Making Islamic Banking Resilient

Recently, I was invited to be part of a panel to present our views at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) on how to make Islamic Financial Markets resilient. With great excitement I prepared my slides (panelists are given 20 minutes to present) and tried to figure out the best approach to present it in such a short time. However, when the session came, due to time overshoots and constraint, me as the last speaker was only left with 10 minutes. I had to make it count, so I talked fast.

Afterwards, however, I do not feel as if it was mission accomplished. Time was too short for me to put my argument properly and I had to drop many points in fear of cramming too much information into that 10 minutes. So I decided to post my slides up, and make a proper short commentary on what I meant to be communicated. Bear with me.

The Financial Industry Must be Resilient

  • STABILITY : The public must be confident on the resilience of the financial markets where the public is assured that there is not misconduct of public funds in the day to day operations of the banking industry. BNM has put in great lengths to ensure stability via sufficient capital, liquidity and funding. The operations of the bank must always meet the statutory requirement on financial stability with the introduction of the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR), Net Stable Funding Ratio (NSFR), Rate of Return Framework (ROR), and Risk Informed Pricing.
  • SUSTAINABILITY : Any business, must intend to survive in the long run. Selecting your customers are important, and risk mitigation mechanisms must be available to defend the business. But at the same time, re-investment of profits must also be made for future growth, so it is a balance to be maintained.
  • INTEGRITY : As Bankers, integrity always plays an important, and fundamental, part.  But Islamic Bankers, another layer of integrity is also imposed which is Shariah. Banks are expected to be more and more of a moral champion in support of the various SDGs and ESGs where the idea of being good will eventually lead to better profits and prosperity. BNM’s Value Based Intermediation aims to expand the role of banks to be more than just profit driven, but more inclusive to embrace a wider range of customers and cater for their needs.

The Challenges are manifold.

Being resilient is always a challenge for the Banks, especially with so many moving parts in the financial world. New regulations, new competition, new structures, new products and new models continue to plague the banking industry. To change our mindset to make Banking and Financial Market more better requires a lot of soul searching and will power to make the change. I summarised the challenges into 3 broad categories:

  1. Consumer Market. Any major change in the banking model is not taken well by the consumer market. Customers come to the Bank mostly for advise on their banking services. The Banks struggle to introduce differentiating products, from the debt structures and into the thought of creating value through investments. I am not sure how successful introducing the VBI into the consumer market, but the has been a lack of awareness programmes to introduce to the public.
  2. Corporate Market. Corporates are driven by profits and benefits. It is their core function ie to increase shareholder value.
  3. Financial Markets. We lack sufficient financial instruments in the market. That is why the industry can only grow organically. It needs the strong-will to pump more capital into the market and creation of structures that do not mirror the conventional books.

The Reality is that Traditional Banks need to keep up.

  • Traditional Banks. Heavily regulated to ensure financial stability. But the speed of adaptation to new thinking and new technologies are too slow. It is high cost to make the change, but also it is high cost just staying where you are. Ask Nokia. If all Islamic Banks do is replicate, they are in danger of becoming obsolete in the near future.
  • Challenger Banks. Provides alternative banking structures or arrangement, with little or no hassle, with or without the use of technology. A lot of customers now by-pass banks to opt for the most convenient and fast banking products. With very minimal regulatory requirements.
  • Digital Banks. This new breed of banks are definitely very interesting. There are two differentiators i.e. 1) Banks that only digitalise their processes and paperwork and speed, but the fundamental bricks are the same, and 2) Banks that try to be different and offer a totally new proposition with a new set of bricks. Yet, Islamic Banks are expected to do all and adopt more stringent requirements when entering into the Digital space, while dealing with old issues such as constructive ownership and Aqad. More importantly, these issues can probably be resolved by NON-BANKS, offering the same terms and conditions, sometimes with slightly better proposition such as speed, accuracy and low cost. For example, big data companies such as Facebook and Grab intend to open their own “bank”. Facebook just launched its Libra bank trading in cryptocurrencies. Grab is rumoured to enter as well and these Big Data companies already have their database of ready customers for them to roll out their Digital Banks.

Stop Looking at Your Feet. Stretch out your hand and move to touch new Horizons.

A lot of discussions have been held between the academia and practitioners. It seems we are always looking ways to innovate and integrate into the future, but without any real solutions on how to actually do it. As mentioned, the will-power to affect change remains a huge challenge. Instead of “What Is….”  to be turned to “What If…” where solutions are always been discussed and developed for a solution, and “What Next…” clearly implying the shift in banking products from traditional to new developments.

It is no longer sustainable to just replicate. True innovation is on the rise. New solutions are needed to be offered to the customers.

The Next Generation bankers must familiarise themselves with all the blockchain and Internet of Things language and terms currently floating around. More importantly, there should be a look at the whole ecosystem to see where the Shariah elements can be included, and where others must be excluded. Collaborative discussions, between regulators, academicians, practitioners and Shariah scholars must work together for the growth in the industry. It is not just any growth, it involves a total paradigm shift to adopt the new ecosystem.

There is a need to differentiate and upscale the business practices. While we continue to focus on the Traditional Bank in making it more resilient, we might miss this opportunity to join the Industry Revolution 4.0 to revamp Islamic Banking and overlook the threats coming from other financial institutions (NON-BANK). This is the Banking disruption in real life.

Why Choose Islamic Home Financing in Malaysia?

ISLAMIC FINANCING HAVE SHOWN SUSTAINED GROWTH. WHY?

