Friday, August 26, 2011

Cost of furnishing a new flat

Recently, I have been learning everything about furnishing a new home. I also got to know the various costs involved in renovating a new flat. The following are the basic things needed to renovate a new flat and their estimated costs.

Basic package + add ons such as wall feature etc ($35,000)
1) Homogenous Flooring
2) Lightings
3) Room wardrobes and kitchen cabinets
4) Toilet shower screens
5) Wall feature for television
6) Plumbing works
7) Other carpentry works
8) Other masonry works

Furniture and other necessary stuff
9) Ceramic stove - $1200
10) Refrigerator - $2000
11) Washing Machine - $1200
12) Dining table - $800
13) Sofa - $1500
14) Television - $2000
15) Air conditioner - $2500
16) Living room table - $200
17) Shoe cabinet - $600
18) Beds - $4000


Others : $5000

A) Total cost of renovation = $56,000

According to the estimated price listed above, I will have to set aside $56,000 to renovate my future flat. Assuming that I will be buying a 4/5 room flat which costs around $500k, the costs involved will be:

1) Option fees: $2000 (cash - refunded if CPF OA is sufficient to pay the downpayment)
2) Downpayment: $50,000 [10% of purchase price (CPF or cash)]
3) Stamp fee: $9600
3) Conveyance fee : $312.60
5) Other miscellanous fees : $1000

B) Initial cost of purchasing a flat: $62,913

Total cost = A + B = $118,913




Thursday, August 25, 2011

RULE OF LAW AND ISLAMIC FINANCE

STANDARDISATION, JUSTICE AND THE RULE OF LAW: WHERE IS DISPUTE SETTLEMENT IN ISLAMIC FINANCE?

As Ibn Khaldun, the outstanding Muslim social scientist put it many centuries ago, a man cannot live except in a civil society because he cannot survive in isolation. Demands of life could not be fulfilled unless he co-operates with others, and the others need him to fulfill their basic needs too. The gathering of people in a particular place or locality leads to urbanization which is the essence of hadharah or civilization. Civilized people need systems to conduct their daily activities and to settle disputes arising as between them. Life without dispute settlement mechanisms is a form of anarchy by definition.



In the contemporary world however, multiplicity in legal systems is a fact of life that no informed observers and students of law can ignore. The numerous systems and rules applied and followed worldwide testify to the fact that everywhere justice is sought after at whatever price. Nevertheless, the biggest question to answer is not related to what particular system that is followed but what justice it brings to real lives of the people. In the end, it is justice in itself that is sought after by nearly all irrespective of race, colour or place of abode. The quest for justice is a never-ending endeavor of the human race of all ages. Islam as a religion is very vocal about the need to uphold justice. In the Quran Allah Almighty says:



“ O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witness to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is (against) rich or poor: for God best protects both. Follow not the lusts ( of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”

(Al-Quran 4: 135)



It is of interest to compare the above Islamic notion of justice with the so-called distributive and remedial justice of Aristotle, the natural justice of Anglo-American Common Law and the formal justice of the Roman Law. Whatever description that may be attributed to all of the above notions, one certain thing is that each system seeks to define justice and provide solutions to human problems which involve rights and obligations and the associated phenomena related therein.

One of the most important elements needed for justice to be done is the existence of an independent judiciary that seeks to settle disputes arising in the society. No law can be effective in rendering justice unless the means through which it is delivered and made applicable is supported by just process and procedure. Granted all of that, the rule of law is thus established where law reigns supreme; nothing is done or rendered except in accordance with clear provisions of law as interpreted and explained by competent and independent judges.



In the context of judicial independence the most pertinent aspect is to see whether the establishment of the judiciary itself reflects sincere regard for principles of justice. One legitimate question to ask is: to what extent, the established court system or judiciary is subject to constraint and limitations that would seek to influence its task in administering and upholding justice or whether there are constitutional provisions that guarantee its independence?. If there are in fact such constraint and limitations, whether they are justified in the context of an overall effort to establish harmony in society founded upon the noble concept of justice that is supposed to maintain workable balance with regard to competing interests and rights?.



It has been said time and again that, the judiciary is the true guardian of justice in any society such that any weakness in its roles and functions vis-a-vis other organs of the state will adversely affect the whole system of value and justice. Likewise, any deterioration in people's confidence about the independence of the judiciary will in most cases lead to instability and chaos that will sometimes be difficult to control. Therefore it is very important to realize that the duty to maintain an independent judiciary is vital to the survival and progress of any nation. Efforts must always be made to strengthen the image and dignity of the judicial system and its functionaries.



In a wider context, apart from perception held by local masses about their judiciary, international public opinion is sometimes very active in shaping the kind of image a judiciary of a certain country has. Undoubtedly, these days no country stands in isolation and immune from the scrutiny of interest groups, lobbyists and international media in particular. However there are several dangerous elements present in the current debate about democracy and the rule of law and with it the notion of independence of the judiciary.



With the ensuing move towards globalization, there seems to be efforts by some quarters to impose certain values as "universal" forgetting the facts that in reality, people are different, their habitats and upbringing are different and the levels of their civilizations are also different. If certain universal values are to be accepted by the entire world, these values must be universal enough to be accepted by all. Certainly there are values that we universally have no argument about them like:

1. one is presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty

2 . Everyone has the right to be heard,

3. the notion of right to fair hearing,



4. the right to provide defense of oneself upon accusation.





However, there are values that people may disagree about, in the context of prevailing local customs and religious belief. International conventions thus for instance recognize freedom of religion as one of the basic fundamental rights of each and every individual. Hence to force someone to abandon the creeds or rules as found in and taught by his religion is actually a denial of the right to religious freedom granted to him in the first place.



Islam for one, is a religion that is very clear about law and order as it comes with a well-embracing concept of shariah or divine law supplemented with what is known as jurist law or fiqh jurisprudence. Therefore, for Muslims, justice is both the question of religion and temporal necessity. As such the duty to administer justice is considered part of religious observance of the believers not less valuable than their worldly affairs for that matter.



Although Islam propagates sacred values as dictated by the Shariah or the divine law, yet in actual fact the Shariah itself contains both the elements of rigidity and flexibility at the same time. It is rigid when it deals with fundamental values like justice, tolerance, equity, respect for the elderly, fair distribution of property, prohibition of certain major criminal acts, just to mention a few, but still it is very flexible with respect to the way in which these principles or values are to be implemented. That flexible part of the Shariah (fiqh jurisprudence) may change with the change in time and place thereby allowing accommodation to take place for the sake of justice and equity.



Universal values, if they were to be respected, must be flexible enough that they can accommodate local circumstances, yet still relevant in a wider context. The irony is that sometimes in the pursuit of universal principles and values we forgot about the need to adjust ourselves to local circumstances and needs, thereby compromising our true quest for justice.



Independence of the judiciary is also related to the need to maintain freedom for judges to act within their powers as established by law. In order to curb unwarranted monopoly of power in a state, the doctrine of separation of powers was propounded whereby the three organs of the state ( legislative, executive and judiciary) are supposedly segregated such that each will act as a check on the others, culminating in the appearance of the notion of check and balance in constitutional thinking.



