Category Archives: United States of America

Islamic finance in the US: Interview with Devon Bank executive

Islamic finance in the US: Interview with Devon Bank executive

Interview with David Loundy, vice-chairman and head of religion- based financing at Devon Bank. Devon is a Jewish community bank in Chicago, offering Islamic finance.

My comments: It is interesting to see David’s answer to the first question on how Devon, a Jewish community bank, got into Islamic finance: due to demand from the community. This shows that while a top-down demand approach is popular, grassroot-level demand that is effectively and appropriately communicated is often equally productive. Western Muslim communities should follow the example of the Chicago Muslim community and press their local banks to start offering Islamic financing options.

QUESTION: How did a Jewish-owned family bank, Devon, in Chicago, get involved in Islamic finance?

Answer: Although many of our shareholders are Jewish, we are a community bank. We were created by a community to serve the needs of that community. That community is in constant flux. Once, it was predominantly Jewish. It is a “new immigrant community”. People move in, get established, bring family from the old country, and then move on.

Our headquarters is supposedly in the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the Americas. Indian, Pakistani, African, Eastern European, some Arab. This includes a large Muslim population. They asked us for help. We helped. This is part of our mission-serve members of our community in the ways they need to be served.

Our Islamic finance programme derives from a customer who wanted to open a bookstore. They asked if we could help, but without riba. At the time, we said no, and the group found financing from the United Bank of Kuwait (UBK). When UBK was acquired, it sent away all of its US customers. The customer came back and asked for help again. At that point, the head of our International Department convinced management that there was an unmet need.

The bank started looking into options. As word got out, the demand exploded showing there really was a need, and we were in a good position to help. We had done non-interest-based financing before for the observant Jews, but the strong Muslim demand for such products surprised us.

Q: What have been the challenges internally, community and with the regulators?

A: Internally, our biggest challenge has been to line up needed liquidity. We turn away a million dollars of businesses a day. Some of this we are looking to manage with two prospective sukuk issuances. We would like to put in place a larger permanent solution, but it requires raising quite a bit of funding in a bad market. Our second internal challenge is resource allocation. All bank functions must run well, conventional and Islamic.

We are striving to triple our mortgage volume (conventional and Islamic) in the next 18 months, but that requires an investment in staff, technology, and processes to handle higher volume.

The community is not homogenous. 2010 was the bank’s 65th anniversary. We are generally known and respected in the community. People with prejudices do not respect that we are trying to serve the WHOLE community. I laugh at those that think that any entity providing Islamic finance has to, by definition, be donating to terrorist groups. A local synagogue soup kitchen or the Salvation Army are acceptable recipients for any donations.

The worst prejudice comes from competitors who publicly inquire as to how a non-Muslim institution can be an acceptable source of Islamic products. Answer: Because our products are better. Some in the community see our Islamic finance programme as a step towards peace and understanding. Our Muslim customers are just grateful that someone cares about their needs and is accommodating them.

Regulators are also not a homogeneous group. Banking regulators are largely supportive-they see us as “banking the unbanked” – a good thing. After 65 years in business, our regulators know us. They know we are experienced and careful, bankers. However, I often say that “Islamic finance is easy, dealing with the secretaries of state is the bane of my existence”. The amount of detail that goes into fitting the square peg of Islamic finance into the round hole of a conventional regulatory system, which can vary in each of several thousand counties, can be extreme.

Q:. The sub-prime induced credit crisis devastated the mortgage market, how were the Islamic mortgages impacted in Devon’s portfolio?

Devon Bank didn’t do sub-prime mortgages. Our Islamic portfolio has been performing VERY well compared to larger averages and even our conventional portfolio. In our 7.5 years of providing Islamic product, our write-offs have amounted to less than 90 basis points on originations-mostly due to a fraud and not credit loss. We have been careful in our underwriting, but if a customer losses a job, we both have a problem. An Islamic product has restrictions on what workout options are available, but we have been able to successfully arrange several restructurings.

