SEDCO’s Shariah funds offer responsible investing

Financial Times: SEDCO’s Shariah funds offer responsible investing


Despite myriad column inches, and the urgings of governments from east to west, the Islamic fund industry remains something of a pygmy.

The markets for Islamic banking, insurance and sukuk bonds have all seen solid growth in recent years, but the sharia-compliant fund industry remains tiny, with Ernst & Young estimating it at $58bn, as of 2010, a fraction of the $300bn sukuk sector.

The sharia fund market, which is heavily skewed towards equities, was not helped by its emergence coinciding with the global financial crisis, damaging confidence at an inopportune time.

However, to Hasan Al Jabri, chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s Sedco Capital, the resultant “chronic” lack of high-quality sharia-compliant products represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“Islamic investors have traditionally found it difficult to access the same investment opportunities as non-Islamic investors. The growth of sharia-compliant investment has been stunted by a reputation for a lack of diversity, poor performance and high fees,” says Mr Al Jabri, who also cites the lack of “credibility” of houses that sell both sharia and non-sharia products and a view in some quarters that sharia funds are a relatively unimportant niche.

“For some of the western banks it’s not really meaningful, it’s not worth the attention. When we grow to $5bn, it’s very meaningful for us,” he says.

Since May 2012, Sedco Capital has “addressed these challenges head on”, building what is believed to be the largest sharia-compliant fund platform in Luxembourg. Its five vehicles, covering passive US equities, fundamental US equities, global dividend stocks, emerging market equities and global real estate investment trusts, hold $900m of assets.

Although this number is small in the great scheme of things, Mr Al Jabri points out that Sedco’s sharia-compliant US Equities Passive fund, with assets of $360m, dwarfs the $20m held by the iShares MSCI USA Islamic exchange traded fund, and has lower fees, 40 basis points against 50bp.

“I’m not aware of any single entity that has the range of sharia products we do. Certainly in Luxembourg we are the largest platform and the most diverse,” says Mr Al Jabri.

Jeddah-based Sedco is currently launching two more vehicles with one, the Global Market Sentiment fund, designed to switch between equities and Islamic time deposits, or murabaha, as the manager sees fit.

“We are very excited about it,” says Mr Al Jabri. “It’s a tactical fund. The economic cycles have become shorter, the markets move very fast. We see a bull market then a bear market then a bull market, it’s happening every two to three months.

“Therefore we need a tactical component because we cannot short equities in sharia-compliant funds. It will look at the fundamentals of the market. Where the market is unduly pessimistic, we go into the market. When it’s too optimistic, we put it in murabaha. We are telling the manager, when it doesn’t make sense, have the courage to pull the money out.”

The Market Sentiment fund is being launched alongside a fixed income equivalent, and each vehicle has been seeded with $150m from Sedco’s wealth management clients.

The plan is to launch around eight to 10 funds during 2013, raising assets on the Luxembourg platform to $1.6bn. Asia-Pacific and emerging market equity funds are on the drawing board, alongside a US real estate fund and private equity funds covering the US and Brazil.

All the funds are outsourced to external managers with, for instance, State Street Global Advisors managing the US Equities Passive fund and Credit Suisse contracted to run the two latest offerings.

Sedco has a series of Saudi feeder funds to channel money from its home market into the Luxembourg platform, but Mr Al Jabri says the bulk of the money is coming from elsewhere, a trend he expects to become more pronounced, even though Sedco is targeting only “sophisticated” investors.

“Several private banks have approached us. They want to do their due diligence and then they will start very actively marketing it to their own private clients,” says Mr Al Jabri, who says Sedco has also had “preliminary discussions” with non-Muslim investors.

Indeed, Mr Al Jabri believes sharia investment could find favour with a growing number of western investors.

“We don’t do alcohol, arms, the financial industry [because of leverage], pork,” he says. “We feel strongly about responsible investing. I deserve to make money only when I’m creating value for the economy, I’m helping to create the jobs. This is a very important factor for us and is something that the world really needs.”

This approach is perhaps more noticeable in Sedco’s private equity operations, where it already has some non-Muslim investors.

The company started investing in both property and private equity in the 1970s, when it was formed as the family office of Sheikh Salem Bin Mahfouz, the founder of Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank.

However, restrictions on interest payments and debt mandated by a sharia-compliant approach means Sedco cannot participate in leveraged or management buyouts, although it is happy to invest in indebted companies as long as their debt is no more than a third of their market capitalisation.

This approach forces Sedco to concentrate on targeting growth companies via venture capital, something a number of established private equity groups are happy to accommodate by setting up parallel sharia-compliant funds alongside their mainstream offerings.

