Islamic bond issues could hit record levels this year, credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings said on Thursday — the same day as Qatar launched a $3 billion issue of Shariah-friendly "sukuks".
Along with an issue of $3.6 billion in conventional instruments, the wealthy Gulf state auctioned $3 billion's worth of three- and five-year sukuks. The bond is a form of debt that is compliant with Islamic Shariah law, which forbids Muslims from investing in interest-generating assets. Instead, sukuks give investors a share in the ownership of an underlying asset, such as property.
Fitch said Qatar's deal could kick-start a record year for the Shariah-compliant debt market thanks to a combination of solid government spending, economic growth in the Middle East and healthy investor demand. This latter is driven by a strong expansion in the Islamic banking sector and the growing funding needs of Islamic countries, as well as Western investors increasing familiarity with the asset class.
"Regional growth and robust government spending are likely to be partially funded through sukuk programs in established Gulf Cooperation Council sukuk markets. At the same time, strong investor demand is likely to attract debut issues from Islamic and non-Islamic states in 2014," said Bashar Al Natoor, a Fitch specialist in Islamic finance, in a report.
"The push by sovereigns in the region to be become an Islamic finance hub is also likely to spur sukuk issuance," he added.
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The Islamic debt market declined by around 12 percent to $120 billion last year, due in part to market jitters over when the Federal Reserve would start tapering its massive bond-buying program. However, Fitch expects 2014 issuance to be at least in line with 2012's record of $137 billion.
There is a "captive audience" for sukuks and other Islamic-compliant assets, due to rising numbers of financial institutions with Shariah-only investment remits, according to Omar Sheikh, an executive board member of the Islamic Finance Council. In addition, sukuks are of particular interest to high net worth individuals and sovereign wealth funds in Muslim countries, even those that are happy to invest outside of Islamic finance.
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In addition, sukuks are increasingly accepted by Western investors as an alternative to conventional bonds, in part because they are perceived as low risk because they are always tied to underlying assets.
"The Islamic finance sector is posting double-digit growth international and there is demand for assets across the spectrum," said Sheikh. "There is more investor awareness and increased availability, as international players and bankers like Deutsche Bank, Standard Chartered and HSBC come into the sector to meet underlying consumer demand, for instance from the retail market in Malaysia."
Al Natoor forecast several non-Muslim countries would tap the market for the first time in 2014, including the U.K., where Prime Minister David Cameron has said he plans to launch a £200 million ($327 million) deal.
(Read more: UK government set to issue Islamic bonds)
Both Luxembourg and Hong Kong have also recently taken steps to legislate for sukuk deals, and several sub-Saharan Africa countries are considering issuance.
Fitch predicted 2014 would see more corporate sukuks, such as the $100 million insurance-linked deal launched last October by European financial services provider FWU.
"As well as the strong demand from investors who will only buy Sharia-compliant securities, issuers are likely to be attracted by evidence of increasing market efficiency. Structuring costs have fallen significantly and the time taken to put together a deal has fallen from as much as six months to a few weeks," said Al Natoor, who is based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
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He added that flagship events such as the World Cup and infrastructure projects in established sukuk-issuing countries like Dubai and Qatar would also spur deals.
"Growth and significant spending commitments will help boost issuance in established sukuk markets. Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi's spending plans, Dubai's preparations for the 2020 World Expo and Qatar's plans for the 2022 FIFA World Cup are all likely to boost sukuk issuance, either directly by the sovereign, or by related entities. Oman, which has not been a major issuer, has also indicated it will use sukuk to fund infrastructure projects in the next few years."
Fitch's report on Islamic finance followed one last November from rival Moody's Investors Service, who also forecast increasing demand for Islamic banking assets.
(Read more: Islamic bond issuance set for long-term growth)
Al Natoor warned though that the sukuk market was vulnerable to changes in global bond sentiment, and that market inefficiencies remained which would deter some buyers.
"There are still challenges that will limit the attraction of sukuk to many investors, and the development of a liquid secondary market. In particular these include the lack of a standardized deal structure and the lack of legal precedent over investors' ability to enforce their rights in many jurisdictions," he said.