Connecting the Dots : Islamic Fintech

REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION?

This posting is in the danger of being written too long, but I think it is necessary to close this year with this topic, simply because it looks at the future. The word “Islamic Fintech” has been buzzing for quite some time now and there have been pockets of excitement on what it should mean. Many financial institutions have jumped onto the bandwagon declaring they are also part of this new wave of what a bank could offer.

While all these are still early stages of development, I do notice a lot of effort is built into “digitalisation” and “apps-based application” and “efficiently and convenience” of EXISTING banking processes and relationships. These enhancements are still driven by financial institutions and centred around improving traditional processes for banking services, or short-circuiting the credit processing elements of financing. Although enhancements via technology is an important aspect, these should not be defined as “fintech”. There is an element of fintech in process improvements, but PROCESS IMPROVEMENT itself are not fintech.

DO PEOPLE NEED BANKS?

Traditionally, banks always hold the impression that “People need Banks, one way or another”. It is this understanding that the bank can continue investing into their brick and mortar business model, with customers always coming to them when they need capital, financing funds or products and services. The competition is that who can deliver existing products in the most efficient manner, with technology as the enabler. Money is spent to improve accessibility to the bank’s EXISTING products, services and proposition.

In improving processes, banks just needs to concentrate on all the products and services offered and build the corresponding infrastructure to ensure efficient delivery with technology. It can be “Apps-driven” based on inquiry or transaction-based, with new features attached to existing products. It is just creation of new delivery channels which will deliver existing products to customers faster than before.

But that in my view is NOT what fintech is all about.

IF FINTECH IS NOT PROCESS IMPROVEMENTS THEN WHAT IS IT?

The easiest google/cut/paste definition of Fintech is that “fintech is a new financial industry that applies technology to improve financial activities and FinTech is the new applications, processes, products, or business models in the financial services industry, composed of one or more complementary financial services and provided as an end-to-end process via the Internet”. The key words I believe are:

  • New Financial Industry
  • New Application
  • New Processes
  • New Products
  • New Business Model

While “Process Enhancement” can help support the “New Processes” element, but I think it falls short of the idea for fintech i.e to re-think the business model of financial services. The idea of fintech should be this: Understanding what the requirements of the Gen Y customers are and how they work, develop the products and services on platforms that they are most familiar with, and the proposition that the bank can offer on their chosen platform. It is a total re-think of delivering products and propositions to the up-coming Gen Y potential customers.

SHARING OF FINANCIAL WALLET

As much as banks and financial institutions like to believe the financial wallet cannot exist outside the regulated financial system, the evidence is slowly being presented as otherwise. Companies are finding ways to survive, live and thrive outside the banking system with facilities and opportunities in the New Economy, slowly eroding the traditional banks’ share of financial wallet.

Big Data companies have proven that their database is far more powerful (and valuable) than the database an individual bank would have on its existing customers. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies goes through thousands of transactions within blockchain and is only realised into banks network when actual physical cash is needed. eWallet lets value resides in tech platforms for purchasing and sales of goods and services (more like barter or exchange of goods and services), and up to a certain extent provides microfinancing. Prepaid and loaded value arrangement provides free seed funding and capital for businesses, without the cost of borrowing incurred via banks. Peer to Peer (P2P) arrangement links crowdfund Investors to Entrepreneur without complicated documentation with speed and transparency levels never seen before. Sharing of risks and profits (including potential pay-offs) are now more understood as compared to traditional financing arrangements. Mudharabah, Musyarakah, and Ijarah may now have a place in an economy where equity participation is expected and sought after.

“FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS” ARE JUST A SINGLE ELEMENT IN THE UNIVERSE

Technology can now provide a single-point possibility of all our needs; goods, services, food, shopping, bills payment, money transfers, investments, borrowing, deliveries, medical, transport, social interaction, travel, holidays, education, careers development, information and even branding. Financial services can be integrated into all these elements, now driven via apps. But for this new infrastructure, the various “relationships” are needed to be identified and re-looked and re-engineered. With the proper Shariah compliance consideration.

