Continuing Post : The Problem with Transplanting the ‘Sustainability’ Movement on Islamic Banking

By Dr Rosana Gulzar Mohd
EXCERPT : In ‘Islamic’ Banking, we dance around issues as if vying for a Bollywood Oscar. The latest theme, on ‘Sustainability’, is fashioned after the United Nations (UN)’ Sustainability Development Goals (SDG), in concert with other large organisations such as the Islamic Development Bank and the World Bank. While they may seem like a natural fit with goals such as peace, justice and decent work for all, a closer look uncovers a few fundamental flaws. Firstly, while championing social and environmental wellness, we continue to evade the main issue, which is that profit- and loss-sharing, arguably the main tenets of Islamic Banking, have been replaced with tawarruq, which resembles riba in form and spirit. Secondly, and related to the first argument, this concept of ‘Sustainability’ is at odds with the modern financial system. One is about preserving for future generations while the other belies a winner-takes-all mentality. There is a view that like Islamic Banking, ‘Sustainability’ cannot be sustained in Commercial Banks even though several of them, from Singapore to London, have adopted the practices. In Islamic Banks’ (blind) pursuit of Commercial Banking, are we being set up for failure?

Following up her article earlier this month, this discussion focuses on the “Sustainability” revolution undertaken by Islamic Banks, and whether “being compassionate” adds value to the Islamic banking proposition which still practices debt-based banking. What do you think? Read the full article here or click on the above diagram. Comments and feedback welcomed

For more writings under Dr Rosana, visit the page in this site which houses more of her writings by clicking below:

Continuing Post : True Islamic Banking is Not in a Commercial Bank

By Dr Rosana Gulzar

 EXCERPT : This is the ‘square’ that the ‘round’ Islamic Banks have been fitted into. So although Islam encourages a range of objectives that include communal welfare and profit-making (Note: NOT profit-maxisiming), Islamic Banks, as Commercial Banks, are almost single-mindedly pursuing the highest profits they can make for shareholders. They do this through all kinds of loans that look eerily like the riba they are supposed to replace. This is the outcome of a decision made by a group of founders in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the 1970s. They wanted to quickly absorb the people’s newfound wealth from the oil boom. Several earlier attempts at genuine PLS in Egypt failed so the fastest build-up for Islamic banking would be by replicating conventional finance.

This is the continuing discussion by Dr Rosana on the above topic, which puts in the case for Cooperative Banks to be a more suitable testbed for Islamic Banking concepts and contracts. Perhaps a new look on what financial structure is most suitable adopt the requirements of Shariah banking is required. What do you think? Do give your comments and contribute to the discussion. Read the full article here or click on the above diagram.

For more writing under Dr Rosana, visit the page in the site which houses more of her writings by clicking below:

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.

Steering a Shariah Decision

Click on above picture to download the article in pdf

HIDDEN TRAPS IN SHARIAH DECISION MAKING

I came across an interesting article titled Hidden Traps in Shariah Decision Making by bro Ehsanullah Agha (click on picture for full pdf article). The article summarises what we product developers have known for quite some time now, and has now become necessary tools in ensuring the products we design are approved by our Shariah Committee. It summarises the involvement of Shariah in decision-making in an IFI, as well as some of the “traps” that Shariah Committee falls into when making decisions.

The 4 “traps” mentioned are:

  1. Anchoring an opinion
  2. Adhering to the Status Quo
  3. Confirming Evidence to support a decision
  4. Framing of information

While the above is referred to as “traps”, I would rather refer these as “approaches” to solicit a decision, and perhaps all the above can come together (not exclusively) in considering a decision. Reading the above exclusively may give the impression that a product team can resort to a specific tactic in order to extract a certain decision. Admittedly, there are such cases, especially where management requires a specific decision to support a business. But Shariah Committees are often expected to be the gatekeepers for such decisioning.

