Connecting the Dots : Islamic Fintech

REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION?

This posting is in the danger of being written too long, but I think it is necessary to close this year with this topic, simply because it looks at the future. The word “Islamic Fintech” has been buzzing for quite some time now and there have been pockets of excitement on what it should mean. Many financial institutions have jumped onto the bandwagon declaring they are also part of this new wave of what a bank could offer.

While all these are still early stages of development, I do notice a lot of effort is built into “digitalisation” and “apps-based application” and “efficiently and convenience” of EXISTING banking processes and relationships. These enhancements are still driven by financial institutions and centred around improving traditional processes for banking services, or short-circuiting the credit processing elements of financing. Although enhancements via technology is an important aspect, these should not be defined as “fintech”. There is an element of fintech in process improvements, but PROCESS IMPROVEMENT itself are not fintech.

DO PEOPLE NEED BANKS?

Traditionally, banks always hold the impression that “People need Banks, one way or another”. It is this understanding that the bank can continue investing into their brick and mortar business model, with customers always coming to them when they need capital, financing funds or products and services. The competition is that who can deliver existing products in the most efficient manner, with technology as the enabler. Money is spent to improve accessibility to the bank’s EXISTING products, services and proposition.

In improving processes, banks just needs to concentrate on all the products and services offered and build the corresponding infrastructure to ensure efficient delivery with technology. It can be “Apps-driven” based on inquiry or transaction-based, with new features attached to existing products. It is just creation of new delivery channels which will deliver existing products to customers faster than before.

But that in my view is NOT what fintech is all about.

IF FINTECH IS NOT PROCESS IMPROVEMENTS THEN WHAT IS IT?

The easiest google/cut/paste definition of Fintech is that “fintech is a new financial industry that applies technology to improve financial activities and FinTech is the new applications, processes, products, or business models in the financial services industry, composed of one or more complementary financial services and provided as an end-to-end process via the Internet”. The key words I believe are:

  • New Financial Industry
  • New Application
  • New Processes
  • New Products
  • New Business Model

While “Process Enhancement” can help support the “New Processes” element, but I think it falls short of the idea for fintech i.e to re-think the business model of financial services. The idea of fintech should be this: Understanding what the requirements of the Gen Y customers are and how they work, develop the products and services on platforms that they are most familiar with, and the proposition that the bank can offer on their chosen platform. It is a total re-think of delivering products and propositions to the up-coming Gen Y potential customers.

SHARING OF FINANCIAL WALLET

As much as banks and financial institutions like to believe the financial wallet cannot exist outside the regulated financial system, the evidence is slowly being presented as otherwise. Companies are finding ways to survive, live and thrive outside the banking system with facilities and opportunities in the New Economy, slowly eroding the traditional banks’ share of financial wallet.

Big Data companies have proven that their database is far more powerful (and valuable) than the database an individual bank would have on its existing customers. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies goes through thousands of transactions within blockchain and is only realised into banks network when actual physical cash is needed. eWallet lets value resides in tech platforms for purchasing and sales of goods and services (more like barter or exchange of goods and services), and up to a certain extent provides microfinancing. Prepaid and loaded value arrangement provides free seed funding and capital for businesses, without the cost of borrowing incurred via banks. Peer to Peer (P2P) arrangement links crowdfund Investors to Entrepreneur without complicated documentation with speed and transparency levels never seen before. Sharing of risks and profits (including potential pay-offs) are now more understood as compared to traditional financing arrangements. Mudharabah, Musyarakah, and Ijarah may now have a place in an economy where equity participation is expected and sought after.

“FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS” ARE JUST A SINGLE ELEMENT IN THE UNIVERSE

Technology can now provide a single-point possibility of all our needs; goods, services, food, shopping, bills payment, money transfers, investments, borrowing, deliveries, medical, transport, social interaction, travel, holidays, education, careers development, information and even branding. Financial services can be integrated into all these elements, now driven via apps. But for this new infrastructure, the various “relationships” are needed to be identified and re-looked and re-engineered. With the proper Shariah compliance consideration.

This “single point” proposition is where tech companies play a crucial part. Rethinking the financial model must happen with the involvement of tech companies due to the advantage of everything being on the internet (internet of things). There are still a lot of limitations to what a bank can do, understandably due to financial regulations. The space of where banks are continuously competing (or evolving) is the “FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS” box above, and maybe payment gateways linked to service providers. But tech-companies? The revolution of technologies move so quickly that regulations will continue to struggle to catch up.

In the diagram above, I attempt to identify some of the areas of traditional banking where fintech can come in and provide a like-for-like solution or even fully replace the proposition by traditional banks. Certainly a lot of the consumer touch-points can be easily replicated in a technology platform, and crowdfunding and crowdsourcing can replace traditional financing and working capital requirements as well. Some services are still embedded into a banking structure (such as Current Accounts or Treasury product propositions) but over time, such products may be linked to fintech and the banks may eventually become ancillary service providers rather than main bank, earning just fees for services provided.

