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 

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Disruption : Islamic Contracts

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Under IFSA 2013, it is no longer about Product Innovation. It is about Product Compliance.

2 weeks ago I had a session with some bright individuals discussing the Islamic contracts commonly used in Corporate Banking financing structures. We went through almost all the available Islamic financing contracts such as Murabaha, Ijara, Musyaraka and Mudharaba, where I highlighted that all these contracts now have their own Policy Document issued by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). The Policy Documents, in my opinion, are a concise version of a lot of Sharia regulations and great reading source. It becomes a reference point where management roles and responsibilities are outlined, operational behaviour laid down, and theoretical basis is justified and explained.

It is a matter of time, I told the participants, that these Policy Documents are taken in their full context and finally developed into a comprehensive structure with clear compliance to Sharia requirements. We, as Islamic Bankers, are in for an exciting period of development where we will have a chance to develop “real” Islamic banking contracts.

The moment I said that, I realised it is NOT TRUE!!!

THE IMPACT OF IFSA 2013

The popular belief is that IFSA 2013 is meant to realign all the Islamic Banking regulations in the Islamic Banking Act, Takaful Act and various major guidelines into a single overarching Act. IFSA 2013  consolidates the various practices into more clarity and re-classification of concepts. However, the perception that Islamic Banking in Malaysia as an innovative development hub would no longer hold true. “Innovation” was the key thinking and pride-point prior to IFSA 2013; now I believe the right word is “Compliance”.

163170_477596024332_7522334_nWhen we first started the Islamic Banking journey in late 1990’s and early 2000s, BNM encouraged a lot of product innovation from Banks as there were no existing guidelines. We looked at the various structures that provides the desired outcomes and discussed with Shariah Committee on the design and component of products without breaching Sharia rules. BNM was supportive on us developing these “innovative” products. Some may have been controversial (such as Bai Inah, Bay Ad Dayn, Wadiah and Bai Bithaman Ajil) but it encourages discussions alongside the mantra that “whatever is not explicitly prohibited, is permissible“. Sometimes we were forced to think outside of the box, especially for sophisticated products mirroring conventional. We also received support from Sharia Committees whom temporarily approved “innovative” products with the understanding that over time, a better solution were developed as replacements.

Now with the issuance of the Policy Documents, such innovation becomes limited. Innovation is now ring-fenced around compliance to Shariah rules (either from regulators or internal Shariah Committee), and the Banks are expected to follow these rules to the letter. Breaches to these rules becomes the responsibility of the Bank’s Shariah Committee and detailed deliberation is greatly expected to provide the solution. Compliance first; if it is not covered in the documents, it probably cannot be done without a lot of effort.

CHOOSING THE SIMPLEST ALTERNATIVE

With compliance now being the vogue vocabulary with BNM, Banks had to look hard to the Policy Documents to ensure the requirements are identified and gaps filled for fear of breaches or fines. The gap analysis falls into the line whether “are we complying to the requirements?” and not “how do we do this without it becoming a gap or compliance issue?”. Both Shariah and Bank’s Product teams would now look on how to comply with Policy Documents instead of using the Policy Documents as a reference to develop a product.

What I noticed since 2014 is the obsession to comply with Islamic contract requirements, and if the team feels it is difficult to comply, the next logical step is to avoid such contract altogether and seek an alternative contract which is easier to comply with. For example, the Murabaha Policy Document issued in 2014. I have to say it is a beautiful document, and outlines the requirements for Murabaha Purchase Orderer (MPO) that reflects the full Sharia requirements of ownership transfers, risk taking, profit and management of actual assets.

These requirements, which in the eyes of many Banks, may be difficult to fully comply with due to many reasons: shortage of expertise, systems infrastructures limitation, people understanding, complicated processes, operational risks, credit issues and fund management requirements. Instead of the risk of breaching the Policy Documents, Banks opt for something less “complicated” which offers “similar” structure. The default solution is Tawarruq Arrangement i.e. Commodity Murabaha.

Or, the teams looks at Ijara Policy Document. It outlines further the roles and responsibilities of lessor and lessee, while the asset remained in the Bank’s ownership throughout the lease tenure. Again, if a roadblock occurs where a Bank cannot fully comply… Tawarruq Arrangement provides a quick solution. With very defined rules outlined in Tawarruq Policy Documents, the Banks are confident that offering Tawarruq will not breach any guidelines.

Tawarruq, therefore becomes the default Islamic contract in the market. When I asked the participants during case-studies to the question “What contracts should be used for this structure?”, the answers are unanimous “Tawarruq”. And they are not wrong.

