In the Trump era, one U.S. Muslim investor tries a louder voice

Mon Apr 10, 2017 11:32am EDT
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By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) - Shareholder activism is rare in Islamic finance, but one wealth manager has staked out new territory as the most outspoken voice among Muslim investors in the United States.

Working from an office in Falls Church, Virginia, Bashar Qasem was the only Islamic financial representative among religious shareholder advocates who sent a letter in February to protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

It was only one of a number of such moves since 2015, when Qasem's Azzad Asset Management firm started weighing in on issues like worker safety, climate change and lobbying disclosures.

This direct advocacy will test whether many U.S. Muslim investors will support the sort of faith-based shareholder activism common among other religious groups even as many cite safety concerns or have experienced bullying.

Qasem said his clients seemed to welcome his growing public role. Most are Muslim, and about half are immigrants. "Most of them, they feel it's about time," said Qasem, who grew up in Jordan, moved to the United States in 1987 and became a citizen in 1996.

So far Qasem's strategy appears to be helping to differentiate his firm at a time when the popularity of cheaper index-tracking products is rising.

Azzad's assets increased 11 percent in 2016 to $487 million at year-end. Growth included $5.7 million into the firm’s mutual funds, the third consecutive year of inflows.

By contrast, the Amana family of mutual funds, which Morningstar says is the largest in U.S. Islamic finance at $2.9 billion of assets, has had three years of investor withdrawals, which it blames partly on the rise of passively managed products.   Continued...

Activist investor Bashar Qasem, President and CEO of Azzad Asset Management Inc, speaks to a client during a conference in Huntington Beach, California, U.S. February 18, 2017.  REUTERS/Mike Blake