Growing state of Islamic finance

Over $100bn Sukuk, or Islamic bonds, are set to be issued this year

The Economist's Graphic Detail blog has a post up graphing the rise of sukuk, Islamic bonds, which are a subset of the $1.3trn market for Islamic finance.

They write:

According to the latest quarterly report from Zawya, a business information firm, global sukuk issuance in the first quarter of this year was $43.3 billion, almost half the total for the whole of 2011. The withdrawal of European banks lending to the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region is thought to have contributed to this rise. Total issuance could reach $126 billion this year, continuing the growth trend (aside from a brief decline in 2008 associated with the global economic slowdown).

Their post also addresses the global spread of such bonds, which are concentrated in Malaysia.

Sukuk (singular sakk, which has the same Persian root as the word "cheque") are financial instruments issued to be compatible with Islamic law, sharia.

The problem is that sharia prevents a lot of practices usually considered crucial for finance. Chiefly, there is the prohibition against riba, or interest. Similar to early Christianity, Islam regards interest as unearned and unjust income, creating money from money with no services provided. For instace, the Qu'ran states:

Allah has permitted trade and has forbidden interest.

And riba is held to be one of the seven greatest sins in Islam, along with murder and believing in Gods other than Allah.

Unfortunately, most of the financial world works on credit and debt, which is hard to give and receive without some compensation. This is where Islamic finance in general, and sukuk in particular, steps in.

Operating in a similar manner to Islamic mortgages, but on a much larger scale, a sakk replaces loans and interest with part-ownership and rent. For a business, for instance, the normal practice may be to borrow money needed to finance an expansion, then an annual coupon on that money at the market rate for a decade before paying back the capital in one lump sum.

The Islamic method would be to split its proposed expansion into chunks, sell each of those bits to new owners, and rent them back from the new owners until the time came to buy back the whole thing. The rental rate is usually conveniently close to the market interest rate – and occasionally explicitly pegged to a rate like LIBOR, although being this explicit is still frowned upon by many scholars.

A further complication is introduced by the fact that while assets are tradable, debts – which are not considered to hold any inherent value – aren't. So a bond issued in the above example would be tradable if it were used to finance an expansion, but not if it merely paid for day-to-day business. In the former case, it could be denominated in fractions of the new asset, but in the latter it would have to be debt.

As the market grows, the edge cases are pushing ever harder at the limits of what is acceptable under sharia. Some progressive scholars are using the concept of maslaha, which states that decisions about prohibition should take into account the public interest, to argue that activities which are necessary but tricky to condone should nonetheless be allowed.

When religious law meets the pressures of the modern day, strange contortions are often the result (look at things like the Los Angeles eruv), but if the sukuk market grows at the rate it has been, it won't remain a novelty for much longer.

Malaysia's Petronas Towers. The country is home to most sukuk trading. (Getty)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”