Istisna’a Concept Paper

Yet another concept paper for us to read; BNM is really making us work hard for our salaries. The contract of Istisna’a is covered in this concept paper, traditionally used in a hybrid arrangement of a mortgage product for properties under construction. In the Middle East we are used to see Istisna’a as a standalone arrangement, and with this concept paper, it seems like a step by BNM in aligning the contracts used by Malaysian Islamic Banks with the practices in the Middle East.

With this Concept Paper, the way is paved for Istisna’a to finally stand alone as it’s own contract rather than part and parcel of another overarching structure, such as Musyaraka or Ijara.

But that doesn’t mean that it is not without its challenges. If Istisna’a is bundled amongst a variety of other contracts, many issues can be catered for in the other contracts and its documentation. Now, reading the CP, few glaring challenges needs a rethink if Istisna’a is to be the viable answer to properties under construction.

Istisna

Risk

The first, and perhaps the most significant item is the role of the Bank which leads to the next significant issue ie ownership. The CP envisioned scenario where the role between Bank and Customer is Bank as developer and Customer is, well… customer. This is a role reversal to what many banks are used to. The Istisna’a that I am used to seeing in Malaysia is that the Customer undertakes to construct the property (via their selected property developer); by this the construction risks remains with the Customer who undertakes the role of developer. The customer therefore ensures that the property is eventually delivered. Without recourse especially in cases of project abandonment.

But with the CP, the game changes. The Bank now must act as the party that’s responsible in delivering the property; effectively this means the role of the developer itself. The construction risks now lies with the Bank. The Bank must ensure that the property is delivered to specifications else the customer have room to renegotiate the terms of the Istisna’a, including cancellation of the whole transaction if the property is deemed to be “not as per requirements”. While the risks of such things happening is remote, the risks remains there and is real. Especially if we are dealing with small developers developing projects in remote areas. There is a real risk these small developers disappearing and the property, even if it got completed, is unsaleable due to location or market factors.

Ownership

The Sale & Purchase Agreements (S&P) is a document signed between the customer and the construction developer. The bank is not a party to this transaction, therefore the Bank’s name do not appear there. So how then, do we evidence ownership transfer and validating the contract between the Bank (as developers) and Customer? The developer will hardly want to transfer its rights and responsibilities to a Bank unless the Bank outright purchases the property, and during construction, how will it be possible?

Back in the day when Bai Bithaman Ajil (BBA) was the “deal of the day”, this curious creature called Novation Agreement was used. It is an agreement used to bind 3 parties to the arrangement, a tri-part ate agreement that developers sign to allow to transfer beneficial ownership to the Bank to allow the sale transaction between Bank and Customer. Not many developers want to sign this, but in instances where they did, it provided a way out on the issue of ownership before the sale. Yet this curious being has disappeared from the landscape, as many users gets jittery when there are more and more documents to sign.

It could be worth to consider this approach again, on an industry-wide basis rather than individual practitioners. Make it an industry document, get standard legal opinion, get buy-ins from developers on the need for this document and remove all the doubts on ownership. Novation Agreement might not be a bad thing but maybe some work needs to be done to satisfy the legal peculiarities relevant to each stakeholders.

Expertise

This is where the Banks lack when you consider Istisna’a contract in its spirit. Under Istisna’a, the responsibility to ensure the properties are completed, functional and deliverable to the customer rests on the shoulders of Banks. As a matter of principal, Banks are traditionally financial institutions, not geared to be engaged as “property developer”. The risk of development is always transferred to the developers, and not held by Banks. To have a unit set-up to monitor the construction of the properties requires specialised personnel who understands the nitty gritty of property development is hardly effective or efficient. Developers would also be wary of Banks trying to trespass into their territory of expertise. My view, let the developers be developers and Bankers remain bankers.

Istisna’a structures are fairly new in Malaysia; while it is being used in the market, but it always has been part of the larger collection of contracts in a financing arrangement. To have it stand-alone on its own, there is a need to re-think the legal requirements to ensure the Istisna’a can be accepted as a viable Islamic contract.

Interconditionality in Bai-Inah

One of the most controversial contracts that resides in Malaysia is the Bai Inah contract. For many years, Malaysia have been taking heat on its use from international forums. The major reasons for this critique is that Bai Inah, while having an underlying transaction in its structure, argues critics, smells suspiciously like a loan with interest. There have been many opinions to this, but I must admit that each argument has its own merits and rationale, and it is difficult to draw the line here.

What is Bai Inah?

