Putting your money where your morals are

Simoney Kyriakou is an award winning finance journalist who has been writing on personal finance since the late 1990s

When I first became a financial journalist, a few folk questioned the morality of my career choice.

Not because journalists are all liars (we’re not – there are laws against that), but because I was writing about the stock market and, in their view, investing was gambling. Being strict Christians, they were completely against doing anything ‘reckless’ with their money.

I tried to explain the difference between equity investing – buying shares in an established, listed company or units in a well-researched, well-managed investment fund in order to meet a long-term goal – and betting £10 on PotLuck to place at Cheltenham.

But while doing so I realised they had money in the bank, in cash savings. I pointed out banks do not sit on your money and wait for you to take it out again. No: banks invest your money back into the stock market – that’s one of the ways they make money to operate.

The same goes for pensions: you pay into a pension fund, but the money doesn’t sit in a Scrooge McDuck-style vault underground – it gets reinvested into stocks and bonds and other assets.

Realising this means you can take more control over where your money ends up, and you can choose to invest alongside your morals and values.

You have a choice to move banks if a certain bank is putting money to work in countries with appalling human rights records, or into sectors such as tobacco or fossil fuels.

If you have a workplace pension, you have voice about where the trustees place your money. Are there funds available that have a strategic environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment process? Are your trustees taking ESG seriously? If not, write to them!

The same applies to Isas, personal pensions – in fact, any investment plan. If you want your money to do good while it’s accumulating, then speak with an adviser about how to select an investment strategy that incorporates funds with a strong focus on clean energy companies, for example.

Maybe you have a strong aversion to companies that produce alcohol or pornography, for example. This is where an adviser can help you, by carrying out a fact-find to help pinpoint the right portfolio that screens out such stocks.

You can align your faith and your finances. It’s been done before. For example, the Church of England has an ethical investment advisory group, which creates policies for a distinctly Christian approach to investment, embracing screening, active stewardship, and alignment with the Church’s teaching and values.

Investing to meet your long-term goals does not have to conflict with your faith, your values or your ethics. Nor does it mean you have to sacrifice returns. What it does mean is being open with your adviser about what’s important to you.

Shaping finance through shariah: a layman’s observation

Faith and finance could not be any more dichotomous today, yet the UK is the leading western country and Europe’s premier centre for Islamic finance with US$19 BLN of reported assets.

London lawyers have evolved skills and experience to become well versed in shariah-compliant contract law as well as financial instruments in order to service the growing appetite for shariah-compliant investments from Middle Eastern investors who believe the UK to be a judicious and profitable place for investment; our accountancy and banking sectors have similarly adapted to this growing and profitable emerging market. Couple this with the need for foreign investment into the UK’s major national infrastructure projects for the next 20 years we can be certain that because of our national economic interests, the UK offers a profitable and most importantly a potentially halal enterprise for our market evolving a service provision for the religiously conscious wealthy foreign investor.

However, ironically, Islamic finance has yet to take off amongst the UK’s 2.7 million Muslims and this is largely due to the fact that UK consumers approach Islamic finance as a debtor whereas foreign consumers tend to be creditors or investors. This has a significant impact on how you relate to the current modus operandi and structure of Islamic finance. For instance as a creditor, be you a stock and shares investor or a current account holder, you can be confident that your money is invested in a shariah complaint manner which is similar to conventional ethical funds that screen investments to ensure your monies are not invested in what are known as vice investments e.g. funds that invest alcohol, tobacco, munitions, gambling etc related stock. Furthermore, for investors in shariah-compliant funds, there are added considerations to ensure where interest cannot be ignored that interest is siphoned off and donated to charitable causes. Another interesting criterion for shariah-compliant funds is that they will not include companies which generally carry more than 30% debt.

So to summarise the three key principles for shariah compliance are 1. There should be no interest or riba which means an increase on the capital 2. Not investing in vice funds and 3. Not investing in companies that are in significant debt. However, all these principles are secondary to the fundamentals of ideal human conduct which should be based on equity and mercy.

Our global political system has become incredibly connected through the membership of a whole host of international organisations be it the World Trade Organisation or the becoming of federal alliances like the EU and also cooperative alliances between a select group of countries such as the G7. Naturally, the world utilises the banking systems of nation states which when enters into the arena of international trade they are also governed by what is known as the Basel Accords which proffer guidance to regulate the global banking industry.

The implication of a well-connected economic system tends to create fluidity in markets meaning fewer barriers in the movement of people, products and services in order to encourage economic prosperity meaning more jobs, innovation and entrepreneurship. However, for the sake of ‘economic prosperity’ we seek to encourage the deregulation of markets, create and loan money that literally does not exist and then are legally allowed pursue the debtor. As we have deregulated markets we have unwittingly ‘deregulated ethics’ allowing companies to freely promote a culture not based on moral values but one based on maximising our consumption, at the lowest possible cost, at the highest margins with total disregard for the net societal interest.

As we have mastered the exploitation of our own markets our businesses encroach on politically weak and less technologically sophisticated cultures and communities, where the goal is rarely philanthropic but rather to open markets for the purpose of profit regardless of the consequence on the host society.

Therefore, in an age of profit and a failure of theology of sorts, Islam has begun to offer a strong alternative to the conventional approach to profit and investment. Having proven its resilience before and after the global crisis in 2008, as evidenced by the IMF, the future for shariah inspired principles for the growing socially conscious investor and the risk mitigating fund manager who opt to invest in shariah compliant funds will offer a powerful economic challenge to riskier vice enterprises that although may be profitable on the balance sheet remain incredibly costly to our societies.

 

Mohammad Uz-Zaman BSc (Hons) MA, DipFA is the Director of ADL Estate Planning Ltd and ADL Wealth Ltd. He is a private client wealth manager who holds accreditations across regulated financial advice and estate planning. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology & Sociology and an MA in Islamic Studies in addition to various professional qualifications. He is also an affiliate member of STEP (Society of Trust & Estate Practioners)