Sharia Compliant Banking in Malaysia

One of the long running arguments on Islamic Banking in its current state is the level of compliance to the rules of Sharia. There are still many believers out there who are not really believing in Islamic Banking. There are many suspicions in the industry. The main one is that Islamic Banking is a copy of conventional banking with merely a Sharia wrapper around it.

Sharia CompliantThis view is admittedly hard to dispel, unfortunately. Especially in a market where the industry is running 2 parallel banking systems ie Islamic Banking and Conventional Banking side by side. Sometimes, there is an additional element ie Islamic Banking Windows where an Islamic Banking operation resides in a conventional banking, leveraging totally on the conventional banking infrastructure.

The Middle-East has been able to gain more focus on the development of Islamic Banking. Despite Malaysia being one of the prominent pioneers of the industry, the stability of what we are seeing in the Middle-East has been the focus of ensuring the products they offer are deemed more Sharia compliant. While Malaysia is coming out with innovations to catch up with competition from conventional banks, the Middle-East is looking to products they already have and improving them to ensure Sharia compliance, fully backed by an international Shari’a framework.

This is clearly a different approach to the development between the two Islamic Banking industry.

In my view, the Middle-East has a clear advantage when in comes to sustainability. The advantage is simply this; the wants of the consumer. The Middle-East consumer simply WANTS Islamic Banking. No question about it. The consumers are split to either want Islamic Banking or does not want Islamic Banking. The trend is shifting away from the view that they are indifferent to any banking structure. There is a growth in preference for Islamic Banking, and this is the main driver for the development of the industry.

Malaysia, on the other hand, has a different set of consumers. The Malaysian consumers, whom may be just as pious as their Middle-Eastern brothers, continues to view the Islamic offerings with deep suspicion, which mould the attitudes towards Islamic banking industry. Admittedly, some Islamic Banking contracts have been disputed, tested and contested in a court of law, and in some cases the banks are not able defend these contracts properly. Reputational damage done; and some quarters have taken advantage in making the molehill bigger than it really was.

In Malaysia, the consumers only want and expect certain things from their banking product; cost savings features with full benefits, cheap pricing and easy to use. There is strong preference for Islamic Banking products but if there is a better alternative in the conventional banking space, the attitude is “Why not?”. At the end of the day, it all comes down to dollars and sens; “How much does it cost, what savings do I get, how much do I save”? Islamic or non-Islamic? It is all about what money I earn or save which I can use for my family and myself.

Maybe economic standing of the consumers do play a part. A product in Malaysia seems to be more about justice, even if it is just a misplaced perception, and therefore it must be cheap. Islamic Banking products in Malaysia have evolved significantly since its inception in the early 80’s. It is now more equitable, competitive and in many cases, has more “justice” elements in its structure. The issues that may arise 10 years ago, in my view, has already been looked at and smoothed out.

Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) has introduced many measure to support this idea of justice. The Ibra guidelines to ensure equitable settlement. Regulated Late Payment Charges to ensure consumer rights are protected. Synchronisation with the conventional banks on Responsible Financing and Product Transparency. Tight regulations of the Fees and Charges that an Islamic bank can charge to consumers. Does anyone know how rigorous the process BNM has imposed to approve fees and charges that an Islamic Bank can charge? 4 levels of approval at BNM, even after the Bank’s internal Sharia Committees have approved those charges. To get approval from the internal committee is already tough; to go to BNM to get the final approval is not something we look forward to.

These are good steps, but is it enough? Will the Malaysian consumer take that quantum shift to buy into Islamic banking products?

SSBAs I mentioned earlier, the main difference between what’s happening in the Middle-East and Malaysia is the consumer preference. In Malaysia, the consumer wants a product that provides justice to them, whether it’s pricing or features or convenience. Islamic or otherwise, it’s the job of Islamic Banks to win them over.