Additionally the judiciary is also empowered with judicial review over actions by executive agents to ensure that discretion is properly exercised. In practice however, such noble aim has been the most difficult task to achieve given the dominance of the executive branch in a day to day running of the state, not to mention the fact that in most cases, judges, especially at the highest level, are normally appointed by the head of the executive.



Apart from issues relating to appointment of judges, what we mean by the term independence of the judiciary is that judges who are so appointed should be able to exercise their unfettered discretion in the interpretation of laws and administration of justice, and that they are not influenced by anyone in discharging their duties as adjudicators for disputes. Only when this aim is achieved that the major condition of rule of law is fulfilled thus ensuring that justice is done and liberty established. The process that leads to the above noble aim is related, among others, to issues surrounding modes of appointment of judges, judicial tenure, removal of judges, judges’ salaries and also qualifications of judges.





Sunday, August 21, 2011

After Many Words, a Short Conclusion on Information-Insensitive Debt

Why six lengthy blog posts on information-insensitive debt? (By the way, they were published all at once because Blogger has been acting screwy lately, barring me from my account for more than a month. In case you want to refer back to them: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.)



I strongly believe that the shadow banking system was never confronted and dealt with properly after the financial crisis, and that this was a tragic error.



I suspect that the shadow banks will be back, with fresh problems, in the not-too-distant future.



At that time, we may finally be forced to figure out what to do with them. I expect various approaches to be proposed.



To decide wisely how to deal with the shadow banking system, I think we have to possess the right theoretical framework for understanding it. In my opinion, policy based on a flawed theory of “information-insensitive debt" will lead us to create an even more dangerous financial system.

Information-Insensitive Debt and the Strange Case of Haircuts

Now for part 6 of my rather exhaustive (and exhausting) look at Gary Gorton's theory of information-insensitive debt.



This post is rather granular, to show inside-out how a very dubious assertion at the theory's center leads Gorton to what (I think) is a wrong-headed interpretation of what occurred during the height of the financial crisis.



We start with haircuts -- in the repo market, not at the local barber shop. Anyone who needs a refresher on how repurchase agreements work, go here.



HAIRCUTS FOR DUMMIES



Per Gorton, the haircut is the "percentage by which an asset's market value is reduced for the purpose of calculating the amount of overcollateralization of the repo agreement."



That's very gnarly sounding. Here's an unpack that gets at the gist of the matter.



When you "deposit" say $100 million in a shadow bank through a repurchase agreement, the bank essentially posts collateral (to guarantee your funds in case it defaults). The haircut can be thought of as a way to ensure you get ALL your money back. So you may receive $105 million of securities for that $100 million -- a haircut of 4.8 percent (5/105). If the shadow bank collapses overnight, you're holding $105 million of securities to make you whole on $100 million -- not a bad proposition, it seems.



Haircuts vary with the nature of the collateral debt. During the financial crisis, for AAA corporate debt, they were minor (about 5 percent, according to Gorton). A graph of haircuts on asset-backed securities, on the other hand, resembles a Stairmaster in profile. They climbed from zero percent to about 40 percent when the financial system was in extremis. That deep 40 percent haircut was the shadow banking equivalent of a large amount of money being sucked out of the system -- a bank run, in other words.



WHY A HAIRCUT? HINT: THE ANSWER MAY SURPRISE YOU



Now comes a question that turns out to be more interesting than it first appears. Namely, what are these haircuts based upon? This is where things get curious. You might assume, if you're a common-sensical markets person, that “depositors” demand haircuts because if their counterparty in the repo agreement fails (a la Lehman), they need to be compensated for the fact that the securities may not really be worth what they were told. Or, an alternative explanation could be that they’re afraid the value of the securities might drop while they’re holding them.



Both interpretations, however, would be incorrect, according to Gorton.



Gorton informs us that:

Haircuts are a function of the default probabilities of the two parties to the transaction, as well as of the information-sensitivity of the collateral.
Now, before we analyze that, here's another excerpt you need to read, to get the full picture of where Gorton is coming from (this is also from his paper titled Haircuts, the bold is mine):

Keep in mind that the collateral offered in repo is valued at market prices. If the bonds become riskier, and their prices go down, then they would be valued at these lower prices. Furthermore, if there is more uncertainty about their price in the future, that risk can be addressed with a higher repo rate. Repo rates can and did go up (see Gorton and Metrick (2009)). Why should repo collateral be haircut? And why should these haircuts go up? Our answer, following Dang, Gorton, and Holmström (2010a,b), is that a haircut amounts to a tranching of the collateral to recreate an information-insensitive security so that it is liquid. The risk that is relevant here is different than the risks we usually think about, which are related to the payoff on the security. A haircut addresses the risk that if the holder of the bond in repo, the depositor, has to sell a bond in the market to get the cash bank, he may face a better informed trader resulting in a loss (relative to the true value of the security). This risk is endogenous to the trading process. It is not the risk of loss due to default. Consequently, the price cannot adjust to address this risk.
PAINTING ONESELF IN A CORNER WITH EFFICIENT MARKETS THINKING



The first thing you should have noticed: Gorton very much appears to be some form of EMHer (Efficient Markets Hypothesis, or the belief that market prices are efficient and reflect all existing public information). (As a reformed EMHer, I can spot a member of the species. This is precisely how they talk: "If the bonds become riskier, and their prices go down, then they would be valued at these lower prices." They don't simply make a point; their stating of a proposition has a whiff of the evangelical.)



Being an EMHer, though, paints him in a corner, starting with his explanation of the two factors contributing to haircuts. Because for an efficient markets guy, the "default probabilities of the two parties to the transaction" -- reason #1 for haircuts -- shouldn't matter at all.



After all, if the collateral for your deposit is a security at market price, that's what someone would buy it for at that moment. And you're only holding the security overnight -- or for a few days -- so where's the risk? Of course, the price may change. But Gorton covers that in the longer excerpt above, saying you'll demand a higher repo rate to compensate for that risk. The more detailed excerpt, in fact, appears to conveniently forget about counterparty risk.



So, back to square one: why do you need a haircut?



BETTER INFORMED TRADERS ON THE LOOSE!



This is where the theory starts crumbling around the edges. Remember, the centerpiece is information sensitivity, so that's the Procrustean bed Gorton has to fit his analysis into. Here's how he explains why a shadow banking “depositor” requires a haircut: if forced to sell the debt (my bold again), "he may face a better informed trader resulting in a loss (relative to the true value of the security)."



Ah, so the real problem is a "better informed trader." But what does that phrase mean? And what does it imply? I'm not sure whether Gorton tries to use it in a special way, but let's assume he doesn't. In that case, a "better informed trader" would presumably be a trader who knows the worth of the debt better than you do. And, it appears, you're worried that his information will be negative and push his offer price lower.



So a better informed trader knows something about the value of the security that you don't, so you're afraid that the debt may be mispriced, and that's why you demand a haircut?