The landscape of what a bank offers will ultimately change in the next few years, when consumers no longer go to banks for financing, services, remittance and settlement of business transactions. As the new generation grows up with tech and becomes financially affluent, their expectation of how a banking experience should be will also dictate the model a bank adopts.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

So where do I see the banking industry in the next 5 years? Personally, I think a “price-comparison platform” will emerge, as seen nowadays in the travel/hotel/tourism industry. Information from all the financial service providers are flowed into a single platform, and consumers are able to immediately compare products, services and prices on a single platform and choose their solutions. Instead of customers subscribing to multiple banks offering different products and services (at different pricing), they only need to subscribe to a single platform where all information on the products are available to select. This is where the promise of fintech can thrive; accuracy of information, convenience of access, and speed of transaction.

It is a matter of time the various industries converge. We may think regulatory pressure will halt some of the progress but mostly it have been reactive regulations. And the challenge is that these developments are driven by tech companies which has no loyalties to banking regulations as their scope of business cuts across various industries. It will be a period of “non-regulated” until the market starts to recognise the need to regulate and managing the risks. A regulatory sandbox will be usefull, but if the “New Economy” moves faster than the speed where regulations are being formalised, there will be a lot of speculative and arbitrage opportunities for the market to gain.

This also means the New Economy brings new risks that the consumers are not aware off. While the banks have been fine-tuning its risks that it takes over the past half-century or so, the fintech companies may not see the elements of risks other than technology risks or systemic risks. Almost all the risks faced by banks are also prevalent in fintech companies or non-banks, plus the specific risks by fintech companies. They might be great at integration of technology, but banks are still masters when it comes to understanding financial risks.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

As I mentioned, banks understand risks better than a tech company. A tech company understand speed, efficiency and channels better than any banks can have. At the moment, banks are developing “fintech” on their own which is mostly a process improvement project. Tech companies are developing “banking services” on their own as well, where it linked investor’s money and economic entrepreneurs via technology. The question is really, “why not a bank consume or enter into a partnership with tech companies to provide a solution beyond traditional banking?” We have started to see this trend where banks attempt to purchase outright a tech company and use the company as an incubator for new products and services. It should look into having a different operating structure which encourages new ideas, innovation, internet-based solutions, as well as delivering to a larger segment of consumers (including the Unbanked segment).

The end-result might not look like what we recognise as banks we see today. This could be a separate line of business for banks, where the element of technology integrated into the wider economy is more dominant than its traditional banking products and services. You could have Bank A offering the traditional products and services, and Bank A-Tech offering fintech solutions to a new generation. The same bank catering to 2 business lines, employing different delivery channels.

But breaking away from such traditional infrastructure may take time, and the greatest fear is that the market cannot wait. Fintech companies may be able to offer similar proposition in half the time required, and this will not motivate fintech companies to join-venture with a financial institution. In an environment where new opportunities arise at the blink of an eye and regulations have yet to be formalised, the temptation to go on its own will drive innovation by the fintech companies, leaving behind banks. Fintech companies have the capability to look at consumer needs and develop the solutions from the bottom, and flow the linkages to the top. Connect the dots where the solutions provider are linked together in a platform.

Will fintech companies be the next driver in providing financial solution? I know my answer to that question. It is perhaps just a matter of time where future banking is done outside of a bank. Perhaps the model of banking needs to be re-imagined.

Wishing all my readers a Happy New Year in 2018. I appreciate the support I have received so far. But the new world beckons and hopefully we can do enough to ensure the continuation of the banking industry. I hope Islamic Banking can play a bigger role in taking the industry into this exciting online generation.

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5 Reasons Why PLS Financing Does Not Fit Islamic Banks

Click on picture to go to point-by-point commentary on the above

Many months ago, there was this posting by Dr Daud Bakar, CEO of Amanie Group and Chairman of Shariah Advisory Council (SAC) of Central Bank of Malaysia (BNM) where he stated Profit Loss Sharing (PLS) structures are not suitable for Islamic Banks. It caused quite a stir in the market as there have been a lot of push by Shariah circles on Islamic Banks to develop Islamic Banking products based on PLS.  People were surprised that such comments were made by the Chairman of SAC, when BNM have been active in pushing Islamic Banks to develop these very contracts.

So what is the story then? Do we want to see Equity Products such as Mudarabah or Musyarakah Financing in the market, and is it feasible as a business model under current banking structures?

As much as I want to say we are ready for it, the reality is that there are other considerations where offering these financing products is maybe not the right fit for Islamic Banks. We may attempt to develop them nonetheless, but we have to be wary of the requirements set out in the Policy Documents and comply with it.

As I have written before in Disruption Islamic Contracts the industry is entering the era of Compliance rather than Innovation. If we were to develop for example Ijarah products, we will not be able to comply fully with the contract requirements (such as ownership risks and force majure), and Islamic Banks will opt for “easier to comply” contracts. The risks inherent in the contracts will also hamper full-blown development of such contracts into workable compliant structures. It is unfortunate; the Policy Documents issued by BNM are very extensively written but a challenge for Banks to fully comply with.

And when you expand your intention to go into equity-based financing (PLS), the risks would remain with the Bank as these Islamic structures do not allow for transfer of risks from the Bank to customers. This greatly hampers Banks used to mitigating only certain types of risks, or in the best case scenario, Banks are only willing to introduce basic or safe-feature products, with a lot of legal mitigants to protect Bank’s interest.   It is an uncomfortable territory for Banks where the issue of Banks holding “unconventional” risks cannot be satisfactorily addressed.

