The Sheikh of Wall Street - Jewish Weekly November 5, 1999

This article appeared in the Jewish Week issue of November 5, 1999. It is reproduced with permissionfrom the author, as well as the publisher, Ron Goldblum.The Sheik of Wall StreetBy Nancy BeilesYusuf DeLorenzo advises Dow Jones on stocks that are `Kosher' for Muslim investors. A (Jewish) Orthodox index may follow.Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo oozes Wall Street. Nattily dressed in a dark blue suit, crisp white shirt, and silver tie, he carries a blue binder thick enough to suggest that it is he, not Alan Greenspan, who has the real dope on economic indicators. But don't start thinking money is his God. "Praise to Allah, Lord of all the worlds, most merciful, most giving. Guide us on the right path, the path of those on whom You have granted Your blessing, not those on whom Your wrath has fallen," he recently told a group of fund managers and investment bankers attending an investment conference.DeLorenzo is the sheik on Wall Street. As an advisor to Dow Jones, which recently launched an index to track companies that are in accordance with Islamic law. Sheik Yusuf's pronouncements about what can and cannot be included in the index are guiding the creation of mutual funds targeting Muslims.Not long ago it would have been difficult to conceive of a role for a religious cleric on Wall Street - except to pray for the souls of Gordon Gekko types - but DeLorenzo may just be the first of a new kind of financial professional. Identity politics are migrating to the financial district, and Wall Street is waking to the notion that there is money to be made in being sensitive to religious differences. Having launched the Islamic Index, the first religiously-oriented stock benchmark, Rushdi Siddiqui, the director of the index for Dow Jones told the Jewish Week he is considering the creation of indices that would track companies in keeping with the moral codes of Orthodox Jews and Bible Belt Christians.While Siddiqui is keeping mum on the possibility of an Orthodox index, except to say that discussions are ongoing, Rabbi Arthur Hertzburg, professor of humanities at New York University, said such an index would likely filter out companies, like banks, that rely on interest, which is forbidden by the Bible.Any food companies that use grains grown in Israel would also have to be excluded unless they could certify that the crop was bought after Shavuot because of the "law of first fruits," Hertberg said.For now DeLorenzo, 51, secretary of the Fiqh Council of North America, an Islamic religious law organization, is the one to watch in order to see the effects of Wall Street's cultural and religious awakening. In essence he is a de facto fund manager, directing the investments of some of the 1billion Muslims worldwide who control an estimated $150 billion in capital.It is a strangely fitting role for a Muslim cleric, if you consider that this one grew up as Anthony DeLorenzo in Hyannisport, Mass, and graduated from Cornell before setting off on a Yugoslavian ocean liner en route to a Pakistan mosque to become a sheik.An expert in straddling two worlds, he is trying to make Muslims more comfortable with some of the basics of Western capitalism. "Until recently, most Muslims have been very, very cautious about the stock market and for the most part have stayed away from it," said DeLorenzo, who now lives in northern Virginia.The reluctance of many Muslims to invest in the stock market is a reflection of Islam's strict prohibitions about financial matters. Derived from the Koran, Islam's holy book, and the Hadith, the oral tradition about the practices of the prophet Mohammed, there are a host of financial practices central to Western capitalism that simply aren't allowed.Want to put your money in a simple interest-bearing savings account? Better check this passage from the Koran first: "Those who live on usury shall rise up before Allah like men whom Satan has demented."Investing in stocks has been problematic because so many companies are involved in businesses that are considered sinful, like tobacco, alcohol, entertainment and gambling. Those that aren't generally have some revenue from interest income - usury again."The main problem with the modern corporation is its dependency on the conventional banking system," DeLorenzo said. "So even if a company is in what we would call a perfectly halal (the Muslim equivalent of kashrut)business, they might deposit extra cash in interest-bearing bonds or securities, so at least a portion of their income will be the result of usurious practices."Devout Muslims traditionally have put their money into property or under the mattress in order to avoid a violation of the faith. But more recently there have been some new alternatives."When Muslim economists began to realize the magnitude of the money (Muslims) had to invest and realized those people would prefer to have their money invested in an acceptable manner," DeLorenzo said, "they went out and actively sought advice on how these funds could be invested Islamically." The resulting financial instruments, like a mudarabah, an Islamic partnership, were generally available just in the Middle East.But DeLorenzo has brought new financial options to the United States. He and several other Muslim clerics helped Dow Jones winnow the 600 companies in the Dow Jones Global Index down to 300 that are religiously acceptable and form the Dow Jones Islamic Index. Launched earlier this year, it excludes financial institutions because of their reliance on interest as well as "sin" companies and pork producers or retailers.The companies - most are technology firms - do have some revenue from interest, but it is a relatively small percentage and Muslim investors can make proportional donation to charity in order to "purify" the investment. Merrill Lynch, Brown Brothers Harriman and the Rockefeller Group are among a growing group of investment houses that are launching mutual funds based on the index.Not everyone, however; thinks that religion should play a prominent role in investment decision. John Bogle, the founder and former chairman of Vanguard Group, which created the first index fund, said religious ideals are probably best kept separate from financial planning."From an investment standpoint (religious indices) are a little nutty," he said. "It's hard to believe that investors think the key to having money form their children's education is investing in a narrow fund based on religion."Incongruous as it seems for Wall Street to be finding religion, it may be the stockbrokers and bankers who point the rest of us to a spiritual enlightenment. Two millennia of religious strive aside, the desire to play the stock market may reveal that Muslims, Jews, and Christians aren't that different after all: Siddiqui said indexes for all three groups would probably be guided by the same commandments.