No, Gorton would probably demur, it's not quite that. He tells us "This risk is endogenous to the trading process. It is not the risk of loss due to default." See, the market price plus the repo rate has already captured the risk of loss due to default, according to Gorton. But then, what is the nature of the knowledge possessed by a better-informed trader? When the donut cart makes its rounds at corporate headquarters? Because, seriously, when I hold a debt security, I'm concerned mainly with one thing: getting paid what I'm due, when I'm due it (and the probability of that occurring).



(Another thing: what is the "true value" of the security? What relationship does it have to the "market price"? Which should I care about? If the true value is $100 million but the market price is $200 million, why should I mind paying $200 million as long as other traders in the market are willing to pay that, especially if I possess the security for only a day or two?)



The other problem with these "better-informed traders" is that it stretches credulity that they suddenly appear on the horizon, a sagacious glint in their eyes, waiting to take advantage of you. Presumably they were also there the day before. So why weren't they pushing down the "market price" before? And if these better-informed traders are feared, why not find some of the apparently dumb traders of the day before who helped set the "market price" -- and simply sell to them instead, if they're so enamored of the security?



AND SO A THEORY VEERS INTO ABSURDITY



Gorton wants to convince us that the securities were fairly priced (they capture all the risk of loss due to default, remember) and that depositors extracted giant haircuts of 40 percent for fear that, if they got stuck with the debt, the only traders they encounter may possess an "information advantage." He never clarifies why, if this information advantage necessitates such a large haircut, the better informed traders aren't already profiting from their (considerable) advantage by trading in the market.



So Gorton basically says that market prices on asset-backed securities (a key kind of collateral in the shadow banking system) during the financial crisis were accurate. He makes this claim even though there were some 100,000 of them -- sui generis problems abound* -- and trading in particular ones probably got pretty thin and the value of asset-backed securities is often derived from a model (hence "mark to model") and investors were just starting to realize these things had been misrated and were probably lousier than they thought and ... you get the idea.



*(Brief aside: The uniqueness of these assets, and the difficulty accounting for them, was why Paulson scuttled his original plan for TARP, as Hernando de Soto recounted in Businessweek: “When then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson initiated his Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in September 2008, I assumed the objective was to restore trust in the market by identifying and weeding out the "troubled assets" held by the world's financial institutions. Three weeks later, when I asked American friends why Paulson had switched strategies and was injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into struggling financial institutions, I was told that there were so many idiosyncratic types of paper scattered around the world that no one had any clear idea of how many there were, where they were, how to value them, or who was holding the risk.”)



ANOTHER WAY OF LOOKING AT THE MELTDOWN IN THE SHADOW BANKING SYSTEM



Is there an alternative explanation of what happened?



Yes, and it might go like this: Before the financial crisis, the haircut was zero on asset-backed securities because it was practically unthinkable that the large investment bank opposite you on the repo transaction would fail. And so, because the counterparty is deemed safe, the asset-backed securities being offered for repo aren't examined too carefully. The "magic pig" phenomenon starts to set in. "Sure, they're worth what we claim," Mr. Investment Banker says. "Would you like to see our math-heavy, extremely complex model or just take our word that you'll get repaid?" And you say: "I'll take your word, no problem."



But then the investment banks start looking shakier, and the asset-backed securities begin looking dodgier as well. You realize too that the banks are frightfully interconnected, boosting risk further. So you begin looking askance at asset-backed securities that you suspect aren't at "market price" at all. Further, you expect you'll have trouble reselling them. This would naturally lead you to demand deep haircuts.



Now you may resist going as deep as 40 percent -- that's pretty severe -- until you get really, really scared. What would scare you the most? If you think that the collateral may be mispriced, the scariest thing would be seeing one of those investment banks go under. Say Lehman Brothers. Until then, if you think the chance of the investment bank failing is remote, you may not extract much of a haircut for the mispriced securities. Who cares what they’re really worth? But once it becomes clear you may get stuck with this collateral -- the game changes totally.



You need a deep discount, and 40 percent would be reasonable. Gorton would have you think that such a discount implies crazy sale prices. This alternative explanation doesn't need to invoke a fire sale to make sense. It would, however, suggest there was a bit of the "magic pig" in those asset-backed securities.



Next: Many words later, a short conclusion: why should anyone care so much about this arcane subject?

Down the Rabbit Hole on Information-Insensitive Debt: Inscrutable Complexity Is a Good Thing!

Part 5 of a detailed look at Gary Gorton's curious theory of information-insensitive debt in which we ask two key questions.



ONE: IS INFORMATION SENSITIVITY A USEFUL PRISM THROUGH WHICH TO VIEW THE WORLD OF DEBT IN THE FIRST PLACE?



Not really, it seems.



A more useful theoretical construct would steer away from the bi-phase nature of "information insensitive" and "information sensitive" and would at least posit a sliding scale between the two. But an even better theory would ditch information sensitivity completely. Risk is the key to understanding how the world of debt works and how securities are analyzed, not information sensitivity (note: it’s probably no accident, in fact, that certain bloggers have equated Gorton's "information insensitivity" phrasing with the quality of being "risk free" -- but a careful reading of Gorton shows he makes no such equivalence, so he appears to be aware that there's a critical distinction).



A better theory might assert that, with the financial sector's demands for collateral to back derivatives transactions and so on, there will be a need for less-risky securities to fill that role.



TWO: HOW DANGEROUS ARE THE WAYS IN WHICH ASSET-BACKED SECURITIES BECOME INFORMATION INSENSITIVE?



Gorton seems to like asset-backed securities as information-insensitive debt for all the wrong reasons.



He likes them partly because of the senior nature of the debt and the fact that it's backed by a portfolio. He doesn’t recognize that the worth of being senior is firmly attached to credit risk. As an investor, which would you rather hold, if you're anti-risk: the senior debt of Energy Future Holdings (the former TXU that’s freighted with debt after being bought in the biggest LBO in history) or some (not senior) debt of AAA rated Johnson & Johnson?



This isn't a gratuitously needling point, because structured debt likes "yieldy" (read: riskier) assets. Collateralized loan obligations, a type of CDO, are stuffed with leveraged loans -- the high-risk borrowing that private-equity firms take out to make an acquisition. Why? The structuring doesn't make sense using investment-grade debt; you can't wring out enough yield.



So to say a securitization is more "information insensitive" because it may be backed by a portfolio composed of senior debt -- and then to be agnostic about the contents of that portfolio -- is very wrong. And what's more, you should be looking at how correlated the movements within the portfolio are. Junk loans in CLOs will display high correlation if the economy double-dips; that's pretty much a given.



INSCRUTABLE COMPLEXITY IS A GOOD THING? SAY WHAT?



Then there's the really dangerous feature of asset-backed securities that Gorton, bizarrely, is attracted to: complexity. This should be a bug, not a feature, but we've gone down the rabbit hole, folks. Here's his rationale: complexity raises the cost of producing private information. It's too expensive to figure out the debt is mispriced. Ingenious, though the arrant screwiness of this is never acknowledged.



