Islamic Banks, Stuffed With Cash, Explore Partnerships in West

December 25, 2013

By Nathaniel Popper

 

A noted Muslim law scholar, Yusuf DeLorenzo, recently pored through the books of Continental Rail, a business that runs freight trains up and down the East Coast.

Along with examining the company’s financial health, Mr. DeLorenzo sought to make sure that the rail cars didn’t transport pork, tobacco or alcohol. He was brought in by American investment bankers who want to take rail cars bought by Continental Rail and package their leases into a security. The investment is being built for banks that are run according to Islamic law, which, among other things, prohibits investments in those three commodities. If the cars are acceptable, or halal, the deal will be one of the first in the United States to be completed in compliance with Islamic law.

“It’s a new territory for all of us,” said John H. Marino Jr., chief executive of Continental Rail.

The deal is a sign of how banks that comply with Islamic law are making inroads into the global banking scene and how Western businesses are working to meet the expectations of those banks. The banks can’t find enough acceptable places to park their money, many industry insiders say, so investment bankers are scurrying to assemble deals.

Over the last 30 years, the Islamic financial sector has grown from virtually nothing to over $1.6 trillion in assets, according to data from the Global Islamic Financial Review, an industry publication. The financial crisis has only encouraged the growth. Industry assets grew 19 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2012, in contrast to the less than 10 percent growth at non-Islamic banks in most of the world.

Until recently, Islamic banks have largely put their money to work in the Middle East — or, if they invested in other parts of the world, in real estate. Real estate is among the most popular investments under Islamic law, also known as Shariah, because a deal can be structured that does not require interest payments, which are prohibited by Shariah. But as the banks grow larger they are looking for new, more diverse places to put their money.

The deal with Continental Rail is attractive because the rail cars will spin off lease payments, rather than interest, and can be bought in bulk. The cars are also in the United States, which will help bring geographic diversity to the bank portfolios. The deal was brokered by a newly created team at Taylor-DeJongh, a Washington investment bank, looking to bring money from Islamic banks to the United States.

There are similar pushes around the world. A few non-Muslim African countries, including South Africa, have recently been talking about raising money using the Islamic financial instruments known as sukuk, which function much like bonds. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain announced in late October that England planned to become the first European country to issue sukuk. The global bank Société Générale is preparing to raise money from Islamic banks in the coming months.

“There is a gap between all the money coming in to Islamic banks and the deployment of that money into real economic assets,” said Sayd Farook, the global head of Islamic finance atThomson Reuters. “A crazy amount of money has gone into their coffers and they need somewhere to invest it.”

The first modern Islamic banks were founded in the 1970s, motivated by the Quran’s ban on riba, which has been interpreted as any fixed payment charged for money lending. Islamic banks have focused instead on putting their money into real assets and property, and sharing any resulting profits from the performance of an asset. Muslim mortgages, for instance, are structured so that the bank buys the house and then sells it to the occupant slowly over time. Stocks are generally considered acceptable as long as the companies issuing the stock adhere to Islamic law; casinos, banks and weapons companies are forbidden.

Islamic banks have religious scholars, like Mr. DeLorenzo, review their operations on a regular basis. Yet some Islamic scholars have criticized the banks for straying too far from the spirit of the Quran into the speculative realms of Wall Street. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a Western investment and a Shariah one. For instance, an Islamic bank’s fixed-deposit account ties up a customer’s money for a set period of time, like a certificate of deposit. Instead of offering interest, the account offers a share of the profit from its investments. The “profit rate” of a one-year deposit currently is 1.9 percent at one major Middle Eastern bank.

There is a debate among Islamic scholars about what qualifies as halal. “The industry is going through soul-searching,” said Ayman A. Khaleq, a lawyer specializing in Islamic finance at the Morgan Lewis law firm in Dubai. “It’s far from settled.”

But these problems have not stopped the flood of deposits into banks like the Sharjah Islamic Bank, which is named for the city in the United Arab Emirates where it is based. The bank has 24 branches, some of which offer separate spaces for female and male customers. From 2006 to 2012, deposits there almost tripled to about $3 billion.