A quick comment on the above points:

  1. Anchoring. While product teams do not consciously try to anchor an opinion before presenting to Shariah Committee, we often do so to provide perspective on the rationale for such proposal. This can be done by highlighting a crisis or regulatory danger to support the proposal. It becomes the baseline discussion point during the deliberation stage. And we do it to keep the discussion in focus to achieve the objective ie resolving the crisis.
  2. Status Quo. By far this is one of the main consideration of an approval by Shariah Committees. Usually we call it Urf ie customs or acceptable market practice on a certain product behaviour. Personally, decisions based on Urf is not something I prefer but it is sometimes necessary to quote as such, especially if there is no major criticism on its usage and practice by the public (which also includes religious scholars). There is nothing wrong with accepting the norms of the society; my only contention is that I may not fully understand the deliberation points when such decisions are made by other parties for the fear of missing out a critical argument that should have been known and resolved by my team. Two things come to mind; Ignorance is bliss, and Blind leading the blind.
  3. Confirming Evidence. This is also a key point where a certain decision is preferred over the other. When there is a bias for arriving at a certain decision, the product research, analysis and design (including practicality in operations) are equally biased in finding evidence to support reaching of that decision. Rightly so as mentioned in the article, the evidence to support the contract of Bai Inah in Malaysia is generally extracted from the Shafie school of thought while sidelining the rest of the opinion that is equally valid. The evidence provided for the acceptability is biased to enable the consideration to approve the structure.
  4. Framing. In my opinion, framing is a necessary tool for product development teams simply due to the amount of information available in the market. While we understand the need for a robust deliberation session with the Shariah Committee, the forums available to us (and the allocated time given) are usually restrictive. To go into full academic and technical discourse will be challenging especially when a quick decision is required. The information that we provide are those we deemed most relevant to support the proposed solution. There may be other decisions that the Shariah Committee can arrive at, if only we had provided more information. But the danger lies where the inclusion of too much information may result in indecisiveness or confusion. Sometimes too much information clouds the real issue further, and it takes time to bring things back into focus. Therefore, we frame the information relevant to the issues. The intention is not to exclude, but to include what is relevant.

A GOOD DECISION COMES WHEN ALL PARTIES ARE ENGAGED

When a product team goes into a proposal, discussion or request for a certain decision, the Shariah Committee is expected to be conversant with the topic at hand to be able to engage in a meaningful discussion. The product team brings in the technical requirements, with some general Shariah background information, market analytics and practical implication on process requirements expected by Shariah. The Shariah Committee must bring in their expertise in Shariah knowledge to dissect and analyse the team’s proposal, not just what is being presented as information but also the rationale, the intention and the technical nuances proposed for the product.

Asking the right question is important for the Shariah Committee, just as providing the right context and intention is also important for the product team. In general, the product team must not go into a Shariah proposition with the intention to manipulate, coerce or blindside the Shariah Committee into a “business” decision. The effort must show full consideration in compliance with Shariah. As much as the heavy burden placed on the Shariah Committee shoulders are real (with fines and jail-time outlined under IFSA2013 when there’s failure to execute their duties), the same burden must also be felt by the IFI’s product team whenever a product is being designed and launched. The people I work with, I see strong commitment and awareness on the need to do the right things, all the time.

WISH LIST FOR 2019

It is easy to expect Shariah Committee to be well versed in all aspects of banking and finance when the decision is required. And it is also easy to expect product development teams to be fully aware of all “relevant” information to be able to share them objectively with the Shariah Committee. Such an ideal scenario will mean all parties come to the table fully aware of all the potential issues, with sufficiently extensive information and in-depth theoretical research to support all the argument. This does not always happen in real life.

I believe the only way to bridge this expectation is to significantly increase the knowledge of all parties. We see this starting to happen at the Shariah Committee level where BNM now encourage at least 1 industry expert to sit in the Shariah Committee, even without a Shariah background. This is to promote knowledge sharing and a different point of view during decisioning, and take notice of any attempts to coerce a decision.

On this same vein, I believe the next natural step is to have Shariah-trained individuals to become product developers in IFI. Most Shariah-based graduates that we see, enter into the banking world via the Shariah department. But how about entering other departments such as sales, credit or more importantly product-development? Such background knowledge in Shariah may itself force a self-regulating approach when designing a products. The Shariah arguments will be the first filter when assessing a product; if it fails at that filter, it will not see the light of day. And Shariah Committee can take some comfort that the Shariah deliberation has already started at the onset of the product development process.

I have seen some impressively good work done by Shariah-based product developers. This should be the way forward in finding new Shariah-compliant banking solutions. Hope I get this wish next year. Looking forward to 2019.

