Restricting the number of boards religious scholars are involved in would curb growth in the $1 trillion Islamic finance market, says a Bahraini scholar who advises Citigroup Inc. and HSBC Holdings Plc.
The Accounting & Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions, a Manama-based agency, said in August it’s considering guidelines on scholars owning shares in the institutions they serve and the number of advisory boards they can join, to reduce the risk of conflicts of interest. The top 20 scholars serve on 621 boards globally, said Zawya and Funds@Work AG, a Dubai-based research company.
“Capping the number of boards will be devastating to the industry’s growth,” Sheikh Nizam Yaquby, who was born in 1959, said in an interview in Beirut on Nov. 4. “Sometimes people ask me, are you Superman? How can you sit on so many boards? I tell them it’s hard work.”
Yaquby and Syria’s Abdul Sattar Abu Ghuddah ranked first among the top 20 experts, each serving on 85 boards of Islamic financial institutions, according to Zawya’s report. Yaquby is listed as serving on more than 50 boards, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The Islamic finance industry, with assets the Kuala Lumpur- based Islamic Financial Services Board will almost triple to $2.8 trillion by 2015, is struggling to develop global standards and a centralized regulator for scholars. Banks and companies can’t find enough experts to meet demand for new Shariah- compliant products, creating a “bottleneck,” said Khalid Howladar, Dubai-based senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service, in an e-mailed response yesterday.
“One scholar advising so many companies doesn’t help make an Islamic product universal,” Kaleem Iqbal, a senior executive vice president at the Pakistani unit of Bahrain-based Albaraka Banking Group said in a telephone interview yesterday from Islamabad. “Unless we adopt a more standardized model, the industry will remain fragmented.”
Islamic institutions typically have their own panels of scholars who pass rulings, or fatwas, to determine that products comply with Shariah principles. Shariah scholars need to be experts on the Koran, commercial law and finance. Yaquby has a degree in economics and comparative religion from McGill University in Montreal.
Mohamad Nedal Alchaar, secretary-general of AAOIFI, said in August that a shortage of experts means they tend to sit on several advisory boards simultaneously. The Bahrain-based agency also plans to address concerns that these scholars’ private companies receive preferential treatment from banks they advise.
‘Conflict of Interest’
“There’s a potential case for conflict of interest, and a case of information leakage or perhaps competition impact,” Alchaar said. “We wanted to address the concerns in an unbiased manner.”
AAOIFI, which has more than 200 members, sets accounting and auditing standards that are used in Bahrain, the Dubai International Financial Centre, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar, according to its website. The agency said its guidelines have also been used to help frame policy in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
“What’s key is to create a robust framework in which the industry can thrive and grow,” said Yavar Moini, senior adviser of global capital markets at Morgan Stanley, in an interview in Dubai yesterday. “Clearly scholars’ expertise and representation on Shariah boards are an integral part of such a framework. Placing limitations in this regard will hinder the industry’s growth potential.”
Declining Bond Sales
Global sales of Islamic bonds fell 29 percent to $13.7 billion this year from the same period in 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Islamic law restricts investors to transactions based on the exchange of assets rather than money alone because interest payments are banned.
Sukuk returned 11.7 percent this year, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index, compared with a 14.5 percent gain in developing markets, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global Diversified Index shows.
Pakistan’s central bank requires Islamic banks to appoint one scholar as a “Shariah adviser,” who is barred from serving at other financial institutions in the country, Karachi-based Saleem Ullah, director of the Islamic banking department at the State Bank of Pakistan, said in an e-mailed response yesterday.
“The restriction is aimed at addressing the issue of conflict of interest and giving comfort to the banks regarding confidentiality of their business policies and product structures,” he said. The scholar can advise Islamic banks outside the country.
Some Islamic banks also have Shariah boards and committees which have between three and seven scholars, Saleem Ullah said. There are no restrictions on how many boards scholars can serve on, he said.
“If a country wants to put a limitation, it is up to them,” said Yaquby. “Countries have to question if there are enough scholars to put such limitations.”
Chicago-based Failaka Advisors LLC, an advisory company which monitors and publishes data on Islamic funds, lists 253 practicing scholars worldwide in its 2008 report. There are now an estimated 600 scholars, said Yaquby. Among the top 10 are Mohammad Daud Bakar of Malaysia and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Elgari, according to the report by Zawya and Funds@Work.
The difference between the average yield for emerging market sukuk and the London interbank offered rate was little changed at 341 basis points yesterday, having narrowed 32 basis points since Sept. 30, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.
The yield on Malaysia’s 3.928 percent Islamic note due in June 2015 rose two basis points to 2.71 percent today, according to prices provided by Royal Bank of Scotland Group. The extra yield investors demand to hold Dubai’s government sukuk rather than Malaysia’s narrowed 9 basis points to 384.8, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Islamic financial institutions “want scholars who understand finance and banking, and can speak languages,” Yaquby said. “This is not a popularity contest. This is a multi-disciplinary specialization, which is rare to find.”