In the course of our job, we are often asked what are the value proposition and selling points of taking an Islamic Financing product as compared to a conventional loan. Are there certain conditions to qualify a person for taking Islamic Home Financing? There are misconceptions that Islamic financing are expensive, but if that is true, why would there be a growth in Islamic financing? Would people have to be extremely religious to accept an expensive / inferior product no matter what just because it is Shariah compliant?

There are certain features in-built in an Islamic structure that gives benefits that appeal to certain types of customers, based on their needs and requirements for the product. On the flip side there are also consumers that prefer other features not possible for an Islamic structure. It depends on your requirements when it comes to your usage.

BENEFITS OF ISLAMIC HOME FINANCING

  1. No Lock-in Period or Early Settlement Penalty for financing . In the banking world, there is a lot of effort to on-board a customer for a particular financing, and home financing is one of them. The process can take 3-9 months and involves a lot of people and it is natural for a bank to want to earn income as much as possible, as long as possible from the customer. That would not happen if the customer settles early. The bank will impose a minimum “lock-in” period of between 3-5 years where customers are prohibited to sell, settle or refinance their houses. If they do, an early settlement penalty (usually 1.0% on the amount to be settled) will  be imposed. Under Islamic financing, this feature is not generally accepted due to the concept that “Debt Cannot be Forgiven, even in Death”. Therefore to impose a penalty when a customer is attempting to pay off its debt remains an issue in the area of Islamic Banking. This is outline in the Ibra (Rebate) Guidelines issued in 2011 which prohibits such charge (Item 8.3). But that is not to say any penalties cannot be charged for the product. Such allowances are given if the product is sold based on a promotional rate, for example 2.0% p.a. lower than the normal financing rate for special campaigns or conditions. In such cases, the bank can recover the “discount” if the financing is settled within the lock in period. Actual cost or loss incurred by bank can be recovered (to avoid abuse). Another example is when a bank absorbs the legal fees for the financing, that actual expense can be recovered if early settlement is made within the lock in period. This Shariah requirement have proven popular for customers seeking short-term financing (plans to upgrade their properties within a few years) as well as property investors seeking for options to dispose properties when opportunities arises.
  2. 100% Stamp Duty waiver for Home refinancing. This feature is available in Malaysia where the government agrees to allow for a 100% stamp duty waiver for Islamic Financing when it is refinanced from a conventional bank. This is to encourage the refinancing market as it appeals to customers seeking additional financing on a property’s capital gains. For example, 10 years ago the customer took up  a loan for RM500,000 on a RM600,000 property which is now worth RM1,000,000. As the balance outstanding on the loan now is RM300,000, the customer is seeking another RM400,000 cash to finance a renovation. If the customer intends to move the loan, the customer will incur a stamp duty for RM700,000 (i.e. RM300,000 existing + RM400,000 additional). However, moving it to an Islamic bank, the existing  stamp duty for RM300,000 will be totally waived and only the additional (top-up) amount of RM400,000 will incur the normal stamp duty. This waiver is applicable for all refinancing from conventional bank to Islamic banks on the amount refinanced (provided the original loan has already paid for the stamp duty prior to the refinancing). This applies for individual customers as well as companies.
  3. Ceiling Rate Price Protection. While many years ago, this feature is mis-sold by many sales person as being oppressive and expensive, with the current climate of changes, this have instead become a competitive benefit for Islamic Banks. The key changes that happened in the past few years was first the Ibra’ (Rebate) guidelines issued by BNM in 2011 and also the Reference Rate Framework in 2014 (Item 8.10). The Ibra’s guidelines says it is ok for the bank to charge a ceiling rate to formalise the Aqad, but the day-to-day charging of the customer must be based on a mandatory rebate mechanism where the effective rate is at par which what a conventional normal benchmark rate is. This means that the customer is not overcharged. More importantly, the customer will not be charged more than the ceiling rate should the normal benchmark rate increase to above the ceiling rate. This provides the customer price protection against high fluctuations of the benchmark rates. Some might say that there is no way rates will breach the ceiling rate but if you look at the length of a financing product of up to 30 years, who is to say the benchmark rates won’t breach during an adverse economic cycle? More importantly, the Reference Rate Framework allows for punitive pricing where banks are allowed to increase the loan/financing rates based on customer’s risk profile to up to Effective Rates +3.50% p.a. If a commercial financing of BFR + 3.50% is about 10.30% p.a., that is not too far away from a normal ceiling rate ranging from 12% to 15% p.a. So, with a Ceiling Rate you get the best of both worlds; if the benchmark rate is below the ceiling rate, you enjoy the benchmark rate (same as conventional loans), and if the benchmark is above the ceiling rate, you only pay based on the ceiling rate (not the same as conventional loans).

GIVING BETTER SOLUTIONS THAT SATISFY SHARIAH REQUIREMENTS

The top 3 reasons above are some of the main drivers for Islamic Financing. For item 1 it is the BNM effort to provide Islamic Banks with a competitive edge based on Shariah instructions. For item 2, it is the government of Malaysia initiative to provide stamp duty incentive for a specific segment ie refinancing segment. For item 3, it is the Shariah requirement to have a ceiling rate which protects the consumer from uncertainty. All these 3 elements come together to provide a competitive advantage to banks and benefit to consumers.

There are a few smaller advantages to an Islamic financing structure (based on specific products such as No Commitment Fees for Islamic Revolving Credit or Overdraft), but it is too many to list down. Granted, these features are incentives and assistance by relevant parties to make the products attractive, and may not be applicable for products outside Malaysia.

In conclusion, the above demonstrates the ability to take a Shariah requirement to make it into a benefit for consumers. This aligns with the idea that Islamic Banking products must contribute to the sustainable practices that offers fair an equitable solution to consumers.

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