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CommentInsight & Opinion

Islamic finance finds a rapidly growing niche in the secular world

Haslinda Amin says this growing sector has much to offer non-Muslim clients as well

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:57am

The past few years haven't been the best of times for the international banking sector. Aberrant behaviour by certain banks - and the contagion that followed - are the abiding memories of the financial crisis. More recent allegations, issues and proven misdeeds have arguably undermined the credibility and reputation of the global financial sector as a whole.

Well, not quite all of it. Because one sector growing significantly is Islamic finance.

Islamic finance remains widely misunderstood and, by many, significantly underestimated. The reality is that it is a US$1.3 trillion global industry - growing annually between 15 per cent and 20 per cent in the past decade - and in markets you may not expect.

The face of Islamic banking has changed markedly in just the past several years. Only five or so years ago, when I would seek views on Islamic finance, inevitably I would find myself talking to a researcher or an academic. Today, the insights come from CEOs and senior bankers busily expanding their Islamic finance infrastructure and portfolios. Significantly, this is happening not just within financial institutions based in predominantly Muslim countries - because for many conventional international banks, development of sharia-compliant services in global financial centres is a priority.

There is already an arguably ready-made customer base for Islamic finance among the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. Yet there also is clear scope for broader appeal to non-Muslims seeking an alternative form of ethical and responsible banking.

Interestingly, Islamic banks emerged from the financial crisis with their balance sheets relatively unscathed - in large part because their business model, including those things Islam precludes them from doing, afforded a certain level of protection from the general meltdown.

More recently, one executive of an Islamic bank pointed out to me that none of its customers had had to worry about his bank's exposure to Greek, Spanish or Portuguese bonds; because sharia-compliance simply disallows the bank from holding any.

Islamic finance's prohibition of usury would understandably be welcomed by potential clients of many other religions - and doubtless supported by potential agnostic borrowers too; and a disdain for investing in industries like alcohol or gambling clearly can extend beyond the Muslim community.

The potential for growth, of course, depends on Islamic banks offering products with broad appeal. While sukuk (the Islamic equivalent of a bond) appears to be the most popular Islamic financial product, there is significant demand for other Islamic financial services such as insurance, wealth management, and capital market insurance.

Customers of Islamic banks are no less in need than any other bank customer of a safe place to deposit savings but take hibah (a discretionary gift from the bank) rather than the nominal (often negligible) interest they would get from a Western bank. Islamic banks also offer mortgages - though quite differently structured from their Western versions - and, as one example, their increasing popularity among the two million Muslims living in Britain is evidence of Islamic finance's international growth potential.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider this faith-founded method of banking as quirky or archaic; It is as sophisticated as any form of financing available today.

It's the view that it is somehow entirely different from "Western banking" that perhaps creates a popular misconception - maybe assuming divine intervention or some bottomless oil well of liquidity - that Islamic finance is risk-free. It isn't.

Like all types of banking and investment, Islamic finance caters to different risk appetites and comprises financial products with varying levels of exposure. It's no zero-sum game. Risk remains. What distinguishes it, perhaps, is the degree of profit-loss sharing among all parties - both customer and financial institution win when there's a gain and lose when there's a loss.

Islamic finance eschews the use of derivative products and short-selling - meaning that, in principle at least, there is no exposure to debt or toxic assets. Risk, though not eliminated, is minimised, which is the best any investor can hope for.

The growth of Islamic finance is an intriguing development that extends well beyond the borders of the predominantly Muslim world. France and Korea have introduced new laws for issuing sukuk; new Islamic banks have recently opened in China, Germany and the UK; Citigroup, Standard Chartered, HSBC and BNP Paribas have all taken steps to seize growth opportunities in Islamic finance.

Financial information providers such as Bloomberg have built deep product suites and a raft of indices so their customers can follow Islamic financial instruments. London's Islamic property funds encompass buildings from The Shard to regular family homes. The UK capital has more sharia-compliant financial institutions than any other Western city but Paris, Frankfurt and Luxembourg are striving to become competitive hubs in the Islamic finance sector.

To what extent will Islamic finance - for institutional and individual investors - continue to grow outside of the Muslim world? Suddenly it's become more about the numbers and less about a leap of faith.

Haslinda Amin is a news anchor and Southeast Asia correspondent for Bloomberg Television; she presents the six-part news documentary, Faith in Finance, on Bloomberg TV until November 14

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