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

The Wayang Kulit of Islamic Finance: Book Review

Islamic Finance in The Global EconomyIslamic Finance has seen many criticisms for the past decades, ranging from whether the right model was introduced in the first place, to questions on the mirroring of conventional products into islamic alternatives, accusations of Hilah and back-door riba, suitability of certain contracts in the banking space, and even the end accomplishment of the Maqasid of Sharia via a financial intermediary model.

Practitioners and regulators (including Sharia scholars) have been hard at work to address these issues (which the public seems to assume we are not aware of in the first place!!!). To a certain extent, a lot of the issues have been / are being addressed (whether to its full satisfaction or otherwise), but it is also important to be able to sit and identify areas where further improvements can be made.

Ms Rosana has become an avid observer of Islamic Finance practices and its shortfall, and found literatures that she hopes to bring forward into the constructive discussion with the industry. Her review today covers the book by Ibrahim Warde : Islamic Finance in the Global Economy (2010).

Review by Rosana Gulzar (Excerpt)

This book by Ibrahim Warde, a US academic, is among a few in the genre of political economy of Islamic finance. Although a much needed subject, it is hardly discussed in classrooms apparently due to political sensitivities. That may be the reason why this book stands out in its contribution but it can also very well stand on its own merits. The content is refreshingly intellectual, critical and direct. But even as I find it to be the most enlightening book I have read on the subject, I wish for more.

The question is, what is ‘political economy’? Or what does the subject cover? It is a fascinating field of economics which goes beyond the simple study of processes. Instead of describing production and trade as if they operate in silos or the often used phrase in economics, ceteris parabus (assuming all else stay constant – seriously, which world is that?), the study of ‘political economy’ combines theories from political science and sociology to bring about a fuller and more realistic perspective on how a country is run. A branch of political economics even draws from other academic areas such as culture and history. This definition from Investopedia is to me, the most appealing though it is arguably not the most reliable source: “International political economy is ultimately concerned with how political forces like states, individual actors, and institutions shape systems through global economic interactions and how such actions effect political structures and outcomes”.

The study of political economy is vital, I argue, in Islamic finance because how does one begin to understand a phenomenon without a frank discussion on the forces shaping it. To borrow from the Indonesians, who are the real dalangs (puppeteers) in this wayang kulit (traditional puppet-show)? Who are pulling the strings? As Warde says, “Quantity, not quality, is the defining feature of writings on Islamic finance. The recent boom in Islamic finance has resulted in a flood of writings that add very little to our understanding of a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Overall, scholarship is marred by four flaws: the ‘authorised’ nature and pre-ordained conclusions of a significant portion of it; narrow geographic focus and lack of comparative analysis; reductionism (religious, financial, and legal); and faulty assumptions about the relation between theory and practice (p. 8).” In short, we have barely scratched the surface.

TO READ FULL COMMENTARY ON THE BOOK, CLICK ON THIS LINK

TO GO TO MS ROSANA GULZAR PAGE, CLICK ON THIS LINK 

To have an open and honest discussion, do have a read a give us your thoughts, especially on the political economy aspect of Islamic Finance. Comments and feedback welcome.

The Difference Between Islamic Banking Financing and Conventional Banking Loans

I know the title of this post is a mouthful, but I am insisting on the title. Simply because today I came across another round of bashing by individuals on Islamic Banking. Again, the contention is that Islamic Banking is no different from conventional banking; worse still it is claimed that Islamic Banking is more detrimental than conventional banking. How can this be? I watched the video and aghast by the level of ignorance to the nature of Islamic Banking. And gauging from the response by the rest of the audience, it seems that the audience themselves knows no better.

It seems that a lot of individuals are still unconvinced about Islamic Banking. Furthermore, the impression that it is worst-off than conventional banking needs to be addressed. Islamic Banking, while on the surface is still banking, but it is built on a totally different foundation. There are significant difference which is brought about by a single requirement; Shariah-compliance.

THE STRUCTURE 

The basic difference between Islamic Banking and conventional banking is the structure of how the Bank is set up. For a conventional banking, the purpose of set up is to collect deposit and to give loans. This is the shareholders understanding of what it should be. 2 very distinct function ie Collect Deposit and Give Loans, and the arrangement is managed by a Treasury function which tries to balance the returns to shareholders’ funds.

Conventional Banking Structure (Diff)

But what is Islamic Structure then? In essence, how an Islamic Bank is supposed to be set up is based on the theory of “Sources and Application of Funds”. There should be a single flow between the deposits and the financing / investment use of funds; this means there is no distinct function. It is a single function where customer deposits or investment pool is used to fund financing portfolio or deploy into investment instruments, from which returns are derived and recognise. Once the returns are determined, these returns are “shared” between the Bank and the customers (deposit/investment). This “Profit Loss Sharing” structure demands a different way of managing the Bank, although not all Islamic Banks are able to successfully pull this off 100% (especially when the Islamic Banks are still under the parentage of a conventional bank).

