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REVIEW OF ISLAMIC BANKING INDUSTRY IN PAKISTAN: Refinement of legal and regulatory framework can drive Islamic banking towards greater strength and stability

The increasing presence of Islamic banking and finance in Pakistan’s financial sector and the country’s exemplary role in the global Islamic finance industry has called for an evaluation of the contribution of Islamic finance to the real economic activity. Islamic finance has started to make important contributions to the real economy by effectively carrying out the financial intermediation role of pooling and channeling funds to the investment activities, however, continuous efforts need to be undertaken to further expand the industry which includes refinement of the legal and regulatory framework to enable healthier growth of the industry, thus further strengthens Pakistan’s position as the leader in the Islamic finance industry at the global level.

Islamic banking has now become a reality. Islamic banking assets grew at an annual rate of 17.6% between 2009 and 2013, and will grow by an average of 19.7% a year to 2018. The worldwide Islamic financial services industry is thought to be worth in excess of US$2 trillion and despite current global economic uncertainty it continues to demonstrate with strong signs of growth as investors (Islamic and conventional) look to tap into the alternative source of liquidity offered by Shariah-compliant financing structures and products.

The re-launch of Islamic banking in Pakistan in 2001 has proved to be a big success as the industry starting from almost scratch now constitutes more than 10 percent of country’s banking system. The sustained growth momentum over the last 15 years provides strong evidence of growing acceptability of Islamic banking as a viable and competitive alternate to the conventional banking. The outreach of Islamic banking industry has also expanded considerably as now the network of Islamic Banking consists of 22 Islamic Banking Institutions (IBIs) (6 full-fledged Islamic banks and 16 conventional banks having standalone Islamic banking branches). The industry has surpassed the target of 2,000 branches as set in the second State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Strategic Plan 2014-18 of Islamic banking industry in the third year of the plan. The fast-paced expansion of the industry’s outreach could among others be attributed to the supportive and enabling role of SBP, which was voted as the best central bank in the world in 2015 for Promoting Islamic Finance in an international poll conducted by Islamic Finance News, an arm of Redmoney Group Malaysia. Some of the steps undertaken by SBP to promote Islamic Banking are as under:

1- Formation of Steering Committee for Promotion of Islamic Banking
2- Establishment of Centers of Excellence in Islamic Finance Education (CEIFEs)
3- Liquidity Management Solutions (Fixed rate rental/Bai-Mu’ajjal of GOP Ijara Sukuk for Islamic Banking Industry
4- Implementation of Shariah Governance Framework
5- Initiation of Islamic Microfinance Operations by Microfinance Bank
6- Awareness Creation and Capacity Building Programs for Islamic Banking Industry
7- Tax Neutrality
8- Strengthening of Shariah Compliance Inspection
9- Global Participation

A general observation is that most of the world’s Muslims are not so devout that they completely avoid conventional finance: even in Saudi Arabia, the assets of Islamic banks account for barely half of all banking assets. Muslim account-holders, tend to be more concerned with the products and service on offer than with the strictures of Shariah. But Islamic finance has become sophisticated enough to appeal on both counts. Most of the customers came not out of faith, but “purely as a value proposition”. Some of the areas where Islamic Banking could really make a difference are:

FINANCIAL INCLUSION

It is generally believed that Islamic Banking was re-launched to bring the large un-banked population within the folds of banking industry. Since its re-launch, Islamic Banking industry is still concentrated in urban, semi-urban areas where financial services have greater availability while a significant percentage of faith sensitive voluntary exclusion signifies huge potential demand for Islamic Banking in the country. The SBP and the industry need to collaborate further to expand their network to regions where there is no or limited availability of financial services particularly in the areas of SMEs, agriculture and microfinance.

SMALL AND MEDIUM ENTERPRISES (SMES) FINANCING

It has been generally observed that entrepreneurs in SME sector are more inclined towards Islamic banking products due to their religious sensitivity. Small and medium enterprises (SME) sector has a great potential for expanding production capacity and self-employment opportunities in the country. Enhancing the role of financial sector in development of SME sub-sector could mitigate the serious problems of unemployment and low level of exports.

AGRICULTURE

Similar to SME sector, agriculture sector development is critical for the overall growth of our economy but is among the sectors that are being ignored by the banking industry in general and Islamic banking Institutions in particular. Presently, Salam is essentially a sales contract with deferred delivery of goods often used in agriculture as advance payment against future delivery of a crop yield, allowing farmers to finance the advance purchase of inputs to be used in crop production. The type of crop, amount, and delivery date of the expected crop yield is agreed to in advance. The benefits of Salam financing are sufficient to allow farmers to build assets and sustain themselves above the poverty line within five financing cycles, or roughly three years.

ISLAMIC MICROFINANCE

Islamic microfinance has great potential to provide support to the poor by providing financial services at their doorstep. The asset based nature of Islamic modes of financing safeguard customers against mis-utilization of financing and thus over indebtedness. The regulatory environment for developing Islamic microfinance in Pakistan is quite conducive as detailed guidelines for Islamic microfinance industry including detailed licensing criteria are already available. Going forward, support is being provided by SBP to the Islamic microfinance industry for capacity building, coordination and collaboration among various stakeholders, focused research and pilot projects to develop this sector.

The writer is a Karachi based freelance columnist and is a banker by profession. He could be reached on Twitter @ReluctantAhsan

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