“The portfolio will be 20-30 per cent different [from the mainstream fund],” says Mr Al Jabri, who says this approach has benefited investors in both private and public equity markets.

“We were out of financial institutions and insurance companies because their leverage was too high. That has helped our performance in the past few years, although it can work against us. In 2012 we missed out on opportunities.

“Excessive leverage can drive companies into difficulties. I think that’s the main difference; when markets go down they are the most drastically affected.”


Ethica Launches 700 Page Islamic Finance E-Book for Professionals

Ethica Launches 700 Page Islamic Finance E-Book for Professionals

 Download your copy of Ethica’s 700 Page “Handbook of Islamic Finance (2013)”

The Islamic finance industry’s leading certification institute, Ethica, today launched what may soon become the desktop reference of choice for the Islamic finance professional: a 700 page e-book packed with practical, usable information. Everything from sample Islamic finance contracts, over 1,000+ scholar-approved Q&As, the entire “Meezan Bank Guide to Islamic Banking,” study notes to Ethica’s award-winning Certified Islamic Finance Executive (CIFE) program, and much more. All organized with an easy-to-use subject index at the end.

Ethica is the first globally-recognized certification institute in Islamic finance to launch a comprehensive online guidebook for the industry. Ethica’s spokesperson said, “We wanted to create a handbook that empowers professionals with a usable, practical reference that goes beyond standard academic theory.”

What makes the e-book unique is that it emphasizes entrepreneurship. Sample contracts, product descriptions, and recommended reading lists target the newcomer who may not necessarily be interested in lining up for a job at a big bank. His horizons may extend to the entrepreneurial side of Islamic finance, which continues to be top-heavy with large banks dominating the headlines and smaller companies and start-ups largely absent from the industry.

Ethica’s “Handbook of Islamic Finance (2013)” is now available free of charge.

Download your copy here.

About Ethica Institute of Islamic Finance (

Winner of “Best Islamic Finance Qualification” at the Global Islamic Finance Awards, Ethica is chosen by more professionals for Islamic finance certification than any other organization in the world. With over 20,000 paying professionals in 47 countries, the Dubai-based institute serves banks, universities, and professionals across over 100 organizations with its 4-month Certified Islamic Finance Executive (CIFE) program delivered 100% online. The CIFE is the only globally recognized certificate accredited by scholars to fully comply with AAOIFI, the world’s leading Islamic finance standard. To watch an Ethica training video click here.

57,000 new Islamic finance jobs? How not to get one

57,000 new Islamic finance jobs? How not to get one
by Paul Clarke


Islamic finance is supposedly synonymous with growth. As Islamic assets hit $1.3trillion and sukuk issuance reaches a new high, a skills shortage looms. Why, then, can’t those undertaking industry qualifications find work?

In Malaysia, the world’s largest Islamic finance centre, the industry is reportedly facing a massive shortfall of qualified professionals. Around 40,000 people will be needed to fill the roles by 2020 in Malaysia, according to its central bank, and another 17,000 in Indonesia in the next three to five years. The Kuala Lumpur-based International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance says it will launch new programmes to meet the demand.

But it’s not as though there’s a shortage of educational options currently. There’s the Islamic Finance Qualification (IFQ), various certificates from the Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance, the CIMA advanced diploma in Islamic finance and whole host of degree courses like the MSc Investment Banking and Islamic Finance offered by the Henley Business School. However, these are not a golden ticket into a new job.

“Islamic institutions haven’t been immune to the financial crisis and, while they may not be downsizing, many are making do with what employees they have,” says Saftar Sarwar, a board member of the Islamic Finance Council. “The main problem with these qualifications is that they teach students the principles of Islamic finance and Shariah compliance, but they lack capital markets and asset management knowledge or experience and this, more than anything, is what employers want.”

Big market, small teams

So far in 2012, Islamic bond issuance globally has already reached record new highs of $38.4bn, according to figures from Dealogic. Syndicated loans have also held up well this year, with deal value coming in at $18.7bn, compared to $7.2bn for the whole of 2011. The Middle East makes up the majority of Islamic bond issuance – $19.7bn so far in 2012, compared to $16.5bn in Malaysia.

Globally, the biggest bookrunner is HSBC, with 25.7% of the market, followed by Maybank Investment Bank, whose dominance in its native Malaysia helps it up the league tables, then CIMB Group, Standard Chartered and Deutsche Bank.

Investment banks’ Islamic finance teams in the Middle East remain relatively small, however.