The sub-prime mess disrupted entire markets. It negatively affected property valuations, and thus reserve requirements. It has scared investors, even in the face of great opportunities. A number of vendors are just plain gone. Things are starting to normalise a bit now, but the reverberations from the meltdown will take years to work out of the system.

Q. What is the profile of your typical Islamic mortgage customer, both residential and commercial?

It is fairly broad across the income spectrum. Usually first- or second-generation immigrants. Initially predominantly Indo-Pak, but now covering a much wider geographic origin. Because of our compliance level, we tend towards the more conservative end of the religious spectrum, but we get a broad range here too. We have forced industry pricing down so customers don’t feel punished for their religious observance. Our customers tend to have family networks helping with the purchase. Credit scores are a bit higher, but are often “shallow”.

Down payments are often either particularly high or low-depending on whether customers were saving to buy with cash or assuming they never would be able to buy at all.

On the commercial side, because we are a small bank, our size and location constraints produce some customer selection. They tend to be small business operators and investors; frequent masjid financing inquiries; an occasional inquiry from a Gulf investment bank.

Q: Has the time arrived for a licensed deposit-taking Islamic bank in the US? If not, what are the challenges?

We are between windows of opportunity. Devon Bank made two attempts to buy a bank to convert to Islamic. One was geographically located in a community where it would have also reached a sect of Christians that follow their religion’s prohibitions on interest as well as accommodating Jewish and Muslim prohibitions. US$6-US$9 million (US$1 = RM3.06) would have bought either institution. We could have cleansed the balance sheet and had the bank operating as a “proof of concept” pending further regulatory discussions. Our regulators were willing to see us try and make it happen in the beginning. We did not, however, have investor support.

A new charter is practically impossible to create, and largely un-economic to buy. When the right opportunity comes along, you have days in which to strike and consummate a deal. It takes a special investor who can work that fast on something novel. Now, the regulators are too busy with failing and flailing banks to put the resources into figuring out how to handle an Islamic bank. They know it WILL happen, but they don’t even know what questions to ask. It will happen, but it will be easier in a few years than it will be today.

The more interesting question is about customer demand. A subset of people will only deal with an “Islamic” bank, either out of prejudice or out of concerns over the “purity” of money coming from a conventional bank.

While we do not respect the first view, the second is one of religious conviction that we must acknowledge. There are solutions to this concern besides the creation of an Islamic bank. An end-to-end syariah-compliant bank would need to start small and demonstrate market demand. I believe there is sufficient demand for such an institution, but most plans are from people who don’t understand the US banking market and how it is regulated.

Q: What kind of interest and inquiries have you received from a Gulf or Malaysia-based institution in Devon Bank and its Islamic portfolio?

All of our businesses and funding so far have been from “onshore” sources. To date, we have not had good contacts in Malaysia. They just don’t know us-it has simply been a mismatch of networks. We have had more visits and potential businesses from Indonesians. We have had a number of contacts from Gulf entities, and I have taken several trips to the UAE, but they have been frustrating.

To some, we are a novelty (Oh look! An American doing Islamic finance! Isn’t that cute!). Others see our potential, but we have been the wrong thing at the wrong time. It is a frustration when you schedule a due diligence trip only to have the next eruption in the financial meltdown scare investors and kill discussions; or you read in the news about your potential partner defaulting on a few billion dollars worth of its debt during your discussions. Others are so fixated on winning the biggest prize that they don’t look at the merits of the race – for example, they are more interested in buying a trophy property rather than smaller more profitable ones.

The right people with the right vision WILL line up with the right time. We believe we have a compelling story and Grand Plans capable of execution – just bad timing. When those in the Gulf and in Malaysia are ready for us, we are ready for them. Our performance speaks louder than our “wasta”. In the mean time, we are not waiting – we have added capital to the bank and are adding more. We expect our business will continue growing.

Q: If you had to start all over for Islamic mortgages, what would you do differently?

I would have been more aggressive about developing infrastructure faster – vendors, staff, technology, business partners, etc. We started our programme slowly to make sure everything worked as it should and that our regulators didn’t see problems we were missing. However, it meant that resources weren’t lined up when needed.

