliant financial alternatives, but it is definitely an underserved area of Islamic finance. The CGAP competition which recently closed (and I advised two groups who submitted proposals) is a good effort because it focuses on providing seed money to develop sustainable financial institutions (either non-profit or for-profit). However, outside of this and a few efforts by a couple small efforts by (mostly) global financial institutions in Islamic finance, there has been not much more than lip service paid to the need for Islamic microfinance.
There is a lot more to Islamic finance than just structured products that mimic conventional finance for large corporations and sovereigns. Islamic retail banking fills some of the need with a reach towards a larger number of Muslim consumers, but there are many Muslim (and non-Muslim) 'unbanked'. This is the consumer base that the Grameen Bank was formed to serve and it has now attracted a lot of attention from larger financial institutions. The same need is present for the Islamic financial industry to fill and it should be a quicker transition for Islamic financial institutions to recognize this need (and potential) now that conventional microfinance is well established with participation from the larger financial institutions. It is also ideally suited to the underlying ethics behind Islamic finance, which should feel a greater need to promote economic empowerment based on its ethical foundations.
Another article describes the re-emergence of innovation within the Islamic financial industry which has largely been absent during the recession. There are areas--like liquidity management--where innovation can be a positive development to increase the available investment opportunities (particularly short-term and overnight). However, there are also a lot of 'innovations' during the 2005-2008 period in structured products and especially real estate, where 'innovation' can turn into 'high fees with little other benefit'. One example of this that has been described in detail was Gulf Finance House, which was described in a recent paper by Mohammed Khnifer.
The issue of standardization remains contentious. The debate, however, depends on what standardization means, which Debshis Day of Clifford Chance pointed out, is unclear. "Standardization, what does that really mean? It is very difficult for everybody to agree on one thing. People need to understand that even in a conventional market there is not pure standardization". I would agree with him that complete standardization is neither possible nor probably desirable. There are certain areas (like the ISDA-IIFM derivatives standard and the IIFM standardized murabaha agreement) where standardization can be beneficial by reducing costs associated with replicating the same structure. However, these standardized contracts are not, nor should be, mandatory. There are numerous areas where improvements can be made and leaving the door open to new products or new variations of existing products makes sense for the industry as a whole.
Unicorn Investment Bank and Standard Chartered report they have mandates to work on issuance of $6 billion in sukuk this year. Reportedly, over $4 billion of this amount will be advised by Standard Chartered. An executive at HSBC, Mohammed Dawood, says that issuance of dollar-denominated sukuk may reach $5 billion, matching the previous year's total. The total issuance may be $8.5 billion, about last year's level, but far below the pre-crisis levels in 2007 and 2008. However, due to the Greek crisis and Ramadan, most issuance will be pushed into the third quarter. Al Rajhi Bank, which has been largely absent from the sukuk market due to concerns by its Shari'ah board over the compliance of the sukuk in the markets, plans to launch a sukuk with Cagamas, the Malaysian housing finance agency, in June. Indonesia recently sold $467.5 million in sukuk to the government-managed Hajj fund.
U.S. issuers could make up part of the issuance in the second half of this year or in 2011. GE Capital, which issued a $500 million sukuk last year (my summary of that sukuk) is planning a 'benchmark' sized sukuk in late 2010 or 2011, which is generally over $500 million. In addition, Unicorn Investment Bank, which has a U.S.-based private equity subsidiary UIB Capital, is working on a $250 million sukuk for a U.S.-based company. The only two sukuk issued by U.S.-based companies so far have been the East Cameron sukuk, which ended with investors owning the underlying asset after the issuer entered bankruptcy, and the 2009 GE Capital sukuk.
Another rare issuer coming to market is Malaysia, which will likely offer its first international sukuk since 2002. The sukuk, expected to be an ijara sukuk with a 5-year tenor is said to be backed by government hospital assets. The issue is reported to be a $1 billion, however, it has not been formally announced and is expected to be announced at an Islamic economic forum in Kuala Lumpur.
Robin Amlot writes an interesting review of an e-book published by Euromoney, written by Parvez Daruwalla and Shahzad Siddiqui, in Islamic Business & Finance. The e-book talks about whether the sukuk structure, and in particular sovereign sukuk, could be done better.
Article by the CEO of Gatehouse Bank
Richard Thomas, the CEO of Gatehouse Bank, an Islamic wholesale bank in the UK, has an article about Islamic finance. While in general, he speaks to the general outlook for Islamic finance globally, he makes two notable points. First, he does not fall into the "Islamic finance is immune from the crisis" trap and secondly, he acknowledges the overlap between Islamic finance and ethical/sustainable finance. He writes:
"Islamic finance has, however, been met with enormous challenges. It has not escaped the global downturn despite Islamic banks being safeguarded by the nature of their Shariah principles against exposure to subprime mortgages and the other toxic assets that have hurt the balance sheets of so many of the world’s biggest financial institutions. "
As it is, a substantial amount of business transacted in an ethical or sustainable format may qualify as Sharia compliant. This demand for products and investments, while primarily fuelled by the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, is supporting interesting crossover products that benefit from the same ethical criteria."
- Golden Belt Sukuk holders approved the dissolution of the sukuk trust, making the sukuk holders unsecured creditors of Saad Group.
- The Central Bank of Bahrain's sukuk al-ijara issue was oversubscribed by 230%. The sukuk has a maturity of 182 days.
- Dana Gas reset the conversion rate on its sukuk according to JPMorgan Chase & Co., the calculation agent.
- South African investment management firm is planning on launching its products outside of its home country including within Europe.
- Aston Business School will launch an MSc and PhD program in Islamic banking with sponsorship from the CEO of Dubai-based Surgi Tech.
- Al Rajhi Steel Industries, a Saudi rebar manufacturer obtained a $196.5 billion Shari'ah-compliant bank loan to finance construction of a new plant in Jeddah.
- The Iraqi bank Ashur Bank is exploring offering an Islamic banking window, for which it submitted an application six months ago to the Central Bank of Iraq. 7 of Iraq's 42 banks are Islamic banks.