No Pork No Lard : The Shariah-Neutral Transactions

TO COMPLY OR NOT TO COMPLY, BUT THERE IS A THIRD OPTION

Following my earlier writing on the Digital Wallet / ePayments and how such transactions may have not breached Shariah requirements but lacks the validation to ensure all elements do not touch the prohibited elements, I am called to further expand on the topic. In my opinion, there are possibilities that more Shariah-Neutral products and transaction enter into the space of Islamic Banking, but without the validation of Shariah scholars or committees and yet, it will remain acceptable. It is possible, and it is already happening now.

“NO PORK NO LARD”

It is an interesting situation in Malaysia now, when it comes to food. In general, Malaysia as a Muslim country, the expectation is that the food consumed must be Halal and more importantly certified as such. The reason for it is that it gives comfort to the public that certain standards are adhered to according to religious requirements. To walk into a restaurant with the Halal signage gives us Muslims confidence to consume the food till our bellies are filled.

But there are challenges. The desire to ensure the standards are met has resulted in difficulties for restaurants getting certification quickly. The process is detailed and granular, and this is a good thing, but can be disheartening when the certification drags. And in some cases it is impossible to obtain, especially if the eatery has halal standard food but also offers alcoholic drinks to its non-Muslim customers. The Muslims know (or assume) the food is halal if they see there is no pork on the menu, and will ignore the alcoholic drink. This is now a common sight in Malaysia.

And thus the loop-hole or short-cut is discovered. Rather than going for certification of Halal for their restaurant, many owners now deemed it sufficient that the signage “No Pork / No Lard” will result in a Halal understanding. And this may be true; many small roadside businesses do not carry a Halal certification but is nonetheless patronised by Muslims as it does not carry pork on the menu. That cue is taken by the restaurant owners and over a period of time, the “No Pork / No Lard” now is understood to be serving halal food but without Halal certification.

DOES “NO PORK / NO LARD” MEANS IT’S SHARIAH NEUTRAL?

Taking that concept into the banking world, will consumers eventually be accepting Shariah Neutral products and services as the new norm? A product or services with no prohibitive elements that is deemed acceptable by both the producer and consumers but without any Shariah Committee validation. For many years some conventional banks have been offering Shariah compliant third party Takaful or Unit Trust products which was vetted by the Shariah Committee of the providers.There is total reliance on the providers validation for Shariah compliance.

Additionally, there are products and services that is by nature, very close to meeting the Shariah requirements in a contract. For example the leasing products which is perhaps 95% in line with Shariah requirements for Ijarah such as rental arrangements, ownership transfers and roles and responsibilities of lessor / lessee. The contention will always be the penalties and perhaps some operational practices, but in my view, these can be amended.

THEY WALK AMONG US

Believe it or not, there are already efforts on becoming Shariah-neutral where it is deemed acceptable practice for attracting Muslim consumers. Some non-Islamic banks have been aligning some of their products features to be consistent with Islamic banking practices under the guise of responsible financing or sustainable banking. For example, the compounding late payment interest which some non-Islamic banks no longer practice. Another example is that some are considering to remove “Commitment Fees” from unutilised financing balances in overdraft / revolving credit to align it to Islamic banking practices. We are starting to see non-Islamic banks realigning themselves to be on par with Islamic banking practices. Just to regain the competitive edge.

This will eventually lead to offerings that remove the prohibited elements and validated as acceptable by the public themselves, without further validation of Shariah scholars. Can a non-Islamic bank eventually offer products that it deemed as meeting the Shariah expectations? Surely, Shariah Committee will not have jurisdiction over a non-Islamic bank offering Shariah-Neutral offerings.

The more crucial question is perhaps : Will the public eventually become not so demanding for a stricter (or complicated)  Shariah Compliant product, and begin accepting Shariah-Neutral products that is offered by non-Islamic banks? Is that possible?

Such offerings may be offered via the digital world where the contractual lines are not so clear. Rebranding of a product can be done with minimal effort. The terms used can be made Shariah-friendly. How a transaction is handled behind the scenes may be less important  with the convenience of using Apps or Mobile Banking. And without Shariah scholars prohibition or decision on such matters, the public will hold to the opinion that it is deemed compliant and thus acceptable. Eventually, this opinion will become customary and generally accepted.

No Pork No Lard” may one day become the new acceptable norm in the non-Islamic banking space. And my suspicion, a lot of sceptics of Islamic Banking already hold this view. Maybe it is time to make clear of the colours of the offering; is it white or is it black? Otherwise, the colour of grey will become the new white.

