For the past couple of years, the Australian government – prodded by the financial sector – has been pondering the regulatory and taxation changes that would be necessary to create an Asia-Pacific Islamic financing powerhouse.
However, with the change of government last month and continuing concern over the effects of easing Chinese growth on Australia’s commodities-led economy, there is a danger that Islamic finance has been consigned to a back burner.
Australia’s stable political and social environment – and its highly advanced financial market – have long created interest among Islamic finance professionals in building the country as a hub to serve not only the domestic Muslim population but also the large and less financially sophisticated markets nearby, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Some in the Arabian Gulf region say Australia could be very conducive to Islamic financial products.
“Islamic financing advocates the ‘real’ economy and commodity financing,” says Hatim El Tahir, the director of the Islamic finance group at Deloitte, another consulting firm, in Bahrain. “Australia has a rich real economy,” he adds, citing its agriculture, livestock and minerals and metals as “good assets for Islamic finance”.
There have been encouraging developments in the local market: in December, Sydney-based Crescent Wealth, the country’s first dedicated Islamic investment firm, launched Australia’s first Islamic superannuation fund. Superannuation, known as “super”, is the country’s compulsory employee retirement fund.
“Sizeable superannuation or pension funds represent a large opportunity,” says Almir Colan, director of the Australian centre for Islamic finance and a consultant lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
“We are now seeing intense competition by fund managers to provide Sharia compliant alternatives.”
More recently, say observers, a number of institutional players have been investing, principally in property. “We believe current penetration is less than 1 per cent of its potential and hence we are excited about growth opportunities,” says Talal Yassine, Crescent Wealth’s managing director.
Mr Yassine estimates the current super savings of the Australian Islamic community at about A$11 billion (Dh38.87bn), a figure expected to double by 2020. “This is supported by the 40 per cent growth in the Islamic population in Australia since 2006,” he adds.
One relatively popular Islamic product in Australia is diminishing musharaka for home financing, says Matthew Stutsel, the national head of state tax at the accounting firm KPMG in Sydney. Some fund managers offer investments in Sharia-compliant investments, mostly equity funds.
Experts say Australia is well positioned for the development of several other Islamic financing instruments, including murabaha asset sales and purchases, ijarah leasing and mudaraba profit-sharing partnerships. One potential windfall could be the use of sukuk for large-scale projects.
“There is potentially a huge role for Islamic finance to play in helping to fund Australia’s infrastructure requirements,” says Alex Regan, a partner at the Corrs Chambers Westgarth law firm in Melbourne.
However, while such terminology is familiar in the Middle East, some asset managers warn exotic terms – like all financial jargon – can be off-putting to mainstream investors if Islamic finance seeks to move beyond Australia’s 400,000-strong Muslim community.
“In my view, Islamic finance and investment products need to be relaunched as ethical or responsible, without the unusual labels such as sukuk and musharaka,” says Glenn Woolley, the managing director of Intrinsic Investment Management, a Melbourne fund manager.
Mr Woolley, whose company caters to both Islamic and non-Islamic investors, says it is too early to identify any trends in Australia-based Islamic financing.
“There is interest in debt and equity funding as sources of capital,” he notes, however. “Equity portfolio management is growing.”
One major hurdle is taxation law. “Islamic finance’s very low penetration ... is largely due to the Australian tax legislation,” says Mr Regan. One such obstacle is the stamp duties applied to property transfers, a particular issue when Islamic finance requires multiple transfers of assets.
“Unless there are exemptions from these duties to create a level playing field, it is likely that the use of Islamic finance products in the Australian market will remain low.”
However, the state of Victoria amended legislation a few years ago to provide for stamp-duty exemptions in relation to retail mortgage transactions structured in a Sharia-compliant manner.
“An encouraging step in the right direction in terms of facilitating Islamic finance,” Mr Regan says.
Another issue is the lack of a global standard of oversight.
“If Australian institutions are interested in tapping global capital markets, they have to be careful not to rely on South East Asian Islamic finance standards, which are not usually accepted by Gulf investors,” points out Sameer Hasan, the business director of the Ethica Institute of Islamic Finance in Dubai.
Islamic finance may benefit from its clear difference to western financial institutions.
“Banks in western countries have a negative reputation, especially with their fees and ruthless repossessions upon default,” says David Vicary, the president and chief executive of the International Centre For Education In Islamic Finance in Kuala Lumpur.
Australian proponents would like to see more support from more traditional financial sector players. National Australia Bank, one of the largest Australian institutions, has publicly expressed interest in Islamic products since 2009 but has yet to reveal a roll-out plan.
“There has been no institutional support from conventional banks,” says Mahmood Nathie, a lecturer at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at Griffith University in Brisbane. “Efforts at promoting Islamic finance are mainly driven by community groups.”
As a result, expanding Islamic finance to the non-Muslim community may remain a challenge, unless it is suitably attractive.
“If the Islamic finance transactions can provide returns that are at least as great as from conventional finance, then that would be appealing to non-Muslims,” Mr Stutsel says.