Sunday, January 15, 2012

Combining Islamic finance and sustainable finance

I've been going through the Malaysian Financial Services Blueprint (2011-2020) and there are a number of interesting ideas in there about Islamic finance.  Hopefully, I'll get to some of the others in later posts; the first one is on the connection between the Socially Responsible Investing industry and the Islamic finance industry.  The report writes:
The demand for Islamic finance is expected to emanate not only from the Muslim population but also from those with affinity for socially responsible objectives and those seeking ethical financial solutions where the central theme is a more equitable model that would foster sustainable growth, whilst preserving the environment and improving the overall socio-economic landscape. This is spurred by the growing significance of global ethical consumer movement where Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) is expected to be an important mainstream asset class by 2015. With this development, Islamic finance has an enhanced growth prospect given its close synergy with ethical finance.
The idea here is worthy and there is definitely a possibility for Islamic finance to attract non-Muslim consumers based on the ethical ideas that underpin Islamic finance.  Malaysia is noteworthy in this respect and estimates place the share of Islamic bank accounts held by non-Muslims at around 25%

The often attributed reason for the take-up of Islamic finance by non-Muslims in Malaysia is that the products are cost-effective or even cost-advantageous, in part due to the government's efforts to promote Islamic finance.  This is something which could work in some other regions, but in many countries--particularly those with small Muslim minorities--the idea of favoring Islamic finance over conventional finance is going to be a non-starter. 

Without a government-aided cost advantage, Islamic finance will have to offer something new that conventional finance ignores.  The most frequently offered suggestion is to move Islamic finance more towards profit-sharing contracts (e.g. mudaraba and musharaka).  While this may make Islamic finance more attractive (it is not necessarily certain that this is the case), it is unlikely that, outside of some areas of finance like stock markets, this will be possible in current regulatory environments. 

Therefore the suggestion from the report to focus more on activities that "foster sustainable growth, whilst preserving the environment and improving the overall socio-economic landscape" makes sense.  This is probably most likely way to tap the "enhanced growth prospect given its close synergy with ethical finance".  So far, Islamic finance has concentrated much effort in laying the groundwork and setting up Islamic finance to meet the financial needs in a way that is Shari'ah-compliant.  

Now, it should take the next step from expanding the breadth of product offering and focus on differentiation.  This need not be an industry-wide shift.  There are likely to be plenty of people who just want a Shari'ah-compliant alternative to conventional banking, so not adding complexity will make these services more competitive with conventional financial institutions.  

However, there is likely a market opportunity--among both Muslims and non-Mulims--by offering Islamic financial products with a focus on low-income communities, avoiding investments that are not environmentally sustainable, and to add other so-called ESG (environmental, social, governance) criteria to the investment decisions.  These may or may not be required to be Shari'ah-compliant, but there is nothing stopping Islamic financial institutions from adding more ethical criteria to their decision-making process. 

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