Islamic Banking Structure (Diff)

In my personal view, the structure of an Islamic Bank is most suited if it is built around the Mudharabah structure. It fits perfectly on how the Bank is to be managed. It should be the backbone of any Islamic Banks, where the set-up is linked end to end resulting in sharing of actual returns arising from a Shariah-compliant financing/investment activity.

Finally, the processes in an Islamic Bank and conventional Bank are also different, simply due to the structure of which it has been set up. There is a broader requirement for oversight and research required to ensure the Islamic products and services meets Shariah requirements. A lot more layers to comply with, a lot more details needed.

Islamic Banking Diff (Structure)

THE SHARIAH COMMITTEE

Shariah Committee is the most important difference between an Islamic Banking business and conventional Banks. It provides an oversight accountability in ensuring that all the operations of an Islamic Bank is consistent with the rules of Shariah.

Shariah Committee (Diff)

There is a huge layer of governance surrounding an Islamic Banking proposition. Whatever features that it offers, it goes through regulatory oversight by the Shariah Advisory Council of BNM, and stricter scrutiny  by the Shariah Committee whom are not under the jurisdiction of the Bank but reports directly to the Board of Directors. The decisions (or “fatwa”) given by the Shariah Committee will be held solely by the committee themselves, therefore there is a huge responsibility for them. The Shariah Committee must ensure their decisions have taken into account all requirements of justice, customer protection, compliance to Sharia, interpretation to customary civil practices as well as practicality of implementation. In short, decisions must be clear, defensible and without any doubt to its validity.

SUSTAINABLE MAQASID OF SHARIA

In Islamic Banking, matters really are determined by intentions. And the intention is to ensure the Maqasid (Objectives) of Shariah are met.

Maqasid

These Objectives are a key consideration in setting up an Islamic Banking operation. But it does not mean the operation of Islamic Banking and the deployment of its funds are for charitable purposes. It is still a business that needs to be sustained by investing in Sharia-compliant economic activities, therefore it is misleading to assume Islamic Banking is a holistic endeavor that “should not charge interest” or merely to “provide assistance to the ummah”. There are costs for running an Islamic Banking business, and as far as possible it should be at par to the costs of running a conventional banking business. Returns on Shareholder capital is also important to ensure that capital is continued to be invested into Islamic Banking for it to grow. With growth comes the ability to continue supporting the ummah. The key word is sustainable banking. You cannot grow or even survive if you are not competitive.

THE PRODUCT & CONTRACTUAL RELATIONSHIP

Designing and launching an Islamic product is not easy. The amount of work that needs to be done in relation to the fundamental difference between an Islamic Bank and conventional Bank. The fundamental difference is the totally different outlook on what happens after entering a contract. The contract between a customer and a conventional bank is simple; a loan where interest is charged upon over a period of time.

Key Diff - Product (Example)

But look at an Islamic contract. It is much more complex structure, but once determined, it really makes total sense. The contract defines the relationship, the relationship defines the responsibilities and subject matter, the subject matter defines the sequencing and ownership requirements for the use in an economic transaction, the transaction defines the rewards and returns on the completion of the contractual obligation. Cause and effect, risks and compensating return, action and rewards.

What usually confounds practitioners (whom are not well versed in Islamic Banking contracts) are the level of detail. Some may consider the issues discussed in an Islamic Banking forum as “petty” but others expressed amazement in the level on consideration undertaken during discussions. For example, an Islamic Banking forum would discuss the nature of loan (Qard) and responsibilities of Qard, conditions of Qard, transferability of Qard, conclusion of a Qard Aqad (offer and acceptance), dissolution of Qard and implications of Qard when attached to other Islamic contract. This level of discussion is missing from the conventional banking space where in their view is that a loan is an amount given to customer where it is to be repaid back with interest.

OVERALL SUMMARY OF DIFFERENCES

There really are differences between Islamic Banking and conventional banking, and there are some of us trying very hard to make a difference in the compulsion towards Riba’. As a summary, below are some quick differences I have compiled from my earlier days in the industry on the differences between the models.

Difference 1

Difference 2

Difference 3

Difference 4

DNA OF ISLAMIC BANKS

For me, the main difference between Islamic Banking and conventional banking is that the concept of justice to customer is not regulatory driven; it is conceptually driven by the idea of Islamic Banking itself. A lot of conventional banking practices are developed to maximize returns while minimizing risk, and risk-transference is a key consideration for conventional banks. Regulators have to be vigilant to ensure conventional banking toe the line to protect customer’s interests.

