Libya’s Central Bank Plans Law to Allow Islamic Bond Sales: Arab Credit

Libya’s central bank is preparing a law to allow lenders and issuers to sell Islamic bonds as part of its efforts to develop banking services after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

The regulator has formed a committee with the country’s banks to prepare the law, Ezzedin Ashur, deputy director of research and statistics at the Tripoli-based central bank, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Libya has 15 banks, all of which have Shariah-compliant “windows,” he said.

“Some banks have the desire to open standalone Islamic branches and we have local investors who want to set up Islamic banks,” he said. “If we have Islamic banking with all of its services, its market share will be big. Many people have issues dealing with conventional banks.”

Libya’s banking industry will be made Shariah-compliant, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, an Islamic jurist and former justice minister who heads the ruling National Transitional Council, said last week. Albaraka Banking Group (BARKA) BSC, a Bahrain-based Islamic bank, will apply for a license in Libya, according to Chief Executive Officer Adnan Ahmed Yousif.

Global sales of sukuk climbed to $18.9 billion in 2011, compared with $13.5 billion in the same period last year, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Shariah-compliant banking may flourish in the North African countries where revolts this year toppled leaders who long persecuted Islamists. Along with Libya, Egypt is also preparing a law that will pave the way for the issuance of sukuk, while the Islamist party that won Tunisia’s election last week says it will encourage the establishment of stand-alone Islamic lenders.

Sovereign Debt

Only three sovereign Arab issuers, including Dubai, have Islamic bonds. The yield on Dubai’s 6.396 percent Shariah- compliant notes due in November 2014 fell 62 basis points, or 0.62 of a percentage point, last week to 5.12 percent, the lowest since Sept. 21. The yield rose to 5.58 percent today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Almost all of Libya’s 6.6 million people are Muslims. Islamic banking services in the country, though, are limited to Murabaha, Ashur said. A Murabaha is a three-party contract where a customer places an order at a bank to purchase goods from a supplier by paying a deposit and securing the rest through a collateral. The bank sells the goods back to the customer at a mark-up with a fixed credit period.

Finish ‘Quickly’

The committee preparing the sukuk law “has been encouraged to finish its work quickly,” Ashur said, without giving a specific time-frame.

Libyan banks “have a lot to clear up” before they recover from the effects of the conflict, Albaraka’s Yousif said in a telephone interview on Oct. 24. Customers pulled money out of banks after fighting flared up in February, prompting authorities to place a 1,000 dinar ($826) monthly limit on individual withdrawals, Ashour, 57, said. The central bank eased the rules after the fall of Qaddafi, leaving the decision up to each lender “based on its liquidity,” he said.

“Our priority is to fix the liquidity problem at banks so that customers can withdraw money without any limits,” he said, adding that the central bank may print money to help lenders until “confidence in the banking industry returns.”

Libya’s economy will contract 34 percent this year and another 16 percent in 2012, according to projections by the Institute of International Finance Inc. Gross domestic product rose 13 percent in 2010, the data show. The country has no outstanding debt, according to Fitch Ratings.

Inflation Accelerates

The conflict drove the inflation rate to 13.2 percent in June from below 10 percent prior to February, Ashur said, citing the most recent official figures. The central bank aims to bring the rate down to “single digits,” he said.

The fighting prompted Fitch to withdraw Libya’s credit rating on April 13, citing “extreme political instability” and the loss of oil production. Standard & Poor’s gave the nation no rating on March 10, after previously ranking it BB, the second- highest non-investment grade and the same level as Jordan, Macedonia and Costa Rica.

Still, resuming “basic” banking services in Libya may not take long because “the regulations are there, the institutions exist,” Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said.

“I’m sure the war caused physical damage and infrastructure disruptions, but getting business back up and running shouldn’t take too long,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Crude Reserves

The time it will take Libyan authorities to develop Shariah-compliant banking “depends on whether they want their Islamic banks to have distinct regulations from conventional banks,” he said. “It’s a question of policy.”

Shariah-compliant debt in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council returned 8.3 percent this year, the HSBC/NASDAQ Dubai GCC US Dollar Sukuk Index shows. Non-Shariah compliant emerging- market bonds gained 7.8 percent in the period, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global Composite Index.

Libya is home to the biggest crude oil reserves in Africa. The country was producing about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day before the conflict broke out in February. Output, which slid to a ’’trickle’’ during the fighting, may reach 600,000 barrels a day by the end of 2011 , according to the International Energy Agency.

Other signs of economic recovery include businessmen setting up so-called letters of credit to finance imports, Ashur said. “Cash is starting to get back to the banks.”

Billions Abroad

The Libyan central bank and the country’s sovereign-wealth fund have about $168 billion in assets abroad. About $50 billion of that is in bank deposits in European countries including Germany, the U.K., France and Italy, Farhat Bengdara, the central bank governor who broke with Qaddafi’s regime, said in an interview in August.

Western governments have begun to lift sanctions on Libya’s frozen assets. France has said it was releasing 1.5 billion euros ($2.1 billion) and the United Nations Security Council on Aug. 30 approved Britain’s request to release $1.6 billion of Libyan assets held in U.K. banks.

“It will take some time,” Ashur said, referring to the international drive to lift the asset freeze. “Once it’s complete, it will take just two to three weeks for the banking liquidity to return.”

(Source: Bloomberg)

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