Dubai’s debt woes are bringing the world’s attention to the Islamic finance, particularly the Islamic bonds known as sukuk. Sukuk are Sharia-compliant bonds that do not pay interest. Instead, the sukuk sellers pay the debt holders a share of the rent or capital gains from non-cash physical assets or share of the profits earned from businesses purchased with the money raised. Unfortunately for the Nakheel sukuk holders, the real estate bubble in Dubai that promised big gains from rents and sales has collapsed. And the Islamic bond holders are facing the possibility of a major default, resulting in a dramatic sell-off of sukuk in the last few weeks. According to Data Explorers, a company that tracks how much of a company’s stock or bonds are out on loan, about 75% of institutions holding the sukuk sold their position between the end of August and the end of November. “It’s an extraordinary sell-off in a bond so close to maturity, when there was no indication of a problem refinancing. The data suggests they had some information that it was a good time to sell,” said Data Explorers managing director Julian Pittam.
Dubai’s recent request for a debt standstill for Nakheel, one of its biggest state-owned companies, has raised the possibility of the largest Islamic bond or “sukuk” default on record, raising alarms in the global Islamic debt markets.
Nakheel, the Dubai developer behind many of the Emirate’s high-profile projects, has to find $4bn to repay sukuk by the middle of this month, according to a report in Financial Times.
If Nakheel doesn’t get creditors to agree to a stay on their claims, the Dubai company could be declared in default after Dec. 14, 2009. A group of the sukuk holders, including New York-based hedge-fund firm QVT Financial LP, have appointed London-based law firm Ashurst to represent them in the matter, says the Wall Street Journal.
A December 2006 report on the Nakheel sukuk sale in Euroweek, a trade publication for capital markets, said about 100 accounts bought the notes. Of those, more than half were banks. By geography, about 40% of the issue was placed in the Middle East and 40% in Europe.
Beginning modestly in 2000 with three sukuk issuers collectively worth US$336 million, the Sukuk bonds exceeded $75 billion last year. Issuance of sukuk – both in domestic and foreign currencies – has been quite common in some countries. The most active issuers of sukuk in the past year include Malaysia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The potential Dubai default is likely to negatively affect nations in Asia and the Pacific region planning to raise money by offering sukuk. Indonesia, Pakistan and South Korea are planning to sell Islamic bonds offshore in separate offerings. Jakarta plans to sell up to $1 billion of global sukuk by the second quarter of 2010, according to people familiar with the situation. Pakistan, the only other Asian nation to have issued offshore Islamic bonds, has just $600 million outstanding from its 2005 sale. It is looking to raise $500 million in Islamic bonds next year.
The Karachi city government is preparing to issue $500 million in municipal sukuk by February, 2010, a Pakistan finance ministry official said in September this year.
South Korea is looking to sell what would be its first ever sukuk as it continues to refine its tax laws to facilitate issuance. It wants to attract capital from Islamic nations to diversify its funding sources and reduce its refinancing risks. The Korean government has been planning a road show in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
Since the start of this year, $8.1 billion of Islamic bonds out of the Asian-Pacific region have priced, exceeding the $6.4 billion volume in the same period last year, according to data provider Dealogic.
Last year’s global economic crisis brought attention to Islamic finance as an alternative for both Muslim and non-Muslim customers. In an article, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano voiced its approval of Islamic finance. The Vatican paper wrote that banks should look at the rules of Islamic finance to restore confidence amongst their clients at a time of global economic crisis. “The ethical principles on which Islamic finance is based may bring banks closer to their clients and to the true spirit which should mark every financial service,” the Osservatore Romano said. “Western banks could use tools such as the Islamic bonds, known as sukuk, as collateral”. Sukuk may be used to fund the “car industry or the next Olympic Games in London,” the article said.
Investors have been attracted by Islamic banking’s more conservative approach: Islamic law forbids banks from charging interest (though customers pay fees) and many scholars discourage investment in excessively leveraged companies. Though it currently accounts for just 1% of the global market, the Islamic finance industry’s value is growing at around 15% a year, and could reach $4 trillion in five years, up from $500 billion today, according to a 2008 report from Moody’s Investors Service.
The unfolding debt crisis in Dubai is the severest test yet of the short life of the Islamic debt markets. The process and the outcome of the ultimate resolution of the debt crisis in the tiny Gulf Emirate will have a lasting impact on the future of entire global Islamic finance.