Islamic finance rides the storm 
  a.. Clancy Yeates 
October 11, 2008 
A thriving financial sector sounds like an oxymoron these days. Even 
Australia's banks - among the most profitable in the world - kept a fifth of 
this week's interest rate cut to cushion their margins. But there is one sector 
that has tongues wagging in the hubs of commerce: Islamic finance.
While the Western world's financial system has been imploding, this small but 
rapidly growing share of world capital has weathered the storm.

Sharemarkets in London and New York are a third off their peaks. Dow Jones's 
Islamic financials index, in contrast, rose 4.75 per cent in the most recent 
September quarter and lost a modest 7 per cent in the previous year.

Not only has the industry been resilient; it's also on the cusp of serious 
expansion. It is growing faster than any other subset of world banking, at 15 
to 20 per cent a year. The Economist estimates Islamic assets under management 
are worth $US700 billion ($1000 billion). This figure could hit $US1 trillion - 
about the Australian sharemarket's current value - by 2010.

What's more, all this growth has come from a model of lending that rejects 
interest payments and shuns speculation and heavy borrowing.

In short, Islamic finance bans some of the excess that has brought the West's 
financial system to its knees, and is looking wise indeed, or at least lucky.

Islamic finance takes its guidance from sharia.

The biggest markets are in the Middle East and Muslim countries, but global 
banks have opened sharia-compliant branches. Locally, the Muslim Community 
Co-operative is one of a few lenders offering the service.

Justice, partnership and opposition to excessive risk are the main principles 
guiding Islamic banks. Outright speculation and dealing with any party that has 
a balance sheet more than a third of which is debt are forbidden, as are 
investments deemed unethical by Islamic scholars, such as casinos.

But if these rules sound tough, the biggest difference is a ban on interest.

Charging interest is immoral because it does not take into account how changes 
in the value of the loan's security can affect the borrower, sharia says. Home 
owners who bought near the peak are now experiencing this harsh reality: 
interest gives banks a steady payment from the borrower, regardless of the 
property market's state.

However, profit is fine, and Islamic banks have devised ways to make money from 
lending. Instead of demanding interest, they buy the asset outright on behalf 
of the borrower. The borrower pays off the loan (the principle) and a fee for 
using the asset (rent, for example) until the amount is repaid and ownership 
transfers to the borrower.

Just like mortgage-backed securities, the rights to loan repayments can be sold 
as an Islamic bond, or sukuk. But instead of a yield, the bondholder receives 
repayments on the loan, and some rent. As a result, Islamic lenders have not 
had to venture into money markets that have recently blown up.

For depositors, putting your money with an Islamic bank is more like being a 
shareholder. Rather than interest, depositors get a cut of any profits.

Understandably, Western governments are casting around for ideas on how to run 
a more robust financial system. But what could they possibly learn from such a 
different approach?

Islamic finance's more prudent rules on debt look attractive in hindsight. But 
more fundamentally, proponents say it provides a better way to link the 
financial system to the "real" economy.

Because Islamic banks keep ownership of the asset until the loan is repaid, 
they have a greater incentive to make sure borrowers do not bite off more than 
they can chew. The bank shares in the risks of the entrepreneur but also its 
failures, the argument goes.

I am not suggesting we switch to a lending system without interest payments. 
But a big gripe emerging in recent weeks is that finance has become out of 
whack with the needs of the rest of the economy.

In the most extreme cases, it seems investment bankers devoted themselves to 
developing inventive ways to get higher bonuses rather than facilitating 
productive investment. Islamic finance shows one way of ensuring savings are 
put to more useful ends.

Some even say banning short selling of shares reflects sharia thinking, because 
it stops traders dealing with assets they don't own. "Banning short selling is 
one of the decisive elements in Islamic finance, so it seems almost that the 
conventional markets are looking at the Islamic techniques, which so far did 
not play any role in conventional markets," a financial journalist from Dubai, 
Gerard Al-Fil, told ABC radio last month.

Sceptics say Islamic finance just dresses up Western finance with different 
titles. It is also worth noting that the system is not immune from creating 
bubbles, although the method of lending makes it harder for investors to pile 
in through debt. A conflict between its religious goals and the goal of turning 
a profit is another tension, The Economist notes.

Nevertheless, it is booming. High oil prices have filled the coffers of Gulf 
states, and the region is crammed with capital works projects in need of 
funding. Muslims account for 20 per cent of the world's population, but Islamic 
finance makes up less than 1 per cent of world capital, suggesting huge room 
for growth.

The Islamic bond market has tapered off in the credit crunch, but this appears 
to be a blip. About $US14 billion in Islamic bonds were issued in the eight 
months to August, down from $US23 billion in the same time last year, but 
Standard & Poor's expects issuance to hit $US25 billion next year.

This potential has not crept past Western banks unnoticed, and many have 
fast-growing sharia-compliant arms. London is vying to capture the market and 
has changed its laws to allow the different property transfers required for the 
lending. British media report growing interest even among non-Muslims because 
of perceptions that it is a more ethical approach to finance.

So expect to see more Islamic banks in years ahead as global banks try to cash 
in on this growing field. Given the present financial mess, the industry's 
resilience only makes it harder to ignore.

Ross Gittins is on leave.

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