UK: Islamic Finance: Dominating The Global Banking Industry

The Islamic financial industry is flourishing – and not just in the Middle East. Barry Cosgrave, senior associate in the finance group at Shearman & Sterling LLP, tells us why.

Having suffered an inevitable slowdown during the global financial crisis, Islamic finance is once again on the rise, with growth now being seen outside the traditional heartlands of the Middle East and South East Asia and taking on an ever more innovative and global flavour.

The announcement by the United Kingdom government of its inaugural £200m Sukuk issue (Sukuk is the Islamic equivalent of bonds) is perhaps the most high-profile example, but first of a kind issuances by FWU AG in Germany and Tilal Development Company in Oman, as well as innovative structures employed in the Axiata Sukuk in Malaysia and the Sadara Sukuk in Saudi Arabia clearly illustrate that the Islamic finance industry is moving forward.

What has led to this increase in activity? The growth in Islamic finance is down to certain key factors which probably fall into three main categories: the continued strong cash position of Islamic investors; the de-mystifying of Islamic finance products; and the growing familiarity of Islamic finance professionals with the needs of Shari'a scholars which has led to consequential efficiencies in implementing Islamic structures.

Whilst there has been a noticeable improvement in access to liquidity since some of the bleaker days of the recession, it is no secret that capital is still hard to come by for a number of businesses. Islamic investors in the Middle East remain cash rich but lack asset classes in which to invest. Whilst the Islamic finance market in South East Asia has traditionally been domestic, Middle Eastern investors tend to be more outward looking, which drives overseas investment. However, those investors that need to invest in line with Shari'a principles have often found a lack of assets in which to place their funds, resulting in a stockpiling of cash resources.

Traditionally, Shari'a-compliant instruments have been viewed with a great deal of caution by conventional investors. Much of this was down to a simple lack of understanding of what were perceived to be mysterious structures with complicated names. However, as an increasing number of Sukuk have run through the maturity cycle, it has provided an illustration of how Islamic instruments bear many of the characteristics of conventional finance products.

Finally, Islamic finance has become increasingly popular as the cost of structuring and documenting Shari'a-compliant business has decreased. Much of this comes down to Islamic finance professionals having gained an increased understanding of the requirements of scholars, which has led to a corresponding decrease in costs. This increased understanding has also complemented the general de-mystifying of the industry.

Increasingly Islamic instruments are being employed in innovative ways even where the structures themselves are tried and tested. The SAR7.5bn Sadara Sukuk is a good example of this: the financing formed a part of a larger financing package which closed in two phases with the Sukuk forming phase one and a combined conventional and Islamic finance package forming phase two. The use of Sukuk was aimed at tapping into the vast liquidity that Saudi Arabia has but which its institutions have struggled to deploy in an environment where Shari'a-compliant assets are hard to come by.

The debunking of the Islamic finance mystique is well illustrated by the number of conventional institutions that invest in Sukuk. It is estimated that around 60% of Sukuk are subscribed for by conventional institutions who regard Sukuk no differently to other fixed income investments. As a result, Sukuk are as attractive to conventional investors as they are to Islamic ones. The problem has traditionally been the comparatively high costs associated with entering into Shari'a-compliant structures. However, as industry professionals gain an ever-increasing insight into the requirements of Shari'a the burden on scholars has reduced. This has allowed scholars to turn their attention to more innovative asset classes to underpin Sukuk and to look at new structures to address products such as hedging and risk management, feeder funds and structured investments.

Islamic finance continues to be an important part of the global financial industry and the increase in its popularity has tracked a general increase in the growth of ethical investment products. It is worth noting that a number of the asset classes in which Islamic investors are prohibited from investing (for example tobacco manufacture, the gambling industry and arms production) are the same as those which ethical investment funds avoid. There are obviously some Shari'a-specific prohibitions but the majority of those prohibitions are shared. If an investor is looking for an ethical alternative to conventional investments then Shari'a-compliant structures can provide a solution. An increase in the breadth of the Islamic finance offering will only help with this.

The question is often asked as to whether the global financial crisis could have been prevented by a purely Shari'a-compliant investment environment? It is, of course, impossible to say, but it should be remembered that the Islamic finance industry has not been free of problems. There have been a number of high-profile defaults on Islamic instruments and insolvency-type situations for Islamic companies. However, these scenarios may be expected during times of heightened economic stress and tight liquidity. What is important to note is that Islamic finance structures have performed no worse than their conventional counterparts.

What, then, of the challenges facing the Islamic finance industry going forward? The call for standardisation continues although at a more muted level. With the growing prevalence of Islamic finance structures, documentation and approach has undergone an organic standardisation to complement the more manufactured version evidenced by the ISDA/ IIFM Tahawwut Master Agreement (an agreement, published in 2010, designed to govern the legal and credit relationship between two parties embarking on a bilateral trading relationship involving Shari'a-compliant hedging transactions).

The main challenge for the industry will be to drive innovation through the development of a more diverse range of financial products. Islamic finance is still too reliant on Sukuk as its major asset class and there is a particular need for short-term investment instruments similar to the Central Bank of Bahrain Salam programme. Sukuk will always remain the key Islamic investment tool but more variety will be needed in order to maintain growth.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Acquisition International.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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