Another Good Site : Islamic Finance Resource

Click on picture to jump siteOnce in a while, friends ask me if there are reports or articles on Islamic Finance, and as much as I would say my site has it all, I know for certain my site contains mostly my musings on Islamic Banking. It is certainly my resource centre for my field of work, but there are other sites that are maintained and organised more systematically.

One of the sites that I do visit once in a while is Islamic Finance Resources, which contains a lot of updated news and latest industry reports. A good place to find statistics and some discussions on interesting Islamic Finance structures, and useful information. Mostly excerpts from the IFN and Reuters news portals. Certainly an additional place for us to seek information.

Do have a check on the site and hope you find the site useful.

Report : Islamic Finance Development Report 2017

Click on picture to go to report

Information on Islamic Banking and Finance performance has always been an interest of many practitioners, myself included. Yearly we scour the best looking and informative reports on the internet that is full of data on the industry, especially when it covers the global markets as well. Sometimes we find an average one, but nowadays there seemed to be an abundance of available reports. Some have “good” contents, but when I come across “great” one, I am tempted to put it on my site. For future reference, off course!

What we always love to find out is the performance of the Islamic Banking industry locally and globally, as it will provide reliable data to management on the latest trends that contributes to the bottom line. And presented in simple and clear infographics will only ensure some of the slides will be “cut and pasted” for speaker presentations, being quoted in many sessions. This reports provide all those opportunities.

More interestingly, this report provides insights on what has been going on in the world. For example, items such as Value Based Intermediation (VBI) espoused by BNM was also mentioned. There is talk about Islamic Fintech, Awqaf Funds and other local going-ons, including CSR initiatives. I would say this report covers many new areas of interest in Islamic Banking and Finance.

It also has a four-slide presentation on the most recent dispute on Sukuk involving Dana Gas. This was a real concern by many many parties over an extendable period of time. Nonetheless, this report make a good job summarising the key issues about the Dana Gas case, until its resolution. What a good write up for layman.

I hope these kind folks don’t mind me posting their report on my site. As mentioned, this website was maintained aimed to be a repository of the many discussions on old and new issues. If you want to download the report yourself, click REPORT : ISLAMIC FINANCE DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2017. Also find other reports and this report in the Knowledge Centre.

Happy Reading

Sustainable Vs Halal Practices

Today I had the privilege of attending the Sustainable Development Goals Forum at Sasana Kijang, and it is interesting to have a different perspective to the idea of Islamic Banking. I have always had the impression that Islamic Banking is the means of reaching the Maqasid of Shariah (objectives of Shariah). However, listening to the forum, I realise Islamic Banking is probably only the START of the journey to the Maqasid of Shariah.

THE MAQASID OF SHARIAH

In general, the development of Usul Fiqh is to ensure the 5 objectives of Shariah are met, and the legal framework revolves around these understanding. To remind ourselves what those are:

  1. Protection of Religion
  2. Protection of Life
  3. Protection of Intellect
  4. Protection of Lineage
  5. Protection of Property

In the same breath, it is envisioned that Islamic Banking is also designed to help achieve the Maqasid of Shariah. But if you really look into it, banking per se has been so far developed to mainly fulfil the 5th objective which is “Protection of Property“. It deals mainly on the Muamalat element (economic relationships) of humans in daily life. Thus so far, most of the objective elements in a banking perspective revolves around:

  • Are the funds deployed by bank used to finance Shariah compliant activities?
  • Are the transactions valid and follows the minimum tenets of the contract?
  • Are the processes following minimum Shariah requirements that avoid Riba (usury), Gharar (uncertainty) or Maisir (Gambling) elements?
  • Are the features of the products and services resulting in justice and fairness to the customers?
  • Are the products and services deliberated and assessed by the Shariah Committee to be in compliant to Shariah law and its veritable sources?

A lot of banking activities aims to comply with “Shariah requirements”. However, this is a snapshot of just one portion of the whole Islamic value chain, which simply looks at only the part where the bank’s processes and practices satisfy the minimum requirements to ensure transaction validity. This makes the process “Halal”. But is being “Halal” enough?

WHY IS HALAL NOT ENOUGH

In a Muslim’s daily life, many aspect revolves around “Halal”. In particular we prefer Halal food, which means the food is prepared the right way according to Muslim traditions, which excludes liquor, un-slaughtered animal meat, and pork or lard. In the banking proposition, these are Riba, Gharar, Maisir and unjust practices. But these are still within the control of the banking institutions. Avoiding these, surely Islamic Banking practice equals Shariah compliance.