DISRUPTION IN ISLAMIC CONTRACTS

155228_469014969332_6259944_nMaking Tawarruq as the “all-problems-solved” structure is having an unfortunate result to the industry. While the issuance of the Policy Documents as a reference was to galvanise the development of various Islamic contracts, the Banks have an easy way out in Tawarruq. Now, the rest of the contracts are in danger of being sidelined in favour of continuous development in Tawarruq.

For example, the Home Financing product which had evolved from BBA in the 1980s to Diminishing Musharaka in the 2000s. When BBA was introduced, practitioners and Sharia teams identified several practical issues that over a period of time needed to be resolved such as ownership transfer, rights to sell, and sale of properties under construction. These issues led to the development of Diminishing Musharaka as an alternative solution.

But with Diminishing Musharaka, there are still operational and legal issues that have yet to be resolved until today. For example, the “right” contract to be used for period of construction, the application of Ijara and the extensive outlining of Wakalah roles and responsibilities. Failure to understand the issues and provide real solutions puts the Bank at risk. There are also legal infrastructures that have yet to be addressed such as land joint-ownership by the Bank (as a partner), and different practices of land offices for the registration of Bank as a partner. These are roadblocks (and credit risks) to the Banks to take the structure further.

THE DOUBLE-EDGE SWORD OF TAWARRUQ

25547_378676189332_2665364_nMalaysia is in danger where I foresee that one day the industry itself will became the absolute global expert in Tawarruq and Commodity Murabaha. With Bursa Suq Al Sila as the leading commodity trading platform for the country, backed by the government (as a national bourse), the Tawarruq structure is expected to evolve into an efficient Islamic-structure engine. The processes of Commodity Murabaha will become seamless, and may even integrate into a Bank’s core banking system, the operation for buying and selling commodity will become commonplace and familiar, and this will result in effective processing, awareness of Shariah risks, compliance to trading requirements and well as reduction in overall operational risks.

Banks will one day become so well versed in Tawarruq, they will question the need for other types of Islamic contract, where they may not able to fully comply with.

With such development, more and more:

  1. capital investments will be made into perfecting the Tawarruq infrastructure, and Banks will also be able to comply with BNM requirements by investing in human capital familiar with Tawarruq.
  2. product structures will be developed around Tawarruq and once these products are established, it will be difficult to unwind as a prefered product simply due to the ease of the Tawarruq contract requirements.
  3. variations and hybrid products will be introduced based on Tawarruq, or containing elements of Tawarruq to solve “difficult scenarios” for compliance.

We will one day have an innovative and world class Tawarruq product, but no development in the other major Islamic contracts. Innovation will stall and Banks will choose quick returns and operational ease of Tawarruq. It is a dilemma of the industry where it is heading to “one” major solution for almost all “sale-based products”.

It is unfortunate if Banks chose to abandon the other contract alternatives, where such contracts will never reach its full operational and theoretical potential.

Hoping that a Bank will take the lead to develop products based on all the various Policy Documents instead of relying on only Tawarruq and its variations. The industry needs expansion and enhancement and by focusing on only Tawarruq, the industry will not be able to explore exciting products and expand its horizon. The Policy Documents, as beautifully written as they are, may tragically one day just becomes an academic relic issued by BNM.

Wallahualam.

Earlier writings on Tawarruq and Commodity Murabahah:

  1. Reliance on Commodity Murabahah
  2. Financing : Commodity Murabahah and Tawarruq

Interesting article in LinkedIn

Exposure Draft : Wadiah

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One of the panic buttons we are pressing now is the new Wadiah Exposure Draft (ED). As a rule, Wadiah is a “safe-keeping with guarantee” arrangement, where a Bank agrees to take on-board customers deposits as a loan (Qardh). And in the rules of loan under Islamic Banking, a loan must be returned on the same amount when required; any amount above and beyond the loan amount, if put as a condition at the start or during of the deposit placement, may be construed as “Riba”. If the Bank utilises the deposits for any business activities, the Bank is given the discretion to award “Hibah” or gift payments allocated based on the balance outstanding.

With the introduction of the IFSA and the requirements that Malaysian Banks comply with the Investment Account Framework  if Mudarabah continued to be offered to Customers, the common wisdom is to migrate lock-stock-and-barrel into a Wadiah account. In my earlier writings, I already mentioned that to comply with the Investment Account Framework, a massive shift in thinking, processes, and management is required. Therefore to convert into a Wadiah structure may not be the ideal solution, but it will provide an “easier” route towards retaining Customers’ deposit.

