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The World

BANGKOK — To court Muslim investors, Thailand’s business world is showcasing firms the prophet Mohammed could condone.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand, currently in a tailspin, is hoping to attract moneyed Muslims in the Middle East and in its own backyard. Their pitch, however, doesn’t just rely on promises of high returns. These firms, the exchange says, will benefit Muslims’ bottom line — and their conscience as well.

Debuting next month, Thailand’s “Sharia Index” is a selection of firms vetted by scholars who can navigate both the Qur’an and a balance sheet. Each has been deemed free from violations of Sharia, or Islamic holy law. Companies connected to pork, tobacco, booze — or even the defense industry — are immediately disqualified.

Then comes the hard part. Real expertise is needed to weed out businesses that violate the Sharia’s prohibition on excessive interest. Known as “riba” in the Qur’an, it’s comparable to the Judeo-Christian concept of “usury.” Avoiding interest is the foundation of Islamic financing.

“Dabbling with ‘riba’ is a large sin,” said Habhajan Singh, who tracks Islamic finance trends for The Malaysian Reserve newspaper, where he is associate editor. “For Muslims to partake in the modern financial world, they have to remove that element of interest.” The vetting process eliminates any business that profits from interest — such as banks — in favor of companies profiting from concrete assets.

The idea has made its way into the modern financial world. Thailand’s stock exchange follows exchanges in Singapore and Hong Kong in offering an Islam-vetted stock index. Its new Sharia index will be calculated by the U.K.-based FTSE group.

Santi Kiranand, who heads market development for Thailand’s stock exchange, said the Sharia index is mostly a push for more wealthy Middle East investors. But it also opens doors for investors in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia. Though predominately Buddhist, Thailand also is home to many Muslims, though most are concentrated in poorer southern provinces along Malaysia’s border.

“Even though we have a lot of Muslims, and they should be our targets too, we have to diversify our investor base into those other regions of the world,” Santi said. “The Middle East doesn’t invest enough in our capital market.”

Santi and a small team are currently planning a “road show” through the Middle Eastern financial centers Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, he said.

Both the western and east Asian business worlds have recently become more cognizant of Islamic financial principles, said Paul Hoff, managing director of FTSE Asia Pacific. The awareness broadened, he said, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the larger trend towards globalization.

More than just assuaging consciences of Middle East investors, the Islam-guided indices also perform admirably, he said. Proponents of Islamic finance note that Sharia indices can’t include banks or any high-risk, debt-leveraging sectors — which many blame for spurring the current global financial downturn.

“You have to go back and see how the asset is constructed,” Singh said. “If it’s all backed by paper, like in most of the sub-prime cases, then it’s not acceptable by Sharia law.”

Throughout the past four decades, as the Middle East has developed powerful financial hubs, scholars have worked to interpret Islamic financial teachings in a modern context, he said.

Muslim-friendly stocks have shown they can at least compete. A global index of FTSE-picked “emerging” stocks has been slightly outperformed by its Sharia-compliant counterpart, which has brought in a lifetime return of 4.6 percent.

And in the last six months, as most indices have tumbled, many Sharia-friendly stocks appear more resilient — if only by a few percentage points. The FTSE’s “All-World” index made up of more than 2,800 companies has dropped by 44 percent in the last six months. But the Sharia-vetted slice of that grouping dropped by only 40.2 percent.

Other FTSE indices in the past six months have fared more than 5 percent worse than their Sharia-vetted counterparts. “Sometimes they perform way out of line with (non-Sharia-friendly) indices and sometimes they perform very closely,” Hoff said. “But that one percentage point can add up to a lot of money.”

Many companies operate in compliance with the Qur’an without even trying. When the FTSE Group vetted Thailand’s stock exchange through Dubai-based Sharia consultants, it found that nearly half of the 132 listings were already in line with Islamic codes.

The exchange only needed to ward those 50-odd companies into a special index and start pitching to the oil-rich Middle East. Major Thai stocks cleared for the index include Banpu, a power company, and the wealthy Siam Cement Group.

Though the index will mostly target Arab Muslims, Hoff said it could possibly lure investors of all faiths if the profits are right.

“If they see the performance is better,” he said, “it’ll be attractive to everybody.”

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