In Dr Daud’s assessment, he identified Five (5) reasons why PLS do not fit Islamic Banks, in this current, general model:

  1. Banks are set-up as Financial Intermediaries
  2. Fiduciary Relationship resulting in Conflict of Interest may arise from Bank’s participation
  3. Cost Required to ensure compliance
  4. High Cost of Capital for PLS
  5. Re-think of Accounting Standards for PLS

Click this link to go to the discussion page on this topic. I looked at the points by Dr Daud with comments based of my own personal view. Building a Participation Banking Model : Commenting on Datuk Dr Daud’s points

Go to Datuk Dr Daud Bakar's views

Click here to go to discussion

Why do we need to discuss PLS?

Our discussion are now becoming more relevant moving forward. In my view, traditional Islamic Banks and the way it was set-up, caters more for debt-based structures where risks are traditionally understood. The template used for building Islamic Banks was conventional banking. While we have “Islamised” the operations, systems, processes and products, the similarities between Islamic and conventional banks remains prominent. Leveraging on conventional banking infrastructure was a necessity.

That is essentially what traditional Islamic Banking did. Replication, compliance, and competition.

Needing a new Banking model. An Alternative Banking model.

So if PLS is not the right fit for Islamic Banks, where can it exist then?

I believe this is the right time and opportunity to ask this question of where PLS should thrive. With all this talk about Value Based Intermediation (VBI), Fintech, Investment Accounts, Crowd Funding, Private Equity, Venture Capitalists, Participation Banking and Challenger banks, perhaps the PLS structure should be the next inclusion into these discussion. The sandbox is open, and I sincerely believe this opportunity allows for the serious consideration to include PLS. The risk profile you see in these types of Fintech forums cater for a different thinking; banking the un-bankable, understanding of unconventional risks, investment into entrepreneurial ventures and community involvement in sharing of risks.

And more interestingly, most of the structures are already available in this “alternative banking model” and have significantly similar characteristics and behaviour expected from Islamic Banking practices. Especially on the sharing of risks and returns.

It is something that interest me immensely. I believe the next wave in Islamic Banking must be in this new digital world where speed, access, and business model (without financial intermediation) forces a monumental shift in banking practices. As we are starting from ground zero, why not put PLS / equity-based structures / participative banking / as the focus for all these new developments? If not now, then when?

Leave the debt-based structures with the traditional banks, where the familiarity with credit, collateral, sources of payment and audited financial statements will continue to drive traditional businesses.

Let PLS force a re-think into alternative Islamic banking, where entrepreneurial ability, direct investors, sharing of returns, performance of business, risks understanding, speed, low costs, access to the un-bankable population, big data mining, and technology-driven solutions become the main priorities for development.

There is little choice for us where change is now required. If change is needed, why not put PLS as part of the necessary change? The next wave must start. Watch this space. More on Fintech and alternative models soon.

Is There a Secret Book I Don’t Know About?

ISLAMIC BANKING PRODUCTS ARE EXPENSIVE?

It is one of the mysteries of the universe that there is this perception that Islamic Banking products are MORE EXPENSIVE than the Riba products counterpart. It never fails to surprise me that in Malaysia, whenever I open the session for Q&A after a talk on Islamic Banking, that the question put to me was “Why is Islamic Banking financing products more expensive than conventional banking products?”.

Honestly, I wondered if this question comes from the possibility of everyone reading from the same exact book published many many years ago, making that one point of contention again and again. Which book have people been reading? Can someone pass me this book? It seems everyone is reading or referencing the same book which says “Islamic Banking products are expensive”. Can someone tell me about it?

So I decided to ask around. I asked the persons asking the question on why does he/she say that? In what scenario? Which product? What feature of the product makes it expensive? In all attempts, they replied “It is the general view that Islamic Banking is more expensive”. But they have yet to give me any evidence when I asked for their source.

Amazing

This is like a scary bedtime story that parents tell their children if they don’t behave. So now I am asking around for specific scenarios on why they made such comments. From what I gathered, these are some of what I think people are referring to. But I couldn’t be 100% sure, so please, do leave your comments and scenarios (and details) for me to evaluate and respond to.

Because, for the past 20 years (in Malaysia at least), this claim of “Islamic Banking products are more expensive than conventional banking” are simply not true.

YES, THERE ARE DIFFERENCES

Of course, before I delve deeper into this perception, there are differences in Islamic Banking that requires additional items or costs, but mainly these are operational costs or documentary costs or management costs which are linked to mainly Shariah requirement on Aqad. For conventional banking, it is just a loan agreement, For Islamic Banking, a trading transaction may occur, and if it does… there may be additional costs.

But these costs are usually absorbed by the Bank itself, and hardly passed on to the customers. So why would it be more expensive for the customer, if the Bank is absorbing these “costs” as part of their cost of doing Islamic Banking business?

And additionally, the costs borne by the Bank for doing Islamic Banking business are not significantly higher. The Bank have to remain competitive as well, either against conventional banks or other Islamic banks as well. So the costs, if significant, will not be passed to customers to remain competitive. It should be on par with other players in the market.