This “single point” proposition is where tech companies play a crucial part. Rethinking the financial model must happen with the involvement of tech companies due to the advantage of everything being on the internet (internet of things). There are still a lot of limitations to what a bank can do, understandably due to financial regulations. The space of where banks are continuously competing (or evolving) is the “FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS” box above, and maybe payment gateways linked to service providers. But tech-companies? The revolution of technologies move so quickly that regulations will continue to struggle to catch up.

In the diagram above, I attempt to identify some of the areas of traditional banking where fintech can come in and provide a like-for-like solution or even fully replace the proposition by traditional banks. Certainly a lot of the consumer touch-points can be easily replicated in a technology platform, and crowdfunding and crowdsourcing can replace traditional financing and working capital requirements as well. Some services are still embedded into a banking structure (such as Current Accounts or Treasury product propositions) but over time, such products may be linked to fintech and the banks may eventually become ancillary service providers rather than main bank, earning just fees for services provided.

The landscape of what a bank offers will ultimately change in the next few years, when consumers no longer go to banks for financing, services, remittance and settlement of business transactions. As the new generation grows up with tech and becomes financially affluent, their expectation of how a banking experience should be will also dictate the model a bank adopts.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

So where do I see the banking industry in the next 5 years? Personally, I think a “price-comparison platform” will emerge, as seen nowadays in the travel/hotel/tourism industry. Information from all the financial service providers are flowed into a single platform, and consumers are able to immediately compare products, services and prices on a single platform and choose their solutions. Instead of customers subscribing to multiple banks offering different products and services (at different pricing), they only need to subscribe to a single platform where all information on the products are available to select. This is where the promise of fintech can thrive; accuracy of information, convenience of access, and speed of transaction.

It is a matter of time the various industries converge. We may think regulatory pressure will halt some of the progress but mostly it have been reactive regulations. And the challenge is that these developments are driven by tech companies which has no loyalties to banking regulations as their scope of business cuts across various industries. It will be a period of “non-regulated” until the market starts to recognise the need to regulate and managing the risks. A regulatory sandbox will be usefull, but if the “New Economy” moves faster than the speed where regulations are being formalised, there will be a lot of speculative and arbitrage opportunities for the market to gain.

This also means the New Economy brings new risks that the consumers are not aware off. While the banks have been fine-tuning its risks that it takes over the past half-century or so, the fintech companies may not see the elements of risks other than technology risks or systemic risks. Almost all the risks faced by banks are also prevalent in fintech companies or non-banks, plus the specific risks by fintech companies. They might be great at integration of technology, but banks are still masters when it comes to understanding financial risks.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

As I mentioned, banks understand risks better than a tech company. A tech company understand speed, efficiency and channels better than any banks can have. At the moment, banks are developing “fintech” on their own which is mostly a process improvement project. Tech companies are developing “banking services” on their own as well, where it linked investor’s money and economic entrepreneurs via technology. The question is really, “why not a bank consume or enter into a partnership with tech companies to provide a solution beyond traditional banking?” We have started to see this trend where banks attempt to purchase outright a tech company and use the company as an incubator for new products and services. It should look into having a different operating structure which encourages new ideas, innovation, internet-based solutions, as well as delivering to a larger segment of consumers (including the Unbanked segment).

The end-result might not look like what we recognise as banks we see today. This could be a separate line of business for banks, where the element of technology integrated into the wider economy is more dominant than its traditional banking products and services. You could have Bank A offering the traditional products and services, and Bank A-Tech offering fintech solutions to a new generation. The same bank catering to 2 business lines, employing different delivery channels.

But breaking away from such traditional infrastructure may take time, and the greatest fear is that the market cannot wait. Fintech companies may be able to offer similar proposition in half the time required, and this will not motivate fintech companies to join-venture with a financial institution. In an environment where new opportunities arise at the blink of an eye and regulations have yet to be formalised, the temptation to go on its own will drive innovation by the fintech companies, leaving behind banks. Fintech companies have the capability to look at consumer needs and develop the solutions from the bottom, and flow the linkages to the top. Connect the dots where the solutions provider are linked together in a platform.

Will fintech companies be the next driver in providing financial solution? I know my answer to that question. It is perhaps just a matter of time where future banking is done outside of a bank. Perhaps the model of banking needs to be re-imagined.