However, here's the catch: that same complexity will, at some point, confer a significant advantage for a dedicated investor (such as a Michael Burry type in the Big Short) to do enough research to determine the extent of the mispricing. This will only occur though, after the mispricing becomes significant enough.



So what you get in the trading of this complex debt is the equivalent of a tectonic shift, violent and jarring, instead of the smooth adjustments that are made by say a U.S. Treasury, which trades largely on public information -- millions of bits of it, clashing and conflicting and impressing various traders in various ways. The asset-backed security, however, manifests itself as stable and information-insensitive -- partly because of its impenetrability -- then, on reaching a certain tipping point of mispricing, lurches into “information sensitivity.” Also, because of its complexity, ratings services will be sluggish to downgrade the debt -- especially after they have been complicit in the initial misrating -- adding to the sudden volatility.



Note, however, that this volatility wouldn't have to be characteristic of a panic or widespread fire sales, as Gorton wants us to believe was the main problem during the financial crisis. This aspect of volatility is inherent in the very nature of complex debt -- a kind of debt that Gorton lauds because it raises the cost of producing private information.



And Gorton sees this as a feature, not a bug. Hmmm.



A BANKING SYSTEM SHOULDN’T BE BASED ON TRADING IN MAGIC PIGS



Information insensitivity is NOT what we need more of in our financial system. Magic pigs are information insensitive, until there is a revelation (the discovery that they are not magic), at which time they become dangerously information sensitive. We DON'T WANT a shadow banking system built on magic pigs (or on securities that want to become magic pig-like).



Next: What’s behind haircuts in the repo market, according to Gorton? (Surprise: It’s not what you think.)

The Worrisome Analogy at the Heart of the Theory on Information-Insensitive Debt

Now for Part 4 on Gary Gorton's theory about information-insensitive debt, in which we begin by dusting off our SAT analogy skills.



Retail banking : deposit insurance :: Shadow banking : x



"X" is, of course, the kind of insurance that will save the day when there's another run on the shadow banks, as we saw during the financial crisis. Deposit insurance is a neat innovation that traces back to 1934; it eliminated runs on commercial banks in times of panic. It also made deposits at a bank "information-insensitive" debt -- the value of your $1,000 at Fidelity and Security Trust is secure, even if the CEO absconds to Tahiti with $10 million in a duffel bag.



Before solving for "x" -- or, better, asking whether we should even try to solve for "x" -- let's look at how shadow banking works.



SOME BANKING TAKES PLACE “IN THE SHADOWS”



Retail banking is for you, me, Aunt Edna. Shadow banking is for the giants in the financial system, who have large amounts of cash to park -- typically money market mutual funds, insurers, pension funds. They make “deposits” and “earn” interest through a process that involves something called a repurchase (repo) agreement.



Here's an example of how that works.



A pension fund spends $100 million to "purchase" AAA asset-backed securities from JPMorgan. As part of the deal, JPMorgan agrees to buy back these securities, after a short period of time -- overnight, or maybe a week or two. The pension fund will receive a small amount of interest (a fraction of 1%, as the lending is so short term). If JPMorgan goes insolvent, the pension fund holds those securities as collateral. They can be sold and (theoretically) the pension fund recovers all its money.



Now consider what happens with retail banking with a $100 deposit if the bank becomes insolvent. The FDIC makes the investor whole, paying the $100. Similarly, the pension fund in our example really wants its $100 million returned and doesn't want to deal with those collateral securities, which may not really fetch $100 million on the open market if they happen to be complex products, especially in times of stress.



So what happens in the repo market during a "bank run"? Nervous depositors -- like this pension fund -- demand greater and greater haircuts on securities they “purchase.” In other words, instead of “depositing” $100 million and accepting say $102 million of securities, they may demand much more collateral: $110 million, $120 million. Haircuts on asset-backed securities may go from zero to 40 percent (as they did in the crisis). This has the effect of sucking 40 percent of that $100 million out of the shadow banking market.



Spread this effect around, and the impact is similar to that of a bank run.



SO WHAT WOULD ‘DEPOSIT INSURANCE’ IN THE SHADOW BANKING SYSTEM GUARANTEE?



Here’s a big problem, for those who see insuring shadow banking "deposits" as the obvious solution to bank runs: This kind of banking has a wrinkle that's not found with its retail counterpart. In the shadow system, to guarantee a depositor’s $100 million, you essentially would have to say, “Whatever the actual value of that security you bought in a repo agreement, we’ll buy it back for $100 million.”



Think about this. If you deposit $100 in a commercial bank, the FDIC says you’ll get that $100 back -- which seems fair; you have deposited a fiat currency, and you receive the same amount of that fungible currency in return. But this differs hugely from what the shadow banking system would be guaranteeing: that you would be made whole no matter what the true value of the security that you hold as collateral.



Why is this problematic (other than for the obvious reason that the security, especially if thinly traded and "marked to model," could be mispriced -- and that this tendency to mispricing will be exacerbated because of the very existence of the insurance)?



WHY RETAIL AND SHADOW BANKING ARE WORLDS APART



Well, significant differences exist between retail and shadow banking systems.



"Deposit insurance" for commercial banking means: You're insuring that a depositor of money (common currency) will receive that money back. The bank involved is usually not too risk-loving, not too large, not too interconnected, and not too complex -- plus its commercial banking activities are regulated.



"Deposit insurance" for shadow banking means: You're insuring that a depositor of money (common currency) will receive that money back. The bank involved is usually risk-loving (often an investment bank), large, highly interconnected and complex -- plus its shadow banking activities are unregulated.



Being large and highly interconnected implies that when a bank in the shadow system gets in trouble, others will soon be at risk and the amount of "deposit insurance" ultimately needed may be very high (and the FDIC model won't work, where a team of examiners takes over the bank on Friday and sorts out things so the institution can re-open on Monday -- Lehman, which was enmeshed in the shadow banking system, is still painfully crawling through bankruptcy, almost three years later, even spawning its own periodical: Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy News).



THE CHALLENGE OF PICKING “INFORMATION-INSENSITIVE” DEBT WORTHY OF BEING INSURED



Enormous problems arise when it comes to how securities will be chosen to be insured in the shadow banking system. It's comparatively easy in retail banking. The FDIC insures dollar claims. Dollar claims are in money, or fungible currency.



But in shadow banking, how will securities be selected that will qualify as "information-insensitive" collateral worthy of insuring? Will government regulators be involved in picking and/or rating them? If so, why does anyone think our regulators have the expertise to assess asset-backed securities (one form of information-insensitive debt prevalent in shadow banking) that S&P and Moody's failed miserably to understand properly during the financial crisis?



Who determines how much of this insured information-insensitive debt is appropriate? Who pays for this "insurance" and how? And, if the debt is insured to market value, that will pervert the price at which it trades (Q: What would you pay for a security that is insured for however much you pay for it? A: Potentially, the sky’s the limit.).