But is merely being Shariah compliant sufficient to meet the objectives of Shariah?

Halal, in my view, only corresponds to the minimum requirements in meeting Maqasid of Shariah. Stopping at “meeting Shariah compliance in terms of products, services, and operational requirements” does not necessarily satisfy Shariah in a larger worldview.

One of the reasons of why I posted the picture of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by the UN is that business activities should also take into consideration the environment in which it operates. The idea is to practice the business in a way that it provides a “Social Impact” to the community in particular and even for the country. Using propositions such as SDG provides a starting point beyond just “Halal”. It talks about taking responsibilities and accountabilities to the local community to ensure that the product on offer are not just “Halal” but also helps the community with meaningful improvements.

This is where “Sustainability” suddenly moved to the forefront.

SUSTAINABILITY : BEYOND HALAL

The idea is not new. It has gone through various incarnations, and the more popular terms are Ethical Banking, or Sustainable Banking. These ideas however, are still very much internal arrangements, but rarely a view of the whole value chain. The idea is that not just being halal, but also being clean, fair, compassionate, helpful, and humane. This is where the objectives of Shariah can be met.

A fair illustration of the above (which I picked up at the forum and it is a good one) is the conditions of rearing chickens. You have a chicken farm to supply chicken to your area. You supply the chicken which have been halal slaughtered and as far as your are concerned, you have met the “Halal” requirement ie slaughter in the traditions of Islam.

But how about the value chain of chicken rearing? Yes, the minimum requirement is met i.e. halal slaughter, but the end-to-end practices in this single transaction have not been looked at. Will it meet the standard that will be imposed by Shariah if they are made aware of it? Let’s look at the value chain of chicken rearing.

  1. Chicken eggs incubated for chicks or small chicks bulk purchased from suppliers
  2. Chicken are reared in cramped caged farms, or allowed to run free-range within the compound
  3. Chicken are fed for 46 days to maturity with natural feed, or processed pellets which may/may not have antibiotics in them
  4. Upon mature age, chicken are taken to be slaughtered under the Islamic traditions

Therefore, the Halal portion of the whole process is only No (4) which is the slaughter. Items (2) and (3) have the potential of making the value chain “Un-Islamic”. The question will be :

  • If the chickens are kept in cramp places with diseases, is this considered acceptable under the objectives of Shariah?
  • If the chickens are fed continuously with pellets containing growth hormones and antibiotics, is it ethical in the eyes of Shariah?

This is where Sustainability comes into the picture. There is a word that can aptly fit into this : “Thoiyyib” which means “pure”. A bank should look at the whole value chain of things to then decide whether a business activities is only “Halal” or “Halal + Thoiyyib”. This should be the new standards, when we think about achieving the objectives. There are many propositions on Sustainable  practice which banks and customers can take cue from and develop further. Incentives to companies that adopt sustainable practices should be given, as sustainable practices are meant to be more humane, fair, just and gives bigger social impact than just being Halal. It is a skeleton than supports the whole community in sustainable activities. This includes concepts such as environmental friendly, non-polluting disposal, good waste management, people inclusion to jobs and equal opportunities, providing safety and security to communities, involvement in clean / renewable energies, and also providing education and equality in pay and relationships.

THE CHALLENGE

In my view, achieving “Sustainability” is a bigger challenge to overcome. But the rewards can potentially be bigger, as all institutions in the value chain become less “profit driven”. There are too many elements to choose from, and it is expected to take years to achieve. There will be cost to implement this but there is a need to rely on the well-being of the overall community for you to potentially profit. Choosing sustainability suggest choosing positivity, and continuity.

These concepts are also covered under the Value Based Intermediation (VBI) initiative that is promoted by BNM. Click link to see the Strategy Paper for VBI. 

Making the jump from Halal to Thoiyyib takes political will and commitment as well as collaboration with all parties in the value chain. Some sacrifices are needed as there will probably be some costs to the processes. However, with clear objectives to be met, being Halal cannot be the end-game.

Halal” should now just be minimum requirements, but can we be bold enough to take the next leap to take banking beyond Halal?