Muhammed Ishaq, the head of the treasury division at Sharjah, said that the bank’s problem was not attracting money, it was figuring out what to do with it. “It’s not very easy when any financing needs to be backed by some kind of asset,” Mr. Ishaq said.

Real estate has been a very popular investment in the Islamic world, but when real estate was hit hard during the 2008 financial crisis, many investors were reminded of the need for more diverse portfolios. For many banks the answer is sukuk. Like bonds, sukuk make regular payments to investors. But unlike a bond, which is a money loan, sukuk are structured as investments in hard assets that generate payments.

The amount of sukuk sold each year has grown sixfold from 2006 to 2012, to some $133 billion, according to Thomson Reuters’s Islamic financial data service, Zawya. A joint venture between Dow Chemical and Saudi Arabia’s national oil company sold a $2 billion sukuk this year to raise money for an oil complex. But this is falling far short of the demand from banks. “There are serious supply-side bottlenecks,” said Ashar Nazim, head of Ernst & Young’s Global Islamic Banking Center.

Now there are several efforts to create more supply. The Bank of London and the Middle East was founded in London with Kuwaiti money to find these new investment opportunities. “They wanted a wider range of Islamic assets that could be originated away from the Middle East,” said Nigel Denison, the bank’s treasurer.

Yavar Moini, the former head of Islamic banking at Morgan Stanley, said he was establishing an operation in Dubai that would gather assets from around the world that can be packaged into sukuk, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do in the United States with mortgages. Mr. Moini said that “it’s the absence of sufficient product or opportunities for Islamic investors that drives them into the conventional arena.”

In the United States there have been a few attempts at sukuk. In 2006, a Texas oil company sold a $166 million sukuk to finance oil exploration, but the company went bankrupt during the financial crisis. Then in 2009, General Electric issued a $500 million sukuk tied to aircraft leases.

Taylor-DeJongh, the 30-year old, energy-focused investment bank, is hoping to take advantage of the shortage. Ibrahim Mardam-Bey, who worked on the 2006 Texas sukuk, joined Taylor-DeJongh at the end of 2012 and has built a team of five bankers working on Islamic finance.

One deal would provide financing for private toll bridges. The other, which is further along, will bundle the rail cars managed by Continental Rail. The team has already signed a deal to buy 1,000 rail cars in Pennsylvania, and is looking to acquire 5,000 more.

Mr. Mardam-Bey said that some American businesses were hesitant to take money from Islamic banks, perhaps a byproduct of negative associations with Shariah since the Sept. 11 attacks. But in the Texas deal, and in many others, that tends to fade as the financial possibilities become clear.

“The borrower was a Texan wildcatter who couldn’t spell ‘sukuk,’ ” Mr. Mardam-Bey said. “But at the end of the day when I brought the check he didn’t care if I prayed to Allah. He just wanted the money.”

 

Dealbook/New York Times: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/12/25/islamic-banks-stuffed-with-cash-explore-partnerships-in-west/?_r=0

Could principles of Islamic finance feed into a sustainable economic system?

October 18, 2013

 

Islamic finance has been a significant global force for the past few decades, but in recent years sharia-compliant saving and investing have become more common. For example, in June, Goldman Sachs provided a loan to Arcapita Bank, an Islamic investment company, that in compliance with sharia law did not charge interest. In July, a US-based trade association, the World Council of Credit Unions, published a manual explaining to would-be community financiers in developing countries how to operate sharia-compliant credit unions.

Western discussions of sharia law often focus on extremist groups imposing brutal interpretations of these legal codes on unwilling populations. But sharia law, which derives from the Qur’an and the religious teaching of Islam, can also be applied to the finance sector. Importantly, Islamic finance can be seen as part of a wider movement towards the promotion of sustainability as a key element of economic life.

The basic premise under sharia law that no one should profit purely from money leads to a shift in both parties’ perspective away from the short-term transaction and towards the longer-term relationship and its consequences.