And if the debt is insured to market value minus a haircut, who sets the haircut? How is the haircut adjusted if that debt class grows riskier? And, even with a haircut, insurance will tend to push the price higher as traders discover ways to game the system (Here's a scenario: X buys Security C for $100, its true price. Security C, which is classified as "information-insensitive" debt, is insured up to 90 percent of its market value. X sells Security A to Y for $200, who later sells it back to X for $210. Y makes $10 and X now possesses a security that's insured to $189 -- a great game for everyone but the insurer of the debt.)



Also what precautions will be taken to ensure that financial institutions don't start smuggling in junk disguised as quality securities, trying to get them classified as "information-insensitive debt" -- the designation of which will immediately boost the value of the assets?



Next: Is “sensitivity to information” really the way investors analyze debt?

The Theory of Information-Insensitive Debt Prompts Some Head-Scratching Questions

Here's Part 3 on the magic pigs of high finance, information-insensitive debt (everyone still awake?). Last time we looked at the concept using a common-sense definition of the term. Now let's try to figure out where the theory is unsatisfying on a more granular level, by using Gorton’s own words.



First, to show us what qualifies as information-insensitive debt, he offers examples: high-grade corporate debt, government bonds (presumably U.S. Treasuries, and not Greek 10-year bonds), and AAA rated asset-backed securities.



In different places, he characterizes such debt as (the bold is mine):

[Debt that] "is very liquid because its value rarely changes and so it can be traded without fear that some people have secret information about the value of the debt. If speculators can learn information that is private (only they know it), then they can take advantage of the less informed in trade. This is not a problem if the value of the security is not sensitive to such information."
Also (page 7 of the same document, Slapped In the Face by the Invisible Hand):

"Bank debt is designed to be informationally-insensitive, that is, these bonds are not subject to adverse selection when traded because it is not profitable to produce private information to speculate in these bonds."
These definitions sound impressive, in that arid academic way, but what do they mean when applied to real debt in the wild? For example, the first one doesn't really make sense. He's saying that speculators can't take advantage of the less informed while trading information-insensitive debt, even after learning private information, because "the value of the security is not sensitive to such information."



AND NOW FOR SOME HEAD-SCRATCHING QUESTIONS



What debt could Gorton possibly be thinking of here? Does he really believe that even Treasuries are immune to being profited upon, by someone who possesses private information? If I wiretap the Federal Reserve Board meeting, and learn the Fed is about to announce an operation to purchase $800 billion of Treasuries, he doesn't think that gives me an advantage trading in this market? (Note: the second definition does add "it is not profitable" to produce private information, but this opens a new can of worms, which we’ll soon see.)



Also, U.S. Treasuries are very liquid, but it’s not true that their value rarely changes -- their value changes constantly. Now, do the bonds trade without fear that some people possess secret information about that value? For the most part, yes -- but there may also be certain junk bonds that trade without fear that some people have secret information about them. If so, could these junk bonds qualify?



And what if the junk bonds are "information insensitive" for six years, then the company reveals itself to be tottering near bankruptcy and their price becomes volatile? Do they suddenly become information sensitive, or were they always information sensitive but only seemed information insensitive?



In other words, is this quality of being “information insensitive” only ascertained after empirical evidence of how the security actually behaves? Or is a security considered information insensitive only if we can’t imagine a situation in which someone could profitably produce private information to speculate in the debt? But, honestly, no security exists for which that’s an inherent quality, as the thought experiment for Treasuries shows.



PROFITABLE FOR WHO? YOU, ME? SOME GUY IN BANGLADESH?



And "it is not profitable to produce private information" raises many fresh questions. What's profitable for a trader to do at any given moment depends on many variables that seem as though they should have little to do with information sensitivity.



A trade may be profitable simply because I can lay my hands on large-enough blocks of securities to make chasing a minuscule gain on each one worthwhile. Or, a narrower trading spread may allow me to turn a profit more easily. (Of course more-liquid securities tend to trade with narrower spreads, which leads to a Gortonian paradox, as being liquid is supposed to be a sign of information-insensitivity.) Profitability also hinges on what I pay my workforce -- so does a security become information sensitive simply because I’ve got six traders in Bangladesh who work at one-sixth the salary of their U.S. counterparts? Also how does "private information" factor in? What if it's profitable to ransack Company X's Dumpster for trading information. Does that make its debt information sensitive until the Dumpster is relocated to a more secure place?



Some of the above may sound a bit picayune. But here are the takeaway points: (1) If so many questions can be posed, doesn’t information-insensitive debt sound like a theory that presents a false dichotomy at best? (2) There are so many trades, and so many price movements on securities (especially liquid ones), how do you sort out evidence that proves a security is information insensitive, instead of the opposite?



Next: The troublesome analogy that Gary Gorton’s theory leads to.

Information-Insensitive Debt: An Unnatural Concept, For Starters

Now for Part 2 on Gary Gorton’s theory of "information-insensitive debt" in which we continue to study the question, "Is it a bad thing or is it a really bad thing?" :)



One big problem: the concept happens to be quite unnatural.



Fiat currency is probably the best example of information-insensitive debt, but it's essentially a trivial, artificial case. Retail banking deposits also qualify as a good example, but they're something different: a special case. Exactly how they're special is important to understand.



WHAT MAKES BANKING DEPOSITS REALLY, REALLY SAFE?



Gorton likes to illustrate the information insensitivity of retail banking deposits by using an example involving a check. Let's say I write a check for a $14 haircut. That piece of paper isn't worth $13.89 or $14.05 to my barber. It's worth exactly $14.



Likewise, if I go directly to my bank instead to withdraw that $14, I can be sure of getting the full amount, even if my bank is Lehman Brothers Savings Inc. and everyone's glumly packing their desk contents into boxes when I arrive. The FDIC insures my deposits up to $250,000. I can breathe easily.



So it doesn't behoove me, or anyone I trade with, to spend time investigating the financial soundness of my bank. No matter what terrible information surfaces about that bank, my deposits are covered.



See a problem already? The debt isn't naturally insensitive to information. It achieves this property by being insured. But the value of anything -- your collection of Pokemon cards or seashells -- can become information insensitive if insured. So, becoming information insensitive this way feels like cheating a bit.



That leaves the tantalizing question: which debt is naturally information insensitive?



None of it, really. On its face, the phrase is oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp.” (Note: Gorton parses the term in a special way, which we'll look at later.)



DEBT IN THE WILD IS NATURALLY SENSITIVE TO INFORMATION



Pretty much all debt in its natural state is information sensitive. Markets trade on this information. Some is public. Some is private (e.g., a stock price spikes right before a merger announcement, as the news leaks out). Much information arguably occupies a gray area between public and private. Is private analysis of public data showing that a bond is undervalued private or public information?



Even fear and wild speculation is information of a sort. Say there's a rumor that a neutron bomb will be detonated in Microsoft's main cafeteria tomorrow, based on absolutely nothing. If enough stupid investors believe it (ever hear the phrase "dumb money"?), they may sell their bond holdings in the software giant. Information about this crazy rumor will prompt a smart trader to jump in, scoop up Microsoft debt, and score a neat profit when the price rebounds.



