Istisna’a Concept Paper

Yet another concept paper for us to read; BNM is really making us work hard for our salaries. The contract of Istisna’a is covered in this concept paper, traditionally used in a hybrid arrangement of a mortgage product for properties under construction. In the Middle East we are used to see Istisna’a as a standalone arrangement, and with this concept paper, it seems like a step by BNM in aligning the contracts used by Malaysian Islamic Banks with the practices in the Middle East.

With this Concept Paper, the way is paved for Istisna’a to finally stand alone as it’s own contract rather than part and parcel of another overarching structure, such as Musyaraka or Ijara.

But that doesn’t mean that it is not without its challenges. If Istisna’a is bundled amongst a variety of other contracts, many issues can be catered for in the other contracts and its documentation. Now, reading the CP, few glaring challenges needs a rethink if Istisna’a is to be the viable answer to properties under construction.

Istisna

Risk

The first, and perhaps the most significant item is the role of the Bank which leads to the next significant issue ie ownership. The CP envisioned scenario where the role between Bank and Customer is Bank as developer and Customer is, well… customer. This is a role reversal to what many banks are used to. The Istisna’a that I am used to seeing in Malaysia is that the Customer undertakes to construct the property (via their selected property developer); by this the construction risks remains with the Customer who undertakes the role of developer. The customer therefore ensures that the property is eventually delivered. Without recourse especially in cases of project abandonment.

But with the CP, the game changes. The Bank now must act as the party that’s responsible in delivering the property; effectively this means the role of the developer itself. The construction risks now lies with the Bank. The Bank must ensure that the property is delivered to specifications else the customer have room to renegotiate the terms of the Istisna’a, including cancellation of the whole transaction if the property is deemed to be “not as per requirements”. While the risks of such things happening is remote, the risks remains there and is real. Especially if we are dealing with small developers developing projects in remote areas. There is a real risk these small developers disappearing and the property, even if it got completed, is unsaleable due to location or market factors.

Ownership

The Sale & Purchase Agreements (S&P) is a document signed between the customer and the construction developer. The bank is not a party to this transaction, therefore the Bank’s name do not appear there. So how then, do we evidence ownership transfer and validating the contract between the Bank (as developers) and Customer? The developer will hardly want to transfer its rights and responsibilities to a Bank unless the Bank outright purchases the property, and during construction, how will it be possible?

Back in the day when Bai Bithaman Ajil (BBA) was the “deal of the day”, this curious creature called Novation Agreement was used. It is an agreement used to bind 3 parties to the arrangement, a tri-part ate agreement that developers sign to allow to transfer beneficial ownership to the Bank to allow the sale transaction between Bank and Customer. Not many developers want to sign this, but in instances where they did, it provided a way out on the issue of ownership before the sale. Yet this curious being has disappeared from the landscape, as many users gets jittery when there are more and more documents to sign.

It could be worth to consider this approach again, on an industry-wide basis rather than individual practitioners. Make it an industry document, get standard legal opinion, get buy-ins from developers on the need for this document and remove all the doubts on ownership. Novation Agreement might not be a bad thing but maybe some work needs to be done to satisfy the legal peculiarities relevant to each stakeholders.

Expertise

This is where the Banks lack when you consider Istisna’a contract in its spirit. Under Istisna’a, the responsibility to ensure the properties are completed, functional and deliverable to the customer rests on the shoulders of Banks. As a matter of principal, Banks are traditionally financial institutions, not geared to be engaged as “property developer”. The risk of development is always transferred to the developers, and not held by Banks. To have a unit set-up to monitor the construction of the properties requires specialised personnel who understands the nitty gritty of property development is hardly effective or efficient. Developers would also be wary of Banks trying to trespass into their territory of expertise. My view, let the developers be developers and Bankers remain bankers.