But before going further, what is Bai Inah? Why is it always under the Islamic finance microscope for scrutiny? Why are feathers always ruffled when discussing Bai Inah?

Bai Inah Malaysia

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The Consequence of Choice

It was a day where nerves were frayed and feathers ruffled.

A huge potential customer comes. The intention is that they wanted to move all their accounts to Sharia-compliant banking, as they intend to “Islamicize” their business. All the available structures were laid out to the customer, the processes and the documentary procedures were explained for their understanding.

But suddenly, comes the golden question… “Do you have any products that looks and behave like a conventional product that we are familiar with? We are not comfortable with all these Islamic terms and documentations, so can we have something that does not require us to sign all these documents?”.

I was left speechless.

Sharia-compliant banking is based on contractual relationships. There are many relationships; Musyaraka, Murabaha, Ijara, Mudharaba, Istis’na… Various and many depending on use, intention, and desired outcome. There must be an underlying transaction, governed by specific rules and tenets, and pays attention even to sequencing requirements, ownerships, rights and usufruct.

Documentary Islamic

Fundamentally it is different from a conventional banking structure, which is loan based and interest charging. Thus documentation for a non-Sharia banking product is essentially one core document; Facility Agreement. But that may not necessarily be the case for Sharia banking, where documents are crucial evidence for the underlying transaction, ownership and obligations.

To make that conscious decision to shift to Sharia-banking is admirable. But to insist on a structure they are used to in conventional banks makes this effort superficial. It is frustrating to explain that each Sharia-compliant product behaves in a certain manner and must comply with the tenets captured in various documents; no matter how much a customer envision the product feature and documentation should be instead. A Sharia-compliant 1-month Term Deposit based on Qardh (ease of documentation) but with guarantee of returns? How would we pull that off? It is a contradiction in concepts.

Customers need to understand that to choose Sharia-banking is to accept the rules and trimmings that comes with this model. It is not the same as the conventional model, although at many times we try to replicate what’s available in the conventional space to avoid confusion. Replication is there for convenience but the DNA of Sharia-compliant banking is different. With replication then enhancement and eventual replacement, we hope awareness in Sharia-compliant products may come in gradual stages.

I think it all boils down to the lack of understanding what is required for us to offer Sharia-compliant banking. The layers we go through are numerous, stricter regulatory requirements and Sharia rules to follow. Turnaround times for Sharia-compliant product is understandably slower, where there is intense scrutiny on contractual relationships, legality and Sharia-sensibilities.

It is tough to be an Islamic banker. We manage perceptions, expectations and responsibility not only to the Bank’s customers, but also to general consumers. To choose this model, consumer must be open to the fact that Sharia-compliant banking is similar but definitely not the same as a conventional model. There is a lack of awareness of what is involved but we need to be open to an idea. Everyone knows the conventional model, therefore do take time to understand Sharia-compliant banking as a new learning instead on trying to hammer a conventional-familiarity into a model which works based on risk-sharing, relationships, and contractual certainties and tenets.

May I have a calm week ahead.

Sharia Compliant Banking in Malaysia

One of the long running arguments on Islamic Banking in its current state is the level of compliance to the rules of Sharia. There are still many believers out there who are not really believing in Islamic Banking. There are many suspicions in the industry. The main one is that Islamic Banking is a copy of conventional banking with merely a Sharia wrapper around it.

Sharia CompliantThis view is admittedly hard to dispel, unfortunately. Especially in a market where the industry is running 2 parallel banking systems ie Islamic Banking and Conventional Banking side by side. Sometimes, there is an additional element ie Islamic Banking Windows where an Islamic Banking operation resides in a conventional banking, leveraging totally on the conventional banking infrastructure.

The Middle-East has been able to gain more focus on the development of Islamic Banking. Despite Malaysia being one of the prominent pioneers of the industry, the stability of what we are seeing in the Middle-East has been the focus of ensuring the products they offer are deemed more Sharia compliant. While Malaysia is coming out with innovations to catch up with competition from conventional banks, the Middle-East is looking to products they already have and improving them to ensure Sharia compliance, fully backed by an international Shari’a framework.

This is clearly a different approach to the development between the two Islamic Banking industry.

In my view, the Middle-East has a clear advantage when in comes to sustainability. The advantage is simply this; the wants of the consumer. The Middle-East consumer simply WANTS Islamic Banking. No question about it. The consumers are split to either want Islamic Banking or does not want Islamic Banking. The trend is shifting away from the view that they are indifferent to any banking structure. There is a growth in preference for Islamic Banking, and this is the main driver for the development of the industry.