To read the earlier posting, click on the following: https://islamicbankers.me/2019/01/15/e-wallets-did-you-forget-us-again/

It is 2019. BBA and Bai Al Inah are Old News.

WHY ARE YOU STILL ASKING ME ABOUT BBA AND BAI AL INAH?

It remains a mystery when people ask me why Malaysia continues to offer Bai Bithaman Ajil (BBA) and Bai Al Inah products, as according to them, these structures are based on elements of Hilah (trickery). It is a mystery because starting from 2012/2013 period, the instructions on Interconditionality issued by BNM to Islamic Financial Institutions requires that the provisions of “mandatory buy-back” must not appear in financing contracts such as Bai Inah and BBA. Because of this, Malaysian Islamic Banks have slowly weaned itself from such products and have since moved to other Islamic contracts.

Read the circular issued by Bank Negara Malaysia in 2012 on the practice of Bai Inah and their expectations by clicking this link (BNM Circular).

WE ARE STILL READING OLD BOOKS AND ARTICLES

In general, I still find that some learning institutions are incorrectly teaching students that the contracts are still alive and well in the Malaysian market. The text books used are still ones that predates 2011 and really, this is a disservice to students. When they come for interviews with our bank, it does not give the students any advantage or good impression as the syllabus remains outdated. Many do not know about the Policy Documents issued by Bank Negara Malaysia or the contracts covered by the policy documents. This really should be covered in a learning module as the latest requirements are captured in these documents. It is a good reference read, but it seems only practitioners and Shariah scholars are aware of these documents.

This is true as my last few interns also impressed the same. Tawarruq structures sounds alien to some of them, as their teachers prefer to teach BBA and Bai Inah  to unlock its controversies as points for discussion. Let us be clear that most banks NO LONGER offer Bai Inah or BBA, and those which does, offer it as a continuation for a legacy arrangement or due to certain unavailable scenarios, such as fresh new documentations are not obtained for Tawarruq arrangement (such as Wakalah to buy commodities). It is no longer offered as a product to the public and this is evidenced from the Banks website where the structures can no longer be found. And most of the time if used, this is a temporary fix allowed until the deal reaches expiry or the Tawarruq appointments are obtained.

And with Tawarruq arrangements now being ably supported by good infrastructure such as Bursa Suq As Sila trading platform and other commodity brokers worldwide, there is no issue of Darurah (emergency) to justify the continued usage of Bai Al Inah or BBA.

SO, WHERE HAVE WE GONE TO SINCE 2011?

In short, we have moved to the following contracts:

  1. Bai Bithaman Ajil (BBA) – Usually BBA is used for purchasing of properties (Home financing or Commercial properties financing), or sometimes for trade financing products. These usage is now done under the Tawarruq arrangement (using Commodity Murabahah) where the proceeds from the sale of Commodities is used to settle the purchases of houses or commercial properties. Alternatively, Musyarakah Mutanaqisah arrangement (Diminishing Partnership) is also used by many banks where houses or properties are purchased by the Bank and leased out to the customer, who then pays rental and gradually purchases the shares of the house and properties over time. So now, BBA has been replaced with Islamic arrangements of Tawarruq or Musyarakah Mutanaqisah. Other Islamic contracts has also been known to support some elements of BBA, such as Istisna’a (property construction), Murabahah (good sale at profit) or Ijarah / Ijarah Mausufah fi Dhimmah (forward lease).
  2. Bai Al Inah – Usually Bai Inah is deployed for Personal Financing or Working Capital Financing and even Islamic Credit Cards. Again, Tawarruq arrangements has generally replaced these usage with the end result of providing cash. On a smaller note, the contract of Ujrah (Services) is also deployed to support some requirements of personal financing (where purchase of goods and services are required) and Islamic Credit Cards. So now, Bai Al Inah has now been replaced by Tawarruq arrangements or Ujrah contract to meet the cash and working capital requirements.

The final controversial contract that Malaysia currently deploy is the Bay Ad Dayn (Discounted Sale of Debt), which serves a specific purpose in trade financing products. Eventually a common ground must be found to make this contract more globally accepted, or replaced with a better solution.

UPDATE YOUR STUDY NOTES, PLEASE

The main challenge nowadays is to innovate further by improving what we have. Criticisms are good, especially on the old structures. But we practitioners do hope the learning academia afford us a bit more confidence and trust, especially these criticisms and consequent issues are not “unknown” to us, since we lived and breathed in its controversies many years ago. The comments made in recent times are something we had encountered and resolved 10 years ago. We enhance and evolve, and it will be good to see new students coming into the market armed with the latest updates of what is happening and let’s move forward.