FINDING THE REASONS

As far as I can tell, some of the perception on Islamic Banking is more expensive than Conventional  products are based on these:

  1. Selling Price – In some Islamic Banking products, there are trading requirements (Murabaha / Tawarruq / Istisna’a / BBA) and one of the tenets of valid sale is that there must be a Selling Price. Selling Price is the sum calculation of all the Installments the customer has to pay over the period of financing. The formula is that Selling Price = Monthly Installment x No of Months of Financing. Once this is agreed, it cannot change; anything above and beyond the agreed Selling Price (maximum) is considered Riba. Conventional Banking products do not have this as they only declare the Installment amount per month based on prevailing rate. Truth is, no one really know how much they eventually pay under conventional banking product, because there is no capping of the amount they may pay. The tenure can be extended, the installment can be increased, the rates may be revised upwards under conventional banking. There is no control of how much (maximum) conventional banking can collect from the customer. If conventional banking products add up the installments over the period of time, they can also see the amount equivalent to a Selling Price ie total amount payable over the tenure. But they don’t, because it ties their hands from collecting more. So, is Islamic products more expensive? It is possibly the opposite i.e. cheaper than conventional due the maximum Selling Price compared to a conventional loan without any maximum amount (sky is the limit).
  2. Ceiling Rate – Islamic Banking products may work on either a fixed rate structure or floating rate structure. If the structure is a fixed rate structure, it looks similar to the above. If is floating rate structure, then there is a need to put up a Ceiling Rate (a maximum rate that Shariah allows us to charge) for the purpose of the Aqad, where the certainty of price is required.  However, once the Aqad has been concluded (Selling Price is contracted), the day-to-day running of the financing is charged at the Effective Profit Rate (usually below the Ceiling Rate) which is reflective of the prevailing market rates. Which is what the conventional banking products are charging. This makes the actual amount paid for Islamic Banking product at par with conventional banking products. The difference between the Ceiling Rate and the Effective Profit Rate is not charged on the customer therefore given as a Rebate on price (Ibra’). For example, if the Ceiling Price for the Aqad is 10% and the Effective Rate for day-to-day is 6.0% (ie customer is charged only 6.0%), then the difference of 4.0% is a pricing rebate to the customer. So, is Islamic products more expensive? No. It is on par after pricing Rebate. In fact, having a Ceiling Rate provides additional “protection” for an Islamic Banking customer i.e. during times of high volatility of Base Rate / Funding Rate, the Ceiling Rate serves as a rate protection for the customer. For example, should the all-in rate of the financing increase to be 13% or 14.0%, the customer’s rate will not exceed the Ceiling Rate of 10%, therefore saving the customer the excessive rate during periods of uncertainty. So, during period of high volatility of rates, the Ceiling Rate will not be exceed thus making the product cheaper than the Conventional product.
  3. More Documents – I acknowledge that some Islamic products do require additional products as a package. But as for main documents, where the most charges are incurred including stamp duties, are usually the same as any conventional banking product. Maybe there are earlier perception that because of the Selling Price based on Ceiling Rate, the stamp duty will be more expensive. It is not true. Stamping will still be made based on the principal amount even for an Islamic facility. Furthermore, secondary documents are usually stamped at nominal amount i.e. $10 per document. The additional documents for Islamic product, if we assume requires 5 additional, will cost the customer $50 extra. That is not significant.  So, is Islamic products more expensive? For documents, maybe. But it is dependant on structure and the additional documents will be stamped nominal value.
  4. Early Settlement Rebate – I probably understand and agree with this point, provided it was made 15 years ago! Traditionally, when a customer takes a loan with a conventional bank and want to do an early settlement after a few months, an early settlement penalty was charged. For an Islamic Banking products, when BBA was offered many years ago, the method was to give a “reduced discretionary rebate” on the unearned profit. This means maybe some Islamic Banks want to earn the same early settlement penalties (like a conventional bank) via a reduced rebate as rebates are by nature, discretionary in the eyes of Shariah. However in 2011, BNM issued a specific guidelines on the treatment of rebate for early settlement of Islamic sale-based financing products. The guidelines ensures that the rebate given is mandatory, with a specific formula to be adhered to. The guidelines also included the required disclosures for transparency purposes. In short, Islamic Banks cannot charge early settlement compensation (only a couple of scenario where it is allowed) and the rebate given must follow a strict formula. So, is Islamic products more expensive? There might be a case for this argument before 2010 (for early settlement cases only) but with the Ibra guidelines issued in 2011, the product would possibly result in at par or cheaper than a conventional bank product.
  5. Commodities Trading Fees – This is a recent phenomena. A lot of structures are riding on the popular Tawarruq structure, and this structure involves the buying and selling of commodities via brokers or established trading platform and there are Trading Fees being charged. Generally, for retail consumers, the trading fees are absorbed by the Banks; you will never notice it. But for Large Corporates dealing in hundreds of million deals, a trading fee may be noticeable. However, these fees are also deemed small enough to be ignored. The standard trading fees at Bursa Malaysia is $15 for every $1,000,000 commodities traded. That’s 0.0015% charge. For a $100 million transaction, the trading fee will only be $1,500. I have not seen any Corporate customers refusing to pay this trading fees. And there are some brokers who are even charging lesser rates. So, is Islamic Banking more expensive? Only for Tawarruq, there is additional costs but for the quantum, I do not believe 0.0015% is considered significant, or expensive.

