Friday, March 5, 2010

The Investment Dar Court Case with BLOM Undermines Islamic Banking


One of the reasons that many people prefer to deal with Islamic Banks is that they claim to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior than conventional banks.  In fact many Islamic Banks emphasize this claimed distinction in their marketing literature.

Recent developments in a court case brought by Banque du Liban et d'Outre Mer ("BLOM") Beirut against TID prove sadly that you can't always believe what you're told.  Or sold.  

Seems that BLOM advanced some US$10.7 million to TID under a Wakala structure.  TID got into financial difficulty and did not repay.  Happens all the time.  Or frequently enough so that it shouldn't be a shock.  What happens next is what separates the ethical from the unethical.

As reported in The Guardian, TID is now arguing in an English court that it shouldn't have to pay any profit (interest) to BLOM because the deal did not comply with Sharia law and was therefore void.  A small point: TID's Shari'a Board had approved the deal at the time it was concluded.

This tactic speaks volumes about TID's ethics or perhaps more precisely lack thereof.  

Bankers are generally expected to conduct their affairs with the interests of their clients foremost - regardless of the religion they claim to profess.  That is, one deals ethically and fairly with one's clients. 

When bankers engage in Trust arrangements, they are held to an even higher standard.  A wakala is an Islamic trust arrangement.  

When one professes that on top of these normal banker virtues one's business is guided by a religion, then the standard of behavior it seems to me should be even higher.

Sadly, it's hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that TID's sudden "religion" in this case is a matter of selective application of the Shari'a.   And therefore the religious scruples on display are more feigned than real. I'm willing to bet that BLOM is not the only financial institution in a Wakala structure like this.  And if it were inside the restructuring, TID's objection would vanish.  This episode probably also provides an explanation why TID's creditor banks insisted on certain things during the negotiations and incorporated certain requirements in the rescheduling agreement - steps generally above those taken by banks in  most restructurings.  When one is forced to deal with those whose ethics appear questionable,  the wise person  prudently implements many safeguards. Let's hope the restructuring is sufficiently so equipped.

A failure to live by the creed it professes is the least of TID's offenses in this case.  More importantly, through its behavior TID is doing fundamental damage to the good name of Islam and  concept of Islamic banking.  All for expediency. And for a rather small price.  A pretty clear indication of the value it ascribes to both.

More importantly, this case introduces a new risk for those who do business with "Islamic" banks.  A risk that is difficult to evaluate.  And therefore difficult to mitigate.  That an "Islamic" bank will seek to abrogate contracts or major elements of contracts based on retroactive re-interpretation of their compliance with Sharia.  Or perhaps more precisely what they claim Sharia is based on what's currently convenient for them.  What's surprising as well is that a court in London has apparently agreed to entertain TID's argument.  One hopes that the court is merely allowing TID to raise this claptrap, but will render a just verdict.

This sort of legal risk fundamentally relates to the ethics of one's business partner.  Generally, it's hard to know this for sure until one's partner is in a difficult or inconvenient situation.

The problem a potential creditor or depositor faces then is distinguishing between an Islamic Bank and  an "Islamic" Bank.  The latter being a bank that merely professes Islam as a marketing slogan.  (Sura AlBaqara Ayat 8 would seem the appropriate scriptural reference.) 

There is an ironclad law of finance.  Or at least there should be.  If you cannot adequately assess a risk, do not do the deal.  The danger is that market participants will apply that principle across the board and simply refuse to deal with Islamic Banks.

This is a very serious matter.  One wonders what the Central Bank of Kuwait and TID's Shari'a Board think of TID's legal strategy.  Do they think that it is in the interest of the Kuwaiti banking sector or true Islamic banking?  I guess we'll know by the action they take.  Or don't take.    

1 comment:

The Rageful Cynic said...

"A risk that is difficult to evaluate. And therefore difficult to mitigate. That an "Islamic" bank will seek to abrogate contracts or major elements of contracts based on retroactive re-interpretation of their compliance with Sharia."

This is the heart of the matter here, the lack of formal, standardized regulation in the Islamic Finance world.

When you get right down to it, it seems to me that most of Islamic finance is just semantics..

excellent post.. looking forward to ur thoughts on the FSL.