There is no doubt that traditional banking and finance have had a pretty tough time through the global financial crisis, at least where the escalation of indebtedness of both households and government drove spending excesses of such a scale as to create systemic and even sovereign credit risk.
By comparison, the progression of Islamic finance is perceived as a contrasting force to conventional banking practice, one whose precepts might be protective against that kind of deeply destructive episode.
The ideals of risk-sharing, a dedicated linkage to real assets, and ethically-responsible investment, wealth creation and distribution are intended to offer a safer and equitable approach compared to what transpired in the US and Europe.
As Faisal Aqil, Deputy CEO, Consumer Wealth Management, Emirates Islamic Bank and Dubai Bank puts it, “fundamental values such as accountability, transparency, cooperation and solidarity [are] crucial, designed to procure stability and security for all those involved”.
So what of the past five years? How has Islamic finance been affected, given its prominence particularly among regions in financial surplus and intermediate economic development?
Aqil is clear about that. Partnerships between banks and their customers that include the essential concept of profit/loss sharing have been “one of the main factors that helped Islamic banks withstand the widespread effects” of the crisis, he says, so that Islamic finance is perceived increasingly as a “credible substitute” for conventional banking business.
Dr Massoud Janekeh, Head of Islamic Capital Markets at Bank of London and the Middle East, and a regular participant in industry gatherings, gave me a further account this week.
The crisis brought a spotlight onto Islamic Finance (IF), and showed how it works as an alternative, he told me. “When conventional finance shot itself in the foot, it put sharia into sharp relief.”
It also accelerated its development - especially in countries like Malaysia and Turkey, where there was already a strong platform - although the coincidence of higher oil prices created liquidity to fuel this process, notably in the Gulf, which was putting the relevant infrastructure in place such as at DIFC, with capital market laws serving to benefit.
As to how IF banks have fared overall, perhaps it’s better not wholly to generalise. Janekeh notes that they “are not a homogeneous group”, and those in Europe are different to those in the Middle East, for instance.
In the Gulf, while the tenets of Islamic finance helped spare its institutions from certain exposures, they were still, like others, especially vulnerable to real estate.
When many conventional banks stopped lending, Islamic banks stepped in. That was a failure of risk management, Janekeh concurs, and there is “something in the idea” that they suffered for being restricted to asset-backed business and so became unduly concentrated.
There are both cyclical and structural distinctions, he suggests. Many Islamic banks were set up in the past decade, and were victims of timing. Yet, holding greater cash reserves is prudent and will bode well, and the potential for liability gathering in terms of deposits is another clear advantage.
On the capital markets side, borrowers had turned to IF in 2007/08 as conventional financing deals expired and that market dried up. Those had typically been on ‘five-year tickets’ to 2012-14, and Janekeh referred to a certain nervousness about repayment in the subsequent conditions, with the events of the Arab Spring and evidence of capital flight.
“Markets expected a wall of maturities in 2012,” he said, but the refinancing that has actually occurred is “a huge endorsement” of confidence in the sector and region.
Indeed “the current level of sukuk issuance is not meeting investor demand, most being significantly oversubscribed (the State of Qatar issue by 20 times). In the first half of 2012 there has been over $7.7bn in issuance, and we expect to see an equally buoyant second half.”
Ultimately, Janekeh draws a parallel between the lessons of the crisis generally and the specific characteristics that Islamic finance brings. Though it is still a niche sector, IF “will contribute with its simplified structures and ethical dimension” to the aftermath, he argues. “If you look at the global initiatives, you will see many of these features.”