Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Potential Model for Islamic Microfinance II: Resisting The Banking Temptation

When developing an Islamic financial model, the temptation is very strong to try to mimic what bankers already know. Indeed, that has been the history of Islamic banking and finance: start with the conventional practice that you forbid but want to mimic (e.g. an interest-bearing loan), break it down into its pieces (e.g. money now from A to B, more money later from B to A), and then reconstruct the pieces with some degrees of separation (e.g. goods sold for money now from C to A, goods sold on credit for more money later from A to B, and goods sold for money now from B to C -- this is tawarruq if the bank conducts all three transactions, or commodity murabaha if the bank only does the first two pieces and leaves it up to B to make the spot sale to C or another party D). This is the silly model marketed variously as commodity murabaha or tawarruq (including red arrows formally):
A comment to the previous post mentioned the practice of "chit funds" in the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent, wherein participants in a RoSCA who have not yet collected the pot bid for the pot at each stage of the cycle. This adds an explicit interest rate (discount pricing, similar to the way Treasury Bills are sold) to the implicit one imposed only by the order of collection.

There are many other ways that one can explicitly add interest rates to the basic structure of a balanced RoSCA:
  • Later rounds of the RoSCA, approved by jurists, as described in the previous posting, may be for larger pots. This gets around the problem of introducing interest payments within a single RoSCA cycle -- which is the focus both of commercial "chit funds" and much of the Economics literature (e.g. Besley, Coate, and Loury, American Economic Review, 2003). As I shall discuss below, I think that this focus on a single cycle of the RoSCA misses the main significance of investment in social capital: one is compelled to participate (as a later recipient) in a RoSCA when one is asked. Social capital is the availability of a pool of people willing to lend you at zero interest at some/any point in the future. One should focus on the repeated game rather than one stage.
  • Participation in one or more RoSCA has been shown to increase with reported religiosity, as shown in Indonesias' participation in one or more arisan using probit and ordered probit estimation by Sowmya Varadharajan. This is very useful because an individual who cannot in one period fulfill their obligation in one RoSCA may start another of which they are the first recipient to meet liquidity problems. In other words, the social capital invested in one's circle of friends/family/... provides guaranty against default and dissolution of earlier RoSCAs. This can easily be used to manufacture banking products through staggered overlapping RoSCAs: the second recipient of the first RoSCA is simultaneously the first recipient of the second RoSCA, the third recipient is the first recipient of the third, and so on. This way, later recipients of the pot from earlier RoSCAs can receive explicit interest for the loans that they extended by receiving an interest free loan of equal or larger size. It would be very easy to mimic any amortization table using such structures (a simple spreadsheet would do).
  • Unfortunately, the latter possibility makes these structures vulnerable to the creation of pyramid schemes. Indeed, in the different but related JAK system, it appears that a pyramid scheme did develop in the earlier experiment before the bank was licensed and regulated. There is an inherent pyramid scheme in every fractional reserve system (otherwise, what is the banking multiplier other than a pyramid scheme), and we have seen ample proof over the past few months to illustrate that our entire financial system is one gargantuan-sized pyramid scheme (as Krugman called it, the decade at Bernie's). Of course, one has to be particularly careful not to build  pyramid schemes in the name of Islamic finance, especially given recent decades' experiences in Egypt, Albania, and other countries (in addition to numerous unfortunate web-based pyramid schemes in Malaysia and elsewhere). However, that is a regulatory concern that extends well beyond the specific problem with which we are currently concerned.
So, it is clear that we can deform RoSCAs the way that Islamic finance lawyers and consultants have subverted classical Islamic contracts (e.g. structuring loans cynically through the trust sale known as murabaha, which was simply negotiation of a profit margin instead of the final price, trusting the seller to reveal their cost -- i.e. negotiating markup over invoice, without any credit sale component). However, this would defeat the purpose of trying to reboot Islamic finance. 

The idea is not to have as one's goal replication of the existing conventional finance. Indeed, my argument has been that if we can replicate a conventional practice, then we should use that replication as a form of juristic identification (تكييف فقهي), for example of mortgages, to permit the more efficient conventional practice in such cases. In cases where we or our target audience find a conventional practice to be forbidden Islamically, the objective should be to take an existing practice that is generally accepted by the Muslim public, and (credibly) approved by religious scholars who issued their opinions independently from institutions that make profits based on their religious opinions, and then to see if we can make the practice (e.g. RoSCAs) more efficient. In this quest, we should keep the structures as simple as possible, in order to avoid confusing religious scholars or potential customers.

My proposal (to discuss in the next post) is to organize the leveraging of social capital inherent in RoSCAs using a hybrid of the mutual banking structure of JAK (which is conducive to development into a credit union model) and the theory of takaful (literally: mutual cooperation, but the term is used for non-commutative forms of insurance marketed by Islamic finance providers, albeit not structured properly as mutual insurance).


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Assalomualeykum brother,

Not sure If I am posting in the right place, but I have a question about mortgage interest. Since you get to deduct it at year end, does this mean you did not pay anything and if it is usury?

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