A conference on the future and expansion of takaful, called Takaful Rendezvous 2011, took place in Malaysia under the banner of Kuala Lumpur Islamic Finance Forum (KLIFF) from October 4 to 6. Although the industry has come far in a short period of time, more needs to be done.

Much like the $640-billion (Dh2.35 trillion) halal industry, takaful needs to rise and address some of the challenges on size, representative industry body, and perception.

The known challenges in the takaful are well documented: human capital development, regulations, distribution channels, Sharia structures, governance and transparency, investment options, retakaful, and so on. Thus, at one level, takaful is encountering similar issues to Islamic finance and banking but has matured less.

Three takeaways

Today, we have, at last count, more than 177 takaful operators, predominantly in the GCC region and Malaysia. Yet this represents only single digit percentage penetration in all Muslim countries except Malaysia. The existing scenario implies three possible takeaways:

1. Muslims (in OIC countries) have yet to buy in into the takaful story on a larger scale, because existing ways and means addresses their needs. Their children and community/mosque act as de-facto ‘takaful operators'. The attitude may be: what they have is Sharia compliant and it works for their particular needs in the jurisdictions they reside.

2. The education and awareness of what takaful is, how it is compliant, and how it benefits them is a time-drawn process. It requires patient commitment and ongoing resources from the operators. The initial ‘returns' can be classified as awareness and institutional brand building, i.e., the ‘good-will' foundation for financial returns.

3. Takaful, much like the halal industry, has not ‘linked' well with the Islamic finance story, although both are very much a part of the latter. When takaful premiums are less than $10 billion and most operators are small in size, it needs to be a holistic and integrated part of the anchor story of Islamic finance.

One simple acid test is news coverage: How many takaful stories appear in the western media compared to Islamic finance? How many meaningful stories on takaful in Muslim country media vis-à-vis Islamic finance and halal industry?

Mega operator

Today, the conversation in Islamic finance is about an Islamic mega bank to offset small paid-up capital with size, to have a larger balance sheet to better compete with Islamic subsidiaries and home-country conventional banks, and to have impact on investing and financing. However, today's takaful conversation is often times on micro-takaful, much like micro-finance, to serve the under-served.

Some Muslim countries are Islamically over-banked and over-takaful compared to population size, resulting in margin-reducing (destructive) competition. If an Islamic bank or takaful operator, compared to conventional counter-parts, declares bankruptcy, it may actually result in a confidence crisis and systemic risk for the embryonic Islamic finance industry. Thus, the unique situation of ‘too small to fail' risk exists in the Islamic finance.

For example, witness the selected western media ‘frenzy' when Kuwait's Investment Dar, defaulted on its sukuk obligation or the United States' East Cameron gas sukuk went into bankruptcy.

The conversation in the takaful industry must also include establishing a mega takaful operator, either via consolidation or licence, as the status quo may not be conducive to for industry's growth and development. To offset fears of uncompetitive behaviour of larger size Islamic banks and takaful operators, there are regulations plus option of reaching out to the Sharia board, via the Sharia liaison officer or department, of such institutions for ‘anti-competitive' behaviour.

Industry body

Who is the spokesperson for the takaful industry? We have exposure to issues in takaful by industry bodies such as Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), and Accounting & Auditing Organisation of Islamic Financial Insititutions (AAOIFI), but a dedicated industry body is the need of the hour. The push back in certain quarters has been that it is premature to have an industry body. The same response was also articulated pre-1991 when AAOIFI was established.

The first order of business is the location of the proposed takaful industry body: the UAE or Qatar over Bahrain and Malaysia. To date, we do not have an Islamic industry body in either the UAE or Qatar, hence, an opportunity for these countries to contribute as important stakeholders in Islamic finance. Information about Islamic finance should not just be available in Bahrain and Malaysia, the two leading hubs of Islamic industry.

Global ‘go-to' point

The second and more important function of a proposed takaful industry body is what should be the role and responsibilities? It will address the well known issues, but something more is required. We need a global ‘go-to' point and clearing base of information for takaful to avoid continued fragmentation and move towards standardisation.

Thus, takaful's time has come to move towards 2.0, with stronger links to Islamic finance, where less may be better and a dedicated industry body explaining the DNA of takaful.

The writer is Global Head, Islamic Finance & OIC Countries. Opinion expressed here is the writer's own and does not reflect that of his own organisation and that of Gulf News.