The global credit crisis put an awful lot of plans on hold for a lot of people, and it prevented us from moving more quickly to the next stage. If we had shifted our entire timeline nine months earlier, we could have been functionally several years ahead of where we are now.

Q: What could the state of Islamic finance in the US be in 2020?

There will be an Islamic bank. A major US provider would have been long gone (five minor players pulled out of the market in the last two years). There will be a larger menu of investment options that many will not even know are syariah-compliant.

There will be “crossover” products that are syariah-based and valued for their performance characteristics, not because they fit a moral code, though they will not be widely used.

Many Islamic finance projects will continue to be done quietly in the background. The scope of product offerings will increase as providers stop trying to fit square pegs into round holes as much and develop legitimate de novo alternatives.

The Bigot Brigade will still be warning that Islamic finance is the road to Armageddon – without doing any more fact-checking than they have done today. The market will go from under-served to adequately served, though “adequately served” will not mean (fortunately) what people might have wanted it to mean three years ago.

Source: http://www.btimes.com.my/articles/jewbi/Article/

 

US legal win to boost Islamic finance: Case against insurer AIG’s Islamic investments dismissed

US legal win to boost Islamic finance: Case against insurer AIG’s Islamic investments dismissed

Lawyers said a U.S. court decision to dismiss a case alleging AIG’s <AIG.N> sharia-compliant businesses promoted religious doctrine, will boost confidence in the industry and lift sales of Islamic products in the longer term.

A Michigan district court rejected on Friday a claim filed by Marine veteran Kevin Murray in 2009 that the U.S. government violated the constitution by allowing funds from insurer American International Group’s $40 billion bailout to be used to fund its Islamic insurance businesses.

Lawyers say the case is significant for the industry in the United States, which has struggled with a backlash against Islam, and is looking for support from the courts and government to promote Islamic finance as a legitimate business.

“The decision … debunks the myth that Islamic finance is unacceptable and unlikely to withstand legal challenges to its validity in court,” said Megat Hizaini Hassan, head of Islamic finance at Malaysian law firm Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill.

“Once the financial services industry in the US realises that there should be no major legal issues, then hopefully this may help to make Islamic finance more acceptable in the mainstream.”

Islamic finance has been plagued by criticism in the U.S. that it is a means of funneling funds to terrorists or a plot by Muslims to spread a system of Islamic principles known as sharia has plagued the industry in the U.S.[ID: nLDE6971BO]

In his opinion, District Judge Lawrence Zatkoff, said the plaintiff did not prove that AIG’s sharia-compliant businesses engaged in religious indoctrination.

The distinction between sharia-compliant business as a financial model and overall Islamic law, is a positive step for Islamic finance growth in the U.S., lawyers said, but is just one battle won as the industry seeks to grow.

“The case helps the industry by putting the fringe element that is fearful of sharia in its place,” said Isam Salah, partner at King & Spalding in New York. “But I expect we’ll see more of these kinds of cases as we see a multi-pronged effort to combat all things Islamic in the U.S.”

An appeal of the ruling has already been filed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, said David Yerushalmi, Murray’s attorney and general counsel for the Center for Security Policy.

“Sharia compliant finance is a religious endeavour, there is no way you can separate it from political Islam,” Yerushalmi said. “Sharia can’t be cut up and diced, it’s an integral whole.”

Source: http://ph.news.yahoo.com/rtrs/20110118/tbs-lawsuit-islamic-7318940.html

Islamic U.S. Mutual Funds Flocking to Malaysia Seeking Returns

Islamic U.S. Mutual Funds Flocking to Malaysia Seeking Returns

petronas-towers

Malaysia is attracting Islamic investment funds from the U.S. seeking higher returns in Asia as growth in developed economies slows.

“Emerging markets is where we see global growth going for the next couple of decades and the source for a lot better opportunities,” Bryce Fegley, chief investment officer at Saturna Sdn., the Malaysian unit of Saturna Capital LLC, the biggest Shariah-compliant stock fund in the U.S., said in an interview on Aug. 10. Saturna’s expertise in Islamic finance “steered us to Kuala Lumpur as opposed to Singapore, Hong Kong or other emerging markets,” he said.

