Islamic finance is the area where Malaysia leads the world. Malaysia has 54% of global sukuk outstanding, 314 Islamic investment funds worth RM100.6 billion ($22.7 billion), and an Islamic capital market that has tripled in size since 2005, accounting for 60.1% of the total Malaysian capital market. In August the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) launched its Shariah savings scheme to give members the option to convert their conventional account to an Islamic one. It has said it expects to invest an average of RM25 billion in Shariah assets every year and it intends to allocate a minimum of 45% of its assets into Shariah-compliant forms. Thus, EPF has sufficient scale to be very interesting to asset managers worldwide. Largely through that mechanism, there are now 20 fully fledged Islamic fund management companies operating in Malaysia.
Banks in Iran have made progress since the signing of the nuclear deal, yet many obstacles to doing business internationally remain. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was meant to free up Iran’s economy and banking sector by lifting the sanctions imposed on the country in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme. Under the nuclear sanctions, the US fined several big banks for dealing with sanctioned countries. For that reason, many large international banks fear being fined again if they re-engage with the country, even though they are now allowed to do so under the terms of the JCPOA. So far, only small banks have been willing to re-engage with Iran.
Iran, frozen out by sanctions, has not been a fixture in the international debt markets since 2002. But when it eventually returns, which it surely will in the next year or so, its first step back may turn out to have been a little-noticed domestic issue that took place on September 30. The issue of Islamic government treasury bills, it could even be said, was the country’s first true domestic bond. There has been a sort of debt market in Iran for years, but it does not resemble anything like local currency markets elsewhere in the world. The predominant vehicle is the Agh Mosharekat (participation paper) an instrument which carries a fixed coupon, is not tradable, and can be returned to the bank at any time during its (typically three-year) duration and redeemed.
A number of mechanisms have been developed to enable companies to execute Shariah compliant hedges. The most straightforward approach is through back-to-back loans – agreed separately – of different currencies, which do not carry any interest or any other benefit. However, this does not take into account forward FX rates and therefore tends to be used in day-to-day dealings between local traders and in small amounts. Another option is based on commodity murabaha whereby a financier or intermediary purchases goods from a supplier and sells them to an end-user at a deferred price that is marked-up to include the intermediary’s profit margin.
With expanding economies and hundreds of million Muslims, Africa deserves to be a bigger part of Islamic finance. After a slow start, there are signs the sector is beginning to gain the crucial mass and legislative backing it needs. Senegal's CFAFr 100 billion ($200 million) debut last June was Africa's biggest,ever sovereign sukuk, attracting both local and international buyers. South Africa followed in September with a $500 million 5.75-year deal that was only the third-ever sukuk issued by a non-Muslim majority country. Those in the industry argue that Africa's new-found visibility as a market for Islamic finance is long overdue.
After a slow start, there are signs Islamic finance is beginning to gain the crucial mass and legislative backing it needs in Africa. Amid a surge in sovereign debuts in the sukuk market last year, one region – perhaps unexpectedly – featured prominently: Africa. First to the market was Senegal, the biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa with a majority Muslim population after Sudan. Its CFAFr100 billion ($200 million) debut last June was Africa’s biggest-ever sovereign sukuk, attracting both local and international buyers. South Africa followed in September with a $500 million 5.75-year deal that was only the third-ever sukuk issued by a non-Muslim majority country, according to Standard Bank, one of the lead managers.
International banks used to dominate Islamic finance. But their desire to innovate risked the market straying from its principles. Local and specialist firms have benefited from their withdrawal. Clearly there is immense growth potential. Nevertheless, many multinationals abandoned the field. At any of the innumerable Islamic finance conferences in the mid-2000s, one could more or less be guaranteed to see a familiar cast of characters onstage. The most likely would be a man who was not actually a Muslim: Geert Bossuyt, a Belgian who was the head of structuring for the Middle East at Deutsche Bank. Deutsche was a pioneer in Islamic structuring; for a period of three years it was a dealmaker and structuring brains trust without compare, even if some of its ideas, culminating in the deeply technical double wa’d, really did stretch the spirit of Islamic finance.
Bank Asya’s problems – withdrawal of deposits by individual and corporate investors, the wiping out of profits, the dramatic fall in share price – have apparently nothing to do with the way the bank is run. They have everything to do with a politically-motivated vendetta against the bank by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A year on, Bank Asya continues to operate under the leadership of a former senior member of Turkey’s respected banking supervisor, the BDDK, which has tried to remain impartial to Erdogan’s machinations. But the battle for Bank Asya remains a cloud over the Turkish banking sector. Banks that do business in Turkey should tread with caution.
Ahmet Beyaz, the chief executive of Turkey’s government-besieged Bank Asya, says his bank is the victim of a political campaign waged by Turkey’s powerful president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Beyaz and his executive vice-president Feyzullah Egriboyun claim the repeated attacks on the bank clearly constitute a crime under Turkey’s strict banking legislation. The Turkish president has denied any orchestrated campaign against Bank Asya. He went on to say "this bank has already failed", without naming Bank Asya. Such claims are wrong, Beyaz says, insisting Bank Asya is among the three strongest banks in Turkey, boasting a capital adequacy ratio at about 20%. Bank Asya supporters argue that the Erdogan attacks on Bank Asya pose a systemic risk to the wider Turkish banking system.
The UK’s maiden sovereign sukuk issue was announced with considerable fanfare in October, and appears to be making progress. But the UK Treasury is not in a rush, and market participants are beginning to wonder why there is a delay. The sukuk will now reportedly take place in the "next financial year" – that is, no earlier than April 5, and potentially not even this year. Sajid Javid, MP, the financial secretary to the Treasury, said that it is very important that the UK has looked at everything in fine detail before issuing its first sukuk. Javid also confirmed that, for the moment, the UK only intends to issue one sukuk. This is a one-off issuance, not a long-term programme, and its main purpose is not financing for the government, but to develop the UK as a financial centre.
Dubai Islamic Bank, the UAE’s largest Islamic lender, is refocusing on growth, says CEO Adnan Chilwan. This year, Chilwan expects a double-digit rise in DIB’s financing portfolio for the first time since 2008. Chilwan says that in early 2014 DIB’s ratio of non-performing assets will fall below 10%. DIB is reaping the benefits of a rebounding local real estate market, but Chilwan says he is not fuelling another bubble in the sector. He also says the bank aims to reduce the proportion of its portfolio dedicated to real estate financing to between 22% and 25%. According to Chilwan, an important part of efforts to sustainably grow the bank’s revenues has been a greater focus on retail: including personal and car finance, as well as mortgages.
Africa has big potential for Islamic finance. Nigerian Jaiz Bank for example aims to expand outside northern Nigeria and open 100 branches by 2017. Local conventional banks are getting ready to move into Islamic finance too, including Sterling Bank, which recently gained a licence to open an Islamic window. Despite Kenya’s smaller Muslim population compared to Nigeria, the country’s Islamic finance sector is also emerging. Gulf African Bank for example enjoyed over 154% net profit growth to $2.8 million. Other countries like Zambia are eager to catch up. However, the lack of competition might be a challenge, as well as conventional banking laws dictating Islamic finance.
Egypt’s Islamist government is making preparations for the country’s first sovereign sukuk after the cabinet of ministers approved the new draft sukuk bill on January 16. The new finance minister, El-Morsi Hegazy, reportedly plans the law might ultimately raise an additional $10 billion for the sovereign. Investors, however, do not yet sound convinced, since there might be another revolution to come. Nevertheless, Egypt has considerable potential as an Islamic finance market.