Islamic finance's growth much more than a leap of faith

MinaretIslamic finance remains widely misunderstood and, by many, significantly underestimated. The reality is that it is a USD1.3 trillion global industry – growing between 15 to 20% p.a. 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 points-of-view on Islamic finance, inevitably I would find myself talking to a researcher or an academic.
Today, the insights come from CEOs and senior bankers busy 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 Shariah-compliant services in global financial centres has become a priority, because it has become of interest to investors.

With some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world there is already an arguably ready-made customer base for Islamic finance but there also is clear scope for broader appeal to non-Muslims seeking an alternative form of ethical/responsible banking.

Interestingly, Islamic banks emerged from the global 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, none of its customers has had to worry about his bank's exposure to Greek, Spanish or Portuguese bonds; because Shariah-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 into those individuals and institutions traditionally termed "responsible investors".

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

What would be a mistake, however, would be to consider this faith-founded method of banking to be quirky or archaic; because 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 one 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 activities – meaning that, in principle at least, there is no exposure to debt or toxic assets. Risk is minimised but not eliminated which probably is the best any investor can hope for.

The growth of Islamic finance is an intriguing development which -- for both Islamic and conventional banks – extends well beyond the borders of the predominantly Muslim world.

France and Korea have introduced news 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 the growth opportunity 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 finance 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 determined to become competitive hubs in the Islamic finance sector.

To what extent will Islamic finance – both for the institutional and individual investor -- 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 Southeast Asia anchor for Bloomberg Television; she presents the six-part documentary "Faith in Finance" on Bloomberg Television.
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