Therefore, this difference in the consumers mindset in the Middle-East may eventually be an important factor. Since Middle-East consumers just WANT Islamic banking, the industry there is given the benefit of the doubt for its development. Because of this, the emphasis of the development is more on Sharia compliance rather than just pricing, features and innovation.

fatwa

My limited experience in the Middle-East led me to one important conclusion; consumers want the comfort that when they choose Islamic Banking, the product must assure it meets the Sharia compliance required. By this, it is important to know the people who develop and approve the products. Great weight is placed on the names and reputation of the Sharia scholars themselves. Consumers genuinely want to know who approves the product structure, and want to see the scholars stamp on it. Requests for a copy of the fatwa governing the approval of the product is a norm in the Middle-East. As mentioned, the emphasis is on Sharia compliance, more than merely pricing. There is a huge trust and confidence in the Sharia scholars themselves, in their ability and the quality of decisions made on the products.

For that, I do applaud the consumers who chose Islamic Banking for looking beyond pricing. Many times I have been asked to furnish details and profiles of the Sharia scholars who approved the products. The decision to buy the product is more often than not, based on these profiles. The assurance of Sharia compliant banking became more important, even though there are better pricing elsewhere. And I believe that product innovation will have to come naturally once the performance of the Islamic banking industry is in the upswing. Competition and customer feedback drives innovation, but in the first place we need the right customers asking for the right solutions to be banking with us. As pricing and feature becomes the second priority, the Middle-East banks will be well placed to take a step back and assess compliance and therefore build consumer confidence organically.

Furthermore, many corporates and government-linked institutions mandates their financial dealings to be Sharia compliant, even making it part of their constitution and governance. This will drive the demand for Sharia compliant banking even more. With a ready market seeking, looking and wanting Islamic products and services, one can foresee a sustainable growth in the industry.

I don’t know what can possibly change the consumer mindset for this in Malaysia. Until then, we will always be playing catch up with the conventional banks even when BNM is pushing for a more wholesome Sharia compliant banking system. It could be a painful transition that the Banks will find difficult to stomach when the existing structure seemed to be working well. But without this change, will the industry ever make that quantum leap?

It’s catch-22. Someone needs to be bold enough to see it out, bite the bullet and draw that line in the sand; take a chance on Islamic banking with confidence and without so much suspicion. Maybe that is what is needed to make that paradigm shift in consumers.

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Synopsis of 2013 BNM Exposure Drafts

The following is what I understood from the various Exposure Drafts issued by BNM on 9 December 2013. Of the 7 exposure drafts that we received, I have earlier summarised the Wadiah Exposure Draft, and I will ignore the Bai-Inah Exposure Draft as we are no longer subscribing to the Bai Inah structure at the workplace.

Please find the remaining Exposure Draft review for your understanding.

Kafalah ED

2013 ED – Kafalah – One of the key issues for a Kafala (Guarantee) contract is the charging of fees for providing the guarantee services. The main issue has always been the quantum of fees charged, either in percentage of the financing or via a fixed charge for all financing amount. The justification of this charge is always tricky, because technically the fee should not be imposed if there is no call for the guarantee (in cases of no default). The guarantee will only materialise if the customer defaults, that’s when the work happens to justify any fees. Issuing a piece of paper at the start of the relationship to guarantee the amount does not amount to too much work, and there no funds disbursed to any parties (unfunded). To justify the charging of any fees based on percentage instead of actual work, especially for huge amounts of financing guarantee, can be problematic to justify in the eyes of Sharia.

Waad ED

2013 ED – Wa’d – At one point of time, Wa’ad (Promise) seems to be the answer to many structures, where a promise is given without any requirement to transact before a specific event. The terms therefore can be negotiated and re-negotiated without the need to strictly specify the terms of the transaction and re-signing of documents. This gives a lot of leeway for deals to happen.However, at the end of the day, Wa’ad remains as only a promise, legally distanced from a contract or an agreement. Enforcement at the courts are therefore without full confirmation of all the terms, and makes for a loose structure and potential disputes. This flexibility and enforceability remains one of the key risks to a Wa’ad contract, which is why until today Wa’ad is generally transacted between known parties i.e. between established and trusted Financial Institutions.

