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

 

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Life as an Islamic Product Developer

Recently I have been asked on the function of developing Islamic products for the Bank, from one keen graduate looking to start a career in the industry. The graduate was not confident in the future of the industry and was seeking some advice.

 As a career choice, Islamic Banking remains a good option for many reasons. In my view, the industry is still a growing space, with discussions and researches still being done and far from finished. Slowly scholars are going to the forefront, and arguments on structures are becoming more sophisticated. So, it is an exciting time to be in the industry.
But how about product development itself? Is it worthwhile to enter this fray?

Life as an Islamic Banking product developer is not easy. Simply because not many knows what we are doing, and what it takes to be one. I always viewed being a product developer is as hard as being an imam in a community; you hold on your shoulders the responsibility of launching a product that the community must trust to be Shariah compliant. There is no heavier burden than this, and you must be willing to shoulder this responsibility. Not everyone willingly do this.

Eye of the Storm Product Developer

But being a product developer has its intrinsic advantages. Rarely a position in the Bank affords you access to all types of functions. As a developer who have to design, develop and launch an effective and successful product, you need to engage ALL parties in the Bank as your product needs to flow throughout the organisation. The detail involved is enormous and you are expected to be an expert in most of the touch points. Hard questions are asked by stakeholders in the Bank, and you are expected to be able to satisfactorily answer these. They won’t sign off the approvals if you fail this.

That’s why sometimes it takes a long time to develop and launch a product. Many people criticise us for being slow, unresponsive or too technical. But to reach the stage we can satisfy all parties, including Shariah Committees and Central Bank, a product will just remain a concept that is not developed and launched if we do not have a capable team that interacts effectively with all stakeholders.

In addition, Product Development requires us to be experts in various fields after a product is launched. This includes after sales support and damage control, especially if there were mistakes made, misselling of a feature or just general queries by customers. We also have to continue ensuring Shariah requirements are being met, as well as balancing the business requirements (which is generally profit driven).

Life is not easy here, despite appearances. It takes a lot of grit to survive as a developer, and you do need a certain amount toughness to handle the day to day tasks. But the rewards are great as it builds you into a competent and wholesome expert in the field after a few years. Patience is also needed and so is hard work.

To all the graduating students out there, do your best in the industry and fight this good fight. There is a bright future out there, as bright as you want it to be.

Presentation on Careers in Islamic Banking