Posted on December 16, 2008

Japan Moves Carefully Toward Islamic Finance

Manabu Hara, Asahi (Japan) Shimbun, December 12, 2008

The Japanese government has taken a small but important step toward introducing Islamic finance here amid the global financial crisis triggered by unsustainable subprime loans in the United States.

Earlier this month, the Financial Services Agency (FSA) amended financial regulations to let bank subsidiaries handle Islamic finance operations.

The Islamic finance market has become increasingly attractive for Japanese, having already grown to about $1 trillion with a potential to reach an estimated $4 trillion.

Obviously, “oil money” has been undermined by the global financial crisis. Yet the latest push forward by the FSA strongly suggests that Japan has a growing interest in Islamic finance as a competitive way to attract huge amounts of petro-funds.

Last year, the Japanese government revealed its Asia Gateway Initiative, which includes the promotion of Islamic finance as a method to develop the Asian bond market.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry also touched upon Islamic finance in last year’s White Paper on Trade.

Other countries, like Britain and Singapore, are way ahead of Japan in the field, having made moves to use Islamic finance to enhance their own financial markets.

Bringing in oil money

Yoshihiro Watanabe, managing director of the Institute for International Monetary Affairs, said the significance of Islamic finance is “to bring in oil money to Japan and stimulate the Japanese economy.”

Etsuaki Yoshida, deputy division chief at the Policy and Strategy Department for Financial Operations at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), is known as one of the few specialists in Japan.

“Although this is my personal view, the current (global) situation actually heightens the relative significance of getting involved (in Islamic finance),” he said.

Although only a few books on Islamic finance have been published in Japan, Yoshida has already written two of them.

Experts acknowledge that Islamic finance is also important for starting projects in the Middle East and can serve to enhance the Asian bond market.

Despite the various barriers remaining in Japan, the private sector has been participating in a number of overseas projects through Islamic financing methods. This year, a Mizuho Corporate Bank subsidiary in the Netherlands became a lead manager of a syndicated loan for a Saudi Arabian project to mine and refine phosphate ore. Part of the loan was made through Islamic financing.

In Malaysia, a subsidiary of Aeon Credit Service Co. and Toyota Capital Malaysia Sdn. Bhd now extends car loans through Islamic financing plans, while the Tokio Marine Group sells Takaful Insurance, a type of Islamic insurance.

Islamic finance has also spread to bourses. The Tokyo Stock Exchange and Standard & Poor’s jointly developed an index for Shariah-compliant companies. Daiwa Asset Management Co., meanwhile, created Shariah-compliant exchange-tradable funds that are now a feature on the Singapore Stock Exchange.

JBIC has taken the leading role in dealing with Islamic finance in Japan, participating in syndicated loan investment projects partly funded through Islamic financing in Bahrain in 2005 and Saudi Arabia in 2006.

One of JBIC’s goals was to accumulate know-how and experience regarding Islamic finance. But the JBIC’s role in those projects was limited to financial assistance through conventional methods.

In 2006, JBIC established the Shariah Advisory Group within its headquarters to learn from Muslim scholars well-versed in the tenets of Islam and Islamic finance. The organization has since been hosting study groups with three major Japanese banks: Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd; Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp Ltd.; and Mizuho Corporate Bank.

Furthermore, JBIC became the first Japanese organization to join the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), an international organization based in Malaysia whose goal is to promote and enhance the Islamic financial services industry. JBIC also has business ties with the Central Bank of Malaysia concerning Islamic financial services.

Overcoming barriers

However, in the face of the “worst global financial crisis in 100 years” and watching crude oil prices drop sharply, skeptics doubt if oil money can really weather this financial storm. In fact, the rapid growth of Islamic finance in the Middle East has been showing signs of a slowdown since last year. Some say Islamic finance has actually started to shrink.

Watanabe, however, remains optimistic.

“A revaluation loss on oil money should have occurred, but the money (as compared to the West) is not gained through debt-based investments but rather profits from oil sales,” Watanabe said.

“Crude oil prices have gone down, but (oil) funds will continue to accumulate. (Middle East countries) are facing the major issue of where to look for safe, high-return investments.”

Although bank subsidiaries in Japan can now participate in Islamic financial transactions, the environment has not reached a point where one can expect a surge in banking institutions specializing in Islamic finance.

Specialists like Watanabe and Yoshida both point to complications in the Japanese tax and legal systems that have hampered the spread of Islamic finance.

Watanabe said transactions involving commodity trade are subject to value-added tax, which makes the financial transaction too expensive.

Yoshida said it is necessary to define the nature of sukuk, or Islamic bonds. According to Yoshida, if sukuk are indeed corporate bonds, they should not be taxed. But if they are considered trust beneficiary rights, they become subject to withholding tax at the source.

Yoshida also cited the difficulty of networking. The crux lies in finding investors and matching them with suitable investment choices, he said.

Watanabe added, “If the main body (company headquarters) cannot handle Islamic finance, it will probably become an overwhelming burden.”

Under the ongoing global financial crisis, money that arrived here via banking institutions in Europe and the United States is already being channeled back to the United States. And that is what is causing serious damage to stock and real estate prices.

If Japanese financial institutions could channel oil money directly to Japan, it may help to mitigate the crisis here. That is precisely why some say Japan needs to overcome the hurdles and promote Islamic finance.

Fact File: A system based on Shariah principles

Islamic finance differs in various ways from conventional financial services that have developed in the West.

The basis of all Islamic finance lies in the principles of Shariah, or Islamic Law. Thus, the Islamic form of finance is sometimes called Shariah-Compliant Finance.

Central to Islamic finance is the fact that interest, known as riba, is prohibited. All gains and risks must be shared between the person providing the capital and the business proprietor or owner. And the transactions must basically involve trade backed by assets.

Speculation (Maisir) is also forbidden, as are transactions with businesses dealing with pigs, alcohol, gambling and other items that are not Shariah-compliant.

One popular form of transaction used by banks is Murabahah financing, which is said to account for as much as 70 percent of all Islamic finance deals.

Murabahah financing involves markups on goods, such as cars and houses, mostly for personal use. A bank plays go-between for the supplier and the purchaser by buying the desired commodity from the supplier.

The bank then resells the commodity with a markup price to the client, who pays for it in installments, including the markup amount.

Conventional Japanese regulations have prevented banks from buying or selling commodities as part of their business operations. But a recent measure adopted by the Financial Services Agency allows subsidiaries of banks to take part in such transactions.