It really is testament that the men and women in the industry were always looking to enhance, resolve and improve on contentious practices to serve the public. The products were always evolving to be better for the consumers. In fact, I believe we are at the stage that some of the offerings under Islamic Banking is CHEAPER than the conventional banking products due to certain fees and charges and treatment on the account are instructed by Shariah Committee.

IT IS A PERCEPTION THAT NEEDS CORRECTION. IT IS NOT CLEAR WHICH PART OR PRODUCT FEATURE THAT THE PUBLIC PERCEIVES AS MORE EXPENSIVE. IS IT THE RATE, THE PRICE, THE PENALTIES?. IS THERE ANY UNFAIR TERMS LEADING TO THIS PERCEPTION.  

COULD ISLAMIC BANKING FINANCING PRODUCTS ACTUALLY BE CHEAPER THAN CONVENTIONAL LOANS?

In some scenarios, I do believe so.

There are many areas that is governed by Shariah decisions formulated to protect or benefit customers for fairness. Especially in areas of fees and charges and compensation. IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT ISLAMIC BANKING PRODUCTS BEING CHEAPER THAN A CONVENTIONAL BANKING PRODUCT, CHECK OUT MY COMING POST.

I really hope someday someone will pass me this mystery book to read. We are in 2017 and so much have changed in the past decade. Huge and big regulations have been introduced and most of it with heavy input and consideration from the Shariah Advisory Council (SAC) of BNM. These are learned individuals that I believe are not greatly motivated by money. There are huge responsibilities on their shoulders thus the decisions made will be for the benefit of customers in mind.

Again, I invite readers to provide me with the latest findings where it is believed that Islamic Banking is more expensive than conventional banking products. Let us discuss and evaluate them based on actual facts.

Wallahualam

 

Real Cost of Tawarruq

Recently, the topic of Tawarruq & Commodity Murabahah has been popular in the industry as both BNM and Shariah scholar have been asking operational questions on the implementation of Tawarruq arrangement in the industry. It seems, even with the Policy Documents, there are still some divergence in terms of operations and understanding of the minimum Shariah requirements for Tawarruq. Each financial institutions have their own operational abilities and processes that differs from one another; to have a standardised platform may be a bigger challenge than imagined.

The rise of Tawarruq in recent years should really not be a surprise to many observers. We are seeing that most financial institutions in Malaysia now consider a Tawarruq structure a “must have”, because there really is no options as other Banks also deals in it. It has become norm, and while scholars might take a view that Tawarruq should be a “last resort” option, there have been so much effort invested into making Tawarruq an efficient machine. Just take a look at the Bursa Suq Al Sila and what it is capable today.

Question : Is it Cash or Committed Limit?

The latest consideration of Tawarruq is on the treatment of Tawarruq funds after the transaction. What is it exactly and how is it been managed within the Bank, with the Capital Adequacy Framework for Islamic Banks (CAFIB) implemented a few years ago (latest update this year 2017). In particular, when a customer is approved a certain limit (let’s say $1,000,000) and a single Tawarruq is done for $1,000,000 for the line (instead of multiple small Tawarruq for each usage of the amount within the $1,000,000 limit), where does the money goes, and what is it exactly in the eyes of Sharia?

To clarify, upon the completion of Tawarruq, real money of $1,000,000 is generated. Cash. It is not a “line” in the conventional terms, but it is money (actual cash) now belonging to the customer. He can draw out the money anytime.

But the practice is that the money is kept in the Bank’s books unless requested by the Customer, and by keeping this the Bank will give a “rebate” on the money kept in the Bank, similar treatment as if a “principal payment” is made (although it is re-drawable). In the meantime, the Bank utilises the money (taken as principal payment made) for its own banking business activities.

The question that I believe we will have to eventually address are on the following:

  1. The Tawarruq is done on a single transaction for the full amount, therefore it is a full release of capital (i.e. fully funded). As such, it should have a “capital charge” consideration if it is not fully utilised by the customer. Bank has released fully the funds to customer (therefore Bank should be entitled to earn a full profit on the amount). The formula for profit would be $1,000,000 x Profit Rate – Cost of Capital. Note the Cost of Capital is on the full amount.
  2. Then, the subsequent mechanism instead is as follows: since the customer did not fully utilise the funds, the customer is given a “rebate”. For example the customer only uses $50,000 of the $1,000,000. The formula for rebate is that ($1,000,000 less $50,000 = $950,000) x Profit Rate x period unutilised. Banks earn full Profit Rate on $50,000 and gives rebate based on $950,000.
  3. Of course, Banks will utilise the $950,000 meanwhile but at what I imagine are for short-term instruments because the $950,000 is customer’s money (i.e. committed amount) and can be requested at anytime. Bank needs the funds to be as liquid as possible. So the Bank do not earn a lot from this “short term investment”.
  4. Also, there is concurrent discussion as to when the amount is kept and used by the Bank, what is the underlying contract used for this “unutilised, principal payment which is drawable on demand” amount? Is it kept by the Bank as Qard (loan), Wadiah (safekeeping), Amanah (trust) or can it be taken as Tawarruq deposit (monetised obligation) or Mudharaba (investments)? Different Banks have differing views on this, but I suspect BNM is trying to standardise this understanding and practice.
  5. But more importantly, while the Bank is giving customers “rebate” on the amount they do not utilise (but committed by the Bank), is there also “rebate” on Cost of Capital then? It seems unfair when it doesn’t. Tawarruq proceeds are deemed fully drawdown (based on full amount) and incurs full Capital Charge but is earning returns based on “only” the utilised amount. The rebate formula is very specific, and it does not contain the amount for “rebate” Capital Charge.