It is now 2019. Do not get stuck in the muddy past. These contracts have gone into the history books. We have so much to do in the future arena.

The Tawarruq Dilemma

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

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

BUT CAN TAWARRUQ ALWAYS BE THE ANSWER?

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

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

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

THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ON TAWARRUQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REAL QUESTION IS WHETHER THE ABOVE CAN REALLY BE RESOLVED

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

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

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

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

 

Real Cost of Tawarruq

Recently, the topic of Tawarruq & Commodity Murabahah has been popular in the industry as both BNM and Shariah scholar have been asking operational questions on the implementation of Tawarruq arrangement in the industry. It seems, even with the Policy Documents, there are still some divergence in terms of operations and understanding of the minimum Shariah requirements for Tawarruq. Each financial institutions have their own operational abilities and processes that differs from one another; to have a standardised platform may be a bigger challenge than imagined.

The rise of Tawarruq in recent years should really not be a surprise to many observers. We are seeing that most financial institutions in Malaysia now consider a Tawarruq structure a “must have”, because there really is no options as other Banks also deals in it. It has become norm, and while scholars might take a view that Tawarruq should be a “last resort” option, there have been so much effort invested into making Tawarruq an efficient machine. Just take a look at the Bursa Suq Al Sila and what it is capable today.

Question : Is it Cash or Committed Limit?

The latest consideration of Tawarruq is on the treatment of Tawarruq funds after the transaction. What is it exactly and how is it been managed within the Bank, with the Capital Adequacy Framework for Islamic Banks (CAFIB) implemented a few years ago (latest update this year 2017). In particular, when a customer is approved a certain limit (let’s say $1,000,000) and a single Tawarruq is done for $1,000,000 for the line (instead of multiple small Tawarruq for each usage of the amount within the $1,000,000 limit), where does the money goes, and what is it exactly in the eyes of Sharia?

To clarify, upon the completion of Tawarruq, real money of $1,000,000 is generated. Cash. It is not a “line” in the conventional terms, but it is money (actual cash) now belonging to the customer. He can draw out the money anytime.

But the practice is that the money is kept in the Bank’s books unless requested by the Customer, and by keeping this the Bank will give a “rebate” on the money kept in the Bank, similar treatment as if a “principal payment” is made (although it is re-drawable). In the meantime, the Bank utilises the money (taken as principal payment made) for its own banking business activities.

The question that I believe we will have to eventually address are on the following:

  1. The Tawarruq is done on a single transaction for the full amount, therefore it is a full release of capital (i.e. fully funded). As such, it should have a “capital charge” consideration if it is not fully utilised by the customer. Bank has released fully the funds to customer (therefore Bank should be entitled to earn a full profit on the amount). The formula for profit would be $1,000,000 x Profit Rate – Cost of Capital. Note the Cost of Capital is on the full amount.
  2. Then, the subsequent mechanism instead is as follows: since the customer did not fully utilise the funds, the customer is given a “rebate”. For example the customer only uses $50,000 of the $1,000,000. The formula for rebate is that ($1,000,000 less $50,000 = $950,000) x Profit Rate x period unutilised. Banks earn full Profit Rate on $50,000 and gives rebate based on $950,000.
  3. Of course, Banks will utilise the $950,000 meanwhile but at what I imagine are for short-term instruments because the $950,000 is customer’s money (i.e. committed amount) and can be requested at anytime. Bank needs the funds to be as liquid as possible. So the Bank do not earn a lot from this “short term investment”.
  4. Also, there is concurrent discussion as to when the amount is kept and used by the Bank, what is the underlying contract used for this “unutilised, principal payment which is drawable on demand” amount? Is it kept by the Bank as Qard (loan), Wadiah (safekeeping), Amanah (trust) or can it be taken as Tawarruq deposit (monetised obligation) or Mudharaba (investments)? Different Banks have differing views on this, but I suspect BNM is trying to standardise this understanding and practice.
  5. But more importantly, while the Bank is giving customers “rebate” on the amount they do not utilise (but committed by the Bank), is there also “rebate” on Cost of Capital then? It seems unfair when it doesn’t. Tawarruq proceeds are deemed fully drawdown (based on full amount) and incurs full Capital Charge but is earning returns based on “only” the utilised amount. The rebate formula is very specific, and it does not contain the amount for “rebate” Capital Charge.

