FaithWorld

from Felix Salmon:

Immoral bankers

The UK's Institutional Investor Council has issued a blistering report on the excessive fees that investment banks charge companies to issue new shares -- fees which one issuer are "usually immoral". It certainly seems that way, looking at this chart: fees have been steadily increasing over time, even as the discount at which the new shares are issued has got larger and larger. The bigger the discount, of course, the less risk taken on by the underwriter, since the more that the share price would have to plunge overnight in order for the underwriter to risk losing money on the deal.

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Yes, this chart includes the financial crisis, and it stands to reason that fees for rights issues would rise during a crisis. But we're not in a crisis any more, and the fees aren't coming down to their historical levels, even though the discounts are still enormous. And it's notable that fees hit these highs on a percentage basis just as the amount of underwriting was surging:

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What we're seeing here is a textbook example of banks squeezing every last dollar they can out of their clients just when those clients are most desperate for money. And it stands in stark contrast to legal fees, which were considered fair by issuers and which have not risen visibly at all over the past few years.

None of this is illegal, of course, but it's fair to call it unethical, if ethics are fundamentally based on the principle of "treat others as you would like to be treated".

Christina Rexrode had a long article on banking and ethics in Sunday's Charlotte Observer, and she concentrated on the kind of behavior which steps close to or even over the line into outright illegality. Maybe it's just so blindingly obvious that banks behave in a fundamentally immoral manner most of the time that her editors considered that not to be news -- charging $35 for a $2 cup of coffee, slapping enormous overdraft fees onto those who can least afford them, pushing high-interest credit cards on desperate customers, locating credit-card operations in South Dakota where usury laws are at their laxest, encouraging people to use the bonkers anachronism that is signature debit, steering customers into the financial products which pay the highest commissions, etc etc. All of this is legal, and all of it is designed to funnel as much money as possible from the customers' pocket to the bank's bottom line, and none of it is in the customer's best interest, which means that none of it can really be considered moral.

Islamic finance in Gulf needs regulation boost

karachi marketFrom Australia to South Africa, governments are scrambling to change the law to accommodate the $1 trillion Islamic finance industry, whose avoidance of toxic debt has looked increasingly attractive since the global crisis. But in the Gulf Arab region, birthplace of Islam and cradle of Islamic finance, governments have taken a more passive approach, which experts say is slowing the industry’s growth. (Photo: A broker at the Karachi Stock Exchange July 5, 2010/Athar Hussain)

“Aside from Malaysia, Sudan and Iran, no government has really owned the Islamic finance project,” Humayon Dar, chief executive of London-based sharia advisory and structuring firm BMB Islamic, said.

In Malaysia, there is a national sharia council that sets rules for Islamic financial institutions. Rules are standardised under the central bank, which has made an active push towards supporting Islamic finance. In the first three quarters of 2010, the Malaysian government accounted for 62.5 percent of all Islamic bonds, or sukuk, issuances globally, valued at $18.4 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data. By comparison, not one sovereign sukuk came out of the Gulf Arab region during the same period.

Islamic finance’s reputation as “safe” is a myth: Qatar regulator

saudi-bankers

Traders at the Saudi Investment Bank in Riyadh, 8 Oct 2008/Fahad Shadeed

It’s a myth to assume Islamic finance products are safer than conventional products and underlying risks should be studied more carefully, Qatar’s top regulator said at the Davos World Economic Forum meeting on Wednesday. Despite being billed as a safer alternative to traditional banking because assets must underpin deals, Islamic bondholders have found they may not have any more legal safeguards than conventional counterparts in the event of default.

Such issues were highlighted after sukuk — or Islamic bonds — had the first ever defaults last year.  Sukuk, one of the flagship products in the $1 trillion Islamic finance industry, are structured as profit-sharing or rental agreements and returns are derived from underlying assets because Islamic laws prohibits paying or earning interest.

“There is some assumption that some of it is cosmetically more comforting, but when so many Islamic instruments are now trying to mimic the effect of conventional products, you need to examine if they carry the same risk profile,” Philip Thorpe, chief executive of Qatar Financial Center Regulatory Authority, told Reuters.

World halal standard would help $2 trillion industry, Malaysia says

halalMalaysia hopes that Muslim countries can agree on which goods and products are halal, or acceptable to Muslims, a move that would boost the $2 trillion industry, although politics and interpretation of islamic law may complicate the task.
(Photo: Halal label at Kuala Lumpur restaurant, 8 April 2005/Bazuki Muhammad)

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is working on a single standard to be applied in its 57 member countries.  Agreement to regulate the halal industry, which ranges from financial institutions to cosmetics and meat, would help trade and speed up the certification for makers of halal products.“Malaysia’s halal certification is recognised worldwide so perhaps we can play an important role in creating a global standard,” Malaysia’s religious affairs minister Jamil Khir Baharom said in an interview on Thursday. “We need a halal certification that everyone can use easily.”Muslim jurists do not always agree on what is halal. Islam prohibits the consumption of pork and prescribes how animals must be slaughtered, but there has been debate on the acceptability of non-alcoholic beer, collagen and vinegar.See the full story here.

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