Making Islamic Banking Resilient

Recently, I was invited to be part of a panel to present our views at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) on how to make Islamic Financial Markets resilient. With great excitement I prepared my slides (panelists are given 20 minutes to present) and tried to figure out the best approach to present it in such a short time. However, when the session came, due to time overshoots and constraint, me as the last speaker was only left with 10 minutes. I had to make it count, so I talked fast.

Afterwards, however, I do not feel as if it was mission accomplished. Time was too short for me to put my argument properly and I had to drop many points in fear of cramming too much information into that 10 minutes. So I decided to post my slides up, and make a proper short commentary on what I meant to be communicated. Bear with me.

The Financial Industry Must be Resilient

  • STABILITY : The public must be confident on the resilience of the financial markets where the public is assured that there is not misconduct of public funds in the day to day operations of the banking industry. BNM has put in great lengths to ensure stability via sufficient capital, liquidity and funding. The operations of the bank must always meet the statutory requirement on financial stability with the introduction of the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR), Net Stable Funding Ratio (NSFR), Rate of Return Framework (ROR), and Risk Informed Pricing.
  • SUSTAINABILITY : Any business, must intend to survive in the long run. Selecting your customers are important, and risk mitigation mechanisms must be available to defend the business. But at the same time, re-investment of profits must also be made for future growth, so it is a balance to be maintained.
  • INTEGRITY : As Bankers, integrity always plays an important, and fundamental, part.  But Islamic Bankers, another layer of integrity is also imposed which is Shariah. Banks are expected to be more and more of a moral champion in support of the various SDGs and ESGs where the idea of being good will eventually lead to better profits and prosperity. BNM’s Value Based Intermediation aims to expand the role of banks to be more than just profit driven, but more inclusive to embrace a wider range of customers and cater for their needs.

The Challenges are manifold.

Being resilient is always a challenge for the Banks, especially with so many moving parts in the financial world. New regulations, new competition, new structures, new products and new models continue to plague the banking industry. To change our mindset to make Banking and Financial Market more better requires a lot of soul searching and will power to make the change. I summarised the challenges into 3 broad categories:

  1. Consumer Market. Any major change in the banking model is not taken well by the consumer market. Customers come to the Bank mostly for advise on their banking services. The Banks struggle to introduce differentiating products, from the debt structures and into the thought of creating value through investments. I am not sure how successful introducing the VBI into the consumer market, but the has been a lack of awareness programmes to introduce to the public.
  2. Corporate Market. Corporates are driven by profits and benefits. It is their core function ie to increase shareholder value.
  3. Financial Markets. We lack sufficient financial instruments in the market. That is why the industry can only grow organically. It needs the strong-will to pump more capital into the market and creation of structures that do not mirror the conventional books.

The Reality is that Traditional Banks need to keep up.

  • Traditional Banks. Heavily regulated to ensure financial stability. But the speed of adaptation to new thinking and new technologies are too slow. It is high cost to make the change, but also it is high cost just staying where you are. Ask Nokia. If all Islamic Banks do is replicate, they are in danger of becoming obsolete in the near future.
  • Challenger Banks. Provides alternative banking structures or arrangement, with little or no hassle, with or without the use of technology. A lot of customers now by-pass banks to opt for the most convenient and fast banking products. With very minimal regulatory requirements.
  • Digital Banks. This new breed of banks are definitely very interesting. There are two differentiators i.e. 1) Banks that only digitalise their processes and paperwork and speed, but the fundamental bricks are the same, and 2) Banks that try to be different and offer a totally new proposition with a new set of bricks. Yet, Islamic Banks are expected to do all and adopt more stringent requirements when entering into the Digital space, while dealing with old issues such as constructive ownership and Aqad. More importantly, these issues can probably be resolved by NON-BANKS, offering the same terms and conditions, sometimes with slightly better proposition such as speed, accuracy and low cost. For example, big data companies such as Facebook and Grab intend to open their own “bank”. Facebook just launched its Libra bank trading in cryptocurrencies. Grab is rumoured to enter as well and these Big Data companies already have their database of ready customers for them to roll out their Digital Banks.

Stop Looking at Your Feet. Stretch out your hand and move to touch new Horizons.

A lot of discussions have been held between the academia and practitioners. It seems we are always looking ways to innovate and integrate into the future, but without any real solutions on how to actually do it. As mentioned, the will-power to affect change remains a huge challenge. Instead of “What Is….”  to be turned to “What If…” where solutions are always been discussed and developed for a solution, and “What Next…” clearly implying the shift in banking products from traditional to new developments.