Wishing all my readers a Happy New Year in 2018. I appreciate the support I have received so far. But the new world beckons and hopefully we can do enough to ensure the continuation of the banking industry. I hope Islamic Banking can play a bigger role in taking the industry into this exciting online generation.

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

Equity-based Financing vs Debt-based Financing

Recently I have been asked again on why Islamic Banks still uses a lot of Debt-based Financing products, instead of moving to Equity-based Financing products, which on perception was supposed to be more “Islamic”.

Yes, ideally an equity-based financing do equate to a more “Islamic” structure, if your definition of being more “Islamic” is risk-sharing. Not all structures must be risk-sharing; transfer of risks are definitely acceptable in Islamic Banking circle. The idea is an age old idea; if you undertake a low-risk structure or there is no risks for the bank (where all risks are transferred to customers) then technically the bank should earn low returns for it. If the risks are higher i.e. Bank carries the risks, Banks would be entitled to higher returns. High risk equates to High returns.

TYPES OF RISKS 02

BUT IN REALITY, ARE COMMERCIAL BANKS SET UP LIKE THESE?

If an Islamic Bank operates in the same environment as a conventional Bank, it is difficult to imagine having two models running side by side I.e. the Islamic Banks operating an equity-based business and conventional Banks operating a debt-based business. The risk profile of these banks would be significantly different, and this affect many areas in banking; risk rating, cost of funding, profile as well as capital requirements. The bank with the perceived higher risk rating will ultimately become less competitive.

The real truth is that the shareholders of traditional banking set up expects the following: medium to high returns on their equity at the lowest risk and operating cost as possible. In short, their “investment” must record the best Return on Investment (ROI) as possible. Based on this view, debt-based financing can fill that criteria.

SO WHAT ARE DEBT-BASED FINANCING STRUCTURES?

EQTYvsDEBT

Many have the perception that equity-based structures and debt-based structures are dependent on the types of contract employed by an Islamic Bank. To a certain extent, this may be true. Certain contracts by nature promotes the sharing of risks (which is equity financing) while others rely on the transfer of risks (which is debt financing). For example, a Musyaraka (partnership) structure is traditionally an equity financing structure, where the Bank and customer enters into a partnership arrangement with both parties giving capital into the venture. Risks on the venture is shared according to equity ratio, and so is the returns where it will also be shared. The risk factor is therefore elevated because there is a possibility of losses being shared between Bank and customer.

Musyaraka

So, many Banks prefer the safer haven of Debt-based financing. How, then, do you change a Musyaraka structure into debt-based? Simply by providing a purchase undertaking, a document agreed and signed which states that should the venture go bust, then the customer agrees to undertake the purchase of the Bank’s remaining share in the venture thus making the amount to be immediately due by the customer. This is in a way, an indemnity given by the Customer to provide assurances during contractual breaches. By having a purchase undertaking document, the risks are effectively transferred to the customer in times of default. The Musyaraka therefore still works where profits are shared during the good times, but dissolves in spirit during bad times when purchase undertaking document takes effect.

Equity Financing2

The talk about having an equity-based financing is usually moot with the use of purchase undertaking document. The element of risks is removed for the Bank, and puts the product on par with its conventional banking product equivalent.

So will we ever see Equity-based financing?

I believe you need real political will for this. You need:

  1. Shareholders who understand the risk nature of equity based contracts, the way venture capitalist understand venture capitalism. Risk and return are greatly considered but more importantly, the possibility of losses.
  2. Bank with a risk appetite outlined for greater risk-taking. The risks to be understood and accepted. Then the venture in entered into with eyes open although it will take time for a Bank to understand the business risks they take under equity-based structures.
  3. Customers willing to stomach the losses or share the spoils of profits. It will take even longer time for customers themselves to be able to accept the structures under equity-based. Customers must be able to understand that they are active partners in a venture, the responsibilities and also the sharing aspect of it; they don’t just share the losses with the Bank, but also the profits or gains with Banks as well and this can be above and beyond what they can traditionally accept.

To achieve this, it will take significant paradigm change for everyone when they have only the financing structures in mind. In actual fact, such structures are already common in the consumer psyche as there are similar structures when they deal in unit trusts, shares or other types of investments, where risks are taken. But to flip it into an “equity financing” concept will remain a challenge to Islamic Banks that are serious to offer something significantly “Islamic”.