The Consequence of Choice

It was a day where nerves were frayed and feathers ruffled.

A huge potential customer comes. The intention is that they wanted to move all their accounts to Sharia-compliant banking, as they intend to “Islamicize” their business. All the available structures were laid out to the customer, the processes and the documentary procedures were explained for their understanding.

But suddenly, comes the golden question… “Do you have any products that looks and behave like a conventional product that we are familiar with? We are not comfortable with all these Islamic terms and documentations, so can we have something that does not require us to sign all these documents?”.

I was left speechless.

Sharia-compliant banking is based on contractual relationships. There are many relationships; Musyaraka, Murabaha, Ijara, Mudharaba, Istis’na… Various and many depending on use, intention, and desired outcome. There must be an underlying transaction, governed by specific rules and tenets, and pays attention even to sequencing requirements, ownerships, rights and usufruct.

Documentary Islamic

Fundamentally it is different from a conventional banking structure, which is loan based and interest charging. Thus documentation for a non-Sharia banking product is essentially one core document; Facility Agreement. But that may not necessarily be the case for Sharia banking, where documents are crucial evidence for the underlying transaction, ownership and obligations.

To make that conscious decision to shift to Sharia-banking is admirable. But to insist on a structure they are used to in conventional banks makes this effort superficial. It is frustrating to explain that each Sharia-compliant product behaves in a certain manner and must comply with the tenets captured in various documents; no matter how much a customer envision the product feature and documentation should be instead. A Sharia-compliant 1-month Term Deposit based on Qardh (ease of documentation) but with guarantee of returns? How would we pull that off? It is a contradiction in concepts.

Customers need to understand that to choose Sharia-banking is to accept the rules and trimmings that comes with this model. It is not the same as the conventional model, although at many times we try to replicate what’s available in the conventional space to avoid confusion. Replication is there for convenience but the DNA of Sharia-compliant banking is different. With replication then enhancement and eventual replacement, we hope awareness in Sharia-compliant products may come in gradual stages.

I think it all boils down to the lack of understanding what is required for us to offer Sharia-compliant banking. The layers we go through are numerous, stricter regulatory requirements and Sharia rules to follow. Turnaround times for Sharia-compliant product is understandably slower, where there is intense scrutiny on contractual relationships, legality and Sharia-sensibilities.

It is tough to be an Islamic banker. We manage perceptions, expectations and responsibility not only to the Bank’s customers, but also to general consumers. To choose this model, consumer must be open to the fact that Sharia-compliant banking is similar but definitely not the same as a conventional model. There is a lack of awareness of what is involved but we need to be open to an idea. Everyone knows the conventional model, therefore do take time to understand Sharia-compliant banking as a new learning instead on trying to hammer a conventional-familiarity into a model which works based on risk-sharing, relationships, and contractual certainties and tenets.

May I have a calm week ahead.

New Reference Rate Framework (Concept Paper)

To read the New Reference Rate Framework Concept Paper, click here

One of the papers currently being floated around for discussion is the new Reference Rate paper. While no date is indicated for the paper to be effective, [Update : today it was announced that effective date by 2 January 2015] its implication will be significant to both the banking system in Malaysia, Islamic and non-Islamic. The main purpose of the paper is the way Banks price their financing product must now be different. Gone will be the Base Lending Rates (BLR) and Base Financing Rates (BFR), and welcome the new defined term; Prime Financing Rate (PFR).

The intention is this; a lot of the things that go into the BLR/BFR are pricing related to risks, and these premiums are loaded into the base borne by customers. This leaves the margin (or customer spread) that is charged becomes somewhat “clean” as a return to the bank, with the exception of impairments (loan/financing defaults). In addition, banks earn “additional” returns from the “savings” built into the BLR/BFR itself. As a lot of risk premiums are built into the base rate, if these risks do not materialise, the bank technically “earns” this savings. You charge the customer in the base rate some premium for the expected risks, but you get the benefit for it. Ideal scenario.

It is therefore no surprise that some good banks, that are able to manage their risks effectively, are pricing their financing at a base-minus rate. It is now common to see home financing packages being priced at BFR minus 2.0% p.a., and the BFR being 6.60% p.a., the pricing is therefore 4.40% p.a. In theory, taking into account the actual cost of funds, adding only the “necessary” premium to cater for risks that is beyond the bank’s control, the base-minus rate still makes decent money for the Banks.

