The executive director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Tai Boon Leong, gave a speech at the Islamic Finance News Roadshow Singapore in which he suggested that Islamic banks become more involved in trade finance, noting the withdrawal of European banks due to the debt crisis. He said:
"Islamic finance players should however explore new growth areas which adhere to Shariah principles. One such possibility is trade finance. Globally, trade finance is facing funding pressures as European banks, who have been traditionally strong in this sector, continue to deleverage and adjust to the requirements of Basel III. Given Islamic finance’s emphasis on supporting tangible, real economic activities, trade finance is a business segment which fits well with Shariah principles and business model."
I am not extremely knowledgeable about trade finance (I am not a banker), but from what a few minutes of informal research, the forms of trade finance mostly revolve around factoring trade receivables (i.e. extending credit based on goods being transported internationally) and trade credit insurance. The roots of Islamic finance are based in trading, since many of the countries in the Middle East where Islam began were based on trading and much of the spread of Islam occurred along trade routes.
Murabaha has attracted a lot of criticism because of its similarity with conventional finance and also because it is being used to synthesize loans that mimic conventional loans. However, where applied to trade finance, the main points of criticism fall away. In a trade finance loan, the buyer in one country wants to sell goods to a seller in another but wants to get paid now and not bear the risk associated with dealing with a buyer in another country, as well as the time it will take to get paid. The seller does not want to pay in advance because it would be difficult to recover funds paid if the goods aren't delivered. A bank can serve as a trusted intermediary that takes the credit risk from the seller and facilitates the desire by the buyer to make payment on delivery.
The trade finance company can buy the good from the seller and take legal ownership of the good and then, at the same time, sell the asset to the buyer and transfer legal ownership of the good to the buyer, but with payment due in the future with a markup on the anticipated delivery date. The transfer of ownership shifts the risk of loss to the buyer, but removes the risk of fraud by the seller, and in return, the bank remains focused on the credit risk where banks are specialists.
The transaction offers value to both buyer and seller, and facilitates the exchange of a real asset that is in demand (in contrast to many murabaha which use an asset only to facilitate the extension of credit). Perhaps it is too boring of a transaction to attract much attention and it already occurs with regularity, but with the controversies around some murabaha transactions like the Goldman Sachs sukuk, it would be to the industry's benefit if transactions like this were mentioned as demonstrating the usefulness of murabaha to counter the widely held idea that most murabaha transactions are done as a way of replicating a conventional financial institution, and do not involve buying and selling an asset that is actually demanded. It is, instead, a transaction that would facilitate the economic activity between a buyer and seller that they would not (unless they turned to conventional finance) be willing to undertake without the Islamic bank.