Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Potential for Islamic finance in Canada is huge



Conference highlights opportunities and challenges in serving Muslim market

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

By Megan Harman

As the Muslim community in Canada continues to grow, there are vast opportunities for financial institutions to offer Islamic financial products, services and advice, speakers at a Toronto conference said on Tuesday.

UFANA, the Usury-Free Association of North America -- a new non-profit organization committed to helping people sustain themselves on a usury-free lifestyle -- launched its first annual conference on Tuesday.

Speakers at the conference emphasized the potential for growth in Islamic finance in North America. The Muslim population in Canada is roughly 1 million in size, representing 3% of the country’s population; and doubles every 10 years, noted Omar Kalair, president and CEO of UM Financial -- an Islamic financial institution offering financing, investment planning and advice and Shariah-compliant products, among other services.

Islamic financial products are unique in the sense that they must be designed to be compliant with Shariah law, which requires that all products are traded interest-free, among other limitations.

“Demand from the community has kept increasing,” said Kalair. “Our business model has always been that we’ve partnered with financial institutions to try to meet the demands of the Muslim community.”

Few firms in Canada offer Shariah-compliant products and services to retail clients. The Big Banks have so far avoided the market, which is niche and limited in size, and lacks a regulatory framework, the speakers said.

As a result, the market remains underserved, according to Saad Rehman, a wealth advisor at Scotia McLeod in Saskatchewan.

“The reality is there is still a huge portion of investors in Canada that nobody seems to really focus on,” he said.

Access to Shariah-compliant products and financing is critical for Muslims, noted Sheikh Nizam Yaqoobi, a Shariah scholar based in Bahrain. He said many Muslims would otherwise be unable to take out mortgages and loans, which in many cases would prevent them from owning homes and cars, from starting businesses, and from affording post-secondary education.

“A big proportion of them are not willing to compromise their beliefs,” he explained, adding that a lack of access to appropriate financing for these individuals would lead to a “big burden on the community.”

Aznan Hassan, a Shariah scholar from Malaysia, agreed that the potential for Islamic finance in Canada is huge.

“I believe it’s very timely for the Canadian society, Canadian government, and also the financial institutions in Canada to try to explore this opportunity to offer this to their clients,” said Hassan. He added that in countries such as Malaysia, Shariah-compliant investment products have proven to appeal to non-Muslims, as well.

“These products are not only for Muslims,” he said. “Islamic financial products are for everybody to use.”

But serving the Muslim community involves challenges, the speakers admitted. Representatives from U.S.-based companies that offer Islamic financial products said it took up to 10 years to become profitable in the market, since the Muslim community is limited and the domain is relatively new.

Successfully developing Islamic financial products and services for the North American Muslim community demands “tremendous patient capital, patience, perseverance,” said Stephen Ranzini, president and chairman of University Bank, who launched its Islamic financial subsidiary.

Another challenge is the lack of education around Shariah-compliant financial products and services, Rehman said.

He noted that even Muslim clients are often unfamiliar with how the products work, and how they’re different from conventional products. In fact, he said many Muslim clients have millions of dollars of assets that they do not invest, since they’re unfamiliar with the Shariah-compliant options available to them. Educating these clients could create an opportunity for Canada’s financial services community to serve them.

“There’s not enough knowledge out there,” he said.

Abu Dhabi's oil reserves to last another 150 years

Emirate is blessed with 95 per cent of the UAE’s oil reserves and 92 per cent of gas.

Capital contributes 60 per cent to the UAE's GDP. (REUTERS)

Oil-rich Abu Dhabi is on a strong growth trajectory and the emirate will remain in a strong economic position in the future, too, after having weathered the economic downturn considerably well.

The figures quoted in a new report by Isthmus Partners 'Abu Dhabi Investment Environment', shows that with 33 per cent of the country's population, the emirate contributes around 60 per cent to the UAE's GDP and has a GDP per capita of 1.8 times the national average.