A smart theory would posit that just about all debt is information sensitive. The theory might make an argument that there are varying degrees of sensitivity, and that a particular instance of debt lies on a continuum between very information sensitive and not-that-information sensitive. Okay, fine -- that would at least be nuanced and cautious. But instead, in Gorton's world, we get debt that is either "information insensitive" or "information sensitive" -- and of course debt that lurches from the former to the latter during a financial panic, as if undergoing a change of phase, like ice to water.



SO WHY SHOULD ANYONE CARE ABOUT ANY OF THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?



Because there’s a shadow banking system in the U.S. that’s larger than the retail banking system. It’s where the financial crisis began in 2008.



Information-insensitive debt plays a key role in shadow banking’s repo market, according to Gorton (later, we’ll look at how repo works). Asset-backed securities, for example, are posted as collateral against repo borrowings. During the financial crisis, the securities suffered huge haircuts once they became "information sensitive" (or once investors discovered they more closely resembled magic pigs than Treasuries). At the same time, Gorton notes, other kinds of debt suffered very minor haircuts.



So here’s something to ponder: If we must have "information-insensitive" debt in our financial system, shouldn't we look to these other types for what it should look like, and not to securitizations that are opaque and become thinly traded with alarming suddenness?



Next: Gorton’s own definition of information-insensitive debt comes up short.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Information-Insensitive Debt But Were Afraid to Ask

Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the idea of "information-insensitive debt" (also known less gracefully as "informationally insensitive debt"). Gary Gorton, a professor at Yale’s graduate business school, appears to be the intellectual progenitor (or one of them) of this concept. In 1990, he wrote an academic paper with George Pennacchi titled "Financial Intermediaries and Liquidity Creation."



My fascination with information-insensitive debt arose from a sneaking suspicion that it was a bad thing (except for a couple of notable exceptions). My keen interest in writing about it, after all this research, arises from a conviction that it is a bad thing, and that the theory itself isn't much good either.



A rough-and-ready definition of information-insensitive debt -- we'll return later to Gorton's own more nuanced and precise definition -- is this, by way of Felix Salmon:

Financial assets which (normally) don’t change in price when new information about them emerges.
Now if you're a markets-oriented person, this very idea should make your skin crawl from the get go. What kind of zombie asset doesn't change in price when new information about it emerges? How weird is that?



MAKING BACON OFF MAGIC PIGS



To begin this series of posts about information-insensitive debt (there’s waaay too much to fit into a single piece, unfortunately), let me introduce you to my magic pigs.



Each magic pig is worth exactly $1 million. Its astonishing value resides in something I call a noumenon. When asked what this noumenon is, which is a thing unseen, I gladly provide a 9,000-word document, with much high-level math and abstruse concepts and economic formulas, to justify its value. I trade a lot in financial markets, and whenever my counterparty demands collateral, I offer bonds entitling him to a number of my magic pigs, should I fail to deliver on whatever I have promised.



So when $10 million of collateral is requested, I hand over certificates for 10 magic pigs. My counterparty doesn't object: the whole market has accepted that these pigs are magic and worth $1 million apiece (after all, I do have documentation and the pigs have been rated top grade by Standard & Poor’s -- ignore for the moment their pro-animal bias, as one of their officials once famously observed, “It could be structured by cows and we would rate it”).



Sometimes I sell a magic pig for $1 million, and the holder of that pig then uses it for collateral, or sells it. Or whatever. Because the value of the pig lies in this complex noumenon, no market participant has any advantage in trying to profit on my pigs (through trading), by first gaining private information. And if a leg falls off a pig, that doesn't matter because its noumenon isn't affected. Even if the pig dies, its noumenon stays intact. So it's still worth $1 million.



The certificates for my magic pigs are truly information insensitive debt -- at least, until I am revealed as a fraud, at which point they very rapidly become information sensitive and start rising and falling in accordance with the market on hog futures.



Next: What do “jumbo shrimp” and “information-insensitive debt” have in common?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Opportunity

Stocks watchlist target price

Singtel: $2.50
STI ETF: $2.712 (0.8 x $3.39)
Ezion Holdings: $0.35
Keppel Corp: $5

Entry point:
1) Target prices hit
2) VIX > 40

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"WAAD" (PROMISE) or CONTRACT?

In the last post, we raised up an issue pertaining to “waad” or promise in Islamic finance and how it seems that this concept has been employed to achieve some objectives aimed at helping one party but denying justice to the other side in a transaction. Islamic law right from the outset has recognized a distinction between a promise and a contract where a contract has been viewed more important than a promise at least in the context of external binding effect. However even in the case of contracts, Islamic law does look at the nature of the contracts concerned when it comes to the question of their external binding effect that will define whether the court will enforce the ensuing obligations or not. In this connection there are at least three major contracts to talk about in terms of the binding effect of a contract. Firstly there are contracts held to be binding on both contracting parties upon their formation where none of the parties are allowed to unilaterally terminate the relevant contract, and among others this includes sale and purchase and leasing or contract of/for service known as ijarah. The second type comprises contracts that are held to be not binding on both of the parties such that at any time any one of them can unilaterally put an end to the relationship without any need to get approval from the other side like in the case of the contract of wakalah (agency), mudarabah, sharikah (partnership) and the likes. And lastly there are contracts that are viewed to be of special category when one of the party is allowed to terminate while the other is to stick to them with no right to terminate unless with the consent of the first party. One example is the contract of surety or guaranty, where the creditor can always free the guarantor from the contract at any time, but the guarantor has no such a right as he is to stick to it as per the term agreed.

It is interesting to note, even in the case of the contracts that are supposed to be binding on both of the parties like sale and ijarah, both parties if they wish, can insert the right to terminate the contract in their agreement based on a concept known as khiyar al-shart provided in the contract according to which the party who asks for it will have the right to terminate such a contract within a specific time period. This concept is very similar to the modern notion of right of cooling off (cooling off period) where the parties can provide for its as part of the contractual terms, in which case they have right to set aside the duly formed contract within specific period of time.

Coming back to the issue of binding promise as previously discussed (refer to previous post), now it has become clear that if the concept is relied upon, it (binding promise) will take away the flexibility of the law of contracts itself by not allowing the relevant parties to have equal bargaining power in their dealings. The binding effect of a contract of exchange like sale and purchase derives its sanctity from the fact that if one of the parties unilaterally backs off from his contractual duty without agreement from the other side ( who is ever willing to provide his part of the bargain), then the one who is ready to continue can pursue the first party in the court of law for enforcement (for specific performance). Therefore in the case of a contract that is binding on both of the parties, there is an element of consideration where there are bargains on both sides which are not the case in a one-sided promise. How come a party (promisee) who himself has not made any commitment to provide any bargain/return/consideration to the other side is allowed to pursue the first party (promisor) for an enforcement of a promise. Promise itself is said to be not more than a statement by a person that he intends to carry out some good deeds in future, such that it is up to the promisor to fulfil it or not even though in a religious/moral term he is commanded to fulfil it unless there is any justified reason not to fulfil it. Given that the promisee has not made similar commitment, he cannot enforce the unilateral declaration of promise made by the promisor, as there is no equal bargaining in the equation. Apart from that there is always a general Shariah prohibition on taking away anything from an owner save on the owner’s consent either premised on a sale or gift contract. In short, if the notion of binding promise is to be widely applied, it will defeat the purpose of the law of contract in accordance to which people generally bargain their positions in a level playing field. Although the approach that allows for a promise to be made binding seems to address the issue of a customer not wanting to conclude a promised sale contract in limited scope, the danger of putting aside the general theory/rule of Islamic contract is far more serious than the anticipated benefit as it will defeat the very contractual framework that has been there for the general benefit/protection of all, not to mention the flexibility of the law of contract itself when it recognizes the different categories of contracts from their binding effect perspective.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