Malaysia, on the other hand, has a different set of consumers. The Malaysian consumers, whom may be just as pious as their Middle-Eastern brothers, continues to view the Islamic offerings with deep suspicion, which mould the attitudes towards Islamic banking industry. Admittedly, some Islamic Banking contracts have been disputed, tested and contested in a court of law, and in some cases the banks are not able defend these contracts properly. Reputational damage done; and some quarters have taken advantage in making the molehill bigger than it really was.

In Malaysia, the consumers only want and expect certain things from their banking product; cost savings features with full benefits, cheap pricing and easy to use. There is strong preference for Islamic Banking products but if there is a better alternative in the conventional banking space, the attitude is “Why not?”. At the end of the day, it all comes down to dollars and sens; “How much does it cost, what savings do I get, how much do I save”? Islamic or non-Islamic? It is all about what money I earn or save which I can use for my family and myself.

Maybe economic standing of the consumers do play a part. A product in Malaysia seems to be more about justice, even if it is just a misplaced perception, and therefore it must be cheap. Islamic Banking products in Malaysia have evolved significantly since its inception in the early 80’s. It is now more equitable, competitive and in many cases, has more “justice” elements in its structure. The issues that may arise 10 years ago, in my view, has already been looked at and smoothed out.

Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) has introduced many measure to support this idea of justice. The Ibra guidelines to ensure equitable settlement. Regulated Late Payment Charges to ensure consumer rights are protected. Synchronisation with the conventional banks on Responsible Financing and Product Transparency. Tight regulations of the Fees and Charges that an Islamic bank can charge to consumers. Does anyone know how rigorous the process BNM has imposed to approve fees and charges that an Islamic Bank can charge? 4 levels of approval at BNM, even after the Bank’s internal Sharia Committees have approved those charges. To get approval from the internal committee is already tough; to go to BNM to get the final approval is not something we look forward to.

These are good steps, but is it enough? Will the Malaysian consumer take that quantum shift to buy into Islamic banking products?

SSBAs I mentioned earlier, the main difference between what’s happening in the Middle-East and Malaysia is the consumer preference. In Malaysia, the consumer wants a product that provides justice to them, whether it’s pricing or features or convenience. Islamic or otherwise, it’s the job of Islamic Banks to win them over.

Therefore, this difference in the consumers mindset in the Middle-East may eventually be an important factor. Since Middle-East consumers just WANT Islamic banking, the industry there is given the benefit of the doubt for its development. Because of this, the emphasis of the development is more on Sharia compliance rather than just pricing, features and innovation.

fatwa

My limited experience in the Middle-East led me to one important conclusion; consumers want the comfort that when they choose Islamic Banking, the product must assure it meets the Sharia compliance required. By this, it is important to know the people who develop and approve the products. Great weight is placed on the names and reputation of the Sharia scholars themselves. Consumers genuinely want to know who approves the product structure, and want to see the scholars stamp on it. Requests for a copy of the fatwa governing the approval of the product is a norm in the Middle-East. As mentioned, the emphasis is on Sharia compliance, more than merely pricing. There is a huge trust and confidence in the Sharia scholars themselves, in their ability and the quality of decisions made on the products.

For that, I do applaud the consumers who chose Islamic Banking for looking beyond pricing. Many times I have been asked to furnish details and profiles of the Sharia scholars who approved the products. The decision to buy the product is more often than not, based on these profiles. The assurance of Sharia compliant banking became more important, even though there are better pricing elsewhere. And I believe that product innovation will have to come naturally once the performance of the Islamic banking industry is in the upswing. Competition and customer feedback drives innovation, but in the first place we need the right customers asking for the right solutions to be banking with us. As pricing and feature becomes the second priority, the Middle-East banks will be well placed to take a step back and assess compliance and therefore build consumer confidence organically.

Furthermore, many corporates and government-linked institutions mandates their financial dealings to be Sharia compliant, even making it part of their constitution and governance. This will drive the demand for Sharia compliant banking even more. With a ready market seeking, looking and wanting Islamic products and services, one can foresee a sustainable growth in the industry.

I don’t know what can possibly change the consumer mindset for this in Malaysia. Until then, we will always be playing catch up with the conventional banks even when BNM is pushing for a more wholesome Sharia compliant banking system. It could be a painful transition that the Banks will find difficult to stomach when the existing structure seemed to be working well. But without this change, will the industry ever make that quantum leap?

It’s catch-22. Someone needs to be bold enough to see it out, bite the bullet and draw that line in the sand; take a chance on Islamic banking with confidence and without so much suspicion. Maybe that is what is needed to make that paradigm shift in consumers.