Wakala ED

2013 ED – Wakalah – Wakala (Agency) will remain an integral contract for Islamic Banking as it validates a lot of action that can be done by the Bank, in order to remain efficient. In general, Banks hold a lot of expertise in various fields, such as investments, financing, leasing and trading; something a normal customer may not want to be involved in on a daily basis. An Agency arrangement conveniently provides for this. Anything that improves the efficiency by leveraging on the Bank’s expertise and infrastructure, can be arranged via Agency. However, the way we practice it usually is transparent to the customer. In practice, Agency Fees are the right of the Agent, and the waiver of such fees, although allowed, is sometime seen as not adhering to the spirit of Agency and entrepreneurship. You do the work as an Agent, but don’t earn any fees as it is waived. In real life, this does not happen as whenever a work is completed, you should earn something.

Tawarruq

2013 ED – Tawarruq – As Tawarruq (Three-party Murabaha Sale) becomes more prominent in the Malaysian market, I was surprised that the ED was not more comprehensive than this. There are sequencing issues not addressed but more importantly, there is a lack of illustration on what is defined as Tawarruq. Is there any difference between a Tawarruq and Commodity Murabaha, which essentially is a 4 party transaction? The issue of interconditionality is adequately addressed in the ED but I would love to have seen more details related to products, such as for Islamic Credit Cards and Revolving Credit with a rebate structure (Ibra’) based on a floating rate financing. It mentions that the discount can be given based on certain benchmark agreed by the contracting parties. This opens the clause to various interpretation as it is without real detail.

I will look at the Hibah (Gift) ED but essentially, it is related to the Wadiah ED. Most of what’s covered under the Hibah ED is relevant to the Wadiah product, such as the discretionary Hibah issue and the giving of Hibah becoming a business practice (Urf Tijari) which can be construed as Riba (Usury). Wait for the posting.

Thank you for reading, hope everyone have an enjoyable holiday period ahead. Wasalam.

Readings : December Papers x 3

Murabaha

And to close off the year, BNM gave us a further 3 reading gifts for us to enjoy our holidays:

  1. Murabahah (2013)
  2. CP Mudarabah (SR,OP, OR)
  3. CP Musharakah (SR,OP,OR)

The Murabahah Standards looks interesting, and so is the Mudarabah Concept Paper. Do have a read and tell us what you think.

Looking forward to the coming holidays.

Exposure Draft : Wadiah

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One of the panic buttons we are pressing now is the new Wadiah Exposure Draft (ED). As a rule, Wadiah is a “safe-keeping with guarantee” arrangement, where a Bank agrees to take on-board customers deposits as a loan (Qardh). And in the rules of loan under Islamic Banking, a loan must be returned on the same amount when required; any amount above and beyond the loan amount, if put as a condition at the start or during of the deposit placement, may be construed as “Riba”. If the Bank utilises the deposits for any business activities, the Bank is given the discretion to award “Hibah” or gift payments allocated based on the balance outstanding.

With the introduction of the IFSA and the requirements that Malaysian Banks comply with the Investment Account Framework  if Mudarabah continued to be offered to Customers, the common wisdom is to migrate lock-stock-and-barrel into a Wadiah account. In my earlier writings, I already mentioned that to comply with the Investment Account Framework, a massive shift in thinking, processes, and management is required. Therefore to convert into a Wadiah structure may not be the ideal solution, but it will provide an “easier” route towards retaining Customers’ deposit.

Wadiah ED

However, in this chess game between the Islamic Banks and Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the new ED is introduced on Wadiah has effectively further tied the hands of the industry players. BNM had anticipated the industry intentions to move the Mudarabah structure into Wadiah, and promptly outlined further restrictions on Wadiah itself. The industry is now caught between a cold and hard place; stay with Mudarabah and comply with Investment Account Framework, or migrate into Wadiah and comply with the new Wadiah Guidelines.

