November 03, 2013

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There is an atmosphere of foreboding upon the world stage that may account for the bitcoin’s steady rise against the dollar. BTC closed at $213.5 on November 1, up from $130 exactly four weeks ago. And this week, the world’s first bitcoin ATM opened for business in Vancouver. And the currency is still cheap, at least if you see it as the new gold. The beauty is that nobody can charge you for investment advice regarding the bitcoin; instead, you have to make do with scatterbrained prophecies such as these. Yet as long as elements of foreboding linger in today’s world, bitcoin will have its uses. It’s a lot easier to transport than gold, too. Far from being an illegitimate child of inbred hackers, it’s fast becoming a safe haven itself.

Speaking of safe havens and other desirable financial instruments, London recently paid host to the World Islamic Economic Forum. It’s the first time the forum has been held outside an Islamic nation. UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke at the launch, saying that London plans to become a center of Islamic finance in the Western world. Other plans include a new Islamic index to be launched on the London Stock Exchange.

What’s going on here?

Essentially, the UK government is keen on getting a jump on the fast-growing global market in Islamic investments. However, there are many other growing markets in the financial world as we exit recessions, so why all the excitement?

“The UK government is keen on getting a jump on the fast-growing global market in Islamic investments.”

Some of the excitement springs from the poster child of Islamic finance, the sukuk. An Islamic financial certificate, a sukuk is “similar to a bond in Western finance, [a bond] that complies with Sharia, Islamic religious law,” according to Investopedia. So it’s a bond; OK. Why the hoopla? What’s so appealing in comparison with 30-year US Treasury bonds, for instance? Bonds are yesterday’s news, anyhow. So why was David Cameron rolling out the red carpet for our Muslim brothers?

Investopedia says “sukuks must be able to link the returns and cash flows of the financing to the assets purchased, or the returns generated from an asset purchased. This is because trading in debt is prohibited under Sharia. As such, financing must only be raised for identifiable assets.” Since Western markets have spent the last five years cleaning up an explosion of unidentified toxic assets such as CDOs, anything that’s “identifiable” is good news.

As NPR neatly spelled it out, Islamic finance does not permit interest, “replacing it [however] with profit- and loss-sharing. The sukuk brings a fixed return from an asset or service.” As opposed to charging interest. Which makes for sleeping better at night?

Therein lies the attraction, not least at this moment in the evolution of the Western financial world, which is coming hot off the heels of a historic and unprecedented government shutdown in the USA”€”a gridlock over managing the national debt. A gridlock so deadly it paralyzed crucial government offices, including hurricane warning systems, all because of Debt with a capital “D.”

Debt is the diesel of go-go capitalism. It’s the juice that has traditionally made Western finance so “sexy.” At a consumer and at a national level, both levels ever increasing, debt is a way of life. It’s a problem-solver, a profit-turner, a quick fix and a strategic bargaining chip, a delay tactic and a sign of strength (unless defaulted upon)…it’s the greatest asset class of all, no? And here comes a bond, compliant with sharia law, which forbids the trading of debt en toto. Is it the answer to all our problems?

The question is overly simple and an answer would be facile. Looking at the theory behind Islamic Finance (IF), however, one discovers the pieces of a morally elegant, possibly more secure financial system as a whole”€”even if insiders scoff at the sukuk as just another way of skinning the same rabbit. Nonetheless, according to theory: “Central to Islamic banking is an understanding of the importance of risk sharing as part of raising capital and the avoidance of riba (usury) and gharar (risk or uncertainty).”

Islamic law takes the view that “lending with interest payments is a relationship that favors the lender, who charges interest at the expense of the borrower.” No kidding!

The sukuk, one easy-to-grasp tool from IF’s treasure chest, chips away at a cornerstone of the capitalist economy: the debt corner. Debt is”€”along with the “winner takes all” and “too big to fail” philosophies”€”one of the less noble corners of capitalist ideology. Debt is still something that bears a trace of shame”€”except, of course, at the government or corporate level. In this era of foreboding, it’s more about holding onto your money than making more and more of it, moral hazard be damned. Consequently, unlike the good old days, a “safer” financial asset such as the sukuk possesses retail appeal.


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