Wadiah ED

However, in this chess game between the Islamic Banks and Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the new ED is introduced on Wadiah has effectively further tied the hands of the industry players. BNM had anticipated the industry intentions to move the Mudarabah structure into Wadiah, and promptly outlined further restrictions on Wadiah itself. The industry is now caught between a cold and hard place; stay with Mudarabah and comply with Investment Account Framework, or migrate into Wadiah and comply with the new Wadiah Guidelines.

Wadiah Concept Paper

As we know, Wadiah also puts significant limitation on the marketing of returns and benefits to customers for their deposits. BNM took this a step further; to emphasize that returns on a Wadiah account should always be discretionary, as Wadiah is now seen as a loan. The impact comes in several clauses in the Exposure Draft:

  1. Wadiah Yad Dhammanh is considered similar in nature to Qard. Therefore the rules of Qardh should also apply to Wadiah.
  2. A majority of customers should not be getting a return on the deposit under Qardh. Generally this is saying that out of 100 customers, only 49% of customer will be given a “gift” on their deposits
  3. The payment of the discretionary “gift” should not be construed as regular or common business practice (Urf’ Tijari) else it will imply that the “gift” is a constant return to the customer. Historical performance can be shown to customers.
  4. Any benefits, monetary or otherwise, deriving directly from the placement in the Wadiah account may be construed as “Riba” as well.
  5. Any benefits includes scenarios where should the Wadiah account be opened as part of a financing facility, and benefits enjoyed in the financing facility from amounts available in the Wadiah account (for example a rebate structure to off-set an obligation), shall be construed as riba’ as well.

My main question is; now that Mudharabah is turned into a pure investment account, and Wadiah carrying so many restrictions, what other solutions are there? It cannot be that BNM only expects us to comply but do not help with a viable solution on these restrictions. Yes we are looking at the Commodity Murabahah structures, but operationally this will be a challenge for the Banks to control the cost of commodity trade.

Wadiah ED

And how do we define majority, then? The system must now be enhanced to determine who gets the discretionary “gifts” based on which formula. Even if they qualify for the discretionary “gifts”, to award them on a regular basis will also lead to it be construed as “Urf Tijari”, where consistent payment of Hibah will imply a similar future returns. How do we define this “non-majority” of Customers whom qualifies for Hibah but do not get regular awards of Hibah? What system logic can we build and will what we build be acceptable to Sharia? More importantly, would the customer even accept such “discretionary” practice?

Now that BNM has issued a new Concept Paper on Shariah Requirements, Optional Practices and Operational Requirements of Mudarabah today, we get a somewhat watered-down requirements to Mudarabah products. I have read it and saw that under this new Framework, the Mudarabah structure remains viable as it is, with enhancements needed for documentation and disclosures. Manageable and workable. The next steps must be; if we were to stick with Mudarabah, which Framework will take precedent. Mudarabah is an Investment structure. So, would we follow the Mudarabah Framework, or to comply with the Investment Account Framework? Both Frameworks makes reference to each other; yet one is stricter than the other.

I am putting all my hopes on the new Framework. That will give me some leeway of having both Wadiah structure and a viable Mudarabah structure (not based on the Investment Account Framework). This is definitely the light at the end of the tunnel. But as usual, indications are to take the “stricter” guidelines into account, rather than keeping hope for an easier implementation.

Back To Wadiah

Investment Account Guidelines

True to form, BNM have called for an urgent discussion with the industry players on the implementation of the IFSA. The message is very simple; industry players are given time to comply to the IFSA i.e. no later than 30 June 2015. During this time, we are asked to either:

  1. Retain Mudharabah and Wakala structures to comply with the Investment Account guidelines; or
  2. Move the Mudharabah and Wakala structures into an alternative structure.

Obviously no one has the answer to both options. Especially for Current Account and Savings Account now offered under Mudharabah. To retain a simple product such as Savings Account under Mudharabah, the Bank needs to comply with tedious risk profiling of customers and numerous disclaimers on investments. Customers will be confused by this arrangement, and we foresee many will stay away. Marketing wise, it is a nightmare. Operationally as well, if we were to comply with the investment disclosures. Gone will be the simple structures that customers are used to.

Bringing the Current Account and Savings Account into Commodity Murabahah structures is the most viable solution in Shariah’s perspective. However, operationally tedious, money required for system development, revised documentation and more importantly, building customer awareness and acceptance will be the main challenges for the industry to move to this alternative.

Committees were promptly set-up to discuss solutions, and as expected, there can be no commercial viability into moving to Commodity Murabahah, at least not in such a short period of time. For Time Deposits it is possible, but how to address the daily deposits and withdrawals of funds in a Current or Savings Account under Commodity Murabahah?

