Confident and professional, the female chief executive of Malaysia-based CIMB-Principal recently gave a press conference in Frankfurt about the only registered Islamic investment fund in Germany.
With uncovered hair, red lipstick and silver earrings, Noripah Kamso said, "I want to share the new i-word with you. It doesn't stand for iPad, iPhone or inflation–but for Islamic banking."
The firm's goal is to win over Germany's roughly 4 million Muslim residents, along non-Muslims, to the bank's strategy of investing in accordance with the Koran.
The Muslim market
Islamic investment firms have been around since the 1970s. They prohibit interest, speculation and betting. They also do not put any money into companies that make alcohol or deal with pornography, gambling or pork. Islamic investment firms also keep away from companies with debts amounting to more than 30 percent of their own value.
In spite of these restrictions, customers of Islamic financial products can make money through a number of tricks. For instance, such customers earn no interest, strictly speaking, on their bank accounts. Yet it is a common practice for banks to contribute a sum to such customers' accounts every year in place of the interest.
An association of banks based in Muslim countries assesses whether or not firms conform to the Koran. According to CIMB-Principal, Germany has 27 publicly traded companies, including chemical giant BASF, that qualify.
The Islamic finance industry value is estimated at about 1.2 trillion euros (about $1.6 trillion), with yearly growth of more than 15 percent. Malaysia and countries in the Persian Gulf are the main nations to bind their firms to Islamic rules.
Even though Islamic banking accounts for just one percent of the global financial industry, there has been an increasing demand for alternative investments since the onset of the financial crisis. That's according to Daud Abdullah, president of the Global University of Islamic Finance in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur.
"If people invested more in Islamic finance, the world would not have such problems," he said. "Then we wouldn't have highly speculative instruments that provide no economic benefit, but get countries deep into debt."
Islamic financial products got their first major boost after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many Arabs withdrew their money from the US at the time, and Abdullah says some of those funds ended up in Malaysia and the Gulf states.
A second boost came during the international financial crisis, when Islamic financial products actually showed profits. The Dow Jones Islamic Market Titans Index, which tracks the 100 biggest Islam-compliant businesses in Europe, the US and Asia, has nearly doubled over the last five years.
That is why a growing number of non-Muslims are also showing interest, said Abdullah, a scientist and Muslim convert.
"Islamic finance is for everyone," he added. "If you look at [Islamic finance] globally, 60 percent of investors are not Muslims."
If you build it, they will come?
In CIMB-Principal's first phase, the firm wants to arouse interest in Germany's Muslim population. According to studies by the firm, 23 percent of German Muslims want to put their money in Islamic investments.
"Most Muslims in Germany are from the second or third generation," Kamso said. "Many of them have good jobs."
CIMB-Principal's second phase is to target non-Muslim investors. But the prospects are not especially promising. Unlike in the UK, where many firms similar to CIMB-Principal have long been on the market, there is little experience of Islamic firms in Germany.
"German firms are making Islamic bond portfolios and investment funds available," manager Karim Zaazou said. "But they only offer these products in Arab countries, to get a share of the petro-dollars."
Scandal casts a shadow
CIMB-Principal's plan is not the first to try and encourage Islamic investment in Germany. In the 1990s, Commerzbank and the state of Saxony-Anhalt developed a Islam-compliant bond known as a "Sukkuk." But the scheme was undermined by a scandal concerning share certificates.
Some 300,000 Muslims invested in one product, known as the "Konya model," only to see its Turkish operators disappear with the money. The damage was estimated at five billion euros.
Based on this experience, the general secretary of Germany's second largest Muslim organization does not think the Turkish community will be eager to invest in the new fund.
"There is obviously a need to apply one's religious principles in investing," Milli Gorus said. "But there is also a great deal of scepticism because of the past."
CIMB-Principal's first phase in Germany might come to nought. But you don't have to be religious to be interested in a good investment. The firm might not make headway in Germany until its second phase begins – unless this latest attempt at Islamic investments falls by the wayside like others before it.
Author: Nicolas Martin / srs
Editor: Ben Knight