Therefore, even at 4.40% p.a., there is still room for the Bank to earn a margin, after deducting actual cost of funds. I believe the new Reference Rate framework aims to address this issue somewhat.

The concept paper was issued in January 2014 and this will change the way we price the financing portfolio. Under the concept paper, the base pricing shall only consist of the following:

  1. Cost of Funds (COF) – this is essentially the equivalent to interbank borrowing rate or cost of capital
  2. Statutory Reserve Requirement (SRR) – this is a regulatory reserve requirement for financial prudence

As you can see, these components of the new Prime Financing Rate (PFR) leaves very little room for Banks to manoeuvre the rates. COF is market driven, based on interbank lending rates, while SRR is a regulatory requirement based on specific percentage. BNM know that these are the most rigid components to pricing, therefore this may be a deliberate composition selection by BNM aimed at institutions to re-think the pricing formula.

And under the new regime of PFR, the following should no longer be built into the base rate. These costs, if the Banks want it, should be a part of the margin to the Banks loaded into the customers.

  1. Operating Costs
  2. Administrative Costs
  3. Credit Risk Premium
  4. Liquidity Risk Premium
  5. Any profit margin

Prime Financing Rate

These cost, if to be taken by the Bank, must therefore be part of the margin charged onto the customer. Customer will now know what components go into their financing i.e. The margin is now reflective of the risk the Bank perceive onto the customer. The higher the customer’s risk profile, the higher the margin can be.

As such, the 2.50% p.a. maximum margin chargeable onto the base rate should no longer be applicable. As at January 2014, the BLR / BFR is 6.60% and at a margin of +2.50%, the maximum rate chargeable is 9.10% p.a. Under the new regime, the dynamics may now be different for example the PFR could be 3.90% and the margin +5.00% which adds up to 8.90%. In absolute terms it’s cheaper but the customer might balk at the +5.00% margin when they are used to +1.00% or even -1.00% margins.

This is actually a good framework as Banks will have to be more competitive in pricing as the lower the margin, the more risks you are taking on your customers as the risk pricing is built into the margin. Additionally, the concept paper restricts the bank from quoting a price lower than the PFR, and this will make sense because it won’t eat into the Bank’s Cost of Funds. While you can have a BFR-2.00% (i.e. 4.60%), a PFR-2.00% won’t make sense as the PFR component, for example priced at 3.90% will give a net financing rate of 1.90%, and eats into the cost of funds.

In short, the pricing for financing moving forward will be based on the creditworthiness of the customer. Any changes in pricing will be reflecting the changes in operating costs, portfolio defaults or funding strategies. It gives the Bank more flexibility to determine pricing based on agreed scenarios or specific events.

This is a positive development. Banks now have the ability to decide on how to price a product based on real strategies and existing capabilities. Customers will have more transparencies in terms of what they are being charged. This will also spur competition among Banks, and provide better products and services to consumers, especially if the Bank gets its risk profiling right and able to effectively manage its default. All this will require a critical re-think on how a product profitability is determined, and a re-think of how the right management can provide a sustainable financing portfolio.

Note: On the Deposit Rates requirements, there are not much in the Concept Paper itself. Most of the requirements on Deposits are captured under the various EDs such as Wadiah, Hibah, Wakalah and the Investment Account Concept Paper. The only notable mention on the Deposit Rates section is that for Basic Savings Account, returns should be paid irrespective of the account balance and shall not be lower than 0.25% per annum. Also, there is a clause that mentions for Islamic Current Accounts, any hibah/dividend payments should not exceed 2.00% per annum. This, in my opinion, runs counter to the ED on Wadiah (which allows the Bank pure discretionary payment of Hibah, and therefore should not be governed by a capped rate) and the Investment Account Concept Paper (which states that the Bank must reward the customer dividends due to them, based on actual portfolio performances, therefore should not be limited to only 2.00% per annum). These point are against the spirit of Wadiah and Mudharabah, as well as against the Competition Act. We understand BNM is discussing this point internally after receiving industry feedback, and may consider removing this from the framework. We wait with bated breath for this framework to be properly issued.

UPDATE : The 2.0% per annum maximum cap on the Islamic Current Account has been removed via BNM circular dated 20 March 2014. Indeed this puts us back on the right playing field with conventional banking.

For some news on the above topic, please find the following newspaper articles: