Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Islamic retail banking in the West: Can the US provide an example?

There are a number of articles about the challenges facing the Islamic finance industry that caught my eye in the last couple days but none challenge the conventional wisdom as much as an article from Bloomberg that Islamic banks or conventional banks Islamic windows in the UK have been set back substantially by the recession. Further, there may be too many banks (22) chasing too small a market ($19 billion versus $93 billion in Malaysia). Another article in the Independent focuses on the withdrawal or shrinkage of retail Islamic finance at large banks in the UK. One of the areas where the Bloomberg article flies in the face of conventional wisdom is that the UK government has not supported the Islamic financial industry sufficiently. This contradicts the widely held view that the UK is preeminent among non-Muslim-majority regions in both its level of development and the scope of government support. As much as this challenges these ideas, there is a caveat that is not mentioned in the article: it is mostly focused on the domestic market, not the participation of UK-based banks in the global Islamic finance industry. However, it does set back the idea that Islamic banking can become a widely accepted subset of the domestic financial industry in non-Muslim-majority countries with sizeable Muslim minorities.

On the scale that Bloomberg is looking, there probably is not a large enough market that can easily be penetrated by large institutions and the one solely retail focused and Shari'ah-compliant institution, the Islamic Bank of Britain represents too small a sample to generalize about the prospects for smaller institutions. In this regard, the United States may provide an example of how Islamic banking can be feasible without participation from large conventional banks. The US market--for reasons of regulation and geographical concentration of the Muslim population--has no product availability among the large banks, but under the radar exist community banks, credit unions and non-bank financial companies that provide Islamic financial services. This may be the maximum size that is profitable currently in countries without sizable Muslim populations and that should be recognized as a success. Although the headlines are drawn by the largest and the newest products and institutions, having financial institutions that recognize the value of remaining small enough to serve their customers and avoid overexpansion is a virtue in itself. Not all areas in the U.S. have remained under the radar. For example, the Amana mutual funds have grown over the past decade and two of the funds are the largest Islamic equity funds in the world, in large part because they have transcended their natural market and attracted non-Muslims based on their performance.

Areas of the Islamic financial industry that are not yet able to attract significant non-Muslim participation but are able to avoid growth-at-any cost may not make the headlines, but the experience of the Amana Funds shows that this is not necessarily a failure. The Amana Funds remained small for many years before starting their rapid growth at the beginning of the last decade. Their growth was "supply-driven"; it was "demand-driven" based on their ability to provide a service demanded by consumers both Muslim and non-Muslim based on its performance. There cannot be a direct analogy that could work elsewhere in non-Muslim majority countries, but the contrast could provide lessons for other non-Muslim-majority countries with aspirations to develop a domestic Islamic finance market. Maybe the next decade will be the decade for retail banking.

Other News

  • Rushdi Siddiqui has two great articles in Gulf News. In one article he suggests: "For Islamic finance, a lack of Muslim inclusion should be a greater concern than lack of standardisation. When we speak of convergence, it may well entail technology (mobile phone) and banking for the non-bankable Muslims. Hello, is Islamic finance listening at the other end?". In the other, he interviews Dr. Mohammad Nedal Al Chaar, the Secretary-General of AAOIFI.
  • As the Islamic finance industry grows in Canada, the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is the first to offer a course on the subject for MBA students.
  • Saudi Binladin Group sold a short-term sukuk with a maturity of 9 months for $187 million (SAR700 million). Most sukuk have a tenor between 3 and 7 years.
  • Sukuk sales in 2010 are expected to be $23-$25 billion according to a poll by Reuters. This was close to the $23.3 billion issued last year and lower than a poll conducted in April which forecasted $28 billion in sukuk sales. Asa Fitch wrote a good article in The National about the growth of the sukuk market and the rapid decline during and after the financial crisis.
  • Even after a four-month rally, the yields on Nakheel's sukuk are twice as high as 2007. A credit analyst at S&P in Paris, Mohamed Damak who also is co-chair of the Islamic finance working group for S&P points to this as evidence that the market is still hard to access for real-estate-based companies.
  • Kazakhstan has resumed planning for its first sukuk, which is not expected soon and will likely be an ijara sukuk of roughly $300 million. There are a number of regulatory issues that need to be dealt with.
  • Russian bank Vneshtorgbank (VTB) has also resumed work on a sukuk issuance and "a range of other Islamic financial products". The Association of Regional Banks of Russia established a task force on Islamic financial institutions.
  • An article in Arab News describes the backlash facing Islamic banks in South Africa over high fees. However, the criticism of the high fees are not limited to Islamic banks.
  • A report about Islamic banking in Indonesia was released recently.
  • The Saudi Electric Company is planning a fourth sukuk. The timing, size and pricing are yet to be determined.
  • Abu Dhabi Ports Company is considering a bond or sukuk of up to $1 billion in early 2011.
  • Bermuda is trying to attract the Islamic finance industry following a trip by the CEO of the Bermuda Stock Exchange to Bahrain.
  • An opinion piece in China Daily by the program director of the University of Hong Kong SPACE on the development of Islamic finance in Hong Kong, including the areas where it is being held back, particularly in human capital.

No comments: