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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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.