The Global Financial Crisis: Can Islamic Finance help?
– Umer Chapra
|Dr Umer Chapra, senior research advisor at Islamic Research and Training Institute of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), explores this issue in the first of the IIBI lecture series, dedicated to Ibn Khaldun*.|
The whole world is now in the grip of a financial crisis which is far more serious than any experienced since the Great Depression. It has taken more than $3 trillion of bailout and liquidity injections by a number of industrial countries to abate somewhat the intensity of the crisis. Nevertheless, there are fears that this crisis may have exposed the world economy to a long period of economic slowdown. There is, hence, a call for a new architecture that would help minimise the frequency and severity of such crises in the future.
Primary cause of the crisis
It is not possible to design a new architecture without first determining the primary cause of the crisis. The generally recognised most important cause of almost all crises has been excessive and imprudent lending by banks over a long period. This is clearly acknowledged by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which states as much in its annual report (released on 30th June 2008).
This raises the question of what makes it possible for banks to resort to such an unhealthy practice which not only destabilises the financial system but is also not in their own long-run interest. There are three factors that make this possible. One of these is inadequate market discipline in the financial system resulting from the absence of profit-and-loss sharing (PLS). The second is the mind-boggling expansion in the size of derivatives, particularly credit default swaps (CDSs), and the third is the ‘too big to fail’ concept, which tends to give an assurance to big banks that the central bank will definitely come to their rescue and not allow them to fail.
The false sense of immunity from losses that all these factors together provide, has introduced a fault line in the financial system. Banks have not, therefore, undertaken a careful evaluation of the loan applications. This has led to an unhealthy expansion in the overall volume of credit, to excessive leverage, and to an unsustainable rise in asset prices, living beyond means, and speculative investment. Unwinding later on gives rise to a steep decline in asset prices, and to financial frangibility and debt crises, particularly if there is over-indulgence in short sales. Jean Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, has rightly pointed out that ‘a bubble is more likely to develop when investors can leverage their positions by investing borrowed funds’.
The subprime mortgage crisis
The subprime mortgage crisis, in the grip of which the US finds itself at present, is a classical example of excessive and imprudent lending. Securitisation or the ‘originate-to-distribute’ model of financing has played a crucial role in this. The creation of collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) by mixing prime and subprime debt made it possible for mortgage originators to pass the entire risk of default of even subprime debt to the ultimate purchasers who would have normally been reluctant to bear such a risk. Mortgage originators had, therefore, less incentive to undertake careful underwriting.
Consequently, loan volume gained greater priority over loan quality and the amount of lending to subprime borrowers and speculators increased steeply. According to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the board of governors of the US Federal Reserve System, ‘far too much of the lending in recent years was neither responsible nor prudent… In addition, abusive, unfair, or deceptive lending practices led some borrowers into mortgages that they would not have chosen knowingly.’ The check that market discipline could have exercised on the serving of self-interest did not come into play. Even the supervisors failed to perform their task effectively by not taking serious notice of the unfair practices at an early stage and nipping them in the bud.
The result is that a number of banks have either failed or have had to be bailed out or nationalised by the governments in the US, the UK, Europe and a number of other places. This has created uncertainty in the market and prolonged the credit crunch, which made it hard for even healthy banks to find financing. There is a lurking fear that this might be only the tip of the iceberg and a lot more may follow if the crisis causes a prolonged recession and leads to defaults on the part of credit card institutions, corporations and derivatives dealers.
When there is excessive and imprudent lending and lenders are not confident of repayment, there is an excessive resort to derivatives like CDSs to seek protection against default. The buyer of the swap (creditor) pays a premium to the seller (a hedge fund) for the compensation he will receive in case the debtor defaults. If this protection had been confined to the actual creditor, there may not have been any problem. What happened, however, was that hedge funds sold the swaps not to just the actual lending bank but also to a large number of others who were willing to bet on the default of the debtor. These swap holders, in turn, resold the swaps to others. The whole process continued several times.
While a genuine insurance contract indemnifies only the actually insured party, in the case of CDSs there were several swap holders who had to be compensated. This accentuated the risk and made it difficult for the hedge funds and banks to honour their commitments. The notional amount of all outstanding derivatives (including CDSs of $54.6 trillion) is currently estimated by the BIS to be over $600 trillion, more than ten times the size of the world economy. No wonder George Soros described derivatives as ‘hydrogen bombs’, and Warren Buffett called them ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’.