"Abu Dhabi has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. Even on a standalone basis, Abu Dhabi would be the second-largest economy in the GCC after Saudi Arabia," said the authors of the report stressing the economic clout of the capital city.

The emirate is blessed with 95 per cent of the UAE's proven oil reserves and 92 per cent of UAE's gas reserves. Based on current utilisation rates and no additional discoveries, Abu Dhabi's oil reserves will last for 150 years, said the report.

According to the IMF estimates, the UAE produced 2.62 million barrels of crude oil per day on average in H1 2008, 97 per cent of which was produced in Abu Dhabi.

As a result, oil exports generate significant income for the emirate.

In 2008, export revenue from oil and gas was Dh376.9 billion, but in 2009 this figure was reduced to Dh208.5bn due to the drop in the price of oil and the global economic recession.

With good revenues coming from the hydrocarbons, Abu Dhabi is also trying to diversify its economy.

"The government has intensified the diversification efforts in recent years capitalising on the 2000s oil boom and the increased inflows of foreign investment," said the report, adding that the "emirate's strategy is to capitalise on the strong hydrocarbon sector and grow into other industrial sectors as well as tourism and aviation".

The emirate is also home to one of the world's leading sovereign wealth funds, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which is a strategic international investor.

The report said: "Although official figures on assets under management are not forthcoming, it is considered that the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (Adia) and Abu Dhabi Investment Council (Adic) hold hundreds of billions of dollars of investments. According to the IMF, the UAE held an international investment position (IIP) with net assets of $305 billion (Dh1.1 trillion) of international assets in 2009 and the great majority of them are owned by Abu Dhabi entities.

The ratio of IIP net assets over UAE's GDP is 132 per cent, compared to 105 per cent for Singapore and 52 per cent for Norway."

Abu Dhabi has traditionally invested a considerable amount of its oil revenues abroad and such international investments provide a significant source of income to the Abu Dhabi Government and reduce the volatility of the emirate's GDP and dependence on oil prices, said the authors of the report.

Exports of oil and gas brought $102.7bn to the UAE in 2008 and a projected $56.8bn and $71.8bn in 2009 and 2010 respectively, according to the IMF, as quoted in the report. The year 2008, which was probably one of the best in terms of economic growth, saw the UAE's consolidated fiscal surplus reach a record high of Dh127bn due to strong oil and non-oil revenue, even though consolidated government expenditure increased to a record of Dh198bn, as per the data in the report.

"The UAE reported fiscal surpluses for four consecutive years from 2005-2008 (while previously it had several years of fiscal deficits due to low oil prices and a steady growth in public spending and infrastructure).

"A small fiscal deficit of 0.3 per cent of GDP is predicted for 2009 due to lower oil prices and an expansionary fiscal policy by Abu Dhabi to counteract the economic slowdown. The IMF forecasts that the UAE will report a surplus in 2010."

Given the economic growth, Abu Dhabi's population has increased rapidly in recent years, primarily through immigration of expatriates. "Resident population grew by a compounded average of 4.6 per cent annually between 2001 and 2006. Between 2005 and 2008, the emirate grew at a faster annual rate of six to seven per cent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the population increased mildly in 2009 and 2010, as Abu Dhabi remains a net employer."

In recent developments, Abu Dhabi was also hit by the global credit crunch.

"The oil growth engine (centred in Abu Dhabi) and the non-oil growth engine (centred in Dubai) were hit at the same time driving the country into mild negative real GDP growth in 2009, forecast at –0.7 per cent by the IMF."

However, it was a softer landing. "Though at the beginning of the financial crisis many participants expected that Abu Dhabi could be immune to shocks, the reality is that the crisis has affected Abu Dhabi though to a smaller degree.

"In the real estate sector, Abu Dhabi has expanded more conservatively and has a better match of demand with supply. In many segments of the property market, Abu Dhabi is still undersupplied. Yet the UAE's capital experienced a reduction in real estate prices in 2009. Prices in prime residential properties have fallen 40 per cent between Q3 2008 and Q3 2009," said Colliers.

