Risk Management in Islamic Banking

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS ISLAMIC RISK MANAGEMENT?

I had this conversation recently until the wee hours of morning, and although I never thought a lot about it, I have come to the conclusion that there cannot be an exact replica of the Risk Management in the conventional sense.

Risk Management is a tool used by all conventional banking institution in the name of good governance, risk mitigation and prudent practice. It looks at financial exposures and its inherent risks to the business, and deeply believe in the risk-rewards pay-off within the generally accepted risk appetite of the organisation. It focuses a lot on control processes, performance monitoring, collateral value, and decision making policies for credit, market and systemic risks.

To a large extend, the risk management framework employed by the conventional banking businesses can be easily adapted by Islamic Banking counterparts. The components are the same, and there is little argument on its applicability under Shariah law. However,  the risk management framework for Islamic Banking institutions must be inherently different as well, or maybe extended to include a bigger scope. It cannot just be seen as a replica of the conventional business; the foundation of Islamic Banking is definitely different.

There are a few divergence in the reason an Islamic Banking institutions should (ideally) follow. This is an on-going argument on the fact while Islamic Banking claims to be a different business model, but it is still engineered by the rules of a conventional organisation. But what are these divergent reasons for setting up an Islamic Banking business?

The lending of money to make money is forbidden.

This may seem like a trivial thing for Islamic Banking as many will say there is no difference between profit and interest. But for us practitioners, there is a big difference in its concept. Because of this difference, the way we think about how a product can be structured is paramount. Underlying contracts, assets, ownerships and roles and responsibilities becomes different from a tranditional / conventional bank (whom are essentially a money lender). To validate a transaction, all tenets and requirements in an Islamic contracts must be met or else it becomes an invalid transaction and any gains from it must be given to charity. Any gains obtained without fulfilling the transactional can be deemed as usury (riba’).

There are specific Shariah requirements that takes Islamic Banking beyond banking.

Some terms are pretty alien to traditional banks, such as commodity purchase, operating lease and rentals, sequencing and ownerships. This is where the divergent begins, because Islamic Banks espouses the concept of “trading” and “entrepreneurship” and “partnership” and “service provider”, away from the “lender-borrower” arrangement. Traditional banks struggle to understand issues of ownership of assets, risk and loss sharing, purchases of commodity and rental of assets. These activities are beyond traditional banking, and may become an operational risk issue if it is not fully embraced.

Islamic Banking should be more closer to a venture-capitalist, crowd-funding model than traditional banking.

The fundamental requirements for earning a profit (and to a bigger extent, how much we can earn from a transaction) is the element of risk sharing, which mean both customer and financier takes some form of the risks of the venture. At the same time, such “risky” venture is mitigated by way of ensuring it is not overstretched i.e. the transactions must be either asset-backed (including the presence of collaterals) or asset-based (evidenced by real trading or assets or commodities) to reflect economic activity.

The amount of risk taken under an Islamic contract can be higher (for contracts such as Mudharabah or Musyaraka financing) but it must be reflective of the economic reality and available assets.

The risk assessment of an Islamic contract must then be enhanced to behave similarly to what a venture capitalist can accept. There will be direct risks on equity, investments and returns. There will be corresponding returns as well. But such concepts will be difficult to digest if the bank is set up based on traditional banking fundamentals, which caters for a totally different profile of stakeholders.

As far as possible, the Shariah committee draws a line for transparency, fairness, and justice.

Islamic Banking should be an extended but integral part of economics. Islamic Banking is supposed to be more than a bank. It shoulders a broader responsibility to the people by looking at needs and providing products that serve a purpose. The idea of responsible financing, transparency and customer service should be the by-word of an Islamic Bank. The payment of Zakat (tithe) on profits which goes back into the community recognises the financial role that it needs to play. Corporate Social Responsibilities also play a role.

In this repect, the Shariah committee plays an important role as gatekeepers to the products and services on offer. Because of the unfamiliar territory of Islamic products, Shariah insists that transparency is critical to avoid uncertainty (gharar), the terms to the products are fair and the banks are ethical in its conduct to ensure justice. Fees and charges must reflect actual costs. Efforts are made to help a customer in distress. And conduct of the bank must comply with the requirements of Shariah.

SO, BASED ON THE ABOVE, WHAT ARE THE  OF RISKS FACED BY ISLAMIC BANKS? 