In the conventional Banking world, this is not so much of an issue. Their approach is simple: if the amount is “committed” to the customer, 2 things will happen:

  1. Once the amount is drawdown i.e. utilised by the customer (lets say $50,000 utilised of the $1,000,000), then full price is charged on the $50,000
  2. On the amount unutilised i.e. $950,000 the Bank will charge a “Commitment Fee” of 1.0% per annum (or any negotiated rate) on the unutilised (but committed) portion. While 1.0% per annum do not usually cover the full Capital Charge on the $950,000 it somewhat compensates the charge as the Bank (because $950,000 is still a “limit” and not Cash payout) can still use the unutilised amount in its day to day banking activities i.e. investment in short term financial instruments.

Scholars generally do not agree with the concept of Commitment Fees, and there is specific BNM guidelines prohibiting the charge of Commitment Fees in these specific scenarios.

The Capital Charge factor

I still think there is a disconnect somewhere that while we aim to achieve the same end result by the practice of Ibra’ i.e. “Rebate”, but with Capital Cost coming into play, it may eventually seem that the cost of running an Islamic Banking business can be higher than a conventional Bank. It really depends on how we interpret the guidelines and the treatment on Tawarruq especially the single Tawarruq structure where the full amount is transacted i.e. whether it is a full Capital Charge or otherwise.

I know what BNM usually advise i.e. it is a full Capital Charge. But this concurrently means, without Commitment Fees on the unutilised Customer portion, it may result in extra costs for the Bank. Now I am not suggesting we introduce Commitment Fees for Islamic Banking; this idea of Commitment Fees is a conventional banking concept for recovering opportunity costs, which may not sit well under Shariah consideration.

But in the world we operate today (where each $$$ is risk weighted to a cost), this translates to “Actual Costs” incurred by the Bank, based on the interpretation for the “single full amount Tawarruq transaction”. And Shariah may want to consider this as it is a real “Actual Costs” and not opportunity costs. By letting the money sit still, the Bank incur real, actual costs which is not recoverable as per guidelines. It may have started as “recovering opportunity costs” but if you really think about it, this is above opportunity costs. Maybe in the conventional space, they may even revise Commitment Fees to recover BOTH Opportunity Costs as well as Capital Charge.

So, my question is this: should both the industry and Shariah scholars re-look at the basis of Commitment Fees (in the context of how Tawarruq works), or re-think about the “Rebate” mechanism and perhaps have an adjusted formula to factor in a “Rebate on the Capital Charge”?

Can Shariah consider this mechanism to recover a real cost incurred by an Islamic Bank?

In the meantime, Happy Ramadhan to all, and may you have blessed month ahead.

Islamic Banking Operating Model

For the past few months, there have been some earnest discussions on whether Islamic Banking is operating under the right model or type of institutions. Comments by prominent scholars on the suitability of certain Islamic contracts in a financial institution sparked debate on the types that are suitable for operating Islamic contracts. Before I attempt to also put my piece in the mix, there were also questions asked to me on which of the existing models can actually be the right fit. There is still confusion on the types of institutions operating in the market.

Before we look deeper, it is worthwhile to recap the available models in Malaysia.

THE ISLAMIC WINDOW OPERATING MODEL

We  have to start somewhere. Islamic Windows as a starting point, provides the best opportunity to build capabilities at the lowest costs while the business is being developed. The intention is to identify the requirements for system and invest minimally to assess feasibility and operational gaps. This allows the Bank to build the infrastructure at an acceptable pace. This is also a pre-cursor to further/larger infrastructure investments if there is a decision to expand the business into a subsidiary.

This model relies on the existing conventional infrastructure where all the processes, operations, sales, channels, finance, branches, compliance, audit and all functions are provided by the conventional bank. It is a leverage model where the Islamic Banking Windows are more like a “manufacturer” of products. Islamic Banking Windows churn out the products and services (like a factory), and delivers them to the conventional team as part of the suite of products offered by the conventional bank. In such structure, Islamic Banking Windows are just a “segment” of products on offer. Just like Corporate Banking products. Commercial Banking products. Wholesale Banking products. Private Banking products. Retail Banking products… and Islamic Banking products.