Saturna, the Bellingham, Washington-based company that oversees $2.7 billion of assets, set up Saturna Sdn. in March and obtained an Islamic finance management license in May, Fegley said. Franklin Templeton GSC Asset Management Sdn. got approval to offer services that comply with religious principles in January, according to the Malaysian Securities Commission’s website.

The 14 licenses issued by the Malaysian government allowing international companies to form Islamic fund-management businesses give tax exemptions until 2016. Foreign-ownership rules have also been eased in the global financial hub for services that meet Shariah guidelines.

Growth in developing economies in Asia will quicken to 9.2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said on July 7, three times faster than advanced countries. The U.S. economy may expand 3.3 percent after shrinking 2.4 in 2009, according to the Washington-based lender.

Nomura, Aberdeen

Islamic law bars funds from investing in industries such as gambling, alcohol and banking services that don’t adhere to the religion’s ban on interest. Companies with debt exceeding 33 percent of equity or accounts receivable of more than 45 percent of total assets are deemed as non-Shariah compliant, said Fegley.

The Dow Jones Islamic Market World Index of stocks, which has a market capitalization of $12 trillion, has climbed 10 percent in the past 12 months, while the Dow Jones Global Index gained 9.3 percent.

Asia’s accelerating growth is also encouraging HSBC Holdings Plc and Standard Chartered Plc to set up Islamic units in Malaysia, the world’s biggest market for sukuk and home to more than 16 million Muslims. Funds that have obtained Islamic asset-management licenses in Malaysia include Nomura Islamic Asset Management Sdn., OSK-UOB Islamic Fund Management, Reliance Asset Management (Malaysia) Sdn., and Aberdeen Asset Management Plc, according to data on the Securities Commission’s website.

‘Comparative Advantage’

Overseas investors can own as much as 70 percent of Islamic investment banks and sellers of takaful, or insurance that complies with religious tenets, up from 49 percent.

“Malaysia has a comparative advantage because the Islamic finance infrastructure was in place much earlier than other countries,” said Scott Lim, chief executive officer of Kuala Lumpur-based MIDF Amanah Asset Management Bhd., which oversees the equivalent of $670 million including Shariah-compliant equity and debt funds. “Malaysia has a big Muslim population looking for Islamic instruments compared to Hong Kong and Singapore, where there is no such demand,” he said in an interview from Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 13.

Malaysia’s $93 billion of Shariah assets account for 19.6 percent of the country’s total banking industry, according to Bank Negara Malaysia’s website. The nation has 279 billion ringgit ($87 billion) of outstanding Islamic debt, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Sukuk Issuance

Global sales of sukuk fell 28 percent to $7.9 billion so far this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Asian issuers sold $5.5 billion compared with $8.1 billion in the same period a year earlier.

The government began a 230 billion ringgit, five-year development plan on June 10, which may revive offerings, according to Malaysian rating company RAM Holdings Bhd.

The yield on Malaysia’s 3.928 percent note due June 2015 rose five basis points to 2.84 percent today and reached 2.79 percent on Aug. 13, the lowest level since the securities were sold in May, according to prices from Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.

The difference between the average yield for emerging- market sukuk and the London interbank offered rate narrowed three basis points on Aug. 13 to 398, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Sukuk Index. The spread has narrowed 69 basis points this year.

Shariah-compliant debt returned 9 percent this year, according to the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai US Dollar Index, while debt in developing markets gained 12 percent, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’sEMBI Global Diversified Index shows.

Diversification Process

Saturna Capital started the Amana Developing World Fund in the U.S. in September to invest in global emerging-market Islamic assets. The company bought Malaysia’s Alpha Asset Management in March and changed the name to Saturna Sdn.

Saturna Capital manages Islamic funds including the Amana Income Fund, Amana Growth Fund and the Amana Developing World Fund. Amana Income, which invests in dividend-paying corporations globally, gained 5.6 percent annually over the past decade, compared with the 0.8 percent drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index over the same period, according to the company’s website.

