Malaysia: Islamic finance pensions

Moves to liberalise Malaysia’s pensions market are expected to galvanise the Islamic finance market, already a key segment of the country’s economy, though greater regulatory oversight will be needed to bolster investor confidence in the sector.

On July 23, the international press reported that Malaysia was introducing “sweeping reforms” to its pension system. The changes introduce a new, voluntary Private Retirement Scheme (PRS) to run alongside the existing Employees Provident Fund (EPF). The PRS will allow Malaysians to purchase a wide variety of products from private fund management firms, making it easier for them to focus on Islamic investment. Currently, the EPF collects pension contributions and invests the cash; contributors can place up to 20% in a single mutual fund.

By facilitating investment in private products by individuals, the reforms are expected to kick-start the growth of Malaysia’s small private pensions sector, which the government now expects to be worth RM73bn ($22.92bn) by 2020. Though some think the prediction is rather optimistic, most agree that there is a lot of potential for growth given the regulatory changes, growing disposable incomes and a rising culture of saving for the future.

Officials – and the structure of the new regulations – make it clear that increasing investment in Islamic products is one of the aims of the changes. “The PRS will contribute to the growth of Islamic fund products,” Zakie Ahmad Shariff, a board member of the Private Pension Administrator (newly founded to oversee the PRS funds) and CEO of the Federation of Investment Managers Malaysia, told international press. Analysts agreed that those investing in the new system would gain from sharia-compliant offerings in particular.

Of the first 30 products offered through the PRS, only six will be Islamic, with the expectation that there will be more to come. The eight existing PRS providers ¬– all of which have sharia-compliant arms – can offer between three and seven conventional products through the system, but can provide up to 10 products if they offer Islamic schemes as well.

As the domestic market grows in new segments, Malaysia continues to cement its position as one of the world’s leading sharia-compliant sectors. It is particularly strong in sukuk (Islamic bonds), which accounted for 68.7% of the $84.4bn issued globally last year and 71% of the $43.5bn launched in the first quarter of 2012 (a 55% increase on 2011’s first quarter).

In July, Axiata, Malaysia’s leading mobile telephone operator, announced it was looking to raise up to $1.5bn in sukuk issues to tap low-cost long-term funds and increase its capital efficiency. It will be the first Asian telecoms firm to issue multiple currency sukuk, according to the company. The launch was “strategic” and targeted at investors in the region, as well as the Middle East and Europe, and officials said the move would help strengthen Malaysia’s position as a global sukuk leader.

The private sector and government bodies are likely to provide further issuances in the near future as Malaysia rolls out its ambitious Economic Transformation Programme, which envisages large investments in infrastructure and services and aims to develop the economy to boost value added and strengthen value chains.

While Malaysia’s Islamic finance sector continues to be a world leader, the industry’s rise to global prominence is relatively new. As elsewhere in the world, growth has brought on regulatory challenges, and some parts of the industry lag behind others.

“Sharia-compliant trustee management needs to move forward,” Abdul Jalil Rasheed, the CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management, which moved into Islamic finance in Malaysia in 2009 and counts the EPF as its biggest customer, told OBG. “Asset management is still a very locally driven business in Malaysia. There are currently 16 licences in the market for Islamic asset management, not all of which are doing well.”

Rasheed suggests that “innovation needs to slow” so that Islamic finance can put down deeper regulatory roots and to prevent firms from over-extending themselves, adding that the market may still not be mature enough for sharia-compliant hedge funds to flourish.

As Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Awang Adek Hussin noted last year, greater cooperation among Islamic finance experts, religious scholars, government bodies and the private sector is needed to support and consolidate the industry. “Although Malaysia's Islamic financial performance has shown encouraging development, we should not be complacent with our achievements thus far,” he said.

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