In the conventional Banking world, this is not so much of an issue. Their approach is simple: if the amount is “committed” to the customer, 2 things will happen:

  1. Once the amount is drawdown i.e. utilised by the customer (lets say $50,000 utilised of the $1,000,000), then full price is charged on the $50,000
  2. On the amount unutilised i.e. $950,000 the Bank will charge a “Commitment Fee” of 1.0% per annum (or any negotiated rate) on the unutilised (but committed) portion. While 1.0% per annum do not usually cover the full Capital Charge on the $950,000 it somewhat compensates the charge as the Bank (because $950,000 is still a “limit” and not Cash payout) can still use the unutilised amount in its day to day banking activities i.e. investment in short term financial instruments.

Scholars generally do not agree with the concept of Commitment Fees, and there is specific BNM guidelines prohibiting the charge of Commitment Fees in these specific scenarios.

The Capital Charge factor

I still think there is a disconnect somewhere that while we aim to achieve the same end result by the practice of Ibra’ i.e. “Rebate”, but with Capital Cost coming into play, it may eventually seem that the cost of running an Islamic Banking business can be higher than a conventional Bank. It really depends on how we interpret the guidelines and the treatment on Tawarruq especially the single Tawarruq structure where the full amount is transacted i.e. whether it is a full Capital Charge or otherwise.

I know what BNM usually advise i.e. it is a full Capital Charge. But this concurrently means, without Commitment Fees on the unutilised Customer portion, it may result in extra costs for the Bank. Now I am not suggesting we introduce Commitment Fees for Islamic Banking; this idea of Commitment Fees is a conventional banking concept for recovering opportunity costs, which may not sit well under Shariah consideration.

But in the world we operate today (where each $$$ is risk weighted to a cost), this translates to “Actual Costs” incurred by the Bank, based on the interpretation for the “single full amount Tawarruq transaction”. And Shariah may want to consider this as it is a real “Actual Costs” and not opportunity costs. By letting the money sit still, the Bank incur real, actual costs which is not recoverable as per guidelines. It may have started as “recovering opportunity costs” but if you really think about it, this is above opportunity costs. Maybe in the conventional space, they may even revise Commitment Fees to recover BOTH Opportunity Costs as well as Capital Charge.

So, my question is this: should both the industry and Shariah scholars re-look at the basis of Commitment Fees (in the context of how Tawarruq works), or re-think about the “Rebate” mechanism and perhaps have an adjusted formula to factor in a “Rebate on the Capital Charge”?

Can Shariah consider this mechanism to recover a real cost incurred by an Islamic Bank?

In the meantime, Happy Ramadhan to all, and may you have blessed month ahead.

Islamic Banking Operating Model

For the past few months, there have been some earnest discussions on whether Islamic Banking is operating under the right model or type of institutions. Comments by prominent scholars on the suitability of certain Islamic contracts in a financial institution sparked debate on the types that are suitable for operating Islamic contracts. Before I attempt to also put my piece in the mix, there were also questions asked to me on which of the existing models can actually be the right fit. There is still confusion on the types of institutions operating in the market.

Before we look deeper, it is worthwhile to recap the available models in Malaysia.

THE ISLAMIC WINDOW OPERATING MODEL

We  have to start somewhere. Islamic Windows as a starting point, provides the best opportunity to build capabilities at the lowest costs while the business is being developed. The intention is to identify the requirements for system and invest minimally to assess feasibility and operational gaps. This allows the Bank to build the infrastructure at an acceptable pace. This is also a pre-cursor to further/larger infrastructure investments if there is a decision to expand the business into a subsidiary.

This model relies on the existing conventional infrastructure where all the processes, operations, sales, channels, finance, branches, compliance, audit and all functions are provided by the conventional bank. It is a leverage model where the Islamic Banking Windows are more like a “manufacturer” of products. Islamic Banking Windows churn out the products and services (like a factory), and delivers them to the conventional team as part of the suite of products offered by the conventional bank. In such structure, Islamic Banking Windows are just a “segment” of products on offer. Just like Corporate Banking products. Commercial Banking products. Wholesale Banking products. Private Banking products. Retail Banking products… and Islamic Banking products.

The advantage of this model is the low set-up cost. The business rides on existing infrastructure and hires specialists in each function. There is no need to set up a different branch as those Islamic products are sold directly by the existing branches and channels sales team. Balance Sheet discloses Islamic Banking Window performance as part of the Notes to the Account. Shareholders’ Capital, however must be separately allocated, accounting ledgers managed separately and the Single Customer Exposure Limit (SCEL) will be 25% of the allocated Capital. A head of Islamic Banking Windows will report directly to the conventional banking CEO, where business decisions are made.