As a general rule, all risks faced by a conventional Bank must be “transferable” i.e the nature of the financial transaction must, as far as possible, allow for the TRANSFER OF RISKS. Wherever the opportunity arises, the Bank must be able to quickly pass the risk of the asset or valuation to the customer. Such understanding is also apparent in Islamic Banks. Looking at most Islamic Banking contracts, their structure allows for the transfer of risks, which follows the transfers of ownership, responsibilities and obligations from one party to the other. Contracts  such as Murabahah, Musawamah and Qard works by transferring the ownership, responsibilities and obligation from the Bank to the Customer.

Alternatively, mostly exclusive to Islamic Banks, are structures that allows for SHARING OF RISKS. The structure is more “participative” in nature, where there are benchmark by which determines the level of risks a party should have. The regular types of contracts that continues to share risks are Mudarabah, Musyarakah and Ijarah.

COMMON RISKS 

As mentioned before, the risks faced by a conventional bank and Islamic Bank should be very much the same, except for risks arising to the execution of Islamic contracts or pronouncement of the Shariah. While there will be common elements of risks for both types of Banks, the importance of Shariah ruling and decisions result in Islamic Banking becoming so unique. The following are the Risks commonly faced by Islamic Banks:

GENERAL RISKS – Risks existing in both conventional and Islamic banks. 

  • Credit  Risks – Arises due to counterparty risks (possibility of default by the party taking financing) where the counterparty fails to meet its obligations, in terms of payment, uncertainty of industry,  change of direction or diminished collateral value. This lead to settlement risks which means the Asset quality has diminished.
  • Market Risks / Interest Rate Risks – More macro in terms of effect on the risks. It relies on the performance of the market as well as the quality of the financial instruments (price, performance, valuation, demand, yields and inability to reprice. It leads to exposure to interest rate risks, where the risk of the bank increases with movements in the rates.
  • Liquidity Risks – Refers to the risk of inability to return cash to investors or stakeholder in stressed scenarios, resulting in forced borrowings from the market (usually at higher price) coupled with the possibility of not able to dispose assets. This may lead to valuation risks.
  • Operational Risks – Due to inadequate control of internal processes and operational practices, the risks may result in real loss of income and potentially reputation. Human errors may be difficult to unwind especially if there is financial implications. There may also be legal risks as it may be considered a breach in contract by the bank.

ISLAMIC SPECIFIC RISKS – Risks arising from operational and processing function

  • Transactional risks – Especially under Islamic Banking structures, transactions play an important role as part of the Aqad, where required.  For example, the sequencing of a Murabahah transaction. Failure to ensure compliance to the Aqad requirements will lead to potential invalid transaction and loss of income (or flow to charity).
  • Valuation Risks – Due to the nature of some Islamic Banking contracts, especially equity based structures, there will be challenges in valuation of the portfolio.  Reduction in valuation will result in real losses for the investors.
  • Displaced Commercial Risks – Displaced Commercial Risk (DCR) refer to the risk of mismatch between the fixed/contracted obligation to the depositors vs the uncertain returns on the financing (income) which may result in the income is insufficient to meet the obligations to the depositors. For example, the commitment for Islamic Fixed Deposit is 4% (contractual) but the Financing portfolio into which the Fixed Deposits is deployed into only earns 3% (actual returns). Therefore, the 1% shortage is the DCR where the Bank will have to flow 1% of  income from other portfolio to meet the deposit obligation of 4%.

SHARIAH RISKS – Risks arising to non-compliance of Shariah decisions and Shariah instructions.

  • Shariah Compliance Risks – The operation of an Islamic Bank is hugely dependent on the requirements of the Shariah Committee and approvals obtain on the process and procedure. Inability to comply with Shariah requirements puts the operations of the Islamic bank at risk as the department may be regarded as non-Shariah compliant business.
  • Fiduciary / Ownership Risks – Some of the structures under Islamic contract requires the bank to operate outside the scope of a financial intermediary. It requires the bank to hold property or trade commodities or own and lease assets, with various contracts using various roles and responsibilities. The risk of multiple roles and function must be clearly defined and implemented.
  • Regulatory / Reputational Risks – Changes in regulations requires quick adaptation to ensure compliance to regulation and maintaining the banking reputation intact.?

SO HOW DO YOU MANAGE ISLAMIC RISKS AND SHARIAH RISKS

As mentioned, Islamic management of risks should not be any different for the base of conventional bank’s methodology of measuring risks. There must be deep understanding of the products and structure for the bank to be able to assess the risks associated. To manage an Islamic Bank and its risks, the bank must first identify each of the risks and form safeguards to settle the above. Then only an Islamic bank can formulate suitable controls to ensure the Shariah specific processes and Shariah pronouncements are being monitored and implemented with sufficient support (internal or external). Wallahualam.

