When a pro-terrorist organization announces its intention to launch a financial jihad against the West, it is well worth learning their methods --- especially when they promote a religious pseudo-financial scheme through largely unregulated practices purported to be safer than the conventional. But ultimately, the new assets are constructed with as little, and perhaps considerably less, transparency than the last wave of toxic assets that hit the economy, with catastrophic results.
The Muslim organization Hizb Ut Tahrir capitalizes on Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna's 20th century derivative, encouraging followers to build a parallel financial structure. Al-Banna envisioned the resultant Shari'a-compliant finance as a “back door” into Western financial markets and institutions through which to supplant liberty and prosperity with Islam. Muslim clerics including MB spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi promote Shari'a finance as generally safer than Western investments, a diversification method to steady personal assets -- and a stable economic system that should replace capitalism. Call it “financial replacement theology,” if you wish.
In July, Hizb Ut Tahrir plans to launch its U.S. arm with a huge Chicago “Khalifah conference” heralding the coming Caliphate and global Islamic supremacism. After 9/11, Germany and Sweden outlawed Hizb Ut Tahrir. In July 2005, Pakistan's then-president Pervez Musharaf warned Britain not to tolerate its continued U.K. presence. But in the U.S., Hizb Ut Tahrir has proudly announced intentions to replace capitalism with Islam.
Founded five years into Jordan's illegal occupation of East Jerusalem in 1953, Hizb Ut Tahrir labels itself “peaceful” but strategically objects to violence only for the time being. The group sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood, considers Europe's democracies “a farce” -- and deems the U.S., UK, and Israel works of “the devil” -- and seeks to impose Islamic law (Shari'a) worldwide.
Major banks from Citigroup, HSBC, Chase, Bank of America and Lloyds TSB -- probably unaware of the etymology of Islamic finance -- established subsidiaries offering Shari'a-compliant products. Mutual funds at Principal Financial Group, UBS, Amana Funds and SEI Investments, among others, followed suit. Especially late last year as the devastating toll of sub-prime mortgage lending mounted, clients were assured that Islamic banking -- in many respects a dangerous financial fad -- was much safer than other banks and investment houses.
Yet bad economic news has not escaped the supposedly secure Islamic investing sector. Islamic securities can also (like all other asset classes) go into default, moreover. Holders of East Cameron Partners LP's “safe,” asset-backed Islamic bonds (sukuk) now line up before a Louisiana bankruptcy judge with all the other hapless creditors of the Texas-based Easter Cameron Oil and Gas Co. that filed for Chapter 11 reorganization last October.
The East Cameron default was no one-time Islamic finance anomaly, either. In May, Kuwait's Investment Dar Co. -- 50 percent owner of the Aston Martin Lagonda luxury car manufacturer -- defaulted on a $100 million sukuk. And in June Saad Group Islamic bonds traded at a quarter of their “face” value -- that is, the the roughly $650 billion price at which issued by Saudi billionaire Maan al-Sanea's company. The Saad Trading Contracting & Financial Services subsidiary, like East Cameron, went into financial restructuring, aka bankruptcy, after the Saudi Central bank froze the al-Sanea family accounts.
As I've often previously warned, events now show that Shari'a banking may prove more susceptible to market dislocations than other financial sectors.
Islamic bonds employ “some of the most complex” Western structured finance tools ever created. They transform liquid, traceable cash flows from interest-bearing debt into illiquid assets -- that cannot be easily unwound. In the 1980s, bond sponsors transformed trillions of dollars in cash flow claims on illiquid real assets into liquid, traceable mortgage-backed “pass-throughs” and “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs).
The Muslim Brotherhood quickly re-branded the “special purpose entities” (SPEs) -- that kind that, coincidentally, sank Enron -- as Islamic “special-purpose vehicles (SPVs).” Shari’a banks use these vehicles to “restructure interest-bearing debt, collecting interest [as] rent or [a] price mark-up.” Issuers of sukuk al-ijara -- Shari'a bonds like those now in default -- sell hard assets to SPVs, which sell share certificates to fund their investment and in turn lease the purchased assets back to the sukuk issuers, collecting the principal plus interest that they then pass to sukuk investors as “rent.” But now, sukuk issuers are defaulting on “rent,” implying that SPVs can't sell or return property to issuers when their sukuks mature.
That means, in essence, Shari'a finance is a sham. “There is no such thing as interest free investment,” warns Columbia MBA Joy Brighton, echoing Rice University Islamic economics and finance chairman Mahmoud el-Gamal. “All Islamic finance today is interest based,” el-Gamal complained in the Financial Times two years ago. Furthermore, Islamic finance features a few other unique “complexities,” namely:
- “Shari'a regulations can override commercial decisions.”
- Documentation is not standardized
- Inter-creditor agreements can be complex
As U.S. financial institutions crumble, rattling markets, Congress has focused on regulating the opaque, previously unregulated securities called credit default swaps that Brighton describes as guaranteed boxes of counter-party risks. “One party pays a premium, the second guarantees payment, and a third guarantees the guarantor.” AIG, for example, guaranteed payment on billions of dollars worth of sub-prime mortgage loans. “The credit default swap is the guarantee, and AIG bore the default risk burden in exchange for upfront fees on maybe trillions of dollars in loans.”
But credit default swaps are old news, Brighton says. “A new generation of toxic assets has not yet hit anyone's radar.” While touted as such, Islamic securities aren't immune to default. Many more Islamic issues are likely to succumb as the global economy worsens.
“Islamic banking is in the toxic derivatives genre,” says Brighton. Each counter-party agreement within its complex “boxes” of interwoven counter-party risks, is a contract for “payment” and “delivery/receipt of funds.” Issuers create derivatives when they “peel off and resell pieces” from individual securities containing multiple counter-party contracts. One default by a party to any of the interwoven contracts in a “box” can cause its whole structure to collapse.
Moreover, Islamic finance is doubly toxic. Many banking corporations have created Islamic subsidiaries, says Brighton -- segregated oil wealth managed by “outside money managers” and Islamic radicals who don't circulate money globally, but keep it “within the Islamic community, as a charity- and jihad-funding mechanism.” They're just another economic time bomb that financiers have blindly bought.