Islamic Banking, in its DNA is intended more than just being profitable. It is meant to be providing service to support the activities of the ummah (Muamalat) defined within Shariah-compliant transactions. There are specific rules that must be followed; breach of these rules means the penalties are non-negotiable i.e. whatever returns gained from these breaches must be given to charity. Care and consideration is a must. Justice and fairplay is always important in a decision by Shariah Committee. Release of customers burden is a priority.

AVOIDING FITNAH

Many customers still lack knowledge of what Islamic Banking is all about. They collate biased and misleading information from truncated and unverified sources on the internet, facebook postings that intends to be malicious rather than presenting the true picture, and comments by individuals who make generalized comments on their experience which may well be isolated cases due to misinformation, misunderstanding or just plain ignorance to the fact. And yet these comments are sensationalized, made viral and deemed to be the absolute truth without further exploration or verification.

Cut and paste seems to be the easy way forward. Yet people forget the discipline that is practiced by the companions of the Prophet; you must verify the information by determining it all the way to the source of the information, up to naming the individuals who made the first comments, and deciding whether the individuals are trustworthy and of good standing. This discipline is lost in this world of over-abundance of unverified information in the social media where direct accountability is undetermined, and it has become increasingly difficult to separate truth from fact.

I had always advised friends and critics alike to be careful of what they “recommend” when dealing with Islamic Banking due to the huge responsibility of such recommendations. If they are ready to criticise Islamic Banking as “same as conventional” or “open to back-door riba” without full understanding of what it really is, they should be ready to take responsibility for that. If their basis of stating as such is based on “viral whastsapp message” or “comments by third party islamic practitioners” or “explaination by insiders in the industry” or “commentary by blogs”, I do appreciate if we as practitioners can be provided with these “sources” for us to verify its accuracy. Many times I find the comments are based on partial information, taken out of context, outdated writings or information as well as just being malicious without proper basis or discussion. Some are not even Shariah related or relevant to Islamic Banking practices, just operational and processes defects.

Do think of the implications: Should a person make such comments that “Don’t take Islamic Banking products because it is not really Islamic and there is a lot of trickery to it”, and the person listening to that comment thinks “Owh then there is no difference between Islamic product and conventional riba banks’ product” and proceeded to take Riba-based loan products, the implication is that the person who made the comment had directly influenced another person, in my view, in making a wrong and sinful decision. Will that person be responsible for this act of “pushing another Muslim into taking Riba products”? It is a heavy burden to take, not just immediate but in the hereafter. So be careful when a person makes that comment.

And to imagine what will happen when the person who took the Riba product commented to another person (and another) that someone commented that “there is no difference between Islamic Banking and Riba Banking…” . It will become a tree with a massive root, grown by the single seed of the original comment by the first person.

MashaAllah

Hopefully those doubtful questions on Islamic Banking should be directed to Islamic scholars, Islamic banking practitioners or relevant academicians with stature, knowledge and qualifications before the ummah believes and spread untruth that will, in the end, become a disservice to the religion of Islam by spreading “fitnah”.

ISLAMIC BANKING IS EVOLVING

Evolution

Granted, Islamic Banking is a 30 year old structure, with many building blocks are still in progress. But it has not stopped evolving to existing times as and when new regulations and Shariah decisions comes into discussion. It is not perfect yet, but practitioners are aware of the difficulties of meeting all the requirements without enhancements and considerations to practicality. There is a misguided assumption that academia are aware of all the shortfall of Islamic Banking practices and the industry had turned a blind eye to these. Nothing can be further than the truth. Islamic bankers, Shariah Committees and BNM are well aware of all of the issues raised buy academia as well as other practitioners, with the benefit of global awareness as well. In truth, practitioners know more of the issues they faced on a day to day basis, as compared to academia where some of the issues had already been resolved by the industry but not as made known to academia.

Criticisms are always welcome, but ideally it should be constructive on how to improve. It is a heavy responsibility to ensure the differences between Islamic Banking (based on Shariah) and conventional banking (based on lending) are managed diligently. It is an on-going evolution that I am confident one day will reach its apex. Ideas are welcome and proposed solutions considered in earnest. And as I have always said to my product team; If you’re not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. So, let’s be the solution that we had always wanted.

Wallahualam

My earlier postings on similar conversation:

  1. Consequence for Choosing Islamic Banking
  2. Shariah Banking in Malaysia
  3. Conversations on Islamic Banking in Malaysia
  4. Choosing the Right Options