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(Reuters) - The International Monetary Fund has held its first consultation with an external advisory group of Islamic finance industry bodies, as regulators across the globe seek to address structural issues in the sector.
Islamic finance, with its core markets in the Middle East and southeast Asia, is under growing regulatory scrutiny as it takes a greater share of the banking sector in some Muslim-majority countries and makes inroads in Western markets.
The nine-member external advisory group includes industry bodies such as the Malaysia-based Islamic Financial Services Board and the Bahrain-based Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions.
The group is an IMF initiative which aims to identify policy challenges in the industry and encourage coordination among bodies. The meeting, held in Washington last week, discussed topics including how to improve financing to small and medium- sized businesses as well as the implications for Islamic banks of Basel III regulatory standards.
Islamic banks face a shortage of high-quality liquid assets which they can hold to meet the standards, and there is uncertainty over regulatory treatment of their deposits.
The industry is trying to develop tools to ease the shortage, such as the short-term Islamic bonds issued by the Malaysia-based International Islamic Liquidity Management Corp (IILM), which is also part of the advisory group.
But the shortage is aggravated by activities of conventional firms which are free to buy sukuk, Kuwait central bank governor Mohammad al-Hashel said at an IILM seminar in August.
Because sukuk sometimes offer better yields than conventional bonds, they attract buyers among conventional banks, which can out-muscle smaller Islamic banks in bidding for such instruments in the open market.
Also, since Islamic banks can't buy interest-bearing debt, they tend to hang on to their sukuk and rarely trade them in the secondary market, further reducing their availability, al-Hashel said.
"Empirical evidence suggests that as a direct consequence of the above factors, reliance of Islamic banks on cash is much higher compared to their conventional counterparts."
Islamic commercial banks held about $1.2 trillion worth of assets at the end of last year, according to a study by Thomson Reuters. They accounted for roughly a quarter of deposits in Gulf Arab countries and over a fifth in Malaysia.
Editing by Andrew Torchia