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Sunday, 2 December 2007

Introduction to Sukuk

Sukuk (Arabic: صكوك, plural of صك sakk, "legal instrument, deed, check") is the Arabic name for a financial certificate but can be seen as an Islamic equivalent of bond. However, fixed income, interest bearing bonds are not permissible in Islam, hence Sukuk are securities that comply with the Islamic law and its investment principles, which prohibits the charging, or paying of interest. Financial assets that comply with the Islamic law can be classified in accordance with their tradability and non-tradability in the secondary markets.
Conservative estimates by the Ten-Year Framework and Strategies suggest that over $700 - 900 bn of assets are managed according to Islamic investment principles. Such principles form part of ‘Shari’ah’, which is often understood to be ‘Islamic Law’, but it is actually broader than this in that it also encompasses the general body of spiritual and moral obligations and duties in Islam.
Sharia-compliant assets worldwide are worth an estimated $500 billion and have grown at more than 10 per cent per year over the past decade, placing Islamic finance in a global asset class all of its own. In the Gulf and Asia, Standard & Poor's estimates that 20 per cent of banking customers would now spontaneously choose an Islamic financial product over a conventional one with a similar risk-return profile.
In classical period Islam sakk (sukuk) – which is cognate with the European root ‘cheque’- meant any document representing a contract or conveyance of rights, obligations or monies done in conformity with the Shariah. Empirical evidence shows that sukuk were a product extensively used during medieval Islam for the transferring of financial obligations originating from trade and other commercial activities.
The essence of sukuk, in the modern Islamic perspective, lies in the concept of asset monetisation - the so called securitisation - that is achieved through the process of issuance of sukuk (taskeek). Its great potential is in transforming an asset’s future cash flow into present cash flow. Sukuk may be issued on existing as well as specific assets that may become available at a future date.
Valued at the end of 2006 more than US$ 50bn the sukuk market is due for an exponential rise in 2007 with every issue likely to be oversubscribed 5 to 6 times amid a fast growing interest in the western countries.
Shari’ah requires that financing should only be raised for trading in, or construction of, specific and identifiable assets. Trading in ‘indebtedness’ is prohibited and so the issuance of conventional bonds would not be compliant. Thus all Sukuk returns and cashflows will be linked to assets purchased or those generated from an asset once constructed and not simply be income that is interest based. For borrowers to raise compliant financing they will need to utilise assets in the structure (which could be equity in a 'tangible' company). It is worth noting that Equity financing is Shari’ah compliant and fits well with the risk/return precepts of Islam.
As Shari’ah considers money to be a measuring tool for value and not an ‘asset’ in itself, it requires that one should not be able to receive income from money (or anything that has the genus of money) alone. This generation of money from money (simplistically interest) is ‘Riba’, and is forbidden. The implications for Islamic financial institutions is that the trading/selling of debts, receivables (for anything other than par), conventional loan lending and credit cards are not permissible.
This principle is widely understood to mean uncertainty in the contractual terms and/or the uncertainty in the existence of an underlying asset in a contract and this causes issues for Islamic scholars when considering the application of derivatives. Shari’ah also incorporates the concept of ‘Maslahah’ or ‘Public benefit’, denoting that, if something is overwhelmingly in the public good, it may yet be transacted – and so hedging or mitigation of avoidable business risks, may fall into this category but there is still much discussion yet to come.
With its Arabic terminology and unusual prohibitions, Sukuk financing can be quite mystifying for the outsider. A good analogy is one of ethical or ‘Green’ investing. Here the universe of investable securities is limited by certain criteria based on moral and ethical considerations. Islamic Finance is also a subset of the global market and there is nothing that prevents the ‘conventional’ investor from participating in the Islamic market.

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