It is no longer sustainable to just replicate. True innovation is on the rise. New solutions are needed to be offered to the customers.

The Next Generation bankers must familiarise themselves with all the blockchain and Internet of Things language and terms currently floating around. More importantly, there should be a look at the whole ecosystem to see where the Shariah elements can be included, and where others must be excluded. Collaborative discussions, between regulators, academicians, practitioners and Shariah scholars must work together for the growth in the industry. It is not just any growth, it involves a total paradigm shift to adopt the new ecosystem.

There is a need to differentiate and upscale the business practices. While we continue to focus on the Traditional Bank in making it more resilient, we might miss this opportunity to join the Industry Revolution 4.0 to revamp Islamic Banking and overlook the threats coming from other financial institutions (NON-BANK). This is the Banking disruption in real life.

Ethica’s Handbook of Islamic Finance

One of my favourite places on the web is the Ethica Institute of Islamic Finance i.e. ethicainstitute.com

Over the years, this website has grown in content and there’s a lot of discussions taken up in the website. At a risks of sounding bias, having the quality of content similar to Ethica’s is something my blog would aspire to.

One of the recent contribution by them is the publishing of the eBook on Islamic Finance, which is freely distributed provided it is not being used for commercial purposes and fortunately (or unfortunately for me) my blog is a non-commercial one. So here it is, posted for your own reading pleasure, Ethica’s Handbook of Islamic Finance.

Click below picture to download.

Ethica Handbook of Islamic Finance (2013)

  1. Ethica’s Handbook of Islamic Finance (2013)
  2. Ethica Handbook of Islamic Finance 2016 (Pre Launch Edition)
  3. Ethica Handbook of Islamic Finance (2017)
  4. Ethica Zakat Q&A Handbook (2013)

Ethica Handbook

 

 

Books

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Shariah Resolution in Islamic Finance (SAC BNM 2nd Edition)

One of the more important books that we usually refer to is the Shariah Resolutions in Islamic Finance issued by BNM. A lot of issues that we usually faced in designing a product has actually been deliberated at length as evidenced in the book. Useful guidance for all.

Resolutions of Shariah Advisory Council of BNM 2nd Edition

Waiting for the softcopy of the latest edition. Please send me one!

SAC 2nd Ed

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Bank Islam’s Application of Shariah Contract in Islamic Banking Products and Services (2013)

In conjunction with Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad’s 30 years anniversary (Bank Islam was established in 1983), the kind bank decided to release this useful book of knowledge of the various structures they have in the Bank for the public. Perhaps produced as a gesture for publicity and a bit of chest-thumping, but it is a useful insight on the mechanism that the bank use in its day-to-day operations. And it is written is simple language and illustrated to provide simple understanding, it can be a useful reference to new learners of Islamic Banking contracts and structures.

Have a read and you can get valuable insights on the simplicity of Islamic banking products and services.

Note: This booklet is written prior to the introduction of the Islamic Financial Services Act 2013 (IFSA 2013) so while some of the terminologies may now differ, conceptually I do not see any significant variations to the structures now prevalent in the market.

Download your copy of the  Application of Shariah Contracts in Islamic Banking Products and Services (2013) here or on the picture above.

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No Pork No Lard : The Shariah-Neutral Transactions

TO COMPLY OR NOT TO COMPLY, BUT THERE IS A THIRD OPTION

Following my earlier writing on the Digital Wallet / ePayments and how such transactions may have not breached Shariah requirements but lacks the validation to ensure all elements do not touch the prohibited elements, I am called to further expand on the topic. In my opinion, there are possibilities that more Shariah-Neutral products and transaction enter into the space of Islamic Banking, but without the validation of Shariah scholars or committees and yet, it will remain acceptable. It is possible, and it is already happening now.

“NO PORK NO LARD”

It is an interesting situation in Malaysia now, when it comes to food. In general, Malaysia as a Muslim country, the expectation is that the food consumed must be Halal and more importantly certified as such. The reason for it is that it gives comfort to the public that certain standards are adhered to according to religious requirements. To walk into a restaurant with the Halal signage gives us Muslims confidence to consume the food till our bellies are filled.

But there are challenges. The desire to ensure the standards are met has resulted in difficulties for restaurants getting certification quickly. The process is detailed and granular, and this is a good thing, but can be disheartening when the certification drags. And in some cases it is impossible to obtain, especially if the eatery has halal standard food but also offers alcoholic drinks to its non-Muslim customers. The Muslims know (or assume) the food is halal if they see there is no pork on the menu, and will ignore the alcoholic drink. This is now a common sight in Malaysia.