Istisna’a structures are fairly new in Malaysia; while it is being used in the market, but it always has been part of the larger collection of contracts in a financing arrangement. To have it stand-alone on its own, there is a need to re-think the legal requirements to ensure the Istisna’a can be accepted as a viable Islamic contract.

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Ijara (Leasing) Concept Paper

Reading the Ijarah Concept Paper issued by BNM leaves me with one very strong impression; Is BNM seriously asking Islamic Banks in Malaysia to start offering Operating Lease to the customers?

In general, Malaysian Banks (as well as many Middle-Eastern Banks) employ the Financial Lease structures for the purpose of financing the purchase of Assets, Equipment or Property. Financial Lease usually refers to a financing arrangement where the Assets are “rented” to the Customer (Lessee) and at the end of the rental period, the Asset ownership is transferred to the Lessee via a Gift transaction, or a nominal amount Sale Transaction. This means Financial Lease is very similar to a Hire Purchase i.e. you hire, then at the end of the tenure, a purchase is executed. The risks and ownership expenses are borne by the Lessee and in the Bank’s books (Lessor), the obligation is recorded as a receivable.

Operating Lease vs Financial Lease

But reading the questions posed in the CP, one can’t help but escape the notion that BNM is toying with the idea that eventually, “pure” lease, or Operating Lease will become one of the products that is made available by Islamic Banks. Pure Ijara means that the Bank now takes on the ownership risks associated with the Assets. All ownership-related expenses will now be borne by the Asset owner, namely the Bank. Many Ijara structures nowadays delegates such responsibilities to the Customers by appointing the Customer as an Agent to upkeep the Asset, and it is in the best interest of the Customer to ensure the Asset is in good working condition. Under a pure Ijara structure, ownership will always be with the Bank, and therefore the Bank will incur these cost and shouldering the responsibilities.

So what happens under Operating Lease?

  1. The Bank will always own the Asset. No transfer of ownership will be made.
  2. As owners of the Asset, it is the responsibility of the Bank to incur expenses and upkeep the Asset
  3. The Bank must always monitor the market value of its Assets. We might not have the right expertise for this, and may need to outsource this function.
  4. Even after the completion of the primary lease period i.e. all payments has been made according to schedule, the Bank must continue to manage and monitor the Assets by extending the leasing arrangement into a secondary lease (which earn very little).
  5. To have this monitoring  capabilities, full time employees need to be hired to manage the portfolio.
  6. The inherent risks for Operating Lease must be seriously looked into by the Bank. The risk of loss of Asset, devaluation of Asset value and maintenance of Assets must be internally catered for.
  7. The costs of setting up a unit to manage the Asset may not be cost effective.
  8. The way the risks are mitigated. Credit approvals must take into account the various risks offered by the product  and take into account the risk appetite of the Shareholders. In short, the Shareholders did not provide funds for the purpose of making in a “high” risk use of their funds. Their mandate is simple; safe, reliable investments and use of Asset.
  9. The stamp-duty for an Asset ownership structure is more expensive than the stamp-duty of a financing structure.

Why has no Banks seriously exploring and offering pure Ijara? The answer is simple; The high cost of setting up and maintaining the business, coupled with the operational requirements of offering a pure Ijara product, and the risks that the Islamic Bank faces, makes it a difficult product to offer.

Operating Lease is not an easy proposition as a lot of infrastructure needs to be built. More importantly, an Islamic Bank is not set-up to take on such high risks on their portfolio. In general, the Banks wants stability in its business model and not take unnecessary risks on its books. Personally, I have seen the operation of the Operating Lease in the first Bank I worked in (actually its a finance company), and it took a lot of effort to build the infrastructure to fully support the Leasing (financing) structure. Ijara Financing provides an easier alternatives but that does not mean Islamic Banks should not start exploring Operational Lease. This might one day meet the lofty aspirations of the BNM; to offer products that meets the international understanding of how an Islamic Banking product should work.

At the moment, we are staying off the Operating Lease structures to ensure continued sanity.