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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.