Not many banks operates under the Islamic Banking Windows model. The main reason is the lack of product range i.e. competing with conventional banking products of the same branch, and the small scale of business limited to its SCEL, and no autonomy of business decision which must be aligned with conventional products.

THE ISLAMIC SUBSIDIARY  MODEL

Islamic Subsidiary rides on the strength of the Parent Bank, which is the conventional bank. The model used is still a leveraged model, but the Islamic Subsidiary can choose which services or function they want to “outsource” to the conventional bank (at a fee chargeback, of course). The idea of a Subsidiary is to be independent, so all cost consideration must be taken into account. Decision to open Islamic Banking Branches can also be made, and BNM supports this expansion via Islamic Banking Branches.

However, being a Subsidiary Bank can also be a burden to set-up. A differentiated system or process or operation team requires cash for its set-up. At the early stages, such investment cash will be limited, and when cash is available for investment, the development of the Subsidiary Bank must then align with the conventional bank. So it can be a chicken and egg situation where to expand you need to earn but to earn you need to expand (and spend).

Most of the conventional banks offers Islamic products via Islamic Banking Subsidiary. The main advantage is that decisions are autonomous in a Subsidiary, there is more control of marketing and sales and branches, and the Bank (as an independent entity) can chart its own course. However, there will still be influence from the parent (as the majority shareholder) and the products and services offered are generally aligned to the products and services offered by the parents. The SCEL for Subsidiaries are also dependent on the strategy of the parent Bank, where it can choose to invest heavily or adequately for the operations of its subsidiary.

FULL FLEDGED ISLAMIC BANKS

These are standalone banks that generally are not under any conventional banking influence. The products and services may be consistent with the offerings in the market, but it is not an obligation to follow. In theory, Full Fledged Islamic Banks have the capacity to offer new-to-market products, based on the approvals obtained from Shariah Committees and BNM.

There is room for innovation and experimentation of new structures via Full Fledged Islamic Banks, although they must still governed by the financial ratios and controls for other types of banks and financial institutions, using conventional measuring tape which could lead to a “penalty” cost for doing business.

For example, a debt based home financing based on Tawarruq will incur a capital charge of 50%-100% but in a Musyaraka Financing, that capital charge will cost 100%-400% which will be an “expensive” proposition simply because it is measured against conventional financial ratios.

Personally, I believe Full Fledged Islamic Banks should follow a different set of financial ratios catered to reflect the type of risks an Islamic Bank CAN take, should the Islamic Bank look to offer products such as Mudaraba, Musyaraka, Istisna’ or even Salam. To allow for pure innovation, the financial ratios and treatment of capital and assessment of risks should be differentiated to reflect the nature of the products offered. While Basel requirements can be used as benchmark to ensure stability, an “Islamic” Basel will be even more meaningful where it can fully address all the real risks faced by Islamic Banks deploying Profit Loss Sharing (PLS) and equity-based structures such as Mudaraba and Musyaraka. Slowly, BNM is recognising these differences for measurement and has taken small steps to differentiate, such as the introduction of treatment of Investment Accounts (IA), the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) treatment, Capital Adequacy Framework for Islamic Banks (CAFIB), and the removal of Reserve Funds (reserves from paying of dividends) from Islamic Banks recently. It is my sincere hope to one day see an “Islamic” section in future Basel releases as well.

The main challenge for a Full Fledge Islamic Bank, is the costs of building the franchise from ground zero. To compete with a conventional bank, the Islamic Bank must invest similarly in its infrastructure and achieve operational efficiency and scale as soonest as possible. The payback period and Return on Investment and Return on Equity remains important for long term sustainability. SCEL is dependant on how big the Bank intends to grow. Another key consideration is the ability for the Islamic Bank to build a strong source of cheap deposits for the funding requirements.

NOTE

Of course there are other structures that can be attributed as Islamic Financial institutions such as cooperatives, development banks, and investment banks. But the most common are the above variations and these structures fit into strategies identified by the bank. In most cases, BNM prefers to see development coming from the Full Fledged Islamic Banks and Subsidiaries. These should be the drivers for the growth of Islamic Banking.

Wallahualam

Is Islamic Finance Suffering from the Wrong Model of Implementation?

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One of the things that attract me to maintain this website on Islamic Banking is the opportunity to interact and share ideas with the various practitioners and academicians in the industry. There are many discussion topics and we intend to bring such discussions to the open table as constructive as possible. Interaction with Ms Rosana is always interesting as she dare explore the Islamic Banking model itself, making comparison to other similar models in the market across geographies. And I do share some of her views on the industry, and I have written about it to some extend in my earlier postings. What is interesting about Ms Rosana is that she is taking the discussion a necessary step further in evaluating the existing Banking model, as to whether it is the right model to begin with. She has written a short discourse on this topic and looking to explore in-depth its implication in the near future.

She welcomes constructive feedback, comment and discussion points for this posting and hopes to decide on the next step forward gauging from your kind response. Do read and give us your opinion and comments. Thank you.

Is Islamic Finance Suffering from the Wrong Model of Implementation?

