Making Islamic Banking Resilient

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

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

The Financial Industry Must be Resilient

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

The Challenges are manifold.

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

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

The Reality is that Traditional Banks need to keep up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/

Sadaqa House : The Crowdfund That Could Circulate Good

HOW TO CROWDFUND GOOD?

Little by little, we learn there are many ways to spread good. I recently had a sit-down with Umar Munshi (EthisCrowd) and we had a fine chat. About his new project, Sadaqa House with Bank Islam, which aims to collect donations to support good causes, such as funding for a child’s operation (with the National Heart Institute of Malaysia), and other small infrastructure projects. Some of the causes are well funded, but some still fall short. But what it shows is that; if the cause is believably genuine, it may well get to raise the funds it needs.

This initiative is not so much different from the Tabarru’ concept of Takaful, which means mutual assistance using donations, and it can achieve so much more than Takaful.The idea of Takaful is “the many contributors helping the few“. Here, in the EthisCrowd space, the understanding is that it is “the many contributors helping the one“. For example the funding of the operation’s cost of a heart patient (child) where the contributors of funds are asked to fund the cost of getting heart treatment. It is basically a rougher/simpler form of Takaful.

Well I say job well done, and this is testament to the power and innovation of Islamic structures  where it can go further than just collections, finance and banking functions. It espouses the concept of mutual assistance and takes it to the next level of donation-giving. It is purposeful, transparent and convenient. My first experience was that the whole process of donating is seamless and easy. I urge friends to give Global Sadaqa and Sadaqa House a try and maybe spread a little cheer to the needy. The initiatives are simple and it helps spreads goodness in people’s heart (no pun intended!).

I do applaud the efforts by EthisCrowd because it does really provide an alternative platform where there is funding facilities outside the safe confines of a banking institution. With Global Sadaqah, hopefully charity is taken to a new, higher level where donations are hard to come by (as they provide no monetary gain to customers). This is where appealing to someone’s religious or moral consideration play its part in attracting individuals keen on doing good, even from Non-Muslims individuals. At the moment, they have amassed a huge number of followers / community to support their initiative, regardless of race and religion.

But most of all, this platform is easy to use and this is what Islamic fintech should be; to provide easy & mobile access to the unbanked segment while adhering to the requirements of Shariah for solutions that work.

Hopefully we see more spreading good initiatives championed by Islamic Banking entities and Institution that cares about the growth of Islamic finance while helping communities. May we find more ways to see these initiatives become successful in the future. Wallahualam.