The advantage of this model is the low set-up cost. The business rides on existing infrastructure and hires specialists in each function. There is no need to set up a different branch as those Islamic products are sold directly by the existing branches and channels sales team. Balance Sheet discloses Islamic Banking Window performance as part of the Notes to the Account. Shareholders’ Capital, however must be separately allocated, accounting ledgers managed separately and the Single Customer Exposure Limit (SCEL) will be 25% of the allocated Capital. A head of Islamic Banking Windows will report directly to the conventional banking CEO, where business decisions are made.

Not many banks operates under the Islamic Banking Windows model. The main reason is the lack of product range i.e. competing with conventional banking products of the same branch, and the small scale of business limited to its SCEL, and no autonomy of business decision which must be aligned with conventional products.

THE ISLAMIC SUBSIDIARY  MODEL

Islamic Subsidiary rides on the strength of the Parent Bank, which is the conventional bank. The model used is still a leveraged model, but the Islamic Subsidiary can choose which services or function they want to “outsource” to the conventional bank (at a fee chargeback, of course). The idea of a Subsidiary is to be independent, so all cost consideration must be taken into account. Decision to open Islamic Banking Branches can also be made, and BNM supports this expansion via Islamic Banking Branches.

However, being a Subsidiary Bank can also be a burden to set-up. A differentiated system or process or operation team requires cash for its set-up. At the early stages, such investment cash will be limited, and when cash is available for investment, the development of the Subsidiary Bank must then align with the conventional bank. So it can be a chicken and egg situation where to expand you need to earn but to earn you need to expand (and spend).

Most of the conventional banks offers Islamic products via Islamic Banking Subsidiary. The main advantage is that decisions are autonomous in a Subsidiary, there is more control of marketing and sales and branches, and the Bank (as an independent entity) can chart its own course. However, there will still be influence from the parent (as the majority shareholder) and the products and services offered are generally aligned to the products and services offered by the parents. The SCEL for Subsidiaries are also dependent on the strategy of the parent Bank, where it can choose to invest heavily or adequately for the operations of its subsidiary.

FULL FLEDGED ISLAMIC BANKS

These are standalone banks that generally are not under any conventional banking influence. The products and services may be consistent with the offerings in the market, but it is not an obligation to follow. In theory, Full Fledged Islamic Banks have the capacity to offer new-to-market products, based on the approvals obtained from Shariah Committees and BNM.

There is room for innovation and experimentation of new structures via Full Fledged Islamic Banks, although they must still governed by the financial ratios and controls for other types of banks and financial institutions, using conventional measuring tape which could lead to a “penalty” cost for doing business.

For example, a debt based home financing based on Tawarruq will incur a capital charge of 50%-100% but in a Musyaraka Financing, that capital charge will cost 100%-400% which will be an “expensive” proposition simply because it is measured against conventional financial ratios.

Personally, I believe Full Fledged Islamic Banks should follow a different set of financial ratios catered to reflect the type of risks an Islamic Bank CAN take, should the Islamic Bank look to offer products such as Mudaraba, Musyaraka, Istisna’ or even Salam. To allow for pure innovation, the financial ratios and treatment of capital and assessment of risks should be differentiated to reflect the nature of the products offered. While Basel requirements can be used as benchmark to ensure stability, an “Islamic” Basel will be even more meaningful where it can fully address all the real risks faced by Islamic Banks deploying Profit Loss Sharing (PLS) and equity-based structures such as Mudaraba and Musyaraka. Slowly, BNM is recognising these differences for measurement and has taken small steps to differentiate, such as the introduction of treatment of Investment Accounts (IA), the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) treatment, Capital Adequacy Framework for Islamic Banks (CAFIB), and the removal of Reserve Funds (reserves from paying of dividends) from Islamic Banks recently. It is my sincere hope to one day see an “Islamic” section in future Basel releases as well.

The main challenge for a Full Fledge Islamic Bank, is the costs of building the franchise from ground zero. To compete with a conventional bank, the Islamic Bank must invest similarly in its infrastructure and achieve operational efficiency and scale as soonest as possible. The payback period and Return on Investment and Return on Equity remains important for long term sustainability. SCEL is dependant on how big the Bank intends to grow. Another key consideration is the ability for the Islamic Bank to build a strong source of cheap deposits for the funding requirements.

NOTE

Of course there are other structures that can be attributed as Islamic Financial institutions such as cooperatives, development banks, and investment banks. But the most common are the above variations and these structures fit into strategies identified by the bank. In most cases, BNM prefers to see development coming from the Full Fledged Islamic Banks and Subsidiaries. These should be the drivers for the growth of Islamic Banking.

Wallahualam