In my previous article, “How Does Shariah Compliance Work?” I touched upon the challenges that Hong Kong’s government faces when trying to implement the required changes to establish a level playing field between traditional financial products and the alternatives presented by Islamic finance. Looking at the experience in the UK provides a useful example of the absolute potential and growth this financial services niche offers.

The UK government made the establishment of a suitable fiscal and regulatory framework for Islamic finance in the UK a key focus in 2003. Since then the UK government has achieved the following:

o In 2003 it removed the double tax on Islamic mortgages and extended the tax relief on Islamic mortgages to companies as well as individuals.
o As a financial centre, London became more attractive to issue and trade sukuks, ie Islamic bonds, by reforming the arrangements for issuance of bonds so that returns and income payments could be treated as if they were interest.
o The UK’s financial services regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority, introduced initiatives that ensured that the regulatory treatment of Islamic finance is consistent with its overall statutory objectives and principles.

The UK government even considered issuing Shariah-compliant bonds as well as offering Shariah-compliant retail banking products via National Savings & Investments and conducted a corresponding review. Although it announced in November 2008 that neither presently offers value for money, the government confirmed that it would monitor the situation closely. At the same time, the UK government decided to support the development of Islamic finance whilst ensuring that conventional and alternative finance are treated equally. The focus is thus on identifying existing market barriers and using legislation to ensure that Shariah-compliant products can be offered and can compete on an equal footing with more conventional forms of finance. Particular efforts have been made to ensure that existing tax and regulatory systems in the UK do not distort the market for investors wishing to invest in those types of products.

The upshot of this pro-active and forward looking approach by the UK government can be seen by the results achieved so far. To-date, Islamic product offerings in the UK include:

o Five fully Shariah-compliant banks. An additional 17 provide Shariah-compliant services through “Islamic windows” whereby they can offer expertise in Islamic finance to businesses and members of the public. This is more than any other non-Muslim country.
o The London Stock Exchange has listed a total of 18 sukuk issues, which raised US$10bn. This is exceeded only by Dubai Nasdaq.
o Of the total seven Shariah compliant exchange traded funds, four were launched in 2008 alone. Also, 2008 saw an additional two new equity funds launched.
o In terms of non-banking products, the first company to offer Shariah-compliant insurance, known as takaful, to UK residents was authorised in 2008.
o Supporting this development of Islamic finance are 18 law firms that provide Islamic finance support. In addition, the Big Four professional service firms provide Islamic finance advisory services.
o To provide educational support in excess of 50 institutions offer the necessary Islamic finance educational and training products. This is significantly more than any other country worldwide.

This is a tough act to follow for the Hong Kong government. Not only will it have to compete with the solid legal and regulatory platform that the UK government has provided, but the UK has a six year head start. The UK has done an excellent job in securing its position as the key western centre for Islamic finance. Given the potential for, in particular, East Asia, I would hope that the Hong Kong government is suitably motivated to make the necessary changes in the Hong Kong legal and regulatory framework as well.

Let me therefore repeat my call to the Financial Secretary, John Tsang. Please, Mr Tsang, be bold, and take the plunge. Enact the required legislation as soon as possible. You will not only raise the profile of Hong Kong as a global financial centre but you will also create a significant number of new jobs, jobs that the financial services industry in Hong Kong badly needs. Just in case you require advice on any additional changes required, there are a number of locally resident experts who can point you in the right direction. In addition, my email address is also shown at the bottom of this article, and I would only be too happy to sit down and discuss this in more detail with you. The financial services industry, as well as its supporting professional services, like accounting and law, will thank you for it!

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