“We’re all seeing that in the developed world there are major structural issues, demographically, with politics and with macro-economic factors that are really causing those economies to stagnate,” Saturna’s Fegley said. “It’s partly a diversification of our business interest” launching into the Malaysian market, he said.

Source

Shariah scholars roundtable conference

Shariah scholars roundtable conference

From the UFANA Islamic Finance Conference on March 30-31, 2010. Sheikh Nizam Yaquby, Mufti Barakatulla and Dr. Aznan Hasan. Detailed discussion on Shariah standards and regulations, in particular the AAOIFI standards.

Dow Jones Indexes Named Most Outstanding Islamic Index Provider

Dow Jones Indexes Named Most Outstanding Islamic Index Provider

Dow_Jones

Dow Jones Indexes, a leading global index provider, today announced that it has been named "Most Outstanding Islamic Index Provider" by the Centre for Research and Training (CERT) in collaboration with Messrs. Hisham, Sobri & Kadir (HSK), the Association of Islamic Banking Institutions Malaysia (AIBIM), the Malaysian Takaful Association (MTA) and the International Institute of Islamic Finance (IIIF). The objective of the award is to honor and appreciate Dow Jones Indexes’ efforts and significant contribution in developing the Islamic Finance sector.

"Our Dow Jones Islamic Market index series has become the global standard for measuring Shari’ah-compliant equities. Market participants world-wide highly appreciate our leadership and commitment to providing objective, comprehensive and reliable Islamic indexes," said Michael A. Petronella, president, Dow Jones Indexes. "This award bears yet again testimony to Dow Jones Indexes’ cutting-edge indexing initiatives for the Islamic Finance market space."

The award was issued at the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Finance Forum (KLIFF), which is an annual event hosted by CERT in collaboration with HSK, AIBIM, MTA and the IIIF.

In the past seven years, the Dow Jones Islamic Market index series has won 21 industry awards by organizations, research institutions and magazines around the world; among them are the International Islamic Finance Forum, the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Finance Forum, the Islamic Center of Southern California, Global Finance magazine, Islamic Business & Finance magazine, Islamic Finance News and Incisive Media.

The Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes were introduced in 1999 as the first indexes intended to measure the global universe of investable equities that pass screens for Shari’ah compliance. With more than 100 indexes, the series is the most comprehensive family of Islamic market measures and includes regional, country, and industry indexes, all of which are subsets of the Dow Jones Islamic Market Index.

An independent Shari’ah Supervisory Board counsels Dow Jones Indexes on matters related to the compliance of index-eligible companies. To determine their eligibility for the Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes, stocks are screened based on their industry type and their financial ratios. Excluded are companies engaged in the following lines of business: alcohol, tobacco, pork-related products, financial services, defense/weapons and entertainment. Also excluded are companies for which the following financial ratios are 33% or more: debt divided by trailing 24-month average market capitalization; cash plus interest-bearing securities divided by trailing 24-month average market capitalization; and accounts receivables divided by trailing 24-month average market capitalization.

There are currently more than 150 licensees with more than US$7 billion in assets linked to the Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes.

Scholars and bankers invited at George Washington University to discuss nuances of Islamic finance

Scholars and bankers invited at George Washington University to discuss nuances of Islamic finance

The event featured five distinguished scholars and experts in the field of Islamic finance. They included Prof. Frank Vogel, senior fellow and head of Muslim World Law and Islamic Finance, Institution Quraysh for Law and Policy and Umar Moghul, Partner at Murtha Cullina LLP and co-chair of the firm’s Islamic Finance and Investments Group.

Yusuf Talal deLorenzo, chief Shariah officer at Shariah Capital, Aamir Rehman, managing director at Fajr Capital Limited and Ibrahim Warde, adjunct professor of International Business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, were the others.

The panelists addressed a several hundred attendees on the various aspects of contemporary Islamic finance such as its historical legacy, the compatibility of Shariah-compliant institutions with US law, derivative instruments and the development of sukuk in the Gulf, Shariah financial regulation and practice in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and Islamic finance in the light of the recent financial crisis.

