Saturday, September 27, 2008

Islamic Perspective on Meltdown in American Markets

Call it the consequences of irresponsible American invasions, call it the irrational exuberance of short sellers, call it the catastrophe of subprime lending, call it the mismanagement of leveraged products, blame it as you may, American markets are facing unprecedented meltdown and doomsayers see little promise in the federal bailout package. Ironically, the Wall Street has noticed that Shariah-compliant investments--which avoid speculative risk and debt-ridden greed--have fared much better in these troubled markets. In the past few years, Shariah-compliant investments in Western markets have grown to more than half a trillion dollars.
Islamic financing is attracting huge academic curiosity. Many experts participating in the 8th Harvard University Forum on Islamic Finance held this past April wondered if Islamic financing could have prevented the meltdown that American markets are facing primarily due to mortgage debt and mortgage-backed securities—now known as "toxic investments." This legal commentary highlights the two fundamental principles of Islamic financing that I presented at the Forum.

High Risk Investments

The Quran prohibits al-Maysir or speculative risk, warning the faithful to avoid games of chance in which the probability of loss in is much higher than the probability of gain (2:219). Shariah-compliant investments, therefore, avoid speculative risk, including interest rate options, naked equity options, futures, derivative and numerous leveraged products purportedly designed to hedge investments. Many of these financial products attract speculators in hopes of making quick money. When trusted fund managers, under institutional pressures to show profit, resort to speculative risk, hedge investments turn into suicidal strategies for financial destruction.

In pursuit of greed and thrill, straightforward investments in companies engaged in socially useful activity has become unattractive, even boring, because of their presumably lower rate of return—frequently a self-fulfilling prophecy. Billions of dollars are dumped into companies that promise huge profits but produce nothing. While Islam would allow risking investments in socially beneficial research projects, it prohibits investments in companies peddling alcohol, tobacco, pornography, debt, and weapons—products that undermine our health and safety.

Some investment strategies rampant in the markets are not only morally corrupt but socially harmful. Short sellers, for example, make money when companies collapse and close. Turning the conventional logic of investment on its head, short sellers wish companies to crash rather than prosper for they make most money when companies go bankrupt, workers and employees lose jobs, and pension funds evaporate through declining company stock. Such cynical investments, touted as useful forces that balance the market, are contrary to Islamic law.

Interest-Bearing Debt

In addition to prohibiting high risk investments, the Quran also prohibits no risk investments. The prohibition against riba, interest on loans, is absolute; it is strictly proscribed. Islam does not prohibit passive investments. Nor does it prohibit giving interest-free loans. Debt is not contrary to Islamic law. Charging interest is. Some experts argue that usury, and not interest, is prohibited under Islamic law. Most Muslim scholars agree, however, that interest on loans is contrary to the Shariah.

Refuting arguments that money has time value or that interest is analogous to profit, the Quran offers a categorical principle that “trade is permitted but interest is not.” (2:275). The prohibition against interest was revealed not only to save the poor from unscrupulous lenders but also to deter investors who demand a set return on their investments and decline to take the risk of engaging in useful trade.

Contrary to Islamic principles, lending in general and subprime lending in particular was predestined to harm American financial markets for two distinct reasons. First, debt braced with high interest was being extended to persons who simply could not afford to pay back loans. This was usury. Second, the real estate mortgage was no longer a prudent investment decision, since numerous investors were trading in real estate with inflated prices. Investment bankers and other geniuses on Wall Street were securitizing mortgage debts, turning them into interest-bearing securities. These fancy securities began to fail when their underlying assets were foreclosed or deflated. The debt turned deadly and its holders bankrupt.

Shared Destruction

Between the prohibited limits of maysir (speculative risk) and riba (no risk), however, Islamic Law permits creativity in financial markets where investors mobilize surplus monies for the production and distribution of halal (Kosher) goods and services. These permissible markets are neither risk-free nor prone to irresponsible risk. Though innovative and authentic, the markets are infused with the values of fairness, transparency, and reasonable profits. They are free of predatory practices that corrupt transactions with greed and inflict hardship on the poor, the elderly, and the novice.

The federal bailout package that the Bush Administration is selling as a quick cure of all problems will only aggravate the underlying cancer of interest-bearing debt. It is unlikely that the infusion of more money will reform institutions and companies built on layers of interest-bearing debt. When the best and the brightest are engrossed in finding ways to make money with money, and no more, the system may look creative and intelligent but it is geared toward shared destruction.