The easy solution; take a step backwards.

Wadiah is suddenly the solution. Most Banks has decided to migrate back into Wadiah structures, even with limited value proposition. Hang on, this is not the solution. Perhaps only workable for a short term stop-gap measure, but definitely not feasible for moving forward, especially when there is a conventional banking alternative.

Wadiah is definitely not the solution for deposit building. But then, what else is there? Until someone comes up with a brilliant solution, we will have to make the best of what Wadiah has to offer.

The Islamic Financial Services Act

IFSA

The Islamic Financial Services Act (IFSA) 2013 was introduced to streamline the Islamic Banking definitions and practices. With the introduction of this Act, we obtained clarity on many matters, but not all of it is in our favour. From the Act, we see a significant re-defining of the Deposit product. Needless to say, the Islamic Banking industry is at arms on this new definition.

IFSA DEF

But to classify it as a new definition is also not entirely accurate. We have been taking in Mudaraba-based deposits as our main method of accumulating deposits in the Bank. Mudaraba by nature is profit-sharing investment arrangement for the purpose of obtaining a return. Any profits arising from this investment will be shared amongst the entrepreneur and the capital provider based on agreed ratio; whereas for any losses, it will be borne by the capital provider, unless the entrepreneur is proven negligent. In all intent and purposes, this is an investment, rather than deposits.

However, while there is a risk to the investment, this is mitigated by way of investing in low risk intruments, profit equalisation or even gift (hibah) to ensure a customer’s capital is not lost. Technically an investment, but with indirectly guaranteed capital due to the above mechanisms. Furthermore, this is augmented with the deposit insurance offered by the Malaysian Deposit Insurance Corporation (PIDM) which insures the customer’s deposit with the Bank, should a Bank goes belly-up.

With such assurances, Banks have taken these Mudaraba placements as “Deposits”, categorised internally as part of the Core Deposits calculations i.e. low risk deposits. Why this is important is because if you have higher Core Deposits in your books, you can therefore fund a higher proportion of your financing portfolio, without adding more Shareholder’s capital. Technically, under the Loans to Deposit Ratio (L/D Ratio), the Bank can hold a bigger financing portfolio the higher the Core Deposit amount.

This is the desirable outcome. To collect higher “Core Deposits” via Savings Account, Current Account and General Investment Account (Term Deposits).

With the new IFSA, the Core Deposit definition is redefined.

  1. If the return of the customers deposit (capital) can be guaranteed, this capital is classified as Deposits.
  2. If the return of the customers deposit (capital) cannot be guaranteed, this capital is classified as Investments.

With this, the industry is turned on its head.

Redefining Deposits

Obviously, a Mudaraba, or Wakala fi Istihmar (Agency for the purpose of Investment) will be classified as “non-Core Deposits”. The nature of Mudaraba is investment, and no matter what mechanism one puts into the product to “protect capital”, one cannot GUARANTEE capital due to the potential of loss. This risk sharing is one of the key tenets of a Mudaraba arrangement. By keeping to this tenet, Mudaraba should be classified in its rightful place i.e. Investment.

As mentioned, removing the deposits as reclassifying it into Investment has significant impact on the L/D Ratios.

But also, what’s worrying is that to keep Mudarabah (or Wakala), now defined as Investments, there is a separate Investment Account Guidelines which the Banks will have to comply with. Now that’s another story.

As an industry, we are faced with an option of either:

  1. Building our Core Deposits via an alternative product which Guarantees the capital. We have the readily available Wadiah structure, which is similar to a Qard deposit structure where no benefits can be offered or promised to the customer for their deposits; or
  2. Comply with the Investment Account Guidelines to keep with Mudaraba or Wakala Investment, but will not be able to include those amount into the Core Deposit calculations; or
  3. Develop new deposit structures that will meet both the Deposit definitions and meet customer demands for returns on their deposits and savings. Unfortunately, the available structures in the market requires extensive capital and technological enhancement, while operationally not viable. The industry as a whole has so far not come up with any viable proposition. Research has been done but the disadvantages of such structures outweigh the benefits.

This re-classification, may on the onset, looks a simple thing. But the impact is huge. The risk of capital flight is significant, possibly flight into conventional banking if the consumers are not able to accept the risks of investments or the returns uncertainty of deposits. It will be interesting to see what the industry comes up with.

I remember following BNM briefing on the re-classification back in 2011, the boss has asked me to come up with a Term Deposit under the contract of Wadiah. He knows it is not feasible, but still he asked for it. It only reflects how desperate the time will become when the full significance of the Act is enforced on us.

Now that it is enforced, I wondered if the rope around my neck is long enough.