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Thursday, 31 October 2013

London: Islamic finance for beginners

London is hosting a meeting of the World Islamic Economic Forum - the first city in a non-Muslim country to do so. David Cameron will use the opportunity to boast British credentials when it comes to Islamic finance, announcing plans to create a £200m Islamic bond by early next year.
Finance is described as Islamic when it complies with sharia, a set of moral laws laid out in the Qur'an and writings about the prophet. Sharia forbids making money from money which begs the immediate question; how can banks that don't charge interest survive? It's a question worth answering, not least because academics have argued that the financial crisis wouldn't have happened if the global economy was regulated by Islamic finance.
How It Works
Islamic finance is all about sharing risk between financial institutions and the individuals that use them. To do that, the two parties are tied into a longer-term relationship with each other that is supposed to shift incentives and avoid cut and run financial deals.
So, for example, sharia-compliant mortgages mean that the bank and the borrower share the risks of repayment rather than charging any form of interest. Similarly, Islamic bonds like the one announced by David Cameron today involve both parties owning the debt, rather than a simple promise to repay a loan.
Since it's Islamic, that also means that financial trading is off-limits for things that are forbidden even if no interest is charged - so investments can't be made in alcohol, tobacco, non-halal meat products such as pork, pornography or gambling companies. So if there's no interest and gambling on high-risk ventures is a no-no, how can Islamic banks be profitable? Hilary Osborne explains:
banks can profit from helping customers to purchase a property using a ijara or murabaha scheme. With an ijara scheme the bank makes money by charging the customer rent; with a murabaha scheme, a price is agreed at the outset which is more than the market value. This profit is deemed to be a reward for the risk that is assumed by the bank
You don't have to be Muslim to use Islamic financial services - a fact which has stimulated further interest in the sector. The Islamic Bank of Britain reported a 55% increase in applications for its savings accounts by non-Muslims last year after the Barclays rate-fixing scandal.
(The Guardian / 29 Oct 2013)

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