Synopsis of 2013 BNM Exposure Drafts

The following is what I understood from the various Exposure Drafts issued by BNM on 9 December 2013. Of the 7 exposure drafts that we received, I have earlier summarised the Wadiah Exposure Draft, and I will ignore the Bai-Inah Exposure Draft as we are no longer subscribing to the Bai Inah structure at the workplace.

Please find the remaining Exposure Draft review for your understanding.

Kafalah ED

2013 ED – Kafalah – One of the key issues for a Kafala (Guarantee) contract is the charging of fees for providing the guarantee services. The main issue has always been the quantum of fees charged, either in percentage of the financing or via a fixed charge for all financing amount. The justification of this charge is always tricky, because technically the fee should not be imposed if there is no call for the guarantee (in cases of no default). The guarantee will only materialise if the customer defaults, that’s when the work happens to justify any fees. Issuing a piece of paper at the start of the relationship to guarantee the amount does not amount to too much work, and there no funds disbursed to any parties (unfunded). To justify the charging of any fees based on percentage instead of actual work, especially for huge amounts of financing guarantee, can be problematic to justify in the eyes of Sharia.

Waad ED

2013 ED – Wa’d – At one point of time, Wa’ad (Promise) seems to be the answer to many structures, where a promise is given without any requirement to transact before a specific event. The terms therefore can be negotiated and re-negotiated without the need to strictly specify the terms of the transaction and re-signing of documents. This gives a lot of leeway for deals to happen.However, at the end of the day, Wa’ad remains as only a promise, legally distanced from a contract or an agreement. Enforcement at the courts are therefore without full confirmation of all the terms, and makes for a loose structure and potential disputes. This flexibility and enforceability remains one of the key risks to a Wa’ad contract, which is why until today Wa’ad is generally transacted between known parties i.e. between established and trusted Financial Institutions.

Wakala ED

2013 ED – Wakalah – Wakala (Agency) will remain an integral contract for Islamic Banking as it validates a lot of action that can be done by the Bank, in order to remain efficient. In general, Banks hold a lot of expertise in various fields, such as investments, financing, leasing and trading; something a normal customer may not want to be involved in on a daily basis. An Agency arrangement conveniently provides for this. Anything that improves the efficiency by leveraging on the Bank’s expertise and infrastructure, can be arranged via Agency. However, the way we practice it usually is transparent to the customer. In practice, Agency Fees are the right of the Agent, and the waiver of such fees, although allowed, is sometime seen as not adhering to the spirit of Agency and entrepreneurship. You do the work as an Agent, but don’t earn any fees as it is waived. In real life, this does not happen as whenever a work is completed, you should earn something.

Tawarruq

2013 ED – Tawarruq – As Tawarruq (Three-party Murabaha Sale) becomes more prominent in the Malaysian market, I was surprised that the ED was not more comprehensive than this. There are sequencing issues not addressed but more importantly, there is a lack of illustration on what is defined as Tawarruq. Is there any difference between a Tawarruq and Commodity Murabaha, which essentially is a 4 party transaction? The issue of interconditionality is adequately addressed in the ED but I would love to have seen more details related to products, such as for Islamic Credit Cards and Revolving Credit with a rebate structure (Ibra’) based on a floating rate financing. It mentions that the discount can be given based on certain benchmark agreed by the contracting parties. This opens the clause to various interpretation as it is without real detail.

I will look at the Hibah (Gift) ED but essentially, it is related to the Wadiah ED. Most of what’s covered under the Hibah ED is relevant to the Wadiah product, such as the discretionary Hibah issue and the giving of Hibah becoming a business practice (Urf Tijari) which can be construed as Riba (Usury). Wait for the posting.

Thank you for reading, hope everyone have an enjoyable holiday period ahead. Wasalam.

Sukuk Illegal?

The Islamic Banking fraternity was shaken by the view of the prominent Shariah scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Taqi Usmani, that up to 85% of the Sukuks issued up to now may not have been fully Shariah-compliant.

This has forced scholars and practitioners to go back to the drawing board and re-look at their existing Sukuk structures, and the Accounting and Auditing Organisation of Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) quickly issued guidelines on Sukuk to ease the market worries. Depsite this, the debate is still on-going on how “Islamic” are the current structures of Sukuks and what can be done to mitigate or improve this.

Of course, the Ijarah-based structure of Sukuks remains viable as a Shariah-compliant structure, based on the prominent scholar’s view. Read more below on these issues:

(Help me add more to this by providing links and articles. Thanks)