The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has amended its regulations to exempt Islamic banks from using interest-based benchmarks for some of their financing products, the latest government step aimed at boosting Islamic finance.

Despite a direct ban on charging interest, interest-based benchmarks are used as a pricing reference by a majority of Islamic banks, due in part to the absence of stable and widely-published alternatives.

In a circular, the SBP said Islamic finance institutions would have to outline their alternative pricing mechanism for participatory financing schemes, replacing the use of the Karachi Inter Bank Offered Rate or KIBOR.

Since 2004, the central bank has required all banks to use KIBOR as a benchmark rate. The use of such benchmarks is viewed as a shortcoming of Islamic banking that discourages wider adoption, in particular among retail clients.

The government, however, wants to help develop Islamic finance, a sector which now holds 11.4 per cent of all banking assets and 13.2pc of all bank deposits in the country.

The exemption applies with immediate effect to participatory modes of financing known as musharaka, mudaraba and wakala.

Such sharia-compliant contracts are well-known but have traditionally been eclipsed by murabaha, a cost-plus-profit arrangement in Islamic finance.

Under murabaha contracts, one party agrees to purchase merchandise such as a commodity on behalf of another, which promises to buy it at an agreed mark-up.

That mark-up has been commonly set against a financial benchmark such as KIBOR or LIBOR for dollar-denominated deals.

This has been criticised by some religious scholars as not being sufficiently based on real economic activity, a key principle in Islamic finance.

The practice dates back to the beginnings of modern Islamic finance in the early 70's, with scholars giving their blessings to what was deemed a temporary measure until alternatives could be developed.

Under the new directive, banks must ensure compliance with sharia standards issued by the Bahrain-based Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions, and must receive a sign-off from their internal sharia board.

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