The Islamic financial system
One of the most important objectives of Islam is to realise greater justice in human society. According to the Quran, a society where there is no justice will ultimately head towards decline and destruction (Quran, 57:25). Justice requires a set of rules or moral values, which everyone accepts and faithfully complies with. The financial system may be able to promote justice if, in addition to being strong and stable, it satisfies at least two conditions based on moral values. One of these is that the financier should also share in the risk so as not to shift the entire burden of losses to the entrepreneur, and the other is that an equitable share of financial resources mobilised by financial institutions should become available to the poor to help eliminate poverty, expand employment and self-employment opportunities and, thus, help reduce inequalities of income and wealth.
To fulfill the first condition of justice, Islam requires both the financier and the entrepreneur to equitably share the profit as well as the loss. For this purpose, one of the basic principles of Islamic finance is ‘no risk, no gain’. This should help introduce greater discipline into the financial system by motivating financial institutions to assess the risks more carefully and to effectively monitor the use of funds by the borrowers. The double assessment of risks by both the financier and the entrepreneur should help inject greater discipline into the system, and go a long way in reducing excessive lending.
Islamic finance should, in its ideal form, help raise substantially the share of equity and PLS in businesses. Greater reliance on equity financing has supporters even in mainstream economics. Professor Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University states that in an ideal world equity lending and direct investment would play a much bigger role.
Greater reliance on equity does not necessarily mean that debt financing is ruled out. This is because all the financial needs of individuals, firms, or governments cannot be made amenable to equity and PLS. Debt is, therefore, indispensable, but should not be promoted for nonessential and wasteful consumption and unproductive speculation.
For this purpose, the Islamic financial system does not allow the creation of debt through direct lending and borrowing. It rather requires the creation of debt through the sale or lease of real assets by means of its sales- and lease-based modes of financing (murabaha, ijara, salam, istisna and sukuk). The purpose is to enable an individual or firm to buy now the urgently needed real goods and services in conformity with his/her ability to make the payment later. It has, however, laid down a number of conditions, some of which are:
- The asset which is being sold or leased must be real, and not imaginary or notional.
- The seller or lessor must own and possess the goods being sold or leased.
- The transaction must be a genuine trade transaction with full intention of giving and taking delivery.
- The debt cannot be sold and thus the risk associated with it must be borne by the lender himself.
The first condition will help eliminate a large number of derivatives transactions which involve nothing more than gambling by third parties who aspire to claim compensation for losses which have been actually suffered only by the principal party and not by them.
The second condition will help ensure that the seller (or lessor) also shares a part of the risk to be able to get a share in the return. Once the seller (financier) acquires ownership and possession of the goods for sale or lease, he/she bears the risk. This condition also puts a constraint on short sales, thereby removing the possibility of a steep decline in asset prices during a downtown. The Shari’ah has, however, made an exception to this rule in the case of salam and istisna where the goods are not already available in the market and need to be produced or manufactured before delivery. Financing extended through the Islamic modes can thus expand only in step with the rise of the real economy and thereby help curb excessive credit expansion.
The third and the fourth conditions will not only motivate the creditor to be more cautious in evaluating the credit risk but also prevent an unnecessary explosion in the volume and value of transactions. This will prevent the debt from rising far above the size of the real economy and also release a substantial volume of financial resources for the real sector, thereby helping expand employment and self-employment opportunities and the production of need-fulfilling goods and services. The discipline that Islam wishes to introduce in the financial system may not, however, materialise unless governments reduce their borrowing from the central bank to a level that is in harmony with the goal of price and financial stability.
One may raise an objection here that all these conditions will perhaps end up shrink-ing the size of the economy by reducing the number and volume of transactions. This is not likely to happen because a number of the speculative and derivatives transactions are generally known to be zero-sum games and have rarely contributed positively to total real output. Hence a decline in them is also not likely to hurt the real economy.
While a restriction on such transactions will cut the commissions earned by the speculators during an artificially generated boom, it will help them avert losses and bankruptcy that become unavoidable during the decline and lead to a financial crisis.
The injection of a greater discipline into the financial system may tend to deprive the subprime borrowers from access to credit. Therefore, justice demands that some suitable innovation be introduced in the system to ensure that even small borrowers are also able to get adequate credit. Such borrowers are generally considered to be subprime and their inability to get credit will deprive them from realising their dream of owning their own homes and establishing their own microenterprises.