Mark Swan, director of Dubai-based headhunters Principal Search says: “Most international banks have a senior structurer dealing with Islamic finance transactions, who’s expected to be an asset management, capital markets and Shariah-compliance expert. They usually have a VP and a junior banker – maybe two – supporting them, but deal origination comes from the conventional investment banking team. Few firms are increasing their Islamic finance arms in the region.”

In Malaysia, job opportunities appear more prolific. Simon Gregory, general manager, Malaysia, executive recruitment at recruiters Talent2, says demand “continues to increase” with investment banking providing the driving force.

“While many companies are asking their front-line staff to sell both Islamic and conventional products, most have Islamic-product specialists who are able to give technical information and ensure the product is sold in correct way,” he says.

The wrong tools for the job

Part of the problem with the current Islamic finance qualifications is that graduates come equipped with theoretical knowledge, but nothing in the way of work experience or practical application that would appeal to an employer, suggest experts.

Mohammed Khnifer, a sukuk structurer working for the Islamic Financial Product Development Center in Saudi Arabia (and a man with Islamic Masters and MBAs under his belt), says there’s a “thin line” between good and bad Islamic finance education. Globally recognised universities, who provide both theoretical and practical training – the Henley course requires students to spend time in an Islamic bank in Malaysia, for example – are much more likely to result in employment after graduation, he argues.

“It’s easy to get carried away by catchy headlines that blame the unemployability of Islamic finance fresh graduates on all education providers,” he says. “It’s important to recognize the gulf between the good and bad courses.”

Even graduates of these Masters courses are struggling to find employment, however. Martyn Drage, manager of the careers service at the ICMA Centre in Henley Business School, says that graduates of the MSc Investment Banking and Islamic Finance are not finding success within Islamic institutions.

“At an entry level, Islamic institutions don’t take on many graduates,” he says. “Our advice to graduates currently is to try and secure a job at a conventional investment bank and, if they really feel passionately about Islamic finance, try to orchestrate a move into their Islamic arms once they’ve got some experience under their belt.”

Recruiters tell us that international banks tend to put their conventional products in an “Islamic wrapper”, so investing in a graduate with a specialist Islamic finance degree is unnecessary. Instead, they prefer conventional qualifications, such as the CFA, or turn to existing employees they can spend a short time training in Shariah principles.

It also doesn’t help that the Malaysia, the world’s biggest Islamic finance centre, is largely closed to recruiting foreign graduates.

“It is the nature of the Malaysian financial services industry that usually only Malaysian candidates will be considered unless at a very senior level,” says Gregory.

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank issues world-first Basel III compliant Sukuk

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank issues world-first Basel III compliant Sukuk


Investor appetite for bank capital issuance from emerging market lenders shows no signs of abating, with Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank printing a blowout deal last week that was the first Basel III-compliant sukuk issue.

The innovative Hybrid Tier 1 non-call six perpetual note offering raised US$1bn at 6.375% on the back of an incredible US$15bn book from 330 orders as private bank accounts, predominantly in Asia as well as in other regions, European fund managers, and even the odd sukuk investor scrambled to get their hands on the paper.

“There was a huge response to the roadshow, which underpins the groundbreaking nature of the transaction,” said James Nelson, director, bond syndicate at Standard Chartered, which co-led the deal with HSBC, Morgan Stanley and NBAD.

Rival bankers were critical of the execution process that saw pricing ratchet down by 62.5bp from initial guidance of the 7% area. “Investors are not happy when the pricing is dragged so tight and the books get so big in the process,” said one official.

While acknowledging that the tightening was aggressive, bankers close to the deal argued that it was in line with the performance of other recent bank capital transactions.

Gazprombank’s US$1bn perpetual non-call 5.5-year note issue started in the mid to high 8% range and was priced at 7.875%, for example, while a US$575m perpetual non-call six issue for Friends Life began in the mid-8% range before also pricing at 7.875%.

“It was key to engage every investor in this price discovery process and test yield sensitivities, given the innovative nature of this trade,” said Souhail Mahjour, an official on the EMEA debt syndicate desk at HSBC.

Part of the challenge for the leads was the wide range of investor views during the roadshow, with one account arguing that the notes should come at low to mid-5% at one extreme, while others sought 8% at the wide end. “You could drive a bus through investors’ views,” said one banker.

One way to calculate fair value is to take ADIB’s outstanding senior 2016 notes, which were trading at a bid yield of 2.80% earlier last week, and work backwards.