Wadiah Concept Paper

As we know, Wadiah also puts significant limitation on the marketing of returns and benefits to customers for their deposits. BNM took this a step further; to emphasize that returns on a Wadiah account should always be discretionary, as Wadiah is now seen as a loan. The impact comes in several clauses in the Exposure Draft:

  1. Wadiah Yad Dhammanh is considered similar in nature to Qard. Therefore the rules of Qardh should also apply to Wadiah.
  2. A majority of customers should not be getting a return on the deposit under Qardh. Generally this is saying that out of 100 customers, only 49% of customer will be given a “gift” on their deposits
  3. The payment of the discretionary “gift” should not be construed as regular or common business practice (Urf’ Tijari) else it will imply that the “gift” is a constant return to the customer. Historical performance can be shown to customers.
  4. Any benefits, monetary or otherwise, deriving directly from the placement in the Wadiah account may be construed as “Riba” as well.
  5. Any benefits includes scenarios where should the Wadiah account be opened as part of a financing facility, and benefits enjoyed in the financing facility from amounts available in the Wadiah account (for example a rebate structure to off-set an obligation), shall be construed as riba’ as well.

My main question is; now that Mudharabah is turned into a pure investment account, and Wadiah carrying so many restrictions, what other solutions are there? It cannot be that BNM only expects us to comply but do not help with a viable solution on these restrictions. Yes we are looking at the Commodity Murabahah structures, but operationally this will be a challenge for the Banks to control the cost of commodity trade.

Wadiah ED

And how do we define majority, then? The system must now be enhanced to determine who gets the discretionary “gifts” based on which formula. Even if they qualify for the discretionary “gifts”, to award them on a regular basis will also lead to it be construed as “Urf Tijari”, where consistent payment of Hibah will imply a similar future returns. How do we define this “non-majority” of Customers whom qualifies for Hibah but do not get regular awards of Hibah? What system logic can we build and will what we build be acceptable to Sharia? More importantly, would the customer even accept such “discretionary” practice?

Now that BNM has issued a new Concept Paper on Shariah Requirements, Optional Practices and Operational Requirements of Mudarabah today, we get a somewhat watered-down requirements to Mudarabah products. I have read it and saw that under this new Framework, the Mudarabah structure remains viable as it is, with enhancements needed for documentation and disclosures. Manageable and workable. The next steps must be; if we were to stick with Mudarabah, which Framework will take precedent. Mudarabah is an Investment structure. So, would we follow the Mudarabah Framework, or to comply with the Investment Account Framework? Both Frameworks makes reference to each other; yet one is stricter than the other.

I am putting all my hopes on the new Framework. That will give me some leeway of having both Wadiah structure and a viable Mudarabah structure (not based on the Investment Account Framework). This is definitely the light at the end of the tunnel. But as usual, indications are to take the “stricter” guidelines into account, rather than keeping hope for an easier implementation.

Exposure Drafts for 2013

ImageToday we are given additional reading materials; Exposure Drafts!!!

By my last count, 7 new Exposure Drafts was published by BNM yesterday and now it is time to digest them. As it is, there is so many to digest already. Quick and fast after the Bai-Inah clarifications in late 2012, we were given tight deadlines for the IFSA bill to comply. Add to that, the IFSA “forces” us to re-look at the Investment Account Concept Paper and the Rate of Return Framework if we were to look at retaining a Mudaraba or Wakala deposit structure. Then comes the deadline that the compliance to the Investment Account concept paper is to be met by 30 June 2014.

More sleepless nights? Yes, especially since the industry is struggling in coming up with a Current Account Savings Account alternative to Mudaraba.

Now we welcome the new Exposure Drafts and the boss has given me 2 days to read the relevant ones. Will I be able to digest them? The names of my new friends as follows:

  1. Exposure Draft for Wakalah
  2. Exposure Draft for Wa’d
  3. Exposure Draft for Bai Inah
  4. Exposure Draft for  Hibah
  5. Exposure Draft for Tawarruq
  6. Exposure Draft for Kafalah
  7. Exposure Draft for Wadi`ah

And generally, Exposure Draft is like the engagement before a marriage. You may give feedback, but the deal is already on. It is just a formality.

This will make for an interesting reading, and an even more interesting new year.