There is no doubt that a number of countries have established special institutions to grant credit to the poor and lower middle class entrepreneurs. Even though these have been extremely useful, there are two major problems that need to be resolved. One of these is the high cost of finance, ranging from 30 to 84 per cent in the interest-oriented microfinance system. This causes serious hardship to the borrowers in servicing their debt. No wonder the minister of finance for Bangladesh described microcredit interest rates in that country as extortionate in an address he delivered at a microcredit summit in Dhaka in 2004. It is, therefore, important that microcredit is provided to the very poor on a humane, interest-free basis (qard hasan). This may be possible if the microfinance system is integrated with zakat and waqf institutions. For those who can afford to bear the cost of microfinance, it would be better to popularise the Islamic modes of PLS and sales- and lease-based modes of finance, not only to avoid interest but also to prevent the misuse of credit for personal consumption.
Another problem faced by microfinance is that the resources at the disposal of microfinance institutions are inadequate. This problem may be difficult to solve unless the microfinance sector is scaled up by integrating it with the commercial banks. Commercial banks do not generally lend to small borrowers because of the higher risk and expense involved in such financing. It is, therefore, important to reduce their risk and expense. This may be done partly by a subsidy from zakat and waqf funds for those borrowers who are eligible for zakat.
Thus we can see that the Islamic financial system is capable of minimising the severity and frequency of financial crises by getting rid of the major weaknesses of the conventional system. It introduces greater discipline into the financial system by requiring the financier to share in the risk. It links credit expansion to the growth of the real economy by allowing credit primarily for the purchase of real goods and services which the seller owns and possesses, and the buyer wishes to take delivery. It also requires the creditor to bear the risk of default by prohibiting the sale of debt, thereby ensuring that he evaluates the risk more carefully. In addition, Islamic finance can also reduce the problem of subprime borrowers by providing credit to them at affordable terms. This will save the billions that are spent after the crisis to bail out the rich bankers. These do not, however, help the poor because their home may have already become subject to foreclosure and auctioned at a give-away price.
The problem is that the Islamic finance is still in its infancy and shares a very small proportion of international finance. In addition, it does not genuinely reflect the ethos of Islamic teachings. The use of equity and PLS is still very small while that of debt-creating modes is preponderant. Moreover, even in the case of debt-creating modes, all the conditions laid down by the Shari’ah are not being faithfully observed by the use of legal stratagems (hiyal). This is partly due to a lack of proper understanding of the ultimate objectives of Islamic finance, the non-availability of trained personnel, and the absence of a number of shared or support institutions that are needed to minimise the risks associated with anonymity, moral hazard, principal/agent conflict of interest, and late settlement of financial obligations. The system is, thus, not fully prepared at present to play a significant role in ensuring the health and stability of the international financial system. It is, however, expected that the system will gradually gain momentum with the passage of time and complement the efforts now being made internationally for promoting the health and stability of the global financial system.
Since the current architecture of the conventional financial system has existed for a long time, it may perhaps be too much to expect the international community to undertake a radical structural reform of the kind that the Islamic financial system envisages. However, the adoption of some of the elements of the Islamic system, which are also a part of the western heritage, is indispensable for ensuring the health and stability of the global financial system. These are:
- The proportion of equity in total financing needs to be increased and that of debt reduced.
- Credit needs to be confined primarily to transactions that are related to the real sector so as to ensure that credit expansion moves more or less in step with the growth of the real economy and does not promote destabilising speculation and gambling.
- Leverage needs to be controlled to ensure that credit does not exceed beyond the ability of the borrower to repay.
- If the debt instruments, and in particular CDOs, are to be sold, then there should be full transparency about their quality so that the purchaser knows exactly what he is getting into. It would also be desirable to have the right of recourse for the ultimate purchaser of the CDOs so as to ensure that the lender has
- Incentive to underwrite the debt carefully.
- While there may be no harm in the use of CDSs to provide protection to the lender against default, it needs to be ensured that the swaps do not be come instruments for wagering. Their protective role should be confined to the original lender only and should not cover the other purchasers of swaps who wish to wager on the debtor’s default. For this purpose the derivatives market needs to be properly regulated to remove the element of gambling in it.
- All financial institutions, and not just the commercial banks, need to be properly regulated and supervised so that they remain healthy and do not become a source of systemic risk.
- Some arrangement needs to be made to make credit available to subprime borrowers at affordable terms to enable them to buy a home and to establish their own microenterprises. This will help save the financial system from crises resulting from widespread defaults by such borrowers.
*A distinguished 14th century polymath and the forerunner of classical economics and social sciences, Ibn Khaldun broke new ground in many fields and anticipated the later findings of Western social scientists. Some hundreds of years ago, he presented a comprehensive theory arguing that the development and decline of societies does not depend on any single factor, but rather the combination of factors, including moral, social, economic, political and historical.