Assuming that a new 10-year non-call five Tier 2 issue from the lender would come 80bp back of that for the subordination and then a another 30bp or so for the curve extension, fair value for that bond offering would be in the high 3% area. Adding a further 150bp–220bp for the difference between Tier 2 and old-style Tier 1 for some emerging market banks takes fair value from high 5% to low 6%.

Private anchors

As expected, private banks anchored the trade, taking 60% of the allocation, followed by fund managers at 26% and banks at 11%. By geography, Asia was the biggest recipient with 38%, followed by the Middle East at 32%, Europe at 26% and US offshore at 4%.

The sukuk investor base was a marginal participant in the trade.

“The local investor base – dominated by banks – wasn’t expected to play as big a role as they usually do for a sukuk issue as they have limited scope to buy other banks’ capital instruments,” said Mahjour. “Only the most overcapitalised banks had the power to buy pieces of this trade.”

Key features of the structure include an issuer call option in year six and on every periodic payment date thereafter, coupon resets (without step-ups) every six years and non-cumulative coupon suspension (optional and mandatory), subject to a dividend stopper.

One banker added that the Tier 1 structure was perfectly attuned with Sharia principles, given that the flexibility to cancel coupons and the perpetual maturity provided equity-like features to the instrument. The deal is unrated. ADIB’s senior ratings are A2/A+; Moody’s/Fitch.

Depositor-controlled Shariah board mechanism suggested

Depositor-controlled Shariah board mechanism suggested


A group of Islamic scholars have proposed that banks’ sharia boards create partnerships between the boards and Muslim depositors, to insulate the boards from pressure exerted by bank managements and counter allegations of conflicts of interest.

Sharia boards, composed of experts in Islamic financial law, supervise Islamic banks’ activities and products to make sure they conform to religious principles, such as bans on interest and pure monetary speculation.

Banks commonly appoint prestigious scholars to their sharia boards and pay them handsome fees and retainers. This has left the system vulnerable to charges of conflict of interest: the scholars are being paid by the institutions which they are supposed to be supervising impartially.

A group of scholars in South Africa, led by Durban-based Ebrahim Desai, a senior figure in the city’s Muslim community, proposed that Muslim depositors in each bank fund a sharia compliance body that would be created separately from the bank.

The body would then hire a Sharia board to supervise the bank. In this way, the scholars on the board would not be appointed by or report to the bank’s management, and would not have a direct financial relationship with the bank.

“We seek a neutral and balanced position,” Desai said by telephone, adding that freed of subjection to bank managements, sharia boards would be able to play more strategic and powerful roles in governance.

“This would be in line with the larger interest of the Muslim community in upholding sharia law by maintaining the ultra-independence of the sharia supervisory board.”

Emraan Vawda, a colleague of Desai, argued that by their nature, banks were ill-suited to policing their own Islamic activities. “Commercial concerns in the overwhelming majority of Islamic banks far outweigh genuine commitment to Islamic values and precepts,” he said.

The proposal is likely to meet with considerable scepticism in the Islamic finance industry. Desai said many institutions had approached him to discuss his proposal but he declined to name them, saying the talks needed to be kept confidential.

One potential issue is whether depositors would be willing to fund the sharia compliance bodies; to compensate for this expense, they might demand higher returns on their money placed with the bank, which the bank might not be willing to provide.

Banks themselves might be reluctant to give authority over their activities to a separate body, while highly paid Islamic scholars might prefer to continue working for bank managements rather than being subject to groups of depositors who could prove more awkward and demanding.

One sharia board member in Dubai, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the scholars in the South African group were not experienced in the financial world and were instead mostly community-based.

Such scholars can command great influence within their communities and give products informal endorsements to win mass appeal, but they cannot necessarily rule on the finer points of financial contracts, he said.

Desai and Vawda said they had served eight years on the sharia board of South Africa’s First National Bank (FNB), the retail arm of South Africa’s second-biggest bank FirstRand, where they provided their services at no cost to FNB.

By avoiding financial remuneration, the scholars hoped their decisions would be free of influence, and they rejected several offers to be on FNB’s payroll, Desai said. “We were not dictated by money but dictated by principle.”

However, working for free is unlikely to become a new model for the mass of Islamic scholars, given the lucrative fees available in the industry.

Desai, Vawda and the rest of FNB’s sharia board resigned in July, complaining that the bank had failed to consult with the board on several occasions, and hired a new head of its Islamic finance business without input from the board.

FNB said it aimed to appoint a new sharia board by the end of this year and would draft clear rules and roles for the board, which would not include approving appointments of senior personnel. It said the previous head of its Islamic finance business resigned after the bank conducted an investigation into “internal processes and practices of the businesses aligned to internal governance practice”.