Sunday, July 17, 2011

Islamic investing 2.0

Writing in Gulf News, Rusdhi Siddiqui runs through the equity screening criteria for Islamic stock indices and concludes that there is nothing exclusively "Islamic" about the process of "doing good by avoiding the bad". He concludes: "Islamic investing does not have a monopoly on doing good, by avoiding the bad, its common shared values with all investors of conscience".

I would go one step further and say that for equity investing in public companies--which as he notes includes companies like ExxonMobil, Nestle, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis--Islamic investing is far behind the curve in terms of ethical investing.

For example, consider the Calvert Funds, a well known socially responsible investing fund. Their screening criteria is similar in terms of what is excluded: firms engaged in tobacco, weapons, alcohol, gambling, human rights issues and nuclear. These have significant overlap with the Islamic screens used across the industry (with the additional exclusion of companies with poor human rights track records and those engaged in the nuclear industry). From this "doing good by avoiding the bad" strategy, Calvert adds another set of criteria: governance and ethics, environment, workplace safety, product safety, human rights, indigenous peoples' rights and community relations.

These criteria add another level of screening. Calvert not only avoids the companies engaged in socially detrimental industries, it also screens the companies that pass its 'negative' screens to ensure their businesses are conducted in an ethical way. This is something missing today in Islamic finance. All the focus is placed on avoiding companies that generate significant revenue from 'bad' industries, but doesn't ask how the companies generate revenue from the acceptable industries to determine whether they conduct business in an ethical way.

This should be an area where Islamic investing focuses because of the often-stated idea that Islamic finance supports a more ethical economy. How is this verifiable if there is no screening of companies in acceptable industries to see whether they make products that harm people, whether they deal fairly in their employment practices, have adequate corporate governance to ensure shareholders' rights are protected and there are no 'ticking timebombs' of unethical behavior (e.g. the failures of management at News Corp to stop the hacking of individuals' voicemails and bribery of police).

That leads to the final area where firms like Calvert go beyond the Islamic investing standards. When there are problems at firms in the additional criteria, investors' voices should be used to force changes through shareholder advocacy. As far as I know, most Islamic investing companies take passive positions where they could be more active and try to advocate for changes that make the companies they invest in make positive changes like avoiding certain areas of business, avoiding taking on additional debt, improving corporate governance and disclosures.

Yet, they do not. Most Islamic investors are concerned with 'avoiding the bad' but do not widen their screens to favor companies that are leaders in their industry in corporate governance, human rights, or more generally in conducting an ethical business. If Islamic investing does not adopt the 'best practices' for sustainable investing, then it is unlikely that the companies in which they invest will adopt 'best practices' in terms of sustainability.

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