THE PROBLEM OF "WAAD" OR PROMISE

Promise or “Waad” has been featured so prominently for quite sometime in Islamic finance circles such that it has been given more importance than Islamic contract itself. In what is frequently referred to as an effort aimed at helping Islamic finance to grow and be competitive in the world of finance, waad has been employed in structuring many Islamic financial instruments including Murabahah sale, swap and option where in most cases it is the customer who is made to be legally bound by any promise that he may be asked to make in favour of Islamic financial institutions.

The concept invoked in this connection is what is known as the notion of binding promise premised on views as adopted by some mazahibs or Islamic schools of Jurisprudence. Although a great majority of Muslim jurists right from the earliest period of Islamic law have held the view that a promise is undeniably morally binding upon the promisor, but they accepted the view that in a law or judicial term it is not binding in the sense that if the promisor should break his promise he could not be sued in any Shariah court for such a breach.

But the modern approach to Islamic banking and finance has always preferred the view of a small minority of the jurists who hold the opposite opinion when they opine that a promise is also judicially binding on the promisor. Not only that this approach sanctions such a view, if one were to look at many contracts/agreement used by Islamic financial institutions, it will become clear that any breach of promise by the promisor (client) will render him liable for any loss that may have been suffered by the other party (promisee/banks) and be required to fully indemnify the promisee. In many cases, part of the duty to compensate revolves around the need to pay the difference in price of the underlaying asset, to be purchased by the promisee from the bank, and the realized price if the same asset is to be sold to any other party after the breach of the promise by the promisor, i.e., when the promisor negates his promise to purchase the asset from the promisee/bank.

Interestingly, although it seems that the promisee/bank generally accepts the notion of binding promise on the promisor as described, that concept is however not made applicable to the promisee/bank in most of the circumstances where normally the promisee/banks always reserves an absolute discreation whether to conclude the promised contract or not, as the promisee/bank right from the very beginning of the arrangement will not make any similar promise to sell the asset to the client/promisor. It is always claimed that to make this arrangement valid from Shariah perspective, there will always be only a unilateral promise from one of the parties that in most cases as previously said is the customer/client. The rationale for this approach as propounded by the practitioners/and their Shariah advisors is that if the promise to buy and sell was to be made on mutual basis, that will trigger Shariah compliance issue as far as the intended sale is concerned. Take the case of Murabahah for example, if it is allowed for both parties (the bank and the customer) to make mutual promise to buy and to sell at the same time then this arrangement will, as claimed, constitute a sale contract at a time when the asset of the murabahah has yet to be the property of the bank because at the time of the mutual promise the bank has yet to buy it from the distant supplier. This arrangement (mutual promise) if allowed will lead to selling something not in one’s possession or ownership that runs counter to a basic rule of sale.

However, one big question remains to be answered: if it is true that any promise made by a client in favour of a bank is mandatory to be fulfilled by the client in any circumstances in line with the concept of binding promise as decribed, how come the promisee/bank at his absolute discreation reserves a right to himself not to agree to the performance of the promise by the promisor? Because if such a discreation is exercised by the bank/promisee it means that he prevents the promisor from performing his promise as dictated by the concept of binding promise. Hence the big question is, can it be possible for the promisee/bank to resort to such an act while insisting at the same time that the promisor must perform his promise under all circumstances?

The tendency to rely on the concept of binding promise as explained above seems to be motivated by a desire on the part of the strong party/financier to take advantage of the needs of the weaker one/the client more than
a true adherence to the spirit of justice as envisaged by Islam or Shariah.

This analysis shows that what had been accepted by the majority of Muslim jurists on the nature of a promise which is not legally or judicially enforceable is more appropriate to be considered. Imam al- Shafi as one of the earliest jurist to talk about Murabahah for example, opined that should the two parties (in the context of Murabahah) enter into a mutual promise to do murabahah sale, such mutual promise is valid if both parties have option whether to subsequently enter into the murabahah sale or not to enter into it, otherwise the arrangement is not valid in his opinion because if such a promise is binding on them, that effectively will constitute a sale at a time where the seller has yet to own the asset. For him a promise or even a mutual one will have no binding effect on the parties from the judicial perspective.
Hence when the bank/promisee subscribes to the idea of a promise binding only on the promisor but the promisee/bank is free to accept the performance of the promisor or to reject it just because he has not made a similar promise is very absurd indeed.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

S&P Demonstrates Its Utter Hypocrisy

This morning, I saw S&P had "bravely" downgraded the U.S. to AA+.

What horsecrap.

If nothing else, this shows how irrelevant ratings have become.

Yields on 10-year Treasuries are about 2.5 percent, nearly at historical lows. Every time the market catches a whiff of fear, investors pile into Treasuries. U.S. debt is considered about the safest stuff out there, bar none, as indicated by the yield.

The yield is truth, the market itself speaking.

Meanwhile, S&P is still willing to rate lots of securities AAA -- if you call them CDOs and pay S&P a handsome fee for the rating, even when these securitizations are paying a yield that far exceeds that on U.S. government debt.

What we're seeing today is just rank hypocrisy from a ratings service that has the gall to claim that AAA is AAA, across asset classes.

Tip to Washington: just figure out a way to combine and tranche your Treasuries in some kind of god-awful complex structure -- make it really, really complicated -- then go back and pay S&P a fat fee to rate the mess. You'll get your AAA back. I guarantee it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