In short, the structures that have evolved do away with classic debt – and the banks that provide such financing – in exchange for direct participations in risk and reward. For example, an ijara can be used to purchase real estate for the purpose of leasing it out to tenants and the rental income is distributed pro rata to subscribers. A sukuk is a fully negotiable certificate that can be bought and sold on the secondary market, and allows the new owner to “step into the shoes” of the original holder, taking all the rights, obligations and liabilities relating to the underlying assets that accompany the certificate.

Importantly, participants in an ijara and holders of a sukuk have no guaranteed return and are all economically aligned in the long-term success of the project. If the project fails, they cannot simply take their profits to date and sell of the loan collateral to make themselves whole. As a result, Islamic finance encourages the creation of social value alongside economic value.

But Islamic finance is a legitimate expression of an economic philosophy of the use of money. This shouldn’t be stigmatised or criminalised – especially in light of the excesses and abuses that preceded the recent global financial crisis.

Islamic finance is becoming an important part of important emerging economies in the Middle East and Asia – high-growth markets where businesses will want to compete and succeed. And the Muslim population is continuing to grow and can be an engine for further growth.

 

The Guardian:

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/islamic-finance-sustainable-economic-system

Muslim Center’s Developer to Use Islamic Loan Plan

Sharif el-Gamal, the developer, of the planned Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero envisions raising $140 million project by utilizing instruments developed to allow many Muslim investors to comply with religious prohibitions on interest. Most of the financing, Mr. Gamal said on Wednesday, would come through religiously sanctioned bondlike investments known as sukuk, devised in Muslim nations to allow religious Muslims to take part in the global economy and increasingly explored by American banks. Sukuk and other Islamic banking instruments are tracked on the Dow Jones Islamic Market Index.

Of the $140 million, Gamal, is hoping to raise $27 million through a nationwide campaign which will focus on small donations from Muslims and other supporters. The remaining bill will be financed, to build the 15-story center, which will eventually have about 4,330 paying members. Most of that core group, Mr. Gamal expects, would be non-Muslim neighborhood residents and commuters. Muslims from around the region would make up a larger but less frequently visiting group — what he calls the “dinner and a date” crowd — many of them choosing the cheapest $375 family membership for cultural programs.

Mr. Gamal and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who is his planning partner in the project, have promised that they will invite the federal government to review all the donations.

Accounting Standards for Islamic Financial Institutions will appear in Russian

Shari’a Standards for Islamic Financial products issued by the Accounting Association of Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) will soon be presented in Russian. An agreement was reached during the visit of the Delegation of Council of Muftis of Russia to Bahrain last December.

The first product standards will be published in February 2010 and will include operations such as murabaha (deferred sale finance), sukuk (interest-free loans) and takaful (an Islamic insurance concept).

Bercy Seeks to Enable the Development of Islamic Financing in France

Christine Lagarde, Minister of the Economy and Finance, wants to facilitate the development of Islamic finances in France, stating she wants follow the model already in place in London. Known as “sukuks”, this kind of loan meets the rules of shari’ah law which prohibits claiming interest and investing in certain sectors like those related to war, alcohol and gaming.

See full-text articles:

Le Figaro

Le Monde

Britain plans to issue Shariah bonds

Britain’s Treasury is likely to back plans to issue Shariah law-compliant bonds, officials said Sunday – amid continuing debate about the application of Islamic laws in the UK. Treasury chief Alistair Darling, who will present his annual budget on March 12, plans to issue the Islamic bonds, known as sukuk, to tap into a fast-growing market in the products. “We want the City of London to be one of the gateways globally for Islamic financial products,” a Treasury spokesperson said, on customary condition of anonymity in line with policy. “Just because of your faith, there shouldn’t be any issue about your access to financial services in the UK,” he said. Shariah law prohibits charging or paying interest, which has led to the growth of a market in financial services created to be compliant with Islam. Sukuk are structured as profit-sharing plans so that the bondholder’s income resembles a rent payment. The process is usually blessed by a board of religious scholars affiliated with a bank.