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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR