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Why 2017 Could Be a Breakthrough Year for Islamic Finance

4 million Muslims in the U.S. make up one of the highest earning demographics in the country. Unsurprisingly, they're looking to invest in financial vehicles that mirror their own beliefs.

With assets growing at double-digit rates over the past decade, Islamic finance is ascending to greater prominence in the global financial system as it extends beyond predominantly Muslim countries into major economies around the globe.

Despite recent headlines, that certainly includes America. There are 4 million Muslims in the U.S. who make up one of the highest earning demographics in the country. Over 66 percent of American Muslims earn over $50,000 a year and 26 percent earn over $100,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, they’re increasingly looking to invest in financial vehicles that mirror their own beliefs.

Western and Middle Eastern interest in Halal-compliant investing has driven the Islamic Finance Stability Board to forecast that Shariah-compliant assets will grow to $6.5 trillion by 2020. The IMF has also responded to growing demand, forming an Interdepartmental Working Group to develop an institutional view on the industry, build in-house expertise and better coordinate with different stakeholders.

At the same time, many institutions outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council — where a large portion of Islamic assets are concentrated — have adopted the basic principles of Shariah which include greater transparency, enhanced risk mitigation and profit-sharing. 

This continued growth and recognition by organizations like the IMF will combine with several other catalysts in 2017 to fuel what could become a breakout year for Islamic finance. Let’s take a look at a few of the drivers behind the momentum. 

Gold Becomes Shariah Compliant

In late 2016, The Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions approved the Shariah Gold Standard — an important set of guidelines that will expand the variety and use of gold-based products in Islamic Finance.

This major development meant that gold became an acceptable investment in Islamic finance for the first time — joining equities, real estate, Islamic bonds (Sukuk) and insurance (Takaful) as vehicles approved for Islamic finance.

As many as 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, or nearly 25 percent of the population, will have greater access to the gold market. Given the long history of Muslims using gold as a currency, some estimate this could translate into tens of billions of dollars.

And with money managers’ bullish outlook on gold — spurred in part by increased uncertainty — there’s no question we will see gold playing a major part in Islamic Finance’s breakout 2017.

Sukuks Go Mainstream 

Sukuk, often referred to as Islamic bonds, are becoming a popular investment vehicle. In 2016, Sukuk issuance grew by more than 13 percent to reach more than $74 billion globally. 

Adhering to Shariah-compliant philosophies, where interest (riba) is not permitted, Sukuk are structured in a manner that ensures there is an underlying asset which the return to investors is linked to. Sukuks are Halal fixed income investments that are usually traded in blocks of $200,000, and thus have been relatively inaccessible by retail investors. 

Sukuks can play a major role in diversifying Shariah-compliant portfolios due to their low correlation to stocks. Clients will also get exposure to global stocks, U.S. stocks, emerging market stocks, U.S. real estate and gold.

However, while Sukuk is particularly popular amongst Islamic investors, the appeal extends far beyond the Islamic world. For several reasons, Sukuk can be an attractive option for both Islamic and non-Islamic investors seeking to diversify their investment portfolios. Returns are attractive relative to traditional fixed income assets and Sukuk provide exposure to some of the fast-growing economies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Southeast Asia. Due to their unique structure and market dynamics, Sukuk returns also tend to be less correlated with other parts of the global fixed income market. 

In December, the Federal Reserve rose interest rates for only the second time in the last decade. It’s been suggested that there may be other hikes coming in 2017. When interest rates rise — similar to traditional bonds — Sukuk prices tend to drop. 

Muslim Millennials are Beginning to Modernize Islamic Finance

Millennials have been adopting disruptive technology in every facet of their lives, so it’s no surprise that many millennials prefer digital, tech-based solutions when it comes to their investments as well. However, Muslim millennials haven’t had access to online investing platforms that mirror their beliefs in regards to social responsibility.

The value of social responsibility transcends religious background. 81 percent of all millennials expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship. When it comes to consuming, a large portion of the millennial population want their brands to align with their values. Look no further than the recent exodus of users Uber has seen after a steady stream of negative press has uncovered the negative culture that exists within the company.

So why should it be any different when it comes to investing? With new access to sophisticated platforms that allow users to invest in ways that reflect their identity, it won’t be. Expect many young Muslims to bring their wealth management online with new platforms catering to socially responsible investing, while modernizing Islamic finance in the process.

 

Junaid Wahedna is the CEO and founder of Wahed Invest Inc. He has a graduate degree from the department of Industrial Engineering & Operations Research from Columbia University, and holds Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and CIMA Diploma in Islamic Finance (CDIF) designations.

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