Credit guarantees are gaining traction in Islamic finance, helping a wider range of firms to tap the market for sharia-compliant debt, which remains stubbornly reliant on sovereign and quasi-sovereign issuers.
A growing number of guarantors are developing expertise in this area, aiming to facilitate Islamic transactions both large and small.
Among them is Britain's export credit agency, UK Export Finance, which plans this year to guarantee an Islamic bond (sukuk) issue for the first time under a capital market guarantee product that it launched in 2010, a UKEF spokesperson said. This would facilitate a deal for a Gulf-based customer of Airbus, whose identity has not been disclosed.
Demand is also growing for guarantees in markets where credit and political risks pose a greater challenge.
In December, Export Development Canada helped secure $78 million for a deal involving the lease of four Bombardier planes to Ethiopian Airlines, the first sharia-compliant transaction in Africa's aviation sector.
Last month, GuarantCo, a specialised guarantor indirectly owned by the development agencies of Britain, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, provided a partial credit guarantee for sukuk from Pakistan Mobile Communications.
"There is significant potential to combine the use of guarantees with Islamic finance," said Chris Vermont, head of GuarantCo, which is managed on a commercial basis by London-based Frontier Markets Fund Managers.
"It is certainly our wish that our guarantees widen the universe of issuers who can tap Islamic sources."
GuarantCo is currently in discussions on potential transactions in the power sectors in Nigeria and Pakistan.
Such efforts could help to break the global sukuk market's longstanding dependence on sovereign and quasi-sovereign issuers, which last year provided a combined 82 percent of total issuance, according to Zawya, a Thomson Reuters company.
Last year, sukuk issuance reached a total $115.6 billion through 806 deals globally, up from $110.4 billion through 839 deals a year earlier. The vast majority of corporate sukuk came in the Malaysian market.
Sharia-compliant guarantees have been rare because of the profit- and risk-sharing nature of Islamic finance; some sharia scholars view the charging of fees for guarantees as impermissible, on the ground that the practice should be benevolent.
In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars have argued that guarantees provide a service by making transactions more widely appealing, justifying fees. Also, issuers and investors have become more familiar with the mechanics of sukuk, making it easier to design guarantees.
In the case of Mobilink, its sukuk issue was structured on the basis of investors acquiring prepaid cards from Mobilink at a discount, which would replace the interest and principal due on a conventional bond.
Mobilink then sold the cards to customers at face value with the resulting profit shared with investors. The guarantee had to reflect the fact that it was covering a share of profits rather than interest.
GuarantCo was able to price the transaction with similar terms to a traditional guarantee, Vermont said.
Meanwhile, a sukuk guarantee to help sovereign issuers tap the market has been developed by the Jeddah-based Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment & Export Credit, although no government has used it to date.
ICIEC is working on Islamic export credit guarantees for deals in Egypt as well as other countries in the Middle East and Africa, a spokeswoman said.
This week, ICIEC extended $80 million worth of Islamic reinsurance to cover political risk for the oil and gas projects of Apache Corp in Egypt.
Other firms which offer Islamic guarantees are also widening their reach, such as Malaysia's Danajamin Nasional Bhd, set up in 2009 to help develop the domestic bond and sukuk markets.
In September, it signed a collaboration agreement with the Credit Guarantee and Investment Facility, a trust fund of the Asian Development Bank, to promote capital markets in southeast Asia, including sukuk.