The Tawarruq Dilemma

Islamic Banking in Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad. While Islamic Banking continues to offer like-to-like conventional structures, the requirements by Shariah Committees and Policy Documents by Bank Negara Malaysia continues to challenge the way Islamic Banks implement and operationalise the products within a viable banking structure. Islamic Banks are becoming mindful of the need to comply fully to each policy requirements.

It is precisely this fear of being “non-compliant” to these requirements that pushes many Islamic Banks to develop the Tawarruq-based products into its most efficient form. As I have written earlier in Disruption : Islamic Contracts where I felt the Tawarruq arrangements has become the “go to” structure that Islamic Banks can easily comply with, the notion that other contracts such as Musyarakah or Ijarah or Mudharabah may now be left behind in its development due to perceived complexities. Or in some cases, difficulty to comply due to the existing banking set-up, especially in matters of risks, capital and operational processes which is intrinsically based on conventional banking infrastructure.

BUT CAN TAWARRUQ ALWAYS BE THE ANSWER?

It is generally accepted that a lot of processes in the Tawarruq arrangement can be complied with. There were strong operational support and infrastructure both internal and external, such as the London Metal Exchange (LME) and Bursa Suq Al Sila which has an efficient commodity platform specifically designed to support Tawarruq with or without commodity brokers, to the choice structure that bridges the middle-east players to most of the rest of the Islamic Banking geographies. But that is by no means that Tawarruq is a perfect solution for Banks.

Despite Tawarruq is now greatly used over the last decade or so, there are still contention points that remains amongst financial practitioners and Shariah scholars. Most scholars want to have the view that Tawarruq should be the “contract of last-resort” but what we see now are quite the opposite. It is the preferred choice being used not just for Working Capital requirements, but now also for Asset Financing, Mortgages, Trade Financing, Fixed Deposits, Structured Investments, and even Savings Account. Whenever an Islamic Bank hits a roadblock with a particular product being developed or requiring compliance to the latest rules, the tendency is always to consider Tawarruq as the solution.

If this is the approach, how much do we really need other Islamic contracts which only addresses a single problem or requirement? Shouldn’t we develop Tawarruq as far as it can take us and make other contracts as “supporting” contract to cater for specific nuances?

THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ON TAWARRUQ

Each year when Bank Negara Malaysia audit comes around, there will always be new compliance points to be proven and tested. Even at the level of understanding and interpreting the Policy Documents into processes and banking operations. Each Bank interprets the rules differently, and each banking set-up have different operational capabilities which more often than not, requires exceptional Shariah indulgence. So, the questions will remain unanswered whenever dispensation is obtained.

Many argue that the main issue of Tawarruq is actually the “intention” of the contract itself, and that intention is not to “trade in commodities” but to create debt via a trading transaction. This has been debated at length for many years in all types of forum, but we concede on some of the arguments by virtue of there being no other viable solution to cater for certain banking requirements. Islamic Banks, and its scholars, had to choose either:

  • Allowing for the Tawarruq arrangement with strict adherence to requirements until a solution arrives, or
  • Disallowing the Tawarruq arrangement which may result in customers being impaired in their Islamic business, which may result in the customer reverting to a conventional banking solution.

Is there a case of choosing the lesser of two evils?

Nonetheless, I won’t discourse what have been extensively discussed, but instead look at the operational issues of Tawarruq arrangements that I pick up going through the Tawarruq Policy Document. Among them that are still being debated in different forums are:

