Islamic Finance: How Does It Make Money Without Interest?

With the move by Financial institutions towards Fintech and the use of blockchain to drive efficiency and cost reductions, there is no part of the financial system that has not or will not be impacted by the changes technology are bringing. Islamic Finance is no different, in fact this sector might be the biggest beneficiary of the technology, given the strict compliance Islamic products need to adhere to. With FINTERRA launching its WAQF Chain in mid — FEB 2019, I have been spending time looking at Islamic Finance and the benefits it has over conventional finance.

The attributes associated with it as a form of financing are certainly appealing. So, I was led to write this article as a brief overview of the Financial instrument allowed in Islam, to inform mostly those that would like to explore more ethical and socially sustainable forms of banking and investment. During my reading on the subject an article posted on Global Finance certainly provided a mine of information.

The article points out that products offered by Islamic financial institutions are comparable to Western or conventional finance even though interest and speculation are forbidden. Banks are by far the biggest players in Islamic finance — some of them are exclusively Islamic while others offer sharia-compliant products but remain mostly conventional. Apart from the absence of interest rates, the key concept behind Islamic finance is risk sharing between parties in all operations.

Below are some of the key sharia-compliant products offered by banks — although they have Arabic names, in most cases you will find the equivalent in conventional Western banking.

Murabaha — cost plus selling: This is the most common product in asset portfolios and applies only to commodity purchases. Instead of taking out an interest loan to buy something, the customer asks the bank to purchase an item and sell to him or her at a higher price on instalment. The bank’s profit is determined upfront and the selling price cannot be increased once the contract is signed. In cases of late or default payments, different options are available including a third-party guarantee, collateral guarantees on the client’s belongings or a penalty fee to be paid to an Islamic charity since it can’t enter the bank’s revenues can/will be considered.

Ijara — leasing: Instead of issuing a loan for a customer to buy a product like a car for instance, the bank buys the product and then leases it to the customer. The customer acquires the item at the end of the lease contract.

Mudarabah — profit share: this is an investment, where the bank provides 100% of the capital intended for the creation of a business. The bank owns the commercial entity and the customer provides management and labor. They then share the profits according to a pre-established ratio that is usually close to 50/50. If the business fails, the bank bears all the financial losses unless it is proven that it was the customer’s fault.

Musharakah — joint venture: An investment involving two or more partners in which each partner brings in capital and management in exchange for a proportional share of the profits.

Takaful — insurance: Sharia-compliant insurance companies offer products comparable to conventional insurance companies and functions like a mutual fund. Instead of paying premiums, participants pool money together and agree to redistribute it to members in need according to pre-established contracts. The common pool of money is run by a fund manager.

These funds can be run in different ways when it comes to the surplus distribution and the fund manager’s compensation.

There are three big models:

· The wakala — where the fund manager receives a fee and the surplus remains the property of the participants.

· The mudarabah — adapted from the banking system where profits and losses are shared between the fund manager and the participants.

· A hybrid model — A mix of mudarabah and walkala.

In some cases, the fund manager creates a waqf, or a charity fund.

Sukuk or bonds: Sharia-compliant bonds began to be issued in the 2000s and standardized by the AAOIF — a Bahrain-based institution that promotes sharia-compliant regulation since 2003. Today, about 20 countries use this instrument. Malaysia is the biggest issuer and issuers outside the Muslim world include the UK, Hong Kong, and Luxembourg.

Sukuk issuance took off in 2006 whit issuance hitting $20 billion and peaked in 2012 at $137 billion before the pace slowed down significantly in 2015. According to Moody’s ratings agency sukuk issuance reached $95 billion in 2017. That year, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) markets pushed the growth with Saudi Arabia’s first sovereign sukuks for a total amount of $17 billion as well as contributions from Oman and Bahrain.

“While sukuk issuance increased significantly in the first half of 2017 thanks to enormous deals by some GCC countries, we think they were the exception rather than a new norm” wrote credit ratings agency Standard & Poor (S&P) in its 2018 report on Islamic Finance.

In the first half of 2018, S&P reported total sukuk issuance amounted to $44.2 billion, a 15.3% drop from $52.2 billion during the same period in 2017. The decline was even steeper for foreign currency sukuk issuance which dropped 45%.

Like conventional bonds, sukuks are very appealing to governments for raising money to spend on development projects. Their main challenge remains standardisation; buyers tend to find it more difficult to assess risk than with regular bonds.

Regardless of the challenges faced, it looks as if people are getting behind this socially responsible form of finance and it doesn’t look like the desire or the need for Islamic Finance will wain anytime soon.