ISLAMIC BANKING VIA CONVENTIONAL FRAMEWORK

ISLAMIC BANKING VIA CONVENTIONAL FRAMEWORK
Banking if it is to be understood conventionally as the business of collecting deposit and provision of loan is truly out of context as far as Islamic perspective is concerned, basically because Islam prohibits any act of commercialization of credit and loan. Loan is supposed to be at all times viewed as an act of benevolence the motivation of which is to help people in needs free of charge.
However problems arise when 30-40 years ago some Muslims wanted to have their own banks albeit based on their own version where there was no loan given on interest as this would constitute commercialization of debt and credit. But they had to face the reality of that time where they found out that in many parts of the Muslim land, nearly all laws governing banking and provision of credit were (and still in many jurisdictions) based on a framework that authorized financial intermediation by banks and credit institutions where interest was paid and charged. So in the beginning Islamic banks were allowed to operate within such a framework in a way that they were said to be different from their conventional counterparts because they did not manifestly charge interest. This was generally known then as Interest-free Banking Scheme/System.
Up to a certain level it was later realized however that to be banks within the conventional framework they were allowed to operate in, the Islamic banks had to face stiff competition from the interest based banking institutions. Given that they were business entities whose objective was to make profit for their shareholders this position in the market was not viewed lightly by the players. To ensure their survival they had to continue to be in business in a profitable manner, facing all the competition from their conventional peers. Whether they liked it or not it was a matter of life and death for them that profit must be made otherwise they had to close their doors.
The problem is that profit as it is understood in Islam can only be created out of real trading activities where real (as opposed to financial ones) assets are traded for profit. In banking, real assets are of no relevance because bankers by definition are supposed to deal with financial assets rather than real physical ones such that in the majority of cases, in line with regulatory laws in many jurisdictions including the Muslim one, banks were not allowed to hold real assets except in a very small proportion. The catch here is that how come an Islamic bank be said to have made certain amount of profit where there has been no clear proof that it had conducted real trading of (physical) assets during the relevant period. On the other side of the river, they could see very clearly their conventional counterparts were freely making profit out of their so called business of selling loan/credit based on interest which is in real fact selling money/debt for money/debt at a differential rate for profit. Such profit if viewed from Islamic perspective is no other than Riba’; the unlawful profit from Islamic point of view.
Hence the dilemma faced by the early Islamic banks was centered upon the question of how they can continue operating as banks but at the same time would not be involved in the same practice as undertaken by the conventional ones. Soon it was discovered that the Islamic concept of Murabahah (including sale on credit-BBA) sale was very close to the conventional act of provision of credit and loan although it did not involve money lending as such given the fact that Murabahah is a sale contract be it on cash or deferred payment basis. So the early Islamic banks moved to adopt this transaction as the backbone for their business activities. The end result was that more and more transactions were done on the basis of Murabahah with deferred payment as a standard practice, the manner of which was gradually heavily criticized by the early proponents of the Islamic banking movement like Dr. Al-Qardawi and the late Dr. al-Najjar and some other concerned ulama like Dr. Al-Salus. Dr. Qardawi for example, although initially had forcefully defended the legality of Murabahah as a transaction, however after seeing that Islamic banks had over indulged in it, had called on them to minimize their reliance on this transaction. The criticism by many was centered around the issue of Islamic bank’s over indulgence in Murabahah such that they had neglected other modes of trading allowable in Islam, and that by creating debts out of Murabahah transactions in a massive scale they had behaved more like conventional banks as far as provision of credit was concerned. (This is not however in any way related to the controversy pertaining to commodity murabahah which is more serious in nature.)
Another associated problem faced was related to the fact than once these banks were involved in Murabahah debt creation in a massive scale as described above, they had to address the issue of owning too much assets (in their balance sheets) in the form of financial assets i.e debt owed to them by customers as a result of murabahah transactions that were in the majority given on deferred payment basis. With this situation they were said to be starved for not knowing how to liquidate the non liquid assets (debts). At that time many Islamic bankers were heard saying that there were not enough instruments in the market for them to manage this liquidity problem. Meanwhile their conventional peers had all the freedom to liquidate their debts in various debt/interest –based instruments available in the money or capital market. For them this was quite natural and well within the framework within which they were regulated; a framework that allow for financial asset or debts to be sold and purchased freely on prices that are known as interest rate.
Islamic banks could not do just that given the interest factor in trading financial assets not at par value that without doubt would gave rise to riba’. Conceptually what Islamic banks should do was to use the debts to purchase real assets for the purpose of trading with a view to creating profit for themselves and their customers. But the reality was that, not many were willing to become real traders and be involved in real treading of physical assets. One common reason given was that as bankers they were not supposed to do that because bankers had no concern with assets except the financial ones. The problem is that profit cannot be made out of trading in financial assets that naturally gives rise to riba.
Because of the above predicament, it was claimed that the Islamic banks had behaved in a manner similar to any other bank where they wanted to remain as mere financial intermediaries truthful of course to the framework within which they were allowed to operate. Even though they may claim that they were actually involved in trading of real assets, they were said to be doing all they could to free themselves from all risks associated with owning the assets they were supposed to be trading with. All risks were shifted to their customers such that hardly that any form risk was left with the bank although like even in the case of ijarah for instance, the bank was said to be the owner of the leased asset, but the customer needs to bear all the risk.

The issue here is that if they had only functioned as mere financial intermediaries and not like real traders who assumed ownership risk associated with the assets under possession, then it was doubtful as to whether they had conducted real or actual trading of physical assets in the manner prescribed by the Shariah to justify their profit. The basic rule of sale is that a trader can only trade with assets that are truly in their ownership and possessions, the premise that is out of context as far as banking is concerned given the framework that asks of them to be merely holders of financial assets (money/debts) only.

Even today where in some jurisdictions with the introduction of specific legislation that does not prohibit Islamic banks from holding real assets, it seems the same conventional framework is still being followed in practice,, where Islamic bankers are still skeptical to take on the role of real traders of physical assets with all the necessary risks that they cannot free themselves from. Thus it is doubtful according to some observers whether the so called Islamic banks have properly managed to conduct themselves within the necessary trading framework as explained above.

Additionally, the indication is that more and more Islamic banking products are introduced where the practice points toward the widespread trading of financial assets rather than the real ones although in many circumstances real assets were brought in to give the cloak of legitimacy to many practices said to be doubtful. In many occasions some Islamic banks without reservation involved themselves in sale and purchase of debt at discount via many financial instruments invented for financing purposes. Some other even were actively involved in Private Debt Securities where debts were sold and purchased at discount, not to mention other forms of debt-based securitization and the so called Islamic derivative contracts that are said to be badly needed for risk management. The truth is that by operating within the conventional framework where market instability is self-induced by allowing financial assets to be freely traded, Islamic banks have created trouble for themselves. Those so called derivative instruments are actually meant to address the problems created by interest-based system that has caused so much trouble to the world financial stability. It is a pity indeed to find out that some Islamic institutions being enticed into the black hole without proper comprehension on their parts.

In the same context, if one were to look at any financial statement issued by Islamic financial institutions currently in operation hardly that one could find any statement related to the number or unit of real assets recorded in the statement (the balance sheets) as if throughout the period under reporting the institutions concerned had taken in no real asset whatsoever into their ownership. If this situation is true, from where did they generate profits as reported in the financial statement as profit must have come from trading of real assets in the of ownership the trader. This fact shows either that truly the institutions did not effectively own any asset or the financial statement was prepared in the conventional manner when the institutions were viewed as traders of financial assets rather (just like their conventional peers) than the real ones as required by the Shariah. Either way the issue begs more questions than answers as to why the reporting had failed to reflect the true state of affairs of the relevant parties.
Perhaps Islamic banks need to be taught a lesson by a massive financial crisis like the ones faced by their conventional peers to make them pay attention to the true teaching of Islam that profit shall only be created out clear real trading of real assets and not the financial ones. By then hopefully the financial statement would have undergone changes!