June 21, 2010 12:25 am

Investment strategy about more than faith

 

Despite, or maybe because of the world’s economic travails, Islamic finance has continued to stride ahead, as investors seek alternatives to products that have let them down in the recent past.

According to Maris Strategies, assets in Islamic finance rose to $822bn last year, an increase of 29 per cent compared with 2008.

Much of this can be attributed to a growing Muslim population wanting to invest according to the guiding principles of their faith.

But non-Muslims are also attracted to Islamic finance. Gulf African Bank, for example, reported last year that 20 per cent of its customer base was non-Muslim.

Jo Divanna, managing director of Maris Strategies and a leading commentator on the subject, partly attributes this to a conscious effort by companies to widen their appeal by changing terminology.

He says: “Islamic finance is undergoing a rebranding towards western markets by reducing the use of the term Islamic or sharia and focusing instead on the concepts of ethical and green.”

“This is not to say they are lowering their standards,” he adds, but “simply redefining their image”.

Another explanation for the surge of interest is dissatisfaction with conventional finance in the wake of the global financial crisis. So, might the inherently prudent principles of Islamic finance have prevented lending to people who were likely to default, for example?

According to sharia law, the selling of loans is not permitted, nor is interest-bearing debt more generally – all factors that contributed to the crisis.

However, Iqbal Asaria, who teaches an Islamic finance elective at Cass Business School in London, dismisses the argument that the financial crisis could somehow have been averted had Islamic principles been more prevalent.

“The [crisis] was caused by a number of factors, including minimal attention to prudential regulation. These lapses will affect any form of finance – Islamic or conventional.”

Mr Divanna agrees, stressing that Islamic finance is not a replacement for conventional finance, but rather an alternative: “There are still risks in lending and facilitating transactions. Islamic finance does not provide safeguards; it merely provides an alternative method of providing services under a unique set of disciplines.”

Whatever the reasons behind Islamic finance’s continuing growth, one thing is certain: the more sought-after these products become, the more need there is for competent individuals able to create and understand them.

One challenge for training providers is keeping up with demand. Existing courses, such as the elective in Islamic finance and insurance for master’s students at Cass, taught by Mr Asaria, are becoming ever more popular.

This is the third year Mr Asaria has been teaching the modules. “In the first year, we had 45 students,” he says. “Last year, we had more than 90. This year, we had more than 120 wanting to take the course, but had to limit the number to 92.”

Students come from 25 countries, including a substantial number from the EU – evidence again that the interest is not limited to either nationals of Muslim countries, or to those from the UK, the biggest centre for Islamic finance outside the Middle East and Malaysia.

New courses, and even institutions, are being launched all the time to meet demand.

The El Shaarani Centre for Islamic Finance and Business, at Aston Business School, Birmingham, is one such establishment. The centre, the first of its kind in Europe, opened in January and hopes to become a leading global resource for research in the subject.

With Birmingham being the home of the first standalone sharia-compliant retail bank to be authorised by the FSA, the Islamic Bank of Britain, as well as a city with a large Muslim population, it is well placed to do so.

From September, the centre will offer a specialised master’s course to 40 students, along with PhD places. And, as at Cass Business School, students will come from far and wide. Applicants so far hail from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Middle Eastern and North Africa countries, as well as the UK and Europe.

Dr Omneya Abdelsalam, senior lecturer at El Shaarani, says the masters and PhDs will “fill a gap in the market”.

“There is a shortage of trained people who have the knowledge and experience of both conventional and Islamic finance,” she says. “You find people usually have one or the other.”

With many global banks – including HSBC, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and Standard Chartered Bank – offering both Islamic and conventional products, those embarking on finance careers need to demonstrate a wide knowledge and experience base to potential employers.

So, as well as learning about the habitual accounting, business finance and corporate governance that dictate training worldwide, all students should know something about Islamic reporting, sukuk bonds and takaful (Islamic insurance) – and the principles behind them.

But the relatively recent emergence of Islamic finance, along with its ever-evolving nature, mean training is not yet consistent or standardised.

“Sharia principles are interpretive, so how products work in various parts of the world is different,” says Mr Divanna.

“There is a clear difference in attitudes between Muslims in the Gulf, Malaysia, Europe, North Africa and southern Asia,” he adds.

Dr Abdelsalam concedes that it would be impossible to teach all the various interpretations of sharia principles, even on a dedicated master’s course. She prefers to stick to the middle ground. “We try to teach the mainstream, moderate views, relevant to the contemporary world,” she says.

“There is a very important rule, that accountants follow, which is ‘conform to the substance over the legal form’.”

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