By Rosana Gulzar Mohd

In this blog’s latest post ‘Disruption: Islamic contracts’, there holds an imminent danger. The Islamic banks in Malaysia are not so much inching towards becoming just like the interest-based conventional banks they were supposed to replace but in fact, running towards them. Even as the industry celebrates its trillion size assets and formerly astronomical growth, there lies a darker truth. In a recent class I taught on the dichotomy between Islamic banking theory and practice, a participant, a new ‘Islamic’ banker, came up to me and wanted to discuss commodity murabaha. She said her team had just tabled the product for the bank’s approval but she did not feel comfortable. The head of the Shariah committee also seemed disappointed. His comment, according to her, was that we no longer need Shariah advisers. The industry only needs commodity murabaha experts now.

Post-IFSA 2013 which fines and jails CEOs and everyone above and below for any wrongdoing and a flurry of policy documents telling banks how to implement Shariah contracts, ‘Islamic’ banks in Malaysia are seeking refuge in tawarruq. Musharakah and mudarabah? All that is left of profit and loss sharing contracts, which some scholars say are at the heart of the ideal Islamic financial system, is the policy documents by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). I would be pleasantly surprised if anyone can show me a bank which is genuinely implementing them. The supposed mudarabah-based products brought on by IFSA, namely the investment accounts and the IA platform, are currently being mutilated to look almost like any guaranteed and fixed return deposit. The IAP, I believe, are unlikely to be successful for laughable reasons.

When commercial banking, with its inherent tendencies for excesses, profit maximisation and desensitisation to social welfare, is the problem, how does crowdfunding through commercial banks become the solution? Won’t the banks still look for credit-worthy companies with an almost guaranteed future to fund? Who then takes care of the small and medium-sized entrepreneurs who are also seeking financing? Are not the SMEs the backbones of the economy? Not to mention, where is the upholding of Islamic values such as justice, equitability and social well-being? Granted there are other organisations in Malaysia meant to help the lower incomes and SMEs but why do ‘Islamic’ banks call themselves ‘Islamic’ if they are far from embodying the ideal values in Shariah? Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs extends to other parts of Islamic finance such as takaful (apparently ‘Islamic’ insurance), sukuk, the other beauty pageant contestant in this parade, and other capital market products such as interest rate, oh wait, ‘profit’ rate swaps.

How did BNM envision the success of IFSA with no changes to the current environment? We are still in a dual system where ‘Islamic’ banks are pitted head-to-head against interest-based conventional banks. ‘Islamic’ assets are still only a quarter of the entire system despite the country allowing all sorts of controversial contracts such as bai al dayn, bai al inah and the one that takes the cake, tawarruq. Where are the educational campaigns to explain to customers this shift in the industry that the central bank expects to happen?

When customers, including ‘Muslims’, have been accustomed to deposit guarantees and fixed returns their whole lives, how do banks suddenly sell them an ‘investment account’ that promises neither? Is it any surprise that conventional bankers are using this as a selling point? They are telling customers to avoid ‘Islamic’ products because there are no guarantees. Theirs still do. When the chiefs of ‘Islamic’ banks themselves seem cloudy in their understanding of the new regulations, how did BNM envision people on the street, who are banking with its ‘Islamic’ banks, to embrace the changes? A deputy director unfortunately got defensive when I asked. Other central bankers claimed ignorance because they “are not from that department”.

While BNM seems keen to reform the industry, perhaps the answer it has been looking for is that the Islamic finance industry, and within it, Islamic banking, has been built the wrong way. Trying to make it work in the commercial banking space is what has led to the frequent comment that it is like squeezing a square peg into a round hole. Commercial banking, with its profit maximisation mantra and desensitisation to social welfare, is antithetical to the Shariah ideals of justice, equitability and social well-being as embodied in the maqasid. And isn’t it the one that has been leading the world from one crisis to another? Why then are we so busy emulating them? Isn’t it time the powers that be wake up and face facts?

So why did all the big organisations in Islamic finance, from the global standard-setters such as AAOIFI and IFSB to each country’s central banks and each ‘Islamic’ banks’ Shariah committees condone these practices? Perhaps because they were the easiest thing to do and allows for a fast build if the intention is to grab fame and fortune through one’s achievements in Islamic finance. The countless Islamic finance awards and conferences and the effusive back slapping there are testaments to this. Bankers are such happy people.

So what is the solution? I believe it is cooperative banking. The true, genuine type practiced in Europe and not the ones in Muslim countries because they are largely used to fund political cronies and thus suffer from questionable management and corruption. My next article will thus explain cooperative banking, how the model works and why they are a better fit for Islamic finance than the current commercial banking model. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts. Students of Islamic finance intuitively get it when I explain these arguments while some practitioners acquiesce (quietly agree). Another group reminds me of this statement in a book by Upton Sinclair, who ironically was also an investigative journalist (uncovers scandals and corruption) as I was in my former life and whose solution to the 1930s Depression in California is to create cooperative ventures for the unemployed. The idea, to his surprise, received wide support but his bid to run as governor was waylaid, according to him, by the oppositions’ “dirty tricks”. He wrote this statement in his book about the political adventure, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The reaction of the other group of bankers brings to mind this quote.

What do you think about her assessment and commentary on the Islamic Banking model? Do give us your feedback in the comment box. Thank you.

Check out her other contributions in the following page : Writings Rozana Gulzar Mohd