Islamic followers can be capitalists too. Although oil prices (currently around $77 per barrel) have fallen from the peak near $150 per barrel in 2008, oil rich nations have gotten creative in how they raise debt-like financing. Critical to fueling the speculative expansion in some oil rich areas has been the growth in sukuk bonds, which have been created as a function of loophole exploitation in Islamic finance principles.
U.S. Does Not Have Monopoly on Debt Driven Greed
The pricked debt bubble that spanned the range of Icelandic banks to Donald Trump (read more) has now spread to Dubai commercial real estate, evidenced by the plastering of recent global headlines. At the center of the storm is Dubai World, a quasi-government owned conglomerate of Dubai, which is in the process of negotiating a $26 billion debt restructuring with the government and sukuk bondholders.
This overleveraged Dubai market ($80 billion in total debt) helped finance the tallest building in the world, largest man-made islands, and a ski-resort based in the desert, in the face of collapsing real estate prices. Critical to Dubai World’s debt restructuring is a $3.5 billion sukuk bond issued by its commercial real estate subsidiary Nakheel Development (“Nakheel”). So what exactly is a sukuk (plural of sakk)?
Investopedia lists the following definition for sukuk:
“An Islamic financial certificate, similar to a bond in Western finance, that complies with Sharia, Islamic religious law. Because the traditional Western interest paying bond structure is not permissible, the issuer of a sukuk sells an investor group the certificate, who then rents it back to the issuer for a predetermined rental fee. The issuer also makes a contractual promise to buy back the bonds at a future date at par value.”
The generation of money on top of money, interest payments or what’s called “Riba”, is strictly forbidden by Shari’ah law. As a result, issuers must issue and repurchase sukuk at par (original value), not at a discount or a premium. Shari’ah law encompasses more than Islamic law, it also covers the amorphous spiritual and moral obligations demanded from the religious practitioners. In order to ensure compliance with Islamic principles, many financial institutions and funds typically have a Shari’ah Board monitoring the details of the sukuk. Shari’ah law is very consistent with the teachings in the Quran (the Western version of the Bible). Mixing finance and religion may seem strange on the surface, but I guess if we use world history as a proxy, we shouldn’t be surprised that money and Muhammad somehow find a way to coexist.
Sukuk Structure & Market
The core Islamic finance principles underpinning the sukuk market have been around for more than 1,500 years, but the actual sukuk market was actually introduced in Malaysia around 1990. Since then, the market has been on an uptrend. What makes this $1 trillion Islamic debt market (HSBC estimate) even fuzzier is the scores of sukuk structures (See Ijara Sukuk chart below – very similar to a sale-leaseback arrangement), and the diverse geographic issuer / investor base.
For example, greater than 60% of Nakheel’s investors are based outside the Middle East (a large portion in Malaysia). Making matters as clear as mud, each geographic region and structure has its own interpretation of legal rights and Shari’ah law. Layer on issues such as derivatives, bankruptcy rights, and penalty fees and you end up with only more complexity. What’s more, many of these sukuk bonds involve Special Purpose Vehicles [SPVs], made famous by the off-balance sheet variety used by Enron Corp., in order to get around the Islamic issuance loopholes.
The illiquidity of sukuk market hasn’t made resolving the Dubai debt restructuring any easier. The sukuk market doesn’t come close to matching the liquidity of traditional corporate and sovereign debt markets. Little trading is done in secondary markets because most investors in sukuk bonds follow a buy and hold strategy. The lion’s share of trading in this immature market gets completed through inter-institution, over-the-counter transactions.
A recent $500 million sukuk deal issued by General Electric (NYSE:GE) last month has only raised awareness for the financing structure (pre-Nakheel restructuring). As oil rich states strive to diversify their economic bases, I would expect more deals to get done, in spite of the recent Dubai mess. How severe the recent Dubai sukuk black eye will be depends on how Nakheel, the United Arab Emirates [UAE], Abu Dhabi, bondholders, and other constituents restructure the pending sukuk obligations by the December 14th deadline.
The recent debt restructuring talks in Dubai highlight the complexity of this relatively new Islamic financing structure. With very few sukuk bankruptcy cases in existence, the structures remain largely untested and uncertain. How the Dubai debt debacle ultimately gets resolved will have a significant impact on this nascent, but rapidly growing market. Until the sukuk restructuring is settled, Dubai may just need to put the construction of that next man-made island on hold.
Information and data from Moody’s Investor Service (Shari’ah and Sukuk: A Moody’s Primer 5/31/2006), CNBC interview 12/2/09, Financial Times 12/1/09, and other articles. Sidoxia Capital Management [SCM] and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in GE. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine [IC] website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.