And thus the loop-hole or short-cut is discovered. Rather than going for certification of Halal for their restaurant, many owners now deemed it sufficient that the signage “No Pork / No Lard” will result in a Halal understanding. And this may be true; many small roadside businesses do not carry a Halal certification but is nonetheless patronised by Muslims as it does not carry pork on the menu. That cue is taken by the restaurant owners and over a period of time, the “No Pork / No Lard” now is understood to be serving halal food but without Halal certification.

DOES “NO PORK / NO LARD” MEANS IT’S SHARIAH NEUTRAL?

Taking that concept into the banking world, will consumers eventually be accepting Shariah Neutral products and services as the new norm? A product or services with no prohibitive elements that is deemed acceptable by both the producer and consumers but without any Shariah Committee validation. For many years some conventional banks have been offering Shariah compliant third party Takaful or Unit Trust products which was vetted by the Shariah Committee of the providers.There is total reliance on the providers validation for Shariah compliance.

Additionally, there are products and services that is by nature, very close to meeting the Shariah requirements in a contract. For example the leasing products which is perhaps 95% in line with Shariah requirements for Ijarah such as rental arrangements, ownership transfers and roles and responsibilities of lessor / lessee. The contention will always be the penalties and perhaps some operational practices, but in my view, these can be amended.

THEY WALK AMONG US

Believe it or not, there are already efforts on becoming Shariah-neutral where it is deemed acceptable practice for attracting Muslim consumers. Some non-Islamic banks have been aligning some of their products features to be consistent with Islamic banking practices under the guise of responsible financing or sustainable banking. For example, the compounding late payment interest which some non-Islamic banks no longer practice. Another example is that some are considering to remove “Commitment Fees” from unutilised financing balances in overdraft / revolving credit to align it to Islamic banking practices. We are starting to see non-Islamic banks realigning themselves to be on par with Islamic banking practices. Just to regain the competitive edge.

This will eventually lead to offerings that remove the prohibited elements and validated as acceptable by the public themselves, without further validation of Shariah scholars. Can a non-Islamic bank eventually offer products that it deemed as meeting the Shariah expectations? Surely, Shariah Committee will not have jurisdiction over a non-Islamic bank offering Shariah-Neutral offerings.

The more crucial question is perhaps : Will the public eventually become not so demanding for a stricter (or complicated)  Shariah Compliant product, and begin accepting Shariah-Neutral products that is offered by non-Islamic banks? Is that possible?

Such offerings may be offered via the digital world where the contractual lines are not so clear. Rebranding of a product can be done with minimal effort. The terms used can be made Shariah-friendly. How a transaction is handled behind the scenes may be less important  with the convenience of using Apps or Mobile Banking. And without Shariah scholars prohibition or decision on such matters, the public will hold to the opinion that it is deemed compliant and thus acceptable. Eventually, this opinion will become customary and generally accepted.

No Pork No Lard” may one day become the new acceptable norm in the non-Islamic banking space. And my suspicion, a lot of sceptics of Islamic Banking already hold this view. Maybe it is time to make clear of the colours of the offering; is it white or is it black? Otherwise, the colour of grey will become the new white.

To read the earlier posting, click on the following: https://islamicbankers.me/2019/01/15/e-wallets-did-you-forget-us-again/

Why Choose Islamic Home Financing in Malaysia?

ISLAMIC FINANCING HAVE SHOWN SUSTAINED GROWTH. WHY?

In the course of our job, we are often asked what are the value proposition and selling points of taking an Islamic Financing product as compared to a conventional loan. Are there certain conditions to qualify a person for taking Islamic Home Financing? There are misconceptions that Islamic financing are expensive, but if that is true, why would there be a growth in Islamic financing? Would people have to be extremely religious to accept an expensive / inferior product no matter what just because it is Shariah compliant?

There are certain features in-built in an Islamic structure that gives benefits that appeal to certain types of customers, based on their needs and requirements for the product. On the flip side there are also consumers that prefer other features not possible for an Islamic structure. It depends on your requirements when it comes to your usage.