Rental levels have fallen by an average 18 per cent in the first three months of 2009, but had previously increased by 14 per cent in Q4 2008.

"Occupancy rates in Abu Dhabi are almost 100 per cent and supply of completed property (rather than off-plan) cannot satisfy demand. Yet rental prices have been dropping since Southern Dubai has emerged as a substitute to Abu Dhabi."

As far as the banking sector is concerned, the central government has moved proactively in easing the liquidity problem and restoring confidence in the system.

Other sectors of Abu Dhabi's economy are performing well. The return of oil prices to the $70-$80 a barrel level has boosted oil revenues. "Industrial demand and revenues have fallen due to the slowdown in global activity and local construction, but investments in this sector continue.

"Abu Dhabi will capitalise by increased industrial export revenues once the global economy resumes expansion. In the meanwhile, the emirate benefits from carrying out its infrastructure investments at reduced cost due to the drop in the price of construction materials and labour costs."

Abu Dhabi has also indicated that the government and the emirate will continue supporting troubled government-related entities given that they are sustainable businesses, the report points out.

With a GDP of Dh520bn in 2008, the emirate is a strong economy. Yet, Abu Dhabi is one of the most concentrated economies in the GCC, as the oil sector dominates economic output and any major fluctuations in oil price can impact it.

Thus, diversification is in a major way and the emirate has invested large amounts of capital in broadening the economic base.

"Abu Dhabi has intensified efforts embracing the two pillars of diversification and privatisation, introducing strategic measures and undertaking substantial new investments in industry, real estate, tourism, aviation and other sectors.

"Abu Dhabi targets an annual growth of 7.5 per cent. The emirate published in 2009 the 'Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030' outlining its economic priorities for the coming years and its policies over the next two decades to achieve its goals.

"The plan envisages a population of 3.1 million by 2030, an 80 per cent increase from an estimated 1.7 million people in 2009," it said.

"Abu Dhabi's aim is to stimulate non-oil sectors rather than to reduce activity in the oil sector. It is increasing its industrial base [petrochemicals, plastics, metals] capitalising on the availability of resources.

In addition, it is looking to boost tourism and aviation sectors amongst others.

Abu Dhabi aims to become industrial and manufacturing hub

On sector analysis of the Abu Dhabi economy, the Abu Dhabi Investment Environment report highlights that Abu Dhabi aims to become the Middle East hub for industrial and manufacturing companies seeking to capitalise on the numerous opportunities that the emerging economies of the region offer.

"The government envisages exploiting the emirate's competitive advantage in the energy sector and command a larger share of the hydrocarbons value chain.

"According to the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, investments in industrial projects reached Dh39.8 billion in 2008."

The construction sector is another important one to watch out for. It contributed Dh21bn to Abu Dhabi's GDP in 2008. Construction activity is still strong as there are massive infrastructure projects under development. Growth in real estate construction has slowed down but fundamentals are good, said the report.

"There are massive government or government-related investments in shipyard, seaport, airport expansions, healthcare, education, major road upgrades and transportation.

"Infrastructure investment makes up a significant and growing proportion of construction activity for Abu Dhabi and the GCC," it said.

Developments in transport are also commendable. Abu Dhabi's new port is under construction and will include one of the world's largest industrial zones.

The emirate has also undertaken a massive expansion project for its main airport.

Aerospace and defence are also important pillars for Abu Dhabi's diversification plans.

"In the third quarter of 2009, Mubadala announced that it had signed a long-term strategic aerospace agreement with Boeing to develop mutually beneficial initiatives in various areas including composite manufacturing, engineering, R&D, commercial maintenance, repair and overhaul, military maintenance and sustainment, and pilot training.

"In the first quarter of 2009, Mubadala had announced that it is in the initial stages of forming a joint venture with the United States company Sikorsky Aerospace Services in order to develop a military-aviation maintenance centre," the report said. Abu Dhabi is also investing considerably in the tourism sector as a means of diversification.

The city has been developing specialised economic zones in strategic locations to attract investments.

The emirate has launched huge projects to diversify its economy.