  1. The issue of Commodity Delivery – To demonstrate that the Tawarruq being practised by the Bank is real, the test of delivery of Commodity is a key qualifying factor. The Bank must have in place a mechanism that allows the customer an option to take delivery of the commodity whenever the customer calls for it, bearing in mind that may have not been the intention in the first place i.e. taking delivery of commodities. How a Bank prove this to Shariah Committee and regulators are crucial to demonstrate “real transaction” and paper transactions.
  2. The issue of Price Fluctuation – Depending on commodities, its price tend to fluctuate periodically, because these are actual live commodities being traded. Because of this, Banks have not been able to be precise in its documentation or price disclosures. Whatever price per commodity unit at 10am, it might change at  2pm, so how do you lock-in a specific price when the buy and sell of the commodity was not concluded immediately? The fact that Bursa Suq Al Sila states in its guidance notes that an Islamic Bank could not hold the commodities for more than 2 hours implies the issue of price fluctuation is a valid concern for Shariah Committees.
  3. The issue of Discrepancies of Terms – Because the Murabahah transaction in the Tawarruq arrangement is the most crucial contract, Scholars always insist on the details of the transaction to be as precise as possible to ensure what was offered was eventually rightly accepted. For example in a Personal Financing structure, the customer makes a credit application according to certain terms such as financing amount, or financing tenure, but what eventually gets approved might be a lesser amount or shorter tenure, which means differences in the initial “Agency” instruction to transact the commodity. Scholars question how do Banks re-engage customers with such “counter-offer” for their acceptance? At which point after the credit approval?
  4. The issue of Delay in Transactions – Some banks are more efficient than others. Some banks are able to conduct commodity trading on the same day while others can only do it in the next day after the day’s batch run. End of day batch runs are what conventional banking live by, and there is no motivation to conclude and consolidate all transaction in real-time; there is no requirements to do so. Batch runs allows for more systematic consolidation of records. But that becomes an issue for Islamic banks running next to a conventional banking proposition. So if an Islamic bank is limited to only end of day batch run to consolidate its records, it means the end of week transactions requirements will only be fulfilled on the next working day (across the weekend). This is a delay in the conclusion of the initial instruction given by customer to conduct Murabahah which may impact specific terms including price of commodity and its availability. There is also the danger of missing out delayed transactions as those instructions are not “current” anymore. There is a provision in the Policy Documents that “delay” in transaction should not be more than 2 days (T+2), but there are also periods where the off-days are more than that due to public holidays and other disruptions.
  5. The issue of Qard in Tawarruq – An extension of the above scenario where Commodity transactions are delayed, the next question will be “what is the status of the funds when no transaction is done?” Is it a Qard (Loan) contract until the transaction is fulfilled, or is it an Amanah (Trust) arrangement? In either case, for the scenario of Tawarruq Deposits, how do you accrue the profit for both contracts which forbids “interest” or “returns“? Profit is only realised once the Murabahah (trade) takes place. Without the trade being transacted, profit accruals can only be justified by arguing that Islamic banks should not penalise customers who, in this case, has done nothing wrong. Dispensation is always given for the reason of fairness. And this “Incidental Qard” issue has also been discussed at the Shariah Advisory Council of Bank Negara Malaysia, where the fatwa on Incidental Qard and its conditions were issued. But the fact that it was discussed, indicated that this issue is not as easily brushed aside as one like to think.
  6. The issue of Agency and Dual Agency – There are still some banks that feels the Dual Agency structure contributes greatly to the notion of “arranged” Tawarruq and thus stays away from it. The Dual Agency structure is where the customer appoints the Bank as both the Buying Agent and Selling Agent. This gives the Bank the full right to conduct trading without any Customer intervention (given mandate), which makes the “ability or option to take delivery of commodity” redundant or unnecessary requirement. It effectively removes the proof of Murabahah i.e. deliverability of the Commodity.
  7. The issue of Physical Commodity – One of the main contention is the ability to ascertain the availability of Commodity. While on paper it can be evidenced but nonetheless the challenge is to ensure the Commodity is identifiable and deliverable according to quantity. Efforts have been made to split into smaller denominations whenever needed, and commodities like Crude Palm Oil (CPO) is easier to be allocated. But there is always suspicion whether this is superficial where proof of otherwise is actually much more difficult to obtain. Where is the certainty that the assets being traded are the right physical ones?

THE REAL QUESTION IS WHETHER THE ABOVE CAN REALLY BE RESOLVED

So is there any other alternatives to Tawarruq? The above questions have so far not been answered satisfactorily and scholars while do not prohibit its usage, still frown on how much Tawarruq has impacted everyday banking life. It is truly a “love/hate relationship,

I believe there is such “replacement” contract that can address most, if not all, of the above concerns. But it needed to be proofed and challenged and at the end of the day, we question such necessity and thus the rising dilemma to replace it after all the work done. Tawarruq has really taken root with so much invested in perfecting the structure, and expertise in its documents and mechanism. It solves a lot of problems, yes. But will Tawarruq be the end of innovation for Islamic Banking?

I like to think there must life beyond Tawarruq. It just needed courage to acknowledge the big task required for such massive structural changes in replacing Tawarruq. Such replacement must not just be an equal substitute but also addresses the Shariah concerns. That is the ultimate test of any Islamic Banking contract; the reason for being.