BENEFITS OF ISLAMIC HOME FINANCING

  1. No Lock-in Period or Early Settlement Penalty for financing . In the banking world, there is a lot of effort to on-board a customer for a particular financing, and home financing is one of them. The process can take 3-9 months and involves a lot of people and it is natural for a bank to want to earn income as much as possible, as long as possible from the customer. That would not happen if the customer settles early. The bank will impose a minimum “lock-in” period of between 3-5 years where customers are prohibited to sell, settle or refinance their houses. If they do, an early settlement penalty (usually 1.0% on the amount to be settled) will  be imposed. Under Islamic financing, this feature is not generally accepted due to the concept that “Debt Cannot be Forgiven, even in Death”. Therefore to impose a penalty when a customer is attempting to pay off its debt remains an issue in the area of Islamic Banking. This is outline in the Ibra (Rebate) Guidelines issued in 2011 which prohibits such charge (Item 8.3). But that is not to say any penalties cannot be charged for the product. Such allowances are given if the product is sold based on a promotional rate, for example 2.0% p.a. lower than the normal financing rate for special campaigns or conditions. In such cases, the bank can recover the “discount” if the financing is settled within the lock in period. Actual cost or loss incurred by bank can be recovered (to avoid abuse). Another example is when a bank absorbs the legal fees for the financing, that actual expense can be recovered if early settlement is made within the lock in period. This Shariah requirement have proven popular for customers seeking short-term financing (plans to upgrade their properties within a few years) as well as property investors seeking for options to dispose properties when opportunities arises.
  2. 100% Stamp Duty waiver for Home refinancing. This feature is available in Malaysia where the government agrees to allow for a 100% stamp duty waiver for Islamic Financing when it is refinanced from a conventional bank. This is to encourage the refinancing market as it appeals to customers seeking additional financing on a property’s capital gains. For example, 10 years ago the customer took up  a loan for RM500,000 on a RM600,000 property which is now worth RM1,000,000. As the balance outstanding on the loan now is RM300,000, the customer is seeking another RM400,000 cash to finance a renovation. If the customer intends to move the loan, the customer will incur a stamp duty for RM700,000 (i.e. RM300,000 existing + RM400,000 additional). However, moving it to an Islamic bank, the existing  stamp duty for RM300,000 will be totally waived and only the additional (top-up) amount of RM400,000 will incur the normal stamp duty. This waiver is applicable for all refinancing from conventional bank to Islamic banks on the amount refinanced (provided the original loan has already paid for the stamp duty prior to the refinancing). This applies for individual customers as well as companies.
  3. Ceiling Rate Price Protection. While many years ago, this feature is mis-sold by many sales person as being oppressive and expensive, with the current climate of changes, this have instead become a competitive benefit for Islamic Banks. The key changes that happened in the past few years was first the Ibra’ (Rebate) guidelines issued by BNM in 2011 and also the Reference Rate Framework in 2014 (Item 8.10). The Ibra’s guidelines says it is ok for the bank to charge a ceiling rate to formalise the Aqad, but the day-to-day charging of the customer must be based on a mandatory rebate mechanism where the effective rate is at par which what a conventional normal benchmark rate is. This means that the customer is not overcharged. More importantly, the customer will not be charged more than the ceiling rate should the normal benchmark rate increase to above the ceiling rate. This provides the customer price protection against high fluctuations of the benchmark rates. Some might say that there is no way rates will breach the ceiling rate but if you look at the length of a financing product of up to 30 years, who is to say the benchmark rates won’t breach during an adverse economic cycle? More importantly, the Reference Rate Framework allows for punitive pricing where banks are allowed to increase the loan/financing rates based on customer’s risk profile to up to Effective Rates +3.50% p.a. If a commercial financing of BFR + 3.50% is about 10.30% p.a., that is not too far away from a normal ceiling rate ranging from 12% to 15% p.a. So, with a Ceiling Rate you get the best of both worlds; if the benchmark rate is below the ceiling rate, you enjoy the benchmark rate (same as conventional loans), and if the benchmark is above the ceiling rate, you only pay based on the ceiling rate (not the same as conventional loans).

GIVING BETTER SOLUTIONS THAT SATISFY SHARIAH REQUIREMENTS

The top 3 reasons above are some of the main drivers for Islamic Financing. For item 1 it is the BNM effort to provide Islamic Banks with a competitive edge based on Shariah instructions. For item 2, it is the government of Malaysia initiative to provide stamp duty incentive for a specific segment ie refinancing segment. For item 3, it is the Shariah requirement to have a ceiling rate which protects the consumer from uncertainty. All these 3 elements come together to provide a competitive advantage to banks and benefit to consumers.

There are a few smaller advantages to an Islamic financing structure (based on specific products such as No Commitment Fees for Islamic Revolving Credit or Overdraft), but it is too many to list down. Granted, these features are incentives and assistance by relevant parties to make the products attractive, and may not be applicable for products outside Malaysia.

In conclusion, the above demonstrates the ability to take a Shariah requirement to make it into a benefit for consumers. This aligns with the idea that Islamic Banking products must contribute to the sustainable practices that offers fair an equitable solution to consumers.