It also addressed Shariah financial regulation, how the rise of Gulf capital is affecting financial markets and how it should be regulated, as well as the compatibility of Shariah institutions with US law and regulation and the objections of Shariah scholars challenging the permissibility of derivatives under Islamic Law.

The discussions were moderated by Jean-Francois Seznec, visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

Regarding the question of sukuk in the Gulf, DeLorenzo said ownership is an important issue for Shariah scholars to understand.

“Ownership is always a sticky subject and it is not always a failure of the Shariah advisers when ownership and sukuk is questioned,” he said.

DeLorenzo, wrote the introduction to Islamic bonds, a book that introduced sukuk to the world’s Islamic capital markets as well as a three volume Compendium of Legal Opinions on the operations of Islamic banks, the first English/Arabic reference on fatwas issued by Shariah boards.

One clear lesson, he said, “is the need for more and more diligence on the business side.”

Questioned on whether sukuk is a sound investment, he said there are serious Shariah issues that need to be addressed. “There are tensions between GCC investors and Malaysian investors who have different philosophies in the jurisprudence.”

He said that sukuk need to have a viable trading market.

“We need to confront these issues. The tensions need to be resolved before real trading can take place.

“Sukuk are hybrids, some look like equity, others like debt. They need to be traded and exchanged, and unless everyone understands the rules there will be a lot of confusion in the marketplace and people will leave. There is a need to deal with this sooner than later.”

DeLorenzo’s 30-year career as a scholar of Islamic Transactional Law was a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

“It’s a rules-based business; people need to understand that, whether they’re in Hong Kong or Chicago, and the way to do this is through an exchange of information,” he said.

“Many of the high profile sukuk defaults have taken place as the result of poor business decisions, not Shariah.”

He said the problem was that the “press picks up on a sukuk default and then blames it on Shariah. We need to explain it better.”

The expert said a new generation of sukuk coming to the market also needs to be closely examined.

“My feeling is that the issuers need to be more transparent to investors, and feel the same way about Shariah boards. We need to be careful about managing perceptions.”

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Report: North America next big growth market for Islamic Finance

Report: North America next big growth market for Islamic Finance

As world economies struggle to move from recession to recovery, Islamic finance is being hailed as a possible alternative to risk-prone conventional financial services – even in the capitalist heartlands of the USA and Canada. Extensive evidence of this shift in action is presented in a new report called Islamic Finance in North America 2009 published tomorrow by Yasaar Media and co-published by Codexa Capital, UM Financial Group, King & Spalding, and Doha Islamic.

The report explores for the first time the true depth of penetration of Islamic finance in both the USA and Canada and concludes that both core North American markets could be set for a boom.

According to the report Islamic finance in North America has developed along two quite separate paths. The first path focuses on retail Islamic finance and centres mostly on home financing products and credit cards. The second path involves a number of high profile GCC-based Islamic investment banks and their deployment of hundreds of millions of dollars in private equity and real estate developments in North America.

With many global markets showing the first signs of emerging from the worst of the financial crisis, North America could be set to witness a surge in Islamic finance activity along both paths as institutions and individuals look for alternative financing propositions that shun the use of excessive risk. The significant inroads that Islamic finance has made in both the USA and Canada look set to be expanded upon in the years ahead.

Paul McNamara, editorial director of Yasaar Media, says, ‘Investors and businesses alike are still smarting from the worst ravages of the global recession and they are looking for a lower-risk alternative. Islamic financing structures are inherently more risk averse than their conventional counterparts and as a result such structures are now being studied closely in all sorts of markets – including highly sophisticated markets like those of North America’.

These important markets are examined for the first time as growth areas for Islamic finance. ‘Both the USA and Canada are home to some very experienced Islamic finance firms – both on the financial and the legal side – and many market observers are now watching closely to see how they will help accelerate development of Shariah financing in North America. These are lucrative markets and it makes sense that GCC- and Malaysia